Metro buses in Bellevue (image: SounderBruce)

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.

33 Replies to “The regional revenue proposal for Metro”

  1. Why not just run more wire and go with an all trolley fleet instead of building expensive recharging stations that in twenty years are going to be obsolete.

    1. Are you proposing all trolley routes throughout the system. What about the I5 and I90 routes? The current electric buses operate from Bellevue Base. Are you suggesting trolleybus wires on Eastside routes?

      1. I suppose one could argue on focusing capital dollars on trolley expansion (for example, the RR Roosevelt) and continue to purchase diesel hybrids per regular bus replacement schedules through the life of this levy, and wait to see how technology changes.

        As for the I5 and I90 routes, those should pretty much all disappear once ST2 is delivered. I’m deeply skeptical trolley wire make sense in SE King County, so I fully support electrifying South Base, but I suppose there is a discussion to be had around battery vs trolley wire for, say, the A and B lines.

        When I was at ST, I was involved in discussions around electrifying the ST Express fleet, and because of the temporary nature of most of the routes made it very risky to transition to a different technology. This is in contract the Stride buses, which are likely to be electric because the bus base is being built from scratch and doesn’t need to be interchangeable with an existing fleet.

  2. Sales taxes for transit are far too high here already — much higher than anywhere else in the country. No way should King County try hiking them higher.

    Seattle should just impose a payroll tax on the large employers, based on the number of high-paid workers each has, and use the revenues for purchasing Metro service to benefit the residents and businesses of Seattle. It can do that without any ballot measure, by council action alone.

    1. New York is considering shutting down their transit system due to COVID19. We should do the same ,if the situation warrants , to help stem the spread of the outbreak. I predict at current rate of infection Seattle will be under the same lockdown as Italy in about three weeks.

  3. It’s not an MVET, it’s a flat $60 tax. MVET is indexed to car value, however imperfectly.

  4. I’m not at all thrilled about the county putting this on the August ballot instead of November where its chances of passage—due to much higher turnout—are almost certain.

    I don’t understand the reluctance to have two tax measures on the same ballot. But even assuming the validity, I want them reversed. Health levies like for Harborview are less controversial so that one should be in August and badly-needed transit in November.

    Is there anything we can do to change the Council’s mind on this?

    1. To me, it indicates that they don’t actually want it to pass; they just want to be able to tell transit advocates that they tried.

    2. Yeah, they should put everything we need on the November ballot. No need to prioritize. Anything and everything will pass in November.

    3. Harborview should move to August. There is a risk of people not wanting to approve several large tax measures at once and choosing the one that affects them the most so nurses choose Harborview and heavy bus riders choose Metro. Seattle may approve all of them but that’s not guaranteed across the county. Metro already has a hadicap outside Seattle — the last two countywide Metro measures failed — so it doesn’t need another factor against it. Transit needs to be treated like a basic resource with a Candian/European level of service, not an afterthought. That’s how we got into this problem of car dependency and mobility limitations in the first place, because we didn’t expand transit proportional to the highway and housing growth over the past half-century.

      The Harborview expansion may be important but the county needs to articulate why. Only a portion of the population gets sick once or twice a year and most don’t go to Harborview, whereas transit people use five or seven days a week and we’re trying to encourage transit/walking/biking as the primary ways to get around. In order to be the primary mode, it needs primary-level service, and not postponing it to 2020 and then withholding the most effective factor in getting it passed so it gets postponed again until 2024 or 2028.

      1. The reason for August is so that Seattle can put a local transit levy on the November ballot if the County measure fails.

      2. @Transit rider officials have said that they won’t actually have time for a November Seattle ballot because the deadline is after the August primary. So the Seattle election would have to happen in February anyway. Which is double nuts.

      3. Seattle can have a November measure but it would have to be submitted before the August election so the writers wouldn’t know the August result. It’s similar to the situation of ten candidates appearing on the primary ballot even though all but two had dropped out. It could suspend itself if the August measure passes, or people might just vote no on it. But this would be hard to explain to voters since they aren’t used to “A or fallback to B” situations.

        Another approach would be to exclude Seattle from the county TBD like the King County Library System is. Then they could make separate funding choices. They could reserve a percentage for city-suburban routes like the 106 and 120.

      4. Excluding Seattle from the county TBD is a nonstarter; without Seattle’s votes, it would have zero chance of passing.

  5. please consider revising the headline to “countywide” from “regional”. Let’s use regional for intercounty issues.

    the elected leaders seem to be placing the Harborview measure in the General Election with greater turnout. The Primary Election generally has lower turnout. This is our challenge. At least it is not April; see 1995 and 2014.

    1. “please consider revising the headline to “countywide” from “regional”.”

      +1. The word regional has been positioned for things like Sound Transit, Amtrak Cascades, “regionally significant centers”, and ORCA. Usiing it for King County Metro muddies the waters. In the 1960s-80s during Forward Thrust and Metro Transit’s creation the region was part of King Counly — 90% of the population lived in Seattle, and the urbanized area was Lake City to Renton, but that sense of “the region” is long gone.

      “the elected leaders seem to be placing the Harborview measure in the General Election with greater turnout.”

      They’re putting their thumbs on the scale and saying Harborview is high priority to pass but Metro isn’t. There’s a vast difference voting results between presidential and non-presidential elections. Conservatives generally vote in every election, while liberals generally vote only in presidential elections. That’s liberals’ fault, but the only way to get transit measures passed with any certainty is to time them with presidential elections. The country focuses too much on the presidency and not enough on other offices, and liberals are particularly myopic in this.

    2. +1. It also implies that the referendum includes ST, or for both major transit agencies within King County – addition to other operators in adjacent counties.

  6. per Beef, expanded battery bus is not the only means of electrification. Expanded use of electric trolley bus (ETB) is also an option. There may be several types of ETB expansion. the Swiss, Austrians, and Germans know how.

    One is underway; SDOT and Metro may be adding overhead for Route 48 and South Henderson Street. Before 2009, routes 14 and 36 were extended to Link stations.

    Two, the network could shift to ETB from hybrid. Some routes run under or close to the ETB overhead and could be replaced with ETB. Examples follow. The south part of Route 8 on MLK: its deletion could be mitigated by adding trips to ETB routes 3, 4, 48, and extending Route 8 to Madison Park. Route 29: its deletion could be mitigated by additional trips on ETB routes 2 or 13. Route 9 could be deleted and more trips added to ETB Route 7.

    Third, additional ETB overhead could be added. FTA grants could be sought. between 1940 and 1963, routes 5, 6, 7, 8 (now 74) , 11, 15, 16, and 18 were ETB serving West Seattle, Ballard, and north central and northeast Seattle were ETB. Target routes could be frequent, serve urban villages, serve steep grades, and have common pathways with current ETB routes. from the current network routes 5, 8, 21, D, E, 40, 62, and 65-67 could be candidates. SDOT is proposing the Roosevelt line; but that has a poor design due to long transfer walks at the NE 45th Street Link station. The network would be stronger if Route 70 became the RR line.

    Fourth, a larger step might be to shift the E Line to double articulated ETB and add another ETB base, say at the Shoreline park-and-ride. auto-access riders will likely shift to Link in 2024.

    Fifth, a process step could make all ETB faster and more efficient. they could be branded and sped by proof-of-payment fare collection. that was an element of the portfolio for the AWV replacement scenarios. if more ETB were required by any of these steps, additional base capacity would be needed. the battery bus expansion has base needs.

    1. Trolley wire is expensive. It’s one thing to fill in a mile-long gap on the 48 or reroute the 3/4 to Yesler-8th (which has been withdrawn), but it’s another thing to wire the 5 or 67 or routes like that. Yes, Metro could apply for federal grants, but those are in the same Congressional funds that are in danger of decreasing, and the feds don’t want to give too many grants to Seattle/Pugetopolis and shortchange the rest of the country. We need to look at what grants we could get if we didn’t expand the trolley network, and not just expand it blindly.

      The E could possibly be the route that’s added. It’s the highest-volume route and will need a long-term upgrade if Link is not coming to Aurora. However, it is the longest route, which means the most trolley wire.

      1. Mike, you’re right about the E being the single route most likely to benefit from electrification. However, it has never had ETB’s, unlike some of the parallel routes. Since the City is not “undergrounding” neighborhoods, they still have the most expensive part of new electrification: the poles.

        Yes, I understand that “special work” is also quite expensive, but restoring wire to a previously electrified long neighborhood route like the 5 south of 85th would require special work only where it connects with or crosses an existing ETB line and at “turn-back” loops. That would be three locations. The 5 north of 85th does not have the necessary poles, so running it all the way to Shoreline College would be just as expensive as electrifying the E, but for fewer runs.

        I don’t think the City wants cross-wires spanning wide Aurora, but if the street had all parking removed and got full-time bus lanes, so the buses can stay in lane, it might make sense to electrify the E with projecting hangers, like stop-lights. They are more expensive than cross-wires, though.

  7. Frequency is the biggest need. That’s what makes the most difference in how many people use it, whether it’s feasible for their trips, and how satisfied they are with it. If people have to schedule theit rips around half-hourly routes or wait long periods for the bus to come (whether at the bust stop or at their origin), they think about driving or foregoing the trip or going to a second-best location. If grid transfers are at 15 minutes, it makes a big difference if you just missed the transfer. Transfers can’t be timed everywhere, some pairs will always just miss them, and bus schedules are unreliable. But if both lines come every 10 minutes or 5 minutes, then it doesn’t matter as much when the first one arrives.

    So I’m concerned about a large investment in electrification displacing the frequency and speed increases we were long promised. That’s similar to promising a Route 70 upgrade and then taking it away by installing a cycletrack instead of transit-priority lanes. Electrification and ETBs are good to have, but more bus runs are more important. We at least need to reach the frequency of Metro Connects before expanding electrification. If they can be done simultaneously, fine, but I don’t want to see electrification displacing planned runs, especially if it’s a quarter or half or all of all the planned runs.

  8. “Seattle is not yet on board…”

    This is nice write-up, thanks. But “Seattle” is a little too vague in the sentence excerpted above. Who in particular is not yet on board (SDOT? City Council? Durkan?), and where and when did they express this opinion? Thanks.

  9. Even diesel buses are more efficient than diesel cars. The biggest environmental benefit is getting people into mass transit vehicles. The way those vehicles are powered is a secondary issue. Putting bus electrification first is almost as backward as saying electric cars can replace transit.

  10. Favor: can somebody explain for me the advantages and disadvantages of county versus regional financing for transit? Sheer prejudice, maybe, but for a long time I’ve favored regional because in a world economy, larger unit seems to provide wider choice in places of employment, residence, and school.

    Again would like to see stats, but considering maintenance on anything hanging out in the weather while in constant contact with fast-moving steel, brass, copper and carbon, would seem to me that, over the years we’re talking about, changes in re-charge technology would be much easier on the budget than extended wire.

    But personally appreciate your raising the point of fad versus long-term investment, beef, because I want the Waterfront Streetcar back. If there was ever a show-case for a well-proven tried-and-true transit mode, streetcars personify it. Same reasons you like double-wire, I like single. Electrically grounded through grooved track.

    Natural case for Seattle-only financing. The economy that shoved so many of us out certainly brought enough money in that financially, the Emerald City’s got a treasure-chest full.

    But if handled well instead of the treatment it got, proximity to the Port could also take the carline justifiably international. Original Waterfront revival poster featured a renewal project surrounding Elliott Bay like a bracelet. Passenger and freight, copper wire and steel can carry quite a string of jewels.

    If current health-related events show anything, it’s that we’re living in a world where nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen. But careful, Rapid. There are Forces a lot older than transit who don’t take it well when transit and hospitals are forced to be rivals.

    Mark Dublin

  11. Mark, in this context King County officials are using the term regional to mean countywide, so county = regional. per my earlier comment, I wish they would use countywide. King County has 39 cities and unincorporated areas. The King County transportation benefit district is governed by its board made up of the nine councilmembers. The Executive is not directly involved. but of course Transit staff work for the executive branch. similarly, the Seattle TBD is governed by its TBD board that only has the nine councilmembers on it and not the mayor. but SDOT staff are in the executive branch. TBD can set their boundaries. we have these two in existence. some other cities have formed them as well. you live in Olympia and it has one.

  12. It seems comically stupid to me to put this on the August ballot instead of the November one. The August ballot in Washington historically has abjectly terrible turnout, including in national election years, because it occurs in the middle of the summer when everyone is on vacation, out enjoying the sun, or generally not thinking about voting.

    Put it on the November ballot when everyone will be reaching for their ballot anyway.

    1. Moreover, the one position that isn’t on the primary ballot in August is, of course, President.

  13. https://seattletransitblog.com/2019/09/09/seven-considerations-for-a-tbd-thats-still-tbd/
    “The current Seattle TBD generates about $50 million a year through a $60 annual vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax.”

    This writeup:
    “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,”

    Is the current TBD raising about $50 million per year or over $70 million a year? One number is ~40% larger than the other.

    1. And does it mean Seattle would get no more service than it’s getting now, so there would be no increase in service? Seattle would fall short of the Metro Connects plan in that case. The 11 is still 30 minutes evenings and Sundays. The 12 is 30 minutes Sundays. The 8 is 20 minutes Sundays and Saturday evenings. The proposed Lake City-Ballard route ends at 85th Street. Jackson Street is 30 minutes east of Rainier. There’s no MLK-Boren-SLU route. Etc.

  14. I wonder the impact to Metro this month. I’m seeing so many mostly empty buses around town. I saw a bunch of 60 foot buses at 5pm today with only a few passengers. Is there anyway to start running some of the older 40 ft buses and save on fuel, wear and tear, etc. seems like a waste of funding.

    1. At 5pm all the buses are in use. They’re either deployed, on standby in case a bus breaks down or is stuck in extreme traffic, in a maintenance cycle, or a small number in reserve. Off-peak there’s an opportunity to downsize some buses, but often it’s inefficient to drive a long distance to the base to replace one bus with another.

      The most straightforward thing to do, if peak hours are going to be light for a sustained period of time, is to cancel the relief runs on the schedule — those that don’t run on 3-day weekends or are in between the base frequency to avoid overcrowding. But for just a few weeks it’s a drop in the bucket compared to Metro’s total annual budget and fuel use, and there may also be union commitments on guaranteed work hours.

  15. This sounds like a disaster. Is there any evidence this would even pass?

    This is too much to risk for no real gain on Seattle’s side. Seattle’s transit funds don’t increase under the plan.

    Also, why are Seattle hours staying exactly the same under this plan? Don’t they need to INCREASE with increased population and new rapid line rides coming online?

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