A city ballot measure asks Seattle voters to approve a sales tax hike to fund bus service and other transit programs as government budgets reel from the coronavirus pandemic and fewer people commute throughout Puget Sound.

Proposition 1 would charge a 0.15% sales tax (15 cents on a $100 purchase) to raise roughly $42 million a year. The six-year tax measure would replace an expiring 0.1% sales tax and $60 car-tab fee that raised more than $50 million a year. Prop. 1 would not renew the car-tab fee. Today, Seattleites pay 10.1% sales tax.

Seattle plans to use the money to buy bus service from King County Metro, fund transit passes for students and people with low incomes, make improvements to bus routes, and direct money to bus service or other projects in West Seattle.

The spending plan reflects competing city needs as city revenues shrink due to the pandemic, King County Metro cuts bus service and the West Seattle Bridge closure forces detours.

The proposal will test voters’ willingness to approve a tax increase after months of economic uncertainty. For bus riders, the vote will determine whether the transit passes and service some have come to rely on will last.

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What your money will buy

Two years ago, Seattle and King County Metro had a problem: Despite crowded buses, Metro couldn’t provide all the bus service Seattle wanted to buy. So the city used some of its transit taxes, known as the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, to offer students free ORCA passes and take on capital improvements, like bus-only lanes and bus shelters.

Now, Seattle leaders want to keep those other programs funded.

In the first three years of the new tax, the city would spend $12 million to $20 million for service on bus routes serving Seattle, according to a spending plan provided by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

That would grow as the economy rebounds, with about $34 million for bus service by 2026. The tax measure requires that starting in 2022, the majority of spending be on Metro-operated service.

For the first four years of the tax, another $5 million to $6 million a year would fund projects city leaders are labeling “emerging needs,” which could be related to COVID-19 or the West Seattle Bridge closure. 

Emerging needs could include bus service to and from West Seattle as well as road projects to improve transit speed or reliability, first and last-mile shuttles or road and intersection improvements described in the city’s Reconnect West Seattle plan. (Firm spending decisions will happen through the city’s budget process.)

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.
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Another $3.3 million per year, on average, would pay for capital improvements like repaving transit routes or painting bus-only lanes, according to the spending plan.

The student transit passes would be part of about $8 million a year, on average, for programs to help people access transit, like ORCA cards for students and people with low incomes and the Downtown Circulator, a free route operated by Solid Ground that stops downtown and near several hospitals.

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In 2015, Rainier Beach High School students lobbied for student passes. Their effort grew into something that now helps students at every public school in Seattle, said Gabbie Price, who marched with other students advocating for student ORCA cards.

Price, who was pregnant in high school, relied on the bus to get to school, doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. Her family didn’t have a car.

Eventually, she received paper tickets from her school. Those helped but sometimes left her trying to ride on a just-expired paper transfer. The ORCA card helps prevent that, she said.

“I would get really bad anxiety thinking about interactions with the bus driver if I don’t have bus fare, if my ticket was expired,” Price said.

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“I just want people to be more understanding that everyone’s living situations are different,” said Price, who now works with Corner Greeters, a violence-prevention program in Rainier Beach, and is studying to become a doula. 

Even without in-person classes, students need transportation, Price said: “A lot of youth because of this pandemic and because of online schooling, they have utilized this time to get jobs.”

In drafting its spending plan, the city used financial forecasts assuming a slow economic recovery, according to the mayor’s office. 

Although Prop. 1 would not renew a $60 city car-tab fee in the existing tax package, another $20 city car-tab fee that pays for pothole repair and other projects will remain and the City Council could someday increase it.

The state Supreme Court’s recent rejection of Initiative 976 clears the way for Seattle City Council members to bump up the $20 fee to $40 or ask voters to approve a new car-tab fee. 

Council members have indicated they’re open to increasing city car-tab fees to fund transportation projects, but specifics are still under discussion.

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No opposition campaign

Although the proposition has no formal opposition campaign and no one submitted an opposition statement to the King County voter guide, it has drawn familiar criticism.

“Leaving the money in the pockets of the people struggling right now … is a benefit,” said Suzie Burke, president of Fremont Dock Co., who opposes Prop. 1. “We’re not using the [bus] service right now.”

The city could revisit a possible tax after the pandemic has passed, perhaps in several years, Burke said.

Although sales tax is regressive, “we have to live in the reality we exist in,” said Warren, a volunteer with the campaign supporting Prop. 1 who gave only his first name. “Until we revamp the system for progressive tax structure, buses have to run in the meantime.”

Of people who use transit to commute in Seattle, 33% are essential workers, according to an analysis of census data by the progressive Transit Center

Transportation advocacy groups, labor unions, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association have endorsed the measure. The campaign supporting the measure has raised about $32,000, with Vulcan, Jacobs Engineering Group, SEIU Local 775 and the SEIU Initiative Fund the top donors.