King County leaders should call a timeout on bus cuts

April 29, 2014

As King County officials come to terms with voters’ rejection of Proposition 1’s regressive tax increases, they are moving ahead with their earlier threats to cut bus services in neighborhoods across the county.  Less than a week after the election, County Executive Dow Constantine submitted his plans to impose service cuts.

King County leaders want to cut bus service, but that is not what people voted for when they defeated Proposition 1.

The stark choice County leaders presented to voters was flawed.  They said, “Vote for regressive tax increases or we’ll impose harsh bus service cuts in your community.”  That is a lose-lose approach.  Instead, voters want to see alternatives to cutting essential bus services.

Fortunately, there are good alternatives.  Metro budget writers say they need to save $60 million in operating costs in 2015. Metro is receiving record sales tax revenues this year, including a $32 million windfall above previous estimates. That solves more than half the shortfall.  To put the remaining amount of $28 million in needed operating savings in perspective:

    • $28 million is about 4% of Metro’s yearly operating budget.
    • $28 million is less than 3% of King County’s yearly transportation budget.
    • $28 million is less than one percent of King County’s total annual budget.

It seems likely elected leaders could find 1% in a $4.5 billion budget to avoid the devastating bus service cuts that Executive Constantine and the King County Council would impose on the public.  For example:

1) Metro officials could use their rising revenues to help keep bus service on the road. Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond says he wants to use higher revenues to “build a rainy-day fund” for the future, but isn’t Metro’s rainy day happening right now?

2) Metro officials could open a dialogue with union executives. Metro’s largest union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, is seeking a new contract.  The talks offer a chance for management and labor to work together to protect neighborhood bus service.

3) In 2008 and 2013 the Municipal League provided recommendations that Metro officials could use to help keep buses on the road. The League said Metro managers should “rigorously control operating expenses” and gave six recommendations for augmenting revenue before seeking higher taxes.

4) Metro officials could review the $338 million capital budget for savings. In Metro’s 2014 budget, Metro officials are adding about $65 million to the cost of buying new buses (pg. 93):

“Revenue vehicle expense has increased…The plan to procure 30-foot diesel buses has shifted to 35-foot hybrid buses, causing an $18 million cost increase. Earlier replacement of sixty-one 60-foot buses has resulted in a $47 million cost increase for that project during the 2011-2017 time period.”

A review of the numbers shows County officials should call a “timeout” on imposing Executive Constantine’s service-cuts plan.  Better management of budgets, rising revenues, discussions with union executives and controlling capital costs would help keep neighborhood bus services on the road, all without raising regressive taxes.