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.
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.