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April 19, 2006

Sims Gets On The Bus

Bus_1Is it a miracle? Can it really be so? Did I just read about a transportation plan that's actually useful and affordable? That can happen soon but also has long-term benefits?

I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)

I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.

So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)

Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region's density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit--with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.

This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express--a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver--I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn't on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I'll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn't fill triple the buses.

So I'm all for Sims' bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn't get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I'm hoping that local leaders--and local voters--remember that bus service works and it's a bargain.

Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That's a problem, I think, in a county that's struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn't a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *

* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it's progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it's nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it's deductible from federal income taxes. It's also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don't see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that's just about to expire.

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Comments

I have to say that as an environmentalist, I make a shoddy consumer of mass transit. I drive to school at Seattle U every day from Ravenna because it is so much more convenient.
I've tried the bus and the problems Sims is trying to correct are exactly the problems I have with the current system...with one exception, I don't see a plan for BRT lanes on congested arterials.

For example, even if I wanted to take the #48, it is stuck in the same morning traffic down on Montlake that everyone else is stuck in...yet we have lovely little medians in the boulevard with trees. Mr. Sims, tear out that median! (and replace with a BRT lane)

Posted by: Ryan Carson | Apr 19, 2006 5:11:46 PM

Where is the car tab monorail tax going now? I was pretty angry when I had to pay it and the person at the licensing office couldn't provide a good answer.

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 19, 2006 11:30:47 PM

It's certainly a step in the right direction, though I too am suspicious of the sales-tax-based funding. This is the sort of thing that should come out of the city budget.

I was surprised to read that Sims' interpretation of "so frequent you won't need a schedule" meant "every 15 minutes". Aren't the buses already supposed to come every 15 minutes? Is "more frequent" in this context really just a polite way of saying "less often behind schedule"? That would be good, too, but I think that actually pushing the schedules up to every 5 or 10 minutes, like a subway, would extend the bus' appeal to a new category of riders.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Apr 20, 2006 9:58:59 AM

I've read -- don't recall where, now -- that when buses come every 7 minutes or less people stop bothering consulting the bus schedule.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 20, 2006 10:38:26 AM

Clark, you read that in The Car and the City, if I'm not mistaken.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 20, 2006 11:54:49 AM