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Seattle Times Editorial: Act now to preserve Metro bus service

Act now to preserve Metro bus service

Cutting Metro bus service must be a last resort. "Without bold action, those investments will suffer losses that will take decades to recover from," argues King County Councilmember Larry Phillips. "We've made too much progress to sit idly by, and let our bus system be dismantled. Our mobility and quality of life are at stake."

By Larry Phillips

Special to The Times

HEADLINES proclaim record growth in transit ridership, anecdotal experience tells us our buses are more crowded than ever before, and voters have shown their overwhelming support of increasing transit by passing bus and rail expansions in 2006 and 2008. Bus service should be expanding dramatically to keep up with the double-digit annual ridership growth we're experiencing, right?

Unfortunately, the reality is that with the economy the way it is, the sales tax revenues that support Metro Transit are declining by an estimated 20 percent. Unless we act now to save Metro, bus-service cuts are looming, even as citizens need transit more than ever before. It's time to get real with an earnest dialogue about the best way to trim service if and when it becomes necessary.

Unfortunately, the policy that's currently on the books for cutting Metro service would do the most harm to people who rely on the bus today. This must be changed. Under this plan, Seattle — where more than 40 percent of the people use transit to get to and from work — would see two-thirds of the service cuts. Then when our economy recovers and Metro is able to add back some of the service that was lost, the existing plan says only 20 percent of that growth will go back to Seattle.

The effect is that it will be years and probably decades before Seattle bus service returns to current levels. Yet even at today's service levels, buses are so crowded that people are being left at the curb. Our economy, our environment and our way of life will suffer if this policy isn't changed.

In truth, every part of King County needs more transit service — from fast-growing areas like Maple Valley and Sammamish that have very little service today, to emerging job centers like Bellevue and Renton, to densely populated and transit-dependent Seattle. We all need more, not less.

Voters across the county have shown great generosity in their willingness to pay for that service because we understand that as our region grows, transit will play a major role in improving and maintaining our mobility and quality of life. As gas prices climb, transit will help families get around affordably. As the climate crisis looms, transit will help reduce carbon emissions.

I have reached out to state legislators asking that they give county voters an opportunity to save Metro from service cuts. The King County Ferry District has more property tax authority than it needs to run a county passenger ferry system. The state must let voters decide if they want to use some of that extra property tax authority to stabilize Metro, prevent transit cuts, and even continue growing service. To date, legislators haven't been willing to step up and pass the necessary legislation to save Metro service and address future growth.

I also led the effort on the King County Council to find efficiencies at Metro that will help offset the need for service cuts. I worked with my colleagues to fund an in-depth audit that will help us squeeze the most value out of every dollar available to Metro. The Municipal League of King County issued a report Review of Metro Transit, and is planning to engage stakeholders and the public in round-table discussions about ways to maximize Metro's efficiency. We must take a serious look at the recommendations that emerge from the public.

Cutting service must be an absolute last resort. But today's economy is forcing a lot of last-resort cuts on families, businesses and public agencies. Should cutting bus service become necessary, it must be done in a way that does the least harm to the people who rely on transit today. The cuts should be spread evenly throughout the county so that no one area feels the cuts more deeply than any other.

This region has spent decades investing in one of the biggest and best bus systems in the country, and without bold action, those investments will suffer losses that will take decades to recover from. We have made too much progress to sit idly by and let our bus system be dismantled. Our mobility and quality of life are at stake.

Larry Phillips is a member of the King County Council.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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