Without new taxing authority or revenue from the state, King County Metro could have to cut bus service by about 16 percent starting in 2014, Metro general manager Kevin Desmond told the city council yesterday morning. 

Put another way, the transit agency is facing a gap of about $75 million a year—$60 million in service hours and $15 million for buses—just to keep the system running at current levels. Dealing with delays in service that will result from tunnel construction and other downtown projects will lead to another 14 percent cut to rush-hour service downtown—between 120 and 130 bus trips serving some 7,500 riders a day. To keep that service at current levels through 2016, Metro would need an additional $17 million.

Two major sources of Metro funding are set to expire next year: A temporary $20 car-tab fee, authorized by the King County Council as stopgap funding two years ago; and $32 million from the state to mitigate the impact of downtown tunnel construction.Tunnel construction won't actually wrap up until 2016, leaving a two-year gap when Metro will have no funding for mitigation.   

The legislature had been expected to pass a comprehensive transportation funding bill this year, but so far, other concerns—like fully funding education under the McCleary mandate—have taken precedence. 

"We’re facing a confluence of events that could very much compromise access to downtown Seattle throughout this decade," Desmond said. "We had been moving forward assuming that there would be another funding source after 2014. That has not happened. So not only do we have this gap between 2014 and 2016 on construction mitigation, of course we have the longer term needs of the corridor itself."

Metro is seeking the city's help to convince legislators to give the county new taxing authority to preserve bus service so that it won't go the way of Pierce and Community Transit, whose service has been cut by more than a third, and to continue funding mitigation through the end of tunnel construction, rather than cutting Metro off in 2014. 

"We’ve got to find a solution. If we cut all of this service in June of 2014, in my view, it will be a disaster," Desmond said. "Even with [the new RapidRide C Line to West Seattle], a lot of people are not happy with how crowded their buses are. If we remove 14 percent of service, it will not be a pretty picture." 

The potential cuts come at a time when bus ridership is higher than ever: Around 42 percent of downtown commuters ride the bus, while another 23 percent get downtown some other way than driving alone. Since Metro started adding service using the state mitigation money, meanwhile, the agency has added 17,000 riders downtown, and car traffic on the viaduct itself has declined by 25,000. 

Even as it may have to cut service, Metro will face other challenges getting its buses through downtown—not just tunnel construction but more buses on Third Avenue as light rail expands; a new downtown cycletrack; and, potentially, a new streetcar linking the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars.