Taxation Transportation

Tim Eyman, others testify at King County Metro hearing in Kirkland; bus driver spills uncertain beans

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.


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:



11 Replies to “Tim Eyman, others testify at King County Metro hearing in Kirkland; bus driver spills uncertain beans

  1. I bike and bus. But I hate the buses. They’re way too big and heavy, and use *way* too much fuel. They damage the roadways. They are not appropriate technology. We need to reexamine the entire transportation vision and make some hard choices— break some eggs, make a better omelette. For my 2c, the lanes are twice as wide as necessary. I would install goalposts 5 foot high and 5 foot wide to divide one lane of all two lane roads into two smaller lanes for new generation of vehicles. here’s why.

  2. Follow-up. I emailed Larry Phillips, Jane Hague and their aides to express my support for the $20 fee and to ask about the allegations of inefficiencies. Here’s one response:

    Hi Mr. Smith,

    Thank you for your email to Councilmember Phillips regarding the congestion reduction fee to preserve Metro bus service. Information about changes to increase the productivity of Metro’s service, which Councilmember Phillips referenced last night at the hearing, can be found in Metro’s proposed Strategic Plan and Service Guidelines, which the King County Council will be considering for adoption on July 11th. The plan passed out of both the Regional Transit Committee and Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee with unanimous “do pass” recommendations.

    I hope that information is helpful.

    Leah Zoppi
    Legislative Aide to
    Councilmember Larry Phillips
    Metropolitan King County Council
    District 4
    206.296.1674 (office)
    206.853.3407 (mobile)

    For more information:

    I looked at the Strategic Plan and found this:

    Within the fixed-route system, Metro provides several families of service: very frequent, frequent, local, hourly and peak. Each provides a different frequency of service that can be matched to the community served. Metro has developed service guidelines (Appendix 1) that consider land use, productivity, social equity and geographic value; these help identify which family of service will be appropriate in specific areas of King County.

    This seems like something that should be easy to address, though I am not sure how wise it is to reduce mid-day service, since people will just take the car if they know that the bus service is unreliable or sketchy. Sometimes people need to travel in the middle of the day.

  3. I think you should call and insist on speaking to Larry Phillips directly about the inefficiencies and money hoarding allegation. My experience is that staff members do not pass detail-oriented information to people they work for and any resemblance between what you say and what an elected official is told may be highly coincidental. The same with McDermott.

  4. Tim Eyman is not the only Tim in town. There is another Tim in this community. Child advocates in the community know who he is. I happened to learn about the other Tim by complete chance. A few weeks ago I happened to witness him helping a family that he had just rescued from homelessness in Redmond. A landlord had evicted a family consisting of a working father and his wife with a newborn and a toddler. He housed them in his own home so that the state would not take away the children and put them in foster care due to the parents’ homelessness. He personally took them to various agencies to get help for them. The other Tim works tirelessly and very loudly and forcefully as an independent child advocate and is very concerned about how combinations of loopholes in laws allow children to slide into harmful situations. He is operating not only in WA State but also in California. I do not know too much about him or where he is coming from at this point, but just know that Eyman is not the only Tim in this community.

  5. You wrote, “… the other 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 each driver. But in Metro the ratio is more like one manager for every two drivers. (Not sure of exact figures.)” Wouldn’t this mean that Metro is twice as efficient as ‘normal’ bus systems? This doesn’t mean that each supervisor supervises two drivers, but the average administrative overhead is 1:2.

    1. Oh, sorry, my fault. There was a typo. It was supposed to say “one manager for every FOUR drivers.” I fixed it. Thanks.

  6. I got so mad upon hearing Tim Eyman’s name that I made a petition about this – can you spread the word? It sounds like the committees liked it so it might pass anyway, right? But your report on the testimony kind of scared me!

  7. do i recall correctly that brian derdowski once proposed funding metro transit in the same way that the metro sewer system is funded, and eliminating fares entirely as an inducement to bring more riders onboard?

    obviously there would be those concerned about regressivity; on the other hand, today’s heaviest users would likely see their overall transportation costs fall dramatically, compared to the cost of fares.

    of course, to the extent you draw cars off the road, you also recover numerous costs, both in cash and in a “system” sense.

  8. Letter from Rochelle Ogershok of the King County Transportation

    Hello Don – I had an opportunity to read your recent blog post regarding Metro’s financial situation and the $20 congestion reduction charge now before the County Council.

    First I want to thank you for taking the time to attend last week’s Council forum to share your views. I’m sure the Council appreciates hearing from so many stakeholders on such an important issue. I did, however, want to correct several misconceptions that were apparently shared with you as part of your recent discussions with two of our operators.

    First, I’d like to assure you that given our current economic climate, Metro has been doing everything in its power to reduce costs and keep as much service on the streets as possible. As you may know, Metro faces an ongoing annual shortfall of about $60 million. Without a new source of revenue, Metro will have to make deep service cuts to live within its means. Four out of five riders would be impacted by such reductions.

    For these reasons we have taken numerous steps in recent years to drive down costs in an effort to be as efficient and productive as possible. I’d like to share some examples:

    1. In response to the funding freefall that began a few years ago, Metro began taking a series of steps to reduce costs, including cutting staff positions, postponing planned service expansion and canceling replacement bus purchases. In doing so, we made every effort to spare front-line services, including bus operations

    2. Metro’s employees have also stepped up to do their part to preserve service. Last year, Metro and its unions negotiated cost-cutting labor agreements we project will save $17 million annually. Those agreements involved wage freezes for 2011 and a renegotiation of formerly guaranteed cost of living increases. These efforts have allowed Metro to dramatically reduce labor costs and be closer in line with other transit agencies of similar size or type of operation.

    3. The ratio of managers to drivers cited in your article are grossly inaccurate. Metro has seven transit bases; the ratio of operators to base chiefs is 100 to 1. Base chiefs are the managers who are directly responsible for our bus operators. Currently Metro employs about 2600 transit operators. In response to our shrinking budget, our deepest staff reductions in recent years have primarily impacted management, administrative and support staff.

    4. One important way Metro has been able to maintain bus service is through efficiencies. In order to do that, we rely on planners and schedulers to keep our buses running on time and on schedule to achieve the highest level of productivity and reliability out of every bus trip. As congestion worsens and major long-term highway construction ramps up, the need for careful trip planning will become even more critical in order to keep our operators on schedule.

    5. Contrary to what you may have been told, the RapidRide A Line, the first of six future bus rapid transit lines, has been a major success. The 11-mile line serving Pacific Highway South/International Boulevard in South King is hugely popular with passengers and ridership has grown by one-third this spring compared to a year ago. It should also be noted that RapidRide has been highly successful in leveraging substantial federal funding because it provides a new model for high quality transit service.

    I hope this additional clarification will be of benefit to your readers. After months of broad collaboration and discussion, the King County Council approved a new Strategic Plan today that will guide Metro investments. This new service approach will determine how service decisions will be made over the next decade and will set transparent guidelines for service based on measurable data and identified needs.

    Please let me know if you have any questions.

  9. I asked Ms. Ogershok whether the 4 to 1 ration claim holds if you count ALL managers (and not just base chiefs). She responded:

    There is no truth to the 4 to 1 bus driver ratio. As I mentioned, the ratio of operators to base chiefs is 100 to 1. As you can imagine, there are numerous work groups responsible for keeping Metro services operating with full coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have work groups that maintain our 1300 buses, employees who staff our Control Center (who communicate with our buses on the road), service supervisors who respond to problems on buses, customer service staff who answer calls from the public, ACCESS and Vanpool employees, computer people, etc.

    When you consider all of these work groups, supervision ratios vary greatly from 100 to 1 (for the operators) to 25 to 1 if you were to take an average of the entire 4500-member organization as a whole.

  10. In a subsquent emailn Ms. Ogershok further says

    Metro already makes service adjustments to routes in the middle of the day to match demand as it fluctuates. Today, Metro’s midday service systemwide is less than half of what we operate during peak periods. As a result, the midday as a whole is actually MORE productive than the peak (measured in riders per hour of service).

    At some point, midday cuts end up not saving as much as one might expect because of staffing limitations and the fact that we still need to buy enough buses for peak service demands so the midday service has no additional capital cost.

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