Following the exciting passage of JumpStart Seattle revenue package, which levies a tax on high-end salaries at large companies to fund an array of COVID-19 recovery and affordability programs, the details of the city’s plan for Proposition 1 to renew the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (“STBD”) is a splash of cold water. While JumpStart Seattle is a bold an progressive measure to invest in the community in new ways, even a successful Prop 1 will be a cut in transit service.
The 2020 Prop 1 measure’s 0.1% sales tax is expected to bring in about half the funding of the previous iteration that voters passed overwhelmingly in 2014. And its primary leaders both opposed JumpStart Seattle. City Council Transportation Chair Alex Pedersen was one of only two “No” votes on JumpStart Seattle, and Mayor Jenny Durkan has opposed the JumpStart Seattle measure.
However, this shortfall in isn’t really the fault of Councilmember Pedersen or Mayor Durkan. The 2014 measure, which expires at the end of the year, included the same 0.1% sales tax in addition to a $60 vehicle license fee that could largely become illegal if the successful I-976 statewide initiative makes it through the courts. The outcome of that case is still up in the air, so it would likely be unwise to pursue a new measure that assumes the courts will overturn the initiative. And the State Legislature failed to provide any new revenue options for transportation benefit districts during their 2020 session, leaving the city with sales tax as the only option available.
Seattle could increase the sales tax to a maximum of 0.2%, but the idea of increasing the most regressive tax source we have at a time when people and small businesses will be struggling financially also seems unwise. So we’re left with simply renewing the sales tax portion of the 2014 measure, and then figuring out how to cut the transit budget even further. It’s a stop-gap measure to try to ease the pain, not a visionary measure to improve how people in Seattle get around.
There was also hope that King County would run a similar ballot measure county-wide, but the county declined to do so. This leaves Seattle to try to save what it can using a limited city-only measure.
There are so many things that are frustrating about this situation, but the biggest frustration is that the STBD was working. In 2015, only a quarter or households in the city were within a short walk of a bus or train that arrived every ten minutes or less. In 2019, that figure was up to 70%, largely due to STBD-funded bus hours. It’s likely that number will go back down under a smaller STBD. And the measure didn’t just add hours, it also invested in capital improvements like bus lanes so that buses that are running are faster and more reliable. Continue reading