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Metro threatens big cuts to bus service

Vashon bus routes, popular among commuters, face service cuts.  - File Photo
Vashon bus routes, popular among commuters, face service cuts.
— image credit: File Photo

Drastic cuts to Metro bus service, should the fail to secure new funding, would include significant reductions to Vashon’s two bus routes, according to a proposal put forward by the county last week.

On Thursday King County Metro released detailed plans for the 17-percent countywide service cuts officials say the agency could be forced to implement due to falling sales tax revenue and the expiration of temporary funding.

On Vashon, both route 118, which runs between the north end ferry terminal and Tahlequah, and route 119, which runs between the north end and Dockton, face 20-percent service reductions.

Metro Transit Planner Doug Johnson said island buses would become less frequent during the day, and on route 118, service would begin later in the morning and end earlier in the evening. Metro hasn’t specifically identified which trips would be discontinued on Vashon, he said, as it is possible that the entire schedule for both routes will be revised.

The 118 and 119 express routes — which drive on the ferry and continue to downtown Seattle — also face reductions, as does the RapidRide C line, which many ferry commuters ride from West Seattle to downtown. Those routes are at risk in part because of the loss of state funding to mitigate congestion caused by the Alaskan Way Viaduct construction.

Overall, Metro is poised to completely eliminate 74 of its 214 bus routes and reduce service on 107 more. About 30 routes would be untouched, but would likely become more crowded, officials say. The cuts would bring Metro to 1997 service levels at a time when officials say ridership in King County is near an all-time high.

“Those are critical commuter runs,” said State Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Vashon) of the cuts proposed for Vashon. Nelson said she used to commute from her Maury Island home to her job in Seattle via bus and believes the cuts on the table would force more island cars on to the road. She also said the reductions would likely be bad news for low-income islanders and “folks who don’t have any other means of transportation.”

Metro has faced budget shortfalls since 2008 due to declining sales tax revenue. The agency faced a similar funding crisis in 2012, but was bailed out when the Metropolitan King County Council enacted a new $20 car-tab fee. That fee, however, is set to expire in June of 2014, leaving the agency with a $75 million annual budget hole. What’s more, Metro has raised fares four times in recent years, cut dozens of employees and used up most of its reserves to retain service. In recent years, it also eliminated some of the trips with the lowest ridership, including some on Vashon.

County officials warned of the deep cuts last spring, and Metro included the 17-percent service reduction scenario in an annual report it forwarded to the county council. The agency detailed the cuts just as the Legislature convened last week for a weeklong special session where lawmakers considered transportation issues.

Metro director Kevin Desmond asked the Legislature to authorize the county to put forward a new local tax to fill its budget gap — a motor vehicle excise tax of 1.5 percent, with 60 percent of revenues going to Metro transit and 40 percent to roads.

“Authorization of new local tuning tools for transit would give King County voters an opportunity to avert, or lessen, the cuts outlined this morning,” Desmond said in a press release following a widely attended press conference on Thursday. “But Legislative action isn’t certain, so we have to continue preparing for service reductions.”

While the Legislature passed a package of bills to keep new Boeing work in the state, it failed to act on a transportation package that included a bill to allow King County to put the local tax on the ballot.

Nelson noted that state Democrats have been working to pass a comprehensive transportation package to fund buses, ferries and road maintenance since 2005, an effort that has consistently been thwarted by state Republicans.

During last week’s special session, a package passed by the Democrat-controlled House earlier this year again failed to gain traction in the Senate, leading Nelson to blame Senate Republicans for their resistance to new taxes and “a difference in opinion on how critical mass transit is.”

“Unless the majority party is willing to bring this vote to the table and put this package forward, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Though the special session is over, Nelson said Gov. Jay Inslee is still looking for a way to move the package forward before the end of the year.

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) said that should a transportation package again fail to take off, county officials believe they could also raise the needed funds through a car tab fee and a small sales tax increase. However, he called the motor vehicle excise tax the “preferred option.”

“It would be a more stable revenue for them. ... Getting the package through is the hardest thing,” he said.

Should the county reduce bus service, initial reductions would begin in June of next year.

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