I sat through two briefings this week that strongly reinforced the urgent need for more local transit funding in Seattle-King County. While I'm writing about our local challenges in transit service, I know leaders in Snohomish and Pierce counties face some of the same issues.
Here's the bottom line: Metro transit service is going to be massively cut back over the next several years due to lack of funding. The equivalent of all weekend service or all service on the east side of Lake Washington could vanish. (See chart below.) These terrible reductions in transit service will happen when we actually need just the opposite.
And why do we need more transit service, especially in downtown Seattle? Three reasons. First, various studies estimate that downtown trip volumes will increase about 30% in the coming years because of housing and job growth. Second, replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct (no matter the replacement option) will create new traffic patterns and driver behavior. Third, because of traffic diverted from the new deep-bore tunnel—estimated in a worst-case scenario at approximately 16,000 to 20,000 vehicles—as drivers attempt to avoid the tolls. (Another 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles will divert from the tunnel to I-5 and east to Capitol Hill.) These three factors mean we need to redouble our efforts to provide efficient and easy-to-use alternatives to single occupancy vehicles.
But guess what? If anti-tunnel advocates have their way and we abandon the tunnel in favor of the surface/transit/I-5 alternative, twice as many vehicles will flood downtown streets. Yes, twice as many, perhaps even as many as 50,000, including more than twice as many to I-5 and Capitol Hill!(By the way, the advocacy blogs that rail against the tunnel and point to traffic diversion as one of their key anti-tunnel arguments, don't report this rather inconvenient fact about the even worse gridlock disruption that occurs with the alternative surface/transit/I-5 option.)
Here's more detail for those of you who like to dig deeper:
Councilmembers were briefed Monday morning on a new plan for the allocation of Metro transit service in King County, including Seattle. You can watch that briefing here.
The following chart captures the most important fact from Monday's briefing. Unless we do things differently, Metro bus service throughout King County will be dangerously reduced in the coming years. The chart below shows the number of transit service hours that will be eliminated without additional funding. Another key point to keep in mind, Metro is funded by taxpayer subsidies and by passengers who pay to ride. Passenger farebox revenues represent less than one-third of Metro's total revenue, so that's why additional funding must come from government. (Don't fall for the illusion that transit service should be privatized either. A private company running Metro likely would have to triple fares just to break even, let alone make a profit. Public transit is a public benefit and it must remain a public service.)
I used the word "dangerously" above because transit service is a key component of our regional transportation system. Without robust public transit, our regional transportation system would gridlock for long periods every day of the workweek. Our economy would take a massive hit as workers and freight would be delayed and disrupted. We can't let that happen.
The second event of the week happened this afternoon during an informal discussion in Council chambers on the impact of tolling the new deep-bore tunnel. The main topic was the anticipated diversion of traffic onto city streets as drivers avoid the tunnel to avoid the tolls. As I hope you will see, this diversion issue involves transit as well. Watch this briefing here.
If we did nothing and kept the Alaskan Way Viaduct in place, we would need more transit to avoid gridlock downtown because of the projected 30% increase in trips. But, of course, this isn't a realistic option because the damaged viaduct must be replaced. Whatever replacement option actually gets done—and the deep-bore tunnel is underway—we will need even more transit to maintain good mobility of people, freight and supply.
Last year, I visited Boston and saw their downtown tunnels and the green parkway they constructed along their central waterfront. We heard one message loud and clear: don't neglect transit. One city leader told us, "We did half of our project; we didn't follow through with the extra transit service we knew we would need." Today, Boston faces a looming congestion crisis yet again because they failed to complete the transit component of their transportation system. We can't allow that to happen here in the Puget Sound region.
State Representative Marko Liias (D-21) has introduced legislation (HB 1536) in Olympia that would allow counties to charge a "congestion reduction" fee to fund extra transit service. Under Liias' bill, the congestion reduction fee would automatically expire after two years, so it's a bridge solution until a more comprehensive, state-wide transportation funding solution is adopted. Kudos to Marko for his consistent and strong leadership on regional issues.
For their part, Metro officials have already taken corrective action and introduced significant reforms. They have changed schedules to better reflect passenger demand, they have eliminated unnecessary bus stops to improve service speed, they have hammered out a new labor agreement with the drivers union that will save approximately 200,000 service hours that otherwise would have been cut, and they have reduced management and non-driver staff by approximately 90 positions. (A big shout out to the drivers union for doing their part, too!)
One last personal note. At yesterday's Transportation Committee meeting, we got to meet Brian Ferris, developer of the very cool, helpful and essential One Bus Away phone App. I use this App all the time to check my bus schedule. It will get even better when Metro completes its conversion over the next two years to a true GPS-AVL network that will track every single bus in real time which means we'll all be able to track our bus even during snowstorms and other schedule-disrupting events.