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SAVING METRO (PARTLY)
May 21st, 2014 by Clark Humphrey

seattletransitblog.com

Public transportation is more popular here than ever, with continued ridership growth on King County Metro buses.

These same buses are currently threatened with service cuts of 15 percent or more.

Two different schemes to prevent these cuts have failed. Seattleites are about to face two or three proposals, all of which would restore only some of the threatened cuts.

How did we get to this predicament?

First, the Washington State Legislature failed to act.

Back when sales tax revenues first started to go “pfft,” the state passed a law allowing King County to temporarily add a $20 surcharge to the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), to make up the difference and help keep transit systems running.

But that temporary authority runs out this year, and the Legislature failed to renew it.

That particular inaction goes back to Rodney Tom’s party switch that gave Republicans control of the state Senate. That body has resolutely refused to pass any transportation package that included any money for Metro Transit, no matter how desperately the rest of Washington needed road improvements (remember the Mount Vernon I-5 bridge collapse?).

Without the state approving the renewal of car tabs for transit, and with sales tax revenue still down sharply since 2008, the county scheduled a special election referendum in April.

It would have combined $60 car tabs and a one-tenth-of-a-percent sales tax increase, to fund both preserved Metro service and road projects in the county.

The referendum was poorly timed and poorly campaigned for, particularly in the suburbs.

(There was also almost no organized opposition, except from the Seattle Times editorial board and one small campaign group led by Eastside conservatives.)

The city approved the proposal, in some districts by huge amounts; but the ‘burbs voted no, defeating the whole thing.

It undoubtedly didn’t help that the ‘burbs have always gotten relatively less Metro service than Seattle, by population and tax revenue.

That’s been the case ever since 1973, when the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (a taxing district formed more than a decade before to clean up Lake Washington) took over the city-owned Seattle Transit System and the private Metropolitan Transit Company. Metro has spent four decades trying to beef up suburban service (especially in recent years), even while in-city and commuter usage has grown.

After the special election’s failure, Metro officials announced a preliminary list of cuts to be made, perhaps as early as September. 550,000 hours of service per year (down from an initial estimate of 600,000) would go away. These would include 69 total routes, and reduced or restructured service on some 80 other routes.

The cuts would be phased in over a one-year period, with “lower hanging fruit” (lower-ridership runs) dying first. Those would include the “Night Owl” runs after 1 a.m.

By the final phase-in of cuts, many familiar routes would disappear. They include #26 to Fremont and Green Lake, #66 to Roosevelt and Northgate, #4 to East Queen Anne, #60 to First Hill and Broadway, and #99 along the waterfront (the bus that replaced the still-mourned Waterfront Streetcar).

But wait! To the rescue, but only of in-city routes, came “Plan C.”

It was an initiative filed by a group called Keep Seattle Moving.

It would raise property taxes within the Seattle city limits (by 22 cents per $1,000 of assessed value), to fund bus service, but only along routes whose service hours are 80 percent within the city limits.

If the initiative made the ballot, and if it then passed, it would have raised $30 million per year for six years. In-town riders would have their service preserved, or in some cases restored. That’s because it wouldn’t have taken effect until after the first round of cuts.

The initiative sponsors officially suspended signature-gathering efforts after Mayor Ed Murray announced “Plan D.”

It’s another city-only plan. It would combine a vehicle license fee and an o.1 percent sales-tax hike. It would preserve some, but not all (and not the first scheduled batch of) bus-service cuts in town. It would have to pass both the City Council and city voters.

But wait! Here come City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant with “Plan E.”

It would increase taxes on employers and commercial parking operations, replacing the sales-tax part of Murray’s proposal. It would only need the City Council’s approval, so it could be passed before Metro starts cutting routes in town. (Though the first round of cuts would still go through, at least temporarily.)

For the rest of the county: tough darts. More long car commutes, more traffic messes, more impossible-to-get-to jobs in remote office parks, more pollution.

And more people stuck in cars, as potential captive audiences for conservative talk radio, where they can be preached to about Seattle’s evil big-spending ways on such silly luxuries as public transit.

(Updated from a post originally cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)


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