Despite more riders, King County bus service faces rough financial road

King County Metro bus ridership is up. So are fares and a predicted financial shortfall.

According to King County Metro's Web site, a 7 percent increase in ridership occurred in 2008. However, a financial shortfall caused Metro to enact higher fares — and has the agency grappling for ways to maintain service.

Since 2005, Metro ridership has steadily increased. Twenty percent more people rode buses in 2008 than they did since 2005, according to Metro's Web site. This past year saw increases in ridership, in part, due to the economy. Transit Now — a 10-year initiative focused on expanding bus service by adding thousands of service hours — also sparked growth. The agency boosted its service 70,000 hours on more than 30 routes in 2008 in connection with the initiative, according to the Web site.

Funding to continue offering these accommodations is slipping. King County Metro used to receive funding from a motor vehicle excise tax. In 1999, Initiative 695 repealed the tax. Fares now fund 25 percent of bus services, said Jim Jacobson, King County Metro deputy general manager.

County sales tax is the primary source of funding. In a down economy, this revenue is unpredictable, said Rochelle Ogershok, King County Public Affairs supervisor.

"Sales tax is a very volatile funding source," she said.

Tough choices

The situation has King County Metro and the county council making tough choices.

In the first of two measures, adult bus fares increased 25 cents beginning Feb. 1. A trip spanning two zones will now cost $2.50 and a one-zone trip is $2. An off-peak fare now costs $1.75 and monthly passes saw an increase. Fares remain unchanged for seniors, youth and disabled riders. The price jump is necessary for Metro to maintain its current level of service, according to the Web site. A second 25-cent increase in fares is expected in 2010, Ogershok said.

Financial gap

The fare increases will not close a fast-approaching financial gap. Metro operates on a nearly $500 million budget, Jacobson said. It is expecting about a $60 million budget shortfall beginning next year if alternative revenue sources are not soon identified, he said.

A plan is needed to address the shortfall and continue offering services to an increasing population.

One funding source in exploration is a motor vehicle excise tax. It is sought after in the state Legislature as part of the Alaskan Way viaduct improvements. The tax is expected to relieve Metro of having to rely so heavily on sales tax for income. It would also allow for an expansion of bus service, including that promised by Transit Now, according to the Web site.

While Metro pursues state help, it is doing what it can to cut costs internally. Capital projects — to the tune of $80 million — were eliminated during this past fall's budget, Jacobson said. Staffing positions were also decreased, he said.

"That will allow us to continue to run our program this year in hopes there would be some action in the Legislature to allow the opportunity for new revenues," Jacobson said.

Federal Way connection

The agency, thus far, has been able to escape significant cuts in service. An alteration to route 174 is the only change Federal Way residents have seen in 2009. The bus, which runs nearly 24 hours from Seattle to Federal Way, now drops off customers at the Federal Way Transit Center, 31621 23rd Ave. S., rather than at the South 320th Street park and ride, 32320 23rd Ave S. There is no way to ensure service will not be impacted in the future, Jacobson said.

"Significant amounts of the existing service may have to be cut (if alternative funding is not identified)," he said.

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