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OP/ED: County Council Member Kathy Lambert Explains her Vote on $20 Car Tab Fee

Lambert agreed this week to support the $20 fee, her she explains the process she used to come to that decision.

Being a public servant sometimes requires difficult and complicated decisions. So I would like to share with you my thinking on the issue of the Congestion Relief Fee. I can tell you it would be easy to say NO at this point, but in six months when we are all sitting in gridlock with no bus options and thousands of more cars in front of us, would we be happy that I took the "easy" vote. 

Here is the background of many weeks of thinking and reading and studying. I do not take my job lightly that you have given me and spent most of my vacation working on this issue. 

Situation

Metro is funded by sales tax revenues mostly. In 2010 the revenue to pay for bus service was down $149 million as projected and $72.8 million below the 2008 level of funding.  The difficult economic times affect so many aspects of life. So Metro has made $400 million in cuts over the last two years. For each of the last four years they have increased the fare box share of the ride so that the riders have had their fare increase by $500.  This has increased the fare box recovery of riders paying directly for their rides to nearly 30% from 18% earlier (the policy target was 25%, so riders now pay more than the original target).

We have used reserves, stopped Cost of Living Increases, and worked very closely with the employees to find efficiencies and improve routes. But the gap between available and needed funds to run the bus system is still huge. To cover the gap would have required a 17% cut across the board in service. 

In our area the funding gap would have been 43,000 hours of service and in Bellevue 86,000 hours. So the eastside would have had a decrease of over 120,000 hours. We are seeing overall a 5% increase in ridership countywide and an 11% increase in the Hwy. 520 corridor. 

Car Tab Source from Olympia

SB 5457 and HB 1536 companion bills  

The car tab source is not a source that would be my preference. Nor is it my preference to raise taxes. However, there are times when you have to make very difficult choices - some harder than others. This one is most difficult because we are in hard economic times and because of the car tabs are so unpopular. So let me tell you the "rest of the story" as Paul Harvey use to say. 

The car tab revenue source was the only source the legislature gave the county to use to help keep the buses running. Three counties went in to Olympia to get help with their transportation system. The Senate Transportation Committee reviewed all the reductions and changes all three counties had made. Only King County came out as having made enough improvements and changes to be given this temporary (two year) funding source because the experts there felt that the next set of cuts would be too devastating to the transportation system. So we were stuck with that being the funding source. 

 Senate bill SB 5457 said that the council should try to find a solution to this problem collaboratively with six votes. That made it possible that no one group could dominate but it had to be an open fair process. Then SB 5457 said if they could not come up with a plan, then it was to go to a vote of the people. It is a temporary fee for two years.  It also says that after June 30,2014 that if the fee is to continue it MUST go to a vote of the people. So increasing car tabs is not "to go against the will of the people,” but to respond to the new law passed in Olympia. 

This bill was supported in Olympia by Rep. Goodman, Rep. Springer, Rep. Judy Clibborn who is State Transportation Chair and many others and was passed into law (It is only three pages long so easy to read and the link is above.)

Then raising taxes during a recession is not a favored idea. However, the alternative has to be evaluated too. The alternative of 17% less buses and the greatest reduction being on the eastside as we have less density than most of the rest of the county was not a good idea either.

Transit Committee

The transit committee made up of about 26 citizens from across the county came up with a number of plans to improve Metro and to make it more efficient. That committee set the standard of productivity as one of the main goals. The less densely populated an area is the more difficulty you have meeting that target. 

So the eastside would be the hardest hit in reductions. So we looked at another goal of regional equity to see how we could use that goal. They developed a plan called alternative sources which is now called "right sizing.”

Right sizing establishes the right size bus, van, etc. to meet the needs of that community so they would not have empty large buses going through their community but right sized vehicles saving money to keep the bus hours of service to citizens. The productivity goal was being highly focused on in the earlier proposal.

Economic Situation

As the economy continues to falter many of our citizens are feeling the pinch of making ends meet.  So, one way to reduce costs is to take the bus. In fact if you go 20 miles from the eastside by bus it costs you $1,296 a year, if you were to take that same ride by car it costs $5,100 per year. So there is a possibility of this being a way to save money. 

Upcoming Changes

The state's chief economist Arun Raha was quoted in the Seattle Times on Aug. 12, 2011 as saying, "the past two weeks have drastically changed the outlook for the US economy." When we see a downward change like this, we see an upward change in ridership. In addition, in October when the state tolling begins on Hwy 520 we expect another increase in bus ridership. So the economy and tolling will both be pushing ridership up, and at the same time the economy will be pushing the dollars for bus hours dramatically down. That is a perfect storm of bad news.  

So in the situation with lots of "bad news" what do we do? 

We could continue to make the cuts that were proposed reducing about 120,000 hours of buses on the eastside. That would push all those riders back into their cars.  95% of bus riders own a car. So they have the cars to contribute to increased congestion. That would mean that there would be a situation like when a large event at the UW attracted 15,000 more cars and set up gridlock for hours. That would be what was projected for us on a regular basis. 

At that point, with all of us in gridlock, cars idling costing more gas money and time, and people who need buses not having a way to get to work or home would be screaming why didn't their elected officials fix the problem. The projected costs for increased gas consumption were above the $20 fee proposed.  It was a "no win" situation. 

Easier to say NO

Yes, I can guarantee and my staff can tell you that it would be much easier to say NO to a new fee. But that is not looking ahead to what is before us and be proactive that the people need to get to work and home and to activities without gridlock. Transit riders need to be able to have their buses and drivers need to have roads that are free of gridlock. That can only happen if we can provide the most cost effective transit system to make both bus riders and car drivers have available service. 

Either way people will be angry. They don't want a fee increase and they don't want gridlock. But one is going to happen. So which in the long run is best for the citizens, the economy and the environment? 

The gridlock will cost more in gas consumption than $20 and more time in commuting and being away from family and leisure activities. 

So some of us got to work to see what we could do to comply with the SB 5457 law. 

Kathy Lambert represents Woodinville on the King County Council.

 

Lucy DeYoung August 17, 2011 at 09:09 PM
Dear Mr. DeYounger - or whoever you are I totally agree with you that the Sammamish Valley is our waterfront. In fact, those are the exact words I used in the article Patch did recently about my vision of Woodinville. So, I am glad we can agree on one thing. It is because we need to protect the valley that I feel it is important that Woodinville annex these certain properties along 140th Place NE. These are not actively cultivated farmlands, they are already developed properties - the Brown's homestead, Alliance Church, Montessori School, Veterinary Clinic, Kirchner Trailer, Jack's Tractor and Christine's Landscaping. We need to protect the valley and Sammamish River from pollution from these developed properties. We also have the opportunity to add to our growing wine/agri-tourism industry on these already developed properties to compliment the wine/agri-tourism industry. I am confused about your statement that this is being done by "insiders." Once again this is an example of half truths and innuendos. It is clear you have been to several public meetings where the proposed annexation has been discussed. There are many times a Council and Staff disagree. The City of Woodinville has discussed the proposed annexation at several meetings and passed a resolution supporting the annexation. These meetings were in public and on TV. The Chamber of Commerce is supporting the annexation. The County Council publicly discussed the annexation and it was on TV.
Jim DeYounger August 18, 2011 at 06:17 AM
Dear Ms. DeYoung. Again I'm sorry you don't know me. But please don't belittle someone and act like we don't exist just because we travel in different circles. But back on topic. Now that you have expressed your opinion several times your point has become clear. Thank You. Now we know that you do know better than everyone else. Why is it that your are always correct and seem to know what's best for Woodinville even when it's not your property. Maybe I should ask around at Canterbury and see if they know. Thanks for everything you think you do for our city.
Lucy DeYoung August 18, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Dear Mr. DeYounger (or whatever your name is because you won't use your real name), How typical of you and your small group. Whenever you can't win an argument based on the facts you resort to personal attacks. Sad.
Annie Archer (Editor) August 18, 2011 at 03:36 PM
A reminder to keep civil and on topic, thank you.
Jim DeYounger August 18, 2011 at 06:33 PM
Dear Annie. Thank you for providing a place for open opinions to be exchanged. This should never be about winning and losing. It's an open venue for individuals to provide and share their thoughts and concerns on issues that are pertinent to our overall community. Thanks Again!
Seth Kok August 20, 2011 at 09:49 PM
No politician has the right to override the vote and will of the people. Kathy should have voted NO on Metro.
Alexandra Carlsson August 22, 2011 at 08:37 PM
Mrs. DeYoung said it took "courage" to give in to the liberals and for Kathy to sell out the voters who have voted time and again against higher license tab fees. Kathy was elected to represent her constituents, not just Mrs. DeYoung and a few of her friends. When the politicians get too big for their britches & think THEY know better then the taxpayers who have elected them and whose money they're spending (or wasting), then it's time for US to elect someone that will represent the people again. This is why my vote won't be going to Kathy again.
Alexandra Carlsson August 22, 2011 at 08:41 PM
Well said, Mr. Taylor. Bus riders don't pay for my gas when I run carpool or go to the store. Why don't they pay their fair share for service that they use? This is income redistribution in action!
Julie Tesque August 23, 2011 at 10:08 PM
Is it really courage exhibited? Is courage what it takes to accept elected job as city mayor while living outside the city limits? Is courage what it takes to vote for family interests over community interests? Is courage what it takes to go along with special interest group wishes over the neighbors' wishes? Is it courage to spend without reconciliation? If this is COURAGE then Kathy and her friend Ms. DeYoung exhibit a boatload of courage.
Lucy DeYoung August 23, 2011 at 11:27 PM
Dear Ms. Tesque - or whoever you are because you won't use your real name. Once again, you do not have your facts correct. I was elected by the voters of Woodinville to the City Council when I was a resident of the City and a registered voter of the City. I was sued over the issue of my residency and the lawsuit was dropped because it was groundless. I was then reelected to the City Council by the residents of Woodinville. While on the City Council I recused myself and did not vote on any rezone that involved my parents. And yes, I believe any politician exhibits courage when they take a controversial vote they believe is correct - whether or not I agree or disagree with them - because although I know it is part of the job, I also know how hard it is to be an elected official and take the criticism and personal attacks for standing up for what you believe to be correct. I believe it takes courage to stand up for what you believe is right. Kathy voted for what she believed was the right thing to do.
Jim DeYounger August 24, 2011 at 01:07 AM
It was just one of those days today. So hot and I feel asleep on the cot in my office in downtown Woodinville. I was thinking I could go up to the Farm on Hollywood Hill and sleep at my parents house since they have air conditioning. But I realized that I was all grown up and sleeping in my old kids room just wasn't what I should be doing as an adult. Well maybe if i was an elected official in Woodinville it would be OK to leave my office home and go bum with Mom & Dad? But then I would have to make other tough decisions on how to live while taking advantage of others money. Oh well. That may be reality for some but I'll just continue to try and live the clean life making my way on my own. When do we get those free bus passes so I can ride back and forth to places I don't go?
Burl Cass August 24, 2011 at 01:07 AM
When you promise voters that you're going to support what they've voted for numerous times, then you actually vote against it, that's not "courage"...that's lying. Anyone who cannot understand that should be the last person to continually tell everyone else to get their "facts straight"! Dishonesty (or should I say "courage"?) from the President all the way down to a council person is why the electorate has lost all faith in politicians.
Annie Archer (Editor) August 24, 2011 at 02:10 AM
Warning: Comments on this story should be addressed to Kathy Lambert's vote. Stay on topic or I will have to consider closing comments on this story.
Brian August 25, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Al Taylor says: "Pumping money into the Metro Bus service will not improve its operations and the money will continue to subsidize another wasteful government operation. I want elected leaders to work within their budgets, to be efficient stewards of existing revenues, and find ways to create improvements." I'd just like to point out the "existing revenues" have fallen sharply. Had revenues been consistent, Metro wouldn't need additional funding. Metro has indeed worked within its budget. However, its budget did not (and could not) anticipate the sharp drop in sale tax revenue. Before asking the taxpayers for more money, Metro tapped its capital reserves, raised bus fares a shocking amount, and negotiated with its union, all of which closed nearly 80% of the budget gap. It's easy to demonize when you are not aware of the intricacies of any given issue. The reality is that bus service boosts the local economy while improving traffic for those who don't ride. In an community, we all work together. Your $0.05 a day is hardly onerous.
Jack Vermeulen August 26, 2011 at 02:43 AM
Brian, that is an interesting comment in support of Kathy's vote. How does bus service boost the local economy compared to using the money in other ways? (see below for an example) How many cars does it actually take off the road? According to this: "Jacobson estimates that Metro carries over 340,000 people every day, and park and rides are hosting over 18,000 cars daily". So we can say for sure that 18,000 cars are not on the road because of bus service. (The ridership number is sort of meaningless since that does not translate to cars.) Now compare that to how many cars are on the road. Are 18,000 cars a significant number for the area covered by Metro? Every day, approximately 115,000 vehicles use the SR 520 bridge to cross Lake Washington. I-405 near Bellevue carries around 200,000 cars per day. These are just come quick facts for just a tiny portion of the traffic in this area. Imagine what happens when you include the WHOLE area. Now please consider the following: What if that same exact same money is used to build better roads, more efficient traffic control (intelligent traffic synchronization is not even close to what it could be), fix bridges and all the tools now available to improve traffic flow? Finally, if bus service is so great, how come very few (any?) politicians take the bus every day - even the proponents? This isn't "demonization" (a strange characterization) but an honest assessment of facts that are easy to verify.
Al Taylor August 26, 2011 at 05:15 AM
Brian, let's suppose the situation is that a company built a million square foot facility outfitted with the most advanced automation to manufacture 10 times its current sales with the hope of recovering its costs when it quadruples current sales; hence, growth after quadrupling business is break even. Now consider the assumption of market growth is not realized because of the great recession. Does society owe that business for its losses--ie. should taxpayers bailout the company? That situation could be interchanged to Metro Transit incorporated. Metro built a transportation system with expensive big buses that operate with low occupancies and now we, the taxpayers, are being forced to pay them to operate inefficiently instead of allowing market forces to determine the most efficient means of conveying the riding public. The solution that Kathy Lambert voted to support forces everyone of us who don't use the bus (ie. buy the transportation product) to pay for the wasted gas and seats. I don't agree with that solution, nor the imposition that the government chooses to force me to buy that wasted capacity in order to maintain a bloated, poor implementation of public transportation.
Al Taylor August 26, 2011 at 05:40 AM
Brian, the solution set for solving the Metro conundrum of high fixed costs per passenger mile of service requires leadership willing to frame the problem differently. For example, instead of sinking money into maintaining and paying for wasted capacity of the system, a better problem would be "how can existing monies be stretched to serve the riding public with the least waste?" A business person would approach that problem with facts and figures to come up with a plan to sell under-utilzed assets and propose other ideas. Ideas such as rightsizing the product to meet demand might include ditching double-decked and stretched buses in favor of smaller fuel efficient (hybrid?) vans along with matching trips to coincide with passenger peak schedules or perhaps subcontracting routes to independent operators as the parcel delivery services have done in many situations. Privatization of passenger transportation could also introduce the incentive for keeping costs down--remember econ 101 supply-demand-pricing models? To date, I have not read anything about innovative cost containment solutions being investigated.
Al Taylor August 26, 2011 at 06:01 AM
Brian, by the way, if you want to see a model of better passenger mile efficiency in practice, then spend a little time looking at how the domestic airlines operate--SeaTac is not too far from Woodinville! Notice that Alaska, Delta, and United do not operate all of their routes with Airbus 380's or Boeing 747's. The airlines match their airframe capacity to the market being served. Popular long routes operate with 747's, service to less popular large population and business centers operate with 737's and regional flights to sparse destinations go with turbo-prop commuter planes. Why doesn't government lean its operations to serve areas by need? It would cut costs, save fuel, reduce pollution, and most likely generate scalable options that can accommodate fluctuations in business. Kathy, in my opinion is not motivated to be a problem solver anymore--she has become another long-term incumbent who takes the easy way out.(and by the way we have a lot of those around here).
Brian August 26, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Jack and Al -- before I dive into the debate, let me first just say thanks for discussing the issue. Your responses are both quite a bit more elevated than the usual comment discourse I'm used to seeing. And my bad for 'demonizing' -- that was a poor choice of words on my part. Jack -- 340,000 riders and 18,000 spaces in park and rides yields only 18,000 vehicles off the road? Surely many of those cars took more than 1 person to the park and ride, folks who maybe took different busses and might have needed 2 cars to get people to their destinations. And surely many of the folks who would drive without bus service don't end up parking at a park and ride. I don't know how to arrive at the right figure, but 18,000 seems clearly too low, unless you assume anyone who rides the bus can't afford to drive, which seems a poor conclusion to make.
Brian August 26, 2011 at 03:41 PM
Jack, you also mention investing further in road building. Part of what we've learned in this whole tunnel debacle is that car trips in Seattle are down. Fewer people are choosing their car for trips into the city. So, as with the boondogle the tunnel will become, why invest in 20th century technology? We aren't using cars more, there isn't increasing demand for roads. Major transit studies show that increased road capacity simple does not reduce congestion. Roads in Seattle proper are funded almost solely for vehicles, while cars account for less than 40% of trips to downtown. Going off rough memory here, but bikes are 5%, transit is ~30%, and pedestrian trips make up the difference. Surely, roads are not the answer.
Brian August 26, 2011 at 03:44 PM
Al, I have to disagree with your comparison to a factory. A business like that is incharge of its own fate: its products will drive revenue and failure is the fault of the businss. Metro is a service, funded primarily by sales tax. Metro can't do anything to affect the fact that people aren't spending. Metro can't release a new product or have a sale to generate more business volume. Gov't is not private business. Gov't has to be transparent and accountable, has to consult the public and negotiate compromise. A business can make fast decisions with little regard for elements the business chooses to ignore. This bugs me because people talk as if gov't could be as efficient as business, which it is inherently impossible due to the burdens of public oversight.
Brian August 26, 2011 at 03:49 PM
Here's where I come from: I live in the south end. I'm a college educated gainfully employed taxpayer. I own my home and 2 cars and I pay the taxes on them gladly. I work on campus at the UW, where parking costs almost $20 a day, and $1,000 a quarter. I get to work on my bike (20 miles) and bus (5 miles) every day. I could choose to drive, but I'd rather have a research facility on campus, not a new parking garage. The routes I ride, and there are 6 depending on how I do it, faced cuts. 3 of the routes were proposed to be eliminated. Those busses are standing room only most days. The cuts were not proposed to empty routes, but to routes many of the folks in my community rely on. Not all of my neighbors have the luxury I have of beign able to ride a bike or afford a car trip. The south end routinely gets screwed -- we lost our light station with no warning or public comment, though we all paid our share for the line. We lost the 16th Ave bridge, a major arterial in our area. I believe in community. I believe that when I pay taxes, I'm helping my neighbor. I don't blindly trust the gov't and I don't want to give them endless funds with no oversight. But Metro works. People rely on it to get to work, to church, to the doctor. And everyone benefits anytime someone gets out of their car.
Brian August 26, 2011 at 03:51 PM
I'm much more concerd about the $60 tab fee for more never-ending stop gap road maintenance than I am about $20 for Metro. In downtown seattle, 5% of trips are by bike. 30-odd percent is vehicle, ~40% is transit, and the rest is pedestrian traffic. Yet, the vast majority of spending on our roads goes to cars, which is way out of proportion, especially in light of the fact that car trips have been declining for most of the past decade, not increasing. Anyway, I suspect we'll have to agree to respectfully disagree. But thanks nonetheless for the discussion. Cheers all! -b
Brian August 26, 2011 at 03:53 PM
ha! sorry for the redundant arguments, I hit the word limit and lost much of what I wrote, then managed to repeat myself.
Jim DeYounger August 26, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Brian the problem is Metro is run by the government. Go look at a shuttle system for any major corporation. Smaller & effecient. Metro isn't some sort of free ride for poor people to get around. When I'm on the bus in the morning (the only time it's full) it is business Men & Women. Why am I paying their way? Needy people are already subsidized and get discounts for the bus. No one takes the bus to church or the doctor. The sytem has no flexibility. In Woodinville they want to raise $5,000,000 in bonds to fix up someone's old school. Don't worry it won't cost you much. The city is behing 18 years on road work and wants to pass a levy. Don't worry it won't cost you much. Roger Goodman wants early childhood education for illegals in Washington State. Don't worry it won't cost you much. You need to go over to Europe where this model is further along. GREECE. There is no one left to pay the Don't worry it won't cost you much. It creeps in slowly like a cancer just a little "Don't worry it won't cost you much" at a time. That's why Woodinville now pays a permanent utility tax because the temporary one that the old council (Mr Hageman) voted in wasn't going to cost us much. Don't Take My Money!
Brian August 26, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Jim, I don't seem able to reply directly to your comment, but I hear you on that. Like you, I ride to work and don't mind paying my fee or increasing it because I can afford it. But the routes I rely on were slated to be cut, and there wasn't an option for me to support myself paying more. Sometimes I think that's part of the myth of democracy/capitalism. We're told we have a lot of choice, and in many ways we do. But often we don't get much say in which options we have to choose from. IT just so happens that in this particular case of the $20 tab fee for metro, I support paying. I'm not at all convinced on this $60 pothole levy. And I'm terrified what I'll end up owing on the godforsaken tunnel ...
Jim DeYounger August 26, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Brian these are the same folks that voted in a $2 + Billion sewer plant that we don't need and put it on top of the 2nd largest earthquake fault in the United States. The councilmembers like Kathy that may not have voted for it, did not put much of a fight up against it. I remember Kathy saying that Dow Constantine really didn't understand the issue. Well then why didn't she explain it to him?
Jack Vermeulen August 26, 2011 at 05:59 PM
My numbers are not guessing. Where do you get the number that fewer people are choosing their car for trips into the city? Possibly a temporary economy issue, not bus riders. Bus riders are way below projected use. I said invest in 21st Century technology! That means installing sensors for traffic in way more areas, building dynamic speed sign, etc. Some of this is visible on I-4 and I-90. Temporarily, economic issues are stalling traffic growth, however, there has been a consistent increase in demand for roads. take a ride to Marysville around 4pm Any study by "transit" is going to be 100% biased and misleading. Kemper Freeman is one of the first to come out and discard the old notion that doing nothing for roads somehow is a cure. I doubt very much that bikes are 5% of trips to Seattle from the Eastside or that transit is 30%. The numbers I already gave show that is clearly impossible!! You have to consider the BIG picture, not just Seattle.
Jack Vermeulen August 26, 2011 at 06:01 PM
I wish government was transparent and accountable. That's why we are having this discussion.
Jack Vermeulen August 26, 2011 at 06:09 PM
How does downtown Seattle translate to the WHOLE? That's the issue. We don't need or want near empty buses on trips to Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville, etc. You won't even come close to those suspect numbers in this area. So here's an idea: Since Seattle benefits so much from transit, Seattle should pay for all the service they provide in their area. I do not want to subsidize something I can't use. It is just not practical to take the bus most of the time. Downtown use is a slam dunk. That use does not translate at all to the outlying areas. It's like talking about septic tanks to city dwellers. They just don't understand. And that's why even politicians who support this do not take the bus. Isn't that revealing? Should make anyone think twice here.

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