As Prop. 1 falters, Metro fans ask, ‘Now what?’
by Knute Berger
Metro bus service is about to shrink. Credit: Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives
Greens can be forgiven if they woke up Wednesday with a post-Earth Day hangover, as deflated as a crowd of Mariners fans.
King County voters defeated Proposition 1, an effort to fund Metro transit and road repairs by boosting car tab fees and taxes. The defeat allowed Tim Eyman to take an "I-told-you-so" victory lap. "Car tab tax increases are an absolutely radioactive revenue source, voters just hate 'em," he said in a post-election email. Eyman had predicted that a fee increase had "zero chance" of passing.
It wasn't the kind of Earth Day Seattle expected.
In election night, the early mood at the Yes on Prop. 1 party (at Kell's Irish pub in the Pike Place Market) had been more optimistic. Deputy King County executive Fred Jarrett, who has been described as King County's "guru of lean", was confident before results from the first ballot dump that county voters weren't "dumb" enough to reject the measure. Seattle mayor Ed Murray copped to a mild case of election night anxiety, a vague uneasiness in the stomach. After the first unpleasant returns were announced, Jarrett blamed the defeat on the "brilliant propaganda" of Prop. 1's opponents.
The "No" effort had some built-in advantages. To start, Prop. 1's chief proponents were publicly ambivalent about their proposal. King County executive Dow Constantine acknowledged at the start that the "mix of revenues" was not his first choice. Much better if the legislature had adopted a state transportation package and granted counties fairer taxing authority. So the "Yes" effort came out of the gate with a, "it's not perfect, but better than the alternative…" message. Not the best way to raise taxes.
The coming transit cuts will be bad, but few voters seemed to buy into the notion that a no vote would ring in a transit apocalypse. And opponents managed to keep Metro and the county tied up in knots, questioning how the system is run, whether it is efficient, whether it has kept earlier transit promises. Metro was portrayed as a bungling, tax-hungry bureaucracy threatening worse-than-necessary cuts to get into your pocket.
On the opposing side, the "Yes" messaging seemedy straightforward and plucky: "Save Our Buses, Save Our Roads." Late mailers to Seattle voters emphasized equity, touting transit for disabled senior citizens and the poor. El Centro's Estel Ortega said "Metro provides a pathway to the middle class…." Someone named Joan from Seattle talked about the benefits to "Older folks, people in wheelchairs and students across King County need Metro." Metro used to be billed as a green way for the middle class to get to work. This time out, it was a social service agency.
When it comes to selling transportation, do-gooderism is less effective than self interest. The fact is, the planned Metro service cuts are more likely to effect those who rely on the buses for general transport than those who use them to commute. Service will be cut for those who travel early, late or on weekends, folks who tend to be poor, elderly or working class. Buses will be fuller and less frequent, and many routes will disappear.
But the electorate is clearly holding out for a better deal. Proponents and opponents of the measure both said that King County is not anti-transit. Just look at the huge previous investments in Metro and Sound Transit. But both sides want Metro to be funded more fairly. Unfortunately, that means reducing service at a time when demand is growing; unfortunately that means the county must wait for Olympia to get moving. The defeat of Prop. 1 raises the stakes for what lawmkers need to accomplish next session in Olympia. And that raises the stakes for control of the State Senate, with some key King County swing races in the balance.
On election night, the Downtown Seattle Association's Kate Joncas, a major business community supporter of Prop. 1, made a face as the results came in. When asked her reaction to the apparent defeat, Joncas had one question — for the opponents: "Now what?"
King County Council chair Larry Phillips was philosophical about the outcome. "The voters may not always be wise, but they are never wrong," he said. Meaning, in a democracy, you get what you vote for.
Even on Earth Day.