Too big to fail
To save bus routes in Seattle, the city council must decide who should foot the bill
The Seattle City Council will likely be asking voters in November a difficult question: Who should pay to keep city buses running?
Right now there are two options in the works. Mayor Ed Murray on May 13 announced a transit financing plan to pay for citywide bus service with a 0.1 sales tax increase and a $60 car-tab fee.
A week later, Seattle City councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant proposed an amendment to the mayor’s plan. Instead of raising the sales tax, the councilmembers are seeking to tax employers up to $18 per employee and to increase the tax on commercial parking lots to 17.5 percent. Their amendment would keep the $60 car-tab fee.
A press release from Licata’s office said aides were still determining how much money the amendment could generate.
It’s unlikely that more proposals will surface.
“The city’s options [to fund service] are limited,” said Katie Wilson, spokesperson for the Transit Riders Union.
The council will decide which option voters will see. A legislative aide to Sawant said the council is likely to vote on the transportation packages later this summer.
If the council green-lights the mayor’s plan, the proposed sales tax increase and car-tab fee would go on the November ballot, for voter approval.
Murray has said his plan could generate up to $45 million a year.
If the council approves the Licata-Sawant amendment, voters would see a November transportation ballot measure to institute the $60 car-tab fee.
But the council could also decide to do its own thing. Shafali Raganathan, director of programs from Transportation Choices, said that with few funding options, city leaders will have to weigh which package is likely to garner the most support from voters.
“It’s a combination of taxes that could have the best likelihood to succeed,” said Raganathan.
The city council has legislative authority to implement an employee “head” tax and increase taxes on commercial parking lots.
Currently, Metro faces a $75 million annual deficit. In order to address the shortfall, the transit agency plans to cut 16 percent of countywide bus service. The plan would eliminate 72 routes and reduce or revise another 84.
The cuts would be phased in over the course of a year, with the first group of cuts slated for September. Other cuts would follow in February 2015, June 2015 and September 2015.
Murray’s plan and the Licata-Sawant
amendment would come too late to stave off cuts scheduled for this fall.
The King County Council is scheduled to vote on which routes get cut or revised on June 9.
Murray’s plan, involving a sales tax increase and car-tab fee, mirrors a failed April ballot measure to fund Metro. While the measure didn’t garner enough votes countywide, two-thirds of Seattle voters backed it.
But because Seattle voters passed a similar package once doesn’t mean they’ll do it again, Raganathan said.
As for the councilmembers’ proposed amendment, she said parking taxes can draw ire from business owners.
The same could happen with an employee tax. (In 2006, Seattle instituted a $22 employee tax, but the charge was repealed in 2009 due to the recession.)
Whatever funding package ultimately makes it to voters, ensuring its passage is critical, said Raganathan:
“If we fail again in November, we will set back transit in the region by five or 10 years.”
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