Metro Connects is King County Metro’s long range plan. Developed in 2016, it lays out a 25 year vision for the evolution of the Metro network. The plan envisioned a 70% increase in Metro bus service hours by 2040 over 2015 levels. In recent months, Metro has been updating their analysis of how much the plan would cost to implement, and delivered an initial update to the Regional Transit Committee last week. The analysis has already identified billions of dollars in additional costs over the projection in 2016.
The Metro Connects plan was, by design, an unconstrained and unfunded vision of the future network to meet the needs of 2040. Baseline expectations for tax and fare revenue indicated enough funding for just 30% of the additional capital costs and 50% of the extra service hours originally identified. Early goals including RapidRide expansion have been scaled back. The initial plan was to open 13 new lines by 2024. In 2018, that was reduced to just 7 lines by 2027.
A report last June found Metro could reach its 2040 targets with a renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (about $54 million annually) and another $220 million in county funding. A county ballot proposition is being considered for this August, but it will likely be sized at no more than $160 million including replacement of the Seattle levy. That can only be a down payment toward the 2040 targets. Last week’s update to Metro Connects’ costs push those goals further out of reach.
Some of the cost challenges are around faster population growth and associated congestion. King County population estimates for 2040 are 10% higher than previously forecast. Travel patterns have shifted too with the average resident making fewer trips, but longer trips. The peak period has lengthened to 4 hours in the AM and 5 hours in the PM. More congestion means more service hours are needed, so Metro Connects’ 2040 service hour targets are raised from 6.05 million to 6.55 million. For context, Metro’s total bus service hours today are about 4.3 million.
Congestion also impacts bus speed and reliability. The current plan factors in some headwinds to bus travel times. The 2016 plan estimated a 3.75% degradation per decade. Without more mitigation, Metro now anticipates about a 5% decline per decade. Restoring bus speeds to the plan target will mean about $200 million more in lane miles, signals, intersections and other local improvements. The alternative to these capital investments would be a 60 coach addition to the fleet compensating for the vehicles stuck in traffic. That would only maintain frequency, and would not aid reliability or travel speed.
The 2016 plan did not consider electrification of the fleet. Staff now estimate $1.2 billion (2019 dollars) over the life of the plan to add battery bus infrastructure and charging infrastructure at bus bases. Those costs would likely grow if electrification plans are accelerated. Even this number only includes costs within the fixed route bus network, with significant expenditures on Access and Vanpool not yet quantified. A separate study of electrification plans is due this fall.
The 2016 Metro Connects plan did not provide for state of good repair (SOGR) investments, though they are routinely tracked in Metro’s financial plans. SOGR replaces worn out capital investments. Including SOGR adds $600 to $700 million to the calculation by 2040.
There was, arguably, some good news about construction costs. While construction in King County has become much more expensive, the 2016 forecasts anticipated this correctly. Work continues on more fully developing cost estimates for the long range plan; last week’s hearing was only an interim update. Among the work to be completed are estimates for fleet costs and transit access.