by Kelsey Mesher
A countywide 2020 transportation measure would help address affordability, growth and mobility needs — and maintain Seattle’s current level of service.
With one of the largest and most progressive electorates expected to turn out this year, 2020 presents an opportunity to address our region’s largest challenges, including transportation. On Wednesday, February 26, the King County Council kicked off its first public discussion of going to the ballot to ask voters to support a countywide Transportation Benefit District, which could raise as much as $160 million annually for bus service, programs and improvements through a 0.2% increase in sales tax.
We have seen the successes of transit investment through Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District. In the last two years alone, Seattle has increased TBD-funded Metro service by 36%. As a result, more than 7 in 10 residents live within a 10-minute walk of very frequent bus service. While transit ridership has declined in cities across the country, Seattle has bucked the trends – increasing transit ridership and kept drive alone commute rates at bay. The City has also used TBD funds to support access and affordability programs, providing free transit for students and some residents of low-income housing.
Metro’s long range plan, Metro Connects, outlines how we can achieve outcomes like these throughout King County, which is why Transportation Choices Coalition strongly supports taking a countywide approach to funding transit. The alternative is continuing with a “pay-to-play” system where the most well-resourced cities, like Seattle (or potentially Bellevue or Redmond, should they choose to run their own measures), receive a higher level of service, creating a two-tiered transit system.
We are all well aware of the needs:
- We need to improve equitable transportation access; parts of our region have not received adequate transit investments and a lack of fast, frequent, reliable, and accessible transit is leaving people behind.
- We need transit to serve our regional growth. Tens of thousands of jobs are being added in Bellevue and beyond, and our population growth shows no signs of slowing.
- Over 20 light rail stations are coming online by 2024 – we need to get people there and cannot afford (financially or environmentally) to build massive amounts of parking.
- We need for transit service to be accessible and affordable. Transportation is the second highest cost for households, behind housing – frequent and affordable transit connects people to places that they can afford to live, jobs and education.
The passing of I-976 has complicated how we approach these challenges, and further limits what tools we have to fund transit. Without the option to levy vehicle license fees, Seattle likely can’t maintain its current level of investment if it renews its TBD alone. And of course, without a change in state law, or a court victory against I-976, options for funding transit remain extremely limited. The County must be thoughtful about how to mitigate the regressive impacts of a sales tax increase.
We will not be able to address these challenges without a shared effort to increase funding and deliver more transit across King County. Through TCC’s outreach we know that a countywide transit measure will have the support not only of transportation advocates, but of affordability advocates, labor partners, businesses big and small, climate activists, and the general public – who understand that improving transit in our region benefits everyone. The time to build a broad and winning coalition is now.
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Kelsey Mesher is the Advocacy Director at Transportation Choices Coalition