We were fucked. Totally fucked.
Throughout the shitshow that was our last legislative session, constituents here in King County had only one small request: the authority to tax ourselves to stave off a projected 17 percent cut in Metro bus service. Starved of sales tax revenue (thanks, Great Recession!), King County executive Dow Constantine and the mayors of every city in the county—Democrats and Republicans alike—joined forces to plead for a 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) local option, an annual tax on the value of your car. The proceeds would be split 60/40 between Metro and local road maintenance.
The request easily passed the Democrat-controlled house. But thanks to the treachery of Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-self-serving-asshole Rodney Tom and his Republican-dominated so-called "Bipartisan Majority Coalition Caucus," our local MVET option was held hostage to a doomed highway-funding bill: "Once the transit crowd gets what they consider they want," Tom cynically told the Seattle Times back in July, "the road package gets torpedoed." Unable to secure enough Republican votes to pass a proposed 10.5-cent-per-gallon hike in the state gas tax, the transportation funding package died, and with it, so did the MVET to save bus service.
But as satisfying as it may be to blame this debacle on the dysfunction of Olympia, voter outrage would be more effectively focused closer to home. First, there is Senator Tom, who represents parts of Medina, Bellevue, and Kirkland. But the Republican majority that blocked the MVET includes three other state senators whose King County constituents would be adversely affected by the MVET option's failure: Senators Andy Hill (R-Redmond), Joe Fain (R-Auburn), and Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island).
Senators Tom, Hill, Fain, and Litzow: the Four Horsemen of Buspocalypse.
These senators have the power to break the gridlock when the legislature reconvenes. Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a special session later this month to pass a transportation funding package. If they refuse to support the package, their constituents will know exactly who to blame for longer commutes.
"Eastside riders get cut more," explains King County Council member Larry Phillips. Metro's least efficient routes run through the Horsemen's districts, and under Metro's current formula, those are the routes that will be cut and reduced the most. "Those four are frightened of the backlash," says Phillips.
Not that Seattle routes would be spared. Barring at least the promise of additional revenue, the first cuts will hit in June 2014, when state funds dry up for Alaskan Way Viaduct mitigation service. That's 150 trips a day—about 9,000 daily seats, 17,000 daily riders, and 45,000 service hours—cut between West Seattle, Burien, White Center, North Seattle, and downtown Seattle.
Other service reductions have yet to be specified, but the scale would be unprecedented.
Metro estimates that up to 600,000 additional hours would be cut across all areas of the county—up to 17 percent of all bus service hours—resulting in a loss of 14 million rides annually. Seventy-four routes would be eliminated (about 35 percent of all Metro routes) and another 107 routes would have their services reduced or revised. Only 33 routes would remain unchanged, but those would likely become more crowded.
"It's pretty startling," says Constantine.
Metro estimates that these cuts, which would be phased in over 16 months, would put an additional 30,000 cars a day back onto county and city roads, increasing commutes between West Seattle and downtown, for example, by between 10 and 15 minutes each way.
Both Constantine and Phillips believe that Governor Inslee's proposed special session is our last best chance for Olympia to act. Once we get into next year's regular legislative session, bus funding will get "all wrapped up in everybody's individual agendas and election-year politics," warns Constantine. "It will be dramatically more difficult." If lawmakers approve the MVET in a special session this month, the county might go to voters for approval as soon as an April special election.
Barring that, both Constantine and the council are prepared to go to voters with a different funding package under the county's existing authority as a "transportation benefit district." This package would likely include up to a $100 flat-rate car tab (as opposed to the more progressive MVET) and a 0.2 percent increase in the sales tax. It would be a less stable revenue source than an MVET, and may have more difficulty getting past voters, but it would generate a similar amount of money. And perhaps best of all, it would free Metro from the senate Republicans' usual hostage-taking tactics by exercising what Phillips calls "the threat of self-sufficiency."
"We've had the wrong mentality," elaborates Constantine. "We went to Olympia hat in hand." But Republicans need Seattle voters to help pass a hike in the gas tax a helluva lot more than Seattle voters need the statewide transportation package that tax would fund, says Constantine.
"We want to help them govern by continuing to be part of the team," insists Constantine, but "if we have to go it alone, I don't think we'll hesitate to do so."
And that's a threat that Tom, Hill, Fain, and Litzow would be wise to heed.