Routes 7 and 36
In-city Metro Routes 7 and 36. Photo by Zack Heistand.

Tomorrow at 5:30 p.m., the Seattle City Council — acting in its capacity as the Board of Directors of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) — will hear public comment and consider a resolution, introduced by Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, that would implement Mayor Ed Murray’s “Plan D” to save most Metro service in the city of Seattle by using the STBD’s taxing authority.

As a refresher, the Rasmussen/Murray “Plan D” would impose a flat $60 vehicle license fee (VLF) and an 0.1% sales-tax increase within the City of Seattle, after a public vote to be held in November.  These are the same taxes the defeated Proposition 1 would have imposed countywide through a separate TBD.  The VLF would be permanent, while the sales tax increase would last for ten years, the maximum allowed under state law.  The resolution requires the STBD to hold a hearing and introduce a resolution to phase out both taxes if the county acquires state or regional funding to replace them.

The plan would not prevent Metro’s September 2014 cuts or restore the service to be cut in September 2014.  It would provide “comparable [service levels] to what was provided by Metro Transit following its September 2014 service changes,” with any additional money going to buy new service according to the Seattle Transit Master Plan and Metro’s service guidelines.  Left open in the resolution’s wording is the important but politically difficult question of whether Metro would implement some or all of the restructures it planned for various parts of Seattle in February, June, and September 2015.  We would argue that, given additional funding, the network changes proposed in most of those restructures — with the notable exceptions of the extreme West Seattle “chainsaw restructure” and the cuts to Beacon Hill service — would be an improvement over today’s service patterns for most riders.  (Late edit: There’s nothing good in the proposed Magnolia restructure either.)

Another notable feature of the plan is that it would fund only routes with 80% or more of their stops in the City of Seattle.  This would prevent the funding from restoring or enhancing certain routes which provide core service to Seattle neighborhoods, particularly in the south end, but also in the far north of the city.  As it happens, none of the all-day routes in question (RapidRide E, 106, 107, 120, 124, 128, 131, 132, 345, 346, 347, 348, and 372) are currently planned to suffer meaningful cuts.  It is unclear, however, how such routes would be treated in any service improvements if the taxes generate extra funding.

(Note: Edited to make clear that the Licata/Sawant plan retains the VLF.)  The Rasmussen/Murray plan is competing with an alternative plan proposed by Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant.  The Licata/Sawant plan would impose retain the VLF, but replace the 0.1% sales tax increase with an employee hours tax (widely known as a “head tax”) of $18 per employee per year on employers and an increase in the commercial parking tax from 12.5% to 17.5% (sales tax, which is separate from this tax, is also imposed on commercial parking).  Licata and Sawant argue that the taxes their plan would impose are far more progressive than the VLF and sales tax.  They also claim the plan could forestall the September 2014 service cuts, although Metro has not said whether it would be able to restore the service in time, given that preparations for the September 2014 service change are well underway.  Opponents, which include the UW and most of the heavy hitters in Seattle’s business community, charge that the “head tax” would slow job growth and that the parking tax increase would give Seattle the highest total tax on parking in the country.  To date, no council members other than Licata and Sawant have indicated support for their plan.  While it appears they will introduce the plan as an amendment to Murray’s resolution, they have not yet made legislative text public.

31 Replies to “Hearing Tomorrow on Murray/Rasmussen “Plan D””

  1. There’s another key difference. The head tax and commercial parking tax do not need to be submitted to voters. The sales and car registration taxes do. And if voters cannot be sure that their taxes will save their bus routes, then they might not vote yes.

    I know that massive restructures are popular with some at STB. But they’re not popular with the public. We could see another transit funding defeat this fall if voters are not promised that the basic route network will be preserved, at least until more light rail comes online and allows Metro to shift things around to take advantage of that new service.

    1. I know that massive restructures are popular with some at STB. But they’re not popular with the public.

      Citation needed. We’ve never had a public vote directly on a restructure, and the only data we’ve ever received on the question consist of a non-scientific survey by Metro. What we’ve seen as a result of Metro restructures, very consistently over the last decade, is two things:

      1) a lot of very vocal complaining in the weeks immediately after the restructure, and
      2) sharply and permanently increased total ridership in the affected area.

      This pattern repeated itself over the 358 restructure, the 180 restructure, the 345/6/7/8 restructure, the 120 restructure, the RR A restructure, the RR B restructure, and the RR C/D restructures.

      That suggests to me that the restructures have a temporary dislocating effect but ultimately make transit more accessible to more people.

      1. I’m not sure I’ve met any bus riders in Magnolia that are looking forward to the loop and crop restructure there. At the very least it would be kinda nice to have a mini-bus loop that would connect to the RR on the north and south ends of 15th in Interbay.

      2. We were thinking along similar lines. I edited the story to add that the Magnolia restructure is terrible.

      3. Although, the Magnolia cuts to West Viewmont (during the offpeak periods) and Discovery Park make a lot sense with how few riders use them. But the revised 33 would not be great either, especially with it’s time-of-day variation in routing.

      4. The revised 33 is terrible because it is so indirect and slow. But with sharply fewer hours than today there is no non-terrible way to serve the area.

        To rationalize off-peak Magnolia service (with the present number of hours) do two things:

        1) extend the 31 up 34th to Emerson (with a layover at the current 24 terminal)
        2) combine the 24 and 33 into a single frequent route that hits Magnolia Village, 28th, and Government Way, and then continues to Ballard.

        The 19 and 33 would then stick around as peak-only routes.

      5. Daybreak Star seems to generate at least some of the riders. It would probably generate more if it weren’t so dang far from the actual bus stop. It kinda sucks that an office dedicated to providing social services to one of Seattle’s traditionally disadvantaged people groups would lose transit service completely.

        The thing is, that comparing the ridership of any comparable route here in Portland through relatively wealthy areas close to downtown (say, TriMet’s #51) the routes through Magnolia seem to be very well used, even at off-peak hours.

      6. I think any agency that chooses to locate in a completely isolated location like Daybreak Star’s has to realize that transit service to it will be tenuous. There is just no way to serve that location with the kind of efficient and frequent route that represents the best use of transit resources for the most riders. The closest you can get is 34th and Government Way — quite a long walk. But it’s also true that the area around 34th and Government is the closest actual community to Daybreak Star.

        For what it’s worth, it’s a relatively recent development that off-peak service on the 33 is half-hourly, and it only happened because it was more efficient to through-route the 33 with the 27 than to terminate it downtown. The route was hourly for years (when through-routed with the 37), and then it ran every 45 minutes (when live-looped downtown using 2 buses). It’s not a service that has ever performed very well off-peak.

      7. They chose the location? It’s not an Indian reservation location that was forced on them?

      8. Their founders chose the location in very dramatic fashion — by physically “occupying” it after DoD surplused it (it was part of Fort Lawton). The city chose to work with them rather than fight them.

      9. It’s a long story, but one of the treaties signed in the 1800s says that land taken for military use gets deeded back to the tribe when it becomes surplus. I think the Fort Lawton case is the only time this actually happened.

  2. For what it’s worth, the West Seattle Transportation Coalition conducted a survey of all available funding methods to see what people actually preferred. Details here.

    Results, which were provided to Mayor Murray and all nine members of the City Council weeks ago:

    Commercial parking tax – 18.4%
    Gas tax – 17.2%
    Property tax – 16.6%
    Car tab fee – 15.0%
    Business & occupancy tax – 10.2%
    Sales tax – 7.8%
    Employee hours tax – 7.8%
    Restaurant & entertainment tax – 6.1%

    1. What about a tax on free parking? Grocery stores, strip malls, fast food restaurants, banks and many other businesses provide free parking to their customers. A business could be allowed to provide a certain number of free parking spaces (likely based on the square footage of the business), but any spaces above that number would be subject to an annual fee.

      1. I walk past several parking lots that are mostly empty 24/7 on my daily commute, and I heartily agree with the concept. It would be hard to execute, but it’s a wonderful idea from a policy perspective.

      2. Businesses, or the land owners underneath them, already pay a property tax on the parking. They might also be paying a storm water fee for the impervious area.

        Eventually people balk at taxes that seem petty. This might be one of those.

      3. The injustice of that is that the free parking was often required by misguided minimum regulations.

  3. I’ve not seen anything that says if the head tax of $18 is per month or what. I followed the links through a number of the articles.

    The thing about the employee tax is that while it still fluctuates with the economy (just ask TriMet here in Portland about the 2010 cutbacks) it also corresponds with the demand for transit. It seems to me that having a component of the transit funding that isn’t so directly related to discretionary spending as the sales tax is would be a huge improvement. TriMet is currently restoring service because employee levels are back up and there is more money coming in. Apparently sales tax revenue in Seattle is apparently still behind the curve because people have to be employed before they have money to spend.

    1. The head tax is yearly.

      My personal feeling about the head tax, which I didn’t share in the post because it would have been a distraction, is that there’s nothing good about it unless you just blindly want to lash out at “business.” It punishes the behavior we want from businesses (employment) while not being progressive at all. It treats large and small businesses equally, to my knowledge (Licata and Sawant have never indicated otherwise), and will be particularly hard on the sectors where local ownership is highest.

      I like the parking tax since the proceeds are used to fund transit, and I’m no fan of the Prop 1 taxes, but the head tax is very hard for me to swallow.

      1. The price given is $18 per employee, and you say this is per year? This doesn’t seem all that harsh to me. When you count workmen’s compensation and all that, most employees cost more than that per hour.

        Is it a misprint and is actually $180 a year? That I could understand being harsh.

      2. It’s not a huge amount, at all. It’s more the nature of the tax than the amount that bugs me. There are so many better ways (practically any way you can imagine is better) to tax business.

      3. The previous head tax was $24/yr/employee with exceptions allowed for employees that didn’t drive to work. I never objected to paying that tax, mainly because most of my employees walked or rode transit to work.

      4. Businesses would get hit with the sales tax increase too, so that means those that buy goods or equipment locally rather than providing certain services would get a disproportionate hit.

        Maybe a sales tax on paperwork, so the more paperwork a company generates the higher the tax?

        Under the current situation the company I work for has a lot of advantages in doing business in Oregon rather than Washington, as we have to buy equipment from states back east. Those states are much less polite than Washington, and apply sales tax to everything including items shipped out of state – unless the destination state doesn’t have sales tax.

      5. Typically such a tax is deductible on the federal business income tax form. So, either watch the $18 per employee go to that other Washington on the other coast, or keep it here.

        The car tab fee will disproportionally impact businesses that have to have a fleet of vehicles to perform their work, such as utility companies. So, none of these proposals are really going to be fair to anyone – someone in some way or another will be impacted somehow.

        Granted, I live in Portland and our business climate is supposed to be terrible. However, at one point in time energy giant Enron was only paying $10 a year in state income taxes here, while they manipulated the energy markets to the point of running off with quite a large sum of money from the local population. Intel has been given huge tax breaks, and so has Nike. They continue running ads about how large Oregon’s tax burden is, yet actual studies from the slowly swinging to the right wing Oregonian don’t really place us that high in the total business tax burden category.

        So, my overall sympathies aren’t too good.

        Yet, the working policies of so many companies insist that their employees be there only at certain hours of the day, which means huge peak period demand points during the day, which are very difficult to economically serve with any mode of transportation.

        Maybe discount the $18 per employee tax if the employer allows employees flexible working hours? That helps distribute the traffic load at least.

  4. This whole thing is angels on the head of a pin. We shouldnt be doing city ballot measures to fund a county transit agency. Another term for this would be sub-sub-area equity, with further loss of influence over rationale planning & operation to the whim of local politics.

    Dow Constantine is on the right trail. We should take a step back on look more broadly and allocating resources more rationally at the system level.

  5. As I understand it, the head tax and CPT would only replace the sales tax portion of the Mayor’s proposal. So there would still be a $60 car tab on the ballot.

    1. This is correct. I should have made it clearer in the post.

      The $60 car tab is the big dog in either proposal; the other taxes included in both are smaller.

  6. So Seattle residents, once again, have to tax ourselves because of the east-side a-holes. When is it appropriate for Seattle to form its own county? I’m voting no on this. This is unfair taxation.

  7. My understanding is that reporting and enforcement of the head tax proved to be problematic in the past and likely would again. The B&O tax should be redone.

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