Saving Seattle’s Bus Service — Framework for the Long Term

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Metro bus stop, 4th Ave. 1975

There’s some good news for the future of Metro Transit.  Just a month ago, on July 11, the King County Council unanimously approved a major revision to the County’s transit strategic plan.  This revision, which was developed by a group of stakeholders convened by Executive Constantine know as the Regional Transit Task Force (RTTF) changed the system for allocating bus service around the County from one based on arbitrary percentages to a system based on productivity, social equity, and geographic value.

For ten years, transit decisions were mired in conflict between Seattle and suburban areas after the suburban representatives on the Regional Transit Committee pushed through a formula for allocating new bus service called ’40-40-20’, which allocated only 20% of new service to Seattle in favor of expanding service in the rest of the County.  The rationale for this formula was that Seattle had some 60% of existing service, but only provided about 40% of Metro revenues, which suburban representatives argued was unfair.

Metro bus stop, SW Spokane & Delridge, 1975

The problem with this reasoning is that the routes in Seattle generally have much higher ridership, as Seattle has been a much more transit-friendly environment than much of the rest of the County.  So, this formula could have led to running mostly empty buses outside of Seattle while Seattle riders continued to suffer from overcrowded buses falling behind schedule.

Three things changed since this formula was adopted:

  • There has been a growing awareness that government must operate in a more efficient manner.  40-40-20 smacked of congressional earmarks – allocating service based on political clout rather than serving the public.
  • As growth management strategies have been implemented, many suburban areas have become more like Seattle – transit friendly, denser neighborhoods – and many have become more like Seattle in their diversity of cultures, incomes, and need for transit.
  • Seattle has reached out to these suburban areas to build coalitions around common and regional interests, and we have emphasized the commonalities that we share and broken down the ‘city-suburban’ stereotype that is no longer true.

The combination of these factors with the steady and innovative leadership of Executive Constantine resulted in the RTTF coming to a unanimous agreement to discard 40-40-20 and to institute a new set of policies based around productivity of routes and need for transit service.  Getting the unanimous consent of the County Council was an extraordinary victory for good government and rational decision making around transit. 

Special kudos goes to the Seattle representative on the RTTF, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who patiently and persistently built relationships and coalitions around this set of rational ideas.  Other Councilmembers played our part by reaching out to suburban Mayors and Councils and carrying our arguments to those regional partners.  And the Council demonstrated its willingness to be a good partner in decision making around issues like the SR 520 Project, where we forged an agreement with the Eastside that will rebuild this aging bridge while delivering better transit service throughout the corridor.

A great success!  And this positions us well for going to Olympia and the voters in 2012 to get new funding sources that make sense so that we can keep Metro service going after the two-year fix of the $20 car tab approved on August 15 expires.