(Metro Route 21 bus traveling westbound on Avalon, past under-construction apartment building)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Will Metro have to slash its services – or will some of the supplementary funding that expires next year be replaced, averting crisis?
This week might be pivotal. For starters: Today, state legislators are back in Olympia for a special session. They hold the power to give transportation-funding “tools” to local leaders – but whether they will do it is very much in question, as two West Seattle’s state legislators told the 34th District Democrats last Wednesday (WSB coverage here).
County leaders, including Metro management, hope for a show of support at a special public hearing tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon – and through an online comment form, if you can’t make it to the hearing to speak in person.
With all this as a backdrop, the man who runs Metro, its general manager Kevin Desmond, sat down with WSB for a conversation, which we videotaped in its 48-minute entirety.
Full disclosure, it was their idea, not ours: After reading countless WSB comments about Metro, including skepticism from some suggesting the money woes are more about mismanagement than funding shortage, county Transportation Department communicators asked if we would be interested in an interview, so we worked out time to sit down at his Pioneer Square office. First, if you just want to hear for yourself, here’s the unedited video (your editor here is the voice you hear asking questions; WSB co-publisher Patrick Sand was behind the camera):
If you’d prefer to read the highlights – key points are ahead, along with more about what’s next:
Note that what follows is NOT a full transcription of everything Desmond said during our conversation – you’ll have to listen to the video (since there are no added visuals, it works as audio playing in the background of whatever else you’re doing) to hear it all. The paragraph slugs summarize our questions:
HOW DID METRO GET INTO THIS MESS? “In a certain way … it actually DID happen overnight,” Desmond contends – because of “The Great Recession” and the fact Metro has been so reliant on sales tax. “The recession resulted in a collapse of our sales tax.” But he says Metro has “taken $800 million in actions since 2009 .. to close the gap.” The Congestion Reduction Charge – about $25 million a year – is only authorized for two years, and “sunsets” next year. Even at that, he says, it only covers a third of the current budget gap.
ARE OTHER TRANSIT AGENCIES EXPERIENCING SIMILAR PROBLEMS? (5 minutes in) Again calling it “the Great Recession,” Desmond says many have, including others in the region, from Pierce County to Snohomish County to Portland. But, he then notes, not all transit agencies are as reliant on sales tax. “For example, the American Public Transportation Association (says) transit agencies receive on average about 20 percent direct funding from their states. We receive in the state of Washington about 2 percent. There’s a big difference right there.” And he refers back to Initiative 695 in 1999 – “we had a balanced portfolio of revenue,” with the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax included. “In 2000, that MVET revenue went away.” After that came the sales-tax reliance, “which is very, very volatile,” and led to problems, he says, starting with the 2001 dot-bust. “We need a more-mixed revenue source.” He believes the county “has done a good job of being focused on keeping service on the road for as long as we can,” and providing an “attractive service.” Ridership dropped in 2009-2010 along with job loss and is now coming back.
WHAT THE LEGISLATURE IS TALKING ABOUT (9 minutes in): He focused on HB 1954 (reported here when it passed the Transportation ) which would increase the gas tax over 5 years, funding a variety of transportation projects and including “a little bit of direct money for transit” while also providing for a “local-option Motor Vehicle Excise Tax” which means the County Council could ask voters to approve an MVET of up to 1 1/2 percent, with 60 percent going to Metro and the rest to county roads, which are so unfunded that some roads and bridges might wind up “abandoned” because the county can’t afford to maintain them. That MVET would bring Metro “sustainable funding through current service” at an estimated $86 million in the first year, Desmond says. But that’s current service, and as he has been saying, “real” sustainability would include growing the service, about 10 percent for starters.
DEVELOPMENT IMPACT FEES? (14 minutes in) “That’s a very, very difficult conversation, politically and economically,” Desmond said. “Can they force a developer to pay for transit service? I don’t believe so, at this point in time … but that gets to the core of what we’re facing (here) … (development) puts pressure on the road network, puts pressure on utilities … they ought to figure out ways to mitigate impacts (more broadly) on the transportation network. I think there’s a reason we should be thinking about things like that.” He then brought up the fact that many employers provide transit passes for employees and so “do have skin in the game.” (He also noted at that point, briefly, that Microsoft even has its own bus system for employees.) Sixteen-hundred businesses and other large employers (UW, governments, etc.) have pass accounts, he said. “It’s built consensus around having a very strong multi-modal transportation network.”
THE RECENT AUDIT (19 minutes in): For those who suggested Metro be audited now, we asked about the one that is oft-cited in response. It started in 2009, he explained, and looked at many facets of the operation – not “everything, but they looked at a lot.” He described the “interim report” a few months ago as “very positive,” saying that the audit had resulted in savings of almost $20 million. He mentioned multiple times that Metro is a “large, complex organization” and therefore, he contends, “there is only so far you can go to find belt-tightening efficiences,” though he says they are continuing to search, and are focusing right now, for example, on parts-inventory efficiencies. He also mentioned Metro “embracing … lean management” philosophy that county political leadership is stressing. We followed up to ask if management was lean enough, and Desmond contended that they do a good job in that area, while also saying that there is a lot of “behind the scenes” work that goes into offering an “attractive” service. At 23 and a half minutes in, he explains that they work hard to attract “choice” riders – and certainly they could operate more frugally if they were just putting out a bare-bones service to attract only those who NEED to ride the bus. “The total product requires spending some money to put it out there. … We have a fabulous demographic who uses the system here … all walks of life. … We are a full-service product.” He also expressed pride in Metro’s accessibility for those with disabilities, saying it was trailblazing when it started.
RAPID RIDE AND WHAT IT COSTS (27 1/2 minutes in): “A fundamental funding source … has been the federal government. There are (various federal programs) created to fund ‘bus rapid transit’.” And he says those are “our tax dollars coming back here” that otherwise would be going somewhere else outside this area – about $121 million. “That was money we worked hard to get, we competed for the money, and we won.” The overall “capital cost” including local dollars is $190 million for six lines implemented within the span of about five years. He also made a point of saying it’s cheaper and can be implemented more quickly, carrying more people, than light rail such as Sound Transit Link. And at 31 1/2 minutes in, he acknowledges something he’s acknowledged before: Metro “did too much” with the service changes kicking in last fall at the same time Rapid Ride C/D launched.
IS THERE REALLY HOPE OF BECOMING ABLE TO GROW? (33 minutes) That’s a common question, Desmond said. “I always have to have hope, because the opposite of having hope is, why would I be doing this job? … Ultimately I remain pretty confident that we’ll find a way .. I don’t know what it’ll be, (but) the political mountain we’ll have to climb, first with the legislature, then with voters, is to convince people of the multi-modal system’s value.” He then makes the case that even if you don’t ride transit, it’s important because it helps keep roads “flowing freely. … If we can keep (the major highway corridors) moving, we’ll keep this an attractive place for people to live, (and for companies to do business).” He contends that transit cuts could further jam highways and chase away business. “Part of a good quality of life is a transportation network that works.”
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE LIST OF POTENTIAL CUTS, IF EXPIRING FUNDING ISN’T REPLACED? (36 minutes in) Desmond says it traces back to a regional task force convened about three years ago. It came up with guidelines, he says, and the list was a result of “running everything through the guidelines” in terms of “what cutting 600,000 hours of service might look like.” But, he says, under the “guidelines,” only about half of those hours could be cut from the lowest-performing routes. So some cuts would have to come from popular routes too – “the money’s got to come from someplace. … If we do not get a revenue tool from the Legislature in this session – our planners are going to have to … look at other restructuring, other ways to minimize, as best we can, the impact of an up to 17 percent cut,” which as previously announced would be turned into a draft plan that Metro would take to the public this fall, probably in October/November. Even with public input, Desmond believes, the eventual impact of such a cut would be “devastating.”
WHAT ABOUT SMALLER CONNECTOR BUSES FOR AREAS LIKE ARBOR HEIGHTS? (41:45 in) They’re proposing that in some Eastside areas right now, Desmond says, though it took months and months of working with the community to come up with a proposed plan. He says overall, they would like to look at doing more of that; he also points out that vanpools are an alternative, when bus service isn’t the best way to go.
WHAT CAN CONCERNED PEOPLE DO RIGHT NOW? (45 minutes in) This was a question we asked on behalf of Amanda Kay Helmick, chair of the new Westwood/Roxhill/Arbor Heights Community Council. First, Desmond brought up tomorrow’s hearing. Contacting your state legislators is good too, but he suggests that the visual impact of a big turnout tomorrow would be good too – to send a message to legislators (from outside the metro area) whose districts are not suffering the kind of impact and might not understand how hard a transit cut would hit. He says that they do have a reason to care – even from rural farming counties, for example, a strong transportation system here plays a role in helping them “get their products out” – and “the general public needs to help make that point.”
Again, tomorrow’s hearing is explained here. If you can go, the location is Union Station, 401 S. Jackson Street (map), with an open house at 3:30, public testimony starting at 4 pm. Meantime, we are monitoring what’s happening in Olympia, and will report on any developments with transportation/transit funding.