By KRIS HILL
How people get around, as well as how much it costs, was the topic of discussion at a Metropolitan King County Council town hall meeting Aug. 25 in Covington.
County Councilman Reagan Dunn, whose 9th District includes Covington, Maple Valley and Black Diamond, said public transit is an important issue, “especially (for) the rapidly developing areas around here.”
“I chose Covington for this town hall meeting and this topic because I think it’s emblematic of the problems the residents of this district face,” Dunn said. “The roads are clogged and the bus service is almost non-existent. Where you do find bus service, it’s usually peak-hour only.”
Dunn said the idea for the town hall at Kentwood High School’s Performing Arts Center was to hear from residents of southrast King County about what can be done to make transit service better.
Transit and transportation is so important, Covington Mayor Margaret Harto said, that those two topics were the only ones on the agenda when the city councils of her town, Black Diamond and Maple Valley met jointly in July.
“Covington is a city on the move,” Harto said. “We continue to see healthy residential growth despite the economic mood. We’re continuing to add services to meet the demand of this growth.”
And while plans for extended bus routes and increased frequency are good, Harto said, “those improvements only address a small number of needs.”
The improvements Harto mentioned come as a result of the Transit Now, 1 percent sales tax increase that was approved by voters countywide in 2006.
“Our residents need more options – more park-and-ride lots and perhaps a transit center,” Harto said.
County Councilman Dow Constantine said that while all of the county’s residents are clamoring for more mass transit, the combination of a number of factors is creating challenges for the county and for Metro Transit.
“Rising prices, along with the decline in sales tax revenue, has put a tremendous amount of pressure on Metro,” Constantine said. “Despite the financial challenges our transit system faces, we must provide as much as possible to our constituents.”
Victor Obeso, service development manager for Metro, said there’s been about a 20 percent increase in the past year or so in ridership in the southeast part of the county.
“One of the challenges we face with this rapid rate of ridership growth is crowding,” Obeso said. “A lot of people using our transit system are experiencing crowded buses, and we’re straining to keep up with the demand that we have.”
Through Transit Now, Metro has been working to keep pace, he said.
“There are 30 corridors throughout King County where we’re looking to increase frequency,” Obeso said. “In south King County, we’ve made several improvements over the last year. Our system is very oriented north-south, and we’ve received requests for increasing our services operating east-west. We’ve made additional improvements, with more to come in the fall.”
The Transit Now program is spread over 10 years, though, and Metro plans to expand and change routes and the frequency of bus runs over the next eight years.
Among the immediate improvements local residents will see will be changes to Route 143, with all morning trips extending to Maple Valley and Black Diamond starting in late September, according to Obeso.
“The result will be that for folks in Maple Valley and Black Diamond, they will have five morning trips and five afternoon trips,” he said.
In addition, Route 149, which runs on State Route 169 from Renton to Maple Valley will be extended to Enumclaw and run every 90 minutes instead of every two hours starting in 2009.
Route 168 will also be extended to Four Corners, with buses leaving every 30 minutes.
Metro general manager Kevin Desmond said the improvements “come none too soon, and perhaps we can say there’s still not enough. Coupled with that increased demand comes increased fuel costs. It’s been a decade-long issue that has really come to the forefront this year.”
For fuel costs for Metro for this year, the county budgeted for $2.60 a gallon for diesel. The price has surged above $4 a gallon. Add to that the weakening economy and a decline in sales tax revenue — a revenue source Desmond said could be described as volatile at best — Metro officials are facing a “perfect storm” in terms of cash flow problems, given that it gets 61 percent of its funding from sales tax.
The options of what to do about a $70 million shortfall projected through at least 2010 include increasing revenue, reducing expenses and capital spending, using cash reserves and seeking external relief from the state or federal government.
“The key for us in terms of projecting and guessing and ultimately seeing the reality is how quickly the country and this region can recover from this downturn,” Desmond said.
Wayne Messer, a Maple Valley resident, said he wishes Metro would offer weekend service and move toward an electronic payment system using either pre-paid cards or some other method.
“Maple Valley has no late-day or evening service,” Messer said.”If you’re not in Renton by 5:55 in the afternoon, you walk home 10 miles. I have no idea how Metro is going to handle the peak in fuel production. You need to be thinking long-term.”
Covington City Councilman Wayne Snoey suggested building a bus storage and maintenance barn in south King County to shorten the distance buses travel to run routes.
He also encouraged officials to think of ways to help reduce the number of cars coming out of suburban and rural areas.
“Our ridership would grow significantly if carefully planned and put in place,” Snoey said. “We need to think outside the box. We’re going to have to think differently. The plans that we have that were put together by the very hard-working people at Metro aren’t going to work.”
Staff writer Kris Hill can be reached at (425) 432-1209 (extension 5054) and firstname.lastname@example.org