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Photo by: King County Metro Transit

For those of you who have lost faith that Americans can still craft a bipartisan compromise containing innovative problem-solving in service to protecting the economy and access to jobs, find hope in King County, Washington. While the rest of us were still recovering from debt ceiling brinkmanship in that other Washington, a coalition of business, environmental, and transit advocates helped win over Republicans and save the transit system in King County from drastic cuts.

Four out of five public transit agencies in the United States will be forced to either raise fares or cut service this coming year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Sales taxes are a popular source of transit funding across the country despite having little relationship to the operation of and demands on transportation systems. And this revenue source showed its downside during the recession, severely contracting and now only slowly beginning to recover. Rising fuel costs also stress transit budgets.

King County Metro, which provides bus service in the city of Seattle and adjacent suburbs, was no exception. The 12th-largest transit provider in the United States, Metro carries more than 110 million trips a year and is innovating new services, such as its expansion of RapidRide bus rapid transit lines. The agency also depends heavily on sales tax receipts. Since 2008, King County Metro had raised fares four times—an 80 percent increase—cut staff, and renegotiated labor contracts, but still faced a large gap in its budget. Without an infusion of revenue in 2012, the agency was looking at service cuts of 17 percent, affecting 80 percent of riders and forcing tens of thousands to get into their cars, or just stay home.

Seattle businesses recognize the importance of a stable and healthy King County Metro. “With more people commuting now by bus to work in downtown Seattle than by any other means, saving Metro transit is as much a transportation issue as it is an economic issue,” explained Downtown Seattle Association board member Matt Griffin. The Downtown Seattle Association and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce joined with others to present transit’s case to the state legislature. Up for debate: a new “congestion reduction charge” to fund transit via a fee added to the annual vehicle registration charge.

In April, the state legislature authorized King County to adopt a $20 congestion reduction charge in support of transit. There were strings attached, of course. The charge could only be temporary—at most for two years—and adopting the charge quickly required a supermajority vote of the King County Council. As of late July, the four Republican members on the nine-member council still indicated that they could not support the fee.

Public support swelled: 1,500 turned out at hearings in support of the charge. And 175 business, education, human service, labor, and environmental leaders and 30 local elected leaders from King County’s suburbs signed letters to the county council urging immediate action.

Tough negotiations followed that included some sacrifice, but also some interesting ideas that may actually end up advancing transit in the region. When King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the deal that had won over two Republican council members, gone was downtown Seattle’s “Ride Free Area.” Established in the 1970s to support economic development, the city of Seattle’s annual payment to Metro had slid over the decades from covering 100 percent to less than one-fifth of the Ride Free Area’s cost.

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Photo by: King County Metro Transit

The deal also takes the “congestion reduction charge” idea up a notch. The charge does not just support transit, but also provides an incentive for people to ride transit. In return for each $20 fee, vehicle owners will receive eight bus tickets worth up to $24. And it gets better: Vehicle owners who don’t want to try transit can donate their tickets to social service agencies that support those hit hard by the recent fare increases.

The deal requires Metro to continue “right-sizing” its operations, building on improvements in service efficiency put in place since 2008. As Republican councilmember Kathy Lambert explained her vote in favor of the package, “People in these uncertain economic times need certainty that they have an alternative method such as buses to get to work. There are many systemic changes in the new package that will help meet the needs of efficiency, transparency, and providing transportation.”

“Council’s leadership keeps our economy moving forward,” responded Charles Knutson, representing the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and its 2,200 businesses, to news of the deal to save transit.

The new congestion reduction charge, anticipated to bring in $50 million over two years, is only a temporary fix. To develop a long-term, sustainable funding source for transit and other transportation needs, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire has convened the Connecting Washington Task Force, made up of state and local elected officials, organized labor, and business groups. The goal is a ten-year investment strategy, with recommendations to be presented to the state legislature in 2012.

Of the loss of downtown Seattle’s Ride Free Area, Patrick Callahan, CEO of Urban Renaissance Group LLC and past chair of the Downtown Seattle Association, admits it is disappointing, but he thinks “it is too early to tell what the impact will be.” Downtown interests will have some time to prepare; the Ride Free Area is not scheduled to be phased out until October 2012. Seattle city councilmembers and King County Metro are already talking about other ways to promote transit use in the downtown for residents, workers, and visitors. Of the overall deal, Callahan reflects, “The most important thing was the compromise to keep the base bus system intact.”

This is the inaugural article in a new Urban Land, both print and online, series, “Business on Board,” that investigates the business community’s role in advancing transit. To be added to the infrastructure mailing list, e-mail infrastructure@uli.org.

To read other articles in this series, see:

Utah Business Embrace Light Rail
NoMa: The Neighborhood That Transit Built

Regional Transit: Regrouping in the Tampa Bay Area
Healthline Drives Growth in Cleveland