Yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted the proposed Metro budget for 2021-2022. The budget eliminates several planned RapidRide expansions. Metro will dig into reserves to fund service, and will defer a planned increase in fares. The budget also funds a significant expansion of the electric battery bus fleet. The depletion of reserves sets Metro up for future service cuts unless new revenues can be found by 2024.
Metro will fund just three RapidRide expansions. The Metro Connects plan had suggested 13 lines by 2025, and this had already been reduced to seven by 2027. The still-funded expansions are the H line on Delridge, opening 2021; the G line on Madison, opening 2024; and the I line connecting Renton, Kent and Auburn in 2023.
The K line in Bellevue/Kirkland is cancelled, apparently having come up short against Renton on an equity analysis. Another line in East or South King County that had been scheduled for 2027 is also dropped.
Metro is cutting funding for the J line (to Roosevelt via Eastlake). But SDOT suggested Tuesday that they would attempt a scaled-back version of the project where the line would terminate to U District station instead.
Also unfunded is the R line on Rainier Ave, previously scheduled for 2024. The Executive indicated there would be a future effort to secure federal funds for this line, but didn’t say when that might happen.
The pace at which suspended service is restored will depend on demand as transit ridership recovers. The budget provides appropriation authority to bring service back, with the potential to restore nearly all the currently suspended service hours. This would be a reversal of staff briefings in June that saw further cuts in service through 2021 and 2022.
Bringing that much service back online would strain Metro finances, with reserves and fund balances depleted by 2024. Metro may be assuming a County ballot measure for more taxes to fund service beyond that date.
Even as service hours may return to near pre-COVID levels, Metro is in the process of identifying revised criteria for where that service will go, with a particular emphasis on routes serving communities with more low income riders or more Black, Indigenous and people of color populations.
Despite the capital reductions elsewhere, the Executive highlights $270 million for electrification, starting with 40 buses and charging infrastructure in 2021-2022, and adding charging infrastructure for another 260 buses by 2028. The executive’s statement does warn that additional electrification investments will require new revenues or reductions in service levels. (As we’ve noted before, that’s always the implicit tradeoff being faced because charging infrastructure is so expensive).
Fares and Fare Enforcement
A planned fare increase is delayed until 2023, pending a review of fares across all transit modes and to allow economic conditions to improve. This will cause Metro to operate below the fare recovery goals in its financial policies. The budget funds a low-income annual pass,
currently in pilot. That program will distribute about $30 million in fare value annually. An expanded version of the program seems likely to roll out along with a fare increase and the next generation ORCA card in 2023.
As signaled last week, fare enforcement is suspended through at least the end of this year, with a probable decision to redirect fare enforcement spending into free or reduced fares next year.