King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci announced yesterday that the County would not be advancing plans to run a transit package ballot measure in August. Since the measure was to be funded by a 0.2% sales tax, there was a fear it would exacerbate economic hardship from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Leaders also worried the countywide measure wouldn’t pass. Due to the ratcheting up of social distancing measures, transit ridership was down 45% at King County Metro’s last tally, and many residents are out of work as bars, theaters, restaurants, and other businesses have closed or are operating at reduced capacity.

“Unfortunately, the extraordinary events related to the spread of COVID-19 makes a countywide August ballot measure unrealistic at this time,” Chair Balducci said in a statement. “As our community mobilizes to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the early signs of the economic impact of the epidemic are starting to be seen, we must shift our attention to supporting our current transit system and building momentum to re-regionalizing transit for a future ballot measure.”

That leaves the ball in Seattle’s court to run a measure in August–or in November during the General Election. Mayor Jenny Durkan had already indicated the City would move ahead and go it alone if the County didn’t get its act together and finalize legislation this week. However, the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic slowdown may have changed the calculus for Mayor Durkan as well.

Seattle already has a Transportation Benefit District, which expires at the end of 2020 and augments King County Metro bus service by roughly 10% and funds the free transit program for high school students at Seattle Public Schools. The loss of that additional service would be a major blow to Seattle’s transportation system–it has been credited as a key ingredient in Seattle’s national leading transit ridership growth rate over the past decade. It’s ensured 70% of Seattleites live within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit service. It’s unlikely either of those bragging points could continue without renewing funding.

Not having a countywide measure delays hopes of lowering fares for low-income riders, speeding up electrification of the bus fleet, and progressing Metro’s long-term plans for a comprehensive frequent bus network across King County, filling out the alphabet from RapidRide A to Z and perhaps beyond.

The existing Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD) is funded in part by $60 car tab fees and a 0.1% sale tax. Local officials seem to be shying away from car tabs as a funding source given their uncertainty following passage of Initiative 976’s $30 car tab limit and the legal challenge that followed that may or may not overturn the limit.

That leaves a sales tax hike as the likeliest funding source. A 0.2% sales tax would be felt as a 0.1% sales tax hike in Seattle since the TBD’s existing 0.1% sale tax expires at year’s end. The Washington State Legislature once again adjourned without providing cities new progressive revenue options, such as a capital gains tax or an income tax. We also failed to see progressive tax reform to lower the burden on working class people. Instead state legislators found time to authorize billions in highway spending.

Another remaining hope is that the federal government or state government would bail out struggling transit agencies to maintain service levels, if not augment them.

“We will begin to discuss how to build new funding tools at the state level to expand progressive funding sources,” Chair Balducci said. “We will talk about federal partners about opportunities for new investments in capital projects that will expand our system’s capacity, and we will continue to engage our partners across the county to ensure the need for these critical services [and] more transit is met.”

Transportation For America has started a petition asking Congress to promptly provide emergency assistance to public transit agencies across the county. So far, though, Republican stimulus and relief plans have instead focused on corporate subsidies and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Even with the setback the delay and a possible recession has dealt to King County Metro expansion plans, leaders like County Councilmember Balducci remain optimistic.

“I’ve been impressed by the excitement from partners and cities for more transit countywide. As our region grows, more people need fast, frequent, and reliable transit” Balducci said. “We remain fully committed to build our planned bus network as envisioned in Metro Connects and expand bus service that serves as a lifeline to so many King County residents.”

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Metro ridership is down 45% and Sound Transit ridership is down 67%. What you are proposing — higher sales taxes for Metro — demonstrates you are oblivious to the realities the majority of people here face. Transit sales taxes already are far higher than in any peer region. No way should Seattle heap further abuse on its vulnerable households.

    • The true abuse would be not having good transit. Car ownership is untenable for very low income folks–costs average about $10,000 per year according to AAA.

      I’m not saying sales tax is the ideal way to fund transit but the state has tied local governments’ hands by not providing direct support or authorizing progressive revenue options such as an income tax. Given the lack of options, I can understand why they transit agencies turn to sales taxes. Cutting or eliminating fares for low income riders could lessen the sting and make the impact equitable on net.

      • Wow. How little you know about the lives of “very low income folks.” They don’t go spending $10K per annum on “average” cars. In the real world, they buy and drive beaters, cars they can find and operate on the cheap.

        For the working poor, a 20-minute drive to work beats 55 minutes on the bus, especially if they juggle multiple jobs in different locations or a child in day care.

        • You missed my point. We need to give people options and try to quantify the full and actual costs. What happens when the old beat-up car breaks down? AAA averages cost across multiple years of use to quantify how the breakdowns, licensing, and upkeep costs add up. By targeting high mileage used cars, people can undercut that ~$10,000/yr estimated cost at least initially… until that old car breaks down beyond repair and they’re left with a huge expense beyond their budget or savings. Car ownership is one of the major things driving the working class into debt. Yes car ownership can offer some advantages quicker and more flexible travel times and access to certain jobs. But we can’t run a society where car ownership is the only supported option because the cost of that car-based lifestyle is so high.

          Or to put this a different way: Let’s say operating a low-value used car only averages $5,000 in cost per year. Does that mean it’s within the budget of a person pulling in minimum wage (or slightly above it)? In our region, the answer likely is no.

          • Yes, of course we need to give people options, all people, not just the poor and working poor. I retired from the local transit industry, so I know a thing or two.

            What happens when a poor person’s beater breaks down? They don’t take it to the dealership for a big bucks repair! If a shade-tree mechanic can’t fix it on the cheap, they beg or borrow another $12-1500 and go buy another one (the reason working-class neighborhoods often have multiple junker cars in their yards).

            Nobody is arguing for a “society where car ownership is the only supported option.” Don’t be putting up strawman arguments.

            I have no idea what the average poor person with a beater car pays in car costs each year, but I can ask around since I actually know a few. The last people I would ask is the AAA!

          • How do you propose to give people options if we don’t renew the STBD and thus triggering widespread transit cuts. High school students would also likely lose their free ORCA cards.

            When was the last time you bought a used car? Because I’m not sure they’re still going for $1,200 or $1,500 like you remember. At least if they’re still running.

          • Seattle Craigslist has 120 cars priced <$1500, all in operating condition and <160K miles.

            I spoke with a friend in the market for just such a car. Going over the numbers with him, we came to $250/month for total ownership and operating costs, about $3000 per annum over a 3-year period.

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