Now that King County voters (but not Seattle’s) have rejected Metro’s Plan B to fill a funding shortfall and preserve bus service, the transit agency has proposed a plan to cut 550,000 service hours beginning this fall.
And since it appears the Seattle voters who supported Prop 1 will have the opportunity to vote on Plan C—raising property taxes to reverse cuts to routes that primarily benefit Seattle residents—it’s a good time to consider what we’re in for, what we’d be buying back, and what kind of transit system we really want.
Some proposed cuts may increase Metro’s operating efficiency by targeting poorly performing routes—the ones with high operating costs or low ridership or that duplicate nearby transit service. Some will be painful and leave people stranded. Some might do both at the same time.
So far, Metro and its supporters haven’t done a great job of distinguishing—at least in the public debate—between cuts to low-performing routes that arguably ought to be sacrificed or restructured for the greater good and cuts to well-functioning routes with high ridership that will be gutted or cut back solely for lack of money.
Prompted by the massive funding shortfall caused by Metro’s volatile funding sources, the agency did undertake a comprehensive service evaluation last year to begin contemplating which parts of the system would make sense to cut first.
In that analysis, 11 of the Seattle routes that are now proposed to be eliminated were “high” priorities for major reductions, based on relatively low performance and the fact that acceptable levels of service already exist in the same transit corridor. Another 5 were “medium” priorities. But 10 routes on the chopping block are healthy ones that were “low” priorities for cuts.
To be clear, if Metro had an unlimited pot of money, it’s possible that none or very few of those routes would be on the chopping block. In fact the same 2013 Service Guidelines Analysis found that Metro should actually grow its service by roughly 15 percent to reach ideal levels of service.
But what those numbers suggest is that Metro has identified some opportunities for greater efficiency, but has now been forced to keep cutting service that performs relatively well or that serves corridors where service cuts will cause real hardship. Altogether, the cuts will drive Metro’s ridership down to levels not seen since 1997. But if we have opportunities to restore some of that service down the road, the trick will lie in figuring out where the line between the “good” cuts and the “bad” cuts falls. Metro has done some of this work by proposing to cut in four phases, with the least painful—in its estimation—going first.
In South King County, the cuts will eliminate 9 routes that were slated as “high” priorities for reductions, 1 that was “medium,” and 9 that were “low” priorities for cuts. In East and North King County, 18 routes were identified as “high” priorities for reduction, 1 was “medium,” and eight were “low” priorities.
Those are the parts of the county that voted against Prop 1, as this great map from Oran Viriyincy shows, and overrode Seattle’s support. If those parts of the county want its transit system to be more anemic, it’s probably time for a candid conversation about the values that drive decisions about what parts of the system we preserve and what we give up. Do we give up on certain geographic areas of the county in order to focus on routes that carry more people? Do we cut service to highly functioning routes in order to preserve service in low-income neighborhoods?
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King County Metro has essentially weighted those priorities for us with service guidelines that drive how resources are added or cut. They try to strike a balance between highly productive routes, ones that connect important geographic centers, and ones that serve low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Metro also tried to spread its proposed cuts between routes that serve Seattle’s core and those that do not.
Those criteria are an improvement over the inefficient 40-40-20 rule that used to allocate service by subregion. But now that the new guidelines are going to drive change on such a major scale, county residents should understand what they are.
In Seattle, where Prop 1 passed, Friends of Transit has filed an initiative to allow voters to raise property taxes to reverse cuts to the routes that primarily operate within the city limits. It would essentially create a pot of money for the city of Seattle to “buy back” or preserve existing service that King County Metro would otherwise cut. If there’s any money left over, the city could buy new transit hours and invest in growing the system.
The initiative would increase the city’s property tax by $0.22 per $1,000 of assessed value between 2015 and 2021. It’s estimated to generate approximately $155 million over six years, enough to fund as much as 250,000 hours of bus service.
If the initiative passes, it’s important to ensure that Metro doesn’t just take Seattle’s money and focus new bus service on the suburbs. The initiative contains a provision intended to prevent that, but it’s a political temptation worth guarding against. It would also be smart to preserve the parts of Metro’s restructuring plan that lead to a more sensible Seattle bus network. It makes little sense to buy back service on expensive or low-performing routes that don’t really carry enough people, are only a few blocks away from a duplicative route, or no longer make sense to operate for other reasons.
One of the criticisms in the wake of Prop 1’s countywide defeat was that voters weren’t being sold on improving the system, only in rescuing it. And if the ultimate goal is to improve the system, more candid discussion—particularly about which routes perform well and which ones don’t—is a great place to start.