After years of stalling, King County is finished waiting for the Washington state legislature to help solve its transportation problems. With funding for roads and transit too low to even plow snow and keep buses running, County Executive Dow Constantine on Tuesday proposed a sales tax increase of 0.1 percent and other means for funding basic services. The tax would require voter approval and could go to the ballot as soon as April, three months away and, assuming it passes, just in time to avoid a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service starting this summer.
In the works for months, the measure touted as “Plan B” would create a Transportation Benefit District as authorized under state law. Such districts are allowed to impose a maximum sales tax of 0.2 percent and a vehicle licensing fee of $100 towards transportation improvements, but the proposal only calls for 0.1 percent and $60, respectively. The sales tax would expire after 10 years. This would have an average impact of $11 per year on King County households, and would raise an estimated $130 million per year; this is similar to the $140-150 million that would have been raised in a statewide transportation package had it not stalled in Olympia last year.
40 percent of the new annual income, $50 million, would be used for road maintenance in unincorporated King County. With declining revenue from the state gas tax, municipal annexations, and depreciating property values, the County is less able to repair deteriorating roads and maintain service levels, especially in the event of snowstorms. Since 2008, the County has cut 40 percent of its road maintenance staff.
60 percent, or $78 million, would be used to preserve existing Metro bus routes and avoid a 17 percent cut in service in June. If the measure passes, this would cover the $75 million gap that will occur with the expiration of the Congestion Reduction Charge. Otherwise, 74 bus routes will be cancelled and 107 revised, with the remaining 33 routes unchanged but likely subject to increased crowding.
Additionally, a scheduled 25-cent system wide fare increase would take effect in March 2015, bringing in an additional $6.6 million per year. At the same time Metro would introduce its first reduced fare at $1.50 for low-income riders who use an ORCA card, which would eliminate many cash payments and paper transfer tickets that slow down boardings. The reduced fare would be limited to people who earn 200 percent or less of the federal poverty rates.
The County Council will work on a what a formal proposal will say and when to send it to voters. The state legislature is in a special session to address a variety of topics, but with little progress likely to be made on transportation funding or any other issue, it seems the County has little choice but to act quickly before the problem escalates. The proposal’s prospects are unknown at this point; Move King County Now, a coalition of businesses and institutes with a stake in regional transportation, estimates only a 30 percent voter turnout.
In a news release, Constantine makes the case for this initiative: “King County has stepped up to every challenge set before us. We’ve done everything within our means to keep people moving. We are out of time for a statewide solution that includes a local option. We must move forward on our own to save Metro bus service.” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray had similar sentiments, saying, “At a time when demand is reaching record levels and continuing to grow, Seattle and the region need more, not less transit service. The time has come to act locally. Metro is our transit workhorse and we must do whatever we can to keep the service running.” Indeed, the latest data shows Metro carried an average of 412,000 rides per weekday in October, and is close to breaking a 2008 record of 119 million rides per year. If the cuts went through, a projected 14 million rides would be lost per year and force thousands of commuters into their cars on the region’s already-clogged highways.
As UW Transportation Director Josh Cavanagh put it, the time to act is now.