As Lawmakers Fail to Fund Transit, Seattle May Lose 74 Bus Routes

If you’ve ever looked deep into the abyss of partisan gridlock and anti-tax paranoia and wondered where the bottom was — well, Seattle might be approaching it right now. Facing a massive budget gap — caused largely by the antagonism and negligence of state legislators — Metro Transit has announced a plan to cut spending 17 percent by eliminating 74 bus routes.

Bus routes in red are set to be eliminated; routes in gray would be changed. Image: ##http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/future/proposed-changes.html#routes_151-220##Metro Transit##

Metro’s plan, unveiled yesterday, would “delete” 74 of the system’s 214 bus routes. And 107 routes — fully half the current system — will be “changed,” mostly by reducing or eliminating nighttime service. Some buses will stop running as early as 7:00 p.m. The 33 “unchanged” routes will see changes too, Metro notes — they will become more crowded.

“Riders and communities across King County would feel the impacts: fewer travel options, longer waits between buses, more transfers, more-crowded and less-reliable buses, and increased traffic congestion,” Metro writes on its website.

This happens at a time when record ridership is already stressing the system. “There’s not enough buses,” says Seattle’s “bus chick,” Carla Saulter. “The buses are crowded. There’s not enough frequency. In every way, it’s just not meeting people’s needs.” According to Metro’s service guidelines, the agency should be expanding service by 15 percent. Saulter, a car-free mother of two, says her primary bus route — the 27 — is facing elimination.

“We don’t want to be cutting service — in fact, we should be growing here in King County,” Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond said in a videotaped message. “It would improve the quality of life and improve our economic future. But unless we find new revenue, we are looking, unfortunately, at having to reduce the system.”

That “unless” is key. Bruce Nourish, writing in the Seattle Transit Blog yesterday, noted that this “bloodbath” of cuts is avoidable.

There are two possibilities for forestalling this crisis. First, King County could form a countywide Transportation Benefit District and raise revenues that way. Seattle has its own TBD but since Metro Transit is run by King County, other parts of the county need to help fund it — including rural and semi-rural areas where extending transit service is extremely expensive and not cost-effective. So far, the county has opted not to form its own TBD.

Second — and more ideally — the state legislature could grant local jurisdictions the authority to enact — or at least, let voters decide on — a motor vehicle excise tax, or MVET. The city had one before 1999, when anti-tax zealot Tim Eyman spearheaded a statewide ballot initiative that turned a 1.5 percent tax on the value of cars into a $30 flat fee per vehicle. (For the record, $30 is equivalent to 1.5 percent of the car value if your car is worth $2,000.)

In 2011, the Seattle City Council imposed a $20 registration fee within the city’s transportation benefit district, which allows the city to enact these flat fees but not a MVET percentage tax. Later that year, Seattle asked voters to approve an additional $60 “car tab” fee, but the proposal lost. The post-mortem wisdom was that the tax was earmarked for such a wide range of projects no one really had a grip on what it would accomplish.

Saulter insists a more narrowly-defined tax to save Metro Transit from these onerous cuts would pass easily. Even better if it were a percentage instead of a regressive flat fee that’s still too low to solve the problem.

Will the state step in to save the day? Not likely. In an echo of the current federal paralysis on transportation funding, a major transportation spending package has been tied up at the state level for some time — and with it, local taxation authority. The Democratic governor and House of Representatives are trying to move it, but the State Senate, narrowly controlled by Republicans and a handful of Democrats that caucus with them, has been holding it up.

Seattle’s record ridership has already led to overcrowding. Metro says 15 percent system growth is in order -- but instead it’s getting a 17 percent cut. Photo: ## http://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2008/07/28/story1.html?page=all##Puget Sound Business Journal##

Though some have suggested cutting costs by reducing overtime and renegotiating labor contracts, David Lawson of the Seattle Transit Blog — who this morning posted an extremely comprehensive guide to the cuts — disagrees. “I’m skeptical that further efficiencies could backfill a hole of this size,” Lawson said. “They’ve already implemented quite a few efficiency measures in the last few years.”

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that the controversial rebuilding of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a highway through the middle of downtown, was supposed to be “mitigated” by setting aside funding for Metro. But that money won’t be nearly enough.

“That money is running out in 2014, and to my knowledge, none of the transportation proposals on the table in the state legislature backfill it,” Lawson said. “And this is happening even though the tunnel itself is not going to be done till 2016, and the new route that will take buses from the entrance of the tunnel into downtown won’t be done until 2018.”

Some mitigation effort.

Metro’s proposed cuts are at least considered by Lawson and other observers to be thoughtfully conceived. Despite the pain of the cuts, Lawson writes, Metro’s planning staff deserves “a hearty round of applause” for issuing “the most ambitious restructure effort Metro has ever announced.” Some of the changes under this restructuring would be welcome even under flush times, he said.

Rather than doing across-the-board reductions, Metro planners are “proposing real restructures to eliminate duplicative service, maintain frequency, and reassign the remaining service to where the most riders are,” Lawson writes.

Of course, focusing on high-ridership routes means cutting what might be the one low-frequency bus route in low-ridership areas, leaving people there with zero transportation options.

All in all, “this change is heartbreaking to anyone who wants to see Seattle evolve into a place where car ownership is optional rather than mandatory for a significant number of residents,” Lawson writes.

If funding does not come through, the cuts are scheduled to take effect next September.

  • John Dough

    Why don’t they just raise the fares?

  • Jarek

    On their website, KC Metro explains they would have to raise fares from $2.25 to $4.25 to cover the shortfall

  • JM

    Sounds a lot like the Atlanta region in 2008-2010. So sad.

  • John Dough

    So, if the riders think the service is worth $4.25, they would pay it, right? And, if the riders don’t think its worth $4.25, why should anybody else (i. e., people who DON’T ride buses) pay it?

    Perhaps it’s time to look at controlling costs?

  • Grant

    Because bus riders “deserve” a free lunch.

  • BeyondDC

    OK. I’m down with this idea. Provided we also raise the gas tax and implement tolls on every road (including local ones), so car drivers pay their own way too.

  • Jarrett Walker

    A better headline would be “Seattle may lose 1/6 of its transit service.” Counting bus routes is meaningless, as the number of routes is a measure of service complexity, not service quantity.

  • Grant

    Drivers do pay their own way, especially in terms of highway use. It’s paid for by gas taxes and subsidizes other modes. The subsidy to automobile drivers is very small, about one cent per passenger mile. Federal subsidies per passenger mile to public transit are 3,200 times greater than federal subsidies to autos. But I’m with you. Toll all roads. That way revenue gained from the arterial where I live can go to directly policing and maintaining that road, including building sidewalks, painting crosswalks, and installing traffic calming measures, something the City of Seattle refuses to do.
    http://www.buses.org/files/Modal%20Subsidy%20Full%20Report.pdf

  • John Dough

    Um…I don’t know what country you’re from but in our country, the cost of building cul-de-sacs is rolled into the price the suburbanites pay for their homes. For sure you’ll never see excess bus revenue transferred to pay for cul-de-sacs!

  • John Dough

    Brace yourself, Grant. You are about to be called all sorts of unkind names by the Reality Deniers who lurk here and pounce on anyone who supports an opinion with fact.

  • Math and Science

    The gas tax only pays about half the current costs to build and maintain our highway system. And that’s for highways, not including local roads. This is easily google-able information, widely supported by multiple peer-reviewed studies over several years, and is neither opinion nor debatable.

  • Math and Science

    lol. This is such an entertaining post in so many ways. It’s like reading The Onion.

    First, you are the most guilty party in this thread of spouting an uninformed opinion as though it were a fact, given that so much research has gone in to how roads don’t come anywhere near to paying for themselves. The claim that gas taxes pay for them was proven wrong so long ago, to see it here is like a trip back in time 15 years.

    Then you warn Grant about how he’ll be called unkind names, before literally calling everyone else unkind names yourself in the very same sentence!

    I assume you’re a troll, and therefore offer my congratulations on a job well done. If you’re actually being serious, well… lol to that too, but for other reasons.

  • Grant

    If it’s so easily located, why don’t you link it?

  • Grant

    According to Federal Highway Administration Highway Statistics table HF-10 and other sources, federal, state, and local gas taxes, tolls, registration fees, and other fees collected from highway users in 2010 equaled about $120 billion. Another $33 billion came from state and local bonds to be mostly repaid by gas taxes and other user fees. State/local governments earned $13 billion in interest on gas taxes and other user fees collected. Total gas taxes and user fees amounted to about $164 billion, $9 billion MORE than state and local governments spent on highways, roads, and streets in 2010. The gas tax doesn’t cover all of it, especially since a large chunk is diverted to other projects at the state/local levels. But drivers through user fees pay more than their share.

    And you still haven’t responded to my linked assertion that federal transit subsidies are 3200x greater than federal auto subsidies. Or my agreement that all roads should be tolled and paid for directly.

  • John Dough

    Fuzzy math. Junk science.

    Emphasis should be on “current”. It’s a recent phenomenon. It’s undeniable that the existing highway system was built almost entirely with highway user fees. The highway trust fund always had a positive balance until two things happened. First, cars became more energy efficient and, second, state and federal governments started spending more highway revenue on transit.

    And there has never been a documented case of transit user fees being used to subsidize highways.

    I won’t bother with those pesky links because it’s all so easily “googleable”. 🙂

  • Joe R.

    You’re conveniently forgetting about the external costs of auto use which everyone pays, including those who don’t own autos:

    http://www.greens-efa.eu/fileadmin/dam/Documents/Studies/Costs_of_cars/The_true_costs_of_cars_EN.pdf

    The rationale for subsidizing public transit is that it reduces these externalities. If every $1 spent on public transit means society avoids spending $2 on negative externalities due to automobile use then you’re ahead.

    We could play silly numbers games all day long but when you look at the countries which pay the least overall per passenger mile of transport they generally have lower levels of auto dependency. Automobiles are not an efficient means of transport in terms of either land use or energy use compared to rail. Those are facts which are not even open to debate. For example, a lane of freeway with automobiles spaced 2 seconds part can move at best 5600 passengers per hour (assuming 4 passengers per car which is much higher than reality). A single track of subway occupies the same space but can move 80,000 passengers per hour (40 trains/hour and 2000 passengers per train).

  • Grant

    “I won’t bother with those pesky links because it’s all so easily ‘googleable'”

    Since Aristotle and Plato, the rules of discourse and formalized rules of rhetoric have been that the person making the claim provide the evidence, especially when asked.

    That’s how it works.

  • Joe R.

    The fares wouldn’t need to be raised if ridership went up. However, increased ridership needs great density and the same people who live on suburban cul-de-sacs are the very ones who oppose changes in zoning which could make these areas dense enough to keep transit fares low.

  • Joe R.

    No they don’t. There’s plenty of documentation which suggests suburban areas are supported by their core cities:

    http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/chrisbradford/30831/we-really-do-subsidize-suburban-growth

    Just because someone may pay all the costs of the infrastructure on their block doesn’t mean they’re paying their way. The suburbs would wither and die without lifelines to the cities. Those lifelines are paid for mostly be cities. And then you also have the external costs of all those suburban residents driving in which the cities pay for.

  • Grant

    Keep repeating “not open to debate”; it really paints you as a fundamentalist.

    You’re conveniently cherry picking and speaking in abstract terms. Yes subway CAN move more passengers, but few cities have the density to support it. Target ridership almost always fall short in new light rail or street car lines in lower density (places unlike Manhattan, Chicago, London, etc.).

    Take the Sounder for instance, since this is a post about Seattle transit, although it’s a different agency.

    From 1999 to 2011, Sound Transit spent more than $1.5 billion (in 2011 dollars) on capital expenditures on the Sounder. Operating costs were $32 million in 2011. ST collected $8 million in fares, 26% of operating cost. In 2011 it averaged 9,800 weekday riders. Annualized cost of capital and ops is $24,300 per weekday rider, enough to buy each rider a new Toyota Prius every year. It also uses about the same BTUs per passenger mile as a Prius, so it does not win on externalities.

    Often not figured in to externalities of rail is carbon production during construction, which when given relatively lower ridership, takes decades until becoming carbon neutral.

  • Joe R.

    Tolling all roads is a horrible idea for the same reason as having high enough fares on public transit to cover costs is. Transportation is the lifeblood of society. It’s not supposed to make money or break even. Rather, it’s supposed to facilitate commerce. If the government spends $10 on transportation, gets back $3 in user fees, but generate $100 in economic activity which results in $8 in tax revenue then it’s ahead of the game by $1 ( the total of $11-$8 in taxes and $3 in user fees minus $10 spent of transportation). In the end, it’s not a question of should transportation be subsidized but rather what modes and how much. The answer should be those modes which make the most efficient use of space and energy. In most cases that’s NOT personal automobiles although sometimes it might be in very rural areas.

  • Joe R.

    Yes subway CAN move more passengers, but few cities have the density to support it. Target ridership almost always fall short in new light rail or street car lines in lower density (places unlike Manhattan, Chicago, London, etc.).

    And that’s exactly the reason to support measures which encourage denser development. Sure, a streetcar line through an area with mostly McMansions on 1/4 acre lots is going to be a monumental failure if we don’t concurrently change zoning to allow infill development, smaller lot sizes, and multiple family dwellings, even if it’s over the objection of local residents.

    It should come as no surprise that many of the recent transit projects pointed to by people like you were purposely designed to fail from day one. A few high profile boondoogles is all it takes to get the general public in tune with the notion that public transit spending is a waste while spending on highways isn’t. This is exactly what the auto/oil lobby wants. That’s why I feel another dime shouldn’t be spent on new public transit projects unless those projects not set up to fail. That means building them in areas which are already fairly high density and/or changing the zoning to allow lower density areas to increase in density.

    BTU per passenger mile is a meaningless metric because not all forms of energy generation are equal. Electricity from nuclear or hydro (or even coal) powering an electric railway has far less negative externalities than burning gas in an internal combustion engine in populated areas. Yes, you can “electrify” automobiles also, but we’re really dragging our behinds in that department, probably because of the heavy influence of big oil.

  • Grant

    “Transportation is the lifeblood of society. It’s not supposed to make money or break even.”

    Well, now that I know your socialistic bent (and some roads do in fact make money), I see that arguing is probably not going to change anything.

    However, it should be clear that tolling roads by vehicle mile pricing and GPS technology would reduce externalities associated with driving. It would reduce unnecessary trips and emissions and provide an economic incentives to reduce traffic problems with congestion pricing. It would return control over local roads to local neighborhoods, which in my case would be wonderful; the City of Seattle spends $10 million on street car “plans” but can’t find money for crosswalks, curbs, or a sidewalk along my arterial. They also refuse to do anything about people driving 50 in a 30. Yet Seattle is supposed to be highly walkable. Ha!

    In all, tolling roads and removing their control from distant and often greedy politicians would reduce cars’ negative impacts.

  • Joe R.

    If by “toll” you mean congestion tax then that’s something I can agree with you on. If the goal is to reduce automobile use then obviously making it more costly by any means possible will have that effect. You can also simultaneously take other measures, such as eliminating curbside parking, reducing off-street parking, automating traffic enforcment via speed/red light cameras, etc.

    We just need to be careful here. Heavily taxing or tolling automobiles is a great idea in a place like NYC which has plenty of alternatives but it’s probably not something you want to do in rural Montana. As I said, transportation is the lifeblood of society. We can and should discourage using less efficient modes in areas with the requisite density to support rail. And we should take measures to increase density before building further out. At the same time we must also recognize that very low density rural farm communities are needed, and in those areas there’s really no practical alternative to private automobiles, even if it means they must be subsidized there.

  • Grant

    “BTU per passenger mile is a meaningless metric because not all forms of energy generation are equal.”

    You calling it a meaningless metric doesn’t make it so. The Sounder commuter train referenced (and compared to a Prius) burns diesel. Therefore comparing BTU per passenger mile is appropriate.

    “even if it’s over the objection of local residents.”

    Wow. Totalitarian. I’m copying and pasting this to quote on other transit-related sites when planners constantly cry that they don’t want to force people to live in denser neighborhoods. JoeR FTW!

  • Joe R.

    Diesel-powered??? No wonder the US is the laughing stock of the rest of the world when it comes to transit. Yes, at least you’re comparing apples to apples here, but often the BTU per mile comparisons involve a subway powered by electricity mostly from hydro or nuclear (as in the NYC area) and a gasoline-powered auto.

    Totalitarian my behind. The fact is everything changes. NIMBYism is the very reason we can’t get a lot of stuff done, including transit projects. More often than not objections over densification have nothing at all to do with the residents caring if they have more neighbors but rather with them getting an influx of “people who don’t look like us”. For that matter, the same type of reasoning is used to stop transit projects even in areas where the density exists to support them.

    And nobody is forcing anyone to live in a denser neighborhood. When you move to an area there’s no guarantee it’s going to look the same in 10, 20, or 50 years. Last I checked no mortgage agreement had such a clause. If the character of a neighborhood eventually changes to something you don’t care for, then move someplace more to your liking. That’s probably the reason why you originally moved from wherever you lived before. The US has no shortage of low-density suburban or exurban neighborhoods. In fact, many of them are going for bargain-basement prices. Of course, many aren’t near jobs, but density is usually the price you pay for being reasonably close to job centers.

    You can’t have you cake and eat it, too. Many people want a house on an acre of wilderness combined with a reasonable commute to work. By definition those two things are usually incompatible. The suburbs just can’t support the enough jobs for everyone who lives there. Any suburb reasonable close to a city will get more people moving there, and eventually the character of the area will change.

  • Grant

    You make good points, although I’m not in total agreement. I generally dislike suburbs but refuse to be an urban elitist. Some are authentic and create jobs and provide more wildlife habitat that dense city centers. I live in density, and while I prefer it to strip malls and chain stores, I hate being squished in like a rat. Also hate city commute and traffic/transit headaches; live one mile from my job. It’s probably because I grew up on a farm and lived in parks for ten years. My goal is a small sustainable farm, as you mentioned, selling surplus at markets and supplimenting income other ways. Anyways, thanks for sparring.

  • Joe R.

    I’m not an urban elitist either. My primary and only objection to low-density living arrangements is when such arrangements cause externalities to those in higher density areas. Case in point are the expressways which ruined many NYC neighborhoods primarily to get suburban auto commuters home faster. If these commuters instead parked at a local rail station, then took the train in (many already do but not enough) then I would really have no objections. It’s the overspill of cars from the suburbs which seems to cause the most quality of life problems in urban areas, including the typical horrendous urban commutes.

    Self-sustaining suburban or rural communities are fine in my book. I fully realize not every can or wants to live in a city, even if it’s my preference.

  • Zmapper

    According to the NTD, it costs KC Metro about $150 per service hour to operate service. Granted, I lack a detailed breakout of those costs, but it looking at other agencies, it would appear that costs could be reduced. NICE bus in Nassau County reduced the cost per service hour from $147 to $104 (if I remember the figures right; NTD should release 2012 figures shortly), while giving the drivers a wage increase. Many agencies are able to operate buses for under $100/service hour, showing that on first glance some room exists for cost reductions above and beyond what KC Metro claims.

  • valar84

    http://taxfoundation.org/blog/road-spending-state-funded-user-taxes-and-fees-including-federal-gas-tax-revenues

    User fees, including the gas taxes, pay only 50,7% of road costs on average in the United States.

    And a bonus, http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/do-roads-pay-themselves, which argues that, after calculations, highways have received 600 billions in subsidies from general funds since 1956.

  • John Dough

    Guest, It’s sarcasm. I was poking fun at Math & Science for telling you, 2-3 messages up, that something was “easily googlable”.

  • ahblid

    Well, you got one thing right John; that being that the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) had a positive balance for many years.

    But the Federal fuel tax wasn’t enacted to build highways. It was enacted in 1932 to help pay down our national debt. It was diverted into the newly created HTF in 1956 by President Eisenhower & Congress to pay for Ike’s dream of an Interstate Highway system.

    And that 1956 Highway Act called for the fuel tax to revert back to its original purpose no later than 1972, or sooner if the original plan was completed. Instead Congress continues to divert it into the HTF.

    Furthermore, the HTF was propped up with some general funds early on, including an initial outlay of Federal dollars just to get the ball rolling.

    And then there was the passenger rail ticket tax that went into the HTF until 1971 when Amtrak was formed. And there was the 4.3 cents per gallon fuel tax on the type of diesel fuel used by train engines, both freight & passenger, that from 1956 through 1997, went directly into the HTF. The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 finally stopped that and redirected that money into the General fund. But for over 40 years, the RR’s helped to build the highways used by their competition!

    Finally, the main reason that the HTF is broke is because Congress has failed to raise the Federal fuel tax in 20 years. Better fuel mileage has also contributed to it also, as well as higher fuel prices that have reduced driving and therefore reduced the number of gallons of gas sold. But the amount of money going to transit hasn’t increased that much.

    When President Reagan created the Mass Transit Account in 1983, he dedicated 1% of the newly increased fuel tax to the Mass Transit Account (MTA). The tax went from 4 cents to 9, with only 1 penny going to Mass Transit. The fuel tax going to highways doubled under President Reagan.

    By the time of the last increase, under President Clinton, the Federal fuel tax was up to 18.4 cent and today just shy of 3 cents ends up in the MTA. So while highways have lost 3 cents per gallon, the overall fuel tax going to highways has increased by 11.4 cents per gallon.

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