By Jake Lynch
There is one thing and one thing only dominating discussions on the future of bus services in the Puget Sound area at the moment — The Benjamins.
While in healthier economic times, service providers and transit officials could be looking at expanding ridership, upgrading facilities, and adopting new technology, right now King County Metro is just trying to maintain the services they have.
Falling sales tax revenue has left Metro trying to find $213 million worth of cuts in the next two years, and an estimated $500 million over the next four.
Sound Transit too, fresh from the significant victory of getting a $17.8 million Sound Transit ballot measure passed by voters to expand light rail and regional bus services, is already facing the reality of having less money than it needs, perhaps $2 billion less.
Like Metro, Sound Transit relies on sales tax, taking a 0.9 percent share of sales tax revenue gathered in the areas it serves.
An historic recession has meant that this revenue is less than everyone had hoped. The Metro and Sound Transit picture is also complicated politically by the fact that the people of the Puget Sound region voted for the ballot measures based on what it said it would deliver.
All of this at a time when huge growth in areas outside Seattle, to the south and the east, particularly, have incorporated cities calling for more bus service.
Similarly, congestion on the roads, high gas prices, and a federal push to reduce CO2 emissions from traffic has put the spotlight on public transportation like never before.
King County has admitted it will have to reduce bus services, and the only question now is by how much, and where.
The question of where is one that elected officials are paying close attention to.
King County Executive Kurt Triplett’s proposal to plug the budget hole is based around using a combination of fare increases, deferred expansion, and saving money by being more efficient, in order to minimize the necessary evil – service reductions.
Triplett said that ensuring any service reductions were done proportionally across the entire system was a key goal of his plan, adding that if sub-regions try to create winners, the transit riders will be the losers.
But according to Joshua Schaer, one of a number of elected officials from the Eastside in King County Department of Transportation’s Eastside Transportation Partnership (ETP), Triplett’s plan actually subverts an agreement to ensure proportionate service.
“What I’ve heard is that because they are calling the service cuts “suspensions,” and not service “cuts,” when the services are reinstated they are not bound by the 40-40-20 agreement,” he said.
Under political agreements reached several years ago by the County Council, investment in new service must follow a 40-40-20 split, with 40 percent going to East King County, 40 percent to the south, and 20 percent to the west, essentially, Seattle. Cities in the east and the south have praised the idea, which is predictably unpopular in Seattle.
“They are basically getting around it by calling them suspensions,” Schaer said. “On the Eastside, we are paying for a good third of the service, but getting only 17 percent of the service.”
While service suspensions are clearly the biggest piece of Triplett’s transit puzzle, saving about $90 million over four years, auditors have been able to find between $15 and $22 million in savings just by tightening up the system.
That auditors have been able to identify so many efficiency improvements doesn’t speak well of Metro’s operations before now.
For example, training staff to actually use scheduling software that Metro already owns is expected to save $3.75 million a year.
That software will help schedulers identify how to better assign buses to avoid empty runs.
Also, Metro layovers, the time spent idle in between trips, run to 29 percent, compared to a national average of 21 percent.
While the extended layovers give operators a bigger cushion to keep routes on time, it also means that for almost a third of the time buses are on the road, they are not picking up passengers.
A group of King County Council members has come up with their own plan, which they say will reduce service cuts from 20 percent to between four and six percent, by bringing money in from the King County’s Ferry District, and raising bus fares by 25 cents each year for the next four years.
Fares were raised last year.
The councilors are also asking that the City of Seattle contribute more to the cost of providing a free-ride area downtown, an idea which Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis has already said they are highly unlikely to support.
The key benefit of their plan, the councilors say, is preserving the upcoming RapidRide bus service, 100,000 hours of additional service, in distinctly painted red and yellow buses, part of the Transit Now plan which was approved by King County voters in 2006.
RapidRide will provide more frequent, and quicker, service in five key corridors:
- Tukwila to Federal Way on the Pacific Highway
- Bellevue to Redmond via Crossroads and Overlake
- West Seattle to downtown Seattle using Fauntleroy Way SW, California Avenue SW, and State Route 99
- Ballard to Uptown and downtown Seattle along 15th Avenue NW
- Aurora Avenue N between Shoreline and downtown Seattle
The Tukwila service will be the first cab off the rank, scheduled for launch at the end of 2010. The other services are scheduled to begin at staggered intervals over the next four years.
Through public outreach and research, Metro identified five corridors where capacity could be greatly increased by adding service and providing a faster trip.
ETP member Kathy Huckabay believes that RapidRide will be a positive addition to the regional bus picture.
“I’m not sure that we need new, specially painted buses, but these are great services and I strongly suggest we move forward with them,” she said.
In some instances the RapidRide services will replace existing routes, a move toward great efficiency in road time.
“They will also attract more riders, which will increase revenue,” Huckabay said.
She is one of a number of transportation experts who believes that officials must take notice of suggestions to trim inefficiencies in order to reduce service reductions, and that route reductions, when necessary, needed to be “more surgical.”
“I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to just cut them across the board,” she said “Let’s find a way of distributing service cuts more fairly, by being more creative with how we reduce services. Maybe people might have to wait a little longer for a bus, but the key is to provide broader coverage, to keep people moving.”
But according to both Huckabay and Schaer, the biggest step that transportation agencies could take to improve the regional bus scene is to work together.
It is something that the ETP asked Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison, the two remaining candidates for King County Executive, when they met with the ETP on Sept. 11.
“I’m interested in how the new executive plans to better coordinate the transportation system,” Schaer said. “It’s very fractionalized. There are a lot of different agencies, some of them covering similar routes. That was one of the reasons they brought in the ORCA card – it was too hard to figure out what each different trip would cost.”
Those different agencies include Sound Transit and Metro, the Port of Seattle, which governs the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway corridor, and a number of community transit systems, such as those servicing Snohomish and Pierce counties.
“There is a lot of duplication of service,” Huckabay said, citing Sound Transit’s 554 service and Metro’s 218, which both connect Seattle with Issaquah.
“Throughout the county there are lots of opportunities of that type,” she said. “You look at the Eastgate Transit Center, or Mercer Island – there are often three or four buses showing up at the same time.”
Huckabay said there was no interaction between the community transit services coming in to Seattle, and Metro, interaction that could not only provide a better system for riders but would save a lot of money by reducing the number of agencies and trimming overheads.
“Consolidating some of these providers would make more savings that anything Metro could do on it’s own,” she said.
So plenty of energy is being expended on regional bus services at the moment.
But, RapidRide aside, bus users are not likely to see any improvements in the near future.
At the moment, it is all about treading water – maintaining a system many believe we have already long outgrown.
Jake Lynch is editor of the Issaquah Reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.