King County officials are planning to ask voters this April to approve a $60 annual car-tab fee and a tenth-of-a-penny sales tax increase for the next decade to prevent catastrophic cuts to Metro bus service and keep local roads whole.

Metro is also planning to raise bus fares by another 25 cents in 2015—the fifth fare hike since 2008—but will soften the economic blow by creating a cheaper fare for low-income riders.

If voters reject the measure to raise Metro revenue, which would cost the average household an estimated $11 a month, the underfunded transit agency will move forward with plans to cut up to 17 percent of its bus service.

What does losing 17 percent of a vital service actually feel like? It’s not just tinkering around the edges. In public schools around the state, for example, students would be out of school for six additional weeks. Libraries that are currently open every day would close for two months straight. A full-time employee who cut his or her hours by 17 percent would get nine extra weeks of vacation.

For King County Metro, it adds up to: More than 70 eliminated routes, 107 changed routes, and more crowded buses on the 33 unchanged routes, plus longer waits at the curb, more transfers, less reliable service, and full buses passing you by in the rain. (West Seattle and southwest King County residents will be hit extra hard after funding for extra buses to cope with downtown tunnel construction runs out in June.)

bus crowds

Oran Viriyincy, flickr

One can debate who would be affected the most. Certainly, low-income and elderly residents who depend on transit to get to doctor’s appointments, buy groceries or visit friends would be at the top of the list. So will downtown employers who depend on service workers who commute from more affordable suburbs. Or anyone who’s trying to get by without a car.

  • But the fact remains that 87 percent of Metro’s regular riders do have access to a car, and based on human nature, will be more likely to use it if infrequent bus service and longer wait times begin to inconvenience them. And that will make traffic worse for everyone, even drivers who’ve never set foot on a Metro bus.

    Oh, and that’s assuming there’s still a road for you to drive on. King County estimates that without a new funding source, 35 bridges are at risk of closing in the next 25 years, and 72 miles of roads are likely to fail without maintenance and construction.

    How did we get here?

    City and county officials across King County, along with Chamber of Commerce and labor leaders, higher education officials and a coalition of environmental, transportation, and human service non-profits have been begging the Washington state legislature for several years to allow the county to raise local revenue for buses and roads through a motor vehicle excise tax. That would be less regressive than a flat car tab fee and less subject to economic downturns than the sales tax, but requires the state to grant that authority.

    In fact, the main reason Metro is so far in the hole is that the agency already relies heavily on the sales tax for its funding, and $1.3 billion dollars in expected revenues evaporated during the last recession. The agency has been able to make up for about $800 million of that by raising fares four times, laying off staff, making the system more efficient, not buying buses, deferring maintenance, and spending reserves. The remaining last resort to bridge that shortfall are the massive service cuts currently on the table.

    cjeremyprice,flickr

    cjeremyprice,flickr

    Similarly, funding that the county uses to maintain roads and bridges has dropped by one-third since 2009 as property values in rural and unincorporated parts of King County have nosedived. The average homeowner in unincorporated King County will pay roughly $80 less in 2013 property taxes for the roads levy than in 2011.

    King County Executive Dow Constantine said state legislators have said they want to keep the county at the table and hungry for a funding solution because including it in a statewide package increases the chances of a larger transportation measure’s success. But with those negotiations in Olympia still foundering, and Metro service cuts scheduled to begin this summer, Constantine and a bevy of other officials said Tuesday that it’s time for the county to move forward with options that don’t require the state’s blessing:

    We are out of time. We are out of time for a statewide bill that includes a local transportation solution. For five years we’ve lived under the threat of drastic bus cuts at a time when we need more service, not less, and the backlog of maintenance for local roads continues to grow. We waited and we waited and now time is up.

    So how can we fix it?

    Here are some of details of the plan unveiled Tuesday, which has bipartisan support from King County Council members Larry Phillips, Jane Hague, Joe McDermott and Rod Dembowski. As proposed, voters would be asked to approve a ballot measure in an April 22 special election to:

    • Create a King County Transportation District to raise roughly $130 million a year
    • Impose a $60 annual vehicle fee (a $40 increase over a temporary $20 fee residents currently pay)
    • Increase the sales tax by 0.1% for the next 10 years
    • Spend 60% of the revenue ($80 million/year) to preserve Metro bus service
    • Distribute 40% of that money ($50 million/year) to King County and local cities for road maintenance, bridge repair, pedestrian and bicycle projects, sidewalks, or intersection improvements
    • Cost the average household $8/month in vehicle licensing fees and $3/month in additional sales tax

    King County Metro would also change its fare structure on March 1, 2015 and:

    • Raise fares by 25 cents per trip to $2.75 for one zone and $3.25 for two zones
    • Create a low-income fare of $1.50 for anyone making below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $23,000 in annual income for an individual

    The King County Council will begin debating the transportation ballot proposal tomorrow, with opportunities for public input before a late February deadline to send a final measure to a public vote.