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    Mayor Murray throws down the regionalist transit gauntlet

    The mayor rode into office on a horse named regionalism. Now he's challenging himself to a duel over transit.

    Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda.

    Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda. Credit: Allyce Andrew

    Mayor Ed Murray is pushing back on a plan to raise property taxes in Seattle to help fund Metro service. The idea popped up after the failure of Prop. 1, which sought to prop up our transit system with taxes and fees that proved unpopular. As a result of that loss major service cuts are in the offing.

    Seattleites need no convincing that transit is important; they voted for Prop. 1 by a large margin. But the naysaying suburbs, exurbs and tax-skeptical and non-transit-dependent precincts in the city carried the day. Mayor Murray, who was nervous on election night, is now worried that if Seattle goes ahead with its own initiative to pay for the transit it wants it will lead to a Balkanizing of Metro.

    This is a key test that Murray is setting up for himself. That is, the mayor wants to do something that will be popular in Seattle — transit funding — but he wants to do it his way. The new proposed ballot measure has the support of many transit advocates, including former mayor Mike McGinn, and I suspect it would have a good chance of passing. But Murray wants to raise the political stakes by solving the Metro funding issues on a regional basis. His plan will be released shortly. In the short term, it might be another stop-gap measure, but Murry is also making an argument for an alternative to Seattle go-it-alone-ism.

    During the mayoral campaign last summer, the candidates trooped out to Microsoft for a lunchtime debate in front of employees. One of the issues raised was regional leadership, an area where Seattle has been seen as lagging. Candidate Peter Steinbrueck said “Seattle needs to get out of its bubble,” Mike McGinn touted his leadership on coal train opposition and Murray pointed to his ability to bring people together in Olympia on transportation. All seemed to acknowledge that Seattle had a responsibility to the region, leadership-wise.

    Seattle is the 900-pound regional gorilla, but we act like Bobo, the Woodland Park Zoo's late, lovable ape who never matured and couldn't be relied on as a partner. Greg Nickels once joked about Seattle seceding from the state or region, McGinn was seen as a particularly polarizing Seattle-centric figure by our regional neighbors and Olympia. Seattle has been rapped for being too bike-centric and Eastside politicians have noted that the 520 bridge replacement project only ran into roadblocks when it arrived in Montlake. Seattle is the one that demanded a risky tunnel and has refused to pay for any overruns, regardless of what the legislature has passed into law. Our push for density indicates we want all the goodies for ourselves, or that we want to turn everywhere else into an extension of Seattle. No wonder some politicians enjoy seeing us flail and fail.

    Murray fits the mold of a classic Seattle idealist who wants the city to show the nation that progressive politics can work. He's grabbed the lead on the $15-per-hour minimum wage, staked his mayoralty on finding a progressive new police chief to reform the department, now he's seizing the regional transportation crisis. Murray's an idealist, but also an incrementalist. His bold policy steps are all informed by his experience with the long game for gay marriage — push for radical change, one step at a time. The heavily-consultative process on the chief search and the phase-in of the minimum wage proposal all reflect this.

    The transit crisis will be a test of his leadership. Part of the problem lies in Olympia, where movement on a state transportation package is as stuck as Bertha. And Bertha’s problems, among others, are making voters a bit more cynical about big transportation packages in general. But the funding of transportation and transit has hugely to do with how the state funds it and it allocates those funds. Municipalities have limitations. It is also a regional issue — roads, routes, rails and trails don’t start and stop the city limits. The county’s Metro and the multi-county Sound Transit operate regionally, and everything is, or ought to be, connected. This is one area where drawing a moat around Seattle won’t work.

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    Posted Tue, May 13, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    Murray's immediate plan doesn't isn't exactly anti-Balkanization, is it? Nor is Dow Constantine's.

    Posted Tue, May 13, 12:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Knute, perhaps you can discuss the pros and cons of telling the electorate that the cities that they live in will be required to pay fully loaded bus costs to restore services unilaterally removed by METRO and the County. Lawsuits? Bait and Switch? Shrink the METRO taxing and service areas? Why METRO cannot contract out certain routes at lower costs to the taxpayers?


    Posted Tue, May 13, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    The plan is for the city to tax people with additional sales taxes and car tab taxes. The revenue would be handed over to Metro, and Metro supposedly would provide some more bus trips in as-yet-undefined corridors.

    Apparently this "model" has been going on for several years already; some "Bridging the Gap" tax revenue from Seattle property owners has been handed over for some indeterminate set of "additional bus trips".

    How has this "Bridging the Gap" tax diversion process been playing out? Has it been successful? Here are some of the obvious questions about it:

    -- how much of the Seattle-only "Bridging the Gap" tax revenue has been handed over by city employees to Metro;

    -- what has Metro done with all that property tax revenue (which additional bus trips -- routes and times -- were purchased with that money); and

    -- what safeguards does Metro have in place to ensure that the new money from Seattle property owners increased Seattle-only service and was not considered when service plans for non-Seattle parts of the county were drawn up?

    Let's say you are a Metro planner, and Seattle city employees were going to hand you tons of new money. Here's what you would do: develop a service plan with lots of deep cuts in Seattle that the new money would "make up" for, and keep the outside-of-Seattle routes overly robust with the existing heavy sales tax revenues.

    That's probably what this scam entails, and that likely is how Metro has been treating "Bridging the Gap" revenues. Anyone want to try disproving that scenario?


    Posted Tue, May 13, 6:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    If county and state voters/legislators won't support an essential service, then what other option does the city have? I say go a step further - re-form Seattle Transit. If other county municipalities want access, let them buy in with cooperative service agreements. For county-only routes, let the rump Metro run them.

    Posted Wed, May 14, 6:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    Transit gets plenty of tax revenue here -- it doesn't need any more. The bus and train services providers here already haul in FAR more tax revenue than any of their peers.

    Just look at the facts. Everyone can compare how much taxing for transit already is imposed here versus the amount of taxing for transit elsewhere.

    The way to gauge how well a transit system’s leadership uses local tax revenue is by comparing two figures: 1) the amount of taxing, and 2) the number of average weekday boardings. The average weekday boardings figure is how many people usually are served at the peak periods.

    Looking at those two figures for a region allows you to compare how effectively those government heads are using the tax revenue they confiscate. That is a valid way to compare the effectiveness of different regions' transit system leaderships, and gauge whether or not some region's policy makers are taxing more than they should be.

    Sound Transit now confiscates about $660 million of regressive tax revenue (with that amount climbing year after year). Metro taxing (plus the distributions to Metro from the Seattle City Council of its separate Bridging the Gap tax revenues which nobody knew were going to be made before that vote) is another $520 million. That is a total of $1.2 billion of direct, mostly regressive, taxing for buses and trains around here.

    Now for comparison let's take the metro area just south of here where a different state legislature structured the financing plan: Oregon’s (you can use the figures from anywhere else in the country -- the story basically is the same).

    In the greater Portland area there is NO targeting of individuals and families via regressive taxing. The $250 million of tax revenue TriMet collects comes from a progressive payroll tax, and it is the only taxing TriMet does. That is how much taxing TriMet has done during the entire quarter-century it has been building out its extensive light rail, streetcar and bus system.

    Now look at how many people are served in our region vs. TriMet's service area. The combined average weekday boardings of Metro and Sound Transit buses and trains is 490,000. The average weekday boardings of TriMet buses and trains is 318,000.

    Sound Transit and Metro combined thus have about 56% more boardings than TriMet, but they confiscate nearly 500% more tax revenue each year.

    That means Sound Transit and Metro already haul in THREE TIMES the tax revenue per weekday boarding for buses and trains compared to how it’s done in the three-county Portland metro area.

    The government heads up here are doing a lousy job of managing the heavy, regressive tax revenue streams they already impose. The public is catching on. We sent the truthful message last month that they tax too heavily already.


    Posted Tue, May 13, 11:08 p.m. Inappropriate

    My husband works for King County, he does not pay for his bus rides at all, they are part of his benefits. BUT he would gladly pay his fair share and most of his co-workers would too. They are all fully aware that they have great benefits and some are disgusted at the fact that King County has not asked if they would be willing to give up even a portion of their subsidy to save routes. And why is that? It seems like a simple question and potential solution to at least part of the problem, but the reality is that King County does not want to go through the hassle of negotiating with the unions so they would rather go to the public and ask for more money even though service has already been decreasing each year. We voted no and will vote no again since we live in Seattle. King County needs to be sent a message that they cannot come to voters with their hand out every time they mismanage money.


    Posted Wed, May 14, 6:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    Here's the regional component:

    Posted Wed, May 14, 12:42 p.m. Inappropriate

    With an average cost (in 2012) per employee of over $112,000, including $78,415 average Salary, and $33,606 for benefits, 70% ($444 million) of Metro's budget is employee related costs. This includes fully paid medical dental vision etc. for employees and and all dependents. This can average over $20,000 per year for an employee, spouse, and children. With 3,968 full time equivalent employees, the $45 million could be raised by just having employees pay half the cost of dependent's insurance. How many of the rest of us get this kind of benefit? I don't blame the employees, they just take what's offered, I look to the politicians in charge to see their way past political pressures to adjust costs to the real world.

    Metro has one of the highest operating costs in the country and it doesn't take much digging to figure out why.


    Posted Wed, May 14, 6:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    While I agree with Mr. Berger on the need for regionalism, I suspect Washington state's urban-suburban political dichotomy has made any sort of progressive regionalism impossible.

    Worse, with the growing white suburban population already out-voting the ethnically diverse urban population, the state's political future clearly belongs to the Hard Right, whether of the Ayn Rand or prosperity-gospel persuasions, which means any hope of achieving adequate mass transit here is probably forever doomed.

    That's clearly the case -- and the frightening long-term message -- to be gleaned from what obtains in the Pierce Transit service area, where the 2012 presidential and marriage-equality votes in any given precinct were an accurate indicator of that same precinct's views toward mass transit.

    City precincts that voted for Obama and homosexual marriage also voted for Pierce Transit's service- sustainment measure. Suburban precincts that voted for Romney and against marriage equality also voted against mass transit. The for-Romney, anti-homosexual and anti-transit votes approached 70 percent in many individual suburban precincts.

    Because I have no way of tabulating the precinct-by-precinct results in the Metro Transit service area -- much less any way of comparing them to 2012 election results -- I can only speculate as to the circumstances there.

    But because it was a suburban King County state senator who engineered the 2013 coup that gave the Hard Right the Senate (and therefore de facto control of the state government for the entire biennium), it's probable the same sort of reactionary groundswell has occurred there.

    This likelihood is underscored by the fact that many progressives, their publicly PollyAnna propaganda aside, already say privately the state Senate is like the federal House -- now permanently Republican.

    The bottom-line factor in transit whether in Tacoma or Seattle is the simple fact the often rabidly anti-transit suburbs have achieved the voter-power to reliably overwhelm the often only mildly pro-transit cities.

    Local politicians and bureaucrats are loathe to admit this reality because it means shrinkage of administrative empires within their various domains. That seems to be the real motive for Murray-type regionalism, never mind it depends on an absurd hypothesis – that reactionaries are educable – and that it therefore condemns urban transit to be overpowered by relentlessly anti-transit suburban voters.

    We are already witnessing such “regionalism” in Tacoma, where Pierce Transit has effectively surrendered to the suburbs. Desperate to maintain the size of its service area, it is now denying service to the pro-transit city in order to provide additional service to the anti-transit suburbs. Albeit for diametrically opposite reasons, Tacomans are beginning to hate Pierce Transit as vehemently as the suburbanites do.

    While this sort of surrender means regionalism is already a reality, it also insures the regionalism will be gravely tainted by the same sort of zero-tolerance malice and bigotry we see in all Republican-ruled domains, with dire consequences for mass transit.

    Combine that with the venomously anti-transit-user meme that has emerged throughout suburban Pugetopolis -- that publicly owned transit is welfare and should be eliminated accordingly -- and I doubt Mayor Murray or even a coalition of Lao Tzu, Buddha, Moses, Jesus Christ and Mohamed could save the region's transit systems.

    Posted Wed, May 14, 9 p.m. Inappropriate

    The missing man in this debate is Gov. Inslee. If he is serious about passing a new transportation bill, he will have to have enough transit in it to turn out lots of Seattle voters. But if Seattle and a bit of King County solve their transit problems by themselves, there won't be enough transit in the big bill, and Seattle voters will likely turn against it as too roads-favoring. You would think Constantine, Murray, and Inslee would all understand this and try to work toward the big state measure. Why not? Despair over the Senate? Figuring Inslee isn't good enough negotiator to do it in next 3 years? Local leaders afraid of the fury from bus riders if they stall?

    Posted Wed, May 14, 10:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    The problem with Mayor Murray’s plan is that it keeps the same regressive tax proposals plus it assumes that every option has been explored. Here's a list of items, some from the Municipal League, others that I've read, that I haven't seen addressed as options that could "buy back" some bus service:
    (1) Raising the number of trips that a monthly pass is based upon from 36 to 40 (an average month has 22 business days);
    (2) Charging a premium for peak-only “express” routes;
    (3) Raising all fares that aren't so to be in line with other transit agencies in the region (intercounty, youth, reduced, and particularly the expensive-to-provide paratransit service);
    (4) Eliminating – or raising the age for – the senior discount, and decoupling senior fares from disabled fares;
    (5) Eliminating transfer slips;
    (6) Raising fares beyond what they’ve been raised the past few years in order to cover the recent increases – per Metro’s website – in security (80%), insurance and risk management (60%), pensions (40%), wages & benefits (10%), inflation, and purchased systems;
    (7) Charge Sound Transit the full expenses of operating Link light rail vs. providing what amounts to a partial subsidy to them.


    Posted Sat, May 17, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

    I didn't get the reference to Seattle being too "bike-centric". I have always thought that bike-friendliness is a good thing for transit, because it unloads the streets of cars and bike riders are also bus riders. Also, I haven't seen any studies of this, but I'm not sure biking is very significant as a regional transit mode. Sure, I can take the Burke-Gilman from Woodinville to Seattle every day, but I doubt many people commute that way.

    It really doesn't make sense for Seattle to make its own unilateral transit plan, since so many of the major arteries are essential regional arteries as well. The viaduct replacement tunnel is going to be used by lots of people travelling through Seattle to points beyond, if it ever gets finished. But what are the alternatives if there is no regional cooperation? Even the Eastside, which is so economically entangled with Seattle that they should be highly motivated to cooperate, can't seem to work with the city.


    Posted Sun, May 18, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    Although not directly on point, the article mentions that Seattle greedily wants to keep all the density for itself. My answer is not all of us. I'd gladly grant other places the right, even the obligation, to be converted to forests of tenements and two or three modern boxes wedged into the spaces where one traditional house used to stand. Please take the density and leave Seattle some semblance of liveability for those of us in established neighborhoods.


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