THE next time you commute to work, look around and notice all the buses you see. What if one out of every six of those buses wasn’t there anymore and those passengers were in cars or crowded onto the remaining buses? What would that mean for your commute and your community?
This Earth Day, April 22nd, voters have an important choice to make about King County’s transportation future. For a cost of about $11 per household per month we can keep our buses on the streets and pay for safety and maintenance projects on local roads across King County. Or we can choose to pay nothing and lose up to 17 percent of Metro Transit service and continue to fall behind on road repair projects.
Seventeen percent cuts would impact 80 percent of Metro bus riders and 100 percent of commuters. Those cuts are already planned and would take effect this fall unless voters intervene with a positive vote.
Being in this position is no one’s first choice. As the sponsor of the legislation that sent this measure to the ballot, I would much rather be able to say that the taxes you pay are enough to grow and improve our transportation system. Unfortunately, the numbers just don’t add up that way.
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The Great Recession had a chilling effect on people’s spending habits, so the sales revenues that support our transit system are less now than five years ago, even though operating costs and the number of people using the system continue to grow. From 2009 through 2015, Metro expects to collect $1.2 billion less than projected before the recession. The King County Road Services Division’s budget has shrunk by one-third since 2009.
County leaders have worked for the past five years to make transportation revenues stretch further. At Metro, we have reduced costs, boosted revenue and prioritized preserving bus service. We took efficiency actions recommended by a 2009 performance audit, reduced the growth of labor costs through furloughs and pay freezes, cut more than 100 staff positions, eliminated the Ride Free Area, enacted a temporary vehicle fee — which expires this year — spent reserves, and raised fares four times in four years. Fares will increase again in 2015. Altogether, these actions have closed $798 million of Metro’s transit funding gap. Yet, an annual shortfall of $68 million to $75 million remains, even with sales-tax revenues increasing in the recovering economy.
The measure before voters would provide about $72 million annually for preserving our transit system and about $56 million annually for transportation projects in cities and unincorporated King County. It would be funded through a $60 vehicle fee — replacing the temporary $20 congestion-reduction charge — and a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax. Both would sunset after 10 years. While these are regressive tax sources, they are unfortunately the only viable options the state of Washington has provided local governments.
In order to mitigate the regressive nature of the taxes, a vehicle-fee rebate would be available to low-income car owners, and a low-income transit fare of $1.25 (compared with an off-peak regular fare of $2.50) would help make transit more affordable for those who need it most.
Remember that the most regressive action we can take is cutting our bus system. That will not only harm low-wage workers who depend on Metro to get to their jobs, it will increase traffic congestion, damage our economic competitiveness, diminish mobility options for seniors, youth and people with disabilities, and hurt our environment.
This Earth Day, make sure our transportation system works now and in the future by voting “yes” on King County Proposition 1.
Larry Phillips is chair of the Metropolitan King County Council. Yes on Proposition 1 website: movekingcountynow.org