Prop 1 Fails; We Need a “Seattle Transit Authority”

Bus Tunnel

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.

A clear divide between Seattle and the rest of the county. Click to enlarge. (Mapbox)

A clear divide between Seattle and the rest of the county. Blue indicates approval, and red indicates rejection. Click for full size: (Oran Viriyincy)

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.

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18 Responses to Prop 1 Fails; We Need a “Seattle Transit Authority”

  1. Chris Cooney says:

    isn’t it more that seattle supports the rest of the region? if you took some of our tax outflow, you could easily pay for more busses.

    • In terms of taxes, yes. In fact from what I understand, taxes from King, Pierce, and Snomhomish counties mostly support the rest of the state. But what I meant by “support” was more like moral support or caring for it.

  2. philbob84 says:

    Dont fall for that they need us more then we need them. Very little food is produced here in King County and almost none of our power is. Mean spirited measures such as tieing tax funding the county raised in will have nasty back lash in other wars to the greater metropolitan area.

    • Rob Boxlightener says:

      Voters decided in 1972 to get rid of a Seattle only transit system in favor of a regional system. Seattleites wanted bus service to other places in King County. Suburban folk wanted better service to get into Seattle and other places around the county. Metro Transit was born. Maybe the Seattle-centric audience for this post could float a ballot initiative for an additional sales/property/payroll tax within their city limits with funds dedicated to Seattle routes and roadways. I doubt the business community would like that. People really only approve taxes that hit the widest possible number of people, thus impacting their pockets the least. Meaning, you got to force thousands or millions of people who could never actually use the service to pay for it on your behalf. Say thank you to them please. Nobody wants to actually pay for what they use if they can sucker somebody else into paying for it for them. If your $2.50 bus ride cost you $7.50, would you still ride?

  3. Andrew Brick says:

    I’m a little hesitant to say the solution to this problem is “more government.” Open up the transit market. Uber and Lyft are great innovations (though not efficient transit), but might be a workable model, unless it gets regulated to hell. Services like these ought to be allowed to operate with minimal regulation, but the apparent capture of our city council by special interests (and their belief that government should be the gatekeeper of private contracts) is hindering progress in that regard. If allowed, I firmly believe entrepreneurs will innovate to meet needs. Let’s consider this approach as a potential avenue to help meet mobility needs and goals.

    • Agreed, I think that’s one of the reasons people voted against Prop 1: seeing Metro as bloated and inefficient. Whether or not that idea has merit, entrepreneurs should be allowed to flourish. It’s unfortunate that the rideshare cab companies have so much sway over the rideshare regulations.

  4. michael norquest says:

    It isn’t just the issue of funding for Metro bus service; the east side is growing up, doing so very rapidly. Bellevue isn’t just that bedroom place but a distinct city with a very different cultural outlook than the older, established city on the west side of Lake Washington.
    The apparent loss of Prop 1 is only another symbol that the needs of Seattle don’t necessarily have a following throughout King County. While the King County Council, meeting at the county seat in Seattle, might sound more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan than a meeting of “county commissioners”
    does that mean that the residents of King County view their actions as those which reflect the voting population of the entire county? I don’t think so.
    As far as entrepreneurs taking on the issue of mass transit, moving large numbers of people around a metro area; are you serious? What is it with this near 21St Century idea that private enterprise is suited to solve everything?
    Metro Service inefficient, the structure bloated; only wishful thinking and if America and Americans can’t make the jump from wishful thinking that transit is some sort of tacked on obligation, not a requirement for living in a densely populated urban center then this country has really big problems, almost impossible to solve with that kind of thinking.

  5. michael norquest says:

    Those counties which make up the state of Washington; it isn’t just the physical divide of that Cascade Mountain range which makes us different from them. King County and Seattle; two places which are the odd ducks within the state, so different and complex, almost impossible for those other counties, those other residents of this state to even comprehend—and I’m not looking at this from some platform called smug.
    This city and this county; way overbuilt, way too technically advanced, way to vulnerable to the whims of political conflict, the lack of resolve from that state legislature in Olympia.
    Bridges must be built to at least bring some consensus for compromise within the state legislature. This county has grown, will grow further but in an atmosphere of near chaos when growth becomes unmanageable–there is no assistance coming from a balky legislature dominated by rural counties who see little growth, out of this metro area, not much coming their way from all those new jobs, all that amazing dot com wealth. Forget about that stick which comes with a carrot; this area needs to create a very enticing carrot to move that legislature away from no way, no time.

  6. Kylek says:

    I really wouldnt stop at the transit authority. Seattle needs to become its own county. Most major cities in the US are their own counties and King County is particularly huge. People in the edge districts don’t feel tied to Seattle at all and I don’t really blame them – there are fully rural areas in King Co. Seattle proper is 640k of the 2M people in King Co but we’re a fraction of the land area and we’re growing faster than the rest (right now, this wasnt true in the 80’s/90’s/00’s.) We have urban issues that we need urban solutions for — King County just does not broadly mirror our issues or our interests. The transit thing is just one example of that – a city council that doubles as a county council would cover it.

    • michael norquest says:

      Your comment; very relevant but it will be a race to the legislature to see who files the correct number of petitions first; the city of Seattle and the area west of Lake Washington requesting that those zip codes on this side of the lake, including the city be allowed to form a new county or the increasing momentum of eastern King County, including Bellevue, growing into a cultural and poltical force of it’s own—not with the same needs nor interests that the older city of Seattle has and needs to face.

      • Bob Shoemaker says:

        It is amusing to think that everyone within the city of Seattle would agree on the same issues and their solutions visavis the rest of the world. Seattle is not a homogeneous bunch of clones who all think alike. Making it its own county would only to serve to highlight its differences and divisions. Instead of fighting Bellevue or Kent on issues of priority and funding, it would be Queen Anne versus West Seattle, Seward Park versus the U District.

  7. Nathan Tseng says:

    I wonder what is the feasibility of Sound Transit taking over some of the commuter routes into Seattle

  8. michael norquest says:

    I’ve lived and worked in San Francisco for a good many years. The city and county are one in the same, have been for many decades. It would be a very big stretch to say that the residents of San Francisco agree on many things but divisions to the point of accountability or even the process of governing the city; more of finding allies and political friends to gain enough votes on the Board of Supervisors to get anything done.
    There are probably 835,000 residents in San Francisco and not even God might know, at a moment, just how many tourists, conventioneers, or other residents of the San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland Metro area are in the city at any one point but based on being downtown at Union Square or on Market Street near all those large hotels or that over powering convention center off Mission Street—my observations; a very large number of people.
    It isn’t as though King County, that portion on the east side of Lake Washington might want to create their own space out of what was once, not many decades ago, farmland, very small towns, scattered residential development which made up the larger chunk of King County—those residents living on the east side are growing or have already arrived at a place which is very different from the city of Seattle or those neighborhoods north and south of the city limits but within King County. So unless the King County Council actually has some real clout with both sides of Lake Washington—a separation seems more likely.

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