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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.