Seattle voters should approve the city’s Proposition 1, authorizing a sales tax to fund additional Metro bus service.
Some essential workers, including hospital workers, depend on bus service, and the Seattle measure will help preserve routes in the city.
Although ridership fell because of the pandemic and may take time to recover, having a robust urban-transit system remains a necessity. It should also help the city and downtown recover from the economic downturn.
This endorsement is made with some trepidation, however. The city of Seattle has squandered much credibility on transportation. Examples include its poorly executed Move Seattle levy and failure to adequately maintain bridges.
Huge infrastructure spending looms, including costly repairs or replacement of the West Seattle Bridge. Seattle City Hall is also seeking upgrades on Sound Transit 3 light-rail extensions, which could require the city to produce hundreds of millions for added costs.
Proposition 1 is relatively small, generating an average of $42 million per year. It continues funding a transportation benefit district, created in 2010 and expanded in 2014, to supplement the frequency of bus service on some routes, by purchasing additional service from King County Metro.
The 2014 measure was funded with a 0.1% sales tax and $60 yearly car-tab fee. The car-tab collection was interrupted by Initiative 976, which voters approved last November, limiting tabs to $30. The initiative’s legality is now being considered by the state Supreme Court.
Given such uncertainties, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed a renewal that extended only the 0.1% sales tax. The City Council increased the regressive tax by half, to 0.15%, and extended the measure to six years.
Only half, around $21 million per year, must go to bus service. Eligible routes must have at least 65% of their stops in Seattle or be RapidRide routes.
The other half will go to a variety of projects. That includes altering streets to prioritize bus traffic and funding temporary transit services to West Seattle during the bridge closure. Up to $10 million yearly is earmarked for transit passes, including passes for students who don’t already receive them for school transportation needs and low-income essential workers.
A campaign supporting the measure is funded by Transportation Choices Coalition, the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council and the late Paul Allen’s real-estate development company.
This comes as King County Metro faces significant budget declines, with ridership and revenue plunging during the pandemic.
Still, County Executive Dow Constantine is proposing an 18% increase in transit spending over the next biennium, to $2.67 billion, including a 7.5% increase in transit operations. That includes a plan to provide free annual passes to all low-income county residents.
Even if Proposition 1 passes, Constantine’s budget notes, the amount of supplemental service in Seattle will decrease, because there’s less revenue without car tabs. The 2014 measure was to provide $36.5 million per year for added service.
All these changes, and uncertainty about how and when Seattle will emerge from the pandemic and economic downturn, complicate this decision for voters.
No matter what, though, transit service connecting neighborhoods to employment centers like downtown Seattle will remain a critical need. Further reducing service as the city and region work toward recovery isn’t wise.
Seattle voters should approve Proposition 1 while continuing to demand more accountability from City Hall.