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Future of Funding for Seattle’s Metro Bus Service in Doubt

A sales tax that helps to pay for King County Metro bus service is set to expire this year and could be renewed in August. Decisions about who and how to pay for the bus service are caught up in a larger controversy about transportation funding in a recent ballot measure and subsequent court challenge.

(TNS) — Voters are likely to be asked this summer to approve a tax measure to help pay for King County Metro bus service, but lawmakers are still scrambling to determine just what that will look like — and who will be asked to pay.

With a Seattle sales tax and car-tab tax package set to expire this year, doing nothing could translate to lost bus service and fewer transit passes for students and people with low incomes. So, a Seattle measure to renew those taxes in some way has long been expected, even before tax-slashing Initiative 976.

But a push to seek a countywide tax measure for bus service, rather than a “go it alone” approach for Seattle, is causing more debate.

“We should have a regional bus system,” said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove during a council discussion Wednesday. Upthegrove warned against a “pay to play” system where wealthier cities fund better service and leave behind poorer parts of the county.

Without a countywide measure, “I worry that those that need it the most will end up least likely to receive those services,” Upthegrove said.

Seattle leaders may hesitate, wondering if a county electorate will be as friendly to transit, and if a countywide package would get Seattle as much service as a city measure. Seattle’s existing sales and car-tab taxes for bus service, levied through a transportation benefit district, were passed by city voters in 2014 after a countywide roads-and-transit proposal failed.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she is preparing a bus-funding measure, but hasn’t released details.

“If there is not a pathway to a regional measure, we need to act quickly to ask Seattle voters to renew our commitment … in order to avoid a potential gap in service that would be devastating to us all,” Durkan wrote in a letter to County Council members Wednesday.

Praising the programs paid for by Seattle’s transportation benefit district, Durkan warned, “I would never be supportive of a regional measure that does not guarantee the benefits and priorities of our widely supported [transportation benefit district].”

Today, Seattle’s transportation benefit district includes a .1% sales tax and $60 car-tab fee to fund bus service. After Metro was unable to provide as much service as Seattle wanted to buy, the city used some of the money to buy transit passes for high school students and public housing residents. (A separate $20 car-tab fee funds pothole repair and other projects.)

This year, Seattle will be buying about 10% of all of Metro’s service hours, according to the agency.

For this year’s ballots, the clock is ticking. Lawmakers would have to approve a tax measure by May 8 for it to appear on the August ballot.

In her letter, Durkan wrote that lawmakers should pass a measure by the end of April. “The City is fully prepared to present a robust proposal for consideration in the coming weeks to the Seattle City Council and begin Council consideration by March 18,” Durkan wrote.

The county is shooting for August instead of November because of a Harborview tax measure headed for the November ballot, County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said in an interview. “You don’t want to have too many taxes on one ballot.”

County Council members have been calling leaders from smaller regional cities in search of buy-in, Dembowski said. A county measure should “keep Seattle whole,” he said.

A countywide .2% sales tax could raise about $160 million a year, Dembowski said. With that, Metro could renew Seattle’s programs, pay for 450,000 new hours of bus service, and fund an array of other efforts, like faster bus electrification, park-and-ride projects and passes for people with very low incomes, according to a Metro presentation.

Dembowski warned the concepts are preliminary. “It’s not a plan,” he said. “It’s a hypothetical.”

Metro today is largely funded by a .9% sales tax, the maximum allowed.

Council Councilmember Kathy Lambert wondered whether some of a new tax package could be dedicated to county roads in need of maintenance. “I’m watching roads fall apart, which is really sad to watch,” Lambert said.

For a new measure, it’s likely the city would rely at least in part on sales taxes, too, but Durkan has not specified her preferred funding sources. Though local leaders frequently warn against regressive taxes like the sales tax, state law today offers limited options for transportation benefit districts.

Transportation benefit districts can charge sales taxes, car-tab fees, tolls and other fees, though some of the fees come with strict limitations and are rarely used.

Car tabs may soon be off the table. Initiative 976, passed by statewide voters in November, would strip cities of their ability to charge local car-tab fees. The measure is tied up in a court challenge, and it’s possible that fight will not be fully resolved by the time Seattle finalizes a measure for voters.

©2020 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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