Municipal League of King County
Recommendation on Seattle Proposition 1—Seattle Transportation Benefit District
November 4, 2014 General Election
Summary of Measure
Seattle Proposition 1 seeks additional funding for Metro Transit service benefitting the City of Seattle. According to the explanatory statement accompanying the proposition, these funds would be used for three primary purposes. First, the proposition would fund routes with more than 80% of their stops within Seattle city limits, “with funding first being used to preserve existing routes and prevent Metro’s proposed service cuts and restructures scheduled to start in February 2015.” Second, the proposition would provide up to $3 million on an annual basis to establish a Regional Partnership Fund that will support regional transit service on routes that start or end within City limits. Third, the proposition would make available up to $2 million annually to improve and to support access to transit service for low-income transit riders.
Once these objectives are met, any remaining funds may be used to address overcrowding, reliability, and service frequency within City limits. Funds made available by the proposition could not be used to supplant other funding for any routes partially or completely operating within Seattle that Metro would otherwise provide in accordance with the adopted Metro Transit Service Guidelines.
These objectives would be funded through two mechanisms: (1) an annual vehicle-license fee up to an additional $60 per vehicle, with a $20 rebate for low-income individuals, and (2) an additional sales-and-use tax of no more than 0.1%, bringing the total sales tax in Seattle to 9.6%. The fee and tax combined would raise roughly $45 million annually. Both the fee and the tax would expire no later than December 31, 2020.
Proposition 1 was precipitated by announced plans by Metro to reduce 550,000 service hours in multiple rounds of cuts starting in September 2014, which would include a second round of reductions in February 2015. In April 2014, King County voters rejected King County Proposition 1, which would have increased car tab fees and sales tax to mitigate the announced service reductions. On July 14, 2014, the Seattle City Council responded to the defeat of King County Proposition 1 by voting to send Seattle Proposition 1 to the November General Election ballot.
Effective September 27, 2014, Metro implemented 151,000 hours of service cuts, which included the elimination of various bus routes. On September 29, 2014, because of higher-than-expected sales tax receipts, the King County Council tabled—until completion of the County’s 2015-2016 budget—any further Metro service reductions on Metro Transit. This action canceled the reductions slated for February 2015.
Arguments FOR the Measure
- Proposition 1 will improve bus service in Seattle. Many routes are chronically overcrowded. This results in commuters being left behind at bus stops, chronically unreliable routes, and uncomfortable commutes. Proposition 1 will fix overcrowded and unreliable routes.
- Proposition 1 will add buses for frequent services every 15 minutes or better for more routes.
- Funds made available by Proposition 1 may be used to reverse the most impactful cuts made in September 2014.
- In addition to improving intra-City routes, Proposition 1 will dedicate up to $3 million annually to establish a Regional Partnership Fund that will allow the City to partner with key suburban cities to maintain cross-jurisdiction routes.
- Proposition 1 will expand access to transit by dedicating up to $2 million annually to improve and support access to the King County reduced-fare program for lower-income bus riders, which the County will implement by March 2015.
- Metro needs more sustainable funding to maintain current service and to expand, as demonstrated by the recent uncertainty regarding sales tax receipts used to fund Metro service. While King County has rescinded planned future cuts, there is no guarantee that future sales tax receipts will be as robust as now anticipated.
Arguments AGAINST the Measure
- The original impetus for Proposition 1 no longer exists, because the King County Council has cancelled future service cuts. In the absence of planned future service reductions, it is unclear precisely how additional funds would be used. A clearly defined and integrated transportation plan with less regressive funding should be presented to voters.
- Metro’s existing funding sources are regressive and expansion will necessarily fall hardest on poor families, even with the $20 rebate for low-income individuals provided by Proposition 1.
- Metro uses Transit Service Guidelines to assess the productivity of Metro bus routes. The routes affected in Metro’s September 2014 service reductions were below the 25 percent productivity threshold used in these Guidelines. Because the top priority identified in Proposition 1 is restoring service, it is likely that funds raised by Proposition 1 would be dedicated to restoring routes eliminated because of demonstrated low productivity.
- Passage of a Seattle-centric bus funding package may impede passage of more comprehensive transportation packages and foster balkanization, with Seattle less willing to vote for transportation packages largely benefiting other jurisdictions, and King County and other parts of the State less willing to support transportation packages dedicating substantial resources to additional bus service in Seattle.
- Additional service cuts were averted in part because Metro responded to the perceived crisis by identifying additional cost saving efficiencies. Provision of additional funding may create less incentive for Metro to continue to improve its operating and budgeting efficiency.
- Proposition 1 creates a temporary funding source for additional service that will expire in 2020. This creates uncertainty as to whether Seattle voters will be asked to self-fund additional Metro service on an ongoing basis or face elimination or reduction of service in 2020.
Recommendation and Rationale
The Municipal League recommends voting NO on Proposition 1.
Proposition 1 was conceived as an emergency measure to address imminent and sweeping service reductions. The facts on the ground have changed with the recent rescission of planned future cuts. Accordingly, Proposition 1’s focus on rolling back service cuts is now misplaced, as manifested by Proposition 1 advocates changing focus to plans to expand service instead. But given the sparse text of Proposition 1 and the lack of clarity on what specific service Proposition 1 would be used to fund, voters do not have a clear understanding of what they are voting to approve. Given these circumstances, unforeseeable at the time the measure was proposed, Proposition 1 now operates as something close to a blank check—and one that creates a substantial risk of facilitating a localized “pay to play” approach to funding important public services. The Municipal League is also concerned that an influx of additional funds will reduce incentive for Metro to continue its efforts to address its structural financial problems, which contributed to the need for service reductions and which are more fully discussed in the Municipal League’s 2013 Follow-up Review of King County Metro Transit.
The Municipal League believes there is a real need for sustainable, stable, and less regressive funding of bus service in Seattle. Overcrowding and unreliability are serious problems on many routes. Service reductions create substantial hardship for citizens with limited mobility or who have no other transportation options.
These issues must be addressed, and the Municipal League believes that Metro has made significant strides in recent years to improve its efficiency and take a data-driven approach to service decisions. But the Municipal League believes that changed conditions create an opportunity for development of a more sustainable, comprehensive, and regional approach to funding of Metro that does not carry with it the risks attendant in Proposition 1. The Municipal League therefore recommends voting NO on Proposition 1.