Group seeks property-tax hike to preserve Seattle bus routes
Less than a day after a King County tax measure lost, the group Friends of Transit announced a proposed property-tax initiative to fund buses in Seattle.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
An initiative to raise Seattle property taxes will be filed this week to pay for bus service within the city, after King County voters rejected a ballot measure for transit and roads.
The group Friends of Transit said Wednesday its proposed measure would raise $25 million a year, at a tax rate of $22 annually per $100,000 of property value.
The effort is led by Ben Schiendelman, one of the original writers at the Seattle Transit Blog and a prominent campaigner against the Highway 99 tunnel. “Seattle will grind to a halt if we don’t act fast to save buses,” he said. Schiendelman said the group won’t rest until proposed service cuts to King County Metro Transit are prevented or restored.
Metro Transit managers have said that without new revenues, they would have to reduce operating hours in phases by 16 percent, including elimination of 72 bus lines, to compensate for sales-tax losses during the recession.
Schiendelman said the campaign is aiming for the November ballot. A total 20,638 valid signatures are required.
November would be too late to forestall county plans to make the first phase of cuts in September. That wave would mainly reduce peak-time runs, leading to bigger crowds on other buses.
Proposition 1 would have raised the sales tax by 0.1 percent, or a dime per $100 purchase; and set a $60 annual car-tab fee. Of the $130 million projected to have been raised next year, roughly 60 percent would have gone to transit and the rest to city and county roads.
County Executive Dow Constantine is expected to send a list of cuts to the Metropolitan King County Council on Thursday, staffers said.
Constantine and Council Chairman Larry Phillips were the most visible promoters of Proposition 1, which lost 55 percent to 45 percent.
Constantine said he hadn’t heard about the property-tax effort until Wednesday and was glad people are thinking about ways to help Metro
“Unfortunately, in the near term we will still need to transmit major service cuts if Proposition 1 fails,” Constantine said in a statement.
Schiendelman said that in October he spoke with a few transit supporters about strategies, should Prop 1 lose. “I’m a software tester. I plan for things to fail,” he said.
He said at least three elected officials, whom he declined to name, have said they would join the campaign, and he expects pro-transit groups to come aboard. “We’ve been building a coalition for a decade,” he said.
Petitions should hit the streets next week, Schiendelman said.
Prop 1 critics said Metro needs to reduce its relatively high operating costs, raise fares and seek nontax revenue such as park-and-ride fees.
“Elected leaders and union executives are no doubt disappointed that people rejected their ballot proposal to increase regressive taxes, but they should not respond by imposing harsh service cuts on local communities,” said a commentary Wednesday on the website of the free-market Washington Policy Center.
Metro already plans to raise fares by 25 cents next year, following $1 in fare hikes since 2008. Fares cover 29 percent of operating costs, up from 20 percent pre-recession. Unionized transit workers took a wage freeze in 2011 and received inflation raises other years.
Though only 45 percent of countywide voters backed Proposition 1, it won majority support in legislative districts lying mainly within Seattle.
If a follow-up Seattle property-tax measure passes, the city would collect the money and buy service hours from Metro. Seattle already does some of this using some Bridging the Gap property-tax revenues that city voters approved in 2006.
The median home in Seattle is assessed at $382,000 this year and will pay $3,931 in property taxes, up 7.5 percent over 2013, according to the King County Assessor.
Lots of money requests
Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said he worries about overloading the voters — in light of pending property-tax requests for parks, early-childhood education, and to renew Bridging the Gap.
Under state law, city options could include property and sales tax, car-tab fees, tolls and developer-impact fees.
“I think we should look at those options that are specifically for transportation, and see if some of those might be supported by the public, before we give up on those, and opt for the property tax,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen, who heads the council’s Transportation Committee, spent Wednesday afternoon with senior citizens in South Park, who fear cuts to their Route 60.
“They are going to be very isolated, or they’re going to have to make a number of transfers,” he said.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement: “ Cutting our workhorse transit system by 16 percent is not an acceptable solution. I will work with King County Executive Constantine to explore our options in response to the regrettable results of Proposition 1.”
Schiendelman estimates $25 million a year could preserve routes where at least 80 percent of the line runs inside Seattle. That could benefit riders in adjacent Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Skyway, Renton or White Center.
Early endorsers include Joe Szilagyi of the West Seattle Transportation Coalition and Renee Staton, a Northgate-area advocate who lately has focused on pedestrian safety.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @mikelindblom