Seattle sales tax for bus service headed to November ballot

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Seattle voters will be asked to approve a sales tax increase to fund bus service, as the coronavirus pandemic creates intense pressures on transit budgets and forces cutbacks.

The Seattle City Council Monday voted to send a measure to the November ballot for a .15% sales tax to renew a city tax known as the Seattle Transportation Benefit District. If passed by voters, it would replace an existing .1% sales tax and $60 car-tab fee, meaning taxpayers would see a cut to their car tabs and increase in sales tax next year.

The six-year measure would raise about $42 million a year for Metro bus service, transit passes for students and people with low incomes and “emergent needs” related to the pandemic and the closure of the West Seattle Bridge. That’s less than the $56 million a year raised last year under the current tax.

The council opted not to renew the car-tab fee because those fees are in legal limbo after statewide voters approved a Tim Eyman-sponsored initiative to cut car-tab taxes last fall.

Seattle uses the transportation benefit district money to buy bus service from King County Metro on routes that serve Seattle. 

If voters approve the new proposal, up to $10 million a year could be spent on programs to offer transit passes to students, people with low incomes and essential workers. Up to $9 million a year could be used for “emerging needs,” including West Seattle projects, and $9 million could be used for street maintenance and other improvements on bus routes. That amount would later be reduced to $3 million a year.

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The ballot measure was reworked by the City Council after the mayor sent down a smaller tax

Even if voters pass the tax, bus service cuts are likely as Metro weathers deep financial losses due to the pandemic. A smaller tax could have resulted in more severe cuts that would “harm those who need transit the most,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales.

State law allows limited types of taxes for transportation benefit districts, leaving even supporters of the plan bemoaning the use of a sales tax.

“We come frustrated to be making a difficult decision between cutting integral transit service and regressively taxing low-income communities to fund that transit,” said Giulia Pasciuto, policy and research analyst at Puget Sound Sage.

While a sales tax is “far from ideal,” dramatic cuts to bus service “would be devastating for our community,” said Shomya Tripathy, director of policy and civic engagement at Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant said the city should look for other taxes, like increasing the recently passed big-business tax

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In addition to the expiring $60 fee, Seattle also charges vehicle owners a separate $20 car-tab fee, imposed by the council rather than the voters. That fee pays for pothole repair and other basic services. If the city defeats the car-tab initiative in court, the City Council could increase that fee to $50 in future years.

Demand from bus riders has been so high in recent years Metro couldn’t keep up with the amount of bus service Seattle wanted to buy.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the picture. Metro ridership dropped dramatically early in the pandemic and Metro stopped collecting fares to avoid close contact between drivers and riders at the front of the bus. As the economy slowly reopens, ridership remains down to about a third of regular levels on weekdays. It’s not clear when demand for transit may return to previous levels.

Still, thousands have continued to rely on buses during the pandemic. Routes that have maintained the highest ridership travel through neighborhoods with larger shares of residents of color. Those routes could be a focus for the new tax revenues, though it’s not yet clear precisely which routes would be funded by the tax.  

Some advocates had called for a tax for bus service countywide, rather than just in Seattle, arguing people who are being priced out of the city need better bus service. But an effort to send voters a countywide tax for bus service collapsed earlier this year when the pandemic hit locally. 

City Council members approved a resolution Monday pledging to work with King County on regional transit funding, but there are no specifics. County Executive Dow Constantine and several County Council members wrote a letter to the City Council to say they intend to “work toward a countywide transit funding measure at an appropriate time.”

Several City Council members pushed to decrease the length of the tax to four years in hopes of increasing pressure for a regional measure, but that was narrowly defeated.

This story has been updated to correct current King County Metro ridership levels.

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