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Metro Transit cuts ahead as vote goes heavily against tax measure

Rush hour in Downtown Seattle Credit: Christopher Nelson Photography

Update 9:47 p.m.

A tax and fee package to preserve Metro Transit service is trailing badly in the first round of vote counts. "We will proceed with cuts," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. 

The measure was behind by a 10 percentage points, with 55.2 percent voting against the proposal and 44.7 in favor. The measure needs majority approval in order to pass. 

Dick Paylor, a volunteer in a campaign against the measure and a member of the Eastside Tranportation Association wasn't ready to claim victory. But he acknowledged that the chances of a change in the outcome appeared slim.

At stake is the strength of Metro Transit service and its ability to maintain or expand in coming years, as well as help for road improvements around King County. Metro has outlined a potential 17 percent cut in service that could include eliminating some 70 routes around the county later this year and reducing service on many others. Cuts at that level are expected to affect 80 percent of all routes. Metro has reportedly been collecting more revenue on the existing sales tax recently, so there have been doubts expressed about whether cuts would have to be that extensive.

Constantine didn't assign a percentage to the service cuts, referring instead to the elimination of 72 routes. Measure opponent Paylor said the county should be able to confine the cuts to extremely low performing routes and services, such as late night runs. He said there is no need to make cuts that would hurt commuters.

The 10-year countywide proposition calls for imposing a .1 percent sales tax increase and a $60 per year car tab fee to support Metro Transit and road improvements in cities and unincorporated parts of the county. There would also be a rebate program for low-income individuals which would return $20 on each car tab fee. 

Supporters of the proposal essentially conceded defeat soon after the first votes came in. They didn't absolutely rule out the possibility that the voting results could change but they said their back-of-the-envelope calculations offered no reason to believe it could happen.

Constantine told a crowd of supporters, "The voters have spoken." Later, standing in a light Seattle rain outside Kell's Irish bar in Pike Place Market, he told reporters the tax package, especially the annual car tab fees, was something that worried voters. "It is a hard sell," Constantine said, "and we knew it was a hard sell."

Deputy County Executive Fred Jarrett described the opposition campaign as "brilliant propaganda" about Metro that neglected to take into account the agency's recent efficiency improvements.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray praised Constantine's leadership and the campaign for the measure, adding that transit and road supporters alike have work to do in Olympia to spur lawmakers to approve a transportation package. 

Alluding to his own Olympia experience with winning approval for gay marriage, Murray said, "We will win, if not tonight, on transit, over the next few years … We have no choice."

Paylor noted that, aside from concerns about car tabs or the idea of any tax increase, voters appeared to be signaling Metro to live within its means. He said voters strongly value transit but believe its subsidy is disproportionate to what it contributes to transportation overall.

Supporters of the measure called it vital to protecting Metro Transit from cuts caused by the expiration of a $20 per year congestion reduction charge on car registrations. Supporters warned that Metro cuts could hamper the region's economic growth, worsen congestion and air pollution and damage job prospects for lower-income families.

Critics had suggested that Metro might be exaggerating its needs, arguing that the improving economy is likely to create enough sales tax revenue to compensate for some of the revenue losses. They also contend that Metro should create efficiencies in what they describe as one of the most expensive transit systems nationally and drive a harder bargain with its unionized bus drivers. Some critics said the measure amounts to a taxpayer and driver subsidy of costs that transit fares should cover. 

The King County Council decided in Februrary to put the measure on the ballot after giving up hope that the Legislature would agree on a statewide transportation package, which was expected to include some new transit funding options. But the deeply divided Legislature, after gridlocking on the issue a year ago, remained stuck as it started the 2014 session in January. The stalemate led Constantine to call for a local alternative. Seattle leaders joined him then and have remained supportive, saying the existing services need protecting. 

A Crosscut analysis of voting shows that turnout was strong in transit-dependent areas but likely not enough to change the apparent results. As of Tuesday morning, turnout in Seattle wasn't much higher than the county average. This is a typical result, in line with early balloting totals from previous elections. However, within Seattle, neighborhood turnout painted a much rosier picture for Prop. 1. The highest turnout was in First Hill and Downtown, neighborhoods that typically rank in the middle of the turnout pack but have high transit use. Turnout lagged in the historically highest-performing neighborhoods, car-dependent portions of Northeast Seattle.

The analysis found that two Seattle neighborhoods have already surpassed their projected ballot count for the entire election. As of Tuesday morning, Pioneer Square reported 133 percent of the total ballots expected to be cast; the International District was at 101 percent. This pattern held up in analyses of Bellevue, Federal Way, Kirkland and Redmond. Across the board, areas with high transit use were exceeding their expected turnout rates.

King County Elections reports that many ballots received by Tuesday morning remain uncounted. If the county's turnout projection of 38 percent holds, another 107,500 ballots — or 25 percent of the expected total —are still on their way. Later ballots historically tend to skew younger and more urban, so Prop. 1's fortunes may improve. But they're very unlikely to improve enough.

Turnout results suggest that Prop. 1 supporters won the battle to get out their base, but lost the critical swing voters, who were unmoved.

The second round of vote tabulations from the county is expected late Wednesday afternoon. The counting will continue through May 5. In part because mail-in votes only have to be postmarked by election day, the wait for a clear outcome has dragged out in a number of recent elections. Also, votes cast early can differ significantly from those cast at the last minute.This dichotomy can lead to sharp swings. Kshama Sawant won her Seattle City Council seat last November after believing she had lost on election night. 

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