Seattle’s Prop 1 Bus Package Passes in a Landslide

Riders exiting a Route 62 bus in Bryant.
Route 62 is staying pretty much the same in the Northgate bus-to-Link restructure. (Photo by author)

Seattle passed Proposition 1 by an overwhelming 81.6% to 18.4% margin in election night returns, ensuring $39 million in annual transit funding to stave off deep bus service cuts. While Mayor Jenny Durkan and Transportation Chair Alex Pedersen proposed a smaller measure fretting over perceived headwinds from the pandemic and recession, Seattle proved those worries unfounded. This city loves transit.

Luckily, Councilmember Tammy Morales stepped in to propose doubling the Prop 1 package. That move led Council President M. Lorena González to negotiate a compromise package that was 50% larger than the Mayor’s, upping the sales tax from 0.1% to 0.15%. The compromise amendment passed 8-1–with only Councilmember Pedersen opposed–and that version appeared on the ballot along with $1.7 billion in Harborview Medical Center funding (another source of anxiety among policymakers worried of a tax backlash) which also passed easily.

The landslide win is a reminder to question leaders who insist on austerity, particularly when it comes to transit. Their instincts were incredibly wrong. We should be seeking to continue to invest in transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure–and in social housing and Covid relief.

The favorable result paired with the Washington Supreme Court striking down Tim Eyman’s “$30 car tabs” Initiative 976 means we can maintain similar bus service levels despite the recession’s drain on King County Metro’s budget. It ensures that free ORCA transit passes for high school students and Seattle Housing Authority residents will continue. In 2019, 70% of Seattle residents lived within a ten-minute walk of frequent transit, and Prop 1’s renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District allows us to maintain that proud distinction, which helped us lead the nation in transit ridership growth.

A strong campaign

The impressive showing for Prop 1 is a testament to the strong campaign that Yes For Seattle ran. Led by campaign manager Emilio Garza and talented organizers Olivia Sarriugarte and Yes Segura, Yes For Transit had disciplined messaging and completed an incredible amount of voter contacts, relying on textbanks and phonebanks with the traditional door-knocking route impeded by Covid precautions. The Urbanist endorsed the campaign and co-hosted one of those textbanks. The coalition behind the campaign was broad, running the gambit from labor to business to Democratic Party and advocacy groups.

What’s next?

With the coalition behind transit increasingly strong and fresh off a massive win, there’s also the question of what’s next when it come to improving our transportation system.

  • Countywide bus measure – Seattle Prop 1 was almost a countywide measure, but the King County Council abandoned its plan due to the pandemic. Seattle’s smashing success could inspire King County to pass their own measure boosting service and potentially funding their unfunded long-term RapidRide expansion and bus electrification plans.
  • Free transit – The necessity of pandemic physical distancing measures gave transit riders and a taste of fare-free transit, and that could be one area where the state or region invests to help struggling Washingtonians make ends meet and to increase ridership and equitable access to transit. Plus, the uptick in ridership would drive down carbon emissions and car pollution.
  • State funding to accelerate light rail projects – While the Seattle metropolitan region invests in transit, Washington’s state government ranks toward the bottom for the share of its transportation budget that goes toward transit. If the state passes a transportation package in the next few years, the priority must shift toward transit. Recent state packages have been far too highway-focused.
  • Sound Transit 4 – Sound Transit 3 (ST3) was ambitious, but plenty of important urban neighborhoods remain unconnected. Whether pursued at a Seattle-level, King County-level, or the entire Sound Transit Taxing District, an ST4 measure could extend Ballard Link and West Seattle Link or even add crosstown subways in the Route 8 and/or Route 44 corridors. The advantage of deciding sooner is helping to guide alignment decisions and accelerating timelines.
  • Cascadia high-speed rail – Regional transportation is bumping up against the constraints of I-5, which it would cost more than $100 billion to widen by one lane throughout Washington. Better to invest in high-speed rail to ensure mobility between Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and greatly improve travel times. The plan might take a few years to come together, but we need to keep chugging along. As President (and it’s looking like it should be official soon), Joe Biden would be much more friendly to rail projects.

For now, it’s onto 2021 budget deliberations, where Mayor Durkan is pushing transit cuts and bike/pedestrian cuts with Transportation Chair Pedersen agreeing and seeking to cut even deeper to funnel money to a vague bridge maintenance plan.

Despite those track records, the Mayor’s Prop 1 victory press release painted Pedersen as the Council’s leader on transit.

“‘Winning this election is more than just a victory for the transit that Seattle loves–choosing to fund robust bus service is a bold affirmation we are upbeat about a future when everyone gets back to work, our economy gets moving again, and we make real progress on the climate crisis,’ said Pedersen who, despite the pandemic, led passage of the transit measure through the Seattle City Council as Chair of the Transportation Committee for voters to decide,” the release states.

While crafting the measure Pedersen was much more downbeat, arguing larger measures went too far. Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she though Morales’ doubling amendment may cause the measure to fail, and Pedersen agreed. “I share those concerns about doubling a sales tax during a recession,” he said. “I’m concerned it would imperil the measure ultimately.”

Revenue collection starts in April, leaving a small gap between the 2014 measure (which expires at year’s end) and the newly passed version.

This article has been updated with Councilmember Pedersen’s quote and date of revenue collection starting. On November 5th, a further update clarified that Pedersen voted against the González amendment, though he did vote for the final bill, and adding the statements from Herbold and Pedersen about the Morales amendment.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Daniel Thompson

Sales tax is a very regressive tax, probably the most regressive after utility taxes. Plus I think there is a big difference between passing a sales tax increase in Seattle from King Co., or the state, which have different needs and priorities than Seattle. Passing a sales tax increase in Seattle might be shooting fish in a barrel, but not so much in the county or statewide.

In the big picture, the likely control of the U.S. Senate means a large federal stimulus package for cities and states is unlikely, and Pelosi probably overplayed her hand when she was at $2.2 trillion and Trump was at $1.8 trillion, but the Republican Senate was at $600 billion. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, and based on the fact the U.S. GDP grew at a 35% clip in the third quarter, my guess is the $600 billion is off the table. Although the $600 billion never included aid for cities and states it did include very necessary aid for eviction relief. Plus don’t look for relief from the $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, which based on Seattle home prices means most property tax bills alone exceed the $10,000 annual cap.

Seattle and to some degree the state have been putting off difficult budgeting choices hoping for a large federal stimulus program, and for better economic conditions leading to more revenue. I think the federal aid is unlikely, the state is seeing better revenue numbers than anticipated but will still need either cuts or tax increases to simply stay where it is (Inslee having vetoed the silly 2019 revenue increases the legislature approved), and Seattle is in very bad shape financially for many reasons, one being the loss of tourism, two being working from home, three a large backlog of unfunded capital projects like bridges that should have been addressed during good economic times, and a declining retail/restaurant scene that is likely to be permanent with working from home and the perceived decline in safety and street ambiance in Seattle.

Today all the money is at the (east) county level because of the juggernaut of the eastside, but the eastside has much fewer funding needs than Seattle, and its ST subarea has more money than the eastside will ever be able to spend. Plus transit is not much of a hook for a tax increase on the eastside like it is in Seattle. I think there will be tension as King Co. tries to use levies or bonding to fund Seattle’s projects. You can see that now in the number of eastside cities that opted out of King Co.’s 1/10th of one percent sales tax for emergency housing and allocated those funds directly to their city because they fundamentally disagree with how King Co. and Seattle are addressing homelessness despite nearly $1 billion/year in federal, state and regional funding, and the tension in the negotiations between east and west King Co. over King Co.’s desire to create one regional funding umbrella and the direction and control of that organization.

I have come to the belief bifurcating east and west King Co. makes sense today considering the enormous geographical size of King Co. — nearly the size of Rhode Island — and the diverging priorities of east and west, and the feeling on the east that Dow Constantine and the King Co. council are simply extensions of Seattle’s council.

Progressives have the more difficult political task because progressiveness takes a lot of tax revenue, whereas conservatives can just play defense. Few things are better defenses than a pandemic and a steep decline in GDP and business revenue, because most taxes are just a cut of the business revenue, and in this state property appreciation. As one wag put it, Covid-19 has made us all red states. The passage of Prop. 1 was critical, but probably still won’t replace the lost sales tax revenue from declining sales and commercial development in Seattle overall, and in Seattle from working from home.

In a recession you can raise tax rates but you still end up with less tax revenue because there is just less to tax. I am not sure Seattle’s city council understands that.

Paul W.

Regarding ST4 — make sure the lobbyists push the state legislature for lots more sales tax imposition authority for Sound Transit. If the legislators were to mess up and give it progressive tax authority the business lobbyist would oppose ST4.

Paul W.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel! NOBODY funds the opposition to sales tax hike measures.