County Councilmember Rod Dembowski
County Councilmember Rod Dembowski

As we noted on Tuesday, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski passed a motion out of his committee to delay the transit cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in 2015. Since the motion was supported mainly by the Republicans on the council, it raised a few eyebrows here on the STB staff.

I sat down with Dembowski to learn more about the motion and his thinking behind it. As readers no doubt recall, the cuts are scheduled to be phased in over the next two years, with the lowest-priority cuts happening this year and more aggressively painful cuts happening through September 2015. He agrees that the 2014 cuts probably need to happen, but wants to delay the more aggressive cuts scheduled for next year.

Here’s what he had to say.

The key thing, says Dembowski, is that there’s too much uncertainty around Metro’s budget right now to implement the cuts. Come November, there will be a new budget where we’ll see just how much sales tax revenue has recovered, and a new contract with Metro employees. Cutting service now creates uncertainty for riders, and he’s of the opinion that it’s better for Metro’s credibility to delay the cuts than to cut and restore.

Beyond that, the Councilmember believes more trimming is possible. He wants to be able to make the case to voters that Metro is as lean as possible before asking for more money. His legislation includes various things like an independent audit and a farebox recovery target that he believes will help persuade voters that Metro is worth supporting.

In terms increasing revenue, Dembowski would like to hunt under every couch cushion for loose change. Among other things, he’s interested in exploring a $0.25 fare increase*, reducing operating expenses, eliminating paper transfers, and financing the purchase of new electric trolley buses instead of paying cash up front. It’s unclear if all of these, combined with the cutting of 161,000 service hours in 2014 and an improving cash position at Metro will close the gap, but Dembowski thinks it’s worth a look. Going forward, he’d like to see the county put a ballot initiative to raise revenue sooner rather than later, but senses (correctly) that the will isn’t there at the County level to try again right now.

From a political perspective, Dembowski is well-positioned for this kind of effort. His district, which includes Northeast Seattle, Shoreline, Kirkland and Bothell, wasn’t so keen on Prop. 1. Half the district supported it tepidly and the other half was outright opposed. Our own David Lawson described the changes in Northeast Seattle as “possibly the most dramatic” of all the cuts proposed.

Will these efforts completely close the revenue gap? Unlikely.  Will they convince skeptical voters that Metro is worth funding? Maybe. Dembowski knows his constituents better than I, but I get the sense that anti-transit voters are anti-transit, no matter how many independent audits you provide or fat-trimming exercises you endure. That said, perhaps car tabs are simply radioactive, and a measure that raised revenue in other ways while providing more “accountability” would find some more support among some nontrivial set of persuadable voters. In the meantime, several KC councilmembers are on record as supporting more transit funding, at least rhetorically.

* Fare increases are somewhat problematic both from a social justice point of view and an elasticity of demand perspective, but Dembowski notes that the new low-income fare Metro will adopt this year makes a fare increase more justifiable.  

55 Replies to “Rod Dembowski Talks Metro Cuts”

  1. I frankly wouldn’t put a whole lot of confidence in any conclusions drawn from a low turnout spring election. If the measure had failed in a November election, I’d be more confident in them. Some of the tax authority rules in Washington limit how quickly you can go back to the voters, others don’t. I don’t remember where TBDs fall, but I’d strongly support trying to go back in November if that’s possible.

    1. Completely agreed. If you put a funding measure that adds new service, as well as fund existing service, on a November ballot in an even numbered year (ideally a presidential year) then it is highly likely to pass. Look at Transit Now! in 2006 and ST2 in 2008.

      1. Sales tax, so what? The VLF is still superior because it’s pigouvian and it has a direct nexus to funding alternative transportation. Sales tax does not do this, nor is it progressive. Could we do a property tax? Yes, but what will the County Council actually support?

      2. Failure of the last measure isn’t indicative of much, neither is approval of past sales taxes. And yes, VLF passed before when the Council enacted it.

  2. “He agrees that the 2014 cuts probably need to happen…”

    Nope. Not for the number of times that I read “[t]here will be no fixed route alternative” in the service change bulletin. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, though, those of us who use several of those routes are, politically, screwed. Our politicians kicked the can so far that it fell off of the September ’14 cliff and no one is trying to save the coverage routes, like the 47.

    “Cutting service now creates uncertainty for riders, and he’s of the opinion that it’s better for Metro’s credibility to delay the cuts than to cut and restore.”

    This is disappointing. He should know better. One of the biggest complaints lobbed during Prop 1 was that Metro promised one outcome if a vote happened and delivered something else. How is it credible for the professional service managers to say “we’re broke, please approve this funding or we have to cut service,” the funding to be disapproved, and then service isn’t cut? “Oh, oops, sorry,” isn’t very credible.

    “…exploring a $0.25 fare increase*, reducing operating expenses, eliminating paper transfers, and financing the purchase of new electric trolley buses instead of paying cash up front.”

    Cool, let’s do all of those and then see how the budget fares for restoring service.

    I’ll stop quoting paragraphs now. Yes, anti-transit voters are anti-transit, and an April special election for “radioactive” vehicle registration fees (I still, for the life of me, can’t figure out why they’re so hated, but a property tax that would cost two to three times more is A-OK) did a lot better than it should have. I’ve heard it floated that King County could have done a property tax but didn’t; anybody know why, or if that’s even true?

    Accountability implies trust in government and that lack of trust also goes hand-in-hand with the anti-tax crowd. Since government can do no good whatsoever, it “logically” follows that government should receive no money. I happen to believe differently, but remember that we’re dealing with a political environment where saying “no” to everything gets exactly what the anti-whatever folks want. I’m not sure that making Metro “more accountable,” whatever that looks like in the end, will satisfy that voting bloc.

    1. I strongly agree with this. Negotiation is one thing, but that’s not what goes on with the anti-government crowd. No degree of relationship building will convince them to support paying for essential services. The only valid strategy is to dilute the movement by not giving them ammunition, such as the act of threatening cuts, then not implementing them. Playing a shell game with capital funds looks bad and is bad.

      What role can we take in convincing a sufficient portion of the Council that Dembowski’s plan is a bad idea from both a budgetary and a political standpoint?

    2. I don’t think we agree on what a “coverage route” is. The 47 is a specialty route that saves people a few blocks’ walk to the 43, but I doubt many people will switch modes just because they suddenly find themselves having to walk those few blocks. It is a shame it can’t survive until 2016, but the can has fallen off the cliff, even if not all the council realizes it yet. Frankly, the 47 is going away in September because neighbors have already voted with their feet to take the 43 or 49.

      Now, the 132 — *that* is a coverage route. The walk to the nearest route from South Park would be close to an hour, and a little bit scary, at least until the new bridge opens. The alternatives are get a bike, get a car, or stay home.

      But we do agree on moving forward with the cuts, certainly at least the first two rounds. The Council could take a couple more weeks to stew on the February cuts, but those cuts and restructures need to happen. A vote to wait until November to consider further cuts certainly takes a February round of cuts off the table, as Metro’s service change process takes longer than three months. It also probably means the number of cut routes will have to increase.

    3. The 47 is not a specialty route. It’s a workhorse that moves people to the most densely populated part of Washington. Nor is this first round of cuts actually “lowest priority”. If Metro has the choice between axing the 168 and 47, it should absolutely axe the 168. That route is astronomically lower priority. The 47 is a shining star and Metro says “oh well, toss the fucker out.”

      1. Where to begin…

        It is the 158 and 159 that should be cut, and simultaneously adding trips to the 168 to meet every Sounder run, which is, indeed, what Metro is proposing and what the county council should not interfere with. Cutting the 158, 159, and 168 would mean some current riders would be miles from the nearest bus stop.

        Here is why Metro is cutting the 47: “It’s one of the lowest performing routes in Metro’s system.”

      2. Are you saying Metro is lying or wrong about the 47’s performance? If not, I don’t understand how anyone can call such a low performing route a “workhorse,” unless you’re using that term in some way I’m completely unfamiliar with.

      3. The 47 currently has very poor ridership except at peak hour because it’s too infrequent to use. Far from being a “workhorse,” it has its ridership lunch entirely eaten by the far more frequent and predictable 43, which is no further than four blocks from essentially all 47 riders.

        I think we’ll see either the 47 or a “short” 43 come back to serve these passengers when the full 43 is reorganized out of existence after U-Link opens. That route will probably even be frequent, unlike the 47.

    4. ” (I still, for the life of me, can’t figure out why they’re so hated, but a property tax that would cost two to three times more is A-OK) ”

      The hatred of VLF’s are easy to understand. They are paid in one block, at one time, out of people’s “disposable” income. Property taxes are hidden from most people’s view, and are tied with a whole lot of other things. My property tax comes as a small addition to my monthly mortgage payment, of which the majority of the money i’m shelling out is to the bank. So, whether I’m shelling out 2 grand or $2,010 each month, I don’t really notice it. Also, it’s not part of my disposable income. Also, that additional $10 is only a very small part of a bunch more money in property taxes I pay each month to run city and state government.

      Compare that with shelling out an additional $60 on some random afternoon once a year… That was going to be my beer money, and now I’m having to give it to some guy to pay for buses, which I don’t even use because I have a car. Never mind the $10/month added to my mortgage payment adds up to literally twice as much money; I never even counted that as something I might spend.

      I agree that using car tabs as a mechanism to fund transit is well targeted. But it’s too damned visible. The taxes that people don’t notice are the ones that pass.

      1. Yes, absolutely. You can also add the fact that a car tab tax, as it is currently designed, is regressive. The guy with two junkers parked on his lawn pays more than the guy with one BMW in his garage. Meanwhile, a property tax is progressive (or at least consistent with wealth). Own a 2 million dollar home with a view and you will pay more than the guy living in shack on the other side of (if not right next) the tracks.

    5. The metro won’t lose credibility by finding ways to not make cuts; it never had any credibility to begin with. Part of why people voted no is they thought metro would find ways not to cut. Now these people who believe metro was bluffing will simply assume metro is now being either stubborn or incompetent. Dembowski finding ways to reduce cuts will, at least in the short term, restore credibility that the metro is a competent organization rather than a punitive petulant child. If the reduction doesn’t cause long term problems, Dembowski will also be restoring credibility in the long term. When Dembowski talks about credibility, he’s talking about an image, something only loosely correlated with reality.

      The group that believes the government can do no good are the minority. Most of the people who don’t trust the government only have a moderate mistrust which can be entirely fickle. So it’s true, nothing Dembowski will do can every win the trust of the true anti government, that crowd is no where near large enough to vote down the transit funding.

      Why is car tab tax radioactive. Never mind that it is regressive, in this case it’s expressly using the money from drivers for non-drivers. Whats more, the fee is highly visible, and is pitched as a fee rather than a tax. People are always talking about car tab fees. At regular intervals you must take special time to send the government big “fee” to be able to forget to replace these silly ten cent stickers on you plate. If this was pitched as a tax, you didn’t have to fumble with stickers (an anachronism with modern databases and plate readers), and most people had the money set up with automatic payments, people would forget about their principled stance against car tab fees. Another reason why people would be willing to pay more total money on a property tax is the percentage of the outlay. Car’s cost a lot less than a house. The tax increase as a percentage of the taxed item is less.

      While the government cannot maintain long term credibility if they don’t do an actual good job, in the short term (the length of an office term) the government can make a huge difference in popularity by paying attention to human nature, something they clearly failed to do with prop 1.

  3. Do they want Metro to raise fares again? Fares are already very high, even before they raise them again. It creates the illusion that taking a car is cheaper, and in some cases, taking a car actually is cheaper than taking the bus. I have friends at college saying they got a car and now they can save money on BUS FARE. At what point does the fare increases stop, which make up a small portion of transit funding anyway? $4? $5? $6?

    And I thought the low income fare was contingent on prop 1 passing. Is it still on the books?

    1. The County Council has to vote again on a plan to implement the low-income fare program. At this point, I don’t consider it any more a done deal than the service cuts.

    2. There should be a surcharge on peak-hour one-way express runs. While even base service buses have peak hour imbalances — more people are heading toward activity nodes than away in the morning and vice versa — the one-way expresses don’t even attempt to garner revenue on the deadhead trip.

      So, the people who use them should pay for the high level of service they receive, which is expensive to provide.

      Such a surcharge would not be applied to all-day bi-directional routes which have a freeway leg in their run.

      1. Yes. This.

        There’s a nefarious undercurrent in Dembowski’s willingness ability to so casually propose another “across all categories” 25¢. The only suburban voters who both use transit and have influence are the express commuters, and they’re the ones who have bit proportionally hit the least by the last four fare increases.

        Another 25¢ would achieve a milestone: the off-peak fare will have doubled in the time I’ve lived here. With most all-day trips along major corridors worse than ever, and with evening service and span having, in many cases, contracted.

        Meanwhile, the in-city peak fare, regardless of direction or service quality, will have risen 83%. Even though counter-peak trips are some of the slowest, least reliable, most excruciating, and in many cases most crowded and underserved trips imaginable.

        Would you rather crawl at marginally faster than walking speed in a car, or on a 44 bus that smells like a catheter just exploded in the back? Now make the catheter bus the more costly option Rational self-interest speaks for itself, traffic be damned.

        Meanwhile, Dembowski’s commuter constituents have seen only a 62.5% fare hike — if they pay for their own passes at all — and mostly sail along in their express lanes on buses that come near-constantly at the only time they ever ride them.

        I will actively campaign against another cynical across-the-board undifferentiated increase!

      2. The surcharge should roughly reflect the cost of operating that sort of service; that is, it should roughly double the original fare. Apply it to all riders on any route that:

        1) travels a long distance;
        2) requires substantial deadheading to operate; and
        3) has local or regional alternative service for at least a large majority of the riders.

        For Metro, I’d apply it to the following routes:

        77, 102, 111, 114, 118X, 119X, 121, 122, 123, 143, 152, 154, 157, 158, 159, 161, 167, 177, 178, 190, 192, 193, 197, 202, 205, 210, 211, 212, 214, 215, 216, 217, 218, 242, 243, 244, 250, 252, 257, 260, 265, 268, 277, 301, 303, 304, 306, 308, 309, 311, 312, 342, 355, and long-distance school trippers.

      3. The peak-surcharge on core routes needs to end completely. If that means a corresponding 50¢ hike on the 18X, 28X, or 57, then so be it. People heading in other directions don’t have the option of paying more to have their specific commute expedited.

        An “inner” express surcharge should be far less than an “outer” express, of course.

      4. I’d advocate keeping an AM peak charge and eliminating the PM peak fares. That might mean increasing the AM peak fare by 50 or 75 cents, but the rest of the day would be at the standard fare. Most of the AM riders are workers and they are going to make a return trip in the afternoon. It would be easier to collect more money in the morning and simplify the fare structure for the rest of the day. Those expensive AM peak fares could come with an extended transfer window (4 hours w/ORCA card) to allow people who are just taking their kids to day care or going to school or working a very part time job or just getting off the graveyard shift some extra value for the extra cost.

        I’m just guessing, but it would seem that the extra AM trippers are likely more expensive to operate than the PM trippers. Many of the PM trippers can be assigned to evening routes and spend more productive time on the road. Most of the AM trippers leave the base, make a run and return to base. Those AM trips are the ones that are least efficient.

      5. THIS! PLEASE!

        Also, can we just get rid of the peak period fare and just have one fare all day long. Perhaps this instead of an across the board increase?

  4. I think car tabs aren’t radioactive as much as sensitive because they’re low. They’re currently amazingly low compared to similar cities (IIRC SF tabs are on the order of 3x or 4x as high). This means that any change to our tabs *feels* large. I just renewed yesterday, and subtracting what I paid for the Discovery pass it was around $70. Doubling the tab would only get us $70 per vehicle, and doubling anything is really hard to sell. If the price of a Starbucks coffee doubled tomorrow there would be a lot of people that started brewing at home. Comparatively, a $70 increase in a state with $400 tabs would seem like a small step – like increasing your coffee cost by $0.35.

    So what do we do about this? Car tabs are a good tax – we’re taxing the thing we want less of, and it’s one of the most progressive options we have (especially if it scales with vehicle cost). I’d like to see someone try to tap into it in a way that grows over time. This makes the relative increase small at first in a way that doesn’t shock anyone. That may not be appropriate for a transit emergency where we need cash now, but might work well for something like building sidewalks and bike paths.

  5. I’m now convinced that any meaningful dialog around here on taxation levels and efficient operations are pointless.
    Frank and Lakecity Rider quoting “but I get the sense that anti-transit voters are anti-transit, no matter how many independent audits you provide or fat-trimming exercises you endure.”
    That is so George Bush ish and the Fox commentators. ‘Either your with us, or your against us’ attitude, so completely dismisses the vast majority of taxpayers who could possibly be both pro-transit and anti higher taxation and wasteful government.
    This is where I get painted as a boogie man lover, take your pick, Tim, Kemper, WPC.
    The reality is that the Puget Sound collects 50% more taxes on behalf of transit (all agencies combined), than all of our peer agencies (detailed in an earlier post this month).
    Keep this attitude up, and transit becomes the next burned out shell of a city called Detroit.
    I’m outta here.

    1. These are, and have always been, political questions that revolve around ideology, mobilizing the base, and persuading the persuadables to show up and vote. The number of voters who are pro-transit but will withhold their vote for transit measures because of concerns about waste and efficiency are so small as to be statistically negligible. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the truth, and so it does not make any sense to build a transit funding plan and a transit system around such a tiny number of people.

      1. I’ve never voted “no” on a transit measure in my life.

        And yet, though carless and therefore unaffected by car tabs, I seriously considered voting “no” this time around, precisely because I am so goddamned sick of the spiraling fares, the tacit acceptance of broken funding mechanisms, and the pathological aversion to actually attempting good transit with all the money spent.

        The only reason I wound up voting “yes” is that I didn’t want those lying “anti” campaigners from the Eastside as bedfellows. Perhaps should have voted against the measure regardless.

        No more money for crap. How hard is that to understand?

      2. Oh, and I’m not “statistically negligible”. I know quite a few who actually filled the “no” bubble, a symbolic throwing up of their hands about Metro’s disinterest in being useful.

        You know which category is becoming “statistically negligible”, Robert? People who think anything about transit in Seattle is good!

      3. d.p.

        You know which category is becoming “statistically negligible”, Robert? People who think anything about transit in Seattle is good!”

        Can you please give us a fairly complete outline of what you would call “good transit”? I’m not being snarky; I expect you have one and that there are good ideas in it. But you spend so much effort being against every idea that comes up there’s not much room left to envision what you’d support.


      4. I’m pro transit and I didn’t vote yest because of said concerns. I didn’t vote no either. I purposefully recycled the ballot. While I admit, if I took transit instead of biking, I probably would have voted yes, that doesn’t mean I would have liked voting yes. That would be me voting yes for my interest, not the cities interest. We should instead have a vote to increase density to make transit need less subsidies. Now that I would vote yes on.

      5. Shit goes in straight lines. 65-minute trips between major (and relatively proximate) urban areas cease to exist. No more 10-minute detours on the “rapid” trunk. A 10-minute network throughout the urbanized area, if you’re willing to walk at all. An end to 50,000 routes crawling across downtown, uncoordinated, leading to massive transfer-plus-in-and-out penalties, even when 6 different routes would hypothetically get you close to where you’re going.

        All of this. It can be done. Even in the most insipid sprawl-cities on earth.

        Build high-capacity investments where high capacity is actually necessary, and will actually improve trip times for lots of actual people. Infrequent streetcars plying zig-zags can go to hell.

        And no goddamned $2.75 fares for those not lucky enough to work downtown with corporate-sponsored passes. No $2.75 fares for the transit service of all time.

      6. Oh, goodie. Now SDOT’s Mercer signal timers have botched the detour worse than ever.

        This is why you don’t send trunk routes on detours down crappy one-lane streets, people!

      7. d.p.

        Thanks. That sounds like a pretty optimal system to me, too. Getting it politically might be tough (it’s expensive and to make it work there must be lots more bus lanes), but it’s certainly worth fighting for.

    2. Frank and Lakecity Rider quoting “but I get the sense that anti-transit voters are anti-transit, no matter how many independent audits you provide or fat-trimming exercises you endure.”

      mic, if you had a basic working knowledge of the voting behavior literature in political science would tell you’d understand this is fundamentally correct. It heartwarming that you want to ascribe a level of nuance and careful assessment to broad swathes of the electorate, but the overwhelming weight of the relevant empirical evidence suggests your faith is misplaced.

    3. The conversation is useless if all you are interested in doing is tossing out the same misleading stats over and over, encourage gutting of ST capital projects, and disappearing from the conversation when someone asks you what route restructures you would work to implement. You seem way too happy bashing transit, and not terribly interested in improving it. Prove me wrong.

      1. Exactly. When confronted with the difference in current capital expenditures explaining the gap between PDX and Seattle, he’s got nothing to say.

      2. At least he isn’t agreeing with the nonsense talking points spewing out of WPC saying it is okay to delay the cuts now, and come up with a plan later to pay for delaying the cuts. I don’t think anyone is buying that idea — not its proponents, not the Republican county councilmembers who have voted for it, and not any constituents at large. Okay, one person in the entire county appears to be confusedly going for it, and he just happens to chair the committee that put forwarded the fiscally-irresponsible proposal to delay cuts without providing a funding source for delaying the cuts.

      3. the difference in current capital expenditures explaining the gap between PDX and Seattle

        Not to mention, other significant differences between the two:

        1. TriMet is a transit district, and if it were a county operated system like KCM, we would have transit to Bonneville Dam, but not Oregon City. If KCM were a transit district like TriMet, Issaquah east to North Bend would probably have their own district, like Canby, Sandy, Wilsonville and others in the Portland area.

        2. Portions of funding for MAX construction have come from urban renewal districts, city and county general funds, and other sources that don’t show up as transit specific.

        3. TriMet has no vanpool program, and the carpool program is not extensive at all.

    4. The Puget Sound region has higher direct taxes for transit due to the funding mechanisms the legislature has chosen to make available.

      When operating costs and capital costs are compared to peer agencies there really isn’t anything particularly out of line.

      Sure peer agencies elsewhere receive funding from the state legislature, gas taxes, or payroll taxes but these are not things transit agencies have access to nor can they impose them via their own authority.

      To blame metro because it does not use a payroll tax or receive money from the state general fund revenue is the height of dishonesty.

    5. Well, Mic, at last the horrible truth about the collapse of the City of Detroit comes out. For all these years, hopelessly gullible people have misguidedly believed that Detroit fell into ruins because the town’s only industry decided by the end of the Second World War to trash out its factories and send the work first to the non-union south and then to Mexico and China.

      Turns out now that the real culprit was a soul-crushing 50 cent increase in bus fares, Wonder if we can put these things on top of missiles and strap them under the wings of close-air support. Sneak them onto fairboxes aboard the trolleybus fleets in

      Odessa and the Crimea, and Vladimir Putin will flee to Alaska and beg Sara Palin for asylum.

      Like Bob Oppenheimer said about the Bomb: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds!”


  6. I like the idea of looking for more ways to increase revenue. I have an idea. Now this might sound crazy, but I’m completely sincere about this. Okay, how many people here know that churches don’t just let homeless people stay in their basements or camp-out on their grounds out of the goodness of their hearts, and that, if I’m not mistaken, receive some sort of federal payment for each person they house? Why can’t Metro turn their parked and unused buses into homeless shelters at night? If there are 3100 homeless people in King County, and the Feds pay $50 per person per night, that’s $155,000 per day Metro could make in housing the homeless!

    1. Could you provide a link to the federal program? It sounds interesting, but I’ve never heard of it before.

      1. Wouldn’t know where to find that one specific grant out of the thousands that the gov’t hands out. My greater point instead of going back to the same old well, let’s look for ways to create new sources of revenue. What about selling Park and Ride lots to private parking lot companies? There’s a source of hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential yearly property tax revenue.

      2. No such across the board program exists at the federal level. The church near me that does this operates only on volunteer time and what money people choose to contribute. Some programs do get federal assistance through grant money, but they are pretty rare.

  7. I don’t think raising revenue alone is going to “fix” metro’s problems. Twenty years ago almost, Metro went through each part of the county with a wave of restructuring (this was about the time the Gillig’s showed up as I recall). I think that this needs to happen again to give metro a solid “base” to expand and launch service from. The 40/40/20 days are gone, but many of those routes remain, and its time to revise the network and be able to direct money to where its needed, and not keep empty buses running in the suburbs.

  8. “financing the purchase of new electric trolley buses instead of paying cash up front” – Translation: Charge the trolley buses on the credit card and “save” money since you’re only paying those “low monthly payments”.

    1. Alternate translation: “pay the money you should have used to replace the last 2300s as interest on the trolleys.”

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