Is it a miracle? Can it really be so? Did I just read about a transportation plan that’s actually useful and affordable? That can happen soon but also has long-term benefits?
I’m stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims’ proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service—increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Timesreports; the P-Ieditorializes in favor.)
I have no idea what prompted Sims’ outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that’s almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don’t come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They’re just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And—oh yes—they’re already working so well that they’re over-subscribed, at least in the city.
So on the upside, Sims’ bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn’t promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn’t come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later…)
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Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region’s density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit—with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.
This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express—a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver—I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn’t on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I’ll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn’t fill triple the buses.
So I’m all for Sims’ bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn’t get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I’m hoping that local leaders—and local voters—remember that bus service works and it’s a bargain.
Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That’s a problem, I think, in a county that’s struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn’t a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *
* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it’s progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it’s nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it’s deductible from federal income taxes. It’s also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don’t see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that’s just about to expire.
Yes, it can really work. We recently led a group of transportation experts including Kevin Desmond (General Manager of Metro Transit), Grace Crunican (Director of Seattle Dept of Transportation) and Agnes Govern (Dir of Capital Projects for Sound Transit) to Curitiba, Brazil to see the world’s best example of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in action. The system operates as efficiently as a subway on rubber tires, but the capital costs were only 10% that of a dedicated rail system. However, true BRT does not just mean adding more buses – it requires more buses running on dedicated roadways, with limited numbers of stops at specially designed, miniature bus stations. In Curitiba passengers go up a short set of steps and then prepay their fare as they enter a small tube station, so they are staged and ready to step onto the bus the instant it arrives – just like on a subway. The BRT buses there are bi-articulated (three sections) and capable of holding 270 people, so that with frequency of service approaching one bus every minute or two their bus system can move as many passengers as any rail based system in the world. I was always a fan of rail before our trip, but have now gained a new appreciation for how effective buses can be with a properly designed infrastructure. If you’d like to learn more about what this system might look like here in Seattle you can download some materials that were created by the Curitiba transportation planners, by going to the Learning Center on the International Sustainable Solutions web site and downloading the files listed under the Additional Materials section.
I’m surprised to read your breathless account of this bus plan. Jayson is exactly right—there is no easy way to solve transportation problems. The kind of structural changes they made in Brazil were not easy solutions, but obviously they worked. Sims plan—a bunch of new buses— is ultimately just half-assed. I mean it is better than nothing, but it also should not be compared with true BRT. But then imagine the outcry if he actually wanted to spend the money to do it right…not to mention stealing roadway from cars for dedicated bus lanes? No way. We only have ourselves to blame for the transportation mess.