W ith the Washington State Legislature proving absolutely incapable of addressing our transportation needs, King County executive Dow Constantine has rolled out a proposal that would ask voters to approve $130 million a year in new local taxes to avert a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service, while providing additional money to maintain deteriorating city and county roads. Constantine will also ask the county council to approve a new low-income fare category—$1.50 per trip—that would provide a substantial discount to as many as 100,000 Metro riders who are struggling to cope with recent fare increases.
"Public transportation must be affordable to be effective, even for those with limited means," says Constantine. "This proposal would ensure better mobility for lower-income workers, students, and others."
Rather than the more progressive motor vehicle excise tax (MVET)—a tax on the value of your car—that Olympia had promised King County, Constantine is proposing raising revenue under the county's existing but unused Transportation Benefit District (TBD) authority. The TBD would raise a combined $130 million in 2015—$80 million from a $60 annual vehicle license fee (VLF), and $50 million from a 0.1 percent increase in the county sales tax. (The $60 VLF would come after the current $20 "congestion relief charge" expires in June, so vehicle owners would only see a net $40 annual increase in their car-tabs bill.) Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward filling a projected $75 million a year shortfall in Metro revenues, with the remaining 40 percent going toward city and county roads, allocated based on population.
Constantine is asking the council to put a revenue package before voters at an April special election.
At the same time, Constantine is proposing a new Metro fare category aimed at riders earning 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level (the same threshold as food stamps and other low-income programs), about $23,000 a year for an individual. Starting in March 2015, the low-income fare would cost $1.50 a ride, regardless of time of day or distance, compared to the regular adult $2.50 off-peak and $2.75 (1 zone) to $3.25 (2 zone) peak fare that would go into effect after base fares are hiked another 25 cents next year.
Metro estimates the cost of low-income fare discounts at about $3 million a year, but this is more than just charity. "Whenever we have a fare increase, you see a drop-off in ridership," says King County Department of Transportation spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok, who explains that a low-income fare would actually help retain ridership and fares that would otherwise be lost. "It's a very complicated formula," says Ogershok.
Of course, none of this is ideal. In a perfect world, Metro would maintain bus service without resorting to year after year of fare increases or regressive taxes like sales and VLF. But in a perfect world, Olympia wouldn't be such a total clusterfuck. At a pre-session forum sponsored by the Associated Press, not a single lawmaker expressed confidence that a transportation-funding package (or the local MVET authority held hostage within it) would pass this year.
"It is dangerous to do this balkanization," House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn (D-41) says of Constantine's local proposal. But given the legislature's failure to act, says Clibborn, "it is the natural reaction to go it alone."