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Friday, August 1, 2008

Metro’s Budget Crisis Worsens

posted by on August 1 at 15:51 PM

I’ve been too busy working on our upcoming endorsement issue to Slog much today, but I have to take a break from studying the scintillating races for state treasurer and secretary of state to take note of the latest news out of King County: Sales tax revenues, which help pay for Metro bus service, are falling tens of millions short of projections. The shortfall—an estimated $45 million this year and next—combined with a separate $22 million funding gap due to rising fuel costs, means the 25-cent fare increase the county council was set to approve on Monday won’t even come close to funding the shortfall. In lieu of raising fares now, the county council will spend a month coming up with a proposal to fill the gap between Metro revenues and costs. What does that mean to the average Metro rider? Higher fares, for sure—probably at least 50 cents higher, and potentially even more. The county is also considering deferring new capital investments—i.e., keeping old buses in service instead of replacing them—and, as a last resort, cutting service.

This problem isn’t going away. Even if sales tax revenues get back on track, fuel prices aren’t going down—certainly nowhere near the sub-$3 level the county assumed in its budget projections. And buses, unlike light rail, run on gas. (That includes Metro’s hybrid buses, which have proved much less efficient in practice—stopping and starting on Seattle’s crowded city streets—than in the county’s projections.) Buses also take more drivers to operate than fixed-rail systems—say, 20 drivers for 1,000 passengers, instead of one or two. It’s ironic, then, that at a time when Metro can’t keep the buses it has in operation (and can’t afford to buy any new ones) the solution King County Executive Ron Sims is proposing for our region’s transportation problems is… more buses. That’s not even short-sighted. It’s blind.

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ECB: I write this way as well - so no offense - but you left your outline notes in the post!

Posted by Matthew | August 1, 2008 3:57 PM

more efficient than our old buses

a bus future may not be stuatianble highly volatile fboth fule an dlboar

much cheaper to pay for driver


Posted by mackro mackro | August 1, 2008 3:58 PM

more efficient than our old buses

a bus future may not be stuatianble highly volatile fboth fule an dlboar

much cheaper to pay for driver


Posted by mackro mackro | August 1, 2008 3:59 PM

Not all buses run on gas.

Posted by joykiller | August 1, 2008 4:06 PM

More anti-bus bullshit from Erica C. "I can't ride the bus because it's full of handicapped people and negros" Barnett. Not surprising since she works for Dan "I can't ride the bus because it's inconvenient for me and I don't like negros or stinky homeless people" Savage. One, buses don't run on gas, they use either natural gas or diesel. Two a lot of the buses in Seattle don't even use that, they're trolley buses that run off of electricity. Three, let's compare fuel costs for running a bus service over capital costs for building a light rail network. Then let's compare operating costs. Rail loses every single time.

Unfortunately asking Erica C. "I can't believe you voted for that horrible negro Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton" Barnett to be honest about the relative merits of any form of transit compared to her beloved light rail fetish object is pretty much like asking John McCain to explain the difference between a Shia and a Sunni or where the Czech Republic is or why he thinks we need to keep troops in Iraq for the next century. You'll either get an answer that's dishonest, stupid or both.

Posted by wile_e_quixote | August 1, 2008 4:16 PM

Some buses run on excitement.

Posted by moobs | August 1, 2008 4:17 PM

One point you neglect is the fact that light rail (at least the plans we currently have) will only serve a handful of transit hubs in particular locations along a north-south (later east, hopefully) axis. Yes, the trains will require fewer operators, but that's because they're just going back and forth in a straight line from the Airport to the U-District (of course, we hope that will expand down the road). It won't replace the intra-city route capabilities of bus transit. I won't be able to take light rail to Ballard, or Fremont, or West Seattle, or any number of places that aren't Cap Hill, U-District, Downtown, Tukwilla or the Airport.

Yes, Metro is eating a huge shit sandwich with fuel prices right now, along with every other entity in the country that uses gas-powered vehicles. But at a time when record numbers of people are choosing public transportation, and the bus system is all we'll have for the near future (it's not like light rail stations spring up overnight), to suggest that expansion of bus service is a bad idea on its face is idiotic. I'm saying this as both an advocate of light rail expansion and a resident of Seattle who is currently dependent on bus service to get around.

I seriously don't get your attitude on this. You've spent all this time complaining that people need to get out of their cars, and now that the currently-available alternative, bus transportation, is facing record ridership levels, you're against improving and expanding the bus system. WTF? We may need light rail for the future, but we need buses now. Bus service can always be contracted in the future once light rail becomes more established.

Posted by Hernandez | August 1, 2008 4:18 PM

@7: Probably the smartest comment I've ever read on Slog. You get a gold star!

Posted by Matthew | August 1, 2008 4:22 PM

Well said, Hernandez @ #7.

Posted by BB | August 1, 2008 4:35 PM

If we stopped locking up people who commit non-violent crimes, and cut Sue Rahr's budget of Gestapo Pitbull-shooting goons in half, maybe we would have a surplus ...

But you're right - we need to double bus transit in King County. Especially on the lines that are profitable.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 1, 2008 4:38 PM

Metro would be wiser to cut service on low-ridership routes than to raise fares again, or to postpone the implementation of new RapidRide service. The moaning about how much Metro sucks always seems to assume that there is a magic pot of money that would make everything ok if only the stupid politicians could find it at the end of the municipal finance rainbow. Seriously, folks--how do you expect Metro to stay afloat without cutting service?

And also, amen @7.

Posted by lorax | August 1, 2008 4:40 PM

ecb's anti bus bias is well known. less well known is some crazy crap she's tried to pull on drivers before. seriously.

come on erica, call for a ban on cars and buses and for the city to buy everyone a bike. you know you want to. and get us doing mandatory jumping jacks each morning too!

Posted by Harry Callahan | August 1, 2008 4:42 PM

Get rid of the ride free area. Tourists should pay for the buses too and it might get rid of some of the "stinky homeless people."

Posted by elswinger | August 1, 2008 4:44 PM

Hernandez @ 7

I don't think Erica said that we shouldn't improve or expand bus service, but rather that we need to aggressively expand rail in our region for a more sustainable future. Of course buses will continue to be the transit workhorse for years to come, but each light rail line will allow us to redistribute bus service elsewhere. When U-Link opens in 2016, there will be many opportunities to reduce the armada of buses between Downtown, Cap Hill, and the U-District.

Posted by i prefer a reality-based commute | August 1, 2008 4:46 PM

2016 - just 7 short years after Sound Transit had promised voters the line would open (and it's only going to Husky Stadium - not the central U-District).

But yes, by all means, let's just get rid of those icky buses now like ECB wants - that really makes oodles of sense.

Posted by Mr. X | August 1, 2008 5:06 PM

We should get a fare REDUCTION if we ride on an all-electric bus trolley line like 43/44 then.

And why do we still have a Free Ride Zone, anyway?

Let's charge those ultra-rich downtowners $1 instead.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 1, 2008 5:26 PM

My understanding (kindly correct me if you know different) is that an inordinate amount, maybe 10 or 15 percent, of any new funding for King County-Metro bus service in Seattle has already been legally dedicated to generous subsidies of Paul Allen's SLUT . It shouldn't surprise anybody that King County Exec Sims wants more money poured into new bus service.

Posted by Suba | August 1, 2008 5:46 PM

Then yank the funding for SLUT and make them pay the cost of the line from it's own revenues.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 1, 2008 6:24 PM

Aren't there trolley busses that run on electricity at a fraction of the cost of light rail's expensive infrastructure? Yes. How expensive would it be to create bus only lanes for such busses? Not very. Why don't we do that? Fetish for 19th century technology that could make us a "world class city"?

Or, conversely, if light rail makes so much sense financially, why isn't it being incorporated into I-5 express lanes, or into the expansion of 520 into 6 lanes, and connected with already existing park and rides? What percentage of its operations and construction are funded by passenger fares, compared to metro buses?

Basically right now light rail is a boondoggle and a gentrification machine for rainier valley. Its expansion will be nice, but we could probably do more with the same money if we were looking for cost efficiency rather than an icon of cosmopolitan respectability.

Posted by Trevor | August 1, 2008 6:52 PM

wile_e_quixote @5: More anti-bus bullshit from Erica C. "I can't ride the bus because it's full of handicapped people and negros"

Wile, I'm just curious. How often do you ride the bus?

wile_e_quixote: One, buses don't run on gas, they use either natural gas or diesel. Two a lot of the buses in Seattle don't even use that, they're trolley buses that run off of electricity.

Wile, let me make sure I have this straight. You're saying buses are immune to high fuel costs because they don't run on gas? This is an odd response to an actual story about Metro staggering under the weight of high fuel costs. Whatever fuel they are running on, it's not getting any cheaper.

Posted by cressona | August 1, 2008 7:14 PM

Trevor @ 19

If you are talking about dedicated bus lanes in existing traffic lanes you are facing a major political battle. Most of the low hanging fruit in that area is already being uses. If you are talking about dedicated busways then you should just build rail for the same cost.

And the reason we don't build down freeway medians is because nobody lives there. Most people don't want to build dense development near a stinky freeway. The ST2 plan touches some of the most dense communties with the potential for walkable, dense neighborhoods.

Light rail has better farebox return than buses and it is far past time we build a network of rail to compliment our bus system so that both can be better.

Posted by i prefer a reality-based commute | August 1, 2008 7:15 PM


Sound Transit light rail was originally conceived as more of a regional rapid transit spine to serve existing demand rather than a new development incentive to create it, and much of its ultimate proposed route (Tacoma to Everett, essentially) still reflects this. Lots and lots of transit systems use freeway rights-of-way (BART, the Red Line to South Chicago, the train between Baltimore Airport and Washington DC, PATH trains, etc etc etc), so it's not exactly unheard of.

The City of Seattle actually insisted - for better (if you're a middle class white person who can afford to live in a rapidly-gentrifying new neighborhood) or worse (if you happen to be the poor folks who are displaced to make room for them) - that it go through the Rainier Valley to encourage new development. The City also opposed an elevated line in this corridor specifically to encourage "redevelopment" (or urban renewal by eminent domain, to put a finer point on it) of existing properties that were not blighted, but not built to the zoned maximum, either.

But for those decisions, a 21-mile light rail line from Sea Tac (likely with a Southcenter stop) to Northgate would be opening next year on time and a lot closer to the stated budget that was used to sell the project to voters.

That said, I agree with you regarding the political problems that surround changing existing traffic lanes into bus-only dedicated facilities - though it has already been done on the W.Seattle Bridge and is occurring on much of Elliott Avenue and SR 99, albeit not to the extent required.

Of course, even if it makes for a faster trip than going by car, for those bus-only lanes to really get people out of their own vehicles you're going to have to add a LOT of service hours to bring trip frequency to a level where it is a viable substitute.

Sorry, ECB - that means more buses.

Posted by Mr. X | August 1, 2008 8:59 PM


And ST will be following the freeway as it heads north from Northgate where it makes sense and will be in relatively cheap right of way to the south. But on the Eastside and in Seattle following the freeway makes no sense.

Your history account on the Rainier Valley decision is largely accurate, but if you don't think the Rainier Valley was already gentrifying you haven't been paying attention. SE Seattle is also the least dense quadrant of the city and it makes sense to target growth there.

Going through the valley at grade saved costs, not increased them. Mr. X seems lost in the late 90's reality of Sound Transit. The first five years were rough, but the last five years have seen ST deliver projects on time and on budget. To keep harping on what was promised by a brand new agency in 1996 is silly. It is 2008, I would suggest that the last five years are far more relevant in discussing whether we should trust ST to build the proposed lines.

Posted by i prefer a reality based commute | August 1, 2008 9:48 PM


Posted by Fenesse | August 2, 2008 12:22 AM

C’mon ECB., I damn near got hit by a car riding my bike the other day, I ride ever-more-crammed-buses every day, and this is the thanks I get from you for having a 100% voting record on transit?

Bus riders are eating the shit sandwich that Hernandez @ 7 so eloquently described too these days. Buses have turned into sardine cans! We are all tinned anchovies now.

Suba @ 17—sorry to say, nearly ˝ of the bus service that gets re-allotted once light rail kicks in has been sucked up by the SLUT. Good luck to y’all in the south end, hope you can fend for yourselves. Read Lord of the Flies if you need specifics.

Trevor @ 19—the cost for electric bus infrastructure that isn’t there now is $5 million or so per mile. $10 million or so for the deluxe version.

Posted by Another One Rides the Bus | August 2, 2008 1:23 AM

So if sales tax revenues are tanking this much, what is that going to mean for the ST measure on the ballot (also funded by sales tax)?

Anybody got $70 million sitting around that the county could borrow?

Posted by Greg | August 2, 2008 10:02 AM

Will in seattle repeatedly implies (hilariously) that there are bus lines that are 'profitable' or that the slut has 'its own revenues'.

WiS sure knows how to one-up ECB in an undeclared inanity contest!

Posted by John | August 4, 2008 8:26 AM

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