Metro Transit agreement preserves Issaquah routes

August 16, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

County Council enacts $20 vehicle-tab fee to generate transit dollars

Kathy Lambert

Kathy Lambert

Route 200 buses can continue rolling along downtown Issaquah streets due to a last-minute agreement to avert steep cuts to King County Metro Transit service.

King County Council members, after listening to more than 1,000 people urge against reduced bus service, enacted a $20 vehicle-tab fee Aug. 15 to forestall a 17-percent reduction to mass transit countywide. Metro Transit planners considered eliminating Issaquah-centric routes 200 and 927 in the proposed cutback.

In addition to enacting the vehicle-tab fee, the agreement calls for Metro Transit to phase out the free-ride zone in downtown Seattle in October 2012 and use smaller buses on less-popular routes as cost-saving measures. Metro Transit estimates eliminating the downtown Seattle free-ride zone should save $2.2 million.

The deal is meant to soften the impact of the economic downturn on cash-strapped Metro Transit. The sales tax revenues the agency uses to fund service plummeted due to the anemic economy.

“The people of King County voted with their feet, and they overwhelmingly turned out to tell us to save Metro Transit and keep bus service on the street,” County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement. “They have been heard.”

The agreement also calls for the transit agency to offer $24 in bus tickets to people paying the vehicle-tab fee. People uninterested in the tickets can instead donate the balance to almost 150 human-services agencies.

The decisive support for the agreement came from the Issaquah representative, Councilwoman Kathy Lambert and Councilwoman Jane Hague, another Eastside member.

Forging a ‘bipartisan agreement’

Hague lobbied state legislators to permit the County Council to enact a temporary fee to shore up funding for mass transit. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the legislation in May.

“This bipartisan agreement addresses my primary concerns and offers real reform for Metro,” Hague said in a statement. “It’s critical that we keep people and businesses moving on the Eastside — especially during these tough economic times. This new package creates jobs and provides equity for the Eastside.”

In June, Constantine proposed creating a $20 vehicle-tab fee — billed as a congestion-reduction charge — for 2012-13 to generate funds for Metro Transit. Under the state legislation, the fee is due to go into effect six months after Constantine signs the measure into law.

The initial proposal attracted support from the Democrats on the council, but not enough to clear the supermajority threshold. Republicans Lambert and Hague negotiated for reforms to Metro Transit in exchange for support. (The council is nonpartisan, although members often caucus along party lines.)

“We’re working together in a bipartisan fashion, unlike those in Washington, D.C.,” Lambert said in a statement. “People in these uncertain economic times need certainty that they have an alternative method, such as buses, to get to work. There are many systemic changes in the new package that will help meet the needs of efficiency, transparency and providing transportation.”

County Council members heard from more than 1,000 people at a series of public hearings in the days before a planned July 25 decision on the fee. The council opted to shift the decision to Aug. 15 to allow for a possible solution.

“Today’s developments are the result of hours of public testimony, hundreds of messages and thousands of emails about the vital role Metro plays in the lives of King County residents,” Councilman Joe McDermott said in a statement. “My colleagues and I will continue to work together to find long-term, sustainable funding for Metro to keep our region moving for years to come.”

Some changes could still occur

The push to enact the fee attracted broad support from Eastside and Seattle business groups, environmental organizations, organized labor and major employers, such as Microsoft and the University of Washington. The groups joined together and advocated for the fee as the Transit Rescue Coalition.

Issaquah councilmen Fred Butler and Joshua Schaer joined 27 other elected officials from across King County to urge the County Council to enact the fee. The councilmen signed a letter from the coalition.

“We recognize this is a difficult vote while we are still recovering from a tough recession,” the letter states. “But we believe that all citizens will pay far more in transportation costs and time by the loss of dependable, frequent bus service.”

Metro Transit planned to start widespread service cuts in February if the council did not enact the fee.

Jim Jacobson, Metro Transit deputy general manager, said the agency intends to examine less-popular routes for possible reductions.

“If there are routes that just aren’t performing very well, look at ways to make adjustments to those and invest in places where you’re going to get better ridership,” he said.

Still, despite the council agreement, riders should expect some changes to routes and service, especially on routes along the urban-rural boundary in East King County.

“It does not mean there will not be any changes to the system, but reducing the system 17 percent is off the table for two years,” Jacobson said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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