A reduced Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD), extending the existing 0.1% sales tax but not replacing the lost vehicle licence fee revenues, appears headed to the November ballot. If approved, it will fund youth ORCA and low income programs at existing levels. But Seattle will purchase much less bus service than in previous years, and much of that will be directed to West Seattle while the West Seattle Bridge remains out of service.
The plan to take a measure to the November ballot was announced by Council Transportation Committee Chair Alex Pedersen at a Council meeting on Monday. Existing taxes expire in December, and a November ballot measure must be filed by August 4. Further details are expected within the next few days, and may be refined further by the Council, but the broad strokes spending plan has become clearer. Either a four- or six-year renewal is possible, perhaps because some favor a revived countywide measure in 2024.
The current STBD taxes were approved in 2014 at a time when Metro was still facing cuts after the last recession and a countywide vote on new taxes for Metro had failed. As the economy and tax revenues boomed, the STBD revenues were plowed into adding more service in Seattle, eventually increasing to 350,000 service hours annually, or about 8% of King County Metro’s pre-COVID network. 70% of Seattle households were within a 10 minute walk of 10-minute transit service in 2019.
As Metro ran up against capacity constraints, other programs were added. In Fall 2018, the ORCA Opportunity program provided every Seattle public high school student a free unlimited ORCA cards for the entire year. In 2018, the City Council also amended the legislation to allow capital investments, mostly spot improvements to allow buses to operate more reliably. A series of low income programs have been funded, most recently an expansion of the ORCA lift program to provide free travel for very low incomes.
In 2019, statewide voters approved I-976, reducing STBD tax revenues by roughly half if the initiative is upheld by the State Supreme Court. A court-ordered refund of vehicle fees collected in 2020 is possible. Sales tax revenue expectations were further diminished by the COVID pandemic and recession that began in 2020. Rather than the $55 million in sales tax and vehicle license fees budgeted in 2020, a 0.1% sales tax extension is anticipated to yield an average $26 million per year over the next four years.
The ORCA Youth and Low Income programs are planned to continue at current funding levels. That squeezes everything else. Capital spending is likely to be reduced from about $9 million to $5 million annually. The current $4 million of support for first/last mile service will end.
Boosted by reserves and unspent balances from earlier years, the STBD had planned $55 million in bus service, or 350,000 hours. The renewed STBD is likely to invest about $7 million in the citywide frequent transit network initially. That will emphasize service at 15 minutes headways rather than 10. Another $6 million or so could fund 40,000 bus hours in West Seattle, or could support more frequent water taxi service. Depending on the timeline for re-opening or replacing the bridge, the spending plan envisions those dollars being redeployed to citywide service.
Cutting Seattle-funded bus service is a difficult choice, particularly when Metro is making its own deep reductions. It’s a sharp swing from the expectations of Seattle voters in 2014 when the STBD was sold as a bus service funding mechanism. But the unpalatable alternatives are a regressive sales tax increase in a recession, or the elimination of critical programs for students and low income households.