Are you reading this on the bus? If so, there’s a pretty good chance your bus won’t be around next year.
King County Metro is facing a serious budget shortfall for 2014. This means transit officials need to cut service by 17 percent to break even. Some 65 routes would be deleted, and 86 would be reduced or revised. In all, two out of three Metro routes will be affected.
If it seems like Metro has been in perpetual need of a bailout the past few years, well, it has. The trouble started back in 1999, when state voters approved I-695, an initiative by Tim Eyman, which would have gutted statewide transit funding by eliminating the state’s ability to charge a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, or MVET. The tax remained in effect when the initiative was declared unconstitutional, but then Gov. Gary Locke and the legislature were so scared that angry voters would run them out of Olympia they killed the MVET the following year. That blew a $500-million hole in the state transportation budget — one we’ve never really recovered from.
To patch the hole, King County increased, in stages, the sales tax from 0.6 percent to the legal maximum of 0.9 percent. But there are two problems with a sales tax. First, it’s regressive, meaning it hits poor folks the hardest. Second, it’s tied to the economy.
Once the recession struck in 2008, everyone cut back on spending, and sales tax revenues went in the toilet. In 2011 the county council passed a $20 “congestion reduction charge” on all registered vehicles. This bought us $25 million a year in a deal that also ended the Ride Free Area. The charge will expire in 2014. All of that leaves us with a $60 million gap in 2014, and a combined $1.2 billion shortfall projected for 2008 to 2015.
Metro has been furiously finding ways to trim spending. In 2008 officials reduced operating expenses, gutted the capital fund, which pays for important stuff like running new overhead trolleybus wire, and increased fares. That bought $30 million, and arguably made the system more efficient. Then in 2011, officials got unions to agree to an employee pay cut, saving tens of millions more. The state’s transportation department came through with
$32 million to deal with headaches related to Alaskan Way Viaduct construction, but those funds also run out in 2014, two years before the new tunnel opens. All told, Metro has cut $726 million from the budget since 2009. But it’s still not enough.
Cutting service isn’t the answer. It imposes real costs on people’s ability to get to jobs, grocery stores and doctor’s appointments. Besides, Seattle is a growing city with a healthy economy and a low unemployment rate. Metro should be increasing service, not cutting it. And while it might be tempting to cut back on newer services like the Seattle Streetcar or RapidRide buses, those were funded by different government accounts and can’t be touched.
Likewise, there’s only so much you can raise fares before people suffer. Back in 2006, when peak fares were $1.50, Metro officials predicted fares would rise to $2.25 by 2016. After multiple fare hikes, peak one-zone fares are already at $2.50 and will probably rise again soon.
So what can we do? The biggest thing we can do to give Metro a stable tax base is bring back our old friend the MVET. This would get King County back to a healthy mix of tax revenue, so that no one source can send the budget into a tailspin. At Seattle Transit Blog, where I write, we recently calculated a 1 percent MVET (a $100 tax on cars worth $10,000) would meet Metro’s needs.
Taxing cars to pay for transit actually makes a lot of sense because more transit options actually makes driving easier: By taking cars off the road, there’s less traffic for the remaining cars. A recent study in Los Angeles suggested that eliminating transit on certain corridors could lead to a 47 percent increase in traffic. More buses mean less traffic.
King County can’t pass an MVET without permission from the state. Sadly, the legislature adjourned from its special session without passing a transportation bill that would’ve given us this option. That makes the Metro cuts even more likely. It seems some suburban lawmakers want to hold up the transit funding until they also have the votes for billions of dollars in new highway construction. This is unacceptable.
Allowing bus service to be cut by 17 percent next year would impose a huge hardship on King County residents. Tell your state senator or representative that you want more funding for King Country Metro today.