Seattle and King County officials have been discussing among themselves whether it would be preferable to renew the Seattle Transportation Benefit District funding in a fall ballot measure, or to propose a county-wide transportation benefit district in August instead.
The Seattle Transportation Benefit District was created in 2010 with a $20 vehicle license fee, and in November 2014 voters approved six years of funding through an additional $60 vehicle license fee and a 0.1% sales tax. That funding authorization expires December 31, 2020. The proceeds have been used primarily to pay for additional Metro bus service in and around Seattle, and for improving access for low-income communities through programs such as Via. It has generally been considered a big success; Seattle is one of the very few cities in the United States that has seen public transit utilization increase over the past decade.
However, Initiative 976 has thrown a wrench into the works: it repealed the existing transportation benefit district license fees, including Seattle’s, and removed authority to implement new ones. Without that authority, under state law a new transportation benefit district would need to rely on some combination of:
- sales tax, up to .2%;
- property taxes, within existing restrictions;
- Local Improvement District(s);
- development impact fees.
In April 2014, voters rejected a King County Transportation District funding ballot measure. In response, Seattle put its own measure on the November 2014 ballot, which passed. It appears that 2020 is looking like a rerun of 2014: the King County Council is working on a new regional Transportation District funding measure for the August ballot. The tricky part here is that the deadline for Seattle to get its own measure on the November ballot, in case the county measure fails again, is August’s election day. In the worst-case scenario, Seattle goes all-in on the county-wide approach, the measure fails again, and Seattle doesn’t have time to pass its own ballot measure before its current Transportation Benefit District expires in December.
According to King County Council member Claudia Balducci, she is actively working on a countywide measure for the August ballot. Balducci told SCC via email this afternoon:
“It’s been several years since our last countywide bus service measure failed in 2014. A lot has changed. Our communities have grown and changed tremendously. Light rail is extending north, south and east. We’re building regional bus rapid transit and expanding our Metro Rapid Ride service. We have a long range plan – Metro Connects – which envisions over 70% of people countywide being served by frequent, reliable service – and that service must connect as many people as possible to our expanding regional light rail and bus rapid transit services.
I’m excited for the opportunity to re-regionalize the county’s transit system and to increase service, provide more access to more people and to tie the region together.”
Balducci said that her proposal will impose a sales tax of 0.2% to fund the district. The County Council’s Mobility and Environment Committee held a hearing this afternoon to discuss the topic (you can watch the video here). They will need to work quickly: the deadline for submitting the measure for the August ballot is May 8.
In advance of that hearing, Mayor Durkan sent a letter to the County Council expressing her support for a regional approach to transportation — but only if the county transportation district continues the investments in transit and access that Seattle’s has made over the past five years:
“However, if voters in Seattle were to support any Regional Transportation Benefit District measure in 2020, it must build upon the success of Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District and expand the benefits Seattle transit riders received from these service investments to travelers throughout King County. Because the City of Seattle can and has acted on our authority successfully, I would never be supportive of a regional measure that does not guarantee the benefits and priorities of our widely supported TBD. And I believe both our City Council and voters passionately agree with this approach.”
The letter highlights the Mayor’s three priorities for a regional transportation benefit district:
- “Transit is the First Choice”: more frequent, all-day service; maintain current Metro service levels within Seattle consistent with current funding levels.
- “Providing Access to Opportunity for All”: make investments to exceed the 2024 goal of 72% of households having access to very frequent transit service; new connections to underserved areas of Seattle; increase support for ORCA Opportunity and low-income access to transit programs.
- “Improve the Rider Experience”: capital projects to improve the reliability and travel times for buses; capital improvements throughout Seattle and the region consistent with the “Metro Connects” plan.
Balducci expressed her appreciation for Durkan’s letter, saying, “It’s helpful to have the Mayor’s statement of willingness to work with us on a countywide measure and to know her high-level priorities. Metro has been in communication with the city staff and we’re starting to have higher level communications with Seattle and other stakeholders to take into account in our proposal.” That said, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office confirmed that the city will be prepared to go it alone if necessary: “The Mayor would support a regional transit solution if a county measure fulfills key transit priorities outlined in the letter, but the City is also prepared to move forward with a city measure.”
Durkan’s letter did not mention whether she has preferences among the funding sources for the benefit district; her spokesperson said that a decision on funding sources for a Seattle-only ballot measure would need to wait until the bill is drafted.
Stay tuned to see whether the County Council manages to move forward with a ballot measure in time for the August ballot — and to see how the City of Seattle responds.
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