Yesterday the Seattle City Council* voted unanimously (Tim Burgess was absent) to send a $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax increase to the November ballot to save bus service. The measure would mostly maintain the service level in the City of Seattle and preserve some trips to and from the suburbs. The final approved version is here. Public comment at the hearing was unanimously in favor of preserving bus service. There were also several amendments.

The first change from the Mayor’s proposal is that both taxes expire at the end of 2020, rather than in 10 years.

Nick Licata made a point of verifying that any surplus after restoring service levels could not be used for, as he put it, “more capital-intensive fixed rail projects” because the legislation specifically authorizes “Metro transit bus service hours.” Of course, this language would also seemingly prohibit various sensible bus capital improvements, like transit signal priority, bus lanes, trolley wire, off-board payment, and so forth, using TBD funds.

Mike O’Brien sponsored a (unanimously) successful amendment to set aside up to $2m for increasing “access to the low-income fare program” and “developing and potentially funding additional no-income and low-income products for Seattle residents.”

Tom Rasmussen earned unanimous approval of an amendment he said was inspired by the League of Women Voters, that “clarifies” that “the first priority for the funding is to preserve existing routes and prevent Metro’s proposed service cuts and restructures,” and demands the public process that is typical in Metro restructures anyway. The LWV, represented yesterday by occasional STB commenter Joanna Cullen, has been a reactionary force against restructures that would boost Metro ridership by rationalizing the route network, specifically to Route 2. Multiple sources assure me that this language does not prevent sensible, ridership-driven restructures after the usual public process. It’s perhaps inevitable that introducing city funding also introduces another veto point for restructures. But I would have been happier if the amendment didn’t pass.

The most interesting part of the afternoon was the argument over the sales tax. Councilmembers Licata and Sawant floated a plan to replace the relatively regressive sales tax portion with an employee head tax and commercial parking tax to generate about the same amount of revenue. They convinced no one to cross over and lost 6-2. I am relatively relaxed about regressive taxation for transit, as the spending itself is quite progressive.  But the arguments yesterday are interesting.

One argument was that the sales tax was part of the package that Seattle voters already supported in April, and therefore the safe choice. Josh Feit in PubliCola:

Speaking for the majority, Council Member Tom Rasmussen (along with Sally Clark) said it was safest to go with the sales tax version because Seattle voters already said yes to the fix in April when Seattle voters overwhelmingly supported Prop. 1 (66.5 percent) as King County at large defeated it. 

The Council can approve the head tax and parking tax without a public vote, so the electorate isn’t directly relevant.

Ansel Herz in The Stranger covered some other arguments:

In response, Sally Clark and Jean Godden [argued] that they would hurt small businesses and that the commercial parking tax is regressive because it falls on all people, regardless of income, who drive cars.

Licata, who usually cuts a demure figure, had to laugh at that. “I should point out that if we use this logic, that the admission tax or the nickel fee for using paper bags are likewise as regressive because they treat all people the same regardless of their income,” he said, adding that he was “amused” by the argument.

“They all share one thing in common,” Licata said. “They charge for an activity that is voluntary, unlike sales tax, which must be paid by everyone participating in our economy.”

It is curious to object to taxing payrolls at less than 1 cent per hour in the aftermath of a $5-plus-per-hour increase in the minimum wage. It’s not at all clear to me that a sales tax is better for small business than a head tax, especially given small business exemptions, to say nothing of its impact on poor people. But both small and large businesses dislike the head tax, which is why Seattle repealed it in the first place.

As for the parking tax, in testimony both Josh Kavanaugh (of the UW transportation office) and the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) attacked the parking tax for including nonprofits and being regressive. UW has come out against the tax before. Austin Wright-Pettibone of the Office of Governmental Relations of ASUW argued that “would affect our commuter students, who are among the lowest-income on our campus.” He also pointed out that “parking fees subsidize the UPass program” and feared that the increase would lead to higher UPass prices. Ms. Sawant asserted that “It is simply not true that UW Admin cannot absorb these costs,” which she cited as $2m annually, rather than pass them on to students.

Nevertheless, aside from Licata’s entirely correct point, it’s a bit rich to say a commercial parking tax (which is avoidable) is more regressive than the vehicle license fee they just passed (which is less so).

Tom Rasmussen argued that adopting different tax measures “would take more time” to work out the costs and mitigations for nonprofits like hospitals and colleges, and disagreed that off-street parking is truly “optional” for people. He said there was “even less consensus in the community” about the employee tax and it needed “more debate and development.” Meanwhile, Metro funding must move forward now.

All of these suboptimal provisions aside, this measure deserves your vote in November.

* Technically meeting as the Board of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD).

24 Replies to “Seattle Council Sends Metro Tax to Ballot”

  1. The VLF is a pigovian tax, not a regressive tax. Stop using that line of commentary. The sales tax is undeniably regressive however, but it’s so minute to be irrelevant.

    1. “it’s a bit rich to say a commercial parking tax (which is avoidable) is more regressive than the vehicle license fee they just passed (which is less so)”

      As a relative matter I don’t think there’s even argument.

      1. That’s a cop out. It depends what your objective is: discourage vehicle ownership (VLF), or discourage parking. Both are progressive objectives. But discouraging ownership is much urban friendly and environmental friendly than discouraging the location of where you park. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do both. The main issue here is that one has to go to the goters and one doesn’t, and that’s unfortunate because the electorate shouldn’t have a say in the first place.

      2. @Stephen: There are a variety of meanings of the word “progressive”. One that has a reasonably specific definition (which is nice, because it means it can be discussed without doing the “progressive litmus test dance”) is the income-progressiveness of a tax; on that count intuition says Martin is correct.

        The payroll tax is probably more controversial than the commercial parking tax (maybe because it’s been proposed enough times that opposition by large employers is well established); both have concentrated, well-connected opposition that can effectively lobby an at-large council like ours (as opposed to the broad-based opposition to VLFs). It’s possible that district elections would change the calculus — currently the concentrated opposition to the payroll tax actually spreads broadly across the entire council, whereas in a district-elected council maybe only a couple members would care.

  2. “It’s perhaps inevitable that introducing city funding also introduces another veto point for restructures.”

    1. There’s already a bit of city funding going to transit operations, right?

      Seattle (or at least a pretty good bit of Seattle) reasonably wants to spend more money per-person on transit than the rest of King County, and not only on routes that are of great interest to everyone that visits here. In order to get that the city has to fund some transit operations, or we need to stop requiring all spending to have a specific tax source and just make sure to generally spend in a way that’s fair and effective.

  3. The Save Route 2 folks are aware that an eventual restructuring is almost certain. So what they’re really doing is slowing it down, for a year or two or ten.

    1. Capitol Hill Light Rail Station opening and First Hill Streetcar opening will greatly affect transit patterns in Capitol Hill. The UW station opening will create new interest about restructuring northwest Seattle service to feed Link. Postponing restructuring until these major investments are open may been bad, but in the larger scheme of things it’s actually good to not switch bus routes until the new transit lines and stations are open and people change their transit paths. I expect that Madison Valley riders will really like Route 8 for Downtown trips, and many Route 10 riders on 15th Avenue will move to Link since the station is so close, for example. Timely restructuring is great; untimely restructuring is devastating.

      1. I will never understand the argument that today’s riders should suffer vestigial crap routing for one more second, merely on the basis of vague expectations of tertiary-level alterations in the future.

        The 2 is terrible now; it has been terrible for years; it should be fixed yesterday.

        (And yes, thanks to the First Hill subway station’s deletion, routes 2 and 12 are only tertiarily affected by the coming Link opening. Not that anyone has promised substantive or well-reasoned changes to the primarily or secondarily affected routes either.)

        (Also, make no mistake: Ms. Cullen and her ilk will continue to fight any common-sense fixes to the 2 long after the subway opens… and after Madison BRT is detailed… and for as long as it takes for the transit leaders to learn to ignore her/tell her to stop wasting 99% of riders’ time with her fear of change.)

      2. I just don’t get why the current Route 2 routing is terrible. How is this restructuring better? Give me specifics! Currently the Route 2 bus riders have fewer signals on Seneca to with through than they do on Madison. Madison has much heavier traffic and buses get stuck behind cars. Even with transit signal priority, there will continue to be lots of left turn phases on Madison and pedestrians on Madison that won’t enable buses to speed down the street no matter how the thing is engineered. Route 2 today goes by entrances to the DSTT, which is NOW more important than it has been for years because Link light rail is now running. Route 2 riders in wheelchairs and walkers won’t have a level place near Third Avenue to get on and off the bus with the new routing. Route 2 riders from the CD or Madonna can today get to Westlake and places like that without changing buses, while the only advantage that the new routing offers is closer direct access to some Downtown skyscrapers and the ferries to Bremerton and Bainbridge Island and many riders just don’t go to those places.

        Finally, Madison would only be BRT if they eliminated at least half of the stops on the street and make most of the street transit only.. Just installing pretty shelters and transit signal priority that won’t be operationally viable (because of traffic and turning vehicles and pedestrians) most of the time is not BRT, as many of the commenters about RapidRide here have noted in numerous posts. In fact, if you really studied the Madison BRT maps closely in the Transit Master Plan, you would find substantially fewer number of stops visioned on Madison than the City is currently designing.

      3. Even in the middle of the day, or well into the evening — times of little traffic — the current 2 takes minutes longer than the 12 to go from 3rd to 12th Ave. It often runs more than 50% of its scheduled headway late at any hour, which the 12 does not.

        This is not opinion. This is fact.

        That’s what all of the extra zig-zags and unsignalized left turns and fewer-but-longer red lights (because Seneca above 7th is a minor street, de-prioritized for through traffic) and complicated, wholly arbitrary through-routing buys you.

        And that’s before you consider rush hour, or the crowds headed to the highway after any significant event. Those are the hours when the 2 on Seneca JUST…. SITS…. THERE.

        Madison isn’t perfect for level boarding, but neither is today’s 2, which in the downhill direction stops at an insane angle at Seneca and 4th, then doesn’t stop again for five more blocks. My best advice is to figure out a capitol improvement that moves Madison stops as close as possible to 3rd proper, smooths out the near-flat curb just shy of the intersection, and uses signals to ensure that the bus doesn’t get penalized for stopping near-side. In the long run, that seems so much smarter than wasting hours of 2 passengers lives (disabled and non-disabled alike).

        Madison is as close to the DSTT as Pike Street is to Pine. Really. It’s a hell of a lot closer than the transfers being proposed at Capitol Hill or U-District stations. Yes, those blocks below University really are that short. The “extraordinary transfer distance” is a non-issue and, frankly, a lie.

        Madison BRT is all about full-time bus lanes, and wholesale signal revisions. That is in any serious, actionable version of the plan. But you cannot justify those things when your best suggested frequency is only 4 times an hour. (Note, again, the signals stacked against the four-times-an-hour 2 on non-primary-arterial Seneca.)

        I don’t know about you, Al, but I’m tired of waiting 25 minutes for buses that are supposed to come every 15 or better, because there’s no other way to get anywhere near where I want to go, or because all of the other options are equally poorly scheduled. Even worse to finally get on my bus, and then to spend a quarter of an hour going the next four blocks. I’ll happily walk two blocks, or utilize a comes-every-five-seconds transfer on 3rd, in order to actually start heading to my destination. I am, frankly, completely done with paying $90/month to bow to the whims of those who don’t seem to care if they ever get to their destinations, and with giving a shit about their stupid slowpoke opinions.

        I will vote against any tax levy that explicitly promises inertia. Possibly including this one.

  4. Tom Rasmussen earned unanimous approval of an amendment he said was inspired by the League of Women Voters, that “clarifies” that “the first priority for the funding is to preserve existing routes and prevent Metro’s proposed service cuts and restructures,”


    In response, Sally Clark and Jean Godden [argued] that they would hurt small businesses and that the commercial parking tax is regressive because it falls on all people, regardless of income, who drive cars.

    Even dumber.

  5. A per stall fee of off street parking could fix two problems: oversupply of parking and underfunded transit.

  6. Good ol’ Nick “if it’s not my idea, I’m against it!” Licata. Always working hard for the betterment of Seattle.

    1. What do you mean? He voted for both funding options. It’s Mike O’brien who is the turncoat here.

      1. What did O’Brien do wrong, besides voting for the non-sensical Licata amendment to prevent the money from being spent on capital improvements?

      2. Rubber stamping a regressive sales tax when there were more progressive options available, obviously.

  7. The idea that TBD funds won’t be allowed to be used on capital improvement projects, like bus lanes, traffic signal priority, real-time arrival signage (which is mostly useful to poorer riders without smartphones), and things like the pedestrian bridge to Northgate Station seems utterly bizarre.

    If these funds are to be used as a bridge, they should be allowed to be used in ways that reduce the need for service hours over time.

    1. I’m a bit ok with that because these things have other funding sources. Metro is supposed to be funded by the county thrrouvh the taxes we all pay. These additional taxes are making up for what the county won’t pay for the level of service the city needs.

      Of course the city could go it alone and create its own in city bus company.

  8. A wording amendment that Rasmussen pushed through: removing the word “generally” before this language: “consistent with the Seattle Transit Master Plan and Metro’s Service Guidelines” in regard to purchase of additional service hours. Could give a bit of protection to Metro’s (and SDOT’s) professional planning process from council ad-hoc actions – and that seemed Rasmussen’s intent.

    Maybe a small victory given the preservation-ist language elsewhere.

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