Looming Fiscal Cliff For King County Transit

Feb 19, 2013

Bus service in King County could get some good news this week. Washington state lawmakers are expected to introduce a plan that could prevent a looming fiscal crisis.

One of the most heavily used bus routes in King County is bus route 7. Officials say as many as 12,000 people ride the number 7 bus every day. Resident Steven Anderson relies on the number 7 bus and hasn’t owned a car in years. He said the number 7 can be really packed during rush hour.

“It will be to the point where it will even pass you because it’s too full,” he said. “So it won’t even pick you up, so you have to wait for the next one or the one after that.”

Crowded buses are a problem that could have been worse if the Washington state Legislature hadn’t stepped in. About two years ago, King County Metro was faced with making massive cuts that would have affected most riders. But those major reductions never happened. Metro cut some costs, trimmed some schedules and ended the downtown Ride Free Zone. It also won new funding authority from the state Legislature and started charging a $20 vehicle license fee for bus service.

The problem is that the $20 fee is due to expire next year.

Transportation advocates are sounding alarm bells. “We’re about a year or so away from a major fiscal cliff for King County Metro,” said Rob Johnson, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition. He said other transit systems are facing similar challenges, especially in Pierce County and Snohomish County.  “In Snohomish County, Community Transit has already eliminated all of its Sunday service and is significantly reduced service from 2008," Johnson said. "We’re really struggling as a region to keep buses on the streets.”

Transit agencies are in a tough bind because of funding problems. The systems are largely paid for by sales taxes. But when the Great Recession hit, people started spending less and funding for transit plummeted.

Last year, King County asked the Legislature for a permanent funding solution, one that would not expire. But that effort failed after King County and its suburban cities couldn’t agree on how to split the new revenue.

This year the issue is before lawmakers again, and some officials are optimistic that they can work out a deal. Democratic Representative Judy Clibborn chairs the House Transportation Committee and is leading this year’s effort in Olympia. She said unlike last year, this year’s proposal is connected to a larger plan for all of Washington, not just for King County, and is expected to cover buses and road improvements.

“This is a whole new ballgame,” Cliboorn said. “Last year there was no statewide package on the table. There was nothing that was moving forward for helping cities and counties with transit and ferries and this year there is.”

If the legislation passes this year, it will need a lot of support. Two-thirds of the Legislature will need to vote for it in order for it to take effect. But it could still go before voters. And it would be a tough sell to people like SeaTac resident Steve Donah. Donah said state lawmakers are wrong to propose new taxes or fees.

“They need to use the money that they have better. They’re not putting that money in where it needs to go,” he said. “I’ve been in this state for 25 years now, moved from California up here, and I’m seeing more potholes than I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Donah’s sentiments could be a signal of things to come. The last roads and transit package put before Puget Sound voters failed in 2007.