While state lawmakers drift through a special session in Olympia, transit riders in Seattle are also putting in overtime, pushing for new taxes to prevent a potential 17 percent cut in bus service.
About 400 people gathered Tuesday evening at Union Station, filling both the meeting room and a room for overflow.
Members of the Metropolitan King County Council held the meeting, but they’re not the real audience — that would be the Legislature, which is considering a bill to give King County the authority to send a transit tax to the local voters.
An option, endorsed by the county, Seattle and its suburbs, calls for a yearly car-tab tax of $150 per $10,000 in vehicle value, with 60 percent of the revenue for Metro Transit and 40 percent for roads and streets. Meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess whether legislators will enact a proposed 10-cent per gallon gas-tax increase and other fees for highways and ferries, or punt until 2014.
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Terry Justus, of the Central Area, who suffers from arthritis, worried about losing Route 27 down Yesler Way, even though it’s one of King County Metro Transit’s lesser-used lines. “I’m disabled, and walking to the [bus numbers] 3 or the 4 is not much of an option,” he said.
Less than two years ago, hundreds of people gathered at hearings like this, to urge the County Council to enact a $20 car-tab fee as a stopgap measure for bus funding. That fee expires in mid-2014.
Since then, the political climate has changed dramatically. Transit boosters faced a struggle to persuade a County Council majority to impose the $20 fee in 2011 — but now, the support by local politicians seems broader and deeper.
Metro needs about $75 million a year in new funding to avoid deleting 65 routes and reducing 85 more, General Manager Kevin Desmond has said. Besides the expiring car-tab fee, some state aid related to the Highway 99 tunnel project could end soon. Metro has spent almost the entire $100 million surplus it held in 2009, reduced the number of white collar jobs, ended free rides in downtown Seattle, and shortened bus drivers’ rest time between trips.
“Contact your legislators immediately in Olympia, and encourage them to let us vote,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, who warned the Seattle gathering of possible cuts to Maury Island and Burien routes.
“If we are going to save our transit system, it takes all of us. If we are going to make a better world, it takes all of us. We need to overhaul the tax system in this state and put money where it needs to go,” said Katie Wilson, co-founder of the Seattle Transit Riders Union.
Some speakers mentioned the need to preserve mobility for elderly, blind or disabled riders. The bus carries about 400,000 people each weekday.
People opposed to a King County tax, such as Senate Transportation Committee co-chair Curtis King, R-Yakima, have questioned why the burden should fall on car and truck drivers.
Some taxpayers say bus riders, especially middle-class people or professionals who commute, should pay a higher fare.
Even an increase of $1 in fares from 2008-11, the farebox covers only 27 percent of operating cost. Another 25-cent fare increase is scheduled for 2014.
The county runs separately funded water-taxi services; the Vashon Island taxi is usually full, but the West Seattle taxi is mostly empty. Asked whether the latter should be dropped, Councilman Larry Phillips, of Magnolia, said any savings “is fair game,” but eliminating the taxi wouldn’t fill Metro’s gap.
Retired bus driver Mark Dublin, a supporter of Metro, said the area’s multiple transit agencies should work together as one to be efficient.
Transit is an economic lifeline for downtown Seattle, where 43 percent of all employees ride a bus or train, business leaders testified.
George Allen, vice president of the Greater Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the idea of the business group supporting higher taxes doesn’t come easily, but, “I’m telling small businesses, ‘you really need to run more like Metro Transit.’ ”
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom