As expected, the Seattle Council approved a November ballot measure to renew its
Transportation Benefit District 9-0 and preserve existing Metro service. The real action was in the amendments. (The discussion begins at 1:11:00 in the video above).

The expiring measure included a 0.1% sales tax and $60 vehicle license fee. As the latter may not be legal due to I-976, there was debate about increasing the sales tax rate. Regrettably, the amendment to raise the rate to 0.2% lost 5-4. Morales, Sawant, Mosqueda, and Strauss voted for the higher rate.

However, a compromise measure for a 0.15% increase passed 8-1, with only Pedersen opposed.

An amendment to extend the measure to a 6-year package, expiring in April 2027, passed 5-4, with Morales, Sawant, Lewis, and Gonzalez opposed. Detractors focused on the imperfection of a city measure with regressive revenue tools, and sought to create a “sense of urgency” for something better. Proponents argued, correctly, that 2024 is the right time to try a county measure, and that a city measure expiring concurrently would provide no contigency for a county failure. Move Seattle also expires in 2024, creating more traffic on the ballot.

There was maneuvering around the limits on various special accounts for West Seattle buses, free and reduced price ORCA, and the like. In the end, “essential workers” (in the pandemic sense) became eligible for ORCA subsidy.

23 Replies to “TBD headed to the ballot”

  1. I wonder when and where will the bus lanes will be… if at all in this package. But clearly Transportation Choices Coalition got something thru the world infamous “Seattle Process” to the voters. Congrats!

  2. No comments yet? Well, I’m glad the 0.15% amemdment passed. And some councilmembers said they’d heard from their constituents that preserving frequency is important. That suggests Seattle Subway’s petition and my own separate letter and anybody else’s letter and testimony helped.

    it’s interesting that they chose to split the difference, halfway between 0.1% and 0.2%. I’m glad they felt they had that option. But at the same time the debate was totally void of what the frequency would be on the ground. They didn’t look at, “With 1.5% we could preserve evening frequency on routes like the 5 and 10, or 10-minute frequency on the 67, and that would affect passengers this way and make it easier to get to X.” That’s the real impact of the different rates from a passenger’s perspective. I wouldn’t expect councilmembers to commit to certain routes because that would inevitably create favoritism and neglect other deserving areas. But it should at least look at “kinds of routes”; e.g., the 5 represents areas with similar density and range of destinations.

    I was originally against the switch to district-based council positions, but as I was listening to the debates it was nice to be able to relate a speaker to a district. And we do our legislative and congressional positions that way. So maybe it’s a good thing?

    1. What was the final number of service hours proposed to be saved? How much of the additional 0.05 percent is supposed to go to service hours (as opposed to subsidy programs and street repair where buses run)?

      1. I’m not sure any of that matters. Or rather, it matters in the short term, but can be changed quite easily later. The previous ballot initiative just allocated the funds. Initially it all went into service, and then the money got shifted around. I could easily see that happening again, possibly in the other direction.

    2. District representation is the norm for major cities. My experience elsewhere is that it takes the local political culture about 5-10 years to adjust. It takes a round or two of close elections for candidates to ultimately realize that winning requires in-person visibility (and not mere name recognition).

      Given how most people stay in and around their side of town (except for work or university), Seattle is even more appropriate for district elections than other major cities are. Most residents north of the Ship Canal rarely travel to West Seattle Junction or Rainier Beach — and vice versa, for example. For those who don’t own cars, this is especially true. Our city contains a number of geographic barriers that affect how our neighborhoods work. That’s much different than a place like Denver or Detroit.

      A big advantage is accountability when there are little issues. It gives citizens a representative to go to when focused neighborhood issues arise. For example, a complaint about a malfunctioning pedestrian button can be low priority for SDOT staff — but a contact with a council member can move that up the action item list.

      Over time, office holders will be more visible in their own neighborhoods. I went to a few public meetings a few years ago, and there was zero Council visibility then. That just won’t be politically acceptable moving forward.

      1. There are pros and cons to district representation. For something like US Congress, I personally think districts are bad, given that some 90% of voters are effectively voting for which party they want in control, not who’s best at representing the local needs of their neighborhood. I watched an interesting YouTube video promoting the combination of ranked choice voting with very large, but multi-winner districts, effectively guaranteeing that a party with 60% of the vote gets very close to 60% of the seats.

        Put differently, if Congress were really about representing a particular district, people on both sides would have little reason to donate money to races outside their own district. In reality, it isn’t, so people give to races all over the country, to support the desired national outcome (which party has control).

        For city council, I can see how it can be more of a neighborhood-representative thing. But, on the other hand, we still have kind of a de-facto political party system between the “progressive urbanists” and the “Seattle Times conservatives”, even if they all still call themselves Democrats and oppose Donald Trump.

        As an example, would you vote for someone who’s more responsive at getting your street’s potholes fixed, or someone who’s more likely to support higher taxes and/or street priority for transit? If the answer is the latter (and it certainly is for me), then you’re really voting based on faction, not region, so districts don’t add much value.

      2. Al S., might it not be the hallmark of a good transit system if it enables its passengers to live in neighborhoods they take active enjoyment in making distinct, but also get the pleasure of visiting other equally distinctive neighborhoods when they either need to of feel like it?

        Ballard was always a much better place to live precisely because a half block from my door, I could board the first leg of a day whose travel included a part-time teaching gig at Highline Community College, a tutoring session near Kingsgate, and a very special little-known espresso called “Julius Meinl” at Alder Way P&R before boarding ST 512 for Seattle, and Metro Route 17 home.

        And this was with the transit of pushin’-twenty years ago. When my rent went overtop, what could’ve been demoralizing isolation from the transit system I was privileged to not only drive for but also help design, Intercity Transit, ST express, and Link rendered a simple change of address. Could’ve faced longer commutes if I’d left Ballard for someplace else in Seattle.

        It really doesn’t serve transit well to leave freedom to the right wing to advocate. Lucky thing for transit is that finally the sheer number of cars themselves has finally started leaving people irrevocably and conspicuously stuck.

        One lone benefit of Link’s I-5 alignment south of Angle Lake: how many trapped car-patrons can look up and see all those kids leaving tongue-marks at them on fast-moving windows. Time we started making every ORCA card a little plastic American flag just to rub it in.

        Mark Dublin

      3. I have to disagree asdf2. Bus transit service is ultimately a local neighborhood issue. Accountability systems already exist to make it equitable (measuring productivity in things like riders per hour and overcrowding) are applied to assign service across the system no matter what. Thus, a district rep has to fund more transit subsidy to get the key bus routes funded to the benefit of their constituents — and build a coalition for that by working with other reps who are getting the exact same pressure from neighborhood constituencies and interests. In contrast, a citywide system can end up with a council person who is not accountable to the needs at the most localized level.

        Citywide just means that an advocacy group can’t try to lobby votes from council members — ignoring what the neighborhoods may actually prefer. It’s an important check against a city bureaucracy that doesn’t have neighborhood accountability at all.

      4. I’ll add that district elections fundamentally change to cost and time of running a campaign. Running citywide requires expensive media buys and well-funded professional campaign organizations. In contrast, a motivated neighborhood activist can win a district council seat with a grass-roots in-person effort.

      5. “Bus transit service is ultimately a local neighborhood issue.”

        How? Bus routes cross neighborhood boundaries all the time, and connect with other bus routes that go to still more neighborhoods. And, the funding for all bus routes ultimately comes out of the same pot.

        I suppose, one could make an argument that you want a representative that will forcefully argue that buses elsewhere in the city should be cut, so that your bus doesn’t get cut, but the service allocation is supposed to follow objective guidelines, not which council member shouts the loudest.

        All that said, council districts are not all *that* bad. For now, the ship canal and I-5 form logical boundaries, which helps. And, there is value in having each voter only need to worry about three races, rather than 9. And, it reduces the cost of running a campaign if you only have to compete in one part of the city. So, maybe the good outweighs the bad? I’m not sure.

      6. Asdf, Seattle’s districts are pretty large. All of West Seattle is in one. All of SE Seattle is in one. While routes cross district lines, many operate mostly in one district and most probably operate in two (exempting Downtown).

      7. I wholeheartedly support range voting for executive positions with a single person representing the will of an entire jurisdiction. For legislative bodies I support proportional representation but I’m less sure about that. The problem is there’s a tension between struggling for control over the whole legislature and thus the jurisdiction that legislature governs, and the legislature as a place where various interests advocate for themselves and hash out their differences with other interests. In theory the latter should become more the case as you get to a more expansive jurisdiction like the United States, and the structure of Congress seems to have been devised under such an assumption, but the expanding power of the federal government, the homogenization and polarization of the parties, the homogenization of the country more generally thanks to national media, and the desire for partisans on both sides to enforce their will on the entire country has created the apocalyptic tug-of-war we see today.

        Proportional representation isn’t really a good fit for the “different interests” approach to the legislature; only interests that have their own parties can really make themselves heard, and you have to choose exactly one party to represent you in most proportional systems. There is something to be said for there being a single person you can call to voice your grievances where there’s a direct link between your vote and whether that person keeps their job. Districts aren’t perfect at representing diverse interests either, and in some cases can be worse than proportional representation, because different interests aren’t always geographically distributed even before getting to the potential for gerrymandering, but they’re probably as good as can be expected for that purpose. What’s really key is ensuring you don’t empower a bare majority (or worse!) of the population to run roughshod over the other half.

        The point that the best representatives could come from one or two districts is something that hits home for me. On the one hand, different interests should have a direct voice in the legislature, even if the larger parties might otherwise ignore them when picking their personnel; on the other, the most qualified persons should all get jobs, rather than someone who gets 49% of the vote being out of work because they happened to run against someone who could pick up more votes. So maybe I support a hybrid system between district representatives chosen by range voting and at-large positions chosen by a form of proportional representation that allows for choosing individuals and not just parties. Maybe that split can be the basis for a bicameral system for jurisdictions big and powerful enough for them, if blending them into a single body is too complicated.

    3. I’m glad too, having written all of the council reps independently (including Pedersen, sigh) and then wrote another letter with the Seattle Subway petition. It would have been nice for the council to discuss more technical information, but I can understand that they might be distracted right now and, as a non-driver, am really just thankful that we’re not going back 15 years or more in transit utility in Seattle. Now I guess we just have to worry about its chances of passing in November, but I remain hopeful there.

    4. District voting is bad for (at least) a couple reasons:

      1) It creates de-factor gerrymandering. That was the goal for the original proposal. The proponents figured they could carve out areas that are more oriented towards the desires of home owners.

      2) You limit the number of potential candidates for a position. The three best candidates from the city council could all come from the same district. Seattle reduces this problem by having two at-large positions.

      Neighborhoods or regions should have a voice, but not a vote. They can (and do) endorse candidates, or argue for things for their area, but that’s about it.

      1. Minor nit: “de-facto” not “de-factor”.

        The problem with only at-large but winner-takes-all is that minorities (in the general, not just racial) sense can end up without a seat at the table. I could easily imagine the three winning candidates all coming from the same NE Seattle district, because that’s where the money is, and thus no one would be left to advocate for the needs of other districts.

        As @asdf2 suggested earlier, one way to address this is by having multi-winner large districts as well as ranked choice voting. But such set ups have historically not been very successful in North America. I am most familiar with attempts in Canada, where they generally have failed by a substantial margin (the Ontario election reform effort gained only about 35% support in the referendum that followed). So it’s hard for me, at least, to imagine how a similar effort could be led to passing in Seattle or King County.

      2. In these days of Black Lives Matter, it’s amazing that district representation would be opposed by anyone who understands what underrepresentation of minorities means. After all, many cities with at-large councils in the South are that way partly to keep minorities off of local councils and put business interests on instead.

        Gerrymandering is always possible, but with a small number of districts (Seattle has seven), non-partisan elections and a community expectation of neighborhoods being in one district wherever possible, it’s very difficult to do.

      3. many cities with at-large councils in the South are that way partly to keep minorities off of local councils and put business interests on instead.

        Gerrymandering is also used to reduce the power of racial minorities. For congressional districts across the country, this is a real problem. Again, it can be done with de-facto gerrymandering. Even when the state isn’t actively gerrymandering, it works out that way. Draw a circle around a city and call it a district. Do the same with the suburbs. Now the city votes Democratic by 90%, while the suburbs eek out 55% Republican victories. The only way to be fair is to draw the lines like a pizza, and then what have you accomplished? The Central Area is part of the same district as Mercer Island, but not as Rainier Valley?

        It could happen here. Again, that was the goal of the proponents. They weren’t trying to have “neighborhood representation”, they simply feared being outvoted by “urban” voters, AKA renters. They wanted to carve out areas that are mostly single family houses, while concentrating the urban areas in one or two areas.

        Consider District 3 in Seattle. It is likely the most densely populated district. It is also likely that it has grown more than average. That means that it will likely shrink in size, and become even more urban. Maybe Madison Park or Montlake become part of District 4. This would make District 4 less urban (more single family houses). Or how about District 7. Similarly, this could shrink. That means that parts of downtown might go south, which means that the power of Magnolia voters increases while downtown voters become part of a district that is already progressive. Strauss might have a tough time being reelected. (Which would suck, as he is quickly becoming my favorite council member).

        It probably won’t matter, but you could say the same thing about at-large voting. Seattle routinely had at least one black council member (two of them then went on to become mayor). How many black council members do we have now that we switched to regional voting?

        There are problems with each approach. One simple solution is to have parties with proportional representation. You can run on the “Lake City” party, Democratic party, New Democratic party, Progressive party, BLM party, or whatever floats your boat. (Pedersen could run on the Anti-Tax, Anti-Transit, Single Family Housing party). You get the same portion of members as votes your party got. It would be up to the party to decide who the members are, and those members would be known ahead of time.

        But you are being naive if you think districts were meant to increase the power of racial minorities. It was passed during an off-year election — designed to appeal to conservative voters. It had no support from the Urban League, the NAACP or any other similar organization (https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/do-districts-have-a-race-problem/Content?oid=17918126). It was meant to give home owners (who are now a minority) disproportionate power. Whether that actually works or not is another matter.

  3. If I-976 is struck down, is it possible to re-add car tab fees as a revenue source for the new TBD, and lower the sales tax component by a corresponding amount, without going back to the ballot?

    1. Probably not. Just about anything would require going back to the ballot.

      It really doesn’t matter. Seattle will pass anything transit related. Same with housing related, medical related, schools, etc. The only thing it won’t pass is something prison or police related (and that was before the recent protests). I think the last local levy failure was with a local jail. Oh, and Seattle might not pass a “roads” proposal, unless it is focused on maintenance and repair. But transit? Transit will pass easily, for every amount, for every proposal, in every election.

  4. Well, this is disappointing. This is essentially a service cut to transit. Despite increased density, and overall growth in the city, the city council is proposing a service cut. The transit system will get worse, right when it should get better. Bus drivers who risked their lives during the pandemic will be laid off (I guess once they’re not essential, they are disposable).

    But I guess it could have been worse. They could have cut more. The 0.05% cut is baffling to me. What possible benefit is there with this lower tax to justify the cut to service? When you buy something — not food or rent, mind you — for a hundred dollars, you save a nickel. Big deal. What is the point of that? There are people — lots of people — who will cringe when the cashier rings up a purchase and it says $100. Those same people won’t bother to pick up a nickel off the ground. So somehow we are making life easier for them?

    All of the BS surrounding regressive taxes ignores the fact that the old tax was far more regressive. A sales tax of 0.05% (that does not apply to food or rent) is not that regressive. A flat $60 fee is. Under the old tax, if I have two old junkers in my yard, I pay more than someone with a Lexus. Everyone, regardless of how nice their car is, pays the same per car. A sales tax to meet the old revenue numbers (a 0.2% tax) is nowhere near as bad. This tax cut amounts to 0.05% off of that number. I would have to spend $120,000 on stuff each and every year, to equal the old car tab tax on just one car. It is ridiculous.

    With Pedersen, he is clearly an anti-transit, anti-tax zealot, out of touch with his constituents. This isn’t the first time he opposed money for transit, and it likely won’t be his last.

    But with the rest of the council, my guess is something else is going on. Maybe they want that tiny bit of sales tax authority to ask for something else in the future. It is obvious that we will need more in infrastructure work, even if the West Seattle bridge is fixed with state, federal or tolling money. But that should be done with a car tab tax. Even if initiative I-976 is upheld, it is possible to have car tab taxes. My interpretation of the initiative states that it is just fine to have *new* car tab taxes, as long as they are approved by public vote. That would certainly be the case in Seattle. A car tab tax to pay for automobile projects is quite reasonable and sensible — it would likely pass easily. It is possible it would have some money for transit as well.

    But until then, we will have to live with this proposal, which means it is quite likely there will be cutbacks in the short term. Cutting service and then trying to restore it is a bad idea. Some who are laid off end up getting other work, and you end up spending a bunch extra in training. In general it costs a lot more money to have the money go up and down like that, which ultimately means less service for riders. It is a bad idea and the members of the council who didn’t recognize that made a big mistake. I’m disappointed, although it obviously could be worse.

    1. “My interpretation of the initiative states that it is just fine to have *new* car tab taxes, as long as they are approved by public vote.”

      That was my first interpretation and I didn’t understand why some media reports said voters couldn’t reinstate the taxes. Even when I voted I felt it wasn’t clear whether voters could reinstate the taxes or not, and that this is a material fact that should be required to be clear. Eyman’s interpretation in an interview was that voters can’t reinstate them because the initiative also revokes the state’s authorization for localities to have transit-related car-tab fees. So voters can only enact car-tab taxes for purposes the state allows, and the state won’t allow them for transit going forward. He said Seattle could still use sales tax to fund transit.

      If that interpretation survives in the courts, it would be interesting to see what purposes voters can use car tabs for. Potentially nothing. That would make the statement in the ballot title a misleading bait-and-switch: “You can theoretically use this power, but there’s nothing it can be used for.” Potentially everything except transit. That could lead to shifting funding for libraries, parks, E911 service, etc, to car tabs to free up other tax sources for transit. The way the monorail tax authority says it can be used for fixed-guideway transit that’s not light rail, so all in-city light rail projects get pushed to Sound Transit. I’m also doubtful that city/county councils would be willing to shift things currently funded by property tax to car tabs, or that they’d prioritize transit high enough to do that. Or it may be something in between: voters can enact car tabs for some things but not all non-transit things.

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