A lifetime ago, King County floated a countywide 0.2% sales tax increase for the August ballot, to replace Seattle’s expiring Transportation Benefit District (TBD) and expand its benefits to rest of the county. Weeks later, King County Transportation Chair Claudia Balducci had to shelve it as the virus ate everything.
The last day to file a measure for the November election is August 4th. To make that date, committee work would have to start no later than mid-July. It’s worthless to speculate about conditions in mid-July, but it’s also not hard to imagine how a measure would be both compelling and plausible.
The policy case for raising transit spending is strong independent of economic conditions. With strong growth, the robust transit network we don’t yet have countywide is critical to building environmentally sensible living and travel patterns. Seattle’s TBD has dramatically improved the accessibility of frequent transit while frequent suburban lines are scarce. Conversely, when sales taxes implode, transit becomes even harder to use.
The political case is more ambiguous. Voter largesse is largely driven by the economy, and we have very little idea what conditions will be in November. A sales tax, which falls heavily on restaurants and retailers, might be particularly poor optics.
On the other hand, a cursory review of the history of regional transit votes suggests that high-turnout elections are the most successful ones. A presidential election with highly motivated progressives is the best possible environment for such a vote. Getting the right people to the polls is probably more important than micromanaging the shape of the measure. If Metro can’t win then, it’s hard to imagine a situation in the next few years where it could.
The purpose of running a transit vote in August was to clear space for a levy to expand Harborview in November. While more money for Harborview might have bewildered ordinary voters when proposed in February, it’s hard to imagine it failing now. This is all the more reason to tentatively plan to put Metro on that same ballot.
There are other time pressures. Seattle’s TBD ends this year. People in government I talk to don’t see any reason the Seattle measure couldn’t contain a clause that rolled itself back if the King County measure passes. On the other hand, this fall the Supreme Court will rule on I-976. If it’s overturned, a later vote on a Vehicle License Fee might be more attractive than a sales tax. And I have confidence in Seattle voters to save their bus service in any election, Presidential or otherwise.
It’s too early to say that a November ballot measure would be astutely placed. But leaders and activists should starting probing for a way to make it happen. It’s an opportunity that won’t return for a long time.