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.