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February 13, 2012 at 1:34 PM

U.S. House sends Seattle transit leaders into a cold sweat

Leaders of six Seattle-area transit agencies warned today of severe cutbacks in either maintenance or new buses and trains if the latest House transportation bill becomes law.

The bill would scrap a so-called “formula funding” system that dates back to 1983, providing a predictable source of dollars for King County Metro and hundreds of other agencies, and even cash to refurbish the 1962 Seattle Center Monorail.

Instead of placing 20 percent (2.86 cents/gallon) of federal gas-tax into a transit trust fund, Congress would establish an “Alternative Transportation Account” — from the General Fund — and force agencies to compete for a share. In addition, the $40 billion, six-year fund is 20 percent less than what the feds distribute now, according to Ron Postuma, an assistant director for the King County Department of Transportation.

For perspective, about $120 million of Metro’s $190 million RapidRide program, to provide roomier, more-frequent buses in six busy corridors, is federally funded.

Kevin Desmond, Metro’s general manager, said he would have trouble funding 160 new electric trolleybuses to replace today’s worn-out fleet on the hilly routes of central Seattle.  “We’d have to choose between service and capital, between state-of-good-repair and service on the road.” A bill is moving through the Washington State Legislature to allow local car-tab fees or gas taxes, but Desmond said he didn’t know if local tax would offset any federal losses — and in any case, he’s looking to increase the transit system.

Commentators who favor the bill, such as Robert Po0le of the Reason Foundation, argue the shift would help close a $50 billion gap in funding for the nation’s aging highways. Kenneth Orski, editor of Innovation Briefs, says transit should undergo the same “discipline” as other national spending, and can fend for itself in Congress.

Though Sound Transit now ranks highly in competitions for federal transit grants, CEO Joni Earl said the bill would hinder the ability to build the whole “Sound Transit 2” light-rail network to Overlake, Lynnwood and toward Federal Way. Officials in 2008 estimated the feds would cover about $600 million of the $18 billion program. Since then, the agency has suffered loss in sales tax and added an expensive Bellevue tunnel to the plan.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated taking this dedicated funding stream away,” says Larry Ehl of Edmonds, publisher of Transportation Issues Daily.

Pierce Transit, Community Transit of Snohomish County, Everett Transit and Kitsap Transit also criticized the bill at a news conference today.

Comments | More in Government, Traffic & Transit | Topics: buses, federal budget, highways


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