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Guest Opinion: County Council Member Kathy Lambert Explains Her Car Tab Vote

Lambert agreed this week to support the $20 fee; here she explains the process she used to come to that decision.

Being a public servant sometimes requires difficult and complicated decisions. So I would like to share with you my thinking on the issue of the Congestion Relief Fee. I can tell you it would be easy to say NO at this point, but in six months when we are all sitting in gridlock with no bus options and thousands of more cars in front of us, would we be happy that I took the "easy" vote. 

Here is the background of many weeks of thinking and reading and studying. I do not take my job lightly that you have given me and spent most of my vacation working on this issue. 

Situation

Metro is funded by sales tax revenues mostly. In 2010 the revenue to pay for bus service was down $149 million as projected and $72.8 million below the 2008 level of funding.  The difficult economic times affect so many aspects of life. So Metro has made $400 million in cuts over the last two years. For each of the last four years they have increased the fare box share of the ride so that the riders have had their fare increase by $500.  This has increased the fare box recovery of riders paying directly for their rides to nearly 30% from 18% earlier (the policy target was 25%, so riders now pay more than the original target).

We have used reserves, stopped Cost of Living Increases, and worked very closely with the employees to find efficiencies and improve routes. But the gap between available and needed funds to run the bus system is still huge. To cover the gap would have required a 17% cut across the board in service. 

In our area the funding gap would have been 43,000 hours of service and in Bellevue 86,000 hours. So the eastside would have had a decrease of over 120,000 hours. We are seeing overall a 5% increase in ridership countywide and an 11% increase in the Hwy. 520 corridor. 

Car Tab Source from Olympia

SB 5457 and HB 1536 companion bills  

The car tab source is not a source that would be my preference. Nor is it my preference to raise taxes. However, there are times when you have to make very difficult choices - some harder than others. This one is most difficult because we are in hard economic times and because of the car tabs are so unpopular. So let me tell you the "rest of the story" as Paul Harvey use to say. 

The car tab revenue source was the only source the legislature gave the county to use to help keep the buses running. Three counties went in to Olympia to get help with their transportation system. The Senate Transportation Committee reviewed all the reductions and changes all three counties had made. Only King County came out as having made enough improvements and changes to be given this temporary (two year) funding source because the experts there felt that the next set of cuts would be too devastating to the transportation system. So we were stuck with that being the funding source. 

 Senate bill SB 5457 said that the council should try to find a solution to this problem collaboratively with six votes. That made it possible that no one group could dominate but it had to be an open fair process. Then SB 5457 said if they could not come up with a plan, then it was to go to a vote of the people. It is a temporary fee for two years.  It also says that after June 30,2014 that if the fee is to continue it MUST go to a vote of the people. So increasing car tabs is not "to go against the will of the people,” but to respond to the new law passed in Olympia. 

This bill was supported in Olympia by Rep. Goodman, Rep. Springer, Rep. Judy Clibborn who is State Transportation Chair and many others and was passed into law (It is only three pages long so easy to read and the link is above.)

Then raising taxes during a recession is not a favored idea. However, the alternative has to be evaluated too. The alternative of 17% less buses and the greatest reduction being on the eastside as we have less density than most of the rest of the county was not a good idea either.

Transit Committee

The transit committee made up of about 26 citizens from across the county came up with a number of plans to improve Metro and to make it more efficient. That committee set the standard of productivity as one of the main goals. The less densely populated an area is the more difficulty you have meeting that target. 

So the eastside would be the hardest hit in reductions. So we looked at another goal of regional equity to see how we could use that goal. They developed a plan called alternative sources which is now called "right sizing.”

Right sizing establishes the right size bus, van, etc. to meet the needs of that community so they would not have empty large buses going through their community but right sized vehicles saving money to keep the bus hours of service to citizens. The productivity goal was being highly focused on in the earlier proposal.

Economic Situation

As the economy continues to falter many of our citizens are feeling the pinch of making ends meet.  So, one way to reduce costs is to take the bus. In fact if you go 20 miles from the eastside by bus it costs you $1,296 a year, if you were to take that same ride by car it costs $5,100 per year. So there is a possibility of this being a way to save money. 

Upcoming Changes

The state's chief economist Arun Raha was quoted in the Seattle Times on Aug. 12, 2011 as saying, "the past two weeks have drastically changed the outlook for the US economy." When we see a downward change like this, we see an upward change in ridership. In addition, in October when the state tolling begins on Hwy 520 we expect another increase in bus ridership. So the economy and tolling will both be pushing ridership up, and at the same time the economy will be pushing the dollars for bus hours dramatically down. That is a perfect storm of bad news.  

So in the situation with lots of "bad news" what do we do? 

We could continue to make the cuts that were proposed reducing about 120,000 hours of buses on the eastside. That would push all those riders back into their cars.  95% of bus riders own a car. So they have the cars to contribute to increased congestion. That would mean that there would be a situation like when a large event at the UW attracted 15,000 more cars and set up gridlock for hours. That would be what was projected for us on a regular basis. 

At that point, with all of us in gridlock, cars idling costing more gas money and time, and people who need buses not having a way to get to work or home would be screaming why didn't their elected officials fix the problem. The projected costs for increased gas consumption were above the $20 fee proposed.  It was a "no win" situation. 

Easier to say NO

Yes, I can guarantee and my staff can tell you that it would be much easier to say NO to a new fee. But that is not looking ahead to what is before us and be proactive that the people need to get to work and home and to activities without gridlock. Transit riders need to be able to have their buses and drivers need to have roads that are free of gridlock. That can only happen if we can provide the most cost effective transit system to make both bus riders and car drivers have available service. 

Either way people will be angry. They don't want a fee increase and they don't want gridlock. But one is going to happen. So which in the long run is best for the citizens, the economy and the environment? 

The gridlock will cost more in gas consumption than $20 and more time in commuting and being away from family and leisure activities. 

So some of us got to work to see what we could do to comply with the SB 5457 law. 

Kathy Lambert represents parts of Redmond on the King County Council.

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