The scene was the pedestrian equivalent of a rainy rush-hour backup on I-5. Or, a foretaste of lines to come at bus stops around the city, as more and more passengers try to squeeze into fewer, less frequent Metro coaches.
Up to a thousand anxious citizens (by official estimate) queued up to attend last Monday’s King County Council hearing on a two-year, $20 surcharge on vehicle license tabs proposed to stave off sweeping cuts in Metro service. Hundreds filled the council chambers and three overflow rooms. Hundreds more waited outside, where the line stretched out the county courthouse, down Third Avenue, and up Yesler Way.
A large majority (87 percent) of those who signed in to speak urged the council to approve the surcharge straightaway, Tim Eyman be damned, rather than kick it over to a public vote in November. The scene was repeated Thursday night in Burien, when the county’s transportation committee held its only other hearing on the Congestion Relief Charge (CRC), as the surcharge is called in a pitch for motorist support.
Bus supporters still didn’t have enough committed council votes to pass it. The four (unofficially) Democratic councilmembers representing the city of Seattle all endorsed the tab charge from the start. The council’s fifth Democrat, Julia Patterson, who represents Burien and other close-in suburban areas, endorsed it Tuesday, after Monday’s hearing and before she could get lambasted by her constituents at Thursday’s. She said she came aboard after learning something that should not have been any secret — that the charge would restore thousands of hours of bus service in her district.
But the four Republicans on the council, representing cities and rural areas on the Eastside and further south, were still holding out. Much may change by the time the council votes on the CRC this Monday (July 25); some may simply be waiting till they receive enough public pressure to say, “I tried to hold the line on new taxes, but you my constituents made it clear you really want to preserve bus service.” If this minority continues to hold out, however, it will force the measure to the ballot. The legislature, when it authorized the special county tab fee, required a supermajority (i.e. six of nine councilmembers) to pass it outright.
That public vote would trigger a different kind of pile-up on the ballot, jostling another pitch, at once complementary and competitive, from the city of Seattle for a bigger tab charge to aid transit, bikes, and road repairs. The ballot measure would also constitute a dire cliffhanger for a bus system that’s bursting with passengers and starving, thanks only partly to its own inefficiencies, for funds.
The political dynamics bear some resemblance to those playing out in the other Washington over debt limits and deficit reduction. Many who back the CRC most ardently (and who will also back a city tab charge) do so holding their noses at its finances. Rather than piling on regressive flat fees, which disproportionately affect owners of motorcycles and older and cheaper cars, they’d prefer the pre-Eyman
approach, a charge pegged to vehicle value. Or, better yet, more gas tax. But they’re going for what they hope they can get.
As in the debt-limit debate, the stakes are serious, though the circumstances may seem ridiculous: As a region we’re struggling over $60 million worth of bus service per year (the shortfall that the county hopes to plug with the tab charge) while proceeding with billion-dollar light rail lines. Yeah, I know, those are separate budgets, approved in separate votes. Nonetheless, without that money, Metro warns that “up to 600,000 annual service hours, or 17 percent of the current Metro system, could be eliminated.” Even allowing for a scare factor in that forecast (agencies denied funding tend to find ways to do more than they warned they could), the cuts will certainly go deep, at a time when both the system and its riders are already feeling the strain.
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