One of the topics current King County Council Member Larry Phillips discussed in the Q&A that we had with him last week at our meet-up was the possibility of finding future funding sources for King County’s Metro. Metro, like many other state and local agencies, faces a massive budget crisis and may be forced to cut service in order to make up the future revenue deficit. Metro is without any way to raise new money: Metro, along with Snohomish’s Community Transit has currently reached its state-allowed limit on its taxing authority: nine-tenths of one percent sales tax collection. Even if the people of King County wanted to tax themselves to provide more bus service, state law wouldn’t allow them to.
At first it seems bizarre that Olympia wouldn’t allow voters to tax themselves to provide more bus service, but it makes a little sense when you think about it. Until very recently, no transit agency had reached the nine-tenths of a percent allocation, and before I-695 passed in 1999, these agencies were allowed to collect the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). And it’s only now that any transit agency has faced a potential service cut.
Phillips mentioned two additional funding sources Metro could potentially go after if the state allowed. The first is the MVET that Ron Sims was pushing around the time the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel plan was announced. The second option would be to allow some or all of the taxing authority given to county ferry districts – a property tax of 75¢ per $1000 assessed value – to be used for transit by the voter’s approval. The MVET has been a wildly unpopular tax, and attempting to use that for transit might be a disaster, but the property tax seems reasonable.
Currently the King County Ferry District collects 5.5¢ per $1000 assessed value, worth a little more more than $18 million a year for King County, and it looks like the Ferry District in King County couldn’t ever need the entire 75¢. There are counties where ferries are crucial transportation connections, such as Island County, where state Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margarett Haugen (D-Camano Island) lives, and they may use the whole allotment. But doesn’t it make sense for the state to allow counties to use that 75¢ taxing authority on any transportation project they need? King County may not want a lot of ferries, but the voters may decide they could use more roads, buses or rail. The ability to implement a levy to build a specific project or pass a permanent tax increase to fund transit service seems like something the voters should have the right to do. Fortunately there is a bill going through Olympia right now that would enable exactly this: letting the county use some of the ferry taxing authority for transit.
The transportation leaders in Olympia, Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) and Sen Haugen among others, have made it very clear that they expect the Greater Seattle area and it’s outlying communities to fund their own transportation improvements. The state relies nearly entirely on gas tax revenue to fund roads proejcts, and with people driving less, choosing more efficient cars and taking transit more, the revenues are far short of paying for all the needs across the state. That’s one of the main reasons why they pushed RTID, the now-defunct regional roads agency, so heavily and why they are fighting for “governance reform”, also known as stealing transit money to pay for roads. If Olympia expects Seattle and its neighbors to solve their own transportation problems, it needs to stop trying to push their preferred plans down onto us. I would have hoped in light of Prop. 1 first failing by a large margin with roads and transit and then passing by an even larger margin with just transit, Olympia would realize the voters here don’t agree with their vision of what our region’s transportation system should look like. Instead, they ought to provide tools to the local governments here, and allow the voters to approve the transportation plans that they want in their own communities. The 75¢ per $1000 property tax set aside for ferries seems like great tool for this purpose.