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 publisher of The Urbanist. 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.