Council advances Transportation Benefit District renewal

This morning the City Council moved a proposed renewal to the Seattle Transportation Benefit District out of committee, after deliberating on several amendments. Assuming it is approved by the full Council on July 27, it will be in front of Seattle voters on the November ballot.

The renewal plan, as originally proposed by Mayor Durkan, is severely constrained by Initiative 976 and by the limited options for the Council to raise revenues within a transportation benefit district. The current version, which expires at the end of the year, imposes a 0.1% sales tax and a $60 car tab fee. The sales tax could be as high as 0.2% under state law, but I-976 gutted the city’ ability to impose car tab fees. The Supreme Court is deliberating now on whether to throw out I-976, but given what she is currently allowed to do, the Mayor proposed a dramatically reduced benefit district that continues on the current 0.1% sales tax but imposes no other taxes or fees. That will result in substantially less revenues, and deep cuts to the main benefit of the district: enhanced transit service on high-frequency schedules.

The amendments considered today:

  • Amendment 1, offered by Council members Pedersen and Herbold, caps the use of revenues for capital and maintenance expenditures, at $3 million per year after 2021, so as to focus more of the funds on enhanced transit. The recent closure of the West Seattle Bridge led to revelations that the city is dramatically under-funding routine maintenance for bridges and major structures in SDOT’s portfolio. It was adopted unanimously.
  • Amendment 2, offered by Pedersen, adds first/last mile connections as an option for funding without allocating a minimum amount. It was also adopted unanimously.
  • Amendment 3, offered by Morales and Gonzalez, decreases the term of the proposed renewal from six year to 4, which would cause it to expire in 2024. The logic behind shortening the term lies in the hope that by 2024 the economy will have substantially recovered, the city will have more progressive revenue options available, and in the best case scenario there is momentum around a regional transportation benefit district instead of city-specific ones (King County considered this earlier this year but abandoned the idea in the midst of the COVID-19 first wave. However, the Move Seattle Levy also expires that year, which would make a simultaneous renewal for the STBD a high-stakes gambit for local transportation funding. After Council member Herbold clarified that the voters would be approving authorization to impose the tax but the Council could opt not to in years 5 and 6 if there were better options, Pedersen suggested changing the amendment from four years to five, but Morales wanted to stick with four to keep the renewal vote in a major election year. The amendment squeaked through by a 5-3 vote, with Morales, Sawant, Lewis, Mosqueda and Strauss voting “yes”  (Gonzalez was absent today).
  • Amendment 4, offered by Pedersen and which establishes a minimum spend on transit service, passed unanimously.
  • Amendment 5, offered  expands the rules for which Metro routes could be funded using STBD funds, to fix an unintended snag. To keep the money in Seattle, the current STBD mandates that only routes that have 65% of their stops inside city limits can be funded; however, some of Metro’s longest routes that don’t meet that criteria are the ones that provide primary service to low-income communities at the farthest edges of the city. The amendment adds language that allows for funds to be used to increase service for the city’s historically low-income communities regardless of the number of stops outside the city borders. It too passed unanimously.
  • Amendments 6A and 6B, offered respectively by Sawant and Pedersen and which were both adopted unanimously, add language to the bill expressing the Council’s intent to try to impose transportation impact fees on developers next year.
  • Amendment 7, offered by Morales and Pedersen, requires SDOT to conduct a race and social justice analysis to inform its use of STBD funds.
  • Amendment 8, which was a last-minute addition by Morales and hadn’t been circulated in advance to all of the Council members, increases the sales tax from 0.1% to 0.2% in order to lessen the cuts in public transit.  This was a gut-wrencher for the Council members as it cuts to the heart of the problems with the few revenue options left available for the Council. Sales taxes are one of the most regressive forms of taxation, as as Council member Sawant put it today, working-class residents of Seattle, who disproportionately pay more of their income in taxes and are also more reliant on public transit for essential transportation, lose either way: they either get taxed even more, or they lose access to transit.  After much deliberation and signs that several Council members intended to abstain from voting on the amendment today, Morales withdrew it so that the Council can solicit more feedback from the community.

The amended bill passed out of committee unanimously, and will be up for final vote on Monday afternoon, July 27. At that time, we might see Morales re-introduce her amendment to raise the tax rate to 0.2%. We might also see Strauss offer an amendment to switch the term back to six years; he was clearly feeling buyer’s remorse after his vote today and said so in no uncertain terms, but also needed to consider together the intertwined policy issues of the size of the tax and the length of the term.


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