No more empty Metro buses running to the ‘burbs! Metro may end the 40/40/20 rule.

The King County Council’s transportation committee voted last week to change the way Metro allocates bus service. In the past, Metro used a 40/40/20 ratio to allocate new bus service: 40% would go to south county routes, 40% would go to east county routes, and the remaining 20% would go to routes inside the city of Seattle (even though the vast majority of bus riders live inside the city). The 40/40/20 rule was a compromise with the conservative members of the county council who didn’t want to fund new bus service unless their constituents in the suburbs and rural areas of the county got the majority of new routes.

But in the last two years, as Metro has struggled to provide funding for basic bus service in the face of an economic downturn, the 40/40/20 rule has proven to be a huge liability and a system-breaker. Last year Metro had to balance its budget by cutting 75,000 hours of service. The cuts were spread evenly across the system, based not on ridership or demand, but on the service hours on each route. The in-city routes, which had received only 20% of new service hours in the past decade, were forced to take 60% of all the cuts last year, leaving a lot of Seattleites and north-county riders standing at their stops while full buses passed them by.

Last year, an advisory group recommended that Metro transit do away with the 40/40/20 rule. The county council is finally on the way to making that a reality. The full council will vote on new allocation criteria within the next few weeks. Under the proposed new rules, service levels will be based on the number of households on each route, the number of jobs in a given area, the number of low-income households on each route (as lower income folks tend to use the bus more than wealthy folks do), and the location of natural “growth hubs” (for example, major employers, like Microsoft or the University of Washington, or major retail areas, like the Northgate Mall, Bellevue Square, or Southcenter.)

Under the new rules, Metro expects that only 1% of its bus service will shift to in-city routes, which doesn’t match the expectations of most in-city riders I’ve talked to. Nor is it a cure for Metro’s worst problems: its growing budget shortfalls and its worsening on-time record.

Crowded buses are one thing. Buses that run chronically late (when they bother to show up at all) is another. Metro’s on-time record for its in-city routes has become abysmal. There is no excuse for making passengers stand for more than half an hour in the downtown bus tunnel at 7 pm waiting for a bus to the University District; yet this is becoming a common occurrence—and these are the most frequently travelled routes in the entire system. It’s also common to stand in the bus tunnel for long periods of time (20 to 40 minutes) with no buses arriving at all, but plenty of empty light-rail trains at seven minute intervals.

Even worse are the drivers who are routinely early and who suffer no consequences for it. I recently flagged down a #67 bus that was speeding by a stop a full ten minutes early. The driver shrugged his shoulders and said: “those times are just estimates.” Well, no. They’re not, at least not for the rider. We expect the bus to be on-time when we’re standing outside in the rain in 40-degree weather. Ten minutes late is okay, but ten minutes early? Never!

The main cause of Metro’s on-time problem is simple: Metro recently shortened drivers’ layover times at the end of each route. Now drivers have every incentive to zoom through their routes early; otherwise, they barely get a bathroom break before they have to begin their next route. This is a prescription for a chronic on-time problem. Extending driver’s break times, of course, would cost money which Metro doesn’t have.

The King County Council is currently looking at a proposal for a $20 car tab fee to fund Metro transit. But for the proposal to pass the council, it would need a supermajority of 6 out of 9 council members to vote for it. Four of the most conservative council members have already said they’ll vote it down. Alternatively, the council could vote with a simple majority (5 to 4) to put the tab fee on the ballot for voters to decide in November. They should do this as soon as possible, so transit advocates have time to gear up a campaign in support of the ballot measure.

Without that funding, Metro will have to cut 200,000 service hours next year in order to plug the hole in its budget. The bus system is already in trouble; a cut of 200,000 hours could cause one of the nation’s largest and most reliable transit systems to collapse.