King County Metro general manager Kevin Desmond announced this morning that without access to new, local revenue sources from the state legislature, Metro will have to make cuts that could include the total elimination of 65 routes and cuts to 86 more, for 600,000 hours in service cuts. The cuts would force riders into their cars or onto other, already-overburdened routes, increasing crowding, Metro estimates, on 70 percent of its bus lines.
"You may be on a route now that may not be targeted for reduction, but more people need to access your route. And now that route’s more crowded because more people need it," Desmond said. And as people with the option to drive decide their routes are too crowded or unreliable, "We're going to lose a lot of ridership," and "place more and more [traffic] pressure on the region's highways and arterials," putting as many as 175,000 new cars a day on the county's highways and roads.
Metro's entire projected gap? About $75 million a year, including $60 million in bus service and $15 million for new buses,
The problem: Metro's temporary $20 license fee, which the legislature gave the county the authority to pass in 2011, will run out next June, and Metro has so far been unable to convince state legislators to give the county new local funding options, such as an increase in the gas tax; higher car tab fees; or a motor vehicle excise tax (60 percent of which would go to Metro, with the rest going to county roads and local projects).
A proposed statewide transportation funding package has stagnated in the wake of the Republican takeover of the state senate and the current focus on state education funding.
Meanwhile, King County's sales tax revenues, the main source of Metro funding since the legislature eliminated its access to motor vehicle excise taxes (the state used to pay for a third of Metro's funding; it now pays for about one percent) have reached their state-mandated cap of .9 percent.
Finally, exacerbating matters further, sales taxes are among the most volatile taxes: When the recession hit, and people started spending less, sales tax revenues plummeted—a situation that will repeat itself in future recessions. And even when sales tax revenues do rebound, inflation means that they buy less service even as demand continues to grow, Desmond said.
Metro identified the potential cuts—which aren't proposed cuts; those would have to be picked through a long public process starting later this year—by looking at which routes were the worst-performing, in terms of ridership, miles traveled. and whether a route duplicates other routes; Metro service manager Victor Obeso said Metro also considers factors like the number of low-income and minority residents a route serves in determining which routes it might target.
You can see a full list of the "low-productivity" routes here (start on page 35) for some examples of routes that might be cut or eliminated, but a few examples include: Route 173, a commuter route serving Boeing workers from Kent and Federal Way; routes serving Shoreline Community College after 8pm; the Route 8, serving Rainier Beach; and the Route 7 Express, linking Rainier Beach to downtown Seattle.
Desmond said that although Metro has scheduled yet another 25-cent fare increase for 2014 (Metro increased fares 80 percent between 2008 and 2011), he doesn't see a "major fare increase" as a very realistic revenue-raising option. "There's a breaking point, and lower-income folks are bearing the brunt of those fare increases," he said. Other options—like making even more layoffs (Metro has cut about 125 workers), more "belt-tightening," or raiding the county's already depleted deserves won't do the trick either, he said.
If the legislature doesn't give the county new funding options, Metro would start holding public outreach meetings this September to talk about what, specifically, the reductions would look like. The first round, about 150,000 hours worth of cuts, would come in September 2014; the remaining 450,000 would be spread over 2015.
Desmond said if, on the other hand, the legislature does give Metro a reprieve, the county would start looking at how to add back and potentially increase service. Desmond said the system should really be growing at a rate of about $35 million a year to meet Metro's targets for bus crowding and reliability; passing the MVET, for example, would give it about $10 million toward that goal.
The only possible reason for proponents of transit and low-income Metro riders to gloat? The route map Desmond revealed today (which, again, is not a specific proposal) would eliminate most bus service on Mercer Island, whose residents have famously complained that they'll be "trapped" on the island if the state tolls I-90—ignoring the ample, toll-free bus service that they currently have access to.