Three weeks till the vote. A ballot measure that addresses the $75 million gap in Metro’s budget and secures ongoing funding is the most anticipated item of King County’s April 22 special election. Whatever outcome, Proposition 1 has implications for transit ridership and drivers alike.
At the recent Town Hall meeting put on by the First Hill Improvement Association, Councilmember Joe McDermott put Metro’s current shortfall into context. “We have been operating Metro transit for more than a decade without adequate revenue,” he said.
In 1999, voters passed Initiative 695, which instituted a $30 car tab instead of paying the motor vehicle excise tax.
“Motor vehicle excise tax was a key, prominent piece of support for transit in Washington State,” Councilmember McDermott said. “And that gap has never been filled in the 15 years since.”
Once the motor vehicle excise tax was eliminated, Metro’s budget scraped by on sales taxes, which were less after the 2008 Great Recession.
“Since the Great Recession to the present, from what our economic projections had been for the sales tax to what they’ve actually been during the Great Recession, there is a gap of $1.2 billion. That money for Metro will never come in, so we’ve been operating as best we can without [it],” Councilmember McDermott said.
For about a year, a regional task force researched how to most-effectively run Metro. It eliminated the 40/40/20 plan, instead allocating transit service based on geographic equity, social justice, and where riders were. Full-time Metro staff positions were reduced, and 100 jobs were terminated. Purchasing new equipment, like busses, lost priority. Over time, those changes saved $800 million ($100 million in annual ongoing savings. To cover the remaining gap and address the future, King County asked Washington State Legislature for relief. Its answer was a temporary, two-year Congestion Reduction Charge, the $20 car tab, which is set to expire this summer. Its expirations brings Metro to the budget gap of $75 million, the result being a 17-percent cut in service (600,000 service hours) threatened across King County.
Metro currently provides 400,000 rides daily. If the service cuts happen, the only routes that would go unchanged that serve Capitol Hill are Route 10, which moves from downtown to 15th Avenue East, and Route 48, which travels along 23rd Avenue East. Routes 2, 8, 11, 12, 43, 49 would be reduced or revised, while routes 4, 25, 47, 84, and 265 would be deleted. That’s not to mention the routes outside of the neighborhood that would change and impact transfers and crowding.
Those who use Metro transit services aren’t the only people to be impacted, though. Councilmember McDermott said that 90 percent of transit riders have cars at home, and that if but service is cut, an estimated 30,000 cars would be added to the roads everyday. That’s more traffic. That’s less available parking.
Enter: Proposition 1.
Since state legislature hasn’t adopted a transit or transportation package that feeds Metro ongoing support, and since King County Council isn’t allowed to enact taxes without the state’s authority, councilmembers propose creating a county-wide Transportation District, which would institute an annual vehicle fee of $60 per registered vehicle, with a $20 rebate for low-income individuals. As well, the Transportation District would be allowed to levy sales and use tax by 0.1 percent (one-tenth of one penny) across King County. Both the vehicle fee and the tax would last for a period of 10 years.
These funds would raise about $130 million. Metro would receive 60 percent of the money to fill its budget gap and preserve services, and the remaining 40 percent would be allocated to cities (according to population) for transportation improvements and unmet road needs throughout King County.
“They’re not the most progressive options, and I’m not going to tell you that they are,” Councilmember McDerott said. “But they are the best options that we had in our limited toolbox from the state.”
Something that is progressive, however, is the legislation already passed that will allow low-income Metro transit riders to pay a discounted fare of $1.50. If the Transportation District is approved, then the discounted fare would be $1.25 for the first two years.
While Proposition 1 has received the unanimous, bipartisan support of County Council and Executive Down Constantine, and is endorsed by prominent organizations like the League of Women Voters, the Labor Council, Virginia Maison, and others, taxpayers who live in the eastern and southern parts of King County might argue that it’s unfair for them to pay more when they only receive 37 percent of transit services.
For all voters in this special election, the question reduces to which is more costly, a $60 vehicle fee and 0.1 percent tax, or the implications that come with letting Metro flounder.
For more information, visit metro.kingcounty.gov.