King County Metro 2001 Gillig Phantom Trolley 4135 "SEA..."

In May Mayor Murray unveiled Proposition 1 to avert the 2015 and 2016 Metro cuts for routes largely in the City of Seattle. With the planned cuts withering away quickly, and possibly disappearing altogether, that purpose suddenly became untenable. Without skipping a beat, the campaign switched to the narrative that this service would buy more bus service.

The measure text, thankfully, considers this possibility. After first maintaining the October 2014 service level, and allotting small sums for “regional partnerships” and access for low-income riders, the measure states that

…remaining revenues may then be used to address overcrowding, reliability, and service frequency within the City of Seattle through the purchase of additional Metro Transit bus service hours on routes with more than 80 percent of their stops within City of Seattle limits and consistent with the Seattle Transit Master Plan and Metro’s Service Guidelines.

There’s a lot to like here, a few things that could go either way, and one item that is not good.

Most importantly, the overall service level Metro provides Seattle is not adequate to provide frequent, all day service for high-demand corridors. It’s certainly true that less conservatism in preserving existing routes could achieve this at a lower cost than simply adding more service. However, even handing the whole system to David Lawson would require a 33% increase in service hours to reach the point of diminishing returns, after North Link opens and takes over significant load. We won’t get there with this measure, but Prop 1 is an important step to that service level.

Moreover, the legislation is clear. Seattle’s TMP doesn’t have a ton to say about service allocation, but Metro’s service guidelines do.  If followed, I have confidence that SDOT’s staff will assign new service hours in a very smart way. (See their preliminary list of affected routes here). This money will make transit in Seattle noticeably better. If King County and Seattle work harder to restructure the system at the same time, the cumulative effect will be revolutionary.

There is one clearly regrettable thing about this legislation: the language seems to prohibit the use of this money for capital improvements to improve transit speed and reliability*. There are many trips in Seattle where the problem is speed, not frequency. Where the problem is reliability, it’s better to simply make the street improvement and be done with it than to allocate bus hours every year just to keep the latter half of a route on schedule.

Sadly, these common-sense improvements are going to have to come in the Bridging the Gap renewal next year, where they’ll have to compete with potholes, sidewalks, and the Bike Master Plan for a limited pot of funds. On the other hand, maybe a Vehicle License Fee for speed and reliability isn’t actually an alternative: Seattle voters didn’t really care about such improvements and trounced a measure that was mostly about them in 2011.

There are also a number of things where it’s impossible to know how things will work out. Will the City Council be a good steward of the service guidelines when interest groups try to get back inefficient service** eliminated last month? Will new service really follow the guidelines or feed the squeaky wheels? Will a new Seattle Transit organization ultimately unravel King County Metro, and is that a good or bad thing for transit riders?

In the end the first point I made is the most important one: Seattle’s bus service needs, while finite, are larger than even this package can deliver. It is entirely reasonable that ordinary voters, not diving into the particulars of financial forecasting, might lose some trust in officials and resent that the threatened cuts didn’t materialize. However,they should set any such feelings aside and consider what’s best for the city, rather send a nebulous “message” to public officials by punishing riders.

* And specifically transit speed and reliability. New buses and streetcars are nice, but not what I’m arguing about here.

**I’m not saying that literally every September 2014 cut is undeserving compared to other priorities, but most of them are.

16 Replies to “Prop 1 is Dead. Long Live Prop 1.”

  1. What can congestion relief, or even altering traffic signal patterns possibly buy?

    Of course this is propaganda from a manufacturer of such a system, but it gives a case study of installation of such a system in Memphis. It gives some impression of what can be done.

    The company I work for has no relationship with this company and I have never actually seen their system in operation. It is only a convenient example that I found.

  2. When it comes to inefficient routes, I think a lot depends on where they are. There are some routes (such as those in western Magnolia or western Ballard) that will be inefficient by the very nature of the area they serve. There just aren’t that many people along that route. On the other hand, there are inefficient routes that provide very similar (but worse) service compared to nearby routes. In my opinion, the latter should be cut (or not resurrected) but I think it is worth having a few coverage routes running infrequently.

    Having a few infrequent coverage routes combined with frequent core routes makes for a good system. The two compliment each other. I think the planned re-route of the 24 to serve Ballard was not embraced by Magnolia residents because they had little faith in the transfer. They would rather take a slow, infrequent bus to downtown, instead of a transfer that is substantial and inconsistent. That is why it is essential for us to make these core lines frequent, fast and reliable. Once we do that, we can compliment them with (relatively) slow coverage routes. It would certainly be less than convenient for someone living close to such a route, but it beats the alternative. In a way, it resembles commuter buses (or trains). Within the city (or the core, in this case) you have fast, frequent service that you know can get you to the station on time (e. g. five minutes before the hour). Then you take the hourly bus back home.

    Link is in process of providing a lot of this core service. Metro and the city have a lot of work to do in that regard as well. I say “the city” because SDOT needs to make a lot of improvements to enable fast and reliable bus travel, especially downtown.

  3. Am I missing something:

    “In May Mayor Murray unveiled Proposition 1 to avert the 2015 and 2016 Metro cuts ”
    What 2016 cuts? In May of this year, the plan was for 4 rounds of cuts, 1 in september 2014, and the rest in 2015.

    “as well as the night owl routes that disappeared this month”
    What night owl routes disappeared this month?
    There are no reductions noted on Metro’s web-page on the september cuts, and it clearly notes that seattle is contracting for the maintenance of these routes.

    See also:

    1. Sorry, I mangled an attempt to say that the night owls were originally slated for deletion last month but were saved by pushing SDOT money around. I’ve deleted the phrase. Thanks.

      Good point on the 2016 cuts, although as the dates have moved around I think it’s clearer this way.

    2. Chazzer, what you’re missing is Dow Constantine’s proposed 2015-2016 budget, which replaced the original Metro cut proposal. In his budget Dow proposed to go through with a revised round of February 2015 cuts (to be postponed to June if Seattle Prop 1 passed); to do away with proposed cuts in June and September 2015; and to do a small (80,000 hours) additional round of cuts in March 2016.

  4. David Lawson wrote several gridded proposals. Not all of them assumed extra funding. But all of them assumed Link going to Northgate. I wonder what a gridded proposal would look like if built with current funding (assuming Prop 1 passes) but before North Link? I assume you would have to add a fair number of buses going downtown, which would cut into the frequency of other routes. Could it work well, or would it simply be stretched too thin?

    1. It would be stretched very thin. If you took my original FNP and revised it to make a route like Metro’s proposed revised 73 and to add a 41 equivalent, you would probably be forced to cut a bunch of frequencies in the north end to 20 or 30 minutes and possibly to delete a route or two entirely.

      I never bothered to do so because I know there is no chance of any massive restructure of north-end service happening before North Link opens. We might get tinkering around the edges, particularly to the east of UW where UW Station transfers are a realistic option, but we won’t get anything remotely like the big crosstown 65th/85th and Northgate Way routes I proposed without North Link.

      1. That’s what I figured. Thanks for the reply. I think the best we can hope for is more frequency on the cross town routes (like the Metro 31 and 32). That itself would be a big bonus, though.

  5. ” Sound Transit
    Today at 8:38 AM

    All ST Express bus service from Snohomish County into Seattle is experiencing significant delays due to heavy traffic. Thank you for your patience.”

    What puts this totally [ON T] is number of people, generally one per car and a couple of dozen on transit, headed for Seattle. With all buses, except for the ones bound for the DSTT, stuck in traffic Downtown when they arrive.

    So suppose we the voters of the entire region organize a very large campaign for political action behind this declaration:

    “We’re not voting for one dime for for transit until every transit system in the region implements the “speed and reliability” measures that every one of them is pointedly refusing to do.

    Also, that region-wide no individual county or regional entity that doesn’t cooperate will get any money from any other system or entity in compliance.”

    Experience with labor union meetings is that sure attendance at membership meetings that generally max out at 20 people will jump at chance to say no to any raise in dues. So the exact negativity behind this vote will attract a lot of attention.

    Also, I know that among pro-transit radicals- meaning everybody associated with kicking this off- have enough media savvy to keep the subject in the news. Lightly-clad people in cages are now so firmly associated with roadside espresso as not to draw any notice anymore.

    Meantime, regardless of outcome, just practicing organizing riders regionally is about thirty years overdue.

    Reason the Bible mentions four generations of punishment for one bad public habit is that this is amount of time it takes for an idea to go from something people think about to something we think with. Never too late to start.

    A certain Deity known for a bad temper doubtless has a thunderbolt waiting for one more plea for “patience”. Or apology for delayed LINK trains.


  6. As both a political animal and a transit guy, I shudder a little at the message morphing going on. First Seattleites are asked to tax ourselves more to save, to preserve transit service, then…suddenly…that message gets an “oops, nevermind” and transforms into, let’s tax ourselves to support some great but unknown program of expanded transit service.

    Yes, Seattle voters love better transit service and are willing to tax themselves to support community betterments, but this one is a heavy lift.

    1. There is still some saving going on, just less than what we originally feared was necessary.

    2. There’s also a longer-term issue. Our bus network shouldn’t be dependent on knowing six months ahead whether revenues will go down far enough to require a rescue proposition. There should be some kind of automatic stabilizer that kicks in, like a variable tax rate. It’s bad enough that we have to vote to preserve service when the economy goes bad, but it’s worse that we can only do so in November or August unless the county calls a special election. It’s like, “OK everyone, if you’re going to reduce your spending, please do so between March and May or the buses get it.”

  7. The honest thing to do would be for supporters to withdraw support for the proposal and propose a new one (hopefully with a fairer funding source). Of course that isn’t going to happen. Some would call it “bait and switch”

    1. Those people would be throwing inflammatory false claims around. It “isn’t going to happen” because it’s past the ballot-change deadline. And to be “bait and switch”, the city would have had to have known in June that the economy would be doing as well as it us. The revenue forecasts did not predict that. How can the forecasts know whether you will buy a $1000 bicycle in six months (paying sales tax that goes to Metro), or whether you will have a job then, when you yourself may not know or may decide at the last minute? Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of people and decisions, and you’ll see why forecasts can’t be perfect.

      In any case, STB has told you what the new impact of the proposition will be. No hidden surprises there, just sunshine and transparency. And if the government officials had wanted to suppress that knowledge (unlikely), well they failed.

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