As bus ridership rises, battle over funding measure heats up
Speakers at a Wednesday session in Bellevue debated King County Proposition 1, which would create a car-tab fee and sales-tax increase for roads and bus service.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Ron Posthuma knew this particular audience wouldn’t be on his side. He wore a red sweater, he joked before the Wednesday gathering in Bellevue, so that no bloodstains would show.
And when his microphone cut out partway though his presentation, a moderator quipped: “It only works when you’re telling the truth.”
An early face-to-face over King County’s proposed car-tab-and-sales-tax measure to fund transit and roads took place in front of one of the few organizations opposing the measure, the pro-highway Eastside Transportation Association (ETA).
Posthuma, retired assistant King County transportation director, said the measure in April’s special election — which comes amid a post-recession upswing in ridership — is needed to prevent a 17 percent cut in bus service and to finance long-overdue road projects throughout the county.
But ETA members were clearly more aligned with one of their own, Dick Paylor, a Bellevue real-estate executive who helped write the voters-pamphlet opposition statement on the measure.
Paylor and audience members complained about how Metro King County Transit is managed, voiced concerns about seeing some virtually empty buses on some routes and suggested having bus passengers themselves pick up a larger share of the service’s costs.
“The problem isn’t on the revenue side, it’s on the expense-control side,” said Paylor, arguing that Metro is operating under a “broken financial model.”
Ballots will be mailed April 2 for the April 22 election on Proposition 1, which would boost the price of a car tab by $60 and add one-tenth of a cent to the sales tax, to maintain transit service and finance road repairs and maintenance.
Those charges would remain in place for 10 years. The decision to combine roads and buses on the proposal has helped the measure draw broad support from business, labor, students, environmental groups, social-service agencies and suburban cities.
If it fails, backers say, Metro Transit won’t be able to avoid cuts that would throw tens of thousands more cars on the roads and leave some people without a viable transportation alternative.
Posthuma said the measure is needed because the Legislature failed to pass a statewide transportation package.
Metro’s ridership peaked at 118.8 million trips in 2008, then dropped to 109.6 million trips in 2010 as the effects of the recession spread. It since has rebounded to pre-recession levels.
Posthuma said the revenue drop during the recession prompted the agency to eliminate 2 percent of its least-productive routes, restructure others, renegotiate labor contracts and cut administrative positions.
As a result, he said, there are no acceptable cuts left to make, putting the burden squarely on the bus routes if the ballot measure fails.
Paylor argued that all of the cost-saving moves Posthuma listed would have been made years ago if Metro were committed to operating a lean, efficient agency.
Citing data from the conservative Washington Policy Center, Paylor said that from 2000 to 2012, Metro’s operating costs increased 83 percent, while the inflation rate over that span was 33 percent.
He’d like to see bus riders pay much more than the current 29 percent of the cost of providing them a ride. In addition, he said, businesses that benefit from having employees or customers arrive by bus should shoulder a greater share of the costs.
If passed, the measure is expected to raise some $130 million a year, up to about $80 million to King County, largely for bus service, and $50 million for local road projects.
Proposition 1 would offer two breaks for low-income residents, including a $20 rebate on car-tab fees.
The measure also includes a low-income bus fare of $1.25. If it fails, the low-income fare would be $1.50. Peak one-zone fares are now $2.50, and peak two-zone fares are $3.
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222