There's only one way to describe the $12.3 billion transportation funding package state senate Republicans have proposed: economic terrorism. Funded by a regressive 11.5-cent hike in the gas tax, 73 percent of the proposed spending would go to building new roads. Only 20 percent goes to road maintenance and safety, while a bare 4 percent goes to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements combined. Only 4 percent! That's not just the opposite of what Seattle wants, it's an intentional insult. And Olympia insiders tell me that Republicans have refused to budge on transit funding.
"Ha-ha, fuck you, Seattle," the Republicans are laughing. They think that Seattle is so desperate to save Metro bus service, we'll approve any package that includes a Metro deal. In particular, many Democratic lawmakers are seeking the authority for King County to approve a motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) of up to 1.5 percent on the value of vehicles to shore up bus funding, thereby dodging a 17 percent transit cut. "You're so desperate for your Metro-saving MVET that you'll accept anything!" the GOP seems to be saying.
So how should Seattle reply?
"We don't negotiate with terrorists." That's the message Seattle-area legislators and voters need to send to Republicans in Olympia.
Sure, the Republican proposal contains the taxing authority we asked for, but they would require it to go to voters (instead of the county council). Which means if this gas-tax hike has to go to the ballot next November, the soonest we could go to King County voters for approval would be the spring of 2015. Meanwhile, Metro is going to start slashing service by June of 2014.
"The people of King County cannot be held hostage," King County executive Dow Constantine warned at a November 21 press conference in which he introduced the county's "plan B" to stave off a looming 17 percent cut in Metro bus service. "We recognize that this plan B would be imperfect," admitted Constantine, "but in the absence of any action by the state, an imperfect local option will be necessary."
Plan B is imperfect because it would be more regressive than a local MVET option, utilizing the county's existing Transportation Benefit District authority to raise the sales tax 0.2 cents and levy a flat car-tab fee of up to $100 per vehicle. But plan B is also imperfect because these less popular taxes would be harder to push past county voters.
Senate Republicans are counting on this imperfection to force us to accept their road-heavy/transit-poor transportation proposal. If it goes to the ballot (and history tells us it will), there is no way an 11.5-cent gas-tax hike passes voters statewide without receiving overwhelming support in tax-happy Seattle. The gamble is that Seattle voters will accept any proposal that allows them to save Metro bus service.
But the Republicans weren't counting on plan C: Seattle's secret backup plan to King County's plan B.
City officials have been quietly exploring options to "buy back" in-city Metro bus service cuts in the event that all other options fail.
Seattle has unused Transportation Benefit District authority of its own (sales tax and car tab fee) that could yield up to $51 million in new revenue a year if approved by a simple majority of Seattle voters. Officials are also exploring a $25 million property tax levy "lid lift" that would also require a simple majority at the polls. Meanwhile, there's another $50 million in new revenue available to the council without voter approval, via a hike in the city's commercial parking tax, and a reinstatement of the controversial head tax, a per-employee tax on city businesses.
Ben Schiendelman of Seattle Transit Blog estimates that $25 million a year would be enough to buy back projected service cuts on all Metro bus routes that run 80 percent or more of their service hours within Seattle city limits. That would restore about a third of Metro's projected cuts, though it wouldn't help a lot of riders commuting into the city. "If they don't live in Seattle, they don't pay taxes in Seattle," Schiendelman points out.
But however imperfect these plans might be, they both have the virtue of flipping the table on Olympia. Once we take care of our own transit needs, we're the ones who will be holding the state transportation plan hostage, rather than the other way around. And that's a "fuck you" the senate Republicans heartily deserve.