Mayor Durkan and Seattle DOT today proposed a 6-year renewal for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD), which would go before the voter this fall. Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee, will bring it before the City Council for approval, ending months of speculation about the fate of city bus service.
The slimmed-down TBD, which we previewed last week, TBD would fund about 50,000 service hours in years 1-4, rising to 80,000 in years 5 and 6, presumably as the economy improves. That’s far less than the 350,000 hours the TBD currently purchases, but SDOT hopes that it’s enough to maintain the baseline 15-minute network throughout the city.
Additionally, money is set aside in the first 4 years to provide increased bus and water taxi service to West Seattle. SDOT stresses that increased car traffic through the Duwamish Valley has had negative equity impacts, and there is a need to find high-capacity transit routes in and out of the peninsula.
The package assumes revenue collection starts April 1, 2021. Though the city could levy up to 0.2% sales tax, they’ve opted to stick with 0.1%. “Given economic headwinds, we wanted to keep flexibility,” SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe told reporters, when asked about the more conservative approach. the city could come back with a higher sales tax or a Vehicle License Fee, pending the litigation of I-976.
What started as a simple program for Seattle to buy transit hours from a revenue-constrained Metro has since morphed into a much more wide-ranging program that provides mobility assistance to low-income and disabled riders, ORCA cards for youth, and some capital funds. The new STBD attempts to continue that full basket of services at a reduced rate.
As a result, just under half of the revenue would go to support the Frequent Transit Network in Seattle, with a goal of maintaining 15-minute “all day” service from 6am – 7pm. (the original goal of the TBD was 10-minute service for 75% of Seattle households).
Zimbabwe also confirmed that the Via pilot program will end as the city retrenches and focuses on core bus service.
The city also has the opportunity to re-negotiate its contract with Metro at the beginning of this new levy, which may result in more or less service at the margin.
Given city voters’ willingness to vote for transit in the past, this should be an easy pass, even with other spending initiatives like Harborview expansion on the ballot. A more ambitious package may have passed as well, since, as Zimbabwe noted on the call, 3/4 of Seattle residents voted no on I-976. But given the sheer number of unknowns with COVID-19, the economy, and sales tax revenue, along with a non-zero risk of failure at the polls, a more conservative approach appears to have carried the day.