Video: With voting under way, Metro talks money with West Seattle Chamber of Commerce

April 11, 2014 at 12:14 pm | In Transportation, West Seattle news | 14 Comments

(Metro/King County contingent at Chamber lunch; WSB photo by Patrick Sand)
Still undecided about Proposition 1, the buses-and-roads measure on the April 22nd ballot? The West Seattle Chamber of Commerce invited Metro reps to its April lunch meeting on Thursday to recap what brought the system to this point and answer questions – not to campaign for Proposition 1, they made it clear, but for information about the state of the transit system. We recorded the almost-hour of speeches and Q/A on video:

One of the questions was one often asked in comment discussions: How much more would Metro have to be charging in order to cover its budget gap? Answer, from planner Marty Minkoff: About $2 more – virtually doubling fares – but that doesn’t take into account factors such as any dropoff in ridership that could result if some couldn’t afford such fares.

More ahead:

Minkoff spoke first, about what he called “deep and serious cuts” that the transit service says will be needed if Prop 1, a $60 vehicle-tab fee ($20 of which is a replacement for the Congestion Reduction Charge fee expiring this year) and .1 percent sales-tax increase, does not pass.

He went through the oft-reported background information about ridership and potential cuts. “Ridership is booming,” with “record ridership in 2012,” and close to an all-time high in 2013, he said. He said Metro has taken multiple actions to reduce its deficit between 2009 and 2013 – with a slide listing staff reductions, labor-contract savings, program efficiencies, fare increases, a property-tax levy, ending the Ride Free Area, and implementing the expiring-this-year Congestion Reduction Charge, as well as one-time money-saving actions listed as capital-program cuts, fleet-replacement reservesm, and operating reserves. This totaled $798 million, per the slide, with “ongoing annual savings” of $148 million. The budget gap remains $75 million a year, even with sales-tax revenue increasing, according to Minkoff. “Instead of cutting 17 percent, according to County Council guidelines, we should be increasing service by 15 percent.” The reductions would take effect starting in September of this year, as noted in previous briefings. It’s not a 17 percent cut for each route, though; he recapped the decisionmaking that was detailed last year – various evaluation factors spanning four priority levels.

“We prepared the proposal for the worst-case financial scenario. These are serious cuts,” Minkoff noted. “If the proposed cuts are implemented, many people would have to walk farther (to get to the bus), would have to transfer, would experience overcrowding … and (some) would experience no viable options, would be left with no transit options,” for at least part of the day. He added, “We’re currently going through the complexities” of re-evaluating the proposal since a set of cuts that was scheduled for this June won’t have to be made, now that the state has agreed to continue (for a while) providing money to mitigate effects of the Highway 99 construction.

He said Metro will be documenting and sharing all the input received with the King County Council as they make decisions about service reductions. Their decisionmaking is due late April/early May.

Next, John Resha from King County Council staff (and the Transportation Benefit District Board comprised of councilmembers) spoke regarding the formation of the district, which in turn enabled the ballot measure. “I’m not here to offer a pro- or con-,” just information, he says. The budget cut “has already made” to cover the potential loss of 600,000 hours of Metro service. But, he says, there’s also the matter of roads. Maintenance and preservation of the system would cost about $200 million a year, but only $85 million is generated. As a result, the county is “limiting access on bridges, closing roads,” and making other changes to cover the budget gap. The cities in King County have a $4 billion road-funding deficit, he added.

Finally, he mentions that the county has been working with state legislators to try to fix the funding situation. And, as has been widely reopened, the Legislature adjourned without doing so, which is why the county put this $130 million/year (sunsetting after 10 years) measure on the ballot. “It’s limited to transportation only,” he said. The first 60 percent of the resulting money goes to transit.

To try to make up for the fact that this is a so-called “regressive” tax, he mentioned components including the low-income fee rebate – $20 rebated of the $60 vehicle fee, if you meet a certain income threshold. There’s also a low-income bus-fare discount in the package. And if the state passes transportation funding, then the district board – aka the County Council wearing different hats – is required to re-evaluate. And he said accountability is built into it. Plus, he said, the King County Water Taxi passenger-ferry system is NOT tied into this; it has its own funding.

Third Metro speaker is Stacie Khalsa, who works in employer services, which means working with companies on other transportation options. “My group thinks, the bus is just one way to get around, but there are other ways” with which they help – particularly carpooling and vanpooling, which are handled through Metro’s RideShare operations. Metro runs more than 14,000 vanpool vehicles with more than 10,000 riders, she said. And she mentioned bicycling to work; next month is Bike to Work Month.

Questions posed by Chamber: “How much of a fare increase would be necessary to cover the gap?”
“Metro has raised fares four times … since 2008,” and another increase is set for March 1, 2015, said Minkoff – Metro 25-cent increase, paratransit 50-cent. Metro fares would have to rise $2, to $4.25 per trip to cover this gap. But that doesn’t take into account a potential drop in ridership as a result.

Second question: “Where does the contract with drivers stand?” (after drivers voted late last year to reject a contract offer including a wage freeze followed by small increases)

Answer: “The collective bargaining process is continuing – we’re in mediation talks with ATU Local 587; the mediation step is consistent with” state law-established processes. They’ve been in these talks since February and there’s no timeline.

Third question: West Seattle needs grade-separated transit – where does that stand? “Metro is evaluating a number of potential pathways to get buses from West Seattle and into downtown,” he says, “working with SDOT and WSDOT.” … A grade-separated pathway for downtown and the Lander St. overpass, which would cost $200 million, is not currently funded, “but that’s something we’re all continuing to explore with our partners.”

Fourth question was answered by Metro planner Doug Johnson, asked via e-mail by an apartment manager in The Triangle, regarding 35th/Alaska, will there be RPZ parking as the density in that area increases? Johnson noted that some of what serves that area would be discontinued, including the non-express 21, if Prop 1 doesn’t pass. “Some commuters may look elsewhere to get on those buses,” he said. “35th/Alaska is the peak-ridership point before those buses get into downtown … it’s possible that some commuters from (potentially discontinued runs like 37, 57) might drive (to 35th/Alaska).” The RPZ question is really up to the city, he noted.

Then the floor was open to membership questions. “We talked a lot about reduction in routes, a little bit about union-contract negotiations, but what other things are happening to increase efficiency?” one attendee asked. “Other than cutting ridership and routes.”

Minkoff said, “Operating more efficiently is an ongoing process. We’re entering into budget development for the next biennium.” He said new positions are “looked at rigorously” and in addition to that level of review, they also have left some open positions unfilled. “Every dollar not spent on direct bus service is a dollar that has to go through rigorous justification.”

Second guy says that Metro went through a different process “to become a very diffierent agency” (HE IS COUNCIL STAFF) and did not cut, at a time when Pierce and Snohomish cut their service by 37 percent.

“Are there any park-and-ride plans?” asked another attendee.

“Right now, the Regional Transit Committee, which provides policy guidance to Metro, has asked for a study of access to transit, which (includes) park-and-ride needs,” he said. He said that the city of Seattle has “some different views for where park-and-rides shoudl be.”

Could there be a public-private consideration about the four parking lots in The Junction? asks Montoure. Guy said that he also works on King County Ferry District staff and “we can’t find parking near our ferry terminal. … That’s the big question … how can we aggregate people … that brings the distance” down.

There’s more info on the Metro website here.

14 Comments

  1. I don’t know how Metro runs their “business” internally, but with record ridership you would think there would be few problems covering expenses.

    How did their business model operate in previous years before buses filled up with record numbers? Unless I’m missing something, the expenses associated with running a bus are the same whether it carries one or fifty passengers (although more passengers could mean more in fuel cost, the basic expenses aren’t jumping). As more passengers pack into those buses (as in times of record ridership) the operation of these buses should become more profitable.

    Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, I’m trying to understand how record ridership could be accompanied by deficits that require doubling fares to make ends meet.

    Comment by Brandon — 12:58 pm April 11, 2014 #

  2. One frequently cited reason is that the funding sources have changed/shrunken; operating costs have increased but not by much, says Metro. Here’s one of the sections featured in the webpage linked at the end of the story – http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/future/why-cut.html#about-costs

    Comment by WSB — 1:05 pm April 11, 2014 #

  3. @Brandon: Metro has been scrounging for adequate funding ever since Washington State did away with the progressive MVET in 1999 thanks to good ol’ Tim Eyman (for history, look up I-695).

    Comment by Brian Connolly — 1:19 pm April 11, 2014 #

  4. I really wish Metro would just open ALL public written statements with a link to page spelling out the reasons in plain language and also preface any public recorded statements with the same information.

    Comment by Joe Szilagyi — 2:03 pm April 11, 2014 #

  5. @Brian
    .
    That’s not really true.
    .
    In response to I-695, we passed a sales tax increases to specifically replaced the funds lost by I-695 and increase service. Since 2000, we’ve increased the sales tax by 0.3 for Metro.
    .
    In 2000, Metro’s budget was $348M. In 2014 it will be 640M or 83% higher. Metro’s budget has gone up about 4.5% per year on average since 2000.
    .
    Since 2000, Metro has increased its hours of transit service about 12% from 3.2M to 3.6M
    .
    Adjusted for inflation, Metro’s 2000 budget of $348M would be $462M in 2013 dollars.
    .
    Where does Metro’s money go?
    .
    56% goes to employee wages and benefits
    19% to purchase transportation
    12% to materials and supplies
    12% to other
    .
    Reference:
    .
    Metro in 2000: http://www.ntdprogram.gov/ntdprogram/pubs/profiles/2000/agency_profiles/0001.pdf
    .
    Metro in 2012: http://www.ntdprogram.gov/ntdprogram/pubs/profiles/2012/agency_profiles/0001.pdf

    Comment by sna — 2:37 pm April 11, 2014 #

  6. joe — there are entire sections on Metro on-line devoted to this topic with lots of data and cool pie charts and everything! These figures give a more complete picture than the NTD figures.
    .
    http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/future/
    .
    http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/accountability/

    Comment by metrognome — 3:09 pm April 11, 2014 #

  7. Metro is becoming increasingly inefficient.

    Between 2000 and 2012, Metro’s operating costs increased by 83 percent, revenues increased by 56 percent and ridership increased by only 20 percent.

    Also look into how many millions of dollars per year Metro pays out in lawsuits for its negligent behavior. If you want me to believe bus driving deserves total compensation well into six figures, then stop running people over.

    Voting against Prop 1 will push Metro to reverse their trend of inefficiency. It’s apparent that Metro won’t do it on their own. Renegotiating fuel contracts, reducing reserve funding through spend, and increasing fares are NOT activities that increase efficiencies, as Metro would like you to believe.

    We also seem to have a short memory. Please recall the BS Metro fed to us with the RapidRide implementation. Do you really trust Metro’s ability to count anything? I don’t.

    Comment by Nope — 5:16 pm April 11, 2014 #

  8. I love Metro accounting.
    .
    Metro claims you need to increase fares by $2 to break even. There were over 100 million boardings in 2012 (last year with data). That adds up to $200,000,000+. Shortage is $77 million.
    .
    So which figure is a lie? I suspect “boarding” doesn’t mean “paying”….. Perhaps making everybody “pay up” might be more effective.
    .
    The back of the envelope math tells me that apparently only about 40% of the people pay their way on the bus. I am all for helping out the other guy, but it is ridiculous when the other guy is 60% of the population.

    Comment by Eric1 — 5:32 pm April 11, 2014 #

  9. @Brandon – Metro is not asking for more money. They are asking to replace money that used to come from sales taxes, but sales tax revenue was significantly impacted by the recession a few years ago. They’ve been running service by eating into contigency and putting off capital improvements, but that cannot go on forever.
    .
    The prop 1 measure moves some revenue from sales tax to vehicle tax. Neither are a great solution (both are regressive) but it is the only option open to the county since the state legislature refused permission for the county to implement a (much fairer) MVET.
    .
    Moose

    Comment by Moose2 — 8:36 pm April 11, 2014 #

  10. Despite my strong concerns over Metro’ finances, I will be voting for prop 1 because the cuts in service are too much to take.
    .
    But I think Metro is being extremely misleading with their statements of “savings” and not being honest about its inefficencies. Raising taxes/fees and spending capital reserve funds on operations is not savings. Only a small percent of their $800m “savings” is consistent with common definition of that word.
    .
    And i have a very strong suspicion that the 100 positions cut (with $140k average per year comp) didn’t actually have people working in them. These were probably just positions they thought they needed and decided to “cut”.
    .
    They’re calling things “savings” that aren’t to make the argument to the public that they’ve taken strong steps to become more efficient, but its just not true.
    .
    One only needs to look at the increase in service cost per hour from 2009 to 2012. It went up from $122 to $137. You’d think that “saving” $800m would at least keep their costs flat rather than increasing 12%.

    Comment by sna — 7:23 am April 12, 2014 #

  11. I never take the bus, but I’ll be voting for proposition one because of all the cheapskates out there trying to disguise their greed behind “concern for how Metro is operated”. All these supposed brainiacs have about as much knowledge as to how to run a transit system as I do.

    It’s just sixty bucks, get over it.

    Comment by Freeway — 8:44 am April 12, 2014 #

  12. Be happy paying the $60 (and don’t forget the sales tax increase too). It’s not a lot of cash, but whether this passes or not, we’re getting about 10-20% less bus service than we should be if Metro was run more efficiently.

    Comment by sna — 9:29 am April 12, 2014 #

  13. @Freeway: You’d be shockingly surprised if you knew the backgrounds of some of your neighbors. Use caution with assumptions unless you don’t mind looking foolish.

    Comment by Amused — 2:56 pm April 12, 2014 #

  14. Hey sna, nice referencing there. I see the operating expenses figures, but where do you see the the hours of transit service figures?

    Comment by Ben — 10:27 pm April 21, 2014 #

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