Fare increases, service cuts possible for King County Metro in 2011

Metro buses are still the most widely used mode of public transportation, but a gaping budget hole is likely to see fares increase over the next few years. Photo by Andy Nystrom.

Metro buses are still the most widely used mode of public transportation, but a gaping budget hole is likely to see fares increase over the next few years. Photo by Andy Nystrom.

By Tom Corrigan
Reporter Newspapers

Standing at the Metro Transit stop on Northeast Bothell Way near the Kenmore Park-and-Ride, Carrie Hood said she rides the bus everyday to and from the downtown Seattle bank where she works as a teller.
Hood added she wouldn’t drive to work even if she could somehow afford the price of parking downtown. Still, Hood said she has a few complaints regarding Metro, complaints echoed by some of the riders waiting with her.
For the most part, riders agreed Metro’s buses are fairly dependable, but Hood and others stated they’ve been late for work or appointments because a bus was behind schedule more often than they would like.
And, probably predictably, none of the riders were happy with the fare increases that may be heading their way. While he declined to give his name, one rider said his employer currently provides staff with bus passes. But that employer already has announced that if the price of bus rides increase, those free passes may disappear.
Like so many other public and private entities, budget problems are by far the biggest issues currently facing the King County Metro Transit System, according to several sources, including Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond.
Tossing out a number that has been widely advertised, Desmond said the system is looking at a $214 million shortfall in its next two-year budget.
As the Seattle area struggles with recession, sales tax collections have “plummeted,” Desmond said, and those taxes make up 71 percent of Metro’s revenue. Desmond added that, overall, revenues are coming in some 20 percent lower than expected.
MetroBaseFare_ChartWith all that and other factors in mind, King County Executive Kurt Triplett has proposed a nine-point plan to close Metro’s budget gap, a plan that includes fare increases, service cuts and deferred expansion.
According to information released by Triplett’s office, county officials don’t expect Metro’s tax revenues to return to even 2008 levels until at least 2014. Triplett and others also have talked about implementing changes suggested by a recent service audit of Metro’s operations.
As of this writing, only some of those recommendations had been made public.
In the end, any proposal put forth by Triplett ultimately must earn the approval of the King County Council. According to Metro spokesperson Linda Thielke, Triplett will present his full budget – which includes Metro’s budget – to the council by the end of this month, with adoption coming in November.
Moving away from budget issues and touching on service improvements, Desmond and others said if money were no object, their top priority would be to add more Metro buses and bus lines.
According to David Hull, service planning supervisor for Metro, the whole point of public transportation is getting people out of their cars and using alternative means to get around, in this case, buses. Hull said the way you do that is by adding more connections to more locations and keeping the wait time between connections to less than five minutes. He added that the latter long has been Metro’s goal. But Hull also stated any public bus line faces one issue over which most transit officials have little or no say.
“We operate on roads we don’t control,” he said.
Both he and Desmond talked about how improving and extending HOV lanes throughout the Seattle area would greatly aid transit. They also mentioned electronics that could give approaching buses priority at stop lights. Hull said communities and developers need to keep transit in mind as they build up residential areas, allowing pedestrian access to streets and, obviously, bus lines.
Even if the county council adopts Triplett’s proposed cuts in service – which run to 310,000 hours over the next two years – some newer bus lines apparently won’t be affected. Desmond said Sound Transit’s light rail obviously has been getting a lot of publicity recently and Metro plans to shift routes to feed into the light rail system. Desmond described those feeder routes as “absolutely critical,” claiming that the Puget Sound region has been waiting 40 years, in one way or another, for light rail. He doesn’t want that effort sabotaged by Metro’s budget concerns. Apparently, neither does Triplett. His proposal exempts from service cuts “already approved service partnerships.”
According to Desmond, even if Sound and its new trains have been getting all the attention lately, there is no doubt that buses are still the back bone of the overall transit system. While he said Sound and Metro are operated separately, there is no antagonism between the two, that they are not rivals.
“We don’t compete,” Desmond said.
If there is no competition between Sound and Metro, there is competition connected with another aspect of Metro’s operations. Kenmore Mayor David Baker is one of several suburban officials who serve on the Regional Transit Committee, a sub-committee of the county council. The committee includes Seattle representatives as well.
Baker said while Seattle’s suburbs contribute 64 percent of the sales taxes that pay for Metro operations, they receive a disproportionate share of Metro’s buses and services. He added there was a plan in place to try and equalize the service between Seattle and the suburbs.
“Seattle now wants to get rid of that, they don’t think its fair,” Baker said.
He added Seattle’s representatives to the regional committee also are worried the city could see the lion’s share of any budget balancing service reductions.
A Seattle representative to the regional transit committee did not return a phone call.
For his part, Baker insists bus service between Seattle and the suburbs has never really been balanced. He said it’s easy to hop a bus to downtown Seattle. But he said riding a bus from one suburb to another can be a lot tougher. Baker contends lines running north and south are particularly poor.
“Because of the mess, it forces people into cars,” Baker said.
For his part, Hull agreed with Baker to a certain extent.
“There is not enough service out in the suburbs,” he said. He further talked about the possible need for more Park-and-Ride spots.
But Hull also noted the bus system naturally grew up around Seattle and it only makes the area’s epicenter would have, historically, the most routes. He said what is needed is more buses, but those aren’t going to be arriving anytime soon thanks to Metro’s money woes.
“It’s not that Seattle has too many buses,” Hull continued. “It’s more that the overall pie is not big enough.”

Tom Corrigan is a writer for the Bothell Reporter. He can be contacted at tcorrigan@bothell-reporter.com.