As we noted on Tuesday, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski passed a motion out of his committee to delay the transit cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in 2015. Since the motion was supported mainly by the Republicans on the council, it raised a few eyebrows here on the STB staff.
I sat down with Dembowski to learn more about the motion and his thinking behind it. As readers no doubt recall, the cuts are scheduled to be phased in over the next two years, with the lowest-priority cuts happening this year and more aggressively painful cuts happening through September 2015. He agrees that the 2014 cuts probably need to happen, but wants to delay the more aggressive cuts scheduled for next year.
Here’s what he had to say.
The key thing, says Dembowski, is that there’s too much uncertainty around Metro’s budget right now to implement the cuts. Come November, there will be a new budget where we’ll see just how much sales tax revenue has recovered, and a new contract with Metro employees. Cutting service now creates uncertainty for riders, and he’s of the opinion that it’s better for Metro’s credibility to delay the cuts than to cut and restore.
Beyond that, the Councilmember believes more trimming is possible. He wants to be able to make the case to voters that Metro is as lean as possible before asking for more money. His legislation includes various things like an independent audit and a farebox recovery target that he believes will help persuade voters that Metro is worth supporting.
In terms increasing revenue, Dembowski would like to hunt under every couch cushion for loose change. Among other things, he’s interested in exploring a $0.25 fare increase*, reducing operating expenses, eliminating paper transfers, and financing the purchase of new electric trolley buses instead of paying cash up front. It’s unclear if all of these, combined with the cutting of 161,000 service hours in 2014 and an improving cash position at Metro will close the gap, but Dembowski thinks it’s worth a look. Going forward, he’d like to see the county put a ballot initiative to raise revenue sooner rather than later, but senses (correctly) that the will isn’t there at the County level to try again right now.
From a political perspective, Dembowski is well-positioned for this kind of effort. His district, which includes Northeast Seattle, Shoreline, Kirkland and Bothell, wasn’t so keen on Prop. 1. Half the district supported it tepidly and the other half was outright opposed. Our own David Lawson described the changes in Northeast Seattle as “possibly the most dramatic” of all the cuts proposed.
Will these efforts completely close the revenue gap? Unlikely. Will they convince skeptical voters that Metro is worth funding? Maybe. Dembowski knows his constituents better than I, but I get the sense that anti-transit voters are anti-transit, no matter how many independent audits you provide or fat-trimming exercises you endure. That said, perhaps car tabs are simply radioactive, and a measure that raised revenue in other ways while providing more “accountability” would find some more support among some nontrivial set of persuadable voters. In the meantime, several KC councilmembers are on record as supporting more transit funding, at least rhetorically.
* Fare increases are somewhat problematic both from a social justice point of view and an elasticity of demand perspective, but Dembowski notes that the new low-income fare Metro will adopt this year makes a fare increase more justifiable.