by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
By the middle of 2014, King County Metro Transit may be forced to cut 17 percent of its overall service, making up 600,000 service hours reduced by limiting or cutting entire bus lines. These cuts will occur across the county, including several buses on and to Capitol Hill. On Thursday, at Seattle Central Community College, a panel of experts and stakeholders in Metro Transit sat on a panel to talk about the cuts and what options are on the table to address or avoid them.
Chris Arkills of King County Metro spoke to the panel and community attendees at the meeting, saying, “These proposed cuts will have a devastating effect on the people of King County.” He outlined where Metro gets its funding today and why the agency is chronically under-funded. By Arkills’s estimates, the deficit comes from a combination of pre-Recession legislation and economic turmoil beginning in 2008.
“The elimination of a progressive vehicle tab excise tax meant the virtual elimination of base support for public transit agencies,” Arkills said, referring to 1999′s King County Ballot Initiative 695. I-695 changed the way that drivers in King County pay for their car tabs. Originally, drivers paid to register or renew tabs based on the value of the car, while the initiative created a flat rate for all cars. Arkills claimed that Metro lost $1.3 billion in funding as a result. I-695′s chief sponsor, Tim Eyman, was a topic of conversation at the January 16 panel – many of the speakers encouraged attendees to boo the man.
Today, Metro Transit gets approximately 60 percent of its funding from sales tax and 29 percent from fare collections. The Great Recession directly impacted the agency’s ability to collect sufficient funds from these sources. Increased unemployment and reduced incomes resulted in a significant drop in sales tax revenue for the county, and fewer people willing to spend money on bus fares. Metro attempted to address funding shortfalls by eliminating waste, making small cuts over the years and raising bus fares four times since the beginning of the recession. As a result, Metro claimed that its current funding level is on par with its funding level in 1997.
“It will take us a decade to get back to where we were in 2008,” Arkills said.
King County Metro received a temporary congestion charge that slightly increased car tab prices, but the congestion charge expires in June. If the state of Washington doesn’t renew the charge, Metro’s 17 percent cut plan will go into effect immediately. In Capitol Hill, this will mean cuts to Routes 8, 12, 27 and 60. Specifically, Route 27 through Yesler Way would be eliminated entirely, while the other three would see tens of hours each cut every week, and service ending earlier. Metro has a complete list of cuts available online, with details of what would be changed and suggestions for alternative routes.
Some of these cuts would have a direct and extreme impact on the lives of many people who work and learn in Capitol Hill. Andre Loh, a teacher at Seattle Central Community College and a member of the American Federation of Teachers explained this impact to the panel, saying, “Many of my students live in the Beacon Hill area and if [Metro cuts] Route 60, my students from North Beacon Hill will not be able to ride the bus.” He mentioned that only four of his 23 students have driver’s licenses, and of those who do, many don’t have access to cars.
Last week, the King County Council released a proposal to address the looming cuts that it’s calling the King County Transportation District. The plan would raise funds by creating a $60 vehicle fee (a net increase of $30 once the congestion charge expires) as well as one-tenth of a cent increase in the sales tax. In addition, Metro fares would increase by 25 cents in 2015, along with a newly established low-income fare of $1.50 per trip for people who live at or below 200 percent of the regional poverty level, which fluctuates. The reduced fare would require the use of an ORCA card.
Alex Brennan of Capitol Hill Housing, the low-income housing organization that manages many buildings in our neighborhood, was on the January 16 panel and spoke of the importance of affordable transit access to the people that his organization serves.
“For most of our residents, transportation’s not a really big part of their budget, especially when they don’t have good transit access. That’s why we focus on providing housing on Capitol Hill, because it’s a place where people can often not have a car and still be able to get around because of the transit access that Metro provides currently.”
While pushing for legislation that would create a progressive vehicle excise tax and devote more state funds to transportation, community groups like the Transit Riders Union are calling for demonstrations and direct action in support of transit funding. The TRU is asking concerned citizens to contact their state legislators and stay updated by attending one of their meetings. On January 29, they will stand with the Amalgamated Transit Union 587 at Westlake Park to rally for transit funding and increased operators’ wages.