To no one’s surprise, the Seattle City Council sided with big business, voting 6-2 in committee to leave an additional $150 million on the table in their newly approved eight-year transportation levy. Council Members Tammy Morales and Cathy Moore voted yes, Council Member Dan Strauss abstained, and the other six voted no under the guise of sensitivity for the regressive nature of the tax. Put a pin in that argument for fall, when the council starts debating how to fill the projected quarter-billion-dollar budget shortfall. 

The Road to $1.55 Billion

In April, Mayor Bruce Harrell finally unveiled his draft of the transportation levy. The levy caught flack for being too modest, raising just $1.35 billion, which, when adjusted for inflation, represented a minor increase from the $930 million levy voters approved in 2015. For comparison, transit advocates proposed the City pursue a $3 billion levy to cover the cost of Seattle’s safety, mobility, climate, and equity challenges. Additionally, advocates characterized the levy as “car-centric,” with the Mayor cutting investments to transit, pedestrian projects, and sidewalks, and then giving most of the pie to road repairs and bridge maintenance. In May, Harrell added another $100 million to his proposal, which balanced the priorities slightly more in favor of those who bike, walk, and roll around Seattle, according to the Urbanist

Then Transportation Chair Rob Saka added another $100 million to the Mayor’s proposal, bringing the total levy package up to $1.55 billion. He kept the Mayor’s proposal intact but added more than $60 million for the City’s sidewalk program, $20 million for freight, and another $10 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. He and his colleagues took feedback and incorporated it into the final, “fine-tuned” levy without raising the cost. 

Morales Wants More 

While Saka wrote that he improved his levy “without raising cost” in bold lettering, Morales didn’t seem so impressed. Morales argued the package “pits” safety improvements against each other. “We can either have bike lanes or safe bridges, road maintenance or improved transit, new sidewalks or repair existing sidewalks. That’s a false choice—we can and should do both,” her office’s press release read. 

So, in a last-minute effort, transportation advocates flanked her as she proposed a $1.7 billion levy package to fund all the amendments the council brought forward. About $90 million of the added $150 million would pay for her colleagues' proposed sidewalk, bike lane, and street safety projects, including filling the Burke Gillman trail’s infamous missing link and neighborhood-initiated safety projects. Another $45 million would go to “maintenance and modernization,” including $5 million to support community-based planning around future light rail stations. Finally, Morales’s package put in an additional $15 million more to plant and maintain trees. 

While the plan inspired urbanists, environmentalists, and disability rights advocates, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce spoke out against the proposal. 

“It is disappointing to see an eleventh-hour attempt to turn a thoughtfully crafted proposal–one that was the result of months of technical work and robust stakeholder engagement–into a proposal that is about quantity, not outcomes that can be delivered,” Rachel Smith, the Chamber’s president and CEO said in a statement. 

The Chamber and their friend, the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), came to the committee vote on Tuesday morning to express their concern again. Both lobbyists urged the council to “keep the levy affordable” for property tax payers. The 2015 levy cost $24 per month for owners of the median-valued home of $866,000. Harrell’s initial package would have cost $36, Saka’s would have cost $41, and Morales’s would have cost about $45. That’s an increase of 87.5%i from 2015, but Morales characterized it as a small $4 bump from Saka’s proposal. Seattleites would be hard-pressed to find a cup of coffee for that price. 

“For an additional $4 a month, we can implement a levy package that prioritizes safety and incorporates every council member’s amendments without pitting or amendments against one another and without reducing funding in another category,” Morales said ahead of the vote. 

Nelson shared the Chamber’s and DSA’s concern—remember, they bought her seat

“I am concerned about this amendment because I feel that … it could put the passage of the transportation levy in jeopardy at the ballot box in November,” Nelson said. “And that would be disastrous for the future of our growing city.”

However, polling commissioned by the Seattle Department of Transportation showed that 56% of surveyed voters support a $1.7 billion levy. More recently, Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) commissioned a poll that found almost 80% of voters would support a levy of at least $1.7 billion and 54% of voters preferred a hypothetical $1.9 billion levy. 

Nelson cast doubt on the validity of the polls because they did not present voters with the cumulative increase of the City’s many levies. She also worried that under Morales’s proposal the City would collect more money than they could spend, citing lingering, unfinished projects funded in the last levy. 

Council Member Maritza Rivera also made some grumbles about “sticker shock,” and Council Member Tanya Woo, in an unusual move for her, bemoaned the regressive nature of Washington's tax structure, which puts the City in the position to rely on levies. 

The council gave Saka’s package a “do pass” recommendation, and they will vote on it one more time at full council next week before putting it on the November ballot. But before her colleagues struck down her amendment, Morales said she hopes that anyone who just whined about the reliance on regressive levy funds will join her in supporting progressive revenue in the upcoming budget negotiations. 

If the conservative council, the Chamber, or the DSA cared about the tax burden on normal people, they would be advocating for progressive revenue. But they simply are not. The Chamber sandbagged the recent, almost pointless work group to find new revenue, and most of the new council members have said they would rather make cuts than raise progressive taxes on corporations or the wealthy. 

But, hey, a council member can dream! Or at least shove their disingenuous concern for homeowners and working people in their face down the line.