Yellow shirts filled Seattle City Council chambers, holding posters with hundreds of hand-signed petition along the walls. Members of the Transit Riders Union were out in force to voice their opinions to councilmembers, but the topic this time wasn’t potential bus cuts or a push for a low-income transit pass. Instead, the grassroots organization was advocating for an income tax on high earners.
The group’s inaugural 2011 campaign, Save Our Metro, began in response to King County Metro Transit’s plans to cut bus service after the recession caused a steep reduction in sales tax revenue. Now, six years later, the group’s mission has expanded to include this year’s push for a less regressive tax system.
“We were interested in not just forming a transit advocacy organization, but in building power by bringing large numbers of people together to fight for political gains in improving the transit system and other issues,” said Katie Wilson, the Transit Riders Union general secretary, describing the group’s origin.
For years, TRU fought for various transit measures that increased funding for bus service or expanded light rail. These raised sales and property taxes the group saw as regressive, which was frustrating.
To Wilson, one of the founding members of the group, the current suburbanization of poverty in the region led to a natural transition of issues for the Transit Riders Union.
“We always feel that we are being given this choice, if you want a better transit system we need to raise the sales tax, we need to raise the property tax, we need to raise the car tab fees,” Wilson said. “All these taxes that are hitting the working and poor people the hardest and we have to vote to raise those taxes to get a world-class transit system.”
Building on the energy generated by the 2016 election, the group partnered with the Economic Opportunity Institute to begin creating a more equitable tax system and “Trump-Proof” Seattle.
A high-earners income tax, targeting individuals making above $250,000 and married couples who earn above $500,000, quickly passed through City Council this summer.
The battle now is working its way through the court system, and in November the coalition was dealt a blow after a King County Superior Court ruling declared the proposal illegal. The city has appealed that decision. Disappointed but not surprised by the ruling, Wilson remains hopeful.
“Even if we lose, it’s worth it,” she said. “What we have to do to move forward is try things. You can’t be deterred by the possibility of failure.”
Though the Transit Riders Union lost an early fight to save the ride-free area in Seattle, the group later successfully lobbied the King County Council to create ORCA LIFT, a low-income fare program, and to expand the Human Services Reduced Fare Bus Ticket program.
“We didn’t succeed in stopping [the elimination of the free ride area],” Wilson said. “But the momentum and the visibility that we built up in that campaign really amplified the issue of affordability and helped to push the county council toward the creation of a low-income reduced fare.”
Though a free transit system remains a goal for the group, the Transit Riders Union realizes that without being able to point to a new funding source, it’s “just not a very realistic demand,” Wilson said.
“We are sensitive to the fact that, unless we have a huge new funding source, if you were to make transit free right now that would be a big hit to Metro’s budget,” Wilson said.
“Another way to get there is to push for programs that get transit passes in people’s hands,” Wilson added. “You can approach it from a demographic level, ‘let’s get free transit for seniors, for youths, for workers.’”
Next year the group plans to campaign for more while pushing for more affordability programs, including an expansion of the youth ORCA program by giving free transit passes to all youth.
While waiting for the income tax fight to play out in court, the Transit Rider’s Union joined the Housing for All coalition, advocating for more shelters and services for people experiencing homelessness. Wilson said other issues on the table for next year include thinking about a renewal package for Seattle’s Prop 1 measure.
“We need more bus service,” said Jim McIntosh. “There are bus routes that are overcrowded and take too long to get through downtown.”
McIntosh joined the Transit Riders Union in 2012 and currently chairs the Transit Operations and Planning Committee. Being visually impaired, the public transportation system is a lifeline for him. Preventing drastic service cuts in bus service and passing Seattle’s Prop 1 are among McIntosh’s proudest accomplishments during his time in the Union.
“It was bad, many neighborhoods were not going to have bus service into the night,” McIntosh said of the proposed bus cuts. “It was really was remarkable how we lobbied, how we campaigned.”
“One of the frustrating things about organizing is sometimes the moment you stop exerting pressure, everything grinds to a halt, the bureaucratic inertia takes over,” Wilson said.