Last week, County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted an ordinance to the King County Council containing proposed changes to Metro’s Strategic Plan and Service Guidelines. These are a big deal for King County bus riders; they will shape how Metro service evolves over the next decade or so. There is a lot to digest in the documents. We have spent the usual quality time reviewing them, and I spoke last week with Metro Deputy General Manager Victor Obeso and Supervisor of Strategic Planning Chris O’Claire about some of the most important proposals.
We have covered the history of the Service Guidelines and Strategic Plan on a few occasions. In short, their 2011 adoption by the King County Council replaced an ad hoc planning process often driven by individual Councilmembers’ wishes with public, verifiable criteria for planning service additions, reductions, and restructures. Executive Constantine rightly wrote in his transmittal letter that the Guidelines helped “make the transit system more efficient and better focused on the county’s most important public transportation needs.” The Plan and Guidelines represent exactly the type of political guidance that the Council and Executive should be providing to Metro’s professional staff. This sort of guidance is entirely different from interference with micro-level planning decisions. It’s essential to ensure that the Metro system reflects the values and preferences of King County’s voters and taxpayers and remains accountable.
A bit more about the process underlying the recommendations is after the jump. First, the major headline recommendations:
Revise the categories of routes used for Service Guidelines analysis. Currently, routes are divided into two categories: “serves Seattle core” and “does not serve Seattle core.” All routes that touch downtown, the U-District, SLU, Ballard, or certain other dense neighborhoods are in “serves Seattle core,” regardless of whether they are core all-day routes, suburban peak expresses, or infrequent coverage routes. The proposal would scrap these two categories and replace them with “urban,” “suburban,” and “alternative service” categories, based on the areas the routes primarily serve.
Provide special protection for peak-only services. Service Guidelines Task Force members felt that Metro’s September 2014 cuts, and proposed further cuts that did not occur, exacted too heavy a toll on peak-only services. The proposed changes would protect peak-only services that enjoy either a travel time or ridership advantage over all-day alternatives from the first round of future reductions.
Revise criteria used in corridor analysis. There are a number of different changes included in this bucket, with the most significant being 1) a change in the definition of “low-income” used in setting target service levels from 100% to 200% of the federal poverty level (for a family of three $20,090 annually), and 2) inclusion of park-and-rides together with other types of ridership generators. Metro’s Ms. O’Claire estimated that all of the corridor-analysis changes would significantly increase the amount of new service recommended under the Guidelines, by approximately 250,000 hours over today’s recommendation of 471,650 additional hours.
More below the jump.
Informed readers may have noticed a common thread in these recommendations: they tend to favor peak express service patterns, particularly over long distances. First, the shift of some (but not all) peak-only routes from the “serves Seattle core” category to the “suburban” category will tend to make those routes look more attractive in performance reporting, because thresholds for both top- and bottom-performing status are considerably higher in the current “serves Seattle core” and (almost certainly) new “urban” categories. Second, special peak-service protection will favor long, fast, but expensive-to-run peak express service from the farthest suburbs, which enjoys the greatest time and ridership advantages over local service — such as one-seat routes to Seattle from Duvall, North Bend, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, and Twin Lakes, all of which were fully or partly cut for low productivity under the current Service Guidelines. Finally, inclusion of park-and-rides as a ridership generator will result in higher target service levels on both peak and all-day routes that serve them, most of which are major suburban routes. The process behind the proposed changes helps to explain this tendency.
The Executive’s recommendations were heavily based on input from the Council’s Regional Transit Committee, the full Council, and two advisory processes set up by the Council: the Service Guidelines Task Force, which met regularly during much of 2015 and produced a detailed report that closely tracks the final proposed changes, and the Access to Transit study.
The membership of both the Regional Transit Committee and the Service Guidelines Task Force is weighted toward suburban areas. The Regional Transit Committee includes two suburban county councilmembers and seven suburban city officials, but just one Seattle county councilmember and two Seattle city councilmembers. This 75%/25% split favors the suburbs more than the split of population between the rest of King County and Seattle (68%/32%), let alone the split in Metro ridership (which can be counted in different ways but has a clear Seattle majority). Similarly, the Service Guidelines Task Force has just 8 of 29 members (28%) that are Seattle officials or represent clearly Seattle-centric organizations.
This heavy suburban representation may be an unavoidable consequence of the fact that only three of the nine council districts have Seattle majorities. And, again, this is the way the planning process is designed to work, with the Council setting the criteria under which Metro evaluates and designs service, and seeking stakeholder feedback and advice as it sees fit. Nevertheless, neglect of Seattle service could have undesired consequences for the county as a whole, and the Council should be careful to avoid it. Ridership on Seattle core services is growing sharply, according to Metro’s 2015 Service Guidelines Report, based on data from before the City of Seattle added even more service through Prop 1. Seattle routes comprise about half of the needed investments identified in the 2015 report after Prop 1 additions. Almost all of the severe capacity problems in Metro’s system are in Seattle, with a few Seattle routes (C, D, 5X, 33, 40, 65, 72, 76) together including a majority of needed overcrowding investments throughout the system, and just two suburban routes (219, 255) needing major investment to solve overcrowding. For the most part, Metro’s own corridor analysis indicates that Seattle routes are the most productive in the system today and have more short-term ridership growth potential as well.
I should emphasize that the final effects of the new Guidelines criteria are far from clear at this point in the process. The income-level change and other minor changes to the corridor analysis criteria may be beneficial for Seattle service, and the greater identified investment need is a welcome sign. Metro’s Ms. O’Claire told us that she expects tentative corridor-level analysis using the new criteria to be available later in the process, perhaps after the ordinance is referred to committee. We are eagerly looking forward to that analysis, and I am glad to see the Executive and the Council giving the Strategic Plan and Service Guidelines — the basis for professional, data-based transit planning in the county — this level of attention and thoughtful treatment.