Hardly anyone likes a sales-tax increase.
Not the poor, who see their purchasing power erode further with each uptick of what’s regarded as one of the most regressive forms of taxation.
And not businesses, which may raise their prices to cover the tab.
But advocates for each of those groups say a small increase in the sales tax and a higher car-tab fee facing King County voters next month are far preferable to the deep cuts to bus service that could result if the measure fails.
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Ballots will be mailed out this week on King County Proposition 1, which would add a tenth of a cent to the sales tax and set an annual car-tab fee of $60 to maintain Metro Transit service at current levels and to help fund road projects throughout the county.
County economic analysts say the measure would cost the average household an estimated $11 a month.
Katie Wilson, co-founder of Seattle Transit Riders Union, which represents poor and working-class bus riders, said the sales-tax hike, which would add a penny to a $10 purchase, “is nothing compared to the hardship of having the bus routes you depend on every day cut or reduced in frequency.”
And last week, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce endorsed the proposition, with chamber CEO Maud Daudon calling transit “a critical engine for our region’s economic vitality.”
The measure, placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the Metropolitan King County Council, also has received support from the Downtown Seattle Association, the Municipal League, the Seattle City Council and an array of businesses, unions, environmental, civic and human-services groups.
If voters turn the proposition down, Metro says, it will need to cut bus service by 17 percent, eliminating about 600,000 hours of service annually, starting this fall.
Seniors, students, low-wage workers and the disabled are among groups that will be hit hardest if the measure loses and the cuts take place, said April Putney, campaign manager for Move King County Now, backing the measure.
Putney said more than half of the bus routes that serve the University of Washington would be reduced or eliminated if the measure fails, creating challenges for many of the 17,000 students who arrive by bus each day.
Members and supporters of the riders union, passing out campaign fliers at busy bus stops around town, say many people have heard about possible cuts to bus service, but don’t yet know a vote on the issue is about to take place, Wilson said.
Ballots must be postmarked by April 22, but with an all-mail election, some residents will be filling out ballots by the end of this week.
To ease the measure’s financial impact on the poor, it includes a reduced bus fare for low-income residents, along with a $20 rebate on the car-tab fee.
Kate Joncas, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said the estimated 30,000 cars that the measure’s defeat would put on the road each day would choke traffic into downtown Seattle, the location of one in every five jobs in the county.
Including funds for roadwork in the ballot measure has broadened its support among some for whom transit may not be a top priority.
But even the measure’s strongest backers say this isn’t the ideal way to fund transit and roads.
Metropolitan King County Council Chair Larry Phillips said the Legislature’s inaction on an overall transportation package left the county with few funding options.
“This is a very, very serious matter,” said Phillips, who said Metro could face a “financial disaster” without additional revenue.
A $20 car-tab fee that the Legislature allowed King County to put in place two years ago expires in June, so if Proposition 1 passes, vehicle owners would see a net $40 increase in their yearly car-tab price.
County officials say the agency’s financial problems are more than a decade in the making. Before 2000, Metro received significant funding from the state motor-vehicle excise tax, based on a vehicle’s value.
But after a public vote against the excise tax, the Legislature eliminated its use for transit agencies.
Since then, Metro’s finances have been more closely tied to the sales tax, which is more sensitive to changes in the economy. When the recession hit in 2008, sales-tax revenue plummeted, and its gradual rebound since leaves Metro far short of the money it needs, officials say.
Washington residents have long been paying some of the highest sales taxes in the country, attributed to the fact that the state is one of the few with no income tax. In most areas of King County, the sales tax is now 9.5 percent, and would go to 9.6 percent in the measure is approved.
The proposed car-tab fee and sales tax, to be in effect for 10 years, would raise an estimated $130 million a year, with approximately $80 million going to Metro Transit and $50 million for roads and transportation improvements in cities and unincorporated King County.
Metro’s ridership peaked at 118.8 million trips in 2008, then dropped to 109.6 million trips in 2010 as the effects of recession spread. It since has rebounded to pre-recession levels.
Among Proposition 1’s few vocal opponents is the pro-highway Eastside Transportation Association (ETA).
Dick Paylor, an ETA member of the group that helped write the voter’s pamphlet statement opposing the measure, said he doesn’t believe Metro would need to make the bus-run cuts it has threatened.
“That’s being done to put fear in the minds of voters,” he said. Paylor said his group would prefer Metro make ends meet by increasing fares and reducing costs.
King County officials say they’ve already done both, creating nearly $800 million in savings since 2009 by reducing staff, cutting some lightly used bus runs, ending free rides downtown, negotiating a labor agreement in 2011 with no cost-of-living increase, and other measures.
And in the last six years Metro has raised fares four times, with another fare hike to take place next year that would bring the one-zone peak fare to $2.75, and the two-zone peak fare to $3.25.
Rates taking effect next March include a $1.50 fare for low-income riders; that rate would drop to $1.25 if Proposition 1 passes.
Riders can apply for a reduced fare if their income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, which means a person making about $23,000 a year or less could qualify.
Carlene Canady, 75, is not an elected official or community leader. But she’s been passing out campaign fliers in support of the measure in her Phinney Ridge neighborhood because she’s worried about her bus service.
Canady, who doesn’t drive, volunteers three days a week at a thrift store at the West Seattle Senior Center.
She catches a Route 5 bus near her home, which passes through downtown, becoming Route 21 to West Seattle. But Route 21 is on a list of dozens of lines Metro says it may cut if Proposition 1 doesn’t pass.
“These cuts are going to affect a lot of people who don’t have any other way to get around,” Canady said.
She’s not sure what would replace her route, but expects it could be slower, include walking farther to catch a bus and — with fewer buses in service — packing into a bus that may be already crowded.
“It’s standing-room-only a lot of the time now,” she said. “They might have to shovel us in with a shovel.”
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