2014's #10 Most Read: The unspoken realities behind a King County Metro tax proposition

A proposal to restore King County Metro bus service relied on revenue -- not the only option.
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Does Metro need Prop One - or just better management?

A proposal to restore King County Metro bus service relied on revenue -- not the only option.

As we count down to the New Year, Crosscut will publish its 10 most read stories of 2014. We kick off this annual tradition with this commentary, our 10th most read story, which was originally published on April 16 shortly before voters rejected the Proposition 1 measure for additional revenue for Metro Transit and King County roads. (Last month, Seattle voters approved a city-only measure to improve Metro service.) 

At the same time that King County Metro demands a huge tax increase to simply maintain existing bus service, Snohomish and Pierce counties are actually adding bus service without raising transportation taxes.

Late last year Community Transit of Snohomish County announced “plans to add 2,500 new service hours and hire five new drivers.” Sales tax revenue increased 6.6 percent last year and will likely go up another 4 percent this year. Late last year in Tacoma, the News Tribune announced that, “Months after threats of bus service being slashed and drivers laid off, Pierce Transit now says it plans to expand hours next year and that it can sustain that higher level of public transportation through 2019.” Reason? Sales tax revenue is expected to steadily increase during that time. Last summer Tacoma's transit board cancelled plans to cut service by 31 percent because tax revenues were rising beyond projections. This comes after voters twice rejected higher transit taxes at the polls. 

So why does King County Metro require tripling the “temporary” car tab tax of $20 and imposing a higher sales tax simply to avoid cutting bus service 17 percent? 

Didn’t sales tax revenue increase here too? Oh yes, and how: Metro’s sales tax revenue is forecast to hit $471 million, the highest on record, and more than $30 million above the amount expected. This on top of last year's $440 million total, which also exceeded expectations and set a record. 

In fairness, both Pierce and Snohomish counties made much deeper cuts in bus service in the last five years than Metro, so they are starting with a lower financial and performance base. But Metro officials now grudgingly acknowledge that they won’t actually have to cut service by 17 percent if voters reject Prop One (which is on the April 22nd  ballot). They won’t say by how much they'll have to reduce service until after the ballots are counted. I doubt it’s because they’re concealing news that would strengthen the case for Prop One.

There are times when it’s very difficult to decide which way to go on an issue that raises taxes for an important public service. This is not one of those times. Prop One might be the least worthy tax measure that I’ve seen on the ballot and I’ve been voting since 1978. Proposition One deserves a “No” with an exclamation point. Why? Let us count the ways.

Start with Metro's fiscal track record and its inability to rein in costs. Since 2000, inflation has risen 36 percent and Metro’s tax revenues have gone up 56 percent. But its operating costs have soared more than 80 percent. Could this be the result of dramatically increased bus service? No. Passenger trips during this time are up only 20 percent. As the Washington Policy Center has pointed out (Disclosure alert: I co-founded and led WPC for eight years), since 2000 Metro has benefitted from two targeted sales tax increases in exchange for promises of more bus service. For every dollar you spend, 9/10 of a penny now goes to Metro, which has delivered only about a third of the promised bus service.

Then in 2009, King County got permission from Olympia to impose an additional property tax levy to fund Metro. King County alone received this taxing authority. In 2011, Olympia again gave King County alone the authority to charge a $20 car tab surcharge. That's two sales tax increases, a car tab fee and a property tax increase in less than a dozen years. The result: one fattened revenue stream and two new ones. Yet despite the uptick, county officials threaten a vast reduction in service unless the $20 car tab surcharge is tripled for at least the next decade, and the sales tax raised to a full penny.

Perhaps it's time to focus more on spending. The appetite for more money just to do what they're already doing tracks the growth of Metro's bureaucracy and the power of its transit union. Today Metro drivers are among the highest paid in America, and its administration is so thick that it caught the attention of the Municipal League — not exactly the Republican Party — which warned that Metro’s costs were spiraling toward where they now are: unsustainable even with existing tax sources. County officials claim that they negotiated the union into accepting major wage concessions. Not really. From 2010-2013 the transit workers got a pay raise every year, save one. Did you? 

I don’t expect the leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union to be reasonable toward taxpayers because their constituents are their members. But I do expect the County Executive and County Council members to put taxpayers and bus riders ahead of the union. That’s not happening. Instead, they are ducking behind a ballot measure that would leave Metro’s operating costs the third highest in America (behind New York and San Francisco) at the expense of raising regressive taxes on everyone else.

Prop One is simply a tax increase to subsidize a status quo that even many Prop One supporters acknowledge is badly in need of change. That's how to change inefficient management: reward it with more money! 

The concept of regional balance also takes a beating in this ballot measure. Veteran transportation analyst Bill Eager from the Eastside Transportation Association points out that Seattle contributes 34 percent of King County Metro’s operating costs but enjoys 61 percent of its services. The entire Eastside and south King County pick up 66 percent of the costs in exchange for 34 percent of the service. Crosscut’s Seattle readers may cheer but consider this: What would Seattle’s political and media leadership do if that ratio was reversed?

“Balance” also suffers when it comes to the division of revenue. Sixty percent of the new money generated by Prop One goes to buses, even though car drivers pay 100 percent of the car tab tax and most of the sales tax increase. But drivers also get pinched in the Prop One fine print, which allows money supposedly set aside for roads to be diverted to bike lanes and bus-only lanes. So road dollars can be appropriated by anti-driver “road diet” programs.

Until now, voters, especially in Seattle, have obligingly reached into their wallets when asked to pay for this or that public program. They have been slow to notice that the combined growth of bureaucratic fiefdoms and government unions in large government programs simultaneously siphon ever increasing amounts of money from both vital public services and the taxpayers who pay for them. Prop One exemplifies this growing problem. Let it fall heavily. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.