On March 31st, King County Metro held a Visioning Workshop to kick off its new long-range planning process. The process will supplement Metro’s current 2011-2021 Strategic Plan with a new long-range plan, to be presented in draft form in spring 2016 and adopted by the King County Council in late 2016. The launch party was a transit geek’s extravaganza: it featured breakout sessions for riders and citizens to talk with Metro personnel about what they want from the transit system, as well a “visioning” panel with transit eminence Jarrett Walker, Seattle civic leader Rebecca Saldaña, and UW transportation planning professor Mark Hallenbeck.
Because of scheduling conflicts, I was unable to attend the event itself, which was very well attended and garnered consistently positive reports from attendees (at least those who talked to us). However, Metro invited STB staff to a media Q&A session immediately before the event, which I was able to make. At the session, Metro deputy general manager Victor Obeso and Walker offered an interesting, frank, and informative discussion of the long-range planning process. A few highlights of that discussion follow below the jump.
What Is a Long-Range Plan? While Metro has been preparing strategic plans on a roughly five-year cycle, Obeso pointed out that this plan will be Metro’s first true long-range plan in twenty years. Asked what had changed in that time, Obeso emphasized two things: the increasingly multi-destinational nature of travel patterns in King County, and the extraordinary population growth that King County has undergone over the last twenty years. He described the role of the new plan as addressing two core questions. First, what is the role of public transportation in the King County transportation network of the future? Second, how should King County Metro services be organized and implemented within that network?
Why Go Through the Process? Walker, who described his role in this process as minimal and intended to facilitate discussion—”I’m showing up tonight”—rather than the intensive consulting role he has played in other local planning processes, spent some time addressing the value a long-range planning process is supposed to create. He emphasized bringing those who do not currently use transit into the process, and helping them to understand “geometric facts” that those of us who plan and study transit (not to mention current riders) may take for granted. For instance, those “geometric facts” include the very important role high frequency plays in minimizing total real-world trip times, and the relatively higher importance of service quality than specific mode or “identity of the vehicle” in building a well-used network. Walker emphasized that bringing residents together and teaching them more about transit basics frees them to bring their values into the discussion, and allow residents to accurately assess whether concrete proposals in fact promote the values they want to see the transit network uphold.
What’s In the Plan? Obeso described the content of the long-range plan as a “roadmap for the future,” which will consider development patterns and help match future public transit to the “organization of residents’ lives” given those development patterns. The roadmap will document what is needed to accomplish that goal, including capital infrastructure projects, operational improvements to the transit network, and resources necessary to accomplish those changes.
How Does the Plan Relate to Other Agencies’ Work? Obeso and Walker, at different points in the conversation, both referred to this plan as one in a “conversation among plans” between local agencies. Obeso painted a picture of each local government with a say in transit as steadily influencing the others. He said that Metro was paying close attention to Sound Transit’s ST2 execution and ST3 planning efforts, as well as the Seattle Transit Master Plan, the Bellevue Transit Master Plan, and the planning work of the Puget Sound Regional Council—and that Metro would expect those agencies to pay close attention to Metro’s long-range plan in turn.
Obeso singled out close coordination with Sound Transit’s ST3 planning as particularly important, mentioning pointedly (with a hearty assent from Walker) that light rail planning should include integration with the bus network as an important goal. He said “We want the LRP to fit with ST3, and we also want ST3 to fit with the LRP.” Walker expanded on this by dismissing “hierarchy of modes” planning, where the rail network is built without consideration to buses, as outdated thinking. Instead, he advocated an approach based on planning a total network where all modes accommodate all others to make trips faster and more reliable.
Funding. Given Metro’s repeated and ongoing funding challenges, I asked Obeso to elaborate on whether the plan would identify specific means of funding the improvements it identifies. Obeso emphatically agreed with the need for growth and the funding to support that growth, saying “if we have the same system in 20 years, we’ve failed.” On funding specifics, though, I found his answer a bit equivocal. On the one hand, he said the plan would need to look at the sustainability of Metro’s funding structure, singling out the agency’s currently heavy reliance on sales taxes as unsustainable, and identify possible sources of funding. On the other hand, he acknowledged the necessity for political support, and saw the plan itself as a way to develop that support, saying “funding will follow from successful plans.”
One of the greatest casualties of Metro’s funding challenges has been the agency’s ability to execute capital projects. Except for a few new park-and-ride garages completed in recent years, there has been almost no capital spending outside of the infrastructure needed to run the network (such as bus bases), as Metro has repeatedly diverted capital funds to avoiding service cuts. The majority of the improvements that have recently benefited Metro service have been funded either by city governments (with a special nod to the City of Seattle) or by Sound Transit for the purpose of improving ST Express bus service. I asked Obeso whether he saw Metro taking a renewed role in making capital improvements in the long term. Obeso did not commit to any particular role, but did say that Metro hoped to “be a partner” with cities and WSDOT on future capital improvements, and to once again participate in both relatively low-dollar “lines on the roadway” projects (such as those SDOT has been implementing throughout Seattle) and more significant infrastructure investments.
Future Network Concepts. It won’t surprise anyone that I asked Obeso how the long-range plan would affect the Metro network. He said that the long-range plan process itself would help answer that question, and that part of the process would involve presenting the public with alternative concepts, like Metro recently did for the U-Link restructure. The public may be asked to weigh in on whether it prefers higher frequency on high-ridership core routes or lower frequency with expanded neighborhood coverage, and whether it prefers low-frequency freeway express service or increased frequency on local connections. Obeso also mentioned that he felt Metro had gotten particular success in the recent past from cities “opening up” roadway space for frequent transit use, citing increased ridership and frequency on RapidRide routes. (Perhaps contradicting Walker’s earlier discussion, he also said “I wouldn’t underestimate the red buses.”) Finally, Obeso mentioned further development of alternative service concepts for “the further reaches” of King County, such as the Snoqualmie Valley Shuttle now serving Snoqualmie and North Bend.