City transportation vote: The way to be cautious is to say 'no'

Guest Opinion: Seattle voters are deciding about a ballot measure that increases taxes and fees without providing any budget or specific promises of better transit services.
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Guest Opinion: Seattle voters are deciding about a ballot measure that increases taxes and fees without providing any budget or specific promises of better transit services.

Seattle voters are deciding on the mayor and City Council’s proposed city-only response to Metro’s draconian cutbacks in service. Proponents ask for an increase in car-tab fees for Seattle taxpayers from the current $20 to $80 a year and an increase in the sales tax of 0.1 percent. The potential revenue to be raised via the six-year plan would generate $45 million per year.

Why Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition No. 1 has been put before city voters depends upon whom you ask. The King County executive, Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council have provided somewhat different versions. However, they all state that essentially Metro needs more money.

The city talks about funds for so-called transit “improvements” and for restoration of some of the bus routes that might be cut or have been. This must be considered in light of the city’s likely demands for increased funds to cover the deficit associated with the existing South Lake Union streetcar, the coming Capitol Hill-International District streetcar and other streetcar lines the city might propose to build. A rider on what is nicknamed the South Lake Union Trolley — the SLUT — currently requires a subsidy of $6.61 to cover the real costs per rider of $8.11 — but the rider pays only $1.50.

So, what this vote will actually enable is very unclear. Without any informational details attached to Proposition 1 it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how the funds will actually be spent. This is an attempt to create a budget with no priorities, public hearings or even an adopted transit plan. It is a cart-before-the-horse example of unhindered spending.

This vote would let Murray resurrect, as he has proposed, the former City Transit office and place it under the Seattle Department of Transportation, reviving a city agency that was terminated decades ago by merger into Metro for regional transit efficiency. An affirmative vote would encourage a continuing and ever-increasing series of new bond requests to fund streetcars and buses that, in terms of passenger-carrying capacity and budget considerations, should remain under Metro, an organization with the expertise to manage public transit. This proposition sets a precedent to Balkanize and fracture what should remain under a single authority.

Voters should reject Proposition 1 as a prime example of the camel’s nose getting under an increasingly large tent. The city should not attempt to go back to a future of streetcars while Metro is moving in the exactly opposite direction.

We believe that these city-only taxes for what is essentially a county system are manifestly unfair to Seattle taxpayers. If ever there was a cause for urgent action to support Metro, the agency's improving financial picture has erased the need. We should demand an audit of the costs of the disjointed streetcars as well as an audit of Metro finances. Only afterward would a case be made for emergency funds and for what clearly defined purposes any future levy funds should be allocated. No more slick “reprogramming” of funds for specific purposes (i.e., Bridging the Gap funds to the “Mercer Mess”).

We are supportive of buses (especially bus rapid transit). We do not oppose the rational allocation of funds for our Metro buses and Link Light Rail, but we are staunchly against reckless spending for anything immediately — especially for propping up the finances of underused streetcars. (Danny Westneat pegged this one perfectly in a recent Seattle Times column knocking the South Lake Union-Westlake streetcar line and its deficit: “Real cities build real mass transit.”)

Powerful voices, acting in concert, praise the proposition but with no single tune. Indeed, The Seattle Times editorial board curiously urges a “yes” vote but one “with caution.” That is disingenuous at best: One can only exercise caution by a “no” vote.

Rejecting the proposition would put first things first: audits, analysis and public hearings, followed by careful, precise legislation with lower car-tab fees and sales taxes and, possibly, with fare-box revenue increases.

Proposition 1 is not just a “Yes for Buses.” For voters uncertain about this issue, prudence dictates a “no” vote.


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