I sense a good deal of frustration out there with the news of potential cuts to Metro bus routes. We’ve covered the issue pretty extensively here on STB, but sometimes it’s useful to put it all together in FAQ form.
What is this about metro cutting routes next year?
King County Metro is facing a serious budget shortfall in 2014. This means that they’ll need to cut service by 17% to break even. 600,000 service hours will be cut. 65 routes would be deleted, and 86 would be reduced or revised. All in all, 2/3 of Metro routes would be affected.
Wait… didn’t we just do this two years ago?
Yep, but it was temporary. In 2011 King County passed a $20 “congestion reduction charge” on all vehicles registered in the county. This bought us $25 million a year as part of the deal that also ended the Ride Free Area, but it will expire in 2014.
How bad is it?
There’s a $60M gap in 2014, and a combined $1.2B between 2008, when the recession began, and 2015.
Ok, that’s bad. Can’t they just, you know… trim the fat?
Well, they have been. In 2008 they reduced operating expenses, gutted the capital fund (which pays for important stuff like running new trolleybus wire, etc.), and increased fares. That bought $30M. It also arguably made the system more efficient. Then in 2011, they passed the CRC and got the unions to take a pay cut, saving tens of millions more. WSDOT came through with $32M in mitigation money to deal with Viaduct headaches, but it also runs out in 2014… two years before the Viaduct opens. This mitigation money helps add additional trips to crowded West Seattle routes. Riding in from West Seattle will suck even more when it goes away. All told, Metro has cut $726M from the budget since 2009. There’s not much more fat. It’s pretty much all bone from here on out. Next step is to stop filling the tires on the buses (I’m kidding!). *
Oh, and “cutting the fat” ain’t so easy if you’ve ever been to a community meeting where cuts were proposed. People get angry, they call their Councilmembers, and Metro backs off. Everyone seems to think the fat is in some other neighborhood.
(All that aside, Seattle’s a growing city with a healthy economy and a low unemployment rate. Metro should be increasing service, not cutting it, as Metro’s General Manager Kevin Desmond argues here.)
What about raising money from the fare box?
They’ve done it multiple times. There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a stone. Back in 2006, when peak fares were just $1.50, Metro predicted fares would rise just 75 cents by 2016. As it turns out, peak fares are already at $2.50 and will probably rise again soon.
Okay, how about all that money spent on light rail and streetcars?
Those were built by different agencies (Seattle DOT, Sound Transit) with different funding sources. Sound Transit has a diversified funding base, including a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax or MVET (it’s marked “RTA” — look for it when you renew your tabs… or don’t) along with a sales tax. That means Sound Transit can weather the recession a bit better. Also, Sound Transit spends a lot of its money on capital projects like new light rail lines, which (a) can be spread out over more years if necessary, and (b) tend to get cheaper when there’s a recession and construction firms are hungry for work.
Okay fine, but what about the “Transit Now” tax we passed in 2006?
That was great! It got us RapidRide and a bunch of other stuff. But because it was a sales tax, it shrunk during the recession and ended up raising less than projected. Since those funds were earmarked for RapidRide as the voters approved them, they can’t be moved into another bucket to save costs.
Wait a minute, this is craziness… Why are Metro’s finances in such bad shape to begin with?
Back in 1999, state voters approved Tim Eyman’s I-695, which would have gutted transit funding across the state by eliminating the state’s ability to charge an MVET. I-695 was declared unconstitutional, but then-Governor Locke and the legislature were so scared of being run out of Olympia that they killed the MVET themselves the following year. That blew a $500M hole in the state transportation budget. Here in King County, Metro lost an estimated $125M over the 2003-4 biennium, which we replaced by increasing the sales tax from 0.6% to 0.8% (and eventually to the legal maximum of 0.9% in 2006 with Transit Now). But there are two problems with a sales tax: it’s regressive, and it’s tied to the economy. Once the recession hit in 2008, everyone cut back on spending and sales tax revenues went in the toilet. It’s not just Metro: transit agencies all over the state, including the Washington State Ferries, haven’t really made up for the money they lost after
I-695 passed the MVET went away.
So what can we do about it?
Well, we can bring back MVET funding, at least here in King County. The thing about an MVET is that it’s progressive and predictable (versus a sales tax, which is regressive and volatile), since it’s based on the current value of all the cars in the county. This would get us back to a healthy mix of tax revenue so that no one source can send the budget into a tailspin. The legislature is in special session right now and one of the items on the agenda would allow King County voters to vote on an MVET that would fund 60% transit and 40% roads. That’s right: the legislature is debating whether or not to give King County permission to tax ourselves, after taking that right away from us 12 years ago. Bruce recently noted that a 1% MVET ($100 on cars worth $10,000) would be sufficient to meet Metro’s needs. It wouldn’t hurt to call your legislator in support of this initiative.
Why should drivers subsidize buses?
Like I said, 40% of the MVET fees would go to roads. But folks like myself who own a car and ride the bus would pay into it and benefit from it as well. Finally, it turns out that more transit options actually makes driving easier: by taking cars off the road, there’s less traffic for the cars that remain. A study conducted during Los Angeles’ 2003 transit strike found that traffic during the strike increased by 47 percent on roads where there was a transit alternative. Transit is a driver’s best friend.
*Update 5:50PM: As my colleague Matt Johnson recently wrote, roughly half the 17% in cuts would come from routes marked as having a “high potential for major reduction.” In the comments below, readers offer plenty of suggestions as to which routes should get the axe.