Imagine if the Washington State Department of Transportation were forced to shut down a couple lanes of I-5 through Seattle next year, simply because the state senate couldn't be bothered to do its job. That's pretty much the transportation-capacity equivalent of what's facing King County Metro.
If the legislature fails to grant King County the authority to levy a 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) within the next 30 days, Metro could cut bus service by up to 17 percent in order to close a projected $75 million annual revenue shortfall. With average weekday ridership of about 400,000, that's a capacity equivalent to about 68,000 rides a day.
To put that in perspective, I-5 carries about 250,000 vehicles a day through Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct only 110,000. So we're looking at a capacity reduction equivalent to about a quarter of I-5's weekday traffic, or more than half of the viaduct's. Just from a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service.
It's easy to lose sight of just how crucial transit is to our region's daily commute. Through their various services, Sound Transit and Metro together carry about 500,000 riders a day; that's almost as much as I-5, I-405, and the viaduct combined. Or to visualize it another way, the average capacity of a single freeway lane is about 18,000 vehicles a day—making ST/Metro's half-million rides a day roughly equivalent to building a 28-lane freeway through downtown Seattle.
Of course, a 17 percent cut in bus service does not mean a 17 percent cut in bus ridership; Metro says roughly 70 percent of riders will be affected. Some riders will switch to other routes regardless of how crowded they already are. But the same would be true of closing a freeway lane. Other bus riders will choose to climb behind the wheel of their cars, increasing traffic congestion for everyone else, including the remaining buses on the roads. "The vast majority of our transit users have cars at home," explains King County executive Dow Constantine.
House Democrats included the local MVET option in their transportation-funding package, but senate Republicans balked at the bill. The 30-day special session is likely Metro's last chance to get approval for an MVET option on the ballot this fall, which it needs to stave off substantial cuts before the money runs out next June.
No doubt senate Republicans couldn't give a fuck about King County bus riders. But perhaps if they understood that these transit cuts are the functional equivalent of freeway closures, granting an MVET option wouldn't be controversial at all.