To the disappointment of many advocates, King County’s Proposition 1 is failing at the ballot box. The result isn’t certified until May 6th, but at this point the 55 percent “No” vote virtually guarantees significant bus service reductions. In a correction to my earlier posts, the cuts will be phased in over the next 18 months starting in September 2014. Regardless, 16 percent of annual service (equivalent to 550,000 hours) will be eliminated with drastic effects for the local economy, traffic, and people’s livelihoods. It is time for Seattle to take control of its future and form its own transit agency.
The history behind the vote reflects a growing divide between Seattle and almost the entire rest of the state. The state legislature has repeatedly failed to pass a comprehensive transportation funding package that would give King County the authority to raise revenue by alternate means, such as a property tax or motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). Instead, the county relies mostly on sales tax revenue for funding revenue. This type of tax is notoriously volatile and fluctuates with economic conditions, as opposed to the more stable property tax. So wthe recession came along, Metro’s funding plunged. The agency was forced to cut staff and streamline operations, but service was mostly preserved thanks to a temporary “congestion charge” on cars allowed by the state. But when that 2-year source expires this summer, Prop 1’s failure means Metro will have about a $75 million funding gap.
Despite being outspent by proponents, the opposition was bolstered by a Seattle Times editorial against Prop 1. It said Metro should be taught a lesson in fiscal responsibilty after the agency already tightened its belt and failed to mention that 40 percent of raised funding would go to crumbling roads. Others argued the 0.1 sales tax would be regressive, when what is truly regressive is preventing people from getting to work and school and degrading bus service for 80 percent of riders. Only a third of commuters to Downtown and the University District drive alone.
Above is a map of the vote results based on legislative districts (the data can be found here, and a map of districts is here). It is obvious that that suburban (read: car-dependent ) areas voted against the measure and it’s $60 car tab fee. Yet Seattle and the Eastside will be equally effected by less frequent service, route restructuring, and reduced nighttime hours. Some 30,000 people are likely to switch to driving by September 2015, making the region’s clogged highways even more congested. A memo at Metro (PDF) details how the cuts will be handled.
The good news is that some people who commute between urban centers can still rely on well-funded Sound Transit express buses. Metro’s restructuring also eliminates duplications and routes with low ridership, which could make future re-expansions more coherent. This could also boost bicycle ridership as the area’s bike share program starts up.
But Seattle is rapidly growing and absolutely needs transit to maintain its economic momentum, healthy neighborhoods, and quality of life. With the looming cuts as a catalyst, now is the time for Seattle to fund and manage its own transit systems. The city should create an agency within its Department of Transportation, perhaps named “Seattle Transit Authority” or STA, to take over the bus and streetcar lines and maintenance bases that are within city limits. Seattle residents use transit much more than their suburban neighbors, and so are more likely to support transit and vote for funding. At numerous public meetings I’ve heard even conservative homeowners support transit to ensure infrastructure concurrency with rapid growth in multifamily housing.
Metro can continue to serve the outlying communities and maintain a countywide focus on smaller cities and rural areas. Sound Transit will continue to serve as the regional commuter backbone. The STA, though, would be able to plan and operate transit much more effectively with Seattle because it would only be tasked with the needs of people who live and work here. The STA, operating in a city where already less than 50 percent of people drive alone, would not be hampered by the whims of car-dependent communities. One can point to other major U.S. cities having multi-jurisdiction transit agencies, like Portland’s TriMet, but Seattle’s unique geography and limited regional transportation links support a smaller agency.
The other option is to separately restore Metro service just in Seattle. Friends of Transit, a local activist group, today announced they are filing an initiative for the November election to do just that. If passed, the initiative will impose a tax of 22 cents per $1000 of property value for six years. The revenue would go to the City of Seattle, who would then buy service hours on just the routes that run within the city. The city already purchases 85,000 service hours per year with the ‘Bridging the Gap’ property tax, approved in 2006. This new measure would apparently restore and preserve service before the cuts are fully implemented by raising an estimated $25 million per year.
The initiative is a worthwhile pursuit and can pave the way to an independent agency, but Seattle must end its reliance on stopgap measures to fund transit. By creating its own transit authority, Seattle can effectively manage a transportation system that will ensure its success and livability as it continues to grow.