King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, in pre-COVID times (flanked, L-R, by King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott)

by Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council shelved a budget proposal by North Seattle council member Rod Dembowski yesterday that would have kept 47,000 hours of bus service inside Dembowski’s district after the Northgate light rail station opens next year. The proposal came in the form of a budget proviso, or restriction on spending, that would have withheld $5.4 million in funding for King County Metro unless the bus service went to North King County.

The hours will become available because King County Metro is shutting down its Route 41 bus line, which duplicates the light rail route. Instead of being redistributed throughout North Seattle to feed commuters to the new light rail line, as Dembowski proposed, those hours are likely to go to South King County, where King County Metro’s equity analysis shows the need is greatest.

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Dembowski argued that Metro’s usual practice is to reallocate service freed up by light rail into nearby neighborhoods, to make light rail more accessible. “We’re doing this all around the county,” he said. While this has been the practice in the past, it is not required—and Metro’s new Mobility Framework, created in collaboration with community groups over the past year, calls for new or reallocated service hours to go into communities where the need is greatest, regardless of where they originated.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity,” council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, says. “It goes around our established processes and guidelines, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

The debate, which centered on the question of what constitutes equitable transit service during a time of sweeping budget cuts, concerned a small slice of Metro’s overall budget. But it was also a preview for the battles that will play out over the next year, as Metro adopts new service guidelines that will benefit the county’s most underserved communities while diverting funds from areas that are, on average, wealthier and whiter.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity.”—King County council member Dave Upthegrove

Last year, before a global pandemic forced massive cuts to bus service and decimated transit agency revenues, King County Metro adopted a new “mobility framework” to guide future transit service decisions with an eye toward equity and economic and racial justice. The framework, developed by Metro in collaboration with an Equity Cabinet made up of 23 community leaders from across the county, was a precursor for revised Metro service guidelines, which will replace existing guidelines that emphasize ridership and geographic distribution, including in “areas where low-income and minority populations are concentrated.” Among other changes, the new framework recommends concentrating new (and reallocated) service in areas with high density, a high proportion of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those with limited English skills. 

Community members who turned out to speak against Dembowski’s proposal talked about the challenges they face as bus riders in South King County. Najhan Bell, a student and retail worker, described a grueling daily routine: Up at 9 to catch a 10:15 bus that will take her, via two transfers, to her noon-to-9 shift at IKEA in Renton; leave work at 9 to do the same grueling commute in reverse; and land home at midnight to study for a few hours before getting up to do it all again. Bell said that if Metro was going to uphold its commitment to equity, it “must continue to put efforts into increasing service in areas in South King County so that people like me don’t have to spend most of their day waiting on a bus.”

The members of the Equity Cabinet, along with Transportation Choices Coalition, Disability Rights Washington, and other advocacy groups, wrote a joint letter to the council on Tuesday opposing Dembowski’s amendment.

During yesterday’s discussion, Dembowski suggested that Metro’s new guidelines “erased” pockets of poverty and diversity in his district, which includes diverse and low-income Census tracts in neighborhoods like Littlebrook, Lake City, and Pinehurst along with wealthier areas like Wedgwood and View Ridge. “A lot of folks think, ‘Well, north of the Ship Canal, [those are] pretty well-off communities—how does that fit with our new equity lens or the mobility framework that we’re advancing?'” Dembowski said. “I need to kind of raise my voice on behalf of the communities up there to say they’re more diverse and poorer than you think.”

After the meeting, Dembowski told PubliCola that his goal wasn’t “to get a disproportionate percentage of [bus] coverage. I want to be a council member for the whole county, and I want to send resources where they’re needed most. … But what I’m seeing is a new and growing diverse community in Lake City and Pinehurst and Northgate that looks surprisingly similar to a lot of our communities in South King County.” 

At the meeting, Dembowski said that he considered mobilizing representatives of the Latinx and Native American communities in those areas to speak up against sending Metro service hours out of the district, but decided not to do so because “I don’t want to pit communities of color against each other.” His colleagues, particularly Eastside council member Claudia Balducci, bristled at that suggestion, arguing that the only reason people from South King County have been testifying about the service hours is that Dembowski has tried to use the budget to keep them in his district, in a way that contradicts Metro’s adopted policies. 

“What I’m seeing is a new and growing diverse community in Lake City and Pinehurst and Northgate that looks surprisingly similar to a lot of our communities in South King County.” — King County Council member Rod Dembowski

“I didn’t see anybody pitting people against each other except for the person who was proposing that 100 percent of the hours stay in his district,” Balducci says. As for the argument that non-white, non-wealthy people in Dembowski’s district are being “erased,” Balducci points to her own Eastside district, which includes some of the wealthiest communities in King County as well as neighborhoods made up largely of low-income, first-generation immigrants.

“The reason they don’t show up” on the ZIP code or even Census tract level, Balducci says, is that her district “includes people that are so wealthy that once [income] is averaged out, they disappear. But the reason that happens is because there’s so much more of an overwhelming concentration of poverty and diversity and all these things that we’re talking about in South  Seattle.”

Upthegrove says every council member could point to areas of their district that belie the averages, but if the council based service decisions on lobbying by individual council members, the new equity framework would be meaningless. “Any community can make a case for why changes in service that result in decreased service in their community is a bad thing,” Upthegrove says; the question is “do we look at it systemically or do we just look community by community?”

Once it became clear this week that Dembowski didn’t have the votes for his proposal, he replaced it with a largely symbolic measure calling for a detailed report on any redeployment of Metro hours from North King County, which passed. The light rail line to Northgate will open next year, and the Metro hours will be redistributed sometime later, most likely in 2022. In the meantime, the county and its Equity Cabinet are just getting started on the new service guidelines, which the county council will adopt sometime in mid-2021.

5 thoughts on “King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity””

  1. The project involves service in districts one, two, and four. The county has not yet agreed on a new policy; will they before a service change ordinance is proposed? Was the Executive picking the number of hours too early? Route 41 is not the only route that is duplicated by Link; all the routes on I-5 are. Yes,more service is needed in south King County; more service is needed everywhere.

  2. This is nice reporting — as far is it goes. But it really leaves the reader wanting more. For example, how does the county determine what areas are poor, and what areas are not? If it is just the average (as Dembowski suggests) then he is right. That is a ridiculous measure. An area like Lake City (broadly defined) is going to have brand new, million dollar houses, along with dozens of people sleeping on the street. (As the best reporter covering homelessness, you are no doubt aware of the latter). The poor in Lake City — which quite likely outnumber the poor in the south end — shouldn’t be punished just because they live close to relatively wealthy people.

    The story told by that resident in the South Sound is sad, but it is common in Lake City. It is common for much shorter distances. Try getting from Lake City to some place on Aurora using a bus. It requires two transfers, a lot of waiting, and lot of back and forth before you get there. This is a problem that can be solved relatively affordably in the north end, simply because there is higher population density (of poor people, and people in general). Run a bus from Lake City to Greenwood (the previously proposed 61) and you will benefit far more people than you would if you increased service on the poorly performing buses in the south end.

  3. It sounds like the budget committee is a stupid place to make these decisions. There should be a Transportation Committee that has actual Metro Employees or Transportation experts who know the ridership data and which routes are in most demand or where additional routes could benefit areas that have lots of riders. That is where routes should be expanded and where the money should be used. It should all be based on data! An entire system policy – like Dave Upthegrove says above.

    1. Just fyi, the budget committee and transportation committee is comprised of county council members. There are advisory committees made up of transit users, advocates, and technical experts, but they don’t make these decisions per King County Code.

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