The Seattle Times, March 20th front page article about the proposed King County sales tax and car tab increase to avoid Metro service cuts is an example of where both sides got it partly right but both ignored the obvious solution. Those opposed to the increases were justified in their concerns about Metro operating costs. However the advocates were also justified in claiming Metro’s previous cuts made it unlikely further cuts could cover the shortfall.
Neither side acknowledged that at least part of the Metro problem is due to their much-ballyhooed “Rapid Ride “ program. Apparently federal grants were used to purchase very expensive buses with more capacity than needed for the vast majority of Metro routes. (Even routes that could have used the capacity would have been better served with more frequent standard buses during peak commutes.) Their higher operating costs along with the fact they are rarely more than 10-20% filled for the vast majority of their routes is probably the major reason King County Metro already spends nearly 50% more on operating costs per capita ($284) than Denver RTD, Orange County, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Oakland, and San Jose. Unfortunately very little can probably be done about it now.
Neither side recognized that the King County Council had a better source for the needed funds, namely Sound Transit. The 12/03/13 post “Solving Metro Shortfall” details the dichotomy between the funding for the two public transit systems. For example Metro needs $75 million to avoid route changes that will reduce their ridership by 14 million riders annually. Yet Sound Transit’s 2013 budget included spending $92.4 million expanding a Sounder Rail system that already cost nearly $40 million to operate, and had a projected annual ridership of only 2.8 million. Spending whose primary justification is to provide rides for those who “prefer” trains to buses.
What’s inexplicable is the fact King County Council members who voted to allow another burdensome tax and fee increase also played a prominent role in providing the Sounder funds. The King County Executive not only is the head of the Sound Transit Board, he selects all the other board members, four of whom are on the King County Council Transportation committee. Presumably they all approved of the budget.
Even these funds pale in comparison to the fact the ST board is apparently willing to spend $20 billion over the next ten years constructing Central Link extensions whose operating costs will dwarf rational fare box revenue estimates and an East Link extension that will gridlock I-90 and devastate the route into Bellevue. Its time the leadership in both organizations recognized the Metro shortfall is worthy of more financial support from Sound Transit.