If you’ve ever looked deep into the abyss of partisan gridlock and anti-tax paranoia and wondered where the bottom was — well, Seattle might be approaching it right now. Facing a massive budget gap — caused largely by the antagonism and negligence of state legislators — Metro Transit has announced a plan to cut spending 17 percent by eliminating 74 bus routes.
Metro’s plan, unveiled yesterday, would “delete” 74 of the system’s 214 bus routes. And 107 routes — fully half the current system — will be “changed,” mostly by reducing or eliminating nighttime service. Some buses will stop running as early as 7:00 p.m. The 33 “unchanged” routes will see changes too, Metro notes — they will become more crowded.
“Riders and communities across King County would feel the impacts: fewer travel options, longer waits between buses, more transfers, more-crowded and less-reliable buses, and increased traffic congestion,” Metro writes on its website.
This happens at a time when record ridership is already stressing the system. “There’s not enough buses,” says Seattle’s “bus chick,” Carla Saulter. “The buses are crowded. There’s not enough frequency. In every way, it’s just not meeting people’s needs.” According to Metro’s service guidelines, the agency should be expanding service by 15 percent. Saulter, a car-free mother of two, says her primary bus route — the 27 — is facing elimination.
“We don’t want to be cutting service — in fact, we should be growing here in King County,” Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond said in a videotaped message. “It would improve the quality of life and improve our economic future. But unless we find new revenue, we are looking, unfortunately, at having to reduce the system.”
That “unless” is key. Bruce Nourish, writing in the Seattle Transit Blog yesterday, noted that this “bloodbath” of cuts is avoidable.
There are two possibilities for forestalling this crisis. First, King County could form a countywide Transportation Benefit District and raise revenues that way. Seattle has its own TBD but since Metro Transit is run by King County, other parts of the county need to help fund it — including rural and semi-rural areas where extending transit service is extremely expensive and not cost-effective. So far, the county has opted not to form its own TBD.
Second — and more ideally — the state legislature could grant local jurisdictions the authority to enact — or at least, let voters decide on — a motor vehicle excise tax, or MVET. The city had one before 1999, when anti-tax zealot Tim Eyman spearheaded a statewide ballot initiative that turned a 1.5 percent tax on the value of cars into a $30 flat fee per vehicle. (For the record, $30 is equivalent to 1.5 percent of the car value if your car is worth $2,000.)