The ever-present allure of capital funds

West Seattle Bridge construction, 1981

The simplicity of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) is a big part of its appeal: two straightforward taxes used to purchase Metro service hours. Back when it was first proposed, then-councilmember Nick Licata insisted that the money not go to what he considered wasteful capital projects (a.k.a. streetcars).

But several years ago, with Metro unable to sell as many hours as Seattle wanted to buy, City Council added some flexibility to allow for some of the money to be diverted to capital expenses. With bus hours exhausted, we and other advocates generally supported this idea. After all, capital spent to get buses out of traffic, either via queue jumps, dedicated lanes or signal timing fixes typically pays for itself many times over in reduced operating costs.

Now, with transit demand in a slump, that capital carve out could fund… the West Seattle Bridge?

It’s just a single offhand comment, so I wouldn’t read too much into it, but it reminds us that dedicated pots of transit money are in short supply right now and with ridership down, politicians may be eager to raid the kitty for other, tangentially related projects.

To be clear, the West Seattle Bridge will cost on the order of half a billion dollars to fix, and the TBD only brings in $50m/year. A diminished TBD (sans car tabs) might bring in half that, as Dan recently noted.

Still, the city doesn’t have any clear path to getting the money for the West Seattle Bridge or the Magnolia Bridge (or any of the other structurally deficient bridges for that matter). Whether it’s the STBD or Sound Transit funds, that money will have to be guarded vigilantly.

Balducci working on countywide transit funding package

King County Battery Bus Announcement
Claudia Balducci

King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci has started work on a potential countywide, dedicated transit funding package to augment or replace the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD.) That tax package, which is comprised of a sales tax increase and car tab fee, is set to expire at the end of 2020.

Balducci says that the funding would be spent on implementing the ambitious Metro Connects program, the long-range plan that the agency and Council released in 2017.

“There’s a lot of stuff in Metro Connects that a lot of communities want, that will help with their transportation needs and their economic development and growth plans,” Balducci says. “But we haven’t identified the funding to serve all of that yet.”

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City Council votes to reject private bus service, reallocate Transportation Benefit District funding

The City Council voted yesterday afternoon to kill a controversial private bus pilot program proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. The pilot was opposed by unions and transit advocates, who mounted a last-minute advocacy push to defeat the program over the past two weeks.

The bill will also, as Martin reported, reappropriate unused Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funds for bus service improvements, and provide ORCA cards to Seattle primary and secondary students. Durkan is expected to sign the ordinance.

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Seattle May Revamp its TBD

Back in 2014, Seattle voters approved a $60 license fee and 0.1% sales tax for a Transportation Business District (TBD) that would fund bus service through 2021. Originally conceived as a way to avoid bus cuts after a countywide measure failed earlier that year, before the election this was re-framed as an opportunity to increase bus service on overcrowded and/or unreliable corridors that mostly lie within the City of Seattle.

So far, so good. But Metro doesn’t have the bus base capacity or drivers to run all the service Seattle wants to pay for:

Today, the STBD buys about 270,000 annual service hours, equivalent to 41 buses running 18 hours per day, every day. Non-service expenditures include fare discounts, equity programs, the low-income rebate on the VLF, planning and administration, etc.

Given this problem, or opportunity, the Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee on June 5th endorsed some amendments to the STBD to allow several new initiatives:

  • Reduce the threshold for the definition of a “Seattle” route from 80% to 65% of stops. This makes the 106, 120, 124, 345, 372, 373, and E Line eligible for funding by Seattle voters. While these routes have significant suburban tails, most reasonable observers would agree that they are important to Seattle residents. Some of these routes use different Metro bus bases and are therefore not as constrained.
  • Extend free ORCA passes from 61% to 100% of Public High School students, plus “Seattle Promise” college students.
  • Funding capital transit improvements, both correcting the worst deficiency in the original measure and shoring up troubled projects from Move Seattle.
  • Most controversially, fund “contract pilot transit services” — small, privately-operated transit vehicles to serve markets with unusually high SOV shares (read: Uptown and First Hill) and solve last-mile problems in the Rainier Valley and Alki.

The changes sailed through the committee with only minor amendments, but Committee Chair O’Brien postponed the scheduled June 11th review by the Full Council. Kevin Schofield reports that the two-week delay is because labor has some concerns about the fourth provision.

It’s probably not surprising that a town like Seattle would have second thoughts about partially privatizing transit services using non-union vendors, even when there is no alternative. However, one might also wonder how effective these services will actually be. It’s hard to scrutinize a concept with essentially no details, but there’s a reason Metro doesn’t send many smallish vans buzzing around second-order demand lines: it’s a very expensive way to serve a small number of people, however much it improves the lot of a handful of riders. Indeed, some of discussion in June 5th’s meeting cast doubt as to whether the new routes would even make up the 3,000 car trips the city is looking to eliminate during the period of maximum construction through 2021. One hopes that this program would provide reasonably direct and frequent routes while remaining extremely well-integrated with the network of Metro buses. If it does, it would be a worthy augmentation to our transit system.