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City may consider taking over buses

On Monday, July 21, King County Council unanimously passed an ordinance enacting Metro bus service cuts, effective in September. The cuts, which will be rolled out in phases, will continue through the end of 2015, when bus service on the Island will largely disappear.

“These cuts are very significant for Mercer Island in terms of the fraction of service that we're going to see,” said Mayor Bruce Bassett. “One of the things that dawned on me, was the realization that we rely on Metro not only to provide service but analysis of service...[The] priority for us is to ease the pain [of these bus cuts] for citizens.”

For Mercer Island, the cuts will mean a combination of deletions and consolidated routes. Thirteen of the Island’s 16 routes will be deleted or reduced. Five routes – the 201, 202, 203, 204 and 205 (and in effect the 213), will be consolidated to service on Island Crest Way, with operational hours between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Buses would run every half hour during peak traffic times (between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and again between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.), and then hourly during the middle of the day.

In September of 2015 – a year behind the rest of the cuts – the 201, which serves the South Mercer Park-and-Ride via Mercer Way, will be eliminated.

Regionally, the actual cuts were a small compromise over earlier projections: 72 routes would be eliminated, compared to the 74 originally expected. At first Metro anticipated only 25 routes would be left untouched, but that number is now closer to 58.

But like Seattle, which is pushing for a measure similar to Proposition 1, with a 0.1 percent sales and use tax and a $60 car tab fee, Mercer Island is considering purchasing metro service for the Island. It’s not clear where the money for Metro service would come from.

The city is considering the creation of a Transportation Benefit District, funded by a $20 car tab fee, as other cities have done. But the revenue generated, though it would address other transportation-related projects like roadway repairs, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements, wouldn't be adequate to fund bus service.

City manager Noel Treat explained that the city would likely have to make some “hard choices” about where to save money or what projects to postpone. It's not clear yet how well existing service meets demand, said Treat. But staff  requested additional data from Metro to help shape plans moving forward.

“What we really want to know is how many people are affected by cuts in the service,” said Treat. “That will help us find our options and an alternative.”

Metro is largely funded by a percentage of sales tax (54 percent in 2013), a small percentage of property tax (four percent) and fares (23 percent).

Seattle's measure would net $45 million annually, the bulk of which would be used to buy back reductions proposed for the city. Three million dollars would go toward funding partnerships with other cities.

The City of Mercer Island has been exploring different options since Proposition 1 failed. It approached the school board about using district buses across the Island, but quickly decided not to pursue the idea for logistical and operational reasons. The buses, for instance, would be needed during peak hours, which is the same window of time the district needs them.

In the case of Seattle, the buyback of Metro services would only be a temporary fix. The hope is that the Legislature will develop a transportation package that will encompass funding for Metro. Treat said he's not sure yet if the Island would take the same approach.

“We're still really trying to get our arms around this. It's a short-term solution but if there's a need that we can help fill...it's probably something we'd do [longer term]. It's hard, because it's expensive and we're still feeling the effects of the recession. We're still feeling the economy getting better and our budget is pretty tight.”

There are existing examples of cities contracting with Metro. Snoqualmie Valley, for instance, has a shuttle service repurposed for local needs and funded in part by the Snoqualmie tribe.

Metro doesn't yet know what the costs of contracted service would be for the Island, though representative Victor Obeso said an hour of bus service averages $136, including driver pay, customer service agents and other operational price details. The Island could likely reach a cheaper compromise because a full 60-foot bus during peak hours, isn't necessary to meet Island demand.

Under a contract, the city could in theory re-develop its bus service, running buses every 20 minutes as opposed to every hour, for instance.

But there is no itemized price list as of yet.

“We'd need to [look into] the details of what the implications of that are,” said Obeso.

He emphasized that Metro, despite the tumultuous waters ahead, is “a regional system with regional benefits.” The hope is to maintain that structure.

The bus cuts come as Mercer Island is seriously reevaluating transit's place in the city and how to reenergize its Town Center.

“As you know...we're being asked to serve as a parking lot for Metro as buses turn around to integrate with [light rail],” said Councilmember Jane Brahm, referencing a transit integration study that would likely erect a roundabout near the Park-and-Ride, either along North Mercer Way or Sunset Way.

She's far from the only one frustrated with the options presented to the Island. Mike Cero, quoting a Seattle Times editorial that ran after Proposition 1 failed at the ballot box, said that cutting bus routes should be the last resort after Metro considers labor negotiations and operational costs. Many opponents of Proposition 1 echoed this sentiment.

In fact, said Obeso: “We did not go first to cuts...We've gone through six years of austerity, [only] now [are we making] cuts.”

Metro negotiated labor savings three years ago and reduced its cost of living increase. It's also currently undergoing negotiations with its leadership union. This week Metro is undergoing a peer review by five transit agency leaders from around the U.S. And an independent auditor will review the policies Metro updated as recently as 2011.

Metro is expected to lose 11 million riders and the attendant fare revenue, annually because of the cuts.

For more, go to www.metro.kingcounty.gov


 

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