Fewer rush-hour buses would show up, and some suburban riders would lose night trips, in the first wave of proposed King County Metro Transit budget cuts.
General Manager Kevin Desmond released a proposal Thursday of 30 routes to be scrapped and 12 routes to run less frequently, starting Sept. 27. This would save 166,000 operating hours a year, of which more than half come from reducing peak-time service.
“Routes will be more crowded, and some people will have a harder time getting to routes,” Desmond said.
Cuts are scheduled to occur in four phases through September 2015. The full plan, to reduce service hours by a total of 16 percent, was sent to the County Council on Thursday. The council is expected to vote on the cuts in June, after a series of hearings and weeks of public input.
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An outcry from displaced and inconvenienced riders seems inevitable as council members, who are elected by district, are free to make changes to the list of routes.
These moves follow county voters’ rejection this week of Proposition 1, a sales-tax and car-fee increase to support transit and roads.
An initiative to raise property taxes in Seattle — to prop up Seattle bus service — is being proposed by transit supporters, for the November ballot. But County Executive Dow Constantine has said that’s too late to avert the first round of cuts.
“By the end of the year, there will be hundreds of jobs that won’t be here anymore at Metro,” Desmond said, including bus drivers as well as managers.
Metro designed the changes to cut first from less-busy routes, and try to avoid leaving neighborhoods isolated.
But getting around the suburbs after hours would be tougher because five suburban routes, including three on the Eastside, would stop service after early evening.
Three more rounds of cuts are envisioned in February, June and September 2015. Each would be more painful, as transit staff begin with the less-popular lines and work their way up to better-performing routes, based on factors including ridership, geographic reach and service to minority and low-income customers.
Some highlights in the September phase:
• The 306 Express serving Northeast Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Kenmore would be canceled, which would divert riders to the overlapping 312 Express, which would gain one morning and one evening run; or to Sound Transit’s Route 522.
• In Federal Way, peak Routes 152 and 173 would be dropped, leaving six Metro routes and one Sound Transit route to serve the Star Lake park-and-ride.
• Auburn commuters would lose their no-transfer ride to Federal Way and Seattle as Route 152 goes away, while Kent’s East Hill commuters would lose their ride to Tukwila and Seattle if Route 161 is discontinued.
• Mercer Island riders on Route 202 on Island Crest Way Southeast would lose that bus to Seattle, and instead would take Route 204 to the Mercer Island park-and-ride — transferring to a Seattle or Bellevue bus.
• Route 7 Express serving Seattle’s Rainier Avenue South would be dropped, sending riders to a regular 7, or to walk several blocks west to a light-rail station.
• Three “Night Owl” lines would disappear: the 82 to Queen Anne and Greenwood; the 83 to the University District and Maple Leaf, and the 84 to First Hill and East Madison Street.
If all four phases of reductions occur, an estimated 11 percent of ridership would be lost. Ridership grew about 2½ percent in the past year, rebounding to 2008 weekday levels of 400,000 passengers.
Demand has grown despite $1 in fare increases, the end of a downtown free-fare zone and thousands of people who switched from buses to light rail.
Desmond gave a spirited defense of Metro’s operating costs, which were $136 per bus hour in 2012 — a level Proposition 1 opponents called excessive. Metro ranks eighth in the nation in both costs and ridership.
“We provide a lot of unique things,” Desmond said.
He mentioned Seattle’s downtown transit tunnel, which adds efficiency and capacity at a systemwide cost of $2.25 per operating hour.
Desmond added that electric trolley buses in Seattle cost $2.60 an hour more to operate than diesel but produce no emissions, something city residents like.
And he noted that 43 percent of downtown commuters take transit to work, a level comparable to bigger cities with subway networks.
Critics have argued that Metro doesn’t need to cut routes because of post-recession sales-tax gains projected at $439 million this year, or $31 million above past estimates.
Many urge the county to lean harder on its drivers, mechanics and other workers in talks with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. The county and union are in mediation, after workers balked at a contract offer last fall. The ballot defeat could crimp the supply of funds for pay and benefits.
Workers took a one-year wage freeze in 2011 and reduced layover time between trips — making the schedule less reliable and often depriving drivers of snack and restroom breaks. Experienced transit operators make about $63,000 a year before overtime, but Desmond said hundreds work part time for an average $26,000 a year.
Regarding the sales-tax gains, the county is trying to build a rainy-day fund and not overspend those.
Desmond said Metro has been burned before by “rose-colored forecasts,” in the early ’00s dot-com bust, and in the ’08 recession, in which the agency delivered less- than-promised service, after sales-tax rate increases. In 2006, the county presumed yearly sales-tax growth of 5.75 percent — but has since sobered its forecasts, to just over 4 percent.
But Desmond said even the lowered numbers assume the region will go until 2022 without another recession, and that’s just not reality.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom