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Originally published Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 4:46 PM

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Guest: Cuts to King County Metro bus service coming because of state’s inaction

King County will face crippling congestion and cuts to Metro because of the state’s failure to give cities and counties the power to ask voters for transportation money, writes guest columnist Larry Phillips.

Special to The Times

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WHEN the gavel sounded adjourning the state legislative session this year, a critical piece of work was left undone.

The Legislature failed to grant local cities and counties the power to ask voters for transportation funding. We will face crippling congestion in the coming year.

A coalition of business, labor, environment, social services, and regional and local officials warned state legislators of the dire consequences of the massive transit cuts King County Metro bus service would face without this option.

In the state Senate, leaders chose to ignore those warnings and avoided action. Hollow promises of action next year or beyond will come too late to avert massive transit cuts that will gridlock the region. The Legislature should regroup and reconvene in a special session this year to act on transportation.

King County is the economic engine of the state of Washington. Forty percent of the state’s jobs are located in King County. Transit is critical to our county’s transportation network. It is how 43 percent of people get to work in downtown Seattle.

As employment is reaching pre-recession highs in the Seattle region, transit ridership is growing dramatically.

It’s an affordable, efficient and environmentally friendly way for people to get to work in a place where expanding highways to accommodate more cars is often prohibitively expensive and geographically constrained. Without the option to ask voters for funding, the county will need to cut the transit system by 17 percent in 2014.

This will be a blow to our recovering economy, stifling the mobility of workers and goods. It would also leave some of our most vulnerable citizens — seniors, youth, people with disabilities and those with low incomes — with few options for getting around.

In 2011, the state Legislature recognized the reforms Metro made to reduce costs and run more efficiently, and partnered with King County to provide a temporary Congestion Reduction Charge, allowing Metro to avoid transit cuts for two years. A public hearing over whether the Metropolitan King County Council should enact the charge or cut transit service drew a thousand people who stood in a line around the block to testify in favor of saving transit service.

They deserve to have their voices heard by leaders in the state senate.

The pending cuts to Metro Transit is an emergency that can no longer be ignored, particularly by the state Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Transit cuts mean fewer buses, and the overcrowding and inconvenience drives people back to their cars. When there’s no more room on our crowded buses and congested roads and highways, jobs move elsewhere and we lose out.

Since the Great Recession decimated the sales-tax revenue that funded transit, Metro has been maintaining service using reserves and temporary funding. Those dollars run out in 2014. If the state Legislature does not come through with permanent funding options this year, Metro will not have the funds available to keep buses running next year.

A special legislative session this year is the only way for state leaders to prevent gridlock in King County. If they can’t step up and lead this year, regional and local leaders have no choice but to look for our own solutions rather than going down with the state of Washington’s sinking transportation infrastructure. Our economic vibrancy and quality of life depend on transportation investments now.

Larry Phillips is a Metropolitan King County Council member. He chairs the Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee.

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