County voters to decide on tax, fee hikes for roads, buses
March 5, 2014
By Emily Heffter
King County voters will decide in April on a $60 car-tab fee and a tenth-of-a-cent sales-tax increase for roads and buses.
On Feb. 24, the Metropolitan King County Council also passed a 25-cent fare increase for bus riders starting in 2015. Peak one-zone fares are $2.50 now, and peak-two-zone fares are $3.
The increases make up a funding package county officials pulled together to save King County Metro Transit from threatened service cuts of as much as 17 percent. County leaders hoped the state Legislature would act to save the bus system, but it didn’t.
The ballot measure would raise $130 million per year, $50 million of which would go to cities around the county to fix their streets. The rest would go toward restoring Metro service and fixing county-maintained roads.
County leaders acknowledged the new taxes would affect poor people disproportionately, so they also approved a low-income fare of $1.25 if the tax measure passes. If the measure fails, the low-income fare would be $1.50.
After years of waiting for the Legislature to provide funding options, Councilman Rod Dembowski, a North Seattle Democrat, said, “This is an opportunity to go on offense and make necessary investments in public infrastructure.”
The tax measure, on the April 22 ballot, has broad support from business, labor and transportation groups, and the relative ease with which it made its way onto the ballot reflects months of careful political maneuvering. In the past, some suburban and conservative lawmakers have hesitated to raise money for transit, but the inclusion of money for rural and small-town roads helped.
Some human-services groups oppose regressive taxes, but the low-income fare helped appease them.
“It’s sort of like your roof,” said Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, a Redmond Republican. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I really want to repair the roof.’ But when the water is dripping on your head … you realize it’s time to fix the roof.”
In the end, all nine members of the County Council — acting as a Transportation Investment District board — voted to put the measure before voters.
Eastside activist Will Knedlik spoke against the tax measure, saying it is unfair to voters in the east and south parts of the county.
He said it “squanders a chance” to set up a long-term financial plan to make Metro more sustainable.
Supporters vowed to launch an enthusiastic campaign.
“While remaining critical of the regressive nature of these taxes, and also recognizing that they do not meet the long-term financial needs of Metro, I recognize at this point that this is our only option to prevent deep service cuts later this year,” said Katie Wilson, representing the Transit Riders Union.
Both the sales-tax increase and the higher vehicle-license fee would end after 10 years.
In an unrelated move, the state said it would keep sending King County Metro millions of dollars to sustain popular added bus lines on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carry more than 24,000 daily passengers, while Highway 99 tunnel work is ongoing.
Bus use has grown on the viaduct routes since construction in that corridor began in 2011, Metro said, but an earlier allotment of $32 million in state funds, which pays for about 150 daily bus runs, will run out midyear. The new money will keep them going through 2015.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.