In my blurb yesterday, I mentioned a “Plan B”, whereby in the event that the state legislature fails to allow the people of King County to vote on a countywide MVET for maintaining county roads and Metro service, the county could use existing legal authority to refer an alternative revenue package to voters for those purposes. Staff and elected officials at King County have deflected most questions about any such plan, preferring (understandably) to focus their messaging on the legislature, but nevertheless, I think it’s worth transit advocates discussing the options in the open.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to pore over the text of the RCW to see what options are out there. In 2011, staff at the state legislature compiled an updated report describing every source of local-government revenue intended to fund land or sea transportation. The document is 22 pages long, and includes a summary table on the last two pages. The “Plan B” most people are referring to is the idea of forming a countywide Transportation Benefit District (or, perhaps, a TBD that includes a large subset of the county area, presumably the parts which enjoy fixed-route service), and referring some combination of a flat vehicle licensing fee and a TBD sales tax to voters, in lieu of an MVET.
The authority for doing this is discussed on document page 118 of this report. There are a raft of tax options available to TBDs, including property taxes and road tolling, but the only ones which appear to be workable, and which could provide sustainable levels of funding for bus operations, are the sales tax and VLFs. With a vote of the people, King County could levy a 0.2% sales tax and a $100 VLF for Metro and county routes, although the $100 VLF is subject to a “stacking” provision which limits the total TBD VLF to $100 in the event that a vehicle is registered in an area covered by multiple TBDs. I don’t know offhand how the revenue is allocated in that case.
Other sources of revenue I’ve batted around informally with county staff are the county gas tax (document page 119) and county HOV/commuter rail MVET (document page 115). I’ve been told that the county gas tax (which would only be available to address paving issues with county roads, not bus operations) would not raise enough money to be worth going to the ballot for, and the HOV/commuter rail authority is not available for bus operations. Notably, there appears to no way to pay for ongoing Metro operations with property tax, or any other progressive tax.