It’s become the hot topic in any discussion of transit funding: Whither the King County suburbs?
Last month, initial results of King County’s Proposition 1 vote indicated that the measure had received a beating outside of Seattle. In ensuing weeks, Seattle-based transit advocates announced “Plan C,” a Seattle-specific effort to boost property taxes to stave off Metro cuts. The rationale was simple: If the suburban communities aren’t interested in financing current Metro system, have Seattle go on its own.
“Plan C” has now received major pushback in the form of opposition from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. “While there is no question that the region has failed Seattle on transit funding in recent years,” Murray wrote in a Thursday press release, “it is equally true that transit is a regional issue that requires a regional solution.” Regionalism, Murray announced, is a necessary component of any plan to earn his support.
That leaves a big question hanging. It’s clear that the King County suburbs were not supportive of Prop. 1. But how deep does that discontent run? To start to answer that question, let’s take a look at the Prop. 1 results, and analyze what King County voters were trying to signal with them.
A sea of red
It was clear on Election Night that suburban King County was rejecting Prop. 1.
We now know the full extent of the damage. Not only did the measure get thumped in the suburbs, but its losses versus previous transit measures were unusually concentrated outside of the urban core. Prop. 1 was billed as a “roads and transit” effort, in part to garner support from parts of King County with few public transit users. One thing is clear from these results: That didn’t work.
First things first: Let’s take a look at the raw results. The map below shows the Prop. 1 results by precinct (a level of detail that wasn't available before). Precincts in dark green were most supportive, while dark-red areas rejected the measure.
This map is, to put it lightly, mostly a sea of red — and much of that red is quite dark. Countywide, the measure received 46% of the vote. That showing was certainly buoyed by strong support in Seattle, where Prop. 1 passed 2-to-1. Normally, an overwhelming result in Seattle is enough to carry an election countywide. Not this time: the rest of King County voted, by a nearly identical measure, against Prop. 1. Even with relatively strong turnout, Seattle was only 38% of King County votes. City votes were effectively neutralized.
Outside of Seattle, green areas are thin on the ground. Vashon Island, to be sure, was nearly as supportive as the city. Lake Forest Park very narrowly voted yes, as did many parts of Mercer Island and Shoreline. Bellevue and Redmond had pockets of support downtown, and in areas loaded with apartment dwellers. A few other cities had or two supporting precincts in their most urbanized parts.
Disenchanting the suburbs
So, what happened? The first point to make is that support was mostly isolated to areas where transit is a viable option for everyday living. This can be demonstrated any number of ways. One of the more fascinating efforts was by Brandon Martin-Anderson of Conveyal. Martin-Anderson created this excellent map, showing the number of jobs accessible by public transit commute on any given weekday morning. Dark blue areas can reach over 500,000 jobs in an hour’s transit time; dark red areas, fewer than 10,000.
With a few exceptions, this map lines up extremely well with the Prop. 1 results — down to the pockets of support in Mercer Island, Bellevue, Redmond and Shoreline. Looking at this comparison, a reasonable person might reach an easy conclusion: Car-loving suburbanites just aren’t willing to foot the bill for public transportation.
There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that there are car-dependent portions of Seattle — especially West Seattle and North Seattle — where Proposition 1 did just fine. In my car-dependent, north Seattle home ‘hood, Hawthorne Hills, the measure received 70% of the vote, even though U.S. Census reports indicate that car ownership is nearly universal here. Plenty of car users voted for Prop. 1. It just appears that, outside of Seattle, they were in the clear minority.
The second problem with the “unwilling suburbanites” angle: The suburbs have voted for transit before. In 2008, a Sound Transit proposition was overwhelmingly approved by voters across King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. In the parts of King County where it was on the ballot, the Sound Transit measure decisively outpaced this year’s. That included resounding wins in some suburban communities.
Take a look at this table, showing the relative performance of 2008’s Sound Transit measure versus this year’s Metro Transit proposition.
The figures are staggering. Losses were modest in Seattle, with support for the 2008 vote at 70% and support for the 2014 vote at 67%. On the other hand, the “yes” support in Auburn dropped by more than half, from 47% in 2008 to a paltry 23% this year.
In most of King County, it’s obvious that Prop. 1 lost a huge chunk of voters that were supportive of Sound Transit in 2008.
These were different measures, of course, but that’s very much the point. There was something in this year’s proposal — whether it be car tabs, the focus on bus transit or Metro Transit itself — that alienated suburban voters. The result was a marked decline of support that cannot simply be attributed to anti-transit sentiments. We’ve seen turnarounds on transit issues before — Sound Transit’s 2008 success followed a 2007 loss — but never before have attitudes between so polarized between the city and suburbs.
That leaves transit advocates with a dilemma: Do they hone their message for the broader region, or narrow their focus to supportive Seattle? That question is likely to weigh heavily on the debate around “Plan C” — and could send transit advocates even further into the alphabetic reaches.