New car-tab fee to fund buses may head to ballot
King County Metro Transit faces a $60 million deficit next year and a 17-percent reduction in service over the next two years, with the majority of the cuts expected in the Seattle-Shoreline area. There is an alternative — a new car tab fee that appears headed for the November ballot, where it would compete for taxpayer approval with other local measures.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County Metro Transit faces a $60 million deficit next year and a 17 percent reduction in service over the next two years, with the majority of the cuts expected in the Seattle-Shoreline area, where most of the buses run.
There is an alternative: a new car-tab fee that appears headed for the November ballot, where it would compete for taxpayer approval with other local measures.
State lawmakers gave county officials the authority earlier this year to charge an extra $20 for car tabs — which would provide $50 million over two years — to help Metro. That's enough, when combined with reserve funds, to largely maintain existing service, according to Metro.
The nine-member Metropolitan King County Council was also granted two options for how it might apply the financial tourniquet. By a simple majority vote, it could put the request for increased car-tab fees to the voters. Or, a supermajority of six could simply enact the new fees without going to the voters.
County Executive Dow Constantine is expected to announce his proposal Monday, when he'll ask the council to impose the fees without a vote of the public.
It appears unlikely, though, that six council votes can be mustered for that.
Constantine's transportation adviser, Chris Arkills, acknowledged that getting a supermajority is a "difficult challenge, but a case we're prepared to make."
Four council members, all Republicans, have stated they're against enacting the fees without voter approval.
Environmental and transit advocates, who'd rather avoid the expense and uncertainty of an election campaign, hope they can still sway one of the Republicans.
Jane Hague's view
Jane Hague, one of the four Republicans on the council, was thought to be the most likely swing vote. Hague is facing a tough re-election campaign: She represents an Eastside district that includes Bellevue, Kirkland and many transit riders, and she testified in Olympia for the legislation giving King County the authority to seek higher car-tab fees.
And she may soon feel pressure. King County Conservation Voters will consider the council's car-tab votes in making endorsements and campaign expenditures, according to the group's Jesseca Brand.
A new political-action committee that's spun off from the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce will likely use car-tab votes as a measuring stick to assess county candidates. The Chamber supports the increase in car-tab fees.
But Hague said Wednesday she's "pretty darn firm" against sidestepping voters. Advocates may think they can sway her, she said, "but I don't think so."
Hague said her Olympia testimony was meant to convince legislators that Metro has gotten "leaner" in the face of declining sales-tax revenues — its main source of funds — and needs new tools to maintain routes. But she said voters should have a say on increased car-tab fees.
Changes at Metro
Metro has cut about 100 jobs, raised fares, raided reserves, and its employees have given about $17 million in pay concessions, according to Councilmember Larry Phillips. (Phillips, Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott are the three council members who've said they would enact fees without an election.)
County officials also approved a new framework for determining where future bus service will go. Metro had relied on a rigid formula — criticized as political and arbitrary — to allocate service among the suburbs and Seattle. The new criteria will evaluate bus routes based on ridership and the most transit-reliant populations.
At a meeting of the county's Regional Transit Committee on Wednesday, the new framework was hailed as transparent and progressive. "The era of empty buses is over," Phillips said.
Metro's finances and new allocation plan are likely to be themes in any election campaign for the new car-tab fee.
When to have a vote
When such a campaign may occur is still to be determined.
The most likely options are this November or early next year. Any later than that and county officials run the risk of not taking full advantage of their two-year window to collect increased car-tab fees. That window closes in 2014.
But if the matter went to voters in February or April, when there may not be other county or city issues to share the cost of an election, the county might have to pay up to approximately $1 million to print, distribute and tally ballots.
If it went on a November ballot, along with other county and city matters, the cost might be negligible, said Kim van Ekstrom, spokeswoman for the King County Elections division. A November ballot question also could spare Metro from planning big service cuts that it ultimately may not have to make.
Other factors loom. In November, a car-tab fee would compete with other measures such as Seattle's proposed $231 million Families and Education tax levy. The Seattle City Council may also ask voters in November for up to $80 per vehicle in extra car-tab fees to improve transit and mobility in the city. (The county's $14.5 million Veterans and Human Services Levy will be on the August primary ballot.)
In any case, approving the fees is still just a two-year reprieve. But it would buy time for the economy to rebound and for advocates to "make the case to the Legislature that we need a long-term solution," said Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.
Without the fees, Metro's cuts would mean running some routes less frequently, dropping some low-ridership routes, more crowding on popular commuter lines, and more riders making transfers to reach their destinations. "And that's significant," Johnson said, "to the 350,000 people who get on and off Metro buses every day."
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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