Earlier this year, the King County Council ordered a review of funding options for Metro Connects. This Wednesday, the Regional Transit Committee receives a status update on the effort. It considers a $220 million increase in annual funding for Metro, enough to get Metro to its long-range service goals.
Metro Connects is Metro’s long range plan, designed to integrate with Sound Transit expansion through 2040 and to meet the transit needs of city and County comprehensive plans. The Metro Connects plan, adopted in 2015, envisions a 70% increase in Metro bus service hours by 2040 over 2015 levels. That would increase transit ridership to 1 million daily boardings, and enable frequent service within 1/2 mile for 73% of county residents.
Metro’s current funding isn’t enough to reach this goal. Tax and fare revenue grow naturally over time as the economy and population expand, but only by enough to cover 30% of the additional capital costs and 50% of the extra service hours identified. The under-funding of Metro Connects has already led to the deferral of several RapidRide Lines that were hoped to open by 2025. That gap would widen if the Seattle Proposition 1 is not renewed in 2020. The Seattle TBD pays for about 10% of current service hours.
The Executive and Metro leadership have been meeting with Council members and local elected leaders to explore funding options. The status report includes a long list of possible funding sources without giving away any hints as to which are finding favor politically. Some are Metro-specific, others belong to the County or the County Transportation Benefit District (KCTBD). Most would require voter approval.
Metro’s funding puzzle starts with 3.9 million service hours in 2020 paid for out of the Metro budget, and another 400,000 paid for by the Seattle TBD. With a renewed STBD, total hours would grow slowly to 4.7 million by 2030, leaving Metro far behind their 6.0 million hours goal for 2040.
A $220 million measure in 2020 would fund both capital and operational needs, allowing Metro to increase service rapidly to 5.5 million hours by 2030, and even more later as the capital investments ease Metro’s current capacity bottlenecks.
An alternative scenario sees the Seattle TBD renewed on schedule, but a County measure delayed until 2024. This postpones capital investments and diminishes Metro’s ability to expand regional service as major rail investments come online through 2024. Instead of the 5.5 million hours by 2030 that are possible with early County funding, service hours in 2030 would be just over 4.9 million.
A county measure to replace the Seattle TBD, about which there has been speculation in the past, seems less likely. All the financial scenarios are additive to a Seattle measure.
King County is also committed to working on funding needs for regional roads and bridges. In 2017, the suburban cities and some other stakeholders convened a Regional Transportation System Initiative to this end. Staff identified about $20 billion (in 2018 constant dollars) of needed roads improvements by 2040, of which $7-8 billion are unfunded. Politically, the elected leaders never seemed to come close to a consensus on revenue options and the process concluded inconclusively in early 2018.
The Metro planning effort is separate from, but coordinating with, the effort to fund the roads needs. That might put in play a combined initiative to fund both transit and roads, perhaps building a coalition for a Metro funding measure, but also increasing the price tag over a stand-alone Metro measure.