Seattle City Council sends $1.55B transportation tax to the ballot

The levy would fund about 30% of SDOT’s budget and supports road paving, bridge repair, sidewalk construction, bike lanes and more.

people stand in line boarding a bus in downtown seattle

Passengers board a Metro bus Downtown on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Jovelle Tamayo for Cascade PBS)

Seattle’s got a significant transportation to-do list. Aging bridges need maintenance. The bike lane network is far from complete. A quarter of the city’s streets are missing sidewalks and many existing sidewalks need repair. And anyone who’s driven in Seattle has felt the car-rattling potholes that litter the city.

In November voters will choose whether to continue taxing themselves to keep checking items off that to-do list over the next eight years. City leaders are asking Seattleites to pass a $1.55 billion transportation levy. The current $930 million transportation levy has paid for about 30% of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s budget since it passed in 2015.  

The Seattle City Council took its final step on the levy Tuesday when it voted unanimously to put the measure on November’s ballot. If passed, the owner of a median-valued Seattle home — currently a little over $800,000 — would pay about $499 a year in property taxes for transportation projects. Landlords typically pass along property tax costs to renters as well.  

 “Today we are here to take a vote on one of the consequential pieces of legislation that will come before any of us in our time on Council.” said Councilmember Rob Saka, who led the Council’s work on the levy. “It's an investment in our community. Not just in a safer, more reliable transportation system. Which yes it does, make no mistake. But in thousands of living-wage jobs for people in our city.” 

The Council’s package is substantively the same as the $1.45 billion levy proposed by Mayor Bruce Harrell in May.  

The levy would provide $403 million for street maintenance and modernization; $221 million for bridge repair and safety; $193 million for pedestrian safety; $160.5 million for Vision Zero, school and neighborhood safety programs; $151 for bus lanes and transit corridor improvements; $113.5 million for bike projects and $100 million for new traffic signals and signal maintenance.  

In addition, it would generate $69 million for transportation-related climate initiatives and tree planting; $66.5 million to “activate” neighborhood public spaces and business districts; $45 million for freight mobility and $7.5 million for oversight.  

While Tuesday’s Council meeting was mostly a victory lap for the transportation levy, Councilmember Dan Strauss reintroduced a last-minute amendment to take $20 million from the street paving program to fund new bike infrastructure on NW Market Street and Leary Way NW in Ballard to finally create a connection for the Burke Gilman Trail’s “Missing Link.”  

The uncompleted section of trail has been the source of a decades-long fight between bike advocates and Ballard’s maritime-industrial sector. A train track crossing in the Missing Link has caused many, many people on bikes to crash and has been the source of dozens of lawsuits against the city.  

“As you know completing the missing link is incredibly important for me. ... This is an opportunity to put a 30-year argument to rest,” said Strauss. The amendment passed 6-3. 

Most of the work on the levy took place in committee meetings over the past two months. On July 2, the Council adopted the bulk of its final amendments to the mayor’s proposal.   

Sidewalk investments were the Council’s biggest change from the mayor’s proposal, adding $48 million for new sidewalk construction and $15 million for repair. The Council also nearly doubled the size of the levy’s investment in freight mobility projects.  

At the July 2 meeting, Councilmember Tammy Morales proposed increasing the levy to $1.7 billion to boost investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety initiatives. A coalition of transportation, disability and climate advocates have been lobbying for more levy investment in those areas since the mayor introduced his proposal in April.  

Advocates argue more money is necessary for the city to achieve its Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries — something the city and state have made backwards progress on in recent years. They also say that investment will help shift people out of their cars, which would help accomplish climate goals since about 61% of Seattle’s annual carbon emissions come from transportation.  

Morales’ amendment garnered an additional yes vote only from Councilmember Cathy Moore, who said she supported the increased investment in sidewalks. Moore represents north Seattle’s District 5, which contains the majority of the city’s sidewalk-less streets.  

Council President Nelson and Councilmembers Bob Kettle, Tanya Woo and Maritza Rivera expressed concern that an additional $150 million would be overly burdensome for Seattle residents and potentially push them to reject the measure in November. They, along with Councilmember Joy Hollingsworth and Saka, voted no. Councilmember Dan Strauss abstained.  

A second amendment from Morales narrowly passed. It directed an additional $14 million to create a new SDOT initiative called the Neighborhood-Initiated Safety Partnership Program. Through it, SDOT will work with communities of color and low-income communities to implement street safety improvements that community members say are important.  

The $14 million was pulled from another pot of money that would have allowed district councilmembers to respond to constituent requests for small transportation projects. The amendment eliminates that district fund for the time being.  

“This program is important because it starts to repair the harm that started when we built highways and freight routes through BIPOC communities and low-income communities,” said Morales at the July 2 meeting.  

SDOT director Greg Spotts said that the program grew out of a multi-month listening tour with community leaders who said that to better work with SDOT, they need multi-year funding and a constant contact in the department who will get to know them and their needs.  

Saka opposed the measure, calling it a rebranding of an older SDOT program called the Neighborhood Street Fund. It led to a tense moment at the July 2 meeting when Saka called the program a “slush fund” and Spotts said he rejected that characterization, along with the description of the program as a rebrand.  

“This is a revision in how we interact with historically underserved communities to build deep and lasting relationships and to be able to iterate with them over multiple years with small improvements,” said Spotts.  

Morales’ amendment passed with herself, Moore, Hollingsworth and Woo voting yes; Kettle, Saka and Strauss voting no; and Nelson and Rivera abstaining.  

After Tuesday’s unanimous passage of the levy legislation, the bill heads to Harrell’s desk for a signature. It will appear on the ballot for November’s general election.  

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