For at least five years, the primary objective of City and County transportation lobbying effort has been new revenue authority for Metro, generally understood to be some form of Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). County leaders held back on “Plan B,” a flat vehicle fee via a Transportation Benefit District (TBD), until the last possible moment prior to cuts, partly because progressive voters would view a tax proportional to the value of the vehicle as fairer.
In hindsight, that was a mistake. An April election has an unfavorable electorate. Again, this is 20/20 hindsight — I thought saving Metro had a decent chance this year — but after the 2013 legislative session accomplished nothing, they should have immediately planned a November 2013 ballot measure via TBD. April’s result suggests that replacing a flat fee with an MVET wouldn’t have made much of a difference in a spring tally, but higher turnout might have.
This November, Seattle voters will vote on preserving most of their own service after experiencing the first swath of cuts. Odds are very good that they vote to keep buses running. Although Mayor Murray has said all the right things about the Seattle funding being temporary until there is a regional solution, in fact the stakes for future legislative action are quite low. Winning a countywide vote is about a better election turnout, the likely end of the myth that Metro will magically avoid cuts through “efficiency”, and convincing more conservative voters. Although MVET would be great, the precise structure of the vehicle taxes is unlikely to be decisive, and in any case the highest demand jurisdiction (Seattle) will almost certainly be in reasonable shape.
That’s why Seattle and King County should reorient their priorities towards something with a higher payoff. I’m referring, of course, to Sound Transit 3. As the legislature considers a large package to address the perceived transportation problems around the state, ST3 is the only project that will truly change transportation in dense urban areas and key regional chokepoints.
Moreover, action is urgent. There has been essentially no public discussion of the need for more authority for Sound Transit in Olympia, and there are only two more sessions before the November 2016 election. Sound Transit, wisely, strongly prefers votes in Presidential election cycles, and if we miss the 2016 opportunity it may have to wait till 2020. That would likely slide even early light rail segments to around 2034, and late ones near mid-century. If most of the people in the debate today are going to see its fruits in their working lives, it’s time for local leaders and our representatives in Olympia to not just play defense and instead focus on the right thing.