1. Although the King County Council put off cuts to bus service that were planned for this coming February, significant service cuts took effect last month, and some Metro proponents, including County Executive Dow Constantine, argued that further cuts were needed to maintain adequate financial reserves.
Yesterday, Seattle Transit Blog's Jim Whitehead took a look at latest service cuts, asking the basic question: Does Metro need to cut hours now to sustain service in the long term and keep enough money in reserve?
The answer, Whitehead responds, is no: After crunching the numbers, he concludes that "Even without the cuts and with an unusually large capital spending program in 2015-16, Metro’s overall reserves would increase from now to the end of 2020. So Metro looks to be long-term sustainable with current service levels."
In the comments, STB's David Lawson points out what seems like a pretty significant flaw in that conclusion: Whitehead's analysis presumes an indefinitely rosy financial picture for King County, and, in particular, assumes there will be no recession until 2020, an assumption that seems optimistic given recent history. If there is a recession, or if the county's economic growth isn't "fairly solid," the county will need a pretty substantial reserve—and Whitehead's analysis doesn't account for that.
That's basically the argument that Constantine (and Metro general manager Kevin Desmond) have been making: It may seem like a safe bet to whittle down Metro's reserve now, but that's sort of the reason for having a reserve—in case the unexpected (or, in reality, the predictable) happens: A recession that reduces revenues and forces Metro to dip into its rainy-day fund.
2. Over at Crosscut, Bill Lucia takes a look at what Proposition 1 could mean for Metro riders—specifically, which routes might actually be enhanced or expanded if Seattle voters decide to pass a $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1-cent sales tax increase for in-city Metro transit service. (Originally, the proposal was supposed to backfill Metro service cuts; now, with a better financial forecast, the measure could both offset those cuts and add service).
The Seattle Department of Transportation tells the website that the measure would enable Metro to "reduce crowding," "improve reliability" and "increase frequency" on dozens of Seattle routes, although it's unclear what the difference is between, for example, increasing reliability and improving frequency. Nor is it clear how far Prop. 1 would take Metro toward what agency director Desmond has frequently said should be its ultimate goal—increasing service by at least 15 percent, to keep up with increasing demand as the region has grown over the past decade. We have a call out to Desmond for clarification.
3. In a stunning departure from its usual fiscal conservatism (yes, we're being sarcastic), the Seattle Times editorial board urges voters to "look beyond" the "economic anxiety" espoused by Prop. 1 advocates like county executive Constantine, who believes "Metro should prepare for the worst" with a "save-now plan" that requires "deep sacrifice" by taxpayers. Instead, they argue, the county is correct to assume that the worst-case scenario is a mere "moderate recession," and to allow Metro's reserves to fall.
"The plan would essentially allow Metro, whose savings were drained in the Great Recession, to scrape through a moderate recession with a $108 million rainy-day fund, so long as other adjustments are made."
What those recession-defying adjustments might be, the Times doesn't say, except to suggest vaguely that Metro could save money with "tweaks to Metro's complex fare structure" and "go[ing] further" with "fiscal watchdogging." (You have to wonder why Constantine's cautious budgeting doesn't count as "fiscal watchdogging.")
At any rate, merely cutting corners didn't save Metro during the last recession, and it won't be enough to create the "world-class local transit agency" the Times claims it wants, even as it editorializes against the new taxes that would be required to pay for one.