King County is contemplating a 0.2% sales tax increase that would replace the expiring Seattle TBD taxes and raise a total of $160 million annually for Metro. The package under discussion would extend the service hours funded by Seattle’s 2014 levy, currently about 350,000 hours annually in Seattle. It would add new funding for 450,000 to 550,000 hours elsewhere in the County.
The planned August 4 ballot measure must be filed by May 8. Effectively, the deadline for a King County decision is much sooner. Seattle is not yet on board and wants to see the County proposal this month so the city has time to deliberate whether to support the County measure or pursue their own. A series of meetings up through March 23 are scheduled to finalize the County’s proposal.
Metro is funded by a 0.9% countywide sales tax. Since 2014, this has been supplemented by a $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax in Seattle. Those will expire at the end of December. I-976 removed the city’s authority for the vehicle license fee, but the tax continues to be collected while litigation is ongoing. With Seattle paying higher taxes than the suburbs, service became correspondingly more Seattle-centric. Suburban leaders want a countywide tax that extends the improvements in Seattle service levels since 2014 and ‘levels up’ the transit service outside the city.
Some illustrative options for the spending program were shared at a meeting of the County TBD (the King County Council members sitting as the board of the district) last week. The options were characterized as leaning into innovation, service, or electrification, reflecting different mixes of spending. Because the County can make any a la carte selection it wishes within the overall funding availability, it’s more helpful to think of the presented options as reasonable bookends for what is politically feasible.
In all scenarios, $70 million would go to Seattle to support the services and programs funded by the expiring taxes of the Seattle TBD. That’s a little less revenue than the current TBD receives from a VLF and 0.1% sales tax, but a little more than Seattle could raise by running their own 0.2% sales tax.
Other funding would be distributed as follows:
Service: $43 to $53 million annually could fund 450 thousand to 550 thousand service hours per year. This is a ten-year average; it would gradually ramp up to a somewhat higher total. This roughly corresponds to the 480,000 hours identified in the most recent Metro system evaluation as needed to meet target service levels and to improve service quality.
Affordability: $12 million per year to support Metro’s low income programs, particularly the upcoming free fares for riders with incomes below 80% of the federal poverty level. That program is expected to start this summer with 54,000 eligible participants drawn from state benefit programs, but could scale to about 130,000 participants based on income criteria.
Innovation: $0 to $20 million annually to support innovative new services such as the Via pilot in the Rainier Valley (and some others that have had less impressive results). Projects in this space are naturally unique and varied, but a typical project has an approximate $5 million price tag annually.
Electrification of Bus bases: $0 to $22 million. Metro has currently unfunded plans to electrify several bases. The capital costs of electrification at the South Base Annex and at North Base are about $165 million each. These capital expenditures could be debt-financed for about $11 million each over 30 years. An additional $30 million per year would finance the $448 million cost of electrifying facilities at Central, Atlantic and Ryerson.
The trade-offs between transit service levels and electrification that we wrote about last month are inescapably in play now.
Speed & Reliability: $3 to $9 million. These are corridor and intersection improvements, and hot spot investments targeting areas causing travel delays. Metro currently invests about $7 million per year at about $1.5 million per project. The TBD could fund another 2 to 6 projects annually.
Parking: $0 to $5 million. At the upper level, this would fund about 600 more stalls with real time parking information, mostly through leased facilities.
Metro, as several County Council members observed, is not short of opportunities for further investment. Metro Connects has a large funding gap, larger indeed than this measure can fill. Planned electrification adds considerably to that, and the low income programs are so far only tenuously funded. Expect these competing priorities to be debated extensively over the next few weeks.