Seattle City Council members Friday began debating a scaled-back proposal for transit funding from Mayor Jenny Durkan, with city voters expected to weigh in on the tax plan in November.

The proposal would ask voters to pass a .1% sales tax to replace an expiring tax package that includes both a .1% sales tax and $60 car-tab fee. Car-tab fees are off the table for now because of statewide Initiative 976, passed in November, that bars such charges.

While taxes for transit are normally politically popular in Seattle, the new ballot measure would come during a pandemic that has triggered an economic collapse and a dramatic drop in transit ridership. City Hall is also largely consumed responding to the pandemic-induced budget crisis and debates over police funding, following weeks of protests against police brutality and racism.

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Under what SDOT calls “very conservative” assumptions, the plan would bring in about half as much money as the current taxes. The mayor’s office would spread that money across programs, spending less on the central promise of the last measure — bus service — and more on such things as transit passes for students and people with low incomes, and street maintenance on bus routes, according to a comparison by city staff.

Money would also be set aside for “emergent needs” related to the pandemic and the closure of the West Seattle Bridge due to cracking. That could include more bus service to West Seattle or other, still-to-be-specified projects.

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Transit advocates urged the council Friday to change the mayor’s proposal for how to spend the money.

“I really want us to focus on [bus] service hours,” said Beacon Hill resident Rachael Ludwick, adding later, “I don’t think there’s a point in having a free bus pass if there’s not usable, frequent transit.” 

Transit Riders Union organizer Matthew Lang said the group was “disappointed by the very small amount of funding for transit service.” Lang said money for maintenance should come from another source. 

Representatives for the Downtown Seattle Association and MLK Labor, a coalition of unions, testified in support of the current proposal. 

There appeared to be little traction among council members to bump up the sales tax. Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he backed the .1% because of “the economic nature of what folks are going through and the regressive nature of a sales tax.” 

State law allows other limited options, like a property tax that must be renewed by voters every year, voter-approved tolls and impact fees on developers. 

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Councilmember Kshama Sawant described the mayor’s proposal as austerity. “This proposal is about cutting the city’s contribution to the Metro bus trip hours,” Sawant said, adding later, “We haven’t even had a conversation about how can we prevent the cuts from happening in the first place.” 

Sawant and Councilmember Lisa Herbold said the council should look into developer fees, though it was not immediately clear how quickly the council could put those into effect. 

Complicating matters for bus funding is uncertainty about when demand for transit might return. King County Metro weekday ridership is only about a third of its usual levels. In contrast, before the pandemic, Metro struggled to provide all the bus service Seattle wanted to buy, which spurred the city to spend some of its transit money on subsidized bus passes instead.

Still, during the pandemic, routes that maintained the highest ridership traveled through neighborhoods with larger shares of residents of color, where people continued to rely on the bus to get to work or for other needs.

Those routes could be a focus for money from the new tax, but that remains to be seen. It’s not clear exactly which routes would be funded by the tax renewal.

Seattle requires that Transportation Benefit District money pay for additional bus service, not to back fill routes cut by Metro. But beyond this fall, it’s unclear how Metro may cut or change service to respond to budget shortfalls. 

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While car-tab fees aren’t in the proposed tax package, Seattle is holding on to the possibility of using those fees to fund transportation projects. 

Aside from the $60 fee, which expires at the end of this year no matter the outcome of the legal challenge to I-976, Seattle charges a separate $20 car-tab fee for pothole repair and other basic projects. That fee would survive if I-976 is struck down in court, and the council could increase it first to $40 and eventually to $50 without voter approval.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee and supports Durkan’s proposal, said Friday he would “personally support doubling this revenue source immediately to $40” if Seattle wins its case against I-976.

The council will meet again next week to consider possible changes to the sales tax proposal.