(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.
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.