Wednesday evening  I attended a public meeting, in Kirkland, of the county Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee.  The topic was the proposed cuts in bus and trolley service and the $20 “congestion fee” that the county may impose on car owners to fund Metro bus and prevent the service cuts.  The next two meetings are in Seattle (Tue, July 12), and in Burien  (Thu July 21), as reported here.

King County councilman Larry Phillips chaired the event.  He explained how low sales tax receipts, due to the recession, have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in shortfall of revenue for the Metro bus system.   Without additional revenue, 17% of routes would need to be cut.   A transit employee gave a Powerpoint presentation explaining facts about bus usage, details of the shortfall, and the likely cuts to service.  Metro bus service provides about 400,000 rides a day, 110,000,000 rides a year.  Ridership was up 3.5% in April and 5% in May.   He also explained the cost-cutting measures that Metro has already implemented.  There’ve been four fare increases in recent years, raising the cost of a bus ride by 80%.  Any further fare increases would likely lead to riders giving up and driving their cars or being unable to afford to travel.

The transit employee claimed that the bus system saves the regional economy $11,600 per regular bus rider per year (I think). This number seems high to me, and I’d be curious to hear how he got it.

There are various options for dealing with the budget shortfall.

  1. If two thirds of the nine member King County Council members agree, the Council can impose the congestion fee. The state legislature gave the Council this option, in accordance with I-1053’s 2/3 requirement.
  2. The Council could decide to ask the voters to decide whether to impose the fee, in a referendum (probably in November). Holding the referendum would likely cost Metro as much as $1,000,000.
  3. Metro could cut service.
  4. Metro could, possibly, implement other cost-cutting and efficiency measures, such as reducing mid-day service, when ridership is low, reducing management overhead, or reducing salaries. (More on this below.)
  5. The state or county could privatize the service, according to some of the testifiers.

The last hour or so of the meeting was spent on testimony from the public.

Testimony

One of the first people to testify was Tim Eyman, who wore a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Let the People Decide.” Eyman told some history: about voters’ repeated decisions to cap vehicle fees. For example, in 1999 they capped fees at $30. Later local governments tried to add on local car tab fees. The voters overturned those efforts. Eyman said something like, “Just because the legislature handed the Council a loaded gun, that doesn’t mean that they should pull the trigger and shoot themselves in the head.”

Linda Seltzer, of Redmond, said that she is a progressive liberal. (Several people, including Eyman, laughed.) Seltzer said she believes in progressive taxation. The $20 fee is regressive. It will be burdensome on the poor and on many elderly. There needs to be a waiver of the fee for low-income people. (Eyman turned and nodded his head, as if approvingly surprised that a progressive would say that.)

Kirkland City council member Dave Asher testified that the Kirkland City Council recommends passage of the $20 congestion charge. He said something like: “If we politicians had to deal with only easy issues, then they wouldn’t be paying us these big bucks.” (Several people snickered when they heard the words “big bucks.” I’m surprised Asher said that.)

Jessica Greenway, another Kirkland City Council member, said that she both opposes and supports the $20 fee. She said the fee is rather unfair: “Is owning a car necessarily connected to congestion?” (Some people drive only on weekends, etc). But she simply cannot allow Kirkland citizens to deal with the effects of service cuts. We want a future-oriented community, a great community. Besides, the fee is temporary. (Some of the anti-tax people in the audience laughed.)

Later, Toby Nixon (apparently a candidate for Kirkland City Council) testified that it’s important to know that the Kirkland City Council endorsed the $20 fee in a 4-3 vote: three out of seven council members want the voters to decide whether to impose the $20 fee. Nixon said it’s morally reprehensible to pile regressive taxes on the poor and elderly to subsidize bus service so that rich businessmen can commute into Seattle, etc.

I (Don Smith) testified: “For less than the cost of a single tank of gas, we can prevent pollution, congestion, oil imports (plus the resulting wars and terrorism), and lots of inconvenience, as well as the unemployment that will result from low-income people being unable to get to work. People are willing to pay 1000s of dollars to oil companies and Mideast oil cartels. Can’t they pay $20 for public transit? Arguing about this is absurd.

I also testified that while I agree with the Linda Seltzer that the fee is regressive and that, if possible, low-income people should be exempted, the truly low-income people don’t even have cars.

I said that a better solution than the $20 congestion fee would be a carbon tax. But an even better solution would be progressive income taxes. (Some anti-tax people snickered.) I said that Washington State has one of the most regressive tax systems in the nation, tax rates are lower than they’ve been in decades, and concentration of wealth has been increasing. (I wish I’d had more time to elaborate about, for example, the fact that I-1053 prevents elimination of tax exemptions.)

I had meant to point out that a group affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the $20 fee for this very reason: so workers can get to their jobs. See this. I asked Larry Phillips about this after the event, and he acknowledged receiving a letter from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to that effect.

Also, after the event I got into an argument with some anti-tax people about whether low taxes are causing concentration of wealth. Two guys said they used to own companies and employ workers but had to lay them off.

About a half dozen people testified that, while buses are often full during rush hour, they’re largely empty in the middle of the day. Why can’t they reduce daytime service? For example, one (East) Indian man said that Kirkland has something like 500 buses passing through it. Too many are nearly empty. He’s lived in third world countries, and he said that people should get used to having to wait for buses or walk a few blocks.  Severa; disabled, blind, and elderly people who testified disagreed.

At the end of the meeting King County councilman Larry Phillips told me that Metro plans to implement some reforms to eliminate empty buses. I emailed his staff, who directed me to King County Metro Transit Strategic Plan for Public Transportation: 2011 – 2021. Page 18 describes the “several families of service: very frequent, frequent, local, hourly and peak” and plans to adjust routes accordingly. This sure seems doable, though reducing service would deter usage. It said to see Appendix 1.  The Service Guidelines (apparently Appendix 1) describe criteria for deciding service levels (see page SG-5).  Alas, it doesn’t say how much money those changes would save.

Someone said: why is it called a “congestion fee”? Let’s call it what it is: a tax. (Oh! Horrid! Horrid!) Someone explained that it’s the legislature which chose the name “congestion fee.”

One loud anti-tax guy repeatedly ridiculed one of the council members for arriving late to the hearing (due to traffic). “Can’t you even get to a hearing on time?”

Also, they say that the $20 fee would be temporary (just for two years). But we know it will be permanent, someone said, just like the so-called temporary stadium tax. (But apparently the legislation mandates that it expires in two years.)

Someone complained that he often sees bus drivers sitting in idle buses. (Someone yelled out, “It’s called a break!”)

Several people testified that King County Metro employees are the third highest paid transit workers in the country. This seems like a powerful argument. (The bus driver I spoke with — see below — confirmed this factoid but said that it’s complicated because you have to factor in cost-of-living, etc.)

Someone said that this is symptomatic of a disease in government, in which politicians lavish funds on public unions, who reward them with votes.

Sell the system, privatize, someone said. (Others snickered.)

Increasing fees is unconscionable. People do not want taxes and fees. Don’t waste $1,000,000 on an election you will lose.

A blind guy said he depends on the bus, almost lives on it. Eliminating or restricting service would be bad for him.

Another guy said that he owns three cars but usually rides the bus. He’d be happy to pay the $20 fee, which is small compared to the cost of owning a car.

Rejecting the fee would be a good way to annoy transit riders and a good way to annoy drivers too: crowded roads, congestion, pollution. Intoxicated people would have to get behind the wheel. People couldn’t stay out late.

Someone said that people in King County love their government services, but thanks to Tim Eyman they’re distinctly unwilling to pay for those services.

Someone said they would be willing to pay even $40, but they do see empty buses.

Someone said that more important than this measly $20 fee is the billions that voters agreed to pay for light rail! Buses are far cheaper and more flexible than light rail.

Several people said that they oppose a temporary tax (a band-aid) to fix a long term problem. Every single time we are over-promised and undelivered by government. Sixty-four percent of voters approved I-1053!

Someone said that NOT passing the $20 congestion fee will cost even more, due to the need to build more roads, etc.

Buses provide independence for people with disabilities and the elderly. Several disabled people testified to this effect, as well as people talking about their children who need buses.

Some people pleaded for Metro not to eliminate particular routes (special pleading).

France Giddons said that Lake Washington School district eliminated school buses and made students ride Metro buses. Often students have to walk far and wait long. Cutbacks would be burdensome. Also, So. Kirkland Park & Ride is often full. She had to park 10 blocks away. Waited an hour for a bus. Ended up taking a taxi.

Josh Cavenaw, Director of Transportation for UW defended Metro. He’s on an official (independent?) transit task force, “We saw the books. We saw improvements.” Eighteen members of the task force support the fee.

James said it took him 1.5 hours to get there by bus, due to heavy traffic. He supports the $20 fee. Anything to discourage driving!

Margaret supports the fee. She voted against every Eyman initiative.

Someone said eliminating mid-day service would discourage people from relying on the buses. As things are now, many people (including high school kids, for example) drive or are driven when they could in fact take the bus. Maybe use smaller buses on some routes.

I have to say. The anti-tax people were louder, angrier, more eloquent, more confident, and more organized. It must be fun to be be able to openly vent such outrage and self-righteousness. Progressives need to be bolder and angrier, I think.

Discussions with bus drivers

I had two three discussions with Metro bus drivers recently. I ride the bus to work everyday and often chat with them.

One bus driver implied that there is some corruption in the bus system: management hordes money somehow and is top-heavy. He didn’t go into details.

I had a long discussion with a second bus driver. He said that there are inefficiencies in every system, but he agrees that there are too many management positions. He said that it’s normal for a bus system to have, say, one manager for every four drivers [corrected]. But in Metro the ratio is more like one manager for every two drivers. (Not sure of exact figures.)  [A King County Transportation official has disputed the charge of too many management positions. See comments section below.]

He also was critical of the schedulers, who seem most interested in protecting their jobs and looking good, he said. They care much more about that than about improving service. Other managers like the power that comes from having many employees under them.

In addition to confirming the high pay rate of Metro drivers (third highest in the country), this driver said that benefits are good. But he said that statistics can lie and you have to take into account cost-of-living, etc.

He was quite critical of Metro’s RapidRide service, which he said costs too much money and was mostly a big show-off of shiny new technology, like computer screens at stops to indicate when the next bus will arrive, even though service on that route is every ten minutes, even during the day.

He said that some bus routes have lots of service due to corporate lobbying (e.g., bus routes servicing Microsoft). Apparently, some of those routes even got special federal funds.

He accused Pierce County Metro of threatening to cut Sunday service on buses in retaliation for the voters’ refusal to give them extra money. He called this petty revenge.

About the idea of reducing mid-day routes the driver said: do we really want to deter riders from using our service?  Police are available 24×7 even if they’re not always used. (Not sure this is a valid analogy.)

We spoke over a half an hour. And, alas, my impression is that Metro could save money by implementing some efficiencies. The bus driver said, however, that the management system is “too entrenched” and we might as well just agree to pay the small $20 fee.  He said, by the way, that he considers himself to be on the far left.

[added: 2011/07/11] I spoke with a third Metro bus driver and told him about the hearing in Kirkland and about what the second bus driver had said.   At first he said he’s not supposed to talk politics, but when he realized I’m liberal, he opened up. He said something like, “Oh, workers are always pissed off at management in any job. So they’d prefer to get managers off their backs.” So, he said, he didn’t think Metro was particularly top-heavy in management.  He acknowledged that pay was pretty good but said that the unions accepted cuts recently. And the high pay and adequate break times are reasons why Metro has a stellar safety record.  Underpaid, rushed, stressed drivers tend to get in accidents.

I mentioned that I was shocked when I spoke with a (fourth) bus driver who said he voted against I-1098, the income tax initiative that voters rejected last year. He smiled and said, “You’d be surprised how many eastside Metro bus operators vote against their own self-interest.  Come on, they’re government workers! Maybe they listen to too much talk radio or something.”

It’s hard to determine what the truth is, and I am coming to appreciate that investigative journalists need to be paid for their work.

See the comments below. I’m adding, with permission, a copy of an email I got from the King County Dept. of Transportation in response to this article.

Compared to the money spent in wars, bailouts, CEO salaries, corporate welfare, tax breaks for millionaires, other corruption and — yes– light rail, $20 per year per car is small change indeed.  The anti-tax crazies should move to Somalia to see what life is like without government services.

For more information see: