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Originally published December 7, 2009 at 1:45 PM | Page modified December 7, 2009 at 3:46 PM

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Guest columnist

Preserving Metro bus service in a difficult economy

Many King County Metro bus service cuts were avoided with some serious budget scrubbing and implementation of money-saving measures, write King County council members Larry Phillips and Jane Hague. They call for a regional summit to keep Metro a vital resource for the community.

Special to The Times

THREE years ago, citizens of King County overwhelmingly supported Transit Now to expand Metro bus service. Despite the current financial situation that has reduced Metro's revenues, citizens expect their bus service to continue and have asked government to increase efficiencies by doing more with less.

The King County Council listened and avoided cutting 310,000 annual transit service hours, which would have left fewer options for getting to work, increased congestion, and stranded those who are transit dependent.

By scrubbing Metro's budget and implementing recommendations from a council-mandated performance audit of our transit division, the County Council was able to adopt a transit budget that avoids service cuts for the next two years. However, we're not out of the woods yet; budget shortfalls are projected in 2012 and beyond. Rather than fight parochial turf wars over future cuts, it's time for a regional conversation about the future of transit in King County.

The Metro budget adopted by the County Council on Nov. 23 continues bus service by decreasing layovers to increase scheduling efficiency; increasing the use of scheduling software to link bus routes and reduce deadheading that results in empty buses; cutting 43 mostly vacant staff positions; deferring some capital projects, and adjusting the cleaning and maintenance schedules for buses, transit shelters and park-and-ride facilities.

Additionally, we will close the gap by using $40 million over the next two years from Metro's Fleet Replacement Fund, which the transit audit revealed holds excess reserves of $105 million. That leaves $65 million in reserves to help balance Metro's budget in the next biennium.

The council also adopted a tax-neutral approach to property taxes by lowering the ferry district and automated finger-identification system levies in the same proportion as they increased a property tax dedicated to transit service. Property owners will see no net change in their property-tax bill. A two-step bus fare increase which will take effect in January 2010 and January 2011 will also help close the gap and keep buses on the street.

The council's short-term work of saving transit service for the next two years is completed, but now it's time to turn our focus toward a long-term solution for transit. When service cuts seemed eminent earlier this year, the regional conversation about such a loss became divided along geographic lines with little agreement about where the cuts should fall. We would like to see stakeholders rise above the fray and think regionally. King County has spent several decades building one of the largest, most successful bus systems in the nation. What is our future vision for that system?

Many buses are overcrowded, particularly in the urban core, leaving would-be bus riders standing in the aisles or stranded at the curb. In the suburbs, where population, job and recreational centers are growing rapidly, availability of transit has failed to keep pace with the increasing demand, leaving would-be riders without the frequency or connections to make transit work for them. Before we can address the need for more service, we must find solutions to Metro's long-term budget gap, where the projected shortfall from 2012-14 translates to service cuts in the range of 300,000 to 500,000 hours.

Let's bring the many stakeholders in the Metro system together for a regional summit to find new solutions for delivering efficient, integrated bus service. Let's look at a more rational way for allocating new service and — if need be — service cuts. And finally, let's talk about the best way to stably fund transit and grow our system to meet the needs of our changing region.

The stability of Metro bus service impacts our regional economy and quality of life. By bringing stakeholders together and focusing on regionalism, we can overcome the challenges Metro faces and find solutions that benefit all users of the system.

Larry Phillips represents District 4 on the Metropolitan King County Council. Jane Hague represents District 6.

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