Seattle voters will likely be asked to renew a sales tax for bus service this fall, but a combination of financial blows will mean less money for service than before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan proposes asking voters to approve a .1% sales tax to fund bus service, including extra spending in West Seattle, where the closure of the West Seattle Bridge will force long-term detours and delays. The City Council will debate the plan for the next two weeks before a deadline to send it to the November ballot.

The measure is a partial renewal of the existing Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which charges a .1% sales tax and $60 car-tab fee voters approved in 2014. Seattle uses the money to buy bus service from Metro, which has boosted frequencies and resulted in most Seattle households having access to at least one bus that comes every 10 minutes, according to the city. However, Metro has at times struggled to keep up with Seattle’s demand.

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The new six-year proposal would bring in about half as much money per year and direct roughly a quarter as much toward general transit service in the city, not including new spending planned for West Seattle.

Multiple factors have complicated the outlook for bus funding in Seattle, including concerns that voters will be wary of taxes during an economic downturn.

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Under state law, the city could charge up to .2% sales tax to fund service, but that would mean asking voters to approve a sales tax hike. 

“I don’t think it’s prudent to increase a sales tax during the recession,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee. With bus ridership down due to the pandemic, the renewal “right sizes” the tax, Pedersen said.

Some advocates believe more service will be needed. The renewal “will bring value to people, but it is a bridge toward what we ultimately want,” said Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. The group pushed for a countywide measure instead to get more service outside Seattle.

Initiative sponsor Tim Eyman and statewide voters have also complicated Seattle transit. The current $60 car-tab fee would be wiped out by Initiative 976, which attempted to lower car-tab fees to $30 and was approved by voters statewide in November. Seattle and others are suing, claiming the initiative is unconstitutional, but “too much uncertainty remains” to include car-tab fees in this ballot measure, said Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Sam Zimbabwe.

If I-976 is struck down, the council could revisit car-tab fees, Pedersen said. 

The pandemic is also expected to dampen sales tax revenues. And the closure of the West Seattle Bridge will slow travel there if more people return to commuting.

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With the bridge closure, “the current detour routes … cut through some of the most diverse communities of the city where we already have disproportionate levels of pollution, asthma and environmental injustice,” Zimbabwe said. Residents in South Park have undertaken their own sign-making efforts to try to get drivers detouring through their neighborhood to slow down. 

The tax would raise about $20 million to $30 million per year, with the city assuming less money collected in the earlier years and more later as the economy rebounds. The projections are “based on a very conservative worst-case scenario for economic recovery,” according to SDOT.

About $11 million a year would buy bus service provided by King County Metro, according to SDOT. For the first four years of the six-year measure, an additional $3 million a year would be aimed at West Seattle for bus or water taxi service and “speed and reliability improvements” still being planned.

About $6 million a year would pay for improvements to roads and signals meant to speed up bus service and $7 million would fund programs for youth, seniors and people with low incomes, including ORCA cards for public school students. (The ordinance allows for higher spending in each category, which SDOT says would only happen if revenues are higher than expected.)

With living costs pushing people out of Seattle, advocates lobbied for a countywide tax measure to improve service outside the city, but the county shelved that idea when the pandemic hit.

“There’s just so much need outside the city of Seattle,” said Anna Zivarts, program director at Rooted in Rights, a disability rights advocacy group. “I hope this isn’t letting us a region off the hook.”

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Seattle’s existing Transportation Benefit District pays for about 8% of Metro service, according to Metro. Facing serious financial shortfalls due to the pandemic, Metro plans to cut bus service this fall. If the new measure passes, some routes would likely be reduced anyway because less money will be flowing into Metro and Seattle, but details beyond this fall are yet to be determined.

Metro spokesperson Torie Rynning said the agency is “still learning about the proposed ballot measure.”

Ridership has fallen steeply during the pandemic, as many people have worked from home or avoided crowded travel. But some people have continued to ride, with about 127,000 Metro trips per day. Maps showing Metro ridership during the early weeks of the pandemic tracked closely with racial and income distributions, showing that people in more diverse areas and areas with lower incomes have continued to rely on transit. 

Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, said her organization is backing the measure in part because ORCA cards helped students access their summer programs. Students at Rainier Beach High School lobbied for the student bus passes for years.

“The cost savings that provides for a working family and the fact they can rely on it being safe … should be something these families can rely on,” Merriweather said.