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At a Wednesday meeting of the city council transportation committee, Metro General  Kevin Desmond (above) described a nightmarish budget scenario for the transit agency: A $704 million revenue shortfall between 2009 and 2013—the equivalent of a full year of Metro operations—which, when offset by other factors (like service cuts and fare increases), amounts to a total deficit over four years of $546 million.

The reason for the huge shortfall is that Metro relies on sales taxes for between 71 and 72 percent of its budget—and sales tax revenues, Desmond noted, are "very, very volatile." This year, for example, Metro's sales tax revenue was projected at just under $500 million; instead, it's coming in at less than $400 million. Metro estimates that sales taxes won't bounce back to the projected 2009 level until after 2013—meaning that until then, riders can expect massive cuts, and after then, they can expect service at lower levels than what Metro is providing now.

"Unless there is a very, very rapid and extraordinarily steep recovery in the region, [this] probably [means] a permanent loss in our revenue" at Metro, Desmond said.

Metro plans to make up the deficit by eliminating some "complementary" and "service quality" programs—things like schedules on buses, regular cleanings, bus maintenance, and customer service. And, of course, Metro plans to cut service—"suspending" 585,000 service hours between now and 2013 under King County Executive Kurt's plan. The fact that the hours would be suspended, not cut, is significant—suspending hours means they don't have to be restored under "40/40/20," which allocates most new bus hours to areas of the region outside Seattle. The plan would also defer bus purchases, reallocate some property tax revenues (a proposal I wrote about here), and increase fares by 50 cents—meaning that <strike>peak-hour </strike> two-zone bus rides would cost $3.00.

Of course, it's far from clear that Triplett's plan will pass—the county council, which is made up primarily of suburban representatives, is likely to balk at any plan that doesn't preserve Metro funding in the suburbs as well as Seattle.