Proposition 1 was the last chance to avoid deep, countywide cuts, and the first installment of those cuts will take effect in September. However, Friends of Transit, the Political Action Committee founded and operated by former STB staffer Ben Schiendelman, announced yesterday the intention to file an initiative for the November ballot to recover quickly:
The proposed initiative would increase the city’s property tax by $0.22 per $1,000 of assessed value between 2015 and 2021. The measure is estimated to generate $25 million a year in revenue, enough to fund as much as 250,000 hours of bus service. This funding would help stave off cuts to routes operating completely within Seattle, and may help reduce cuts to routes operating between Seattle and other cities. The property tax increase requires a simple majority vote for approval.
If a measure like this were to pass and work as intended, this would be great news for transit in the areas that most need it to function. As this measure would run on the November ballot, it couldn’t take effect until January 2015, when many cuts have already been in effect for months.
Friends of Transit has not yet finalized the language of the initiative, and we are a long way from a campaign. I asked Ben how he envisions this would work in practice. “The council would be directed to buy service to offset Metro’s service cuts (the language references the cuts documents) for routes with 80% or more of their hours in Seattle,” he explains. Mr. Schiendelman says that the package is resourced to cover all of the routes that qualify, but it would be up to the City Council to implement it and prioritize where necessary.
Nevertheless, there are things to like about this proposal and things to be concerned about any city-only measure:
It is a progressive tax. Property value is a good proxy for wealth, and it’s clear that Seattle’s supply constrained rental market is driven by what tenants can pay, rather than underlying property upkeep costs. In other words, property tax increases are unlikely to pass on to renters.
It is likely to pass. November congressional elections are the second best possible time to run a transit measure. April is just about the worst. Meanwhile, while not all the returns are in, the first-night results showed that the five legislative districts primarily in Seattle are the five where even early voters in an April election are pro-transit.
— Elliott (@llttday) April 23, 2014
Oran depicted it graphically:
— Oran Viriyincy (@oranv) April 24, 2014
There a few ways where a city-only measure can slip up, and Friends of Transit will have to be careful to avoid at least some of them:
The dream dies in the rest of the county. Any hope for near-term relief in the suburbs is doomed with the passage of this initiative, as passage is inconceivable without Seattle votes. That’s unfortunate because Seattle’s statutory limits on housing supply (by design!) drive low-income people into South King County. On the other hand, Seattle can only do so much to rescue other cities; indeed, it voted yesterday to do so and the rest of the County said “no thanks.”
There is no perfect answer for intercity routes. The 80% cutoff seems like a reasonable one, including a number of routes with very small segments outside the city limits (like the 5). Some Seattle residents benefit mostly from two-way two-zone routes in the system, and there is a tradeoff between doing something for all Seattle bus riders and preventing (unpopular) leakage of tax revenue into the rest of the County. 80% is a number that could stand some route-by-route analysis to make sure that it covers the key trips for Seattle residents.
Money is fungible. Mr. Schiendelman points out that “the cuts would already mostly be in place [authorized, at least -ed.] by the time this passes – Metro couldn’t justify deciding to cut Seattle more deeply before the measure goes to ballot, on a chance of it passing.” The politics of amending the existing plan that way are simply too toxic to consider.
However, if Metro service in Seattle is at a basically acceptable level, Metro’s every incentive is to direct all future service growth to the suburbs. Schiendelman counters that the tax expires in 2021 — not coincidentally, when Northgate Link opens — and Metro can’t risk it expiring with a huge hole in the system’s heart.
Dow Constantine’s statement about the initiative was cautiously welcoming:
“We welcome and encourage efforts that would protect bus service and avoid major disruption to our riders. Unfortunately, in the near term, we will still need to transmit major service cuts if Proposition 1 fails.
“While King County Metro works as a regional system that moves people across jurisdictions throughout the county, reflecting the truly regional nature of our economy, the notion of cities buying bus service is not a new idea. We already have a number of cities and businesses contracting for service.”
One can never say for sure before seeing the final details, but it is highly likely that this initiative will be good for Seattle and good for people that travel into Seattle, wherever they may live. Good luck to Friends of Transit. May they exercise care in finalizing the language.