King County Council to Okay $20 Congestion Reduction Charge

(Photo: MvB)

It’s an unsettling sign of the times that the King County Council needed to think as hard as it did about approving a $20, two-year, car-licensing fee to forestall a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service. As mentioned earlier, that’s a nickel a day to keep bus service going that carries over 340,000 people every day. People who can’t afford that have other, more significant financial problems that have little to do with Metro funding and car tabs.

The press release notes that King County Executive Dow Constantine thanked the members of the Council–“including Councilmembers Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert, who announced their support today based on a package of amendments.” With Hague and Lambert joining Larry Phillips, Bob Ferguson, Larry Gossett, Joe McDermott, and Julia Patterson, the Council has the supermajority needed simply to pass the charge without punting it to voters.

Creating the supermajority didn’t come without its own costs, of sorts. Passage of the “Congestion Reduction Charge” will likely come with these riders, according to the release:

  • Develop a Transit Incentive Program to provide eight bus tickets worth up to $24 for each car tab renewal. People can use the tickets for rides to work, play or special sporting events. They may also choose to donate the value of those tickets to a pool of nearly 150 human service agencies to provide mobility for those in need.
  • Phase out the downtown Seattle Ride Free Area in October 2012. The Council’s 2009 performance audit called for Metro to update its formula for collecting revenues in the Ride Free Area (RFA). When first established in 1973 as the “Magic Carpet Zone,” a city subsidy funded 100 percent of the fares Metro no longer collected in that area. Today the city of Seattle pays Metro $400,000 a year to support the RFA, which is about 18 percent of the $2.2 million annual cost for Metro to operate the RFA.
  • Increase the pool of funds that provides sharply discounted bus tickets to human service and homeless programs. Metro now discounts tickets worth nearly $2 million annually. The tickets are currently sold to human service agencies at 20 cents on the dollar. Metro will either increase the current ticket allocation, or further increase the discount while giving the public the option of donating their tickets under the incentive plan to those in need.  Metro will seek the advice of human service agencies in how to best help those in need.
  • Implement right-sizing of service consistent with the Transit Strategic Plan. In communities where it makes sense, Metro will deploy lower-cost, more efficient Dial-a-Ride Transit service (DART), community access transportation services, Vanpools and vanshares, making service more efficient and responsive to our riders.
  • Consider routes that carry more riders due to the effects of highway tolling as candidates for added services. This language in the proposed legislation is consistent with the principles to enhance Metro’s productivity developed by the Regional Transit Task Force and adopted in the County’s Transit Strategic Plan.

Personally, I will cheer the end of the Ride Free Area. Not collecting payment from riders at the start of their journey creates a strange situation where you pay when you get on or when you disembark the bus, that leaves even drivers confused about when to take the fare. It’s also kept Metro from installing payment kiosks since the logical place to put them is downtown, where, with the Ride Free Area, they wouldn’t be used.

Further, while the idea was to promote “circulation” in the downtown area, the unintended result is that it promotes fare dodging as buses leave the downtown core (you can’t very well take a trip back from someone who refuses to pay), and also means buses double as mobile homeless shelters during inclement weather and alcoholic binges. That’s not, clearly, a true service for a homeless person, and it’s good to see that more money would be spent on discounted tickets for people who need buses for transportation.