What you should know about Seattle's bus measure

Ballots are landing in mailboxes this week. What you should know about Proposition 1.
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Ballots are landing in mailboxes this week. What you should know about Proposition 1.

What is Proposition 1?

Proposition 1, known colloquially as "Yes for Seattle Transit," would buy additional bus service from county-run Metro Transit by creating an additional $60 car tab fee and increasing sales tax by 0.1 percent.

How much money are we talking about raising here? The Mayor's Office estimates $45 million per year. As it stands, about $40 million would go toward city bus service. Up to $3 million would go into a Regional Partnership Fund, which would help pay for routes that run in and out of the city limits at peak commuting hours. And about $2 million would fund programs designed to help offset the burden of the new taxes and fees on low-income residents, including a rebate that would drop the price of car-tabs to $20 for those who qualify.

The tax increase and fee would expire at the end of 2020.

The Wrench in All of This

Proposition 1 was originally designed to restore planned cuts to service from King County Metro. The agency has faced money troubles since the 2008 financial crisis. From 1976 to 1999 Metro had access to money generated by a motor vehicle excise tax, or MVET, which the agency has said provided about one-third of its total revenue. That tax was repealed by the Legislature in 1999. More recently, the 2013 Legislature declined to pass a transportation package that would have allowed King County to ask voters to approve a 1.5 percent MVET for transportation and road maintenance. Facing lean times, Metro has said they have already scraped the fat from their budget and stretched available funds.

In the final days of September 2014, the County Council announced that, based on new budget projections, Metro's financial situation was suddenly less in the dumps.

By then, the first of three rounds of planned bus service cuts had already taken place, deleting 28 routes and reducing service on others. In total, 151,000 annual service hours were lobbed off. The next round of cuts was planned for 2015, but the peachier financial outlook prompted the county to set down the service hatchet — at least for now.

There’s still some uncertainty though. The Council only said that it would “cancel” or “table” the cuts until this year’s budget-making process wraps up. What that means going forward is not entirely clear right now. And County Executive Dow Constantine has expressed doubt about some of the financial assumptions that led the Council to abort any further axing.

So things are a bit murky. Nevertheless, the Seattle Department of Transportation is working on a list of options for bus routes that are ripe for service upgrades if Proposition 1 passes. Seven of the routes on the list were among those affected by the September cuts. 

If voters approve Prop. 1, SDOT is tentatively planning for half of any service upgrades to begin in June 2015. The other half would take place in September 2015, according to SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan.

Opponents Say ...

There is no formal opposition campaign, but the measure has caught some flak since the County Council announced that cuts next year were no longer necessary.

Some of the criticism:

1. It's uncoordinated. Critics say that the city now lacks a concrete plan for how to spend the money, Metro could find more efficiencies and cost reductions if it tried harder and that county officials were using the cuts as a scare tactic to pressure voters into approving new funding. Another concern is how the city would ensure that Metro is spending the money raised by the measure on expenses that align with the city's transportation priorities. Mayor Ed Murray is looking to address this by creating a new Transit Division with SDOT that would coordinate and oversee any service upgrades.

2. It's too expensive. If you own a car, your car tab fees are going to shoot up — from the existing $20 annual fee to $80 once a year. And that's just for tabs. There are also additional state and local fees, some of which vary by vehicle, that would push total registration costs in the city to about $154 for the typical driver, according to the Washington State Policy Center.

In addition to the car tab fee, the initiative's 0.1 percent sales tax increase would mean consumers pay an extra $1 for every $1,000 spent. This would bring Seattle's sales tax rate to 9.6 percent.

3. The R-word. The revenue streams the ballot measure proposes are widely considered to be regressive. In other words, the less income you make, the larger proportion of it the sales tax and the tab-fee consume.

Supporters say ...

1. Less traffic. Whether you’re piloting a Tesla, or pedaling a Schwinn, you probably don’t like traffic, which there would likely be less of if more people choose to get around by bus rather than car.

2. Better bus service. If you're a bus user, the proposition could mean shorter wait times between buses and less crowding onboard. (i.e. On busy routes, filled-up buses won't have to just blow past stops during morning rush hour in places like the University District, or South Lake Union).

3. You work with what you got. Backers of the initiative say that while the sales tax and tab-fee may be imperfect instruments for raising revenue, they are also the best ones available. They argue that Metro should be expanding, and certainly not shrinking, the bus system to accommodate Seattle's growth.

The campaign for the measure had collected $130,972 in contributions as of Oct. 9. The top donors included the union that represents many of Metro’s workers, including drivers, and the local chapter of that union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. Each contributed $10,000. Real estate firms Urban Visions and Metzler Realty Advisors also each gave $10,000.

In the Weeds

If the proposition did fail, there are other options for funding Metro. When the members of the Seattle City Council debated Proposition 1, which was originally proposed by Mayor Ed Murray, Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant unsuccessfully pushed to swap out the sales tax. They wanted to replace it with an increase in the commercial parking tax and a so-called “head tax” on businesses, which would have been based on the number of workers an employer has. Among the concerns raised by Councilmembers who opposed removing the sales tax from the measure: The head tax would hurt small businesses and the parking tax was also a regressive form of taxation.

When the Council approved sending Proposition 1 to the ballot, they were actually acting as the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, a government entity created in 2010. Under state law, the district can use its authority to impose car tab fees up to $20 without voter approval. State law also gives the district another option for raising revenue that never surfaced in the debate about Proposition 1 funding, which is levying charges or fees on commercial and industrial development. 

Will Proposition 1 pass?

That's a good question. A very similar countywide ballot measure failed in April, garnering just 46 percent of the total vote. But this was mostly due to opposition in the suburbs. Within Seattle’s city limits it prevailed with the support of 66.5 percent of the electorate.


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