Days after King County voters rejected Proposition 1, a transportation package that would have staved off massive cuts to Metro bus service, the political action committee Friends of Transit filed an initiative to pursue a property tax levy in November.
“We had to make the decision to pull the trigger,” said Ben Schiendelman, spokesperson for Friends of Transit, “so that people reading the news about Prop. 1 know there is a back-up plan.”
County officials say the defeat of Prop. 1 means Metro must cut an estimated 550,000 hours of annual bus service. Those cuts will lead to the elimination of 72 routes throughout the county and the reduction or revision of 84 other routes. The cuts will be phased in from September 2014 to September 2015.
The proposed property levy would raise property taxes 22 cents per $1,000 of assessed value beginning in 2015 and extending to 2021. The levy could bring in up to $25 million a year for six years, according to Friends of Transit.
The group must collect 21,000 valid voter signatures in order for the levy to appear on the November ballot. If the levy passes, it would go into effect January 2015.
Schiendelman said a coalition of about a dozen people had been discussing a proposed initiative for months, but the group kept quiet about it until early results for Prop. 1 came in. “This is going to come a little out of left field for the electeds,” he said.
In a statement, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, “We welcome and encourage efforts that would protect bus service and avoid major disruption to our riders. Unfortunately, in the near term, we will still need to transmit major service cuts.”
Even if the proposed levy passes in the fall, Metro must plan for cuts that will occur more than a month before the November election.
Constantine, King County councilmembers and transportation advocates had pushed for voters to approve Prop. 1, which asked voters to agree to a 0.1 percent sales tax increase and a $60 car-tab fee. The proposed fee would have replaced the current $20 car-tab fee, which expires this summer.
Metro plans to eliminate routes and reduce service because it faces a $75 million shortfall, largely the result of reduced collection of sales tax due to the recession. The projected cuts come at a time when the transit agency is seeing record numbers of riders. The agency estimates it provided 119 million rides last year.
To address part of its deficit, next spring Metro will raise the cost of general bus fare 25 cents. The current one-zone, nonpeak fare is $2.25.
The senior fare will increase to $1, and the youth fare will be $1.50. The fare for Access paratransit service will increase as well, to $1.75.
Metro officials have said that when rate hikes occur, ridership drops. To address this, they plan to introduce a reduced fare in order to retain low-income riders (see “Prop. 1 loss sets low-income fare at $1.50” on this page).
Schiendelman said that although the proposition failed countywide, a majority of Seattle voters were in favor of it.
Statistics from King County Elections show that in three Seattle legislative districts, at least 63 percent of voters supported the measure. Outside city limits, support was much weaker. In the South King County district that encompasses Enumclaw, only 18 percent of voters were in favor of Prop. 1.
Tapping into Seattle’s support of Prop. 1 could translate into success for a city-only, tax-property initiative, Schiendelman said. A successful campaign in Seattle could provide an incentive for cities such as Bellevue, Kent and Renton to craft their own initiatives, he added.
Schiendelman said that while the initiative won’t save cuts slated for the fall, levy funds would allow some routes to be reinstated. Those initial losses may play a key role in getting voter support, he said.
“When [Seattle voters] lose a bus, they’ll say, ‘Oh, shit, I want that back.’”