Cutting Bus Service Would Hit Poor People Hardest

Taxes Already Fall Disproportionately on the Poor, So Why Increase Them Now for Buses?

Cutting Bus Service Would Hit Poor People Hardest

Mark Kaufman

A “YES” VOTE WILL MAKE LOCAL TAXES EVEN MORE REGRESSIVE But a loss of transportation options perpetuates the poverty cycle.

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Nobody has written more forcefully, more fully, and more foully about Washington State's absurdly fucked-up tax system than I have. Thanks to our lack of an income tax and our overreliance on sales and excise taxes, Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation—a tax structure in which our poorest households pay six times the effective rate of our wealthiest households. If you earn less than $20,000 a year, you pay a backbreaking 16.9 percent in state and local taxes; if you earn more than $430,000 a year, you pay a scant 2.8 percent.

It is unfair. It is unsustainable. It is indefensible.

So then why do I urge you to vote "Yes" in an April 22 special election to make our taxes even more regressive?

"We're out of options," laments King County Council chair Larry Phillips. County voters will be asked to choose between a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service or higher taxes. "It's either bus cuts or this," warns Phillips. "One or the other."

And nothing could be more regressive than cutting transit.

After six years of cuts, cost savings, and fare increases, the council voted unanimously on February 24 to form a Transportation Benefit District and send a tax package directly to voters. Lacking the authority that Olympia had promised us, to pass more progressive taxes, but failed to deliver, voters will be asked to approve two arguably regressive taxes: a flat $60 annual car-tab fee, plus a tenth of a cent increase in the county sales tax. The new taxes would raise $130 million a year, 60 percent for Metro and 40 percent to fund county and city roads.

Some opponents will cynically point to the regressive nature of these taxes as an argument for voting "No." But Phillips hopes that voters will adopt a different perspective. "What's really on the ballot is those transit cuts," says Phillips. "The most regressive thing we can do is cut bus service."

And with Metro facing a looming $75 million budget gap, that is the choice before voters: either raise taxes or trim 600,000 hours of annual bus service, eliminating up to 74 bus routes and reducing or revising service on another 107 routes. For example, the 21, 22, 37, and 57 might all be eliminated, dramatically reducing service in West Seattle. The cuts would affect 80 percent of Metro bus riders and put an estimated 30,000 additional cars back on our already congested roads. Bus cuts affect 100 percent of the people who use our roads and highways, by increasing congestion and lengthening commutes. But by far, the people who the cuts would impact the most are those who can least afford it: the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals and families who depend on Metro to get to and from home, work, school, and human services.

Indeed, a 2012 report on the impact of transit cuts commissioned by the National Research Council (NRC) found that these most vulnerable populations are also those with the fewest transportation alternatives. "Without public transportation, these transit-dependent people lost their independence including access to jobs and medical services," the report concluded. "In the worst cases, vulnerable residents were stranded at home."

In Pierce County, where bus service was decimated after voters there repeatedly rejected tax increases, the NRC report found that transit cuts disproportionately impacted the most transit-dependent populations. More than one quarter of riders had no licensed driver in the family, and 62 percent of midday nonpeak riders had household incomes below $20,000. Non-Medicaid-eligible people with disabilities living in outlying areas now have trouble accessing life-sustaining medical appointments, according to the report. Some low-income and disabled residents have lost their jobs due to lack of transit, while others now experience much longer commutes.

"Their loss of transportation to access opportunities perpetuated the poverty cycle," the NRC report concluded. Pierce Transit is a case study in regressive transit cuts that would be immoral to repeat.

But with skyrocketing urban rents and home prices steadily pushing the working poor into outlying suburbs, that same disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities would surely be duplicated here in King County. "Social services and jobs remain in the city, even as the working poor have moved out," explains Phillips. "If you're working poor, more than likely you are taking transit."

And if you think Metro is bluffing, Phillips invites you to take a closer look at the agency's finances. Like most transit agencies nationwide, Metro saw its revenues plummet due to the Great Recession—through 2015, Metro will collect $1.2 billion less sales-tax revenue than had previously been projected. Through a series of cuts, efficiencies, contract concessions, and four straight years of fare increases, Metro has saved or gained $798 million from 2009 to 2013. The reserve funds have been sucked dry, a temporary $20 car-tab fee is about to expire, and fares are continuing to rise. We've run out of options.

Both the car tab and the sales tax are regressive, so yes, they disproportionately impact the working poor, too. To lessen that impact, the council has approved a $20 annual rebate for car owners earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—about $23,000 for an individual, $47,000 for a family of four. The council has also approved a new low-income fare—only the second in the nation—of $1.50 (peak, off-peak, and multi-zone) to become available when a scheduled 25-cent general fare increase goes into effect in March 2015. And if the tax measure passes, that low-income fare will be reduced another quarter to $1.25.

It's not perfect, but it's something. And it's sure as hell better than waiting for Olympia to solve our problems. recommended

One Rider's Story

Carlene Canaday, a 75-year-old retired bank employee, rides the bus three times a week to volunteer at a senior center. "I can't be stagnant—I like to get out of the house!" she smiled, telling me how much she loved volunteering. If the proposed changes go through and her Route 21 bus is canceled, Ms. Canaday will have to stop volunteering altogether. "Right now, I get the bus in front of my house. But if they cut this line, I'd have to transfer to three buses and walk a lot farther just to get there. I wouldn't be able to volunteer anymore."

She's also confused about Metro raising rates while cutting service. "I consider myself a professional bus rider—my ex-husband worked for Metro, and I've been taking buses all over this city for many years. I thought the plan was to raise rates or cut service—why are they doing both?"

Both Ms. Canaday and the bus operators I spoke to are worried that these changes would also mean job cuts. "Our union is trying to help, but we have no idea what will happen to our jobs if these cuts are made." (DANIELLE HENDERSON)


Comments (25) RSS

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TheMisanthrope 1
Some opponents will cynically point to the regressive nature of these taxes as an argument for voting "No."

No, it's not cynical to point out the regressive nature of these taxes. You know what is cynical? "Waiting for Olympia to solve our problems."

You're fucking right, we shouldn't be "waiting" for Olympia to solve our problems. We should be PUSHING them to solve their colossal fuckups. We should be RALLYING for our lawmakers to sue the state to re-examine the old interpretation of the income tax law. We should be voting our regressive democrats out of office for not supporting the people that voted them in. We should be voting out the Republicans who hold the corporation's interests at heart. We should be restructuring the whole tax code.

And, our "progressive" newspapers like The Stranger should be attempting to push the progressive agenda instead of rallying behind regressive politicians and shitty regressive taxes.

But, instead, Goldy cynically pushes to pass even more regressive tax band-aids in order to not upset the party politics, writing "it's something" as his strongest reason for support.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on March 5, 2014 at 10:53 AM · Report this
Right, the enemy the perfect is the best-of-all-possible-bad-options. What I don't understand is how doing NOTHING that provides even a partial solution to the problem. Given a choice between a few extra cents of sales tax and no transportation options, I'd wager most of the people affected by these cuts would choose the former. More privileged folks who hate paying taxes, period (and pretend to care about those that those taxes help keep fed, period), not so much.
Posted by maddogm13 on March 5, 2014 at 12:25 PM · Report this
"The poor? Ever meet the poor? Wonderful folk."
John Cleese, the Time Bandits.
Posted by Mimsy on March 5, 2014 at 12:50 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 4
@2 If you want a better solution, stop voting in the same idiots time and again who depend on regressive taxes. Mayor Murray was great at that when he was State Senator Murray.

Write to your state congress critters and demand more fair taxation.

Campaign against party flippers like Rodney Tom.

And, most of all, tell the progressive newspapers that they're doing a disservice by not pushing harder for progressive taxation and allowing the state to continue its dependency on regressive taxation.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on March 5, 2014 at 12:52 PM · Report this
Why can't we cut the insanely rich and corrupt instead?
Posted by auntie grizelda on March 5, 2014 at 1:35 PM · Report this
I'm at a loss for why we can't earmark pot tax cash for this?
Posted by cgrey on March 5, 2014 at 1:59 PM · Report this
@1 - because to a politician, doing "something", even if it's stupid, irrelevant, or wildly destructive, gives him the ammo to say "Well, at least I did SOMETHING" when the situation mushrooms down the road.
Posted by Oh Forget It on March 5, 2014 at 4:26 PM · Report this
while exemptions should be made for involuntary purchases (meds, diapers, healthy food), some kind of tax on consumption is necessary from eco and public health standpoints

given the limited tax vocabulary of our cities, regressive taxes on consumption are probably necessary for the city to buy services for us, too

unemployment and car notes are pretty regressive, too
Posted by alfresco on March 5, 2014 at 5:15 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 9


Goldy is done:


Just one more thing he can add to his list of pathetic failures, just like his business, marriage and journalism career.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on March 5, 2014 at 5:53 PM · Report this
I'm voting no. Buses aren't the solution to our transit issues. Quit throwing good money after bad. The politics in this city have turned me from a liberal to a libertarian moderate.

There's no reason we should be paying our bus drivers more than New York or San Fran. And sure in the hell no reason why any of them should be making over $100,000.

A chimp could do their job and would probably be more considerate than the drivers we have now. Added benefit: we could pay them in bananas.
Posted by Bus Rage on March 5, 2014 at 6:03 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 11
In all seriousness, I really want to see a plan to keep Metro from coming to taxpayers with its hand out every couple of years if I'm going to vote for this. Show me how this will be the last time Metro will come to us for more money for at least a decade, and I'll vote for it. Without that, sorry, I'm not sure I can justify voting for more regressive taxes.
Posted by keshmeshi on March 5, 2014 at 6:47 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 12
@9 You know what's funny? He might have been starting to come around.

This was the closest to an anti-regressive tax piece he's written for The Stranger that was in relation to a specific law.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on March 5, 2014 at 6:53 PM · Report this
superhyrulean 13
I am shocked that Seattle has come to this...
I think the bigger question is:can someone unfuck this city? Let's just face facts,the city is broke and is selling out to rich and private sectors to fund itself or is fucking itself over to sustain itself...if you push the poor out farther just to bulid your fucking $150,000+ condos in the main areas of the city it is going to cost you money to drive the poor back into the city so they can work for you! If you keep shoving them out to Burien or Shoreline or Georgetown,this is what is going to happen!
Posted by superhyrulean on March 5, 2014 at 10:25 PM · Report this
$150,000 condos? More like $450,000 condos! It's criminal that a city as prosperous as Seattle (and King County)should have to resort to this band-aid funding. If I were Dow Constantine, I'd be hopping mad.
Posted by pat L on March 6, 2014 at 7:09 AM · Report this
@14: pat L: Yeah---I'm glad you caught that, too. $150,000.00 condos---in Seattle?!? WHERE??
Posted by auntie grizelda on March 6, 2014 at 1:35 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 16
@14 and 15,

There are some. Mainly studios, and the occasional one bedroom in less than ideal parts of town (like Magnolia and West Seattle).
Posted by keshmeshi on March 6, 2014 at 2:49 PM · Report this
It's regressive. I hate it. But as a daily bus user, I'm terrified of how much worse my life is going to be if this doesn't pass, they will never restore service to its present levels. History shows that once a program is cut, it never recovers. it's already in adequate. And remember, sales tax doesn't apply to groceries. we're talking a dime for every hundred dollars worth of non-food items. That's a lot cheaper than maintenance gas, parking, registration and insurance. some people will be forced to use cars, and that's the most regressive tax of all.
Posted by satantango on March 6, 2014 at 6:33 PM · Report this
For some reason, we all choose to remain residents of this State. We also know, if we are aware citizens, that this State has a consumption based tax system, not an income based tax system.
That is, Olympia tried to tax you on what you use, not on what you make. They don't tax you for being alive, food and a few essentials to sustain life aren't taxable, but extras are.
You can also make the argument that roads are necessary... I am not sure this forum works for this... but for some reason we are always dedicating more tax dollars to roads, and I see little to no actual improvement and an endless supply of deferred maintainence (i.e. Roads is currently a bottomless pit).
I am all for abolishing the general fund as a major account of revenue and assigning certain monies to specific functions, so the cash can not slosh wherever some buearocrats think is least-un-wise, leaving holes in budgets, and permanent shortfalls.
When I first moved here, we had annual surpluses.
What the hell happened?
Figure that out, and stop it for the love of your fellow citizens.
Posted by Nuclear Marc on March 8, 2014 at 9:53 AM · Report this
Congrats to Goldy. His final column before getting fired makes it to the top of Reddit's No Shit Sherlock subreddit

Posted by ian on March 9, 2014 at 8:49 AM · Report this
ilikefood 20
Seattle is rapidly reaching a point that has Californians say to themselves, "shit, i wouldn't want to move THERE".

That's saying A LOT........
Posted by ilikefood on March 9, 2014 at 11:24 PM · Report this
That is the entire point:they want the Lower Class out of the Corpsepirate Fiefdom that is the Puget Sound Region,inbreeding and all . . . o.O
Posted by 5th Columnist on March 13, 2014 at 5:58 PM · Report this
King County's plan: to punish the poor with regressive tax increases, or hurt the poor with bus cuts.

Posted by BobP on March 13, 2014 at 6:51 PM · Report this
Metro transit is the highest cost per passenger mile bus service in the entire US, for any city larger I think than 100,000. Metro's central staff is huge, bloated and with such a small farebox reimbursement rate, quite unconcerned with service to it's ridership.

I will vote against the tax increase because it is regressive AND for the reasons cited above. If you really want better bus service fight for a better transit agency.
Posted by Mark-in-Seattle-too on March 14, 2014 at 2:31 AM · Report this
@10 - 'tho I disagree with you w.r.t. the value of buses, I too don't think much of their drivers. As someone who's primarily a pedestrian, I'm fed up with them barreling through red lights (7th@Stewart - daily), blocking crosswalks, or turning right at me when I'm in the crosswalk. Who trains these guys?

When I tried complaining, I got no response. Well, I can vote. Sorry, Metro, but your bad drivers get you a No vote.
Posted by madawa on March 17, 2014 at 8:24 PM · Report this
I ride Metro, I am more than happy to pay more to ride the bus because I use the bus. I don't expect everyone else to pay for services I use, and surprise a lot of middleclass/rich folks ride the bus.

I don't think people who drive cars (and a lot of poor people drive cars) should have to pay for everything, they are already taxed when they buy gasoline & tabs. The gasoline tax is supposed to cover the roads (that was the deal), the bicyclist want roads and are taking roads and not paying for gasoline or tabs (what's the deal with that). Maybe they should be taxed right along with the cars so we can keep building bike lanes for them.
Metro & the State of Washington I truly believe are mismanaging our money, 520 is a prime example, they just continue to think the well is never ending. I am sick of these politicians who are not working for the people. I don't go to work everyday for the past 30 years to continue to keep paying and paying for crap that doesn't ever materialize.
Posted by Tiredoftaxes on June 6, 2014 at 9:43 AM · Report this

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