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Originally published Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 3:32 PM

Guest columnist

Raising King County's car fee would prolong Metro's inefficiency

The Metropolitan King County Council considers imposing a $20-per-vehicle fee, and many supporters say it will prevent Metro bus-service cuts. But guest columnist Michael Ennis notes that many of the cuts are a task force's recommendations to improve efficiency and should be made.

Special to The Times

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FOR months now, transit advocates have been whipped into a frenzy trying to convince anyone who will listen that the Metropolitan King County Council must increase car tabs by $20 for the next two years to avoid 600,000 hours of bus-service cuts.

From higher traffic congestion and environmental damage to regional job loss and a deeper recession, the transit lobby is in high gear to convince King County Council members to hike car tabs without a public vote, where they fear, probably correctly, that such a provision would fail.

These groups loudly point to a long list of routes that Metro officials say would be affected, either through restructuring or elimination.

But what they deliberately do not say is that most of the proposed service changes are a result of recommendations from the King County Regional Transit Task Force (RTTF) and Metro's new Strategic Plan, both of which call for new service guidelines that restructure and eliminate low-demand bus routes to improve efficiency.

In fact, this new framework has been lauded by many officials and it even prompted King County Councilmember Larry Phillips to proudly declare, "The era of empty buses is over."

Metro officials use three broad categories to show where the proposed service cuts would take place: low-productivity routes (220,000 hours, 37 percent), restructuring inefficient or redundant routes (256,000 hours, 43 percent) and reducing higher-productivity routes (124,000 hours, 21 percent).

In other words, 476,000 hours or about 80 percent of the proposed service cuts are attributed to making Metro's bus service more efficient, as both the Regional Transit Task Force and Metro's own Strategic Plan recommend.

Obviously, if the car-tab increase does not occur, Metro officials will presumably move forward with the service reductions they have strongly warned the public about. But this would not be a bad thing, despite what the transit lobby would have everyone believe.

According to Metro officials, these service reductions are a result of "duplicative routes, routes that operate on over-served corridors, routes that operate on appropriately-served corridors, corridors that are over-served, mismatches between service and ridership, or major development/land use changes."

About 124,000 service hours of the proposed cuts are from routes that Metro officials consider being "above low productivity." While this segment of cuts may not be desirable, it only represents about 3.5 percent of total bus service.

Also consider that passenger demand on Metro's buses has fallen significantly over the last two years and is near 2007 levels, yet costs have continued to increase over the same time period. In fact, the task force found that Metro has some of the highest operating expenses of comparable bus agencies in the country.

Voters have already given Metro two recent tax increases in 2000 and 2006. Officials also promised that a third tax increase in 2008, expanding Sound Transit, would help Metro save money by eliminating redundant service. Despite these tax increases, Metro has only delivered about a third of the 1.2 million hours of new service promised to voters.

When times are good, officials want more money. And now when times are bad, officials still want more money.

When will it ever be enough?

The current message from the public is clear: Government officials at all levels should live within their means. This includes King County Metro.

Instead of raising taxes, again, to support an inefficient program that has failed to deliver from the first two tax increases, Metro officials should implement the RTTF recommendations and preserve long-term sustainability.

Michael Ennis is the transportation director at Washington Policy Center, an independent policy-research organization in Washington state.

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