(UPDATED BELOW with details of the just-announced plan)
10:41 AM: County Executive Dow Constantine and County Council members are briefing the media downtown right now on what was billed as “a major development (regarding) transportation funding.) According to the politics website PubliCola, the word is that the council now has the “supermajority” needed to put a $20/year car-tab fee in place, without sending it to voters. This comes as a deadline loomed: After postponing a decision two weeks ago, the King County Council was scheduled to decide next Monday whether to put the proposed $20 car-tab “save Metro” fee on the ballot, just make it happen with a supermajority vote in their own ranks, or take some other action to close the Metro budget gap that had threatened huge service cuts. West Seattle’s County Councilmember Joe McDermott says via Facebook, “Pleased that my colleagues and I have come to an agreement to save Metro transit!” More to come. Our partners at the Seattle Times are updating their story here; when we get the full text of the announcement, we’ll add it here.
11:51 AM: The full announcement has just arrived from the county executive’s office, explaining the five points in the plan, including phasing out the ride-free zone and providing bus tickets to car-tab renewers:
King County Executive Dow Constantine today announced a supermajority of County Council support needed to enact a two-year $20 Congestion Reduction Charge and avert a 17 percent cut of Metro bus service starting in 2012. Nearly 1,500 County residents turned out to four public hearings in July to call for this action by the Council.
Constantine today thanked members of the Council – including Councilmembers Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert, who announced their support today based on a package of amendments that paves the way for councilmanic action at Monday’s Council meeting. Councilmembers Larry Phillips, Bob Ferguson, Larry Gossett, Joe McDermott, and Julia Patterson had previously stated their support.
“The people of King County voted with their feet, and they overwhelmingly turned out to tell us to save Metro Transit and keep bus service on the street. They have been heard,” said Executive Constantine. “This agreement creates value for drivers who pay the fee, and provides an incentive for them to give the bus a try. I want to thank these seven Councilmembers for stepping up. This is a collaborative approach that shows how government is supposed to work.”
“This bipartisan agreement addresses my primary concerns and offers real reform for Metro,” said Council Vice Chair Hague. “It’s critical that we keep people and businesses moving on the Eastside – especially during these tough economic times. This new package creates jobs and provides equity for the Eastside.”
“We’re working together in a bipartisan fashion, unlike those in Washington, DC,” said Councilmember Lambert. “People in these uncertain economic times need certainty that they have an alternative method such as buses to get to work. There are many systemic changes in the new package that will help meet the needs of efficiency, transparency, and providing transportation.”
“The people of King County spoke up in unprecedented numbers to tell us that transit is critical to their daily lives and the effects of deep service cuts would be devastating,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips, lead sponsor of the congestion reduction charge legislation and Chair of the Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee. “Their message compelled us to come together and find creative solutions that allow us to broadly support enacting the temporary, emergency congestion reduction charge to save transit in King County.”
“This is an agreement that ensures a vital transportation link will remain strong as we work out a long-term financing solution,” said Council Chair Larry Gossett. “Those with the least, who depend on public transportation the most, can continue to use Metro to go about their everyday lives.”
The County Council is set to consider amendments to the proposed Congestion Reduction Charge at its next regular meeting on Monday, August 15. Under the proposed legislation, King County Metro Transit would:
· Develop a Transit Incentive Program to provide eight bus tickets worth up to $24 for each car tab renewal. People can use the tickets for rides to work, play or special sporting events. They may also choose to donate the value of those tickets to a pool of nearly 150 human service agencies to provide mobility for those in need.
· Phase out the downtown Seattle Ride Free Area in October 2012. The Council’s 2009 performance audit called for Metro to update its formula for collecting revenues in the Ride Free Area (RFA). When first established in 1973 as the “Magic Carpet Zone,” a city subsidy funded 100 percent of the fares Metro no longer collected in that area. Today the city of Seattle pays Metro $400,000 a year to support the RFA, which is about 18 percent of the $2.2 million annual cost for Metro to operate the RFA.
· Increase the pool of funds that provides sharply discounted bus tickets to human service and homeless programs. Metro now discounts tickets worth nearly $2 million annually. The tickets are currently sold to human service agencies at 20 cents on the dollar. Metro will either increase the current ticket allocation, or further increase the discount while giving the public the option of donating their tickets under the incentive plan to those in need. Metro will seek the advice of human service agencies in how to best help those in need.
· Implement right-sizing of service consistent with the Transit Strategic Plan. In communities where it makes sense, Metro will deploy lower-cost, more efficient Dial-a-Ride Transit service (DART), community access transportation services, Vanpools and vanshares, making service more efficient and responsive to our riders.
· Consider routes that carry more riders due to the effects of highway tolling as candidates for added services. This language in the proposed legislation is consistent with the principles to enhance Metro’s productivity developed by the Regional Transit Task Force and adopted in the County’s Transit Strategic Plan.
“As a regular bus commuter, I am thrilled that we have reached an agreement that will protect the transit service that workers and their families rely on every day. This agreement will keep our economy moving at the time we need it most,” said Councilmember Bob Ferguson. “I thank Executive Constantine and my colleagues for working to find common ground. On my way home tonight, I look forward to sharing the good news with my fellow riders on the #41 bus.”
“Today’s developments are the result of hours of public testimony, hundreds of messages and thousands of emails about the vital role Metro plays in the lives of King County residents,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott. “My colleagues and I will continue to work together to find long-term, sustainable funding for Metro to keep our region moving for years to come.”
“From our experience with past incentive programs, we know that people who become familiar with riding Metro are more inclined to ride the bus again. Using free tickets to shop, get to work or to a sporting event can save money and take one more car off the road,” said Council Budget Chair Julia Patterson. “More importantly, the vouchers could expose a whole new generation of riders to Metro bus service, and the option to donate unused vouchers to the poor is incredibly valuable in these difficult times.”
Under the state’s authorizing legislation, the Congestion Reduction Charge would take effect six months after the measure is signed into law.
“Today we are doing what it takes to keep buses on the streets, but this is only an interim measure,” said Executive Constantine. “This gives us time to work statewide on a permanent solution for funding transit and other critical transportation needs.”
TRANSIT INCENTIVE PROGRAM
The incentive program is intended to reach beyond the bus riders who already account for 108 million annual trips on Metro. Each King County resident renewing their car registration would receive a request form from Metro when they receive their new license tabs. To receive eight free-ride tickets, each car owner must fill out the form, which will also offer the option of donating the value of the tickets to a pool for distribution of bus tickets to support low-income residents who depend on transit to access services in their communities. The bus tickets will apply only to regular Metro Transit bus service and will not be transferable to other transit modes. Past experience with other incentive programs has shown that people who try riding Metro are more inclined to ride the bus again.
RIDE FREE AREA
In downtown Seattle about 9,000 free bus rides are taken every day between Jackson and Battery Streets and in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. The service was initially launched to help spur retail development in the downtown business core.
According to Metro studies, about half of all riders traveling in the RFA carry a pre-paid bus pass. Another 18 percent have paid for their trip and are making transfers in the RFA. About one-third are making trips as unpaid riders.
Among the benefits riders will see from the phasing-out of the RFA:
Riders will pay as they board, rather than paying as they exit after leaving the RFA– a policy many customers found confusing.
A “pay as you enter” fare system will reduce fare evasion on outbound trips, reduce fare disputes between drivers and passengers.
On trips leaving downtown, riders would be able to use all doors to exit and, especially on a crowded bus, would no longer have to work their way up the aisle to the front of the bus to exit.
Before the change, Metro will reach out to travel and convention groups to discuss how best to accommodate visitors who want to use Metro buses during their stays in downtown Seattle.
Metro will work with human service agencies to determine how their clients might be impacted by the change. Currently Metro contributes nearly $2 million worth of discounted tickets annually to charities and other human services groups. These tickets help clients get to job training, shelters and medical appointments.
RIGHT-SIZING OF BUS SERVICE
Recognizing that one type of transit service may not meet the needs of all communities, Metro will explore a variety of alternatives for “right-sizing” services. These alternatives are called for in the new Transit Strategic Plan, and provide promising new tools to help maintain transit services for communities that do not have high ridership due to their rural character. Under right-sizing no community currently served by Metro would be left without transit travel options.
To offset service reductions or eliminations on routes that are less productive, Metro will identify a menu of “right-sized” transit services that can effectively replace up to 20,000 hours of traditional fixed-route bus service by June 2012. These more cost-effective services could include alternatives such as Dial-a-Ride Transit (DART) service, community access transportation, vanpoool or volunteer transportation programs and would benefit communities in east and south King County that are adjacent to rural areas.
Over the next year, Metro will reach out to community organizations and groups to explore partnerships for creating these various lower-cost services, and invite residents to help shape these right-sizing strategies.