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2019 Election: Transit in big trouble, lots of City Council votes left to count

Map of Seattle comparing the area of the city served by 10-minute frequency buses before and after the Seattle Transportation Benefit Distict investements.
The dark blue areas have very frequent bus service thanks to the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, funded largely by $60 car tabs.

I was at the Shaun Scott party last night, and the response to last night’s initial ballot drop summed up how I feel: Extremely uneasy.

I-976 looks almost certain to pass, which is devastating. The final result will likely be much closer than the initial 56–44 count, but I’m not sure there’s precedent for late ballots closing such a gap in a statewide vote.

There will very likely be a court battle challenging the legality of the initiative, and Tim Eyman has lost before. That’s a glimmer of hope, sure, but we will need to plan assuming the initative holds.

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Many people focus on the big impact to Sound Transit expansion, but I am more immediately concerned about the impact on existing King County Metro bus service funded through Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District (“STBD”).

Seattle is a leader nationwide on transit growth in recent years, and that’s in no small part due to increases in frequent bus routes across the city. It’s not as tangible and sexy as a new light rail station, but by dramatically expanding the number of homes within a short walk of at least one very frequent bus (10 minutes or less) the city and county have made the bus a much more reliable and convenient way to get around.

A 10-minute or better bus is the point where you stop looking up schedules and just walk to the bus stop trusting it will arrive soon. It’s simple: People are much less worried about whether transit will work for them when they can trust it to arrive when they need it. Frequent buses also reduce the so-called “transfer penalty,” which is the time you have to wait between buses on a multi-bus journey. When switching buses is less of a worry, the whole network open up to you. So bus frequency is a really big deal.

As a result of both bus and light rail investment, transit use in Seattle has been growing steadily, bucking nationwide trends. That’s what’s so frustrating about the idea of cutting transit right now: It’s working!

The STBD also funds the ORCA opportunity program that provides transit passes to students, as well as providing funding for the Trailhead Direct hiking buses.

But the impact of losing these funds does not simply cut these STBD programs. City leaders are currently debating the 2020-21 budget, and they could choose to save STBD programs by making cuts elsewhere. I mean, we aren’t going to take away student ORCA passes, right? But cuts could be very bad for other budgeted and proposed transit, walking and biking projects if the Council chooses to target them. I know it won’t go very far, but could they start with the Adaptive Signals budget please? Maybe delay the safety-lacking Wallingford paving projects (50th and 40th Streets) if that’s still possible…

Graph showing steady Seattle public transit mode share growth over the past decade.
Data from the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey.

Scott would need a record late-ballot rebound to squeak out a win over Alex Pedersen in Seattle’s City Council District 4 race. It doesn’t look good, but I think it’s wise to wait and see how the drops go this week before calling it. Past experience suggests that the race will tighten significantly as more votes are counted, but a 58–42 (8,610–6,241) gap in the first drop has never been overcome, I’m pretty sure. The only reason I think it’s wise to wait is because of the UW factor. District vote counts are fairly low, so there’s a lot of room for movement if those packed election day ballot boxes come in very strongly for Scott. The Scott campaign put a lot of effort into registering UW students, and we don’t have much precedent for how that will affect a district race (in the only other D4 race, neither Rob Johnson nor Michael Maddux had such a big student registration effort). So if it worked and a good number of students procrastinated until the last day to vote, it’s not impossible. But that’s a big “if.”

The county estimates that 55% of votes have been counted. So Scott would need something like 60% of the remaining ballots and/or a larger-than-expected number of late ballots. That’s a tall order, but not unimaginable. We will likely know in the next couple days if closing the gap is possible.

It’s also looking tough for Kshama Sawant in District 3, though she has less ground to cover in the remaining ballots than Scott. Egan Orion is leading 54–46, though Sawant has covered big vote gaps before. The result is going to be very close. I doubt we’ll know the result for a while.

But the results are not all terrible for City Council. Seattle Bike Blog endorsed candidates Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, Debora Juarez, Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis all look in good position to win so long as late votes lean even slightly in their direction as history would suggest. Jim Pugel held a very slight lead over Lewis in District 7 in the first drop, so that race could be close.

Of course, this all assumes that the giant stacks of unprecedented corporate cash is not effective at winning late ballots. Big ad spends reversing a historical trend that has favored a strong volunteer ground game is a worst case scenario for our city’s democracy.

Results for biking-backed candidates around the region were pretty good. All of the WA Bikes-endorsed Bellevue City and County Councilmembers have very strong leads. So that’s cool.

In all, King County candidates endorsed by transpo groups are doing very well, including in Kirkland, Redmond, King County Council and the Seattle Port.

The next ballot drop is scheduled for today by 4 p.m. and by 4 p.m. every workday until all votes are counted (no results Monday for Veterans Day).

But the nation does have one amazing biking-related result to celebrate. Do you remember that woman who was fired after she was photographed flipping off Donald Trump’s motorcade while biking? She was just elected to her County Board of Supervisors, ousting the Republican incumbent. Hell yes, Juli Briskman!


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26 responses to “2019 Election: Transit in big trouble, lots of City Council votes left to count”

  1. Gary Yngve

    Sometimes it needs to get worse before it gets better. A car tab tax is regressive (and for that matter, gives car drivers the entitlement that cyclists are moochers and don’t belong on the road). We should be funding transit by a progressive income tax, such as the one that was defeated a few years ago.

    1. bill

      Speaking of moochers, I would back an initiative requiring taxes to be spent in the county where they are collected. If the folks in our red counties don’t want to “pay their fair share” then they should suffer the consequences.

    2. bill

      PS regarding car tabs, a flat $30 fee whether you own a junker or a new BMW is highly regressive. The current/past excise tax is progressive, even if one wants to carp about whether the state’s valuation tables are accurate.

      1. Nicolas

        The valuation tables weren’t “inaccurate”, they were insane. My $10k car was valued at $25k. Honestly I wrote an email about this to complain to my senator last year. I also paid an absurd $225 this year to drive a PHEV (around 4x more what I would have paid through the gas tax and 100% of the money I saved not buying gas). Overall, I was against that repeal because I think that we really need the investments in transits and infrastructure. But, honestly, they had it coming, people got frustrated and voted as a “fuck off” more than anything else. Taxes need to be fair, my car tab fee that I paid, a few weeks back was ~$700 that’s 7% of the value of my car and I feel like I’m getting punished for driving an EV which is so totally backward. I think that car tabs fees should be limited at 3 to 5% of the TRUE value of the car.

    3. jeff fisher

      Could be a way to have another shot at the original employment tax (the one that would have had amazon pay more than Safeway because it was based on salary). Direct it to transit. The big employers campaigned for transit. Lets see if they’ll put their money where their mouths were.

      San Francisco did this with its very similar tax, I believe. This is also what a somewhat similar Chicago tax was directed toward (though I think it no longer exists).

    4. Southeasterner

      “and for that matter, gives car drivers the entitlement that cyclists are moochers and don’t belong on the road”

      ? In what way? Local roads are primarily paid for by sales and property tax. If I leave my car at home and bike to work I’m still paying the same car tab as the guy driving to work and I’m also paying the same sales and property tax. There is no sales tax on gasoline, and the state and federal gas taxes contribute towards the maintenance of highways I’m not allowed to bike on.

      So the guy burning a non-renewable resource produced by a human rights destroying petro-state, that increases our trade deficit and results two $2 trillion wars to protect oil rights, paid for by Chinese backed debt, reducing our ability to exert any control on our own foreign trade policy and valuation of the dollar isn’t a moocher? And through the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels he is doing irreversible environmental damage to the only planet we are aware of that supports human life. In addition the all out genocide being led by drivers that results in 40,000 plus deaths on our roadways each year and countless critical and serious injuries that result in an estimated $80 Billion in direct annual economic losses and a further $900 Billion in indirect costs including medical expenses. MIT estimates exposure to vehicle exhaust directly results in a further 80,000 deaths from cancer, lung disease, and respiratory illnesses. The vehicle is also doing exponentially more damage to the roadway than my bike. Think about a 4,000 pound vehicle moving a 200 pound person vs. a 20 pound bike moving a 200 pound person. Who is creating potholes?

      So if some car driver is calling you a moocher kindly remind him that his driving is subsidized to the tune of $11 per gallon.

      Also remind him of the constant annual increases in transit fares that have occurred since 1993, the last year the federal gas tax was increased. Better yet add that the highway trust fund has been insolvent for the past 15 years to the tune of $12 billion per year in subsidies from the general fund which is sucked out of budgets for food stamps, affordable housing, health care, and university funding.

      1. bill

        Um, you’re not wrong but you must not have tried to have this conversation with a driver who tells you to get off the road because your bike isn’t licensed.

      2. Southeasterner

        I was responding to the comment from Gary on the car tab tax not if a vehicle (or bike) is required to be licensed.

        I can’t imagine a driver telling you to get off the road because your bike isn’t licensed but I suppose if it were to happen you could just ask why they think a bike should be licensed.

        What would be the implications to general societal safety if a bike wasn’t roadworthy? How would a regulatory body make that determination? What problem are you trying to solve with licensing?

      3. bill

        “I can’t imagine a driver telling you to get off the road because your bike isn’t licensed”


      4. Gary Yngve

        Fully agree that local roads are paid for by property and sales taxes, but the cagers don’t believe that. In their self-centered world, they pay for roads via gas tax and car tabs and that cyclists take away their lanes via road diets and cause gridlock via bike lanes. And if you are not riding in a bike lane because it is unsafe, you are preparing for a left turn, going the speed of traffic, etc., prepare to get a hornful / mouthful. And it’s not much better being a pedestrian. Trying to cross a crosswalk? Many car drivers pretend not to see you and bully their way through.

  2. asdf2

    This is the kind of graphic that should have been posted at every single bus shelter in the city of Seattle during the campaign. Too late now.

  3. Dave

    It wasnt seattle that did the damage it was everywhere else


    I-976 will be found unconstitutional on the grounds it is about more than one thing. In my view it should be found unconstitutional on different grounds–namely, that the whole state has no business voting on how King County taxes itself. This result, if it stands, is almost as bad as the whole state voting to make King County tax itself for a stadium, which happened in the 1990s.

    1. William

      It is almost a certainty that the retroactive impact on Sound Transit will be deemed unconstitutional for multiple reasons.

      If the rest of the initiative survives, cities like Seattle will I am sure vote to reimpose a car tab fee for local efforts so I am not entirely sure why I should be that concerned

      1. bill

        It takes time and political effort to impose a new tax, leaving a funding gap, perhaps long enough to torpedo worthy projects.

        Long term, striking down a tax and then waiting to see if the courts reimpose it makes bond investors demand higher interest rates because of the possibility their investment will evaporate if a government entity in this state defaults. Higher interest rates increase project costs.

      2. William

        It would definitely be better if Eyman was not proposing these initiatives in the first place but in my view the likely impact of this one has been exaggerated and I think it harms the credibility of the establishment. Some people vote for these as a protest with the subconscious expectation that they will be reversed and if in the future there is a ballot initiative that would really be catastrophic, the voters are less likely to believe those who have cried wolf

        As for the bond rating, WA state and ST have bond ratings that are better than average and I think that fact that the state supreme court has consistently come out on the side of preserving the tax flows needed to retire bond issues are preserved.

  5. Conrad

    Just so I can understand the other side, I am going to go out and test drive the biggest fanciest priciest car I can find. With all the trim and screens and super awesome cup holders. What if it actually is enjoyable to sit in traffic? Maybe I have it all wrong?

  6. I think if the state legislature had fixed the car tab schedule, or if they hadn’t sneaked through the inflated version, they the gutting of the car tabs would not have succeeded. I viewed the lack of honest action of violation of the public trust. It’s really difficult to win back trust, so when you screw people over, as they did, it only fuels the distrust of something like ‘income tax for the wealthy’ because if they can’t be trusted, it will trickle down.

    They had years to fix this issue, and if they hadn’t been evasive and clandestine, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. No excuse.

    I voted against the initiative, but I can see where people are gonna gut funding because they are pissed a the paternalistic behavior of the legislators who are more interested in blocking freedom of information requests than doing what is right with respect to the funding.

    Mostly it just pisses me off that they took everything for granted, and now there may be yet another slow down or multiyear or decade delay in building out truly useful transit infrastructure.

    1. Peri Hartman

      My sentiments exactly. It probably isn’t the amount of car valuation tax people are complaining about (a few hundred for a new car), but the car valuation. It seems unfair.


        Maybe. On the other hand, car tab fees are just unpopular. This is the third time voters have passed $30 car tabs. Despite dissimilar circumstances and issues, the votes have been remarkably similar: 56-44 in 1999, 51-49 in 2002, and now 55-45 in 2019.
        It took one year and four years to find the first two unconstitutional, the first on single-subject grounds and the second on bond-obligation grounds. Since both rules seem to have been violated this time around, perhaps some judge can quickly render this version unconstitutional, citing precedent.

    2. Nicolas

      All true, they really had it coming with that ridiculous schedule. I’m all for value based car tabs taxes. But the value needs to be real not fictional. As I was saying in an other comment, my car true value is ~$10k the car tab estimate was ~$25k this year…

      1. Jeffrey Fisher

        Real value means the state has an appraiser value your car every year.

    3. Jill

      I think the valuation schedule was fair in the context of the rest of our tax system, which is wildly regressive. Maybe not good politics, but fair.

      You may also be overvaluing the importance of the sound transit district in the vote. There is a lot of the state that doesn’t pay sound transit taxes at all.

      1. Nicolas

        That’s acutally a good point, so if it wasn’t sound Transit, then what were people voting against? The car tab taxes are pretty low if you remove sound transit and the EV fees.

  7. asdf2

    First off, the 2015 legislature definitely screwed up with their depreciation schedule. I don’t know where that came from, although my understanding is that it was more of an oversight than a deliberate attempt to mislead people.

    Once ST3 passed, however, there weren’t really any good options to fix it. Ultimately, either projects would have to be cut, or some other taxes, elsewhere, would have to be raised.
    1) Do nothing
    2) Adjust depreciation schedules and let Sound Transit tell voters that some of the projects that thought they were voting for won’t actually get built without new money.
    3) Adjust depreciation schedules, but raise the rate per assessed value to keep total revenue the same. Keeps transit advocates happy, but makes owners of older cars angry when their taxes go up.
    4) Adjust depreciation schedules and use state funds to make up the difference. This is a nonstarter, since it’s money the state doesn’t have.

    If the legislature and Sound Transit were really determined to address the problem, they could have worked out a deal, allowing Sound Transit to go back to voters with the following three options:
    A) Do nothing, stay with existing plan
    B) Adjust depreciation schedule, with a concrete list of projects that would be cut or scaled back as a result, so people know what they’re giving up if they vote for it
    C) Adjust depreciation schedule, but raise sales tax to keep total revenue the same; stay with existing plan.

    However, this option, too, has problems. It would have prevented Sound Transit from even starting the ST3 planning process until the vote is made, which would delay everything by a minimum of a year or two. To avoid a more conservative off-year election, they would have had to wait until 2020. And, of course, once bonds are issued, any changes to the revenue stream backing the bonds amounts to effectively defrauding the bond holders, and would violate all sorts of state laws.

    The time to get this right was back in 2015. By 2017, it was too late.

    And, regardless of what you think about Sound Transit, it is absolutely ridiculous to defund other agencies that have nothing to do with Sound Transit, and collect flat car tab fees, typically much less than what Sound Transit charges. In the case of Seattle, as much as 20% of the city’s bus service could be at risk. Even if the city is able to find alternative funding sources, it still means losing 20% of bus service during the year it takes to propose a city-only ballot measure and wait for approval, and having the lost service only gradually get restored, as bus drivers are let go, and replacements take time to train and hire. Even if the entire initiative is struct down as unconstitutional, the city of Seattle could still be stuck without 20% of its bus service for however many months or years it takes for the lawyers to litigate it and the courts to rule.

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