The Great Recession has not been kind to Metro. Starved of the sales-tax revenue that makes up more than 60 percent of its operating funds, the bus system is rumbling toward a $60 million annual shortfall. That’s equivalent to slashing another 600,000 annual hours of bus service, a 17 percent cut.
The alternative: a temporary two-year $20 annual car-tab fee, a taxing authority for which county officials lobbied hard after three years of cost cutting, union givebacks, and fare hikes. In April, the legislature finally authorized the fee, but with a deal-busting string attached, requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote of the King County Council to directly approve the fee.
Few insiders expect the controversial “congestion reduction charge” to muster even five of nine council votes, let alone the six necessary. Instead, the council is widely anticipated to bump the decision to the November ballot, which requires only five council votes and a simple majority at the polls.
It’s a risky proposition in a down economy and the antitax mood that creates. Last year, traditionally tax-friendly county voters rejected Proposition 1 and its two-tenths of a cent sales-tax increase to fund law enforcement, and it’s not clear that a transit-focused car tab would fare any better.
“I don’t think the public understands what’s at stake,” says King County Council member Larry Phillips, who warns of a dramatic loss in mobility. “Service is going away in a big, harmful way. It’s becoming too expensive to drive, too expensive to park, and then, oops, no bus!”
A $20 car tab is less than the county asked for, and would only backfill about half the anticipated gap, but it would still save hundreds of thousands of service hours on routes affecting up to 80 percent of bus riders. Without it, Metro estimates that it would lose nine million passenger trips annually by eliminating 85 routes and reducing service on another 107.
Take a ride on rush-hour sardine cans like the numbers 5, 7, 26, and 28, and imagine these routes reduced or eliminated. That’s what’s coming.
Whether Phillips’s fellow council members understand what’s at stake is another question. Eastside Republican Jane Hague—facing her first tough reelection fight in years—went down to Olympia to lobby in favor of the new taxing authority, only to immediately turn around and announce she would vote against it. Even Democrat Julia Patterson, who represents Renton, Kent, SeaTac and Tukwila, says she intends to vote against direct councilmanic approval, apparently believing the $20 fee does too little for her own constituents and too much for Seattle (you know… where the bulk of the riders are.) Only Democrats Phillips, Joe McDermott, Larry Gossett, and Bob Ferguson—the four members representing Seattle—have announced they’ll vote to approve the fee when it comes before the council later this month. And that’s likely where the final tally will stand.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t try,” argues Phillips, who sees the council debate as an opportunity to educate voters. After rejecting direct approval, Phillips expects at least six council members, maybe more, to vote in favor of putting the proposal on the ballot.
If a majority of King County voters ultimately prove as tax adverse as the majority of members on the King County Council? “This is the end road of 30 years of Reaganism,” laments Phillips. “We’ve shoved so much wealth into the hands of so few, that we can no longer even afford to ride the bus.”