by Casey Jaywork
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Proposition 1, which would have saved King County Metro from cutting a sixth of its service, failed last week because Seattleites didn’t bother to vote. Those of us who did vote overwhelmingly supported the initiative, and if we’d had the same participation rate as eastern voting districts, the measure would have passed. Now, we have one last chance. It’s too late for suburban commuters, but if we can shake our collective apathy, we can prevent cuts within Seattle.
Metro isn’t just the local public transit agency that serves Seattle and King County. It’s also the sole avenue for thousands of low-income workers to access their jobs, families, schools, and communities. It’s a tool for keeping thousands of extra cars off of our roads, thus cutting down on air pollution, traffic congestion and road maintenance costs. In an urban setting, it’s the only sane approach to transportation infrastructure.
Before 2000, a progressive vehicle tax funded about a third of Metro’s budget. That got axed by conservative activist and irresponsible-governance hobbyist Tim Eyman. Since then, Metro’s budget has primarily relied on state sales taxes. These regressive taxes don’t just burden the poorest Washingtonians, they’re also vulnerable to sudden changes in the economy, like the depression that we’ve been weathering since 2008. Metro has been working hard to stretch its budget farther, implementing a variety of cost-cutting measures that have saved it about $800 million in the past six years. But there’s only so much fat that you can cut before hitting bone, which is exactly what has happened to Metro over the past year. Faced with a $75 million shortfall, the agency now plans to cut 16 percent of its services.
It didn’t have to be this way. In June 2013, state senate republicans blocked efforts to grant King County the authority to self-tax in order to make up for Metro’s budget shortfall. To remedy the situation, King County went directly to the voters with an April ballot initiative. But Prop. 1, colloquially known as “Plan B”, which would have raised property taxes by a tenth of a percent and increased vehicle taxes for wealthy drivers, was rejected by King County voters (because Seattle didn’t bother to vote).
Now it’s too late to save transit services throughout the county. Metro plans balance its books by cutting its service by 550,000 service hours, starting in September 2014. Suburban commuters, particularly those who travel at night, will have to buy a car or find a new job, and anyone who uses roads – bus riders and automobile drivers alike – can look forward to a slower, more cramped, and more congested daily commute. As with any public service, the working poor will be hit the worst by these cuts.
But while it’s too late for the rest of the county, Seattle still has a chance to save its own transit. Days after the failure of Prop. 1, the advocacy group Friends of Transit filed an initiative for the November ballot that would “save bus service within Seattle city limits.” Dubbed “Plan C” by commentators, this Seattle initiative would raise city property taxes by 0.022 percent – not 22 percent; merely a fifth of a tenth of a percent. Seattle property values being what they are, FoT estimates that the tax increase would raise about $155 million by 2021. That’s enough money to fund an extra 250,000 service hours, and avert most of Seattle’s scheduled transit cuts.
On the one hand, it’s likely that Plan C will succeed with voters where Plan B failed. Despite widespread voter apathy within the city, Seattle residents who did vote overwhelming did so in support of Prop. 1, while those farther from the urban center were more likely to ditch bus funding. If Seattle votes for Plan C the way that it voted for Prop. 1, it will pass by a landslide. And, hopefully, the surprise of losing Prop. 1 and county-wide transit service will shock even more Seattleites into filling out their ballot come November.
On the other hand, Prop. 1 should have passed without trouble. But somehow we screwed it up. The biggest threat to Plan C is that voter apathy will again keep the vast majority of Seattle residents’ voices from being heard. To even get on the November ballot, pro-transit organizers have to gather over 20 thousand signatures, then, they’ll have to pound the pavement, making sure that the majority of Seattleites who want a strong transit system are also the majority in the polls.
Voter apathy, bad taxation, and legislative gridlock have brought Metro services to the brink of tragedy. Now the only thing that can save Seattle’s transit is civic engagement.
So there’s just one question: Are you on the bus?