Since Proposition 1 failed in April, Metro and its riders have assumed that the King County Council would pass an ordinance implementing the four-part series of cuts Metro planning staff devised. On Tuesday, Councilmember Rod Dembowski threw a wrench into that plan. He and the three suburban members of the Council’s Transportation, Economy, and Environment (TrEE) Committee, over the objections of the committee’s three other Seattle members, approved an ordinance which would implement only most of the first (September 2014) round of cuts, canceling other cuts altogether for the moment. Councilmember Dembowski would not implement or propose any funding to pay for the restoration of service. (Our Frank Chiachiere spoke with Councilmember Dembowski about his proposed ordinance last week.)
The other four Seattle councilmembers, in response, proposed a compromise ordinance which would implement all four rounds of cuts, but give the County Executive flexibility to cancel or reduce the June 2015 and September 2015 cuts and to undo part or all of the February 2015 cuts if new funding is found. This response put the Council in the odd position of having “Democrats” propose cuts while “Republicans” (and Councilmember Dembowski) seek to delay them (yes, the Council is technically nonpartisan). But there is method to the Democrats’ seeming madness, and I strongly support their compromise proposal.
I’m usually a big fan of Councilmember Dembowski, who is my councilmember, and who has done top-notch work on many issues in a short time on the Council. But I think this proposal of his is misguided, even with an admirable goal. I argue that his proposal’s effect would not be to avoid cuts, but to undermine Metro’s newly professionalized planning process and its Service Guidelines, while cuts go forward. That would be a profoundly bad outcome for Metro, the county, and us riders, so I hope to see Councilmember Dembowski’s proposed ordinance defeated at today’s 1:30 p.m. Council meeting. Full argument below the jump.
In a nutshell, Councilmember Dembowski’s proposal does nothing substantive to prevent cuts, but makes it more likely that the cuts won’t be carefully planned like the cuts Metro has proposed. To understand why, it’s helpful to know a bit of history about the Service Guidelines themselves, and about the problem they were intended to address.
Service Guidelines Background
Metro’s Service Guidelines became law in 2011, when the Council adopted King County’s current Strategic Plan for Public Transportation. The Service Guidelines were incorporated into the Strategic Plan following a recommendation of the county’s Regional Transit Task Force, which concluded in a 2010 report that “a new approach to decision-making is needed.” Metro’s 2009 performance audit similarly identified a need for a more transparent and objective planning process.
The previous system had a master formula (the notorious “40/40/20”) which governed the allocation of new service hours between city and suburbs. Beyond that formula, though, very little legal structure governed specific planning decisions. Two bad results followed. The first was a feeling among the Council and riders alike that Metro planning decisions could be arbitrary, inconsistent, and impossible to understand. (And, while Metro made some very valuable changes during this period, it also made some inscrutable choices.) The second was frequent Council-level intervention in small-scale decisions, often to preserve demonstrably inefficient service at the request of small but organized groups.
The Council adopted the Service Guidelines in an effort to give Metro clear and transparent guidance about how to make planning decisions — and, beyond offering that guidance, to keep the Council itself out of the specifics of the process. All factions on the Council recognized at the time that a systematic, professional approach, with politicians setting large-scale goals rather than driving low-level specifics, would ultimately allow the system to serve the most riders the most effectively for the least money.
And the Service Guidelines approach has helped improve the system’s efficiency over the last three years. Nearly all of the service identified as badly inefficient in the 2010 Route Performance Report (the last with data from before the Guidelines’ adoption) has been deleted or restructured, with the hours reallocated to highly productive service. Both Metro’s “best” and “worst” service today are substantially more efficient than they were in 2010. The productivity thresholds for the top and bottom 25% of Metro routes have improved on both of Metro’s productivity measures, during all time periods (peak, off-peak, and night), with particularly dramatic improvements during peak hour when the system serves some four-fifths of its total ridership.
When it became clear that severe cuts would be needed without new funding, Metro staff used the Service Guidelines to formulate their proposed cuts, and then refined the cuts using a public process. In Metro’s public materials describing the cuts, the Service Guidelines rationale underlying each proposed change is named. By cross-referencing the cuts with the performance data in the 2013 Service Guidelines Report, it’s easy to get a sense of why Metro proposed the particular actions it did—even where they seem very painful. The result, for anyone who has observed Metro for a long time, has been a surprisingly low amount of controversy over the specifics of the cuts, even as riders supported Prop. 1 and complained loudly about the general need to cut service.
There’s Still No New Money, So Cuts Will Still Happen…
Councilmember Dembowski’s proposal rejects most of the cuts Metro proposed by applying the Service Guidelines, but doesn’t offer anything in return. The measure has no source of new revenue and no efficiency measures to make up for the canceled cuts, and doesn’t identify alternative cuts of its own (either guideline-based or arbitrary). In short, it’s based only on hope, and seems very likely to bring about precipitous cuts later, when the funding finally runs out—which it almost certainly will.
In his conversation with us, and in a motion he drafted for the Council, Councilmember Dembowski said he hopes to find further efficiencies at Metro through a performance audit, and recover more money from fares. But there is only so much those measures can accomplish. Even a dramatic fare increase can’t come close to closing Metro’s funding gap, and Metro’s fares are already quite high by national standards, reducing riders’ ability to absorb further increases. Metro already underwent a performance audit in 2009, which resulted in dramatic changes to Metro’s operations and management. The final implementation report from the 2009 audit was issued only last year. It’s hard to see how another performance audit one year later would identify meaningful efficiencies.
Other sources of potential service-hour funds are equally unsatisfying. Raiding the capital and maintenance budgets, as Metro already did during the peak of the 2009-2010 financial crisis, will just result in higher operational costs as equipment decays and speed improvements go unmade (not to mention a much more unpleasant and unreliable rider experience). Spending reserves during an economic expansion would be the height of irresponsibility. Cuts to driver and mechanic pay would have to go through the collective bargaining process, and, if serious enough to make a difference, could bring about a return of the 2004 situation where Metro was unable to expand service because it could not hire enough drivers.
The cities of Seattle and Bellevue have explored providing city funding to avoid some cuts through Community Mobility Contracts. Based on the Proposition 1 results, though, such funding is unlikely to be a political winner anywhere outside Seattle—including the north-end suburbs that make up most of Councilmember Dembowski’s district. City buybacks of service will not prevent the necessity for cuts in most of King County.
…They’ll Just Be Poorly (and Maybe Politically) Planned
If no new revenue or efficiencies were identified, but Metro continued operating its full schedule without cuts through 2015 (as Councilmember Dembowski would have it do), then abrupt and extremely severe cuts would subsequently be needed to keep Metro from running out of cash. The cuts Metro carefully planned using the Service Guidelines would be insufficient in that scenario, given the higher-than-planned spending during late 2014 and 2015. Bigger cuts would be required, and in a hurry. Metro planning staff would not have time to carefully go through the Service Guidelines process; the cuts could be loosely based on the currently planned cuts, but would necessarily have an ad hoc element. (Such massive cuts, implemented all at once, would also lead to equally massive operational confusion and disruption, as riders who have survived much smaller restructures can attest.)
I think it’s likely, unfortunately, that such sudden and drastic cuts would take the county back to the old ways of planning. In such a chaotic and hurried environment, with insufficient Metro planning resources to handle the situation, Councilmembers and their staffs could end up micromanaging the process just because someone has to do it and the Council has final responsibility. And, once that happened, councilmembers’ influence and whims rather than professional application of clear guidelines would again define the pared-down transit network. By contrast, the compromise approach would specifically require that the Service Guidelines process be followed, and allow Metro to take full advantage of its planning staff’s careful work, whether or not Metro is able to fund additional hours.
Councilmember Kathy Lambert amply previewed this risk during Tuesday’s TrEE committee hearing, offering an amendment (first reported by PubliCola) that would restore funding only for the six DART routes proposed for elimination in September 2014 pending a report on alternative service delivery for those routes. The amendment passed, and is now part of the Dembowski ordinance that the Council will consider today. This amendment is clear political meddling in the planning process, of exactly the sort the Council sought to avoid by establishing the Service Guidelines in the first place, and that would be prohibited under the compromise ordinance.
Adoption by the council of an ordinance with Councilmember Lambert’s amendment would set a terrible precedent. Five of the six DART routes Councilmember Lambert seeks to save (909, 919, 927, 931, 935) are simply bad performers, no matter how you look at (or spin) the numbers. Much of the other service scheduled for elimination in September 2014, despite being among Metro’s weakest, performs more strongly. Also, only the 927 and 931 cross Councilmember Lambert’s district, so her motivation for saving all six routes is unclear.
(I understand that Councilmember Lambert is a member of the board of directors of HopeLink, the contractor that operates the six DART routes for Metro. I emailed Councilmember Lambert on Saturday to ask why she wishes to override the Service Guidelines process and restore only this poorly-performing service, but, likely because of the weekend timeframe, have not received a response. I will update this post if I hear from her office.)
By likely necessitating sharp ad hoc cuts, while rejecting well-planned cuts based on the Service Guidelines, Councilmember Dembowski’s proposal makes this sort of meddling much more likely.
There’s a Meeting at 1:30 Today, and You Can Act
The Council is meeting at 1:30 this afternoon. During its meeting, it will consider both Councilmember Dembowski’s ordinance (2014-0210) and the compromise ordinance (in the form of an amendment to Councilmember Dembowski’s ordinance). Particularly if you live in the district of Councilmember Dembowski, Lambert, Hague, Dunn, or von Reichbauer, please call or email your Councilmember’s office this morning and politely state your support for the compromise plan and for applying Metro’s Service Guidelines whenever planning decisions are needed.
County Executive Dow Constantine reportedly has not yet decided whether, if the Council passes Councilmember Dembowski’s ordinance, he will veto it. If the Council does pass it, a polite email to the Executive requesting a veto would also be helpful.