Comments on the Regional Transit Task Force by Chris Eggen

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chris Eggen
As part of his work as a Shoreline City Councilmember, Chris Eggen represents Shoreline on the Regional Transit Task Force.  Here, he provides information on the scope of the committee and the current issues.

The Regional Transit Task Force
by Chris Eggen, Shoreline City Councilmember

Background - Metro Transit
Metro Transit, like all transit systems in the world, requires significant subsidies from taxes. Metro is funded 75% by taxes of one sort or another, and 25% by fares. These proportions are typical of transit in the US. Not only does METRO as a whole not make a profit, but also no METRO route makes a profit. Therefore, although the proportion of public funding could be somewhat reduced by efficiencies, even draconian efficiencies and fare increases would not eliminate it. Thus the reductions in sales tax revenue due to the recession greatly affect the ability of Metro to supply transit. 

Disagreements between Metro and East and South King County Cities
The problems have been made worse by some basic disagreements between Seattle and East and South King County Cities regarding allocation of transit service. The latter issue involves a difference between where taxes supporting METRO Transit are collected (about 1/3 in the East County, 1/3 in the South County, and 1/3 from Seattle and Shoreline) and where the transit is allocated (60% spent in Seattle and Shoreline, 20% in East King County, and 20% in South King County).

In 2002 a compromise policy was established to address the disagreements regarding transit allocation. In this policy, 40% of hours in future growth would be allocated primarily to each of the fast growing East and South King County Regions, and only 20% to Seattle and Shoreline. (This is the 40-40-20 rule.) In return current transit allocations in Seattle and Shoreline would remain unaffected. However, because increases in revenue since then have not greatly exceeded increases in costs, the growth has been minimal and the relative share of spending in the three regions has not greatly changed. This has left the East and South King County Regions frustrated.

Recession forces decrease of transit hours
In the recession of 2008, it was clear that transit hours would have to decrease. The policy was that the decreases would be allocated according to current spending, so 60% of the decrease would come from Seattle and Shoreline, and 20% each from the East and South County regions. The question arose as to whether restoration of hours in the future would be subject to the 40-40-20 rule, or whether the hours cut in the recession would be restored before the 40-40-20 rule would apply. The East and South County Regions strongly favored application of the 40-40-20 rule in restoration, which would effectively cut the total hours in Seattle and Shoreline. Of course Seattle and Shoreline favored restoration of hours cut during the recession before 40-40-20 applied. 

A disagreement of this type might have caused a political crisis in the county that would potentially greatly harm the ability to get support in the Washington State Legislature for measures to address the funding crisis. In my opinion, the regional transit task force was formed primarily to see if some agreement could be reached. I think we should all applaud our King County Executive and Council for this action, since acrimonious regional competition will not help any citizen in King County.

Goals of the Task Force
I was appointed to the regional transit task force when it was formed in March 2010. The primary goal of the task force was to recommend policies for growing or reducing the Metro Transit System should the need arise. Other goals were to recommend any changes to the mission of the METRO Transit System, to recommend strategies to increase the efficiency of METRO, and to recommend a legislative agenda to address funding shortfalls.

Composition of the committee
The task force included representatives from municipal Governments (two each from the Seattle-Shoreline region, and from East and South King County), representatives of transit riders, representatives of disadvantaged communities, representatives for transit advocates, representatives of labor, and representatives from Metro.

Advocating for Shoreline
I advocated for Shoreline’s position, that we should not adopt any policy that shifts hours from Seattle and Shoreline to other parts of the county because transit is most efficient in urban areas, because in urban areas automobile transportation is inherently problematic due to limited road capacity and parking, and because many residents of Seattle and even of Shoreline have intentionally adopted a lifestyle that does not involve use of an automobile for routine commuting, and to significantly reduce transit would have a huge impact on these residents. However, I also emphasized that the anger at the inequity between the taxes that people in the South and East King County were assessed and the amount of transit they got was real and needed to be addressed in some way.

In the end the RTTF is recommending a policy that is consistent with the position outlined above, and has many other virtues. First, the main principle used to determine transit allocation is efficiency. METRO will focus on serving areas that support transit, and Shoreline is one of those areas. However, a secondary principles is to maintain service to all areas of the county consistent with the needs of those areas, so we will maintain service to cities such as Bellevue, Issaquah, Kent, Auburn consistent with residents mobility needs and the economic needs of the county. Another secondary principle is to maintain accessible service to transit dependent populations.

Recommendations for transit planning
Just as important as the principles is the way the RTTF recommended transit planning be done. In the next few months, Metro will develop guidelines for transit allocation to implement the three principles. The Regional Transportation Committee will vet these guidelines with a lot of opportunity for public input before approval by the King County Council. In addition, our local transportation forum, SeaShore, will be making recommendations and will also be accepting public comment. These guidelines are extremely important since they will determine the details of the transportation system that comes out of the process.

Another important recommendation from the RTTF to Metro is a number of strategies to find efficiencies. For example, METRO is now testing scheduling changes (for current routes only) that should help us get more from each transit tax dollar. However, there is some concern that they will not allow adequate intervals between end of route and beginning of the next to keep busses on schedule.

Funding strategies to grow Metro
A final important recommendation is to consider funding strategies to grow Metro. The first step would be legislative action to allow King County to raise more taxes for transit. The next would be a public vote on any proposed tax increase. Such an effort will not happen for several years. However, as cost of gas and the number of cars on the road increases we need to provide a better public transportation system. A dream of mine is to have an easily accessible, energy efficient ride from Shoreline to wherever someone needs to work or attend school, be it Bellevue, Kirkland, Auburn, or Everett, without the aggravation of fighting traffic or finding a parking spot.

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