The Seattle City Council has a difficult decision to make on Monday as it votes to send a transit measure to the November ballot: Should the city sustain Seattle’s successful investments in Metro bus service, or accept deep cuts to our transit system?
That might not sound like a hard choice, but thanks to Tim Eyman, it is. Because of the ongoing lawsuit over Eyman’s Initiative 976, it doesn’t make sense for the city to ask voters to renew the $60 car tab fees that funded about half the expiring six-year measure voters passed in 2014. Instead, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed to renew only the 0.1% sales tax. The result is much less revenue, spread across more needs — most of them vitally important, like continuing to fund transit passes for Seattle youth.
If the council sticks with the mayor’s proposal, that could mean slashing service right when Seattle commuters and residents are trying to return to transit this fall and next year. Making matters worse, social distancing may need to continue for some time, limiting the number of riders per coach. In other words, the demand for service will be rising right when bus runs are being cut.
That’s a recipe for driving people back to their cars and stranding many thousands of riders who don’t have the luxury of a personal vehicle. Who will be impacted the most? Disabled people, low-income folks and Black and brown communities that depend on transit.
Luckily, the council has another option. Councilmember Tammy Morales proposed bumping the sales tax up to 0.2%. If the council adopts this change and voters approve it, the tax would amount to an estimated $55 million annually that could sustain more than 200,000 hours of bus service every year — more than triple the service preserved by the mayor’s initial proposal.
I’m the general secretary of the Seattle Transit Riders Union, and while our members love public transit, we don’t love the sales tax. Our council members, too, are rightfully wary of raising regressive taxes during a recession. But in this case, the numbers speak for themselves.
The Economic Opportunity Institute estimates that a 0.1% sales tax bump means an annual cost of about $9 for a Seattle household making $25,000 per year, or about $12 for a household making $50,000. You could easily spend more on a single Uber or taxi ride when your bus doesn’t come. This cost will no doubt be a hardship for some, but it’s nowhere near as bad as finding yourself unable to get to work on time or missing a medical appointment because your bus route has been cut. It’s clear that if we care about the quality of life of low-income Seattleites, the right decision right now is to invest in our transit system.
Ultimately, we must look forward to a time when Seattle and King County can work together on a coordinated plan to expand our regional bus system. The measure Seattle votes on this fall should be thought of as a bridge, carrying us from the transit system we have today, over the swirling rapids of the COVID-19 recession, to the safe and solid ground on the other side. We have to stay as far as possible above the water, because there’s a fatal whirlpool down there: it’s called the transit death spiral. Once you start cutting, it’s really hard to climb back out.
Avoiding that peril will be a team effort. We need our state’s U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to champion transit funding in the next federal relief package. We need our state legislators to revamp how Washington state funds transit and transportation, including granting more flexible and progressive funding options to transportation benefit districts like Seattle’s and King County’s.
Finally, our Seattle City Council members can do their part on Monday by not forcing transit cuts on Seattle voters. That means giving us the option to maintain the bulk of the voter-approved funding that’s set to expire by bumping the sales tax up to 0.2%. We’ve made so much progress building a world class transit system over the past decade. Let’s not fail now.