James W. MacIsaac, P.E.
381 - 129th Place NE ** Bellevue, WA 98005 ** Phone/Fax (425) 454-6307
E-mail: jmacisaac@uswest.net

DATE: August 9, 2000
TO: Executive Sims and Council Members
FROM: Jim MacIsaac
SUBJECT: Public Transit Needs

To assist you in your deliberations over transit funding support, I would like to offer my findings from PSRC data that provide a greater perspective on public transit within this region. I hope with this added perspective you will agree that directing more of our scarce transportation funding resources into the Seattle-centric Sound Transit Link Light Rail system may not be the appropriate focus of transit funding in King County.

I-695 resulted in a serious raid on funding for both highways as well as transit needs in this region. I believe it also sent a message to our public officials that we need to prioritize use of tax dollars to where they are most needed. Certainly maintaining our world-class bus transit systems and improving their effectiveness outside of Seattle is of much higher priority than building a Seattle-centric rail overlay of an already strong Seattle oriented public transit system.

The major weakness of public transit in this region is in serving non-Seattle travel patterns, which constitute 76% of all trips made in this region. That is where major new transit emphasis is needed – both in service and in positive support actions to cause its use.

Existing Transit Ridership

According to PSRC travel data for year 2000, 67% of all transit rides made in the 4-county region are trips that begin and end within the City of Seattle. Another 18% of all transit trips in this region are made between Seattle and its outside suburban areas. When added to Seattle’s internal transit rides, 85% of all existing public transit trips are made to, from and within Seattle.

Only 15% of all transit trips are made between origins and destinations outside of Seattle. Yet 74% of the current 10.6 million motorized person-trips per day in this region occur between non-Seattle origins and destinations (see table below). It is these non-Seattle trips that have brought this region to near the top in the nation for transportation congestion.

PSRC 2020 MTP Travel Forecasts

The current PSRC 2020 Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) has an aggressive policy strategy that emphasizes transit system and HOV-lane development and hoped-for use. It includes very little new freeway lane construction other than Transit/HOV lanes. On the other hand it includes a doubling of public transit services plus over 200 route miles of rail transit development.

The PSRC 2020 travel forecasts for the MTP are very disappointing. They found up to a 300% increase in congestion on the regional freeway system. This intolerable freeway congestion of course caused public transit to appear much more favorable in comparative travel times.

Despite the tremendous investment in rail systems in the MTP, daily transit ridership only increased from 3.2% of total trips in 2000 to 4.5% in the 2020 estimates. During the peak periods of travel demand public transit is predicted to carry about 6% of total trips. Quite often the transit proportion of home-work trips is quoted as peak period transit use. This is quite misleading since home-work trips constitute less than half of peak period travel. Public transit is far less responsive to non-work trips.

The PSRC has chosen not to evaluate a 2020 MTP without the extensive rail transit system overlay. However, the initial JRPC rail studies during the early 1990s made comparisons of the rail plan versus a then "current law" funding of bus transit system enhancements. It found that a rail system increased total regional transit ridership by about 10% over No Action. So most of the transit rider increases between 2000 and 2020 shown in the table are caused by the tremendous increases in highway congestion – not by implementing the rail system.

However, the more important function of the above table is to point out how the transit future of this region is still mostly being invested in Seattle access. Non-Seattle related trips would constitute 76% of the 14.8 million trips per day in this region by 2020. Public transit is estimated to accommodate only 0.9% of these non-Seattle trips. This should be the primary concern and focus of the King County Council that predominantly focuses upon non-Seattle needs of the county (by population location and needs).

Public Transit Funding

The emergence of Initiative 745 raises a potentially major new obstacle to public transit funding in this region and this state. There are many who believe that it cannot apply to locally created tax resources. Hopefully that will be proved true. However, the Initiative does raise the question as to what proportion of our total transportation tax dollars are currently being spent on highways versus public transit uses. The following table presents the best effort I can prepare toward answering this question.

Of all state-collected tax resources for our four-county region in year 2000 budgets before the effects of I-695 (upper portion of the table), 55% would have gone to state and local freeways, arterial roads, and city streets. The other 45% would have gone to public transit agencies with 30% divided amongst our five local transit agencies and 15% to Sound Transit.

As a result of I-695 and the subsequent Legislative action, the MVET tax support for transportation uses was virtually eliminated. This resulted in about a one-third loss in revenues for both highway and local transit agency uses. Sound Transit did not lose its locally imposed MVET surcharge. Excluding any 2000 Legislative temporary fixes, the middle portion of the table shows a best estimate of year 2000 transportation budgets after the outcome of I-695. The transportation funding proportions for highways/roads versus public transit changed to 52% and 48%. The Sound Transit share of public transit funding increased from about 33% of all transit dollars to 43% of all transit dollars.

Also of significant note is the amount of federal funding this region hopes to receive during year 2000. The bottom portion of the table summarizes all of the federal grants and subsidies that were put forward in the 2000 transportation agency budgets. If all budget requests were approved by federal agencies, the dollars could total about 42% of the total post-I-695 state and federal revenue for transportation in this region during 2000 (again, notwithstanding temporary Legislative fixes). Of these federal dollars, 32% would go to roads and highways, 16% to our five local transit agencies, and 52% to Sound Transit.

From this information many could conclude that we are dedicating too many of our transportation dollars to public transit. The amount available to roads and highways may not be sufficient to cover even the basic preservation of our highway system that carries over 95% of our region’s travel needs, including all of its public transit services. Certainly it provides no allowance to expand the road and highway system to meet the PSRC-projected 40% increase in auto demand between now and 2020 as the non-transit element of its transit-aggressive MTP.

But more relevant to the current County Council deliberations is the proportions of transit dollars projected for our most vital local bus transit services versus the Sound Transit rail system overlays. Of all currently available state-collected public transit dollars plus applied-for federal dollars, 40% would go to our five local transit agencies, and 60% would go to Sound Transit. Sound Transit will continue to seek this level of funding for the next six years – and more to cover the projected cost overruns of its proposed rail systems. At the potential 2006 end of its Phase I of light rail development, its existing local tax revenues will be needed to operate, maintain and cover debt service for its Phase I systems over the next 20 years or more. ST will likely seek a major increase in local tax funding for any future extensions of its Phase I rail plans.

MacIsaac Suggestions

Whatever transit funding plan is put forward by the County Council, it should include a vastly increased focus upon the non-Seattle transportation problems of this region. The most vital need is to provide a useable public transit alternative for the vast majority of King County residents who do not live and work in Seattle. The Council should also be totally cognizant of the I-695 directive to reallocate use of existing public transit funds to where they can be most effective.

The Seattle-centric ST light rail plan is of tremendous expense but of minor importance compared to the greater need to provide a public transit alternative for non-Seattle oriented trips (and even for Seattle-resident trips to employment areas outside of Seattle).

If I were seated on the Council, I would be proposing that the Sound Transit light rail system be delayed, and that 0.3% of its 0.4% local sales tax revenue in King County be diverted to Metro Transit to preserve and enhance its local and express bus services. Sound Transit could continue with its Commuter Rail and Regional Express Bus programs with its remaining 0.1% sales tax revenue plus its MVET revenue and federal grants and subsidies. The 0.2% of tax diversion to Metro Transit would be to maintain and improve its current services. The other 0.1% of tax diversion would be used to pursue ways to make public transit respond to the vast proportion of non-Seattle travel.

If the Council only has the choice at this time between the Sims and Fimia tax increase proposals, I do strongly hope that it will choose the Fimia proposal. The need to maintain and improve existing Metro Transit services is far more important than pursuing the Seattle-oriented rail transit overlay and covering its projected cost overruns and known system shortcomings. The future need of public transit in this region is to address the 76% of all trips that move from suburban locations to suburban locations. A 500-passenger train is the least likely option to address these multi-thousands of low-capacity origin-destination travel pattern needs.

Closing Thought

Over the past 60 years the private auto has not only had a major effect on our personal travel needs and choices, it has also shaped the growth of the region in a way that cannot be summarily dismissed over a few years of time. Even with our best efforts it may take as long to build our way out of the auto-dependent society as it took to build our way into it. Hopefully our first choice in transportation planning with limited funding resources over the next 20 years will be one of economic survival of the region. If we continue our transportation supply policies of the past 20 years over the next 20 years with no better effectiveness, we may not have a region that needs to concern itself with transportation needs 50 years from now.

NOTE: Jim MacIsaac is a transportation engineer who has spent the past 35 years developing and contributing to the development of "regional" transportation plans for the Central Puget Sound region. His involvement began as a staff engineer with the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study during the early 1960s. He served as the senior engineer in transitioning all regional transportation planning models to the Puget Sound Governmental Conference during the late 1960s. He then went on to private consulting with several international transportation consulting firms before founding his own local firm in 1975 that has been involved in numerous Subregional and multi-modal corridor transportation planning studies. Since retiring from that firm in 1995, he has continued to lend his expertise as a participant in many voluntary community groups, such as the Trans-Lake and I-405 Corridor Program citizen committees and other transportation planning issues in this region.