Seattle voters trade higher taxes for better bus service

Early ballot counts show the city's Proposition 1 transit funding initiative with a strong lead.
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For now at least, buses are the workhorses of Seattle's public transit system.

Early ballot counts show the city's Proposition 1 transit funding initiative with a strong lead.

Seattle voters demonstrated their willingness to pay more taxes and fees for improved bus service on Tuesday night, as early ballot counts showed the city's Proposition 1 transit funding initiative with a commanding lead.

Originally conceived as a way to preserve bus service slated for cuts, then repackaged as a means to fund additional transit hours, the ballot measure was ahead 58.8 percent to 41.1 percent as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday. The initiative calls for increasing the city's sales tax by 0.1 percent and hiking car tab fees by $60. As it stands, the city would use that money to pay King County Metro Transit for added bus service. The Seattle Department of Transportation has already identified nearly 60 overcrowded or unreliable routes, and bus lines in need of more frequent service, which would be targeted for improvements.

As he walked across Pike Street from a Proposition 1 campaign party at the Comet Tavern, to a nearby gathering for the city-backed Proposition 1B pre-school measure, Mayor Ed Murray, who proposed the transit initiative back in May, said that voter approval for it was an example of "progressives getting stuff done." Asked what the robust support for transit funding said about Seattle, he replied: "It is the city willing to pay for something that makes us a more equitable city, something that allows us to continue to manage growth."

"Progressives came together and didn't fight with each other on this one," he added. "I didn't think I would get the chance to increase transit until maybe my fourth year in office, or, if I was so lucky, maybe my second term."

The additional sales tax and car tab fee revenue are expected to generate $45 million per year. Under the current plan, about $40 million would go toward Seattle 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. About $2 million would fund programs designed to help offset the burden of the new sales tax and car tab fees on low-income residents. That includes a rebate that would drop the price of car-tabs to $20 for those who qualify.

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Mayor Ed Murray addresses the crowd at a party for Seattle's Prop. 1 bus funding initiative. To his left is Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. Credit: Bill Lucia

Although there was no formal opposition to the campaign, some critics decried the sales tax and tab fee increases as regressive, meaning that they put a disproportionate burden on people with lower incomes. "It's a shame that it's such a regressive tax package," said Will Gould, transportation co-chair for the Municipal League of King County, which recommended a no-vote on Proposition 1. "The biggest problem is that it started out as an emergency measure."

Proposition 1 was initially designed to provide the city with money to buy back bus service hours that King County Metro had slated for cuts. The agency has faced wobbly finances since the 2008 financial crisis. Earlier this year, the County Council made plans to eliminate thousands of service hours and dozens of bus lines. But in the final days of September, the Council announced that, based on new revenue projections, Metro's finances were looking up. One round of reductions had taken place, eliminating 28 routes and 151,000 annual hours of service. But the Council decided to "table" or "cancel" the deeper cuts planned for next year.

Whether those cuts will resurface is not entirely clear.

"It remains to be seen," said King County Executive Dow Constantine, standing inside the Comet Tavern after the voting results were released. "This is obviously difficult to predict, over 10 years, what the economy is going to do," he continued. "I'm going to work with the County Council as we see how the revenue numbers and the expenditure numbers come in over the next several months."

"Everybody wants the same thing, which is solid, stable transit over the course of years, and not to have the kind of wild fluctuations we've had in the last decade," Constantine added.

Beau Morton, the assisting secretary for the Seattle Transit Riders Union, was also at the Proposition 1 party. "It's nice that the riders of Seattle get a breather," he said. "This is a welcome Band Aid, but there's a lot of work to do."

Morton pointed to the state Legislature in Olympia, which was unable to pass a comprehensive transportation funding package in last year's session. Until 1999, Metro Transit had access to revenue generated through a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, or MVET. But In 1999, the Legislature repealed the tax, contributing to the erosion of Metro's finances.

"I think it sends an incredibly powerful message to the state, and to our suburban cities, that we're serious about transit, that we will dig deep and sacrifice a lot to have the transit and the mobility that we need to continue to have a very successful and prosperous city," said Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the City Council's Transportation Committee. "We cannot survive or thrive without a great transit system."

Rasmussen considers the MVET a more equitable source of transit funding. But he seemed to question the likelihood of a new state transportation package in the near term. "We will continue to go down to Olympia," he said. "If the make up of the Legislature stays the same, it's going to require a fair number of Republicans now to approve a transportation package."

Another common criticism of the Proposition 1 bus funding measure is that it is not a regional solution and could Balkanize the transit system. "Is it now that Shoreline needs to come up with its transit package and Kent needs to come up with its transit package?" asked the Municipal League's Gould. "I don't see this is a regional package."

A countywide ballot measure, which was very similar to Proposition 1, failed in April, winning just 46 percent of the total vote.

"Absolutely," said Ed Murray when asked if Proposition 1 was a regional solution. "The only solution is a regional one." After that, the mayor walked through the door of the Proposition 1B pre-school initiative party to a round of cheering from supporters of the measure, which was also leading on Tuesday night.

Back across the street, outside the Comet Tavern, Rasmussen noted that although the city is extending light rail lines and adding street car service, for now, buses are Seattle's primary mode of mass transit. "For quite a while the buses are going to be the workhorses of our transit system," he said. "I would say for six, or 10 years the buses are going to have to shoulder most of the work."

  

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