RapidRide in Bellevue (image: Shane in the City/flickr)

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.

30 Replies to “Metro sees higher costs, greater funding needs, in long range plan”

  1. I’m concerned that King County is too big of a geographical area for a measure to boost bus service to pass. The last time such a measure was voted on, in 2014, again, in a special election ballot, it failed by a fairly large margin. I don’t see any reason why a special election in August of this year would be any different.

    If a county-wide measure does get on ballot, I will probably vote for it. But, if Seattle really cares about preserving its bus service, it would be wisest to go it alone, to be sure that it will actually pass.

    1. Why on earth would this ballot measure be in August? I’ve always understood consensus opinion to be that things like this fare way better in general elections in presidential election years. Conveniently, we’d have one of those three months later.

      1. Apparently there is a tax measure for Harborview that will be on the ballot in November. The people in charge believe that it would be hard to pass both (too many tax increases on the same ballot). I disagree, and think we have a better chance of passing it in November.

        I suppose on option would be to try county wide in August, and if that fails, run a city wide measure in November.

      2. @Ross, what’s the deadline for getting measures on the November ballot? If there’s still time, I’d agree with you.

      3. Wow, it looks like the deadline for submitting a ballot measure for the general election is the day in which the primary election ends (August 4th). This means that you can’t do what I propose — submit a proposal in the primary, and then come back and try again the general (in the city). At least, that is what it looks like, according to this: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6787533-King-County-TBD-ballot-deadlines.html

        I have no idea if you can change those dates — it seems ridiculous. Just extend the ballot measure date for the primary to be two weeks later (as the other election is certified). That is when they start working on the new ballot, as you can’t have candidates in the general until they’ve been certified a finalist in the primary.

      4. While I would have preferred to have the measure on Nov ballot too, it may be fine having it in August if that means a citywide ballot would be possible in Nov if the Aug vote fails. (Agree with Ross that the filing date needs change)

        Compared to the April votes in previous years, the August election should have a higher turnout due to congressional and legislative primaries being on ballot, though nowhere near what it would be in Nov. Also, the King county electorate has definitely become more progressive on transit as the vote on ST3 and I-976 illustrated which bodes well for passing of this measure

    2. It shows where the priorities are, putting transit in August and Harborview in November, and not the other way around.

      It means that Harborview is what they actually want to pass, transit they just want to say they tried.

      1. Yes, put the Harborview one in August and the transit one in November. Everybody gets sick, but they don’t get sick every day or every week, and they don’t all go to Harborview. Transit is an essential component to keep our economy running as well as it’s doing. Those commuters aren’t just benefiting themselves and their employers, they’re also spending money and paying taxes and serving people. We talk about maybe we don’t need a transit expansion, but if you look at the other side, what if the existing transit disappeared, the economy would be crippled and hundreds of thousands of additional cars wouldn’t fit on the highways so people would be stuck in gridlock or stuck at home. Plus, the more we move away from cars, the less pollution, and the less people will get sick and need to go to the hospital.

      2. I agree, Mike. Plus Harborview is a regional facility that really should be funded at the state/federal level rather than by the county. IIRC it’s the only Level 1 trauma facility for Alaska, Idaho, and Montana so they should be kicking in lots of money too.

  2. Isn’t RapidRide, with its stop consolidation and off-board fare collection, cheaper to operate than regular service? Especially taking into account Baumol’s Cost Disease, the difference will only grow, and it would be cost-prohibitive to not expand RapidRide.

    The same would go for bus lanes and signal prioritization, which need some serious expansion. The cost of labor is only going to go up. We should be looking toward a future where regular bus service no longer exists.

    1. Only marginally, and only for routes that get a lot of riders. For coverage routes which blow by most of their stops, it makes essentially no difference at all.

    2. Most of RapidRide’s costs are capital costs and increasing frequency. Most RapidRide lines are not much different than the routes they replaced, so there’s no mega savings. A higher level of BRT would have a quantum level more benefits but it would also cost more.

      Metro has already increased some routes to RapidRide frequency (15 minutes until 10pm every day): 5, 7, 14, 36, 40, 41, 44, 45, 48, 49, 62, 65, 67 (all funded by Seattle’s TBD). And almost the 8 and 120 (20-minute evenings). It’s less expensive to just add the frequency than to do the rest of RapidRide (street improvements, red buses, ORCA readers, next-arrival displays).

      Metro’s long-range plan recognizes this with four levels of service:
      – Rapid: RapidRide.
      – Frequent: routes like those above.
      – Local: 30-minute coverage routes. (Some overlapping for 15-minute service on shared trunks.)
      – Express: 30-minute express routes, nominally until 7pm, but some peak only.

      The shrinking RapidRide expansion means some of those will fall back to Frequent, and many of them already are, so there would be no change to their frequency.

      In the Eastside and South King County, the only full-time frequent routes are the A, B, and F. Everything else is half-hourly evenings and Sundays, or half-hourly daytime and hourly evenings/Sundays. So they’d see a more dramatic change with 15-minute full-time routes, and they’re more screwed if the countywide measure fails. Because even without the TBD Seattle would still have three RapidRide lines and some other full-time frequent routes, while the Eastside would have only the B and that’s it.

      1. “all funded by Seattle’s TBD”

        Not quite true. The 7 and 36 were already full-time frequent, and the 49 only added a few evening runs to complete it. The 62 is probably fully funded by Metro’s base funds because Metro created it in a 2016 reorganization. The 14 was a mistake; it will never be frequent. But the 5, 8, 40, 41, 65, 67, and 120 were all half-hourly or less evenings, and would presumably revert to that if the TBD funding is not replaced when it expires this year or next year. The 11 would also revert to half-hourly daytime, or at least half-hourly Saturdays, and the 10 would revert to half-hourly evenings.

      2. I will go out on a limb here and say that the RapidRide system was a mistake, and should be abandoned. Much of the money goes into branding, and frankly, I see no value in that. If you look at our most popular buses, many are RapidRide, many are not. I see no evidence to support the idea that the RapidRide has lead to increased ridership on those routes, let alone the system as a whole. The branding limits flexibility. For example, you can’t just send the D to Northgate via the 40 route (and the 40 to Northgate via 85th/92nd) because that would mean more red buses. It is a capital expense with no value.

        Other aspects of RapidRide are found throughout the entire system, or shouldn’t be adopted. The E is very frequent. So is the 3/4. Bus lanes are also welcome, and used by lots of different bus routes. There is nothing inherently special about a RapidRide bus (which again makes the branding silly).

        Off board payment is great but not unique to RapidRide. Dozens of buses downtown use this, and this should be standard around busy train-to-bus transfer points, like Northgate, Roosevelt and 45th. The best approach is to not focus on particular routes for off-board payment, but rather, have fare boxes in the middle of every bus along with off-board payment stations at busy stops. Other cities have done this, and it works well.

        Stop diets in general are a good idea, but stop spacing should be standardized, for every corridor. It doesn’t make sense for the 40, for example, to have poor stop spacing, while the F is optimized, since the 40 carries a lot more people, and is more frequent.

        I welcome the improvements that come from the RapidRide moniker. But a bus like the 7 — which carries more riders than the RapidRide A, B and F — shouldn’t have to wait until it becomes a letter before it is improved.

      3. RapidRide implies a minimum level of street quality, station features, and stop diets. That’s still worth distinguishing. But it could be done with an inexpensive sign on regular buses. They already have distinct route letters, and they’re already programmed into regular bus displays. I’ve seen regular buses displaying a letter occasionally when they were pressed into a RapidRide run due to a lack of red buses. The red buses were partly because the federal grant for the initial launch required a sufficiently-distinct brand, but maybe a long enough time has passed that that’s no longer a constraint, or the feds would agree to a less-distinct brand now.

      4. I could provisionally support dissolving RapidRide with the understanding that we may need some distinction above Frequent, TBD. There’s value in distinguishing improved frequent routes like the D and E from unimproved frequent routes like the 40 (that don’t have street priority or next-arrival signs) and 62 (NE 65th Street still has stops every two blocks, and it has no street priority except a few blocks around Roosevelt). If all frequent routes are moving toward some minimum standard then maybe we can forego that distinction, but I’m afraid of them stagnating forever and “Frequent” meaning a wide range of quality.

        You’re right that some reorganizations are hard to get approved because it would require more red buses. Metro was open to extending the D to Northgate from the beginning but couldn’t afford enough red buses and the other features, so it extended the 40 instead. (Although “extending” is not the right word because it was a newly-created route; 24th-Northgate was previously part of the 75.)

        “Dozens of buses downtown use [off-board payment]”

        That’s misleading. One downtown street has off-board payment at non-RapidRide stops,. That street is our de facto transit mall, and all the routes that happen to be on that street participate in the off-board payment.

        “have fare boxes in the middle of every bus along with off-board payment stations at busy stops.”

        That’s a huge amount of money, and Metro is struggling just to achieve comprehesnsive frequent service, it doesn’t need distractions like this. Adding a fare box to every bus is expensive, even more than adding just an ORCA reader, and ORCA technology is about to change. There are tens of thousands of bus stops in the county, and a significant number of them have more than four on/offs each boarding, or whatever your threshold is. If you’re thinking of a city like San Francisco, Metro’s service area is the size of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties combined, and it has two large cities called Bellevue and Redmond.

      5. RapidRide implies a minimum level of street quality, station features, and stop diets. That’s still worth distinguishing.

        Why? What difference does it make? Is someone going to look at their route and say “Oh goodie, it is a RapidRide, that means that I’m going to get there fast and/or I won’t have to wait that long.”? No, not unless they are naive. In the middle of the day I have to wait a full 15 minutes for the F. This is a bus that famously makes a loop around the Tukwila Link Station, in much the way that the 345 loops through Northwest Hospital (thus ignoring the whole point of a stop diet). There is nothing special about the frequency or speed. There are plenty of non-RapidRides buses that come that frequently, or more often. Likewise, station features vary stop by stop. Here is a stop in Ballard, for the 44, as well as a few other buses: https://goo.gl/maps/RrFXZEvATtr3Bz4o6. It has a nice reader board, as well as a good shelter. Here is a stop for the E Line: https://goo.gl/maps/aWGBKfz8keg3bv5f6. It doesn’t have as much of a shelter, and it lacks a reader board. There is enough overlap in terms of amenities and frequency to make the name meaningless.

        About the best you can say with RapidRide is that they probably improved the stop spacing and added some bus lanes. My point is, they should do that everywhere. Stop spacing is something that should be done system wide. Bus lanes are things that should be focused on particular areas, not routes. Off board payment should be done system wide.

        The red buses were partly because the federal grant for the initial launch required a sufficiently-distinct brand, but maybe a long enough time has passed that that’s no longer a constraint

        Yes, which just shows how stupid the grant process is. Again, a brand is meaningless. It should be based simply on value added. Let’s say you add a bunch of bus lanes around the Fremont Bridge, making it easy for several buses to scoot to the front when the bridge is open. How about extending the third avenue transit mall all the way to Denny. Let’s add off board payment stations at every busy bus stop, while we move the fare boxes to the middle of every bus. Best of all, let’s bump up frequency system wide, so that buses in the core of the city come around every 6 minutes, buses in the outskirts every 10, and every suburb every 20. That all costs money, but the results would be huge. Why the heck wouldn’t that deserve a big grant, but painting the buses purple would?

      6. “RapidRide implies a minimum level of street quality, station features, and stop diets. That’s still worth distinguishing.”

        “Why? What difference does it make?”

        The bus is faster. The stop tells you whether the bus is late. The latter makes a difference for me when I go to the D or the 40 bus stop. If I knew less about all the routes I’d gravitate to RapidRide because it’s guaranteed frequent, whereas with the 40 and 32 and 28 I have to remember which set of numbers are frequent in the evenings and which aren’t.

      7. The I like to think about RapidRide is this:

        Imagine that you’re stuck somewhere trying to get home, and you’re phone’s battery is completely dead. So, no calling Uber. And no way of looking up bus schedules. The only way to get anywhere is to either walk or stand at a bus stop and wait for something to show up.

        The RapidRide brand means that any day of the week, at any reasonable hour, it is a service you can trust under the above circumstances. Of course, numbered routes can run frequently too, but if you don’t remember off the top of your head exactly which numbered are frequent, when, and don’t have a way to look that up, it doesn’t help.

  3. I think it’s important to highlight that Metro Connects was a singular-alternative plan without alternatives or a public vetting to set a target (as noted in the post). It doesn’t assume things like driverless micro transit or different technology outcomes. It’s purpose appears to be for targeted hours of service, and it doesn’t appear to define what minimum demand / productivity threshold is being used. It appears to be an arbitrary target.

    I love having Metro but I don’t like funding too many empty buses. If Metro wants to get more funding based on this plan, I think Metro needs to explain the expected benefits beyond hours of service. Theoretically, each additional hour has diminishing returns from the prior one, and I’m not sure what the productivity benefit is here. Just having a “target” isn’t good enough justification for me.

    1. While the plan was unconstrained from a financial perspective, it was constrained in terms of total service hours. This service hour budget was taken from the PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan and was based on all the whizz-bang travel demand modeling they do.

      1. The MPO requirements are to assume funding from available sources when adopting a long-range plan. PSRC cannot force Metro to add service and funding per their long-range plan. Any increase in funding assumed by PSRC is merely a judgment call — likely at the urging of Metro in the first place.

        If PSRC is so important, why didn’t they weigh in on ST3? They were largely irrelevant in the ST3 referendum development. It thus appears that attributing this to PSRC is a fundamental ruse. You can’t Say that you attribute Metro funding proposals to PSRC when you won’t attribute ST’s funding proposals to PSRC too.

      2. The PSRC’s job is to predict what the population and number of jobs will be in thirty years, to distribute federal grants, and to implement the state’s growth management act by giving the counties and cities quotas of minimum growth they must accommodate and forcing counties to designate regional growth centers and smaller centers to channel that growth to compact areas.

        Its relationship to Sound Transit is that it provides the population projections and growth centers, and it decides how to allocate federal block grants. Sound Transit does the rest itself. Its spine preference, regional growth center preference, project selection, and alignment/station decisions are based on its own charter, not on PSRC requirements. It’s the county that decides the regional growth centers (downtown, U-District, Northgate, Bellevue, Totem Lake, Issaquah, Federal Way); the PSRC just incorporates them and passes them on to ST. ST’s preference for Totem Lake, Issaquah, and Federal Way may be due more to its own obligations under the growth management act to support King County’s regional growth centers than direct pressure by the PSRC.

    2. Metro has had performance metrics since at least 2012 and maintains a list of underserved corridors according to those criteria: corridors where latent ridership exists that would appear if it had more frequency/direct connections, overcrowded corridors where too many people stand or are passed up, coverage gaps, etc. This plan is a concept of how to alleviate these, and how to grow new promising corridors. It’s not really a “plan” in the sense of a concrete proposal; it’s more like the preliminary concepts to decide what to put into a proposal. There’s not really a lot to decide at this level: clearly Lake City must be connected to Ballard and Bitter Lake somehow, there may be latent ridership on Harrison and E Aloha, etc, here’s how we might do it, and we’ll debate the specific routes and termini later, but these are the pairs that should likely be connected.

      It is mostly about allocation service hours, and the PSRC projections are what Metro uses as every part of government uses.

      If you want to know the targets, look up Metro’s performance-metric criteria. They’re largely similar to what we would want. The problem is not that Metro doesn’t know where service is needed and latent ridership exists, it’s that parking/GP advocates and status-quo advocates and nimbys and tax-limiters and SDOT’s incompetences/inefficiencies hinder it from being realized. Metro asserted that the 36 needed frequent evening service at least ten years before it happened.

      1. And how will their demand change once our light rail system grows exponentially? Metro Connects has lots of pretty lines for increased service — but no route-level demand data to demonstrate their productivity in 2040.

      2. Ask Metro planners. They’re the ones who drew the map and decided what capacity to put where.

    3. “Theoretically, each additional hour has diminishing returns from the prior one.”

      Not necessarily. If a corridor has latent pent-up demand for 15-minute service but the existing service is 30, then doubling the hours has the same return as the existing hours. And it has even more, because 15-minute service makes more trips feasible that weren’t before, and more people are willing to wait up to 15 minutes rather than 30 minutes if they don’t know the schedule, so it generates more ridership even beyond the doubling. And if two perpendicular routes also double their frequency, it creates more feasible trip combinations across all of them, including L-shaped trips all directions, so that’s more than just the nominal 3X increase in ridership. It’s like a telephone network. If you go from every 10 people having a phone to every 5 people having a phone, it more than doubles the number of calls and the usefulness of the network.

      “I don’t like funding too many empty buses.”

      Metro eliminated the emptiest buses in 2014. It reviews the bottom 25% every year and considers shifting resources to the top 25% of underserved corridors. its metric is riders per service hour. We transit fans approximate it as 10 riders/hour per industry standard. That’s 10 people riding any portion of the hour, not 10 people on the bus right now. Some routes appear pretty empty but still meet that threshold. The 71 probably does, the 62 does (even with the eastern tail), and even that van on S 180th Street in Southcenter almost does (based on my count one Saturday afternoon). Because those entire routes from end-to-end are under an hour or just over it, so busy University Way, Roosevelt, Fremont, and Southcenter make up for sparse Wedgwood, NE 65th Street, and Carr Road. The busy halves subsidize the weak halves to save coverage corridors and complete the network.

      1. The key here is the difference between short term and long term. Most routes, you suddenly double the frequency, in the *short term*, you end up with essentially the same riders spread out over more buses. In the medium term, riders who don’t follow STB learn about the service improvements and start riding transit more often. In the long term, people who are interested in transit and value living along a frequent bus route make a deliberate choice to live along the route. Even longer term, the above boosts property values so that larger buildings make economic sense, and even more people live along (and ride) the route.

        Bottom line – if you’re going to invest in more bus service, you have to be patient. It is not reasonable to double the operating expense and expect ridership to double overnight. But, if you keep it up for a long enough period of time (e.g. 10+ years), ridership can and will eventually more than double, driving the cost per rider down.

      2. Right, I was speaking long term. It takes a year or three for people one by one to notice the frequent service exists now, and to realize how it would benefit a certain trip, and to try it for the first time. Occasional riders don’t follow when routes change, or read the postcards Metro sends to their house (if any), or realize how the route could benefit them. But then a few times a year they have a certain trip, and their car is broken down or they see something that shows that route would help with this trip, and then they think about taking it someday, and maybe they do. That all takes a year or more for some people. Other people looking to live on a frequent route move to the neighborhood, but that takes even longer, five or ten years for them to accumulate in significant numbers. And drivers who don’t care about the bus network don’t have incentive to live there so they may move away in the same time period, and the neighborhood gradually shifts to a higher percentage of riders. Even frequent transit riders, it takes them time after a reorganization to decide which routes they’ll use repeatedly, and it may be different from what they initially thought.

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