Rainy Third Avenue with lots of buses
Third Avenue in 2018-appropriate weather. Photo by Wings777.

The Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD) expires in 2021.   It’s an open question as to whether Seattle will go it alone or try to partner with the county on a joint measure (previous county measure failed in 2014, which led to the TBD’s creation).

To date, no decision has been made. Regardless, another ballot measure is a given at this point. Here are a few ways to think about the state of play for our next ballot measure, whenever it arrives.

Area

The most obvious question for a future TBD is what area it will cover: Seattle or all of King County.  A county-wide TBD makes logical sense, since it mirrors Metro’s operational area. As of February, the County council was still considering it.

For Seattle, though, the bus service provided by the current TBD is more critical than ever, while county voters have been less willing to fund buses lately (we’ll get to that in a minute). So while having one bus system with two different fundings levels is problematic, it’s better than not having the additional service in Seattle at all.

Capital

The original TBD banned spending on capital projects (though that ban has since been relaxed).  The resulting focus on operations means the program is remarkably efficient: the vast majority of revenue goes directly into bus hours.  Zoom out a little, though, and the efficiency story gets murkier: every weeknight, bonfires of tax dollars are lit throughout the city —  at Denny & Stewart, at 6th and Olive, at 1st and Jackson, and so many other spots — as crush-loaded buses idle in rush hour traffic.  The TBD report itself notes that Seattle buses are on time just 67% of the time in the 5pm hour. And that was before West Seattle routes moved to 1st Avenue.

Though the parallel Move Seattle Levy is still the main capital funding source, the next TBD, especially if it’s Seattle-only, absolutely ought to focus heavily on spot improvements to keep buses moving throughout the city.  Perhaps by setting a minimum average speed or on-time performance for TBD-funded routes? 

Source: SDOT

Equity

The 2015 TBD provided an exemption for low-income drivers to exempt themselves from the license fee. In terms of program delivery, the original proposition was vague. When it became clear that Metro couldn’t deliver the service hours Seattle was paying for in the original TBD, the city council beefed up the equity component by redirecting funds to programs such as ORCA Opportunity.  

In the intervening years, however, the city has spun up a Transportation Equity Program that will no doubt have a more proactive role in a future TBD.  

“This is an opportunity to have a discussion about the very low income fare,’ Transportation Choices Coalition’s Alex Hudson told me via phone recently.  We can and should expect the next levy – especially if it’s Seattle focused – to have a stronger equity component from the start.

Additional programs

Metro is racing to deliver bus base capacity and should have some more online by the time the next levy hits. Assuming they can hire enough drivers, the question becomes whether the TBD focuses squarely on bus service hours or continues to provide additional programs like ORCA Opportunity or the last-mile Via service.

Revenue sources

The current Seattle TBD generates about $50 million a year through a $60 annual vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax. Metro overall needs higher funding levels to fully implement its long-range plan, Metro Connects.  Whether that comes from a TBD or something else is an open question.  A sales tax is always a possibility, although such taxes have been, fairly or not, recently lumped in the “regressive” bucket.   There is also the question of a vehicle license fee, which brings us to…

I-976

The latest Tim Eyman initiative, were it to pass, would decimate transit funding state wide.  In rural Garfield County, for example, where license fees provide 90% of transit revenue, bus service would simply cease to exist, according to TCC’s Hudson.  Here in Puget Sound, the impacts to Sound Transit would be quite severe.  Planning a new car-tab-dependent TBD in the face of this uncertainty carries some risk.

Timing

A new TBD needs to be approved in time for the Spring 2021 Metro service change, which means a Fall 2020 ballot measure at the latest.  While County voters have been less willing to vote for taxes to fund buses, many of those elections have been off-year low-turnout affairs.  November 2020 would be a different and presumably more liberal electorate.  But running a county measure at that time would be a high-stakes gamble that leaves Seattle with little wiggle room should it fail.

Either way, the clock is ticking. 

24 Replies to “Seven considerations for a TBD that’s still TBD”

  1. Umm, I 976 passes = no more TBD. Garfield is sales tax funded with a PTBA. Ellensburg Central Transit is the one going away (sales tax TBD)… Wow TCC has sure gone downhill.

    1. 976 just takes away the vehicle fee under TBDs. Sales tax, impact fees, property tax, and roadway charges are still available for use under the enabling state law.

  2. “A sales tax is always a possibility, although such taxes have been, fairly or not, recently lumped in the “regressive” bucket.”

    Fairly or not? This sounds like Trump talking about global warming. Trickle down economics isn’t actual economic theory. Sales tax is regressive and Washington State has the most regressive tax system in the country. Period.

    https://itep.org/new-report-finds-that-upside-down-state-and-local-tax-systems-persist-contributing-to-inequality-in-most-states/

    1. The sales tax=regressive argument comes mostly from the assumption that every person, rich or poor, must own a car, therefore, pay lots of sales tax on the car purchase, plus any repairs that need to be made on it.

      Take out the assumption that the poor need to own cars, and suddenly, sales tax looks a lot less regressive than it once did. Remember, unprepared food is not taxed. Rent is not taxed. Transit fares are not taxed. Utilities have their own separate taxes, and aren’t covered by the regular sales tax. If you don’t own a car, and don’t spend extravagantly on clothes or luxuries, you really don’t end up paying that much in sales tax.

      1. Where are these areas that the poor can live car free and have a job commuting to Seattle and have a walkable community? And what is the average rent in those places?

      2. And the assumption of the availability of unprepared food and a place and the time to prepare food is unproven. For much of the poor, takeout from a local food truck or fast food place may be the best or in some cases only option.

    2. In my initial draft I had lumped sales taxes and the VLF in here together as “such taxes.” But that wasn’t clear in the final wording. I agree that the case for sales tax being regressive is more of a lock than the VLF.

  3. As much as I would love to see more bus service in the rest of the county, I feel that tying Seattle’s bus service to a county-wide ballot measure would be irresponsible.

    I also don’t feel like a uniform tax rate across the entire county makes sense, anyway, as it is perfectly natural that some parts of the county need more bus service than others, and that the areas that need more service should pay more in taxes to fund it.

    I do feel sorry for some of the neighboring cities who want more transit, but don’t have the votes to pay for it without Seattle’s help. Maybe the right solution would be for them to form their own TBD, with a smaller amount than Seattle’s, and also carefully crafted boundary areas, focusing on the neighborhoods where transit is likely to be the most useful, rather than arbitrary municipal boundaries. For example, on the eastside, I could imagine a doughnut-shaped TBD that would roughly include downtown Bellevue, crossroads, Microsoft campus, downtown Redmond, downtown Kirkland, and the corridors covered by the B-line/234/235/245/248 buses (plus future Link corridor) that run between them. Excluded would be vast swaths of single-family homes south of I-90 and near Lake Sammamish, as well as the Bridle Trails neighborhood, in the middle of the doughnut.

  4. Would it be possible to pass a Seattle TBD measure on a spring 2020 ballot, and define it so it does not come into effect if a county measure comes to the ballot and passes in fall 2020? If so, I think that’d be the best policy.

    1. This is an excellent idea. It would require VERY careful crafting and an expensive ad campaign, but is definitely the most prudent path to ensure Seattle service continues.

    2. But, then, why would anyone in Seattle vote for the fall measure? Doing so would simply create risk that their bus service would get spread thin throughout the county.

      It’s also not clear that even a Seattle only measure would pass in a special election ballot. If it’s the same ballot as the Democratic presidential primary, it would probably pass. But, if it’s a separate thing, I’m not so sure.

      1. Good point, asdf2. Then the only answer is for both Seattle and King County to be on the 2020 General Election ballot, with the Seattle levy dependent on failure of the King County levy. Again, that would require careful drafting and an expensive ad campaign: “Vote for both and pay for only one!” or something like that.

      2. Yeah, I think that’s probably the best bet. But, it needs to be very clear that Seattle won’t lose bus service if the county measure passes, and that people won’t pay twice if both measures pass.

  5. You definitely don’t want to make a habit out of creating transit districts smaller than at least the county level. Consider the Phoenix area, where each suburb decides by themselves how much transit to provide. As a result, bus routes begin and end at city limits regardless of where people actually want to go. In the Detroit area, another region where suburbs decide if they would like to pay for transit or not, bus routes operate “express” through cities that decided they didn’t want to pay, again regardless of where people actually want to go. Arguably, small transit system areas that could not grow as the urban area grew (like city transit departments limited to the city proper) are a major reason why so much of suburban United States communities have no transit at all.

    1. That’s also what happened in the Miami area. You have over a dozen municipal agencies each with a small pot of money, mostly running branded “shuttle or “trolley” service every 1-2 hours. They even need permission from the county to serve, say, the county transit hub a half mile beyond the city limits.

    2. The LA funding model is curious. The sales tax is approved at the county level, but each city directs how they want to siens transit operations dollars.

      1. I realize that. Frankly this article is a bit shoddy. Here’s another example:

        “The Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD) expires in 2021.”

        No, no it doesn’t. Seattle’s Prop 1 funding measure, which voters approved in 2014, is what expires.

  6. LA distributes some of the sales tax funding from its large measure to municipal transit operators, like Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica. But a lot of transit operations money goes to LA Metro’s county level service.

    On sales taxes being regressive: In California the argument’s been made that if a transit funding measure focused enough on the poor, that would overcome the regressivity of sales tax. But if the measure focused on goodies for the rich, then it obviously wouldn’t.

  7. Frank, regarding the slow service at 5 p.m., that is largely the result of the several governments shooting themselves in the foot: Seattle took 1st Avenue off the table for the stupid and delayed streetcar; the county sold CPS to the convention center and ended DSTT bus service prematurely; ST and Metro did not restructure routes to meet ST at UW Link (SR-520) or Angle Lake or South Sounder, so there are too many bus trips in downtown at the same hour; and, ST only has 62 Link cars, limiting Link capacity; all while WSDOT is tearing down the AWV.

    of course, there are too many cars in the way of the buses. the Murray-Kubly SDOT also took lanes away to provide some PBL; transit was slowed, as it was left in fewer lanes with the traffic. there are several limited access highways dumping traffic into and out of Seattle.

    Regarding the TBD question: 2020 is the year. but answer may not be city or the county, but both. the key is voter turnout; both TBD elections should be at the Novemeber General Election when turnout is highest and not at an April Election with very low turnout. might the Seattle TBD be in two parts: at level X with a county affirmative vote and a higher level Y with a county negative vote? the county TBD might be less than the whole county; there many margins.

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