Seattle voters have approved a sales-tax measure to preserve frequent bus service, shuttle vans and free student fares, with a yes vote of nearly 82% in Tuesday night counts.

Proposition 1 showed voters were willing to spend during a coronavirus pandemic, which slashed ridership more than 60% at King County Metro Transit. Alex Hudson, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, said supporters ran a bold, “values forward” campaign that shows people yearn for better mobility and infrastructure.

Postcards emphasized how one-third of people who ride the bus are commuting to essential services, such as healthcare. “We were talking about their neighbors, their students that have a free ORCA pass,” Hudson said.

The six-year measure enacts a tax of 0.15%, or 15 cents on a $100 purchase, to generate $42 million a year.

That money, to be collected starting April 1, replaces existing taxes that expire this Dec. 31, of .10% plus a $60 car fee. Total sales tax within Seattle will reach 10.15% including state, county and transit-agency shares.

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Neighboring communities will benefit as Seattle funds support buses criss-crossing city limits, such as RapidRide E into Shoreline and Route 120 to Burien.

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Up to $10 million a year may be spent on pass subsidies for public-school and community-college students, as well as low-income health care workers, grocery workers, and others deemed essential under COVID-19 emergency declarations.

The city intends to spend millions on West Seattle transit and trip-reduction projects to cope with the closure of the cracked highrise bridge.

But the effects might be greater in the North End, where Metro is reshuffling its bus network to fit the 2021 Northgate, Roosevelt and University District light-rail stations.

Metro hoped Sound Transit’s expansion would create a service dividend of extra bus hours to give people in the North End more trips, but the COVID-19 recession is gobbling its cash flow.

However, Metro drafted its 2021 plan without the extra Seattle money, to reduce frequency on many routes, including trips 30 minutes apart after 7 p.m. and weekends. That threatened Seattle’s “frequent transit network” where city leaders boast 72% of households can walk to buses arriving every 10 minutes.

With the sales-tax passage, Hudson said, “We get to maintain the system as we’ve had it,” then plan for improvements.

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Endorsers include the Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council, Downtown Seattle Association, Transit Riders Union and 350 Seattle.

No group declared opposition. The Metropolitan King County Council balked at joining Seattle to propose a joint referendum this year, queasy about raising taxes during an economic slump.

The Yes For Transit campaign reported it collected $249,465, led by $100,000 from the Amalgamated Transit Union and $50,000 from the philanthropic Seattle Foundation.

Seattle’s Proposition 1, to replace expiring taxes with a 0.15% sales tax, would generate about $42 million a year to fund enhanced bus hours, free student passes, and programs beyond the basic services funded by Metro’s countywide sales tax.
Seattle’s Proposition 1, to replace expiring taxes with a 0.15% sales tax, would generate about $42 million a year to fund enhanced bus hours, free student passes, and programs beyond the basic services funded by Metro’s countywide sales tax.

Seattle didn’t try to renew its expiring $60 car-tab fee for transit this November because of Tim Eyman’s I-976, which voters backed in 2019 to slash car taxes statewide. The state Supreme Court struck down I-976 last month. Seattle will keep its basic $20 car-tab fee for street work. The City Council may consider raising those to $40 next year, for uses like bridge maintenance.