County Council Split on Metro Cuts

The King County Council splits along surprising lines on how, and how much, to cut Metro transit service.

By Erica C. Barnett June 3, 2014

Legislation proposed by Democratic King County Council member Rod Dembowski that would limit the extent of cuts to Metro proposed, in separate legislation also passed by the committee, by King County Executive Dow Constantine, passed out of the council's transportation committee this morning by a 4-3 vote.

The committee also approved a Dembowski motion that directing Metro to raise fares by 25 cents, find more cost savings, including possible reductions to its capital program, and delay a proposed doubling of its financial reserves, among other cost-cutting measures, by the same 4-3 vote.

Those four votes? Dembowski—plus the committee's three Republicans. 

His proposal, Dembowski says, would direct the council to "wait until we pass the budget in November" to see if sales tax revenues come in higher than expected, and to implement reforms that could save money in the meantime.

In April, King County voters rejected Proposition 1, which would have preserved 550,000 hours of Metro service, or about 17 percent, with a sales tax increase and $60 vehicle license fee.

Democrats on the committee oppose the Dembowski plan because they believe Metro has already done all it can to cut costs and corners (so far, they've reduced costs by nearly $800 million between 2009 and 2013, and anticipate ongoing savings of $148 million a year), and because the council has already adopted five fare increases since 2008. Putting off some service cuts, they argued this morning, is only delaying the inevitable. 

"This is our reality. We can’t spend money that we don’t have, so we said it's better to take the cuts" right away, council member Larry Phillips says. "We’ve been through this drill of hoping the money arrives and even thinking it might, and that’s why the executive is being careful."

Dembowski points out that the council has adopted a low-income fare for people making up to twice the poverty line, but acknowledges that if fares increase, some higher-income riders may decide to drive their cars to work instead. However, he adds that compared to driving a car and paying $20 to park downtown, Metro—whose current one-zone rush hour fare is $2.50—is "a heck of a deal." Raising fares by 25 cents, he adds, could increase Metro revenues by more than $6 million a year.

Mayor Ed Murray has proposeda Seattle-only ballot measure that would increase the sales tax by 0.1 cents and raise the vehicle license fee in the city by $60. The proposal also includes a matching fund that could pay for some bus routes that extend outside city limits.

Dembowski, who represents Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, part of Northeast Seattle, and several northeast King County suburbs, says he isn't crazy about Murray's proposal, but that if all else fails, "as a last-ditch effort, I would support a Seattle-only solution."

The full council will vote on both the Constantine and Dembowski bills on Monday. If all four council Republicans vote with Dembowski, his measure will trump Constantine's proposal by a 5-4 majority.

Dembowski probably wouldn't disagree with Phillips on this much at least: "All we’re doing is dickering over massive budget cuts, or phased budget cuts, at a time when the system is crying out for growth. This is the fastest-growing city in America. … Saving the system is one thing but we are not anywhere near meeting the demand for the future."

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