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Originally published July 1, 2013 at 8:25 PM | Page modified July 1, 2013 at 8:52 PM

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Metro faces cuts as funds dwindle

King County says transit cuts may result from the Legislature’s inaction on a local car-tab tax.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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King County says its ability to provide full transit service next year has been thrown into limbo, after the state Senate adjourned without acting on a proposed county tax to fund transit and roads.

In a few weeks, Metro Transit will organize public outreach to explain which routes might be cut or reduced beginning in mid-2014.

Besides stoking the political embers for a last-ditch lobbying effort, the sessions will lead many passengers to worry about whether they’ll lose their bus to work, school or medical appointments.

Metro has identified 65 relatively low-use routes that could be scrapped, and an additional 86 more-popular routes that might run with fewer daily trips, if a feared $60 million yearly shortfall occurs.

In total, about 17 percent of Metro’s service is at risk, General Manager Kevin Desmond has said. Metro needs an additional $15 million annually to meet steady growth in demand, for a total $75 million a year, he said.

The Republican-controlled Senate adjourned Saturday without voting on a $10 billion state transportation plan, for a variety of reasons: reluctance to support a 10.5-cent per-gallon gas-tax increase; antipathy to light rail on a proposed I-5 replacement bridge to Oregon; and an insistence that cost-cutting reforms are needed before more highway projects are added.

And in scrapping the highway package, they dragged down a House-approved plan to let King County send a car-tab tax to the local ballot, of up to $150 per $10,000 of vehicle value, with 60 percent going to Metro and 40 percent divided among county and city roads.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said Monday he will work with other lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee on a transportation deal. “We can either pass it in December or early next session,” Tom said.

He insists that any new tax for Metro be tied to a state plan, rather than letting pro-transit, pro-tax King County voters go it alone.

“If you don’t link them, what happens is, once the transit crowd gets what they consider they want, the road package gets torpedoed, and vice versa,” he said.

Transit supporters accuse Tom of deserting his home county, where Metro ridership recently passed 400,000 daily boardings, to please his GOP allies.

“It’s shocking that the Senate can’t figure this out,” said County Councilmember Larry Phillips of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.

Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, blasted conservatives who extol decentralized government yet didn’t let King County forge ahead, once it became clear the state plan was foundering in the closing days.

“That is patently hypocritical, and indefensible,” she said.

Tarleton hopes for a quick special session as early as September, so a special election could be held in King County in February or March, before Metro’s cash runs low in mid-2014. That’s when a temporary $20 car-tab fee expires, state transit contributions cease from a Highway 99 tunnel impact fund and Metro’s own reserves would be spent.

Seattle Transit Riders Union planned to meet Monday to discuss political action.

Chuck Lare, a Metro driver and electric-bus advocate, said the search for funding should be broadened, to look at a “millionaire’s tax,” an employee head tax and impact fees on developers instead of successive fare increases.

“We’re one of the richest counties in the nation, if not the world,” Lare said. “Transit is delivering cheap labor to these guys who are making vast amounts of money.”

So what would it take for a state deal?

Tom said he wants more money directed to the underfunded Highway 520 bridge project, to which the House version earmarked $200 million, toward a $1.4 billion shortfall. Besides the existing tolls on 520, Tom supports tolling the nearby I-90 bridge as well.

“We’ve got to get 520 funded. You don’t build new projects until you finish what you’ve started,” he said.

Metro should build more suburban park-and-ride lots, Tom said, arguing that the Eastside “has been shortchanged for ages” in transit.

Similar to Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the Senate Transportation Committee co-chair, Tom said he would prefer more sales taxes to use of car-tab taxes for transit. “You can’t keep going to the car drivers,” he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @mikelindblom

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