King County voters will not be asked to vote on a Metro funding measure in August after all. In a statement on Monday afternoon, Claudia Balducci announced the decision not to proceed with the countywide measure. This seems to clear the way for Seattle to run a replacement of the expiring taxes for their transportation benefit district in August.
Had the corona virus crisis not intervened, King County was expected to finalize a measure this month funding the service currently paid for by the Seattle TBD and increasing service elsewhere in the County by perhaps 450,000 hours annually (equivalent to just under 10% of total current Metro hours). The King County measure would also have funded a low income free fares program that is already scheduled to launch in June, and might have funded electrification at some bases.
The proposal had obvious challenges. Transit measures are risky with county voters even in a better environment. A loss at the ballot box in August would have meant existing Seattle taxes expiring in December, and it probably would not have been possible to run a replacement Seattle measure before the Spring. A November Seattle measure would have been awkward because it could only be filed before the day of the August election.
The county measure would have increased service on suburban routes that mostly have lower ridership than Seattle routes. Because Metro is capacity constrained at peak hours (not enough space at Metro bases until the new South King base opens in 2030), most of the suburban service increase would have been in less productive off-peak hours.
In the end, a measure to raise taxes for new services just as the economy tips into a sharp recession (and public health emergency) simply became unthinkable. Most local government meetings other than those focused on the corona virus impact were cancelled last week. With fare revenue and sales tax revenue sharply reduced, Metro finances may soon be stretched to avoid service reductions and an urgent reevaluation of base service levels is inevitable.
Where next? Balducci’s statement (see below) points to future engagement with stakeholders on progressive funding sources to meet unmet transit demand, and federal support to increase capacity. Seattle has until May 8 to get its measure on the August ballot. A 0.2% sales tax, approximately replacing the revenues from the expiring 0.1% sales tax and $60 vehicle license fee, is likely.