In 2014, Seattle voters approved a six-year tax package for Metro transit via the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD). It included a 0.1% sales tax and a $60 vehicle license fee, and the taxes expire this December. In recent weeks, there have been hints that the expected renewal may not be on the Fall ballot. Via the Seattle Times on Friday evening comes a report confirming that regional leaders are focused on a bond measure for Harborview, with other tax measures taking a back seat. The STBD taxes may be allowed to expire or the sales tax be extended at its current rate only, roughly halving the revenues of the Seattle TBD.
Meanwhile, a meeting of regional transportation boards heard last Tuesday that Metro is preparing a 20% service reduction in response to a projected budget shortfall of $2 billion over the next decade. The worsening projections include both the expiration of STBD funding and an extended period of lower sales tax revenues countywide.
With the COVID crisis, the Harborview bond measure is viewed as more imperative than ever. It’s a $1.7 billion bond measure and requires 60% approval to pass. Other tax measures have been falling by the wayside. A planned August libraries levy was withdrawn and a contemplated countywide transit measure was cancelled before the measure had been finalized. A levy lift for rural roads may be withdrawn from the November ballot. That mostly clears the table for the Harborview measure, leaving the Seattle TBD and a fire services levy in Kirkland as the only potentially competing tax measures for voters attention in November.
Any ballot measure to extend Seattle TBD taxes must be filed by early August to appear on the November ballot. The deadline for an August measure passed on May 8. Because of I-976, a renewal of the vehicle license fee is not being considered. That removes about half the TBD revenues, but those could be made up with a sales tax increase to O.2%.
According to the Times, Seattle Council Transportation Chair Alex Pedersen thinks voters would agree to at least the 0.1% sales tax renewal, but the Council is still waiting on direction from the Mayor’s office. Before the COVID crisis, the Mayor had been committed to a Seattle TBD renewal if the County tax proposal wasn’t on the August ballot.
Even in a recession, it’s likely Seattle voters would renew the TBD taxes. The 2014 measure passed handily. An increase in the sales tax rate would complicate that a little, even though it’s roughly revenue neutral with the expired vehicle license fee. Whether the presence of a TBD tax measure on the ballot makes a Harborview measure less likely to pass is harder to assess.
The STBD funds 350,000 service hours, 8% of Metro’s service. It has contributed to 70% of Seattle households being served by transit every 10-minutes or better. STBD funds transit spot improvements and the ORCA opportunity cards for students. STBD also funded the pilot low-income fare program. Metro capacity constraints have meant most STBD-supported service has been directed into off-peak and weekend service. Evening and weekend Metro service has become much more readily usable than before, yet it has yielded only ambiguous benefits for ridership. With Metro facing peak service reductions as its own tax revenues fall, however, future STBD could replace some of the lost operational funds in peak service for Seattle in 2021.