Did Olympia Just Throw Metro Under the Bus?
How the Capital's Fetish for Two-Third Majorities Could Screw Local Transit Riders
Keith D. Tyler
Democratic King County Council member Larry Phillips was "pumped" at the news. Both houses of the state legislature had finally passed a bill authorizing the county council to levy a temporary $20 car-tab fee to help fund Metro Transit, potentially averting major cuts in bus service.
But just hours later, Republican council member Jane Hague let the air out of the tires. She vowed to vote against any fee that doesn't go before the people, and since Hague seems to be the key vote on the car-tab issue, that's that—the fee will most likely have to go before voters.
It's just the latest in a series of political potholes that, to keep running wild with the transit metaphors, could end up throwing Metro and thousands of its riders under the bus.
Starved of sales-tax revenue, Metro currently faces a $200 million biennial shortfall and 600,000 hours of service cuts—roughly 20 percent of its total service hours—even after three years of cost cutting, wage concessions, and capital fund raids. "There are no more tricks to pull," Phillips explained. And so the county asked Olympia not for a state bailout, but for the power to tax itself.
It got less potential tax money than requested—at $25 million annually over two years, a $20 fee on King County vehicles raises only enough to restore 250,000 Metro service hours—and on top of that, legislators couldn't even give Metro this bit of money without requiring an unprecedented approval of two-thirds of the county council. This requirement positioned the allegedly moderate Hague as the decisive swing vote, and now Hague has swung, leaving an expensive and iffy ballot referendum as the last remaining chance to avert a Metro disaster.
"The best thing King County can do to recover the local economy," says Phillips, "is to keep buses on the streets so that people can get to work."
Here's hoping voters appreciate what's at stake more than Hague and all the two-thirders in Olympia.