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More bus?

Ron Sims at Transit Now press conference, King county photoWhen King County Executive Ron Sims announced his proposal for a tax increase to ramp up the volume on public transit, he remarked that “Transit Now [his proposal] will give people what they are asking for: more bus service more frequently.” That poses a question: Which people were doing the asking?

This space has long contended that one of the key reasons public transit systems fail, or fail to reach anything resembling their potential, is weak service: There are too few routes, they are operated too erratically, you have to wait forever to get a bus or train, and you likely will need to engage in a complicated series of switches if you make everything else work. The key to solving this is frequency, intensiveness of routes, and reliability. That, of course, is costly, but probably the only way to make such a system work. (It is a key, for example, to the Portland area’s excellent Tri-Met system.)

The people who actually ride public transit tend to know all this, and they most likely were the core of the group Sims was referring to. From the county’s description of the plan:

Transit Now will expand Metro service by up to 20 percent systemwide over the next 10 years, and get more commuters on the bus and off the road now by launching the expansion within months of a final decision, not years. As much as 700,000 new annual service hours – or about 200 additional buses – will be on the road by 2015. More than a half million people will be within walking distance of the new service.

The initiative will bring Bus Rapid Transit service to five of the most congested travel corridors in King County with buses at 10-minute intervals. Regular service on existing high-ridership routes will also be expanded to 15-minute intervals all day cutting the wait time for thousands of passengers, plus new service will be added to serve residents in rapidly growing neighborhoods.

It would be paid for by adding a tenth of a cent to the county’s sales tax – raising about $50 million, costing – Sims estimated – the average household about $25 a year.

Therein lies the tricky part: The portion of this deal most King Countians will see is the sales tax increase, at least initially. Public transit doesn’t have a great rep around King, and the investment needed to make it work will be hard to come by, amid a populace accustomed for years to words and phrases like “monorail” and “Sound Transit.”

Much of that civic outrage has been focused on light rail. But the suspicion is that the real target is mass transit generally – anything other than servicing individual passenger vehicles. Goldy at Horse’s Ass suggested, “I’ve always suspected that the vocal support of bus service by opponents of light rail was little more than a rhetorical device… that when push came to shove, they wouldn’t support any tax increase for any transit project that didn’t put more cars on the road.”

So make what you will of Stefan Sharkansky’s take on Sims’ proposal at Sound Politics: “I’m actually with Ron Sims on the part about enhancing the bus system. Frequent, flexible, efficient bus service makes more sense than most other forms of public transportation. In other cities I’ve lived in, buses are an attractive alternative to driving and parking in a congested downtown. Buses could work better here too. But that doesn’t mean we need to raise the overall amount of taxes we pay for public transportation. The biggest problem with transporation in this region is that too much is being wasted on extremely expensive, inflexible fixed rail systems that do/will carry an insignificant number of riders.”

There will be opposition, all right. To paraphrase the commercial: In the road of life, there are drivers, and there are passengers. And in King County, the former outnumber the latter.

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