With transit money approved, Seattle pledges to spend new dollars well
What’s next for Seattle transit, now that voters have agreed to tax themselves for a 15 percent bus-service increase by late next year.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Where's the oversight?
Sponsors cite these safeguards in spending the new money for bus service in Seattle:
• A citizen oversight panel, picked by the City Council.
• Metro’s Service Guidelines. These provide objective data for “overcrowded” and chronically delayed routes to be funded first.
• The City Council itself. Future district-level elections could make the council more attuned to neighborhood needs but add pressure to fund weak routes in somebody’s district.
• Demographics. Seattle’s population has grown 17 percent since 2000, to about 650,000 residents, so there should be plenty of unmet demand, transportation Director Scott Kubly maintains.
Elected leaders promised Wednesday to make good use of the $45 million per year that Seattle voters approved to put more buses on the city’s busy streets.
The Seattle City Council will enjoy wide discretion to satisfy public demand for more King County Metro Transit service — far beyond just rescuing those routes that are so crowded drivers pass up waiting customers.
If the council chooses, Seattle could even pay Metro enough to ensure a bus every 15 minutes on several crosstown routes.
Spending the cash won’t necessarily be easy.
“We celebrated last night, but today’s a very sober day. We have to show that we can perform,” Mayor Ed Murray said Wednesday inside the PATH building at Denny Way and Westlake Avenue North — epicenter of the city’s e-commerce boom. That goes not just for transit, but for increased preschool funding voters just approved, he said.
Here’s a look at the months ahead.
When do taxes go up?
Voters Tuesday approved a $60 car-tab fee and a 0.1 percent sales-tax increase.
The car-tab increase won’t be collected until June or July, in accordance with state law, said Brad Benfield, spokesman for the state Department of Licensing.
That’s on top of Seattle’s existing $20 car-tab fee for streets and transportation. Those amounts, plus money for state highways and Sound Transit, bring the basic 2015 license-renewal cost to $153.75 for a car worth $10,000.
The sales tax goes up in April. The 0.1 percent boost pushes the overall rate within Seattle to 9.6 percent, or $9.60 per $100 purchase. Of that amount, $1.90 goes for Metro and Sound Transit.
How soon do we get more buses?
The new service would arrive in two phases, starting in June, then in September, Murray said.
Seattle and the county need several weeks to approve agreements and budgets, then a detailed service list in spring. Metro needs about 120 days to train new drivers, spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok said.
The bottom line is, the plan won’t be ready when Metro makes its next big schedule change or “shake-up” in February, so the next chance is June.
A half-year delay in car-tab collections won’t disrupt Seattle’s bus timeline, because Metro doesn’t send a bill until after service begins, said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
How much will service increase?
The city figures to add 250,000 annual service hours to the base of 1.7 million hours, a nearly 15 percent increase.
This translates to an average 38 more buses on the streets for 18 hours a day, said Bill Bryant, SDOT transit planner. The actual count will vary hourly.
The goal is to provide all-day service every 15 minutes on primary crosstown routes. A total of 49 routes are supposed to gain service, not just the all-day routes, but full peak-only routes that need a couple more daily runs.
“We are going to have the best bus service we’ve ever had in Seattle,” said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the transportation committee.
Where’s the service going?
Roughly 20 percent is already earmarked for Ballard, downtown and West Seattle, the mayor’s office said.
The RapidRide C Line serving West Seattle and the D Line serving Ballard will likely get more buses first. But their route upgrade, pushing the C beyond downtown to South Lake Union, and the D south to Pioneer Square, is a year away.
Besides those routes, any other route that’s overcrowded has top priority.
“On weekdays, buses right here on Denny Way are so crowded that the three main Metro routes — the 8, the 40 and the 70 — those buses are so full that they regularly have to pass people by,” County Executive Dow Constantine told reporters, to give three examples.
Are we paying for more buses to get stuck in traffic?
That’s a risk of pouring money quickly into the system, and a sensitive point for city officials.
SDOT says it’s working on ideas to improve bus speeds: traffic signals that favor transit, longer stretches of “red lanes” marked for buses only, and less peak-time parking on certain arterials, Murray said.
A potential transit-only lane would be shared by the South Lake Union streetcar and buses. No solutions have been aired for cramped Denny Way.
Based on recent history, a 2015 levy campaign, to increase the existing Bridging the Gap property tax, could urge voters to add transit lanes — chasing this week’s investment in bus hours.
However, Bryant said $2.2 million will be budgeted next year for transit corridors, mainly bus-lane conversions worth $20,000 per block. That implies a potential of five miles. “None of this is dependent on [a 2015 levy], and there is no obligation to boost taxes to get those buses where they need to go,” he said.
Will taxpayers subsidize empty buses?
Based on Metro criteria, the 250,000 new service hours far exceed the 33,000 hours needed strictly to relieve overcrowding, such as buses that carry 50 percent more people than seats.
Skeptics question whether an eager-to-please City Council will spend millions on buses to reach every neighborhood, even if they are nowhere near full.
DOT wants the improved routes to meet Metro’s “productive” category, at least 50 to 60 percent full on average, Bryant said. They might carry fewer at first, if growth is expected, he said.
Growth is coming. Amazon.com alone is building three office towers in north downtown, to house thousands of workers, most needing transit.
Scott Kubly, SDOT director, cites his experience launching a circulator bus line in Washington, D.C. — frequent and simple like Seattle’s RapidRide — that he said gained 5 to 10 percent ridership per year.
“We’ve had 17 percent population growth since 2000,” he said. “Bus service has been basically flat. There’s more people that want to ride buses.”
Government officials insist there’s no reason to think added buses will cross Seattle empty, a pledge to be fact-checked this time next year.