Well, that really hurt.
On April 22, King County voters shot down Proposition 1, a tax package that could've saved Metro bus service from 550,000 hours' worth of service cuts (that's 16 percent of all bus service). More than 150 bus routes will be affected, and dozens of routes are set to be "deleted" entirely. Others will run less frequently or shut down earlier. Cuts begin this September and phase in over the next year.
One imagines state senator Rodney Tom, the leader of the senate's Republican majority last session, laughing from somewhere inside his dank, slimy cave, backed by a chorus of fellow Republicans. Because, see, this was the plan all along.
The wonky backstory: As the recession shrank sales-tax revenues and began to starve the region's mass-transit systems of funding, populous counties like ours went to Olympia and begged for mercy. Not for money, though—they simply asked the state legislature for the right to tax their own citizens to pay for their own transit systems, through a motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) on the value of cars. That was Plan A to save Metro.
But the Republican-controlled senate said no. And they said no for what appears to be a deeply shitty reason: They want transit-dependent urban voters to suffer. That's not a joke, that's the actual plan: If we suffer enough, then they can get our legislators' votes for the kind of gas-guzzling, carbon-spewing, highway-rich statewide transportation package that urban legislators wouldn't usually support. They'll do this by tacking the Metro-stabilizing measure we so desperately need onto a larger transportation plan whose overall details we may not love. Tom admitted as much to the Seattle Times last summer, arguing that any tax funding for transit should be bound to the state's plan since "if you don't link them, what happens is, once the transit crowd gets what they consider they want, the road package gets torpedoed, and vice versa."
And maybe it's working. Just ask liberal, urban state representative Reuven Carlyle, representing Ballard and Queen Anne. "We have to do something legislatively," he said the day after Prop 1 took a beating at the polls. Until a state transportation package passes, Carlyle added, "I think the pain points are going to increase everywhere." In this view, because King County's Plan B—aka Prop 1—failed, we're out of options and we now have to marry our bus funding to state highway taxes forever.
Except there's a flaw in that logic. Because Prop 1 didn't really fail.
Oh, sure, out in the sprawling areas of King County, it failed miserably. The rural legislative districts that hold Enumclaw farms and little 200-person towns like Skykomish flat-out massacred Prop 1 at the polls. So did Eastside suburbs, and suburbs to the south. It all added up to a roughly eight-point defeat.
But here in dense Seattle, where we truly rely on transit to keep the city functioning? We passed Prop 1 by a mile. The election won't be certified for another week, but early results show it passing by as high as 78 percent in some neighborhoods. Overall, it enjoyed a more than 20-point lead in Seattle proper, a number that will almost certainly rise by the time all late ballots are counted.
So it's time to call Olympia's stupid bluff and move on to Plan C: a Seattle-only tax to fund Seattle-only transit. Screw the state's hostage-taking tactics.
And right on time, a group of transit advocates are ready to make this happen. "We're here today because our politicians aren't solving the problem—and we can," said Ben Schiendelman, representing the group Friends of Transit, at City Hall on April 25. Schiendelman had just filed an initiative that would raise Seattle property taxes by 22 cents per $1,000 of assessed value—or $66 a year for a $300,000 house—in order to buy back nearly all of the bus service Metro will be cutting in the year ahead.
Why a property tax? Because we can—and, as Schiendelman pointed out, it's better than Prop 1's flat-fee car tabs and regressive sales-tax increase. "We've chosen the most progressive option we have available," he said, adding that property taxes are "shared by homeowners, passed on to renters, and paid by the companies that own the skyscrapers around us, too."
The measure, which will require around 20,000 signatures to get on this November's ballot, would only fund bus routes that spend more than 80 percent of their annual service hours in Seattle. It would expire in six years, and would contain a provision that requires the city to enter into an agreement with Metro guaranteeing that this new funding won't supplant funding Metro would have provided anyway.
It's a bold move, but it's time for bold moves. And Olympia needs to hear that we're not done fighting their agenda. They need our votes for highways? Too bad. We can save our own transit system, and they can look elsewhere for hostages.
Even former mayor Mike McGinn showed up for Friends of Transit's announcement, saying Prop 1 made it clear that Seattle voters support transit funding: "We don't have to go out and do a poll. We just did one."
And, he added, "Seattle voters can control their own destiny on transit."
Additional reporting by Eli Sanders