After hours of negotiations, the Metropolitan King County Council voted Monday evening 7-2 to increase car tabs by $20 in the county to spare a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who pushed the idea to save 600,000 hours of bus service, praised the seven Councilmembers who supported the measure, including Republicans Kathy Lambert and Jane Hague, who joined the effort late last week.
Despite their support Friday, debate continued Monday, with Lambert and Hague, both Eastside Councilmembers, wavering, and at times looked to be changing their minds back to no again, according to Publicola, which live blogged the hearing. But in the end the key votes were there to get a 6-vote supermajority, from Lambert and Hague.
The bipartisan, multi-pronged transit funding plan maintains current transit service levels while providing transportation alternatives for commuters who may see a reduction in bus service in their communities.
“The new CRC package that the Council adopted today will directly benefit my constituents on the Eastside,” said Hague, the Council Vice Chair. “In this era of partisan bickering at the federal level, we at King County have bucked the trend. Thanks to efforts made on both sides of the aisle, this new legislation offers real reform for Metro. More importantly it creates jobs, and keeps businesses and people moving.”
Lambert also spoke in support of the fee.
“No one wants a new fee, but the alternative is far worse,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert. “Without interim funding, cuts to bus service will be substantial, particularly in the lower-density neighborhoods on the Eastside. This will put more cars on the road, clogging our freeways and bridges and leaving all of us idling in standstill traffic. Without this compromise on funding for Metro, we all would pay more for gas, spend more time commuting, and lose some of our quality of life. Transit cuts of this magnitude will further undercut our fragile economy, and we can’t afford that risk. I am proud that this compromise agreement will return value to our citizens.”
Meanwhile, Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer expressed disappointment with the decision because they wanted to voters to decide the issue.
"I'm deeply disappointed that the majority of my colleagues found it necessary to deny the people the right to vote on this very important matter," said Councilmember Reagan Dunn, chair of the Council's Regional Transit Committee. "There have been numerous votes on car tabs through the years and the people expect to have a say."
The funding plan includes adoption of the $20 Congestion Reduction Charge (CRC), a temporary charge on vehicle licenses for each of the next two years.
It will go in effect in early 2012.
People packed public hearings to support the fee and keep bus service.
“Thousands of people testified in front of us, wrote in, or called asking us to save buses, not only for themselves but for the transit dependent members of our community," Councilmember Larry Gossett said. " Today’s vote tells them we listened.”
Metro faced a $1.2 billion shortfall between revenues they’re collecting and what is needed to sustain the transit system between 2009 and 2013. Efficiencies, reforms, fare increases, layoffs, COLA givebacks, and tapping reserves have allowed Metro to close $900 million of that $1.2 billion problem. Transit operators accepted COLA givebacks and other concessions that will save $17 million annually.
Bus riders are paying 80 percent higher fares, which translates to an additional $500 annually per daily rider. Due to the dramatic recession-driven drop in sales tax revenues, Metro Transit is facing a $60 million annual deficit between revenues and the cost of providing current levels of transit service. That shortfall will require Metro to shrink service by 600,000 hours of annual bus service over the next two years, or 17 percent of the entire system. The Congestion Reduction Charge was authorized by the State Legislature during its 2011 session as an option to assist King County in maintaining its transit service levels. Engrossed Substitute Senate (ESSB) Bill 5457 provides a new local option for temporary transit funding of a Congestion Reduction Charge of up to $20 on each vehicle license renewal in King County. The charge can only be instituted for a period of two years. The CRC is estimated to generate a two-year total of approximately $50 million for Metro Transit service. In combination with the use of reserves and other one-time measures, the CRC will provide for more stable transit revenue conditions for the Executive's 2012-2013 Proposed Budget.
“The action taken by the Council today ensures that bus service will be maintained for hundreds of thousands of King County residents who rely on Metro transit to get around,” said King County Councilmember Julia Patterson, Chair of the Council's Budget and Fiscal Management Committee. “With the Congestion Reduction Charge, Metro will be able to avoid large service reductions in the next two years that would have left bus riders, quite literally, standing out in the cold.”
Councilmember Bob Ferguson, who represents Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, supported the fee early on.
“As a regular bus commuter on the #41, I understand the importance of bus service to our region and our economy,” Ferguson said. “I look forward to sharing the good news with my fellow bus commuters on my way home this evening.”
The adopted ordinance includes a Transit Incentive Program to encourage drivers to use public transportation. Car owners will be eligible to receive eight bus tickets worth up to $24 in exchange for each car tab renewal. Individuals can use the tickets for bus rides to work, play or a special event. Or they can choose to donate the value of those tickets for distribution by select human service agencies.
The funding plan will also includes implementing different types of transit services for riders who depend on routes that serve lower-density areas. As part of the adopted Transit Strategic Plan, the Council directed Metro to move ahead with strategies for introducing more cost effective transit services on some lower ridership routes currently served by buses. But rather than eliminating transit service altogether in these communities, the adopted plan calls on Metro to explore alternatives that ensure that public transit will be available when needed—such as Dial-a-Ride Transit service (DART), community access transportation services, Vanpools and vanshares.
The coming of tolls on SR-520, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and potentially other corridors, is taken into consideration as part of the adopted plan. The plan includes language calling for routes which carry more riders due to the effect of highway tolling as candidates for added service to maintain the quality of existing service as directed by the Transit strategic plan.The plan also calls for increasing revenues by eliminating the Ride Free Area (RFA) between Jackson and Battery Streets and in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel starting in October 2012.
The elimination of the Ride Free Area will generate an additional $2.2 million in revenue for Metro. A service started in 1973 to encourage retail development in the downtown Seattle business core has become a money loser for King County. In 2009, a financial audit performed by the County Auditor recommended that Metro update its formula for collecting revenues in the RFA. Reimbursements from the city of Seattle have also failed to keep pace with ridership growth and fare increases.
To assist those who may be impacted by the loss of the Ride Free Area, the County will investigate either increasing the number of transit tickets allocated to human service and homeless programs, or reduce the cost these agencies pay when purchasing for transit tickets.
Councilmembers said public response—both those supporting the implementation of the Congestion Reduction Charge and a number of people who question the need for the charge—had a role in the adopted legislation.