King County Metro

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.

31 Replies to “It’s not too late for a November transit measure”

  1. The impending doom of a 1-2 year closure of the West Seattle bridge is going to strain our transportation system way worse than the viaduct closure; yet another reason to support new transit funding. So thankful for metro right now!

    1. Indeed and frankly the bridge should be torn down and replaced with a Tilikum Bridge that is transit-ped-cyclist. No cars.

      Seattle needs to induce transit usage, period.

      1. Obviously there are going to be cars allowed on the new West Seattle bridge. Although with both SDOT and Sound Transit facing budget shortages, a multimodal bridge is indeed a no-brainer. In fact it may even be a necessity to avoid West Seattle draining the city budget. Even Metro is going to have to allocate additional resources to deal with the inevitable bus overcrowding in West Seattle when everyone starts going back to work.

        The challenge is timing. There will be pressure to get a bridge fix ASAP although it might be smarter to tear down the current bridge and think long term.

      2. Are both you Joe’s assuming that the existing bridge cannot be strengthened and will have to be replaced? Has there been some scuttlebutt to that effect?

        WOW! That’s would be a huge project because there isn’t room to build a new highway bridge south of the existing one without carving away a good bit of Pigeon Point. The transit bridge would already have done some of that, but trying to put seven or eight lanes and two tracks to the south would require a lot of excavation.

        And that ignores the complications of the ramps at both ends. I hope they can strengthen the existing structure.

      3. Tom.
        With climate change and the fact West Seattle is getting a light rail extension of questionable value I’d rather do all I could to pry West Seattlites from the personal automobile. Make driving inconvenient.

      4. The West Seattle bridge doesn’t need 7 lanes. It’s overbuilt. Hence why people sit (or used to sit) in traffic jams on it during the morning while waiting to merge onto I-5 or 99.

        Tom, nobody knows if the WS bridge needs to be replaced. It is assumed that it will be fixed right now, but we don’t know the cost, and it may impact light rail construction. There is also the possibility that they rebuild with permanent lane reductions.

        As for how to get more West Seattleites using transit…that’s the whole point of light rail, right? Plus turning the Junction into one of the largest “urban villages” in the city?

        I don’t know why West Seattle gets vilified so often for car use, maybe they should do something about the 60,000 daily cars on the Ballard Bridge as well?

  2. Fact it’s not my call has never been my choice either. Personal residential picture? Whatever happens to rents and housing prices near the Route 44 stop by Ballard Senior Citizen Center versus the IT stop at my driveway, decider could be which county’s freeways have more living space underneath them.

    In State of Washington, as opposed to a certain District surrounded by Maryland whose residents the US Constitution says can’t vote at least for their Representatives, don’t think a 100% absentee ballot’s got any legal problems.

    Completely online, trust will be iffy. Also tempted to say this election’s existence could really depend on whether or not voting is ruled an “Essential” excuse to leave your house. My US mail still seems to be working. Know without checking whether every official ballot-envelope-opener will get issued a mask.

    That said, Martin, I think you’re right, just to keep the whole idea of not only KCM but King County, Washington State, and the United States of America alive. Name me any other Endangered Species that doesn’t mainly survive by reflex?

    Mark Dublin

  3. Can Metro provide the service hours? I’m in favor but I also don’t want to just hand Sawant, et al, a blank check because Metro can’t actually provide service.

    1. It can provide the service hours it’s already providing. This measure is about renewing those. It may have some expansion too but that’s secondary. And it could be written to specify where the money would go until the base opens or if it’s delayed. Although I would just save it until it does open. The point is we have the best change of passage every four years, and if we miss this window the next one won’t be until 2024.

    2. With higher unemployment, it ought to be easier for Metro to hire drivers, plus is a great way for government to stimulate the economy with relatively high-paying blue collar jobs.

  4. Thank you Seattle Transit Blog. A few thoughts…

    Maybe this is the outline of a future guest post but I learned the hard way that transit $$$ = transit mobility. That was Island Transit’s 2014-2015 fiscal meltdown. I think Everett Transit is teetering on the edge – they were in trouble before Covid19 already making service reductions, and safe to say are probably in deep merde to almost Island Transit levels now.

    I would really, sincerely hope Seattle City Council can screw up the courage to go to the voters on this. King County Metro needs financial stability now more than ever, or King County Metro is going to have to make dramatic & painful cuts in 2021 just from the loss of these funds. Then there’s the dramatic impacts Covid19 is making on government finances. This is make-or-break time for King County Metro.

    Again, transit $$$ = transit mobility. Without fares, transit gets decimated in good times. Without tax support and fares, transit gets crushed in a recession.

    1. I can’t imagine them not. The county has withdrawn the competing measure, all the mayor and coucilmembers ran on more transit service, and it’s replacing an expiring levy that passed.

  5. Nobody knows what the post CV-19 transportation world is going to look like, but it is pretty much a given that there won’t be more demand for mass transit than there was before the virus. There will be less demand.

    This is due both to the recessionary economy we are likely to have, and because of direct CV-19 related behavior changes (aversion to being in close quarters with others, increased interest in telecommuting, business structural changes, etc).

    Additionally, a recessionary economy will make funding a transit measure a bit more difficult. This will be true evenin Seattle, and even for what amounts to a re-upping of an existing measure.

    Therefore, Seattle should consider a Seattle only measure that re-ups the current levy at something like 75% of the current level. – with NO rollback clause for a later KC measure.

    The 75% measure would be an easier lift at the ballot box, would show that the SCC understands that things have changed, and would allow room to go back to full funding in the advent it was needed.

    Additionally, if KC ever gets its act together per a measure of their own, then Seattle’s share of that new measure would be the 25% that we are leaving on the table now.

    And besides, Metro has been having trouble providing the service Seattle is willing to pay for anyhow. Time to dial it back a notch and let metro try to catch up.

    1. Nobody knows what the post CV-19 transportation world is going to look like … except apparently Lazarus.

      Of course we are in a recession (or depression) right now, but depending on how the government functions, it is quite possible the recovery will be very fast. The unemployment rate fell rapidly after December 7th, 1941, even though the government wasn’t focused on that.

      Making cuts in service would be the last thing you want as you come out of a recession. Transit service isn’t like muffins. You don’t just make a bunch based on expected demand, and throw away the stale ones. Improved service is the difference between a bus that runs every half hour (essentially useless) and one that runs every ten minutes (quite popular). That in turn is the difference between transit that people use, and transit that people don’t use. We should fund the system based on what we can afford, and a city like this can certainly afford a decent level of service.

      If it turns out that it takes a while for ridership to increase back to pre-virus levels, so be it. That would mean fare revenue will take a while to improve as well, meaning the money will be needed more than ever (just to retain half-way decent service).

    2. We’re going to need a lot of new money just to maintain pre-COVID level of service when the crisis abates. Bus service during the crisis is undoubtedly draining reserves, which will need to be replenished. Worse, the temporary service cuts are likely not actually saving Metro any money in the short term, due to increased cleaning costs and not-working bus drivers continuing to get paid.

      And, of course, there’s I-976. If the Supreme Court upholds it, the city is on the hook for refunding all car tab money collected in 2020, money which has already been spent. Without new money, where is the money to pay the refunds supposed to come from?

    3. It will be clearer in July what level will be appropriate in November. If the new standard is not to fill buses 100% to maintain distancing, then we’ll need more buses and service hours even if ridership is lower than before. Most people don’t vote based on raw numbers (75% is right, 100% is wrong; $25 billion is right, $50 billion is wrong) — those are just abstractions. They vote yes if they think transit is a high priority, and no if they think it’s unimportant. The past several years Seattlites have been decisively on the side that more transit is critical. The 75% argument is for those who think austerity is good and the way to show you’re being responsible. The people who believe that are conservatives in the exurbs, but the fact is, they won’t vote for it anyway even if it’s 50% lower because it’s a tax for a unionized government monopoly. The people who don’t believe in austerity think we’re serving and taxing less than we should — less than peer countries — so the argument for 75% is making a mountain out of a molehill and would leave us worse off — like we were in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

      As Jarrett Walker says, frequency is the key thing, because that’s what makes transit usable for people’s trips. The TBD was mainly about filling in frequency, so that we’d have 15 minute evenings and Sundays instead of 30 minutes, and preserving the night owls. That’s what we would lose if the TBD expires without replacement. And the argument would still be valid even if ridership is 25% or 50% lower pre-covid levels. We may not be ready for a 10-minute minimum, but even cities smaller than Seattle should have a 15-minute minimum on all except the most fringe routes.

      1. We don’t own a car and I have not taken transit in over a month. I don’t plan on using buses until there is a vaccine or I discover that I already have antibodies to COViD 19. It’s too risky to do otherwise. I have friends that have been hospitalized, and know people that have died .

      2. I would not expect transit ridership to improve before a vaccine is found anymore than I would expect restaurants and bars to open. Either we have widespread herd immunity, a vaccine or conditions similar to what they are currently. It is possible that there will be a little loosening of the reigns, as we increase testing and tracing, but things will be more like they are now than they were before it hit.

        This discussion is based on post-pandemic conditions.

      3. @William,

        Thank you for concisely illustrating my point.

        Coming out of this crisis it is highly unlikely that Metro will need to provide anything like pre-CV-19 service levels, at least not for a few years. As such, there just really isn’t any need for pre-CV-19 funding levels.

        There will be people exactly like yourself. People that will use other options as opposed to hopping on a Rolling Corona Coach without even a thought about what they are doing.

        Things will change, eventually. And at that point Seattle can offer up the remaining 25% as part of some sort of coordinated effort with KC, or they can go it alone again and add the 25% back in as “Seattle only”.

        We have plenty of time to get this right. No need to rush.

      4. No, William did not illustrate your point. He was clearly talking about conditions during the pandemic. You were clearly talking about the situation after the pandemic. You still are.

        During the pandemic, people should only use transit when absolutely necessary. After the pandemic, transit goes back to being a service we are encouraged to use, like parks.

        Service shouldn’t be based on need, a value you so arrogantly feel like you can forecast. Service should be based on what we can afford, and what we want to provide. Additional service is, by itself, of greater value — a point both Mike and I have been trying to explain to you. The following statement is nonsense:

        Metro will need to provide anything like pre-CV-19 service levels, at least not for a few years.

        It implies that Metro “needed” to provide a decent, almost-but-not-quite-European level of service before, but now it doesn’t. Why? Did everyone suddenly leave town? Did they suddenly all decide to bike instead? Of course not. People will want to get around after the pandemic, just like they wanted to get around before.

      5. Like William, I have no car (no license even) and haven’t taken transit in a bit over a month. Fortunately I can walk/bike to everywhere I need to go. While I certainly respect William’s decision not to take transit before a vaccine, I don’t think the vaccine is going to be necessary to make our public spaces (including transit) safe again. Widespread testing and contact tracing are sufficient in places like South Korea, and I’m hoping even without direct federal support the Cascadia states can make that happen here (obviously money would help even if the logistics and leadership are absent).

        Hopefully the federal government sees the benefit to keeping public transit operational and the benefits of avoiding SRO crowds on the vehicles.

      6. It takes time to get a November election and a ballot measure passed and to ramp up service; it can’t just turn on a dime. In the 2008 Metro laid off its planners and everything not related to current operations to keep the buses running, and in 2014 it cut 20% of its service and laid off drivers. In 2015 with the recovery it had to hire drivers back, and they weren’t just twiddling their thumbs, many of them had gotten other jobs, so there was a driver shortage for a year or two and Metro couldn’t keep up with the rising ridership and pass-ups became common. If we lowball the level of service we need, we may end up in the same situation again,.And it’s not efficient to yo-yo; it wastes money ramping down and ramping up.

        I don’t know what level of service will be appropriate in November because it depends on what happens to the ridership curve in the summer and fall and when things reopen. Those who are sure it will be 75% are probably wrong, because they aren’t transit planners (or at least they haven’t said they are). Metro doesn’t go by ideology, it goes by butts in seats, and it knows what ridership is and has been over time and in various situations, and it has a pretty good idea of what latent ridership exists (ridership that would appear if there were a route in that corridor). Given the lack of certainty, I assume 100% until we have clearer evidence of what future ridership will be, not just amateur guesses.

        There’s a secondary benefit to transit too. It’s not just that you’re riding it today. The fact that it runs every day means it will be there for you if you start neding it in a month or six months, and it’s always there as an alternative to give you more choices. That is worth something, and we might model it as some amount of unused capacity. That translates into higher frequency. It’s a values judgment how high it should be, and how convenient using transit should be. There’s no single perfect point, there’s just the observation that as you lower it, you decrease its usefulness and people’s satisfaction with it. So I’m not saying Lazarus is absolutely bad for claiming demand will be 75% and we should have more austerity in transit. I’m just saying we need to question those assumptions and see if they really hold. And look to models in other countries, where a higher level of service is the standard baseline, and what that makes their societies like.

    4. In other words, 15 minutes is the sweet spot where you start to get the most ridership and usefulness (=public benefit) per service hour. Because if you lower it to 30 minutes you lose more than half the riders, because many people aren’t willing to wait 25 minutes or plan their lives around a half-hourly pulse, or they can’t because they have too many responsibilities. Conversely, if you raise the frequency to 10 minutes or 5 minutes, while that would be ideal, it may be too much for a medium-sized American city politically right now. Because waiting 15 minutes isn’t that bad; it’s not horrible like waiting 30 minutes.

      But that’s for one-seat rides perdominating. If you want to create a grid system and reduce redundancy, like replacing the 43 with the 48+11, or have the 372 terminate at UW Station rather than downtown, then the total wait is twice as long. So then you really do need 10-minute or 5-minute service to make 2-seat rides work well. Metro has long agreed with this on principle: it’s why the 36, 44, and 48 were repeatedly increased to 10 minutes over two decades. It just doesn’t have the budget to do it completely. The same reason why the 8 is 20 minutes Sundays: because the TBD couldn’t fit 15 minutes given higher priorities on other routes, not because Metro thought 20 minutes was adequate.

    5. Lazarus, does that gift have a shipping address? My post-Black Death economics need a brush-up, but even when our branch de-stabilized, went bald and had our tails fall off, at cellular level, we and all our forebears would rather die together than live ’til we die alone. Which also hastens our individual and collective departure.

      When that high-speed German armor went for Poland and those airborne Mitsubishi’s for Pearl Harbor, our Recession had a capital “D” in front. On Infamy Day Californians found money no object. Shamefully, and against Roosevelt’s own intelligence information, starting with concentration camps for our own native-born citizens. Any chance a lot of jobs just came open? Including for German-Americans who liked Hitler a lot better than anybody Japanese liked the Emperor.

      Showing us exactly where to find the money to restore- after we repair- the economy COVID-19’s departure will leave us. No matter how many decades back its rot-damaged roots really grow. We find a war and stay out of it. While giving weapons- meaning box-cutter-detection- priority over profits from pilot-side seats.

      And true I wasn’t there, so I’ll always have one question demand-wise:

      On opening day in 1904, where’d all those people of obviously modest means ever park their cars?

      Mark Dublin

  6. I think that Metro had better come up with a post-virus action plan before asking for money. The economic effects are going to last into 2021, as both government and private sector balance sheets will still be recovering from 2020 losses. That discourages yes votes.

    The action plan is probably needed to have a vision of what to look forward to. It needs to cover new cleanliness and disinfectant maintenance, and wider spacing for social distancing in vehicles and at stops. I think that a measure stands a much better chance if is faces the new virus-safe paradigm directly and uses the issue with an action plan to ask for more money as opposed to just doing the “same ole’ ask”. We live in a different reality now.

  7. “The policy case for raising transit spending is strong independent of economic conditions”
    I couldn’t agree more.

    I expect this year to be a Democratic landslide. No tax referendum is going to fail this November in King County or Seattle.

    Now is the time to be bold. If King County won’t do it, then Seattle should.

  8. What’s a Rolling Corona Coach- as opposed to anything else on either rollers or wheels? On grooved rail or rubber? From a pathogen’s perspective on size and “fit”, doesn’t any work-day make every single vehicle belonging to Uber or Lyfft qualify comfortably?

    My own car? Since the onset, driving’s been stress-on-wheels. Quarantine chamber to park Essentially, like since I live alone, brief as possible at my co-op grocery store who’s protective measures should earn them an award from the State.

    Walk I’ll shortly Socially-Space, my doctors tell me if I don’t take it my immune system will get weaker and make me more of a threat.

    But personally, best I can do right now is take a leaf from my family and adopt the attitude that my best shot at stopping the disease is to do my best to be sure I don’t infect anybody else.

    With constant thought in mind that the worst damage I do to the innocent, the longer I might have to live with the consequences. Also can’t shake that Harry Belafonte song from the West Indies:

    “Now if religion was a thing that money could buy…
    Then the Rich would live and the Poor would die!
    All my trials, Lord, soon be over.” Good thing nothing claiming religious authority in this country is for sale to the highest bidder, isn’t it? Note the April date.

    Mark Dublin

  9. Martin, thanks for raising the issue for both Seattle and King County TBDs. the elected officials have some tough calls ahead.

    an aside. note picture of Route 236 coach. that route was implemented in 2001 and killed off in March 2019. hurray. there were stillborn attempts to restructure it in 2006, 2011, and 2016. it was loopy and never attracted many riders. its average load was often below three. empty buses never help transit funding campaigns or provide much social utility. with Route 238, that was slighty more productive, it formed a double helix, each crossing I-405 twice. it connected Woodinville and Kirkland via Brickyard, Totem Lake, NE 116th Street, and Juanita. The Woodinville leg will have new Route 231; the Kingsgate portion will have DART 930 (loopy by definition), NE 116th Street will have community ride, and the segment between Juanita and KTC will have robust service by routes 255, 230, and 231.

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