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Transportation Nation

A Blind Rider's Long Commute, or How Transit Cuts Hit Those Who Need It Most

Monday, April 01, 2013


Buddy Yates and his guide dog Palmer wait for the bus in Seattle, Wash. (Photo by Derek Wang / KUOW)

(Derek Wang, Seattle, Wash. -- KUOW -- Audio) It’s 3:00 p.m. on a recent workday in Seattle and Buddy Yates sets off on the first leg of his long commute home. He and his guide dog, Palmer, step through the fast-food containers that litter the street on the way to Rainier Avenue South where he will catch his first bus.

“No sniff, no sniff,” says Yates, pulling back repeatedly on his dog’s harness. Even for a guide dog, those containers are hard to resist. It’s only one of the many hurdles Yates, 61, will face over the next two hours.

Five buses and three trains. Every day. That’s the basic commute he’s done for nearly a decade to get to his job at The Lighthouse for the Blind Inc., where he makes canteens and other equipment for the military. He likes to get there by 6:30 a.m. so he has time to settle in and take care of Palmer before his shift begins. To do that, he has to leave his Tacoma, Wash. home at 3:00 a.m.

Like thousands of other residents of Pierce and King counties, Yates depends on a transit system that’s been turned sideways by the recession. More changes are on the way. As Pierce Transit prepares for its third round of reductions since 2009 and as King County Metro Transit warns of cutbacks next year, Yates is worried that he and his wife may have fewer transportation options. That could affect everything from where they work to where they live. Yates says he wishes he could work closer to home but he hasn’t been able to find a job. “A lot of places won’t hire blind people,” he says. “They think we’re too stupid because we can’t see.”

Fallout From The Recession

Pierce Transit has been slammed by the recession. Most of the agency's operating revenue — 71 percent — comes from sales tax. Since 2007, sales tax revenue for Pierce Transit has plummeted by about 25 percent. To cope with the shortfall the agency has raised fares, delayed capital improvements and laid off workers, cutting about a third of its managers. The agency has asked voters to raise the local sales tax, but the ballot measures have failed twice. Pierce Transit made service cuts in 2009 and 2011, and plans to do so again on September 29. After this next round of reductions, Pierce Transit will have cut about half of the service that it offered before the recession.

The cuts will affect a ridership that's already disadvantaged. About 56 percent of Pierce Transit riders make $20,000 a year or less. Agency spokesman Justin Leighton said they’ve heard complaints from riders who say they’ve lost work because of the cuts. “That’s a challenge for our workforce,” he said, “especially for those who work in the restaurant industry or in retail, who often work evening or weekend hours. It’s a struggle for them and we recognize that.”

The Commute As Community

For Yates, the commute is a big part of his social life. As he waits for the train at the Sounder commuter platform a man in Carhartt pants and a bright orange vest approaches. Before the man says anything, Yates calls out, "Hey Matt," and they make small talk. On the train, as people familiar to Yates board, he says hello to them before they even sit down. Yates can identify them from the sounds of their footsteps. “It’s like fingerprints,” he says. “Everyone sounds different.” Over time, he has cultivated a core group of friends on the buses and trains. For Yates the camaraderie is the best part of his daily journey. “We have our own little community,” he says. “We talk about pregnancy, politics, God, sex, everything.”

Sometimes there are headaches. Yates doesn’t like taking the Sound Transit express bus. Unlike the commuter train, the express bus does not have a lot of space if you’re traveling with a fully grown Labrador guide dog. Yates usually sits in the disabled seat and puts Palmer on the chair next to him so the dog won’t block the aisle. But’s that’s led to a few confrontations from passengers who want Palmer’s seat. “I had some guy, 6-foot-5, he pushed his way in; pushed me. He wanted to spread out,” he says. “I said, ‘Well I’m getting off at the next stop,’ because he’s bigger than I am; he was being a jerk.”

More Transit Cuts

Dealing with difficult passengers isn’t nearly as much of a concern, though, as looming cuts by King County Metro. The nation’s tenth-largest bus agency is slightly less dependent on sales taxes than Pierce Transit, but it still receives the majority of its budget from the sales tax; about 54 percent this year. Metro has also maxed out its credit card; it has reached the state-imposed limit on how much sales tax it can collect and needs other options. It has additional funding tools; namely, a $20 vehicle license fee. But that authority expires next year, and Metro is also bracing for a drop in funding from the Washington State Department of Transportation’s viaduct replacement project.

Other transit agencies are also feeling the pinch. Community Transit in Snohomish County has already made cuts. Since 2010, it has cut about 37 percent of its service, including completely stopping the buses on Sundays. Sound Transit has had to scale back its expansion plans that voters approved in 2008 and will not be able to deliver everything it promised. Clallam Transit might also make cuts; General Manager Terry Weed said they’ve asked the federal government for increased assistance. If that doesn’t pan out, they’ll have to reduce service or ask voters to raise sales taxes.

Local officials around the state are asking the Legislature for new funding options. They’re requesting a share of the proposed gas tax increase and a new motor vehicle excise tax, which is based on the value of your car. But it's unclear if lawmakers will take up the request. Both ideas are unpopular with voters, according to a recent Elway Poll.

The End Of The Journey

Two hours after he first left Seattle, Yates and Palmer finally reach home. Yates gets his mail, greets his wife and changes clothes. Palmer hurries over to his water bowl; Yates’ wife gives the dog a few carrots as a pre-dinner snack.

Sitting back in his living room, Yates reflects on why voters rejected the sales tax increase that would have prevented the upcoming bus cuts. He says voters probably didn’t think about the consequences. “Who’s going to take your elderly mother and father to the doctor? Who’s going to take your elderly mother and father to the grocery store?” He says, "They’re going to have to come up with another tax to support them that’s probably going to be worse.”

Listen to the radio version of this story at KUOW.

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Transportation Nation

Looming Fiscal Cliff For Seattle Transit

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Waiting to board Seattle's #7 bus (photo by Oran Viriyincy via flickr)

(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW) Bus service in King County could get some good news this week. Washington state lawmakers are expected to introduce a plan that could prevent a looming fiscal crisis. But first, it has to clear some hurdles.

One of the most heavily used bus routes in King County is bus route 7. Officials say as many as 12,000 people ride the number 7 bus every day. Resident Steven Anderson relies on it and hasn’t owned a car in years. He said the number 7 can be really packed during rush hour.

“It will be to the point where it will even pass you because it’s too full,” he said. “So it won’t even pick you up, so you have to wait for the next one or the one after that.”

Crowded buses are a problem that could have been worse if the Washington state Legislature hadn’t stepped in. About two years ago, King County Metro was faced with making massive cuts that would have affected most riders. But those major reductions never happened. Metro cut some costs, trimmed some schedules and ended the downtown Ride Free Zone. It also won new funding authority from the state Legislature and started charging a $20 vehicle license fee for bus service.

The problem is that the $20 fee is due to expire next year.

Transportation advocates are sounding alarm bells. “We’re about a year or so away from a major fiscal cliff for King County Metro,” said Rob Johnson, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition. He said other transit systems are facing similar challenges, especially in Pierce and Snohomish Counties.  “In Snohomish County, Community Transit has already eliminated all of its Sunday service and significantly reduced service from 2008," Johnson said. "We’re really struggling as a region to keep buses on the streets.”

Transit agencies are in a tough bind because of funding problems. The systems are largely paid for by sales taxes. But when the recession hit, people started spending less -- and funding for transit plummeted.

Last year, King County asked the Legislature for a permanent funding solution, one that would not expire. But that effort failed after King County and its suburban cities couldn’t agree on how to split the new revenue.

This year the issue is before lawmakers again, and some officials are optimistic that they can work out a deal. Democratic Representative Judy Clibborn chairs the House Transportation Committee and is leading this year’s effort in Olympia. She said unlike last year, this year’s proposal is connected to a larger plan for all of Washington, not just for King County, and is expected to cover buses and road improvements.

“This is a whole new ballgame,” Clibborn said. “Last year there was no statewide package on the table. There was nothing that was moving forward for helping cities and counties with transit and ferries and this year there is.”

For the legislation to pass, it will need a lot of support. Two-thirds of the Legislature will need to vote for it in order for it to take effect. But it could still go before voters. And it would be a tough sell to people like SeaTac resident Steve Donah. Donah said state lawmakers are wrong to propose new taxes or fees.

“They need to use the money that they have better. They’re not putting that money in where it needs to go,” he said. “I’ve been in this state for 25 years now, moved from California up here, and I’m seeing more potholes than I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Donah’s sentiments could be a signal of things to come. The last roads and transit package put before Puget Sound voters failed in 2007.

Follow Derek Wang on Twitter here. And listen to the radio version of this story here.

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Transportation Nation

Five Lessons for Seattle Bike Share from Boston's Hubway

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Boston Hubway bike share docking station. (Photo CC by Flickr user JMazzolaa)

(Derek Wang, Seattle -- KUOWThe plan to create a bike sharing program in Seattle is clicking into a higher gear. Puget Sound Bike Share hopes to launch in 2014. Organizers updated Seattle officials Tuesday saying they hope to hire a vendor by the spring.

Initial areas for the plan include the University District, Eastlake, Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Downtown and Queen Anne.

To get some guidance for the Seattle effort, KUOW spoke with the founder of one of the fastest-growing systems in the US, Nicole Freedman. Freedman started Boston’s program, The Hubway, which launched in 2011. It has 105 stations, more than 1,000 bicycles and 9,000 members. Members have taken about 675,000 trips; more than 500,000 of those trips were taken in the last year. Freedman is also an Olympic cyclist and has studied city planning at MIT and Stanford.

Tip 1: Choose The Right Business Model That Fits Seattle

Boston’s system is operated by a private company, but the system is owned by the city. In fact, city officials view it as part of the transit system. Right now no city money has gone toward the system. Freedman said it’s paid for by advertisements, sponsorships and grants. But as the system expands, the city might be required to spend money on maintenance and operations, like it would for any other transit system.

Seattle’s proposal is slightly different. It would be administered by a nonprofit group, but a private company would run the system’s day-to-day operations.

Tip 2: Locate The Bike Stations Close Together

During the startup phase, planners might be tempted to space out the bike stations to cover as many different neighborhoods as possible. That’s something to avoid. Freedman recommended keeping the stations between 200 to 400 meters apart.

“Let’s say I’m in a meeting in a skyscraper downtown and I have to get back to my office. If I go downstairs, out the door and the nearest station is three blocks away, it’s not worth my time to go walk three blocks, and get on a bike," she said. "If I then have another three block walk at the other end at my office, the efficiencies of saving time and using the bike are pretty much gone because of the walk time.”

[Related story: DC Bike Share Visualizer Shows How Neighborhoods Use CaBi Differently, by Clusters.]

Tip 3: Talk To Other Cities

A lot of other cities, including Washington, D.C., Denver and Chicago, have bike sharing programs. Other cities, such as Vancouver, B.C., Portland and San Francisco are still in the planning phases. Freedman says those cities have already done a lot of the groundwork and Seattle could benefit from looking at those different experiences.

[Related: San Francisco Poised to Pick Alta to Run Bike Share.]
Tip 4: Don’t Be Discouraged By Reports Of Hardware And Software Problems

Some systems have had problems with bikes and the software that operates the system. Freedman says Boston was lucky and never had software problems. But she says the problem occurred when one of the nation’s leading vendors switched software developers. Freedman’s point is that the problems should not discourage planners because improvements are always being made. “There’s a lot of great choices out there,” she said. “Doing the homework early will definitely ensure the best system for Seattle.”

[Related: NYC Bike Share Delayed Until Spring]


Tip 5: Think Creatively About Encouraging Membership

Boston has made it a focus to offer service in poorer neighborhoods as well as more well-to-do ones. But low-income people often don’t have credit cards, which are required to become a member. Freedman said in Boston, they’re looking at social service agencies and the possibility that those groups could sponsor people looking to get a credit card.

Freedman has visited Seattle before and seemed excited about the prospects of a bike sharing program in the city. “I can guarantee that it’s going to be a huge success in  Seattle,” she said. “It’s a great city. You’ve got a great culture of people that want to be biking.”

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Transportation Nation

Washington Governor Proposes New Fuel Tax For Education

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

(photo by Larry Darling via flickr)

(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW) Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is proposing a new wholesale vehicle fuel tax to help cover the costs of getting kids to school.

Currently, school districts help pay for students' transportation needs, but a recent court ruling says state government is not doing enough to support education. That includes education-related transportation.

Gregoire’s solution? A new tax on refineries to basically pay for school bus costs. Her plan was included in her 2013-2015 budget proposal, which is required under state law. Gregoire said her fuel-tax proposal is directed at oil producers, not consumers.

"Let’s be clear," she says, "the five top oil companies in America, in the first six months of this year, had over $60 billion in profits. So I expect them to do this without passing this on to consumers."

[Also at KUOW: Not Easy To Find Room For Ocean Energy]

Gregoire’s proposal would cost fuel wholesalers about 5 cents a gallon in the first year, 8 cents a gallon by 2015 and 12 cents a gallon in 2017.

State Senator Andy Hill is the likely chairman of the Senate budget committee. He opposes the plan and predicts that the new fuel tax would get passed down to consumers. “That really hurts the middle class as they fill up their tanks," explains Hill. "I think when you ask the average voter, when you ask about transportation, they think about roads, bridges, tunnels, ferries. They don’t think about school buses.”

Fellow Republicans say the state doesn’t need to raise taxes to pay for education.

[Also at KUOW: Another Dock Washes Ashore In Wash., Possibly From Japanese Tsunami]

Gregoire’s plan would need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and Governor-elect Jay Inslee. A spokesman for Inslee wouldn’t say whether the incoming governor supports Gregoire’s plan. The spokesman said Inslee will lay out his own budget plan during the upcoming legislative session.

Follow Derek Wang on Twitter.

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