When the threat of more bus cuts at King County Metro Transit vanished last week, transportation leaders in Seattle needed a new strategy for putting a potential flood of future taxes and fees to work.
Now they have it.
If city voters approve Proposition 1 on Nov. 4, the anticipated $40 million in new annual revenue would be spread around the city to provide more frequent service on dozens of routes.
There isn’t a sexy, game-changing project at stake.
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Instead, the city would deploy its first 33,000 new service hours to 49 routes on a city priority list, because the buses overflow or are chronically late.
That leaves a whopping 233,000 hours or so to fortify the citywide network, touching virtually every neighborhood — a windfall politicians could barely imagine four months ago, when their goal for the money was to protect transit riders from deep cuts then being proposed by Metro.
The latest strategy bears the fingerprints of Scott Kubly, the new director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), who says he hopes to make possible a low-car or zero-car lifestyle for more people.
Small changes can translate into big gains in ridership, he said.
“If you go from 20-minute to a 12- or 15-minute frequency, it’s not something you have to check on a schedule,” he said.
Bill Bryant, SDOT’s transit-planning manager, identified the all-day corridors that aren’t necessarily in crisis, but where more people would ride if only the buses ran more often, based on Metro’s productivity metrics.
“Most or all the seats are full on most trips, on all these routes,” he said.
One big route change is being proposed with Proposition 1 money — to break up the linked RapidRide C and D lines, where currently the D buses from Ballard exit downtown onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct, go out as the C line to West Seattle, and return.
Instead, the D would carry Ballard and Interbay passengers all the way down to Pioneer Square, rather than forcing them to switch to buses. And the C bus from West Seattle would continue a mile beyond Third Avenue, to reach job centers in South Lake Union. Doing so would require about one-tenth of the new money, Bryant said.
Where money would go
Perhaps the biggest revelation during the last week is just how much money the city might have to increase service.
The measure calls for a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax, and a $60 car-tab fee, within city limits, for six years. (Low-income drivers could seek a $20 rebate.)
“Don’t even begin to think it’s the end of it,” said opponent and Fremont commercial-property owner Suzie Burke, who thinks the city will want those dollars indefinitely.
In addition, Sound Transit contemplates a regional tax-and-build measure as early as 2016. Seattle intends to ask voters to renew its Bridging the Gap property-tax levy in 2015 for streets, including some transit, bike and pedestrian dollars.
Proposition 1 not only would raise $40 million yearly for city bus service, but an additional $2 million would be set aside to aid low-income riders, and up to $3 million to share costs with suburban cities for routes entering Seattle.
The Proposition 1 money is earmarked for the City Council to buy extra Seattle service from Metro, without changing suburban service.
At $40 million and $150 per operating hour, Seattle might add 266,000 hours a year, the equivalent of more than 120 full-time bus drivers.
Last week, Metropolitan King County Council members voted not to follow through with scheduled 2015-16 service cuts, due to an uptick in sales-tax revenue, Metro cost savings and optimism about future cash reserves. But even if the county reconsiders and makes those cuts, the Seattle proposition would backfill all 182,000 service hours at risk within the city, with millions of dollars to spare.
And under a no-cut scenario, could the city wind up with so much service gain that mostly empty buses crisscross the city?
“We have no interest in running more buses than we actually need,” said City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the transportation committee.
He points out the car fee may be “up to $60.” So if there were an oversupply of bus trips — which Rasmussen doesn’t expect in the nation’s fastest growing city — he said the council could return to voters to reduce the car fee, or to redeploy some of it for other transit projects. Or there could be new lines, he said, such as a Queen Anne circulator.
Burke criticized the shifting nature of the proponents’ campaign.
“You shouldn’t be asked to fund goodwill and sunshine. You should have a plan,” she said.
“This is the opportunity for the citizen voter to respond to a plan. What they’re doing is saying, ‘Give us the money, and we’ll figure out a plan.’ ”
For now, Proposition 1 is limited to buying bus trips. The Route 8 on Denny Way and the Route 40 from Northgate to Ballard and downtown top the SDOT list at 2,800 new service hours, but would remain at the mercy of other traffic.
This is because Proposition 1 was written back in July — when Mayor Ed Murray and other leaders were told Metro would slash bus hours in Seattle.
So a “yes” vote doesn’t add bus lanes to unstick Route 8, retrofit Madison Street for a bus-rapid transit project, add a Fremont transit-bike bridge, or build the First Avenue streetcar line.
On the other hand, SDOT is looking at other city funds to gradually clear bottlenecks.
Studies are under way on putting a transit lane near the intersection of Westlake Avenue North and Mercer Street, to save time for streetcars and buses, Bryant said.
Other 2015 targets include Rainier Avenue South at South Dearborn Street, to help the busy Route 7; sidewalk and bus stop improvements on Greenwood Avenue North; schedule displays through Ballard and Wallingford; plus two or three “queue jumps” that give buses a head start when the light turns green.
Some service that Metro cut last month might be restored, such as midday and weekend buses to Leschi on Route 27. The Loyal Heights area could gain another 17X commuter trip, but empty Routes 61 and 62 won’t be revived.
The just-cut Route 47 on west Capitol Hill might also be reconsidered, Bryant said. The city is getting an earful from seniors who have difficulty walking up the steep hill to Broadway, where the other bus lines are.