King County Exec Proposes April Vote on Roads, Transit

By Mike Lindblom, January 15, 2014, Seattle Times

King County Executive Dow Constantine on Tuesday proposed an April 22 vote on a tax measure to sustain current service levels at Metro Transit and to support county and city road departments.


County voters would decide whether to increase sales taxes by a tenth of a penny per dollar and to enact a flat $60-a-year car-tab fee, for 10 years, if the Metropolitan King County Council adopts his plan.


Together the new revenue would provide $80 million for transit and $50 million for roads the first year, the county predicts.


In addition, King County Metro Transit fares would increase 25 cents in March 2015. That would boost the top fare to $3.25 for a peak, two-zone adult trip through Seattle and a suburb.


Also, for people earning less than twice the poverty level, a flat $1.50 Metro fare would be established in March 2015. A single person with less than $23,000 in annual income would qualify, or a family of four at less than $47,000.


Metro predicts it would sell up to 100,000 low-income ORCA passes, said spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok. The low-income fare would be electronic-only, not cash. The senior-disabled fare, now 75 cents, would become $1 in March 2015.


King County has warned for months that without a new revenue source, Metro transit service would have to be cut by up to 17 percent — deleting 74 routes and changing scores of others.


County leaders in 2013 asked the Legislature to allow a county-only, car-tab tax based on a vehicle’s value; the Legislature didn’t act.


Key state legislators, notably Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, have insisted that local transit taxes be yoked to a statewide highway plan, to prevent pro-transit voters from turning against gas taxes and highways.


Constantine finally decided to go ahead and act alone — his “Plan B” — because state lawmakers don’t appear ready to tackle the problem anytime soon by allowing other varieties of local taxes, or even agreeing on a $10 billion highway package.


Move King County Now, the official campaign for the proposed April ballot measure, registered with the state last week.


Board members include Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition; and David Freiboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council; and Jon Scholes, vice president for advocacy and economic development for the Downtown Seattle Association.


Johnson said the campaign is seeking $500,000 to sway voters in the unusual special election, which he thinks may attract 30 percent voter turnout.


“Ladies and gentlemen, we are out of time,” Constantine said at the news conference. “We cannot responsibly wait another year in hopes the Legislature will act.”


Metro buses carried 392,000 passengers per weekday in November. Ridership has grown though the downtown free-ride area was canceled in fall 2012.


Metro blames its budget problems on the Great Recession, which caused a $1.3 billion loss of expected revenue since 2008.


Unlike many large transit agencies, Metro managed to sustain service hours by drawing down cash reserves, reorganizing schedules and collecting a flat $20 car-tab fee, which ends in mid-2014. Fares have increased $1 since the 2008 recession.


But even with recent increases, fares cover less than 30 percent of Metro’s operating budget — $640 million this year. Sales taxes supply more than half of that, and Tuesday’s proposal would raise Metro’s share from 0.9 cent to 1 cent on a $1 purchase. Sound Transit collects another 0.9 cent, and a car-tab tax.


Without more money, Metro routes to downtown from West Seattle and White Center would be the first cut, when state transit grants related to Highway 99 construction run out.


Tim Eyman, who makes his living promoting initiatives, said: “A $60 car tab tax was recently rejected by tax-friendly Seattle voters. There is zero chance King County voters will OK these massive tax increases.”


Meanwhile, King County roads are crumbling, largely because city annexations have depleted the county’s property-tax base. Some rural roads are reverting to gravel, and snow response will be curtailed. An estimated 35 bridges and 72 miles of road are at risk of decline, said Councilmember Joe McDermott of West Seattle.


A solid majority of the County Council members support a local transportation vote. Councilmember Jane Hague of Kirkland said the county has a thriving economy that needs to be sustained.


“We were not elected to minimize and dysfunction some of our basic infrastructure,” Hague said. The council ought to listen to the public, as well as act in the coming weeks as it hammers out a detailed plan, she said.


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