Metro’s last-ditch effort to save bus routes

A rider waits at a bus stop in Seattle.
A rider waits at a bus stop in Seattle. (Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr)

I love complaining about the bus as much as the next person. I have waited on countless corners of Seattle, frenetically jamming my index fingers into my phone’s OneBusAway app, its lateness making a mockery of my morning hustle.

But as the old adage goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.

Now, with 17% of King County Metro routes on the chopping block, we ought to quit our whining (myself included), to pause and reflect on what exactly is at stake.

Proposition 1 is a last-ditch effort to save these Metro bus routes. In a special election on April 22nd, Prop 1 would create a new Transportation Benefit District [TBD], a series of fees and sales taxes intended to fund the routes that, due to major losses in tax revenue since the recession, are currently in jeopardy.  

The proposed cuts, which will go through if Prop 1 doesn’t pass, would affect 80% of riders.

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People who are transit-dependent and living outside of the densest, central parts of the city, such as low-income, the elderly, and immigrants and refugee communities concentrated significantly in places like Tukwila, Kent, and White Center, would be most heavily impacted by the proposed cuts. (Map thanks to Richard Morrill)

For drivers, the cuts would mean even more traffic on the roads. (Forbes has already named us in the top 10 most congested cities in the nation).

For me, a sometimes bus rider with a steady income living in the central area with access to a car and a bike, the cuts would be an inconvenience, at worst. For many, however, they would be devastating.

A 2013 report released by grassroots organization Got Green revealed that young people of color in South Seattle cited transportation as one of the top barriers to education and work opportunities.

“Students shouldn’t be forced to choose between having a way to get around and having to go to college,” says April Putney, campaign manager at Move King County Now, the main advocacy arm pushing for Proposition 1.

Oliver Williams, a youth leader with Got Green and former student at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tukwila, is one of those students. As a part of the Young Workers in the Green Economy Project, he spoke out last year about his decision to drop out of college due to transportation burdens.

He reported not being able to pay the fare while unemployed. He said that the excessive time spent traveling on and waiting for busses made it impossible to keep a job.

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Mapping and analysis work from the Transit for All project led by OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage and Transportation Choices Coalition.

It is likely that Williams’ story is familiar to many living in South King County. According to census data, a surge of immigration since 1990 to places like Tukwila and Kent, combined with the flow of communities of color out of Seattle’s Central District, have resulted in a 66% increase in those identifying as Hispanic, African-American, Native-American, and mixed race in these suburban areas.

Movement is happening so fast that there have been few opportunities for transit to catch up to demand. The proposed cuts would set transit back even farther.

On the chopping block are routes like the 128, popular in Delridge for bringing low-income riders to the food bank, where a recent report found that 31% of the community gets their healthy food.

Also up for re-routing or removal are several routes to the University of Washington: the 71 and 72, which run from downtown, and the 167, which runs from Renton. According to Kyle Murphy, who does outreach with UW students through the nonprofit Transportation Choices, these routes are already part of a one-hour plus commute to school for those traveling from outside of the central Seattle area. The proposed cuts could double that time.

With purchasing a car or paying rent in the University district out of financial reach for many students, Murphy expressed concern that the commute would put these students at a disadvantage, leaving little time for sleep, study or “anything else we might need to do to have some balance in our lives.”

Transportation Choices is currently organizing students to register to vote on the issue (the voter registration deadline is March 24th).

A recent article in Atlantic Cities touched on nationwide trends of immigrants driving less than non-immigrants, relying more on public transit and carpooling due to both income and cultural norms. Transit-riding, according to the article, is growing in this community.

Rebecca Saldaña, Deputy Director at Seattle think tank Puget Sound Sage, connects with a community member at a public meeting about the Transportation Benefit District, last month.
Rebecca Saldaña, Deputy Director at Seattle think tank Puget Sound Sage, connects with a community member at a public meeting about the Transportation Benefit District, last month. (Photo by Anna Goren)

A few weeks ago, the King County Council gave unanimous support for the TBD to be included in April’s election, under Proposition 1. If passed, it would cost the average King County household $11 per month, through an increased sales tax and car-related fees. The impact of the TBD would be equally spread across the income spectrum — 40% of revenue raised would go towards building roads, the rest allocated towards Metro.

Bus fare is set to increase to $5.50 round trip in peak zones regardless of whether Prop 1 passes.

The council also passed benefits for low-income riders, including a low-income bus fare that will become active regardless of the vote and a fee rebate that would be part of the Benefit District.

So what can we do, aside from shifting our complaining from the bus to bus cuts?

  1. Attend one of the upcoming Transportation Choices action events preceding the April election
  2. Be sure you are registered to vote  in King County
  3. Vote YES on Proposition 1 on April 22nd
  4. Support the movement for progressive taxation in Washington State. We may have the highest minimum wage, but Washington was recently reported as having one of the most regressive tax systems in the country. Changes in taxes might avoid last-ditch efforts like the TBD, in the future.

This post has been updated since its publication

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