Four reasons Seattle’s plan to save bus service could be worse than Proposition 1 for Seattleites

June 3, 2014

On April 22nd, voters in King County overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 1, County leaders’ proposal to increase regressive car tab fees and sales taxes to collect more money for roads and transit. After the vote, county officials say they will move ahead with their plan to impose deep cuts to bus service in communities across the county. Meanwhile, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and other city officials announced they want to raise regressive car tab fees and sales taxes on city residents in an effort to keep current levels of city bus service. Under the Mayor’s plan, Seattle would pay King County more to receive 95% of the bus service it currently receives today.

Seattle’s leaders say their tax-increase plan is popular. Even though 54% of county voters rejected Proposition 1, the Mayor points to Seattle’s approval of the tax measure. He recently said: “We know this is what Seattle wants. Two-thirds of Seattle voters in last month’s election said a very clear and loud yes to transit service.” He noted that his plan is a “city version” of the county’s plan.

But is the Mayor’s plan that similar to Proposition 1?

It is similar, in some ways. The Seattle Mayor’s plan would impose a regressive $60 car tab fee and a .1% sales tax increase in Seattle, as proposed under Proposition 1. It includes a low-income rebate. Also, like Proposition 1, the Mayor’s plan provides voters with a false choice: it’s either bus cuts or tax increases.

However, Seattle’s go-it-alone approach may actually leave Seattleites worse off than they would have been under the failed Proposition 1. Below are four reasons why:

  • The public would spend more to receive less: Proposition 1 would have sent $17 million per year to Seattle for road, bike, sidewalk and pedestrian improvements. Murray’s plan, however, offers nothing for street improvements. In fact, the Mayor’s plan would divert money from the Seattle Department of Transportation budget to King County Metro.  In other words, Seattle voters would be paying the same hefty regressive taxes they would have paid under Proposition 1, but would receive less in services.
  • Regressive and unfair taxes: The Mayor’s plan would impose some of the city’s most regressive taxes that disproportionally burden low-income families. According to The Seattle Times, County leaders are aware that the Mayor’s plan could hurt low-income families more than their well-to-do neighbors. Employers, institutions, and wealthy neighborhoods could purchase more bus service while low-income neighborhood routes are eliminated.  In addition, the proposal unfairly targets drivers to subsidize other modes while the public’s road infrastructure continues to deteriorate. This is in contrast to Proposition 1, which would have dedicated some of the new tax money to directly benefit drivers by fixing roads and bridges.
  • Car tab fee would be permanent:  Under Proposition 1, both car fee and sales tax increases would have ended after ten years. Under the Mayor’s plan, the $60 car tab fee would be imposed indefinitely. The Mayor said the fee is temporary and he would consider eliminating the fee if King County leaders impose higher taxes, but also hinted he would consider keeping the fee in place.  However, the public's rejection of Proposition 1 illustrates an aversion to higher taxes for transit in King County.
  • It would keep low-performing bus service on the road: Metro’s Service Guidlines call for eliminating certain routes because they are low-performing or redundant.  Under the Mayor’s plan, tax dollars would keep some of those “night owl” routes running, subsidizing costly and inefficient transit instead of investing in more productive service that could better serve Seattle’s communities.

The regressive tax proposal comes at a time when Seattle voters are being asked to pay a lot more for other new programs. The Mayor and city councilmembers want to increase property taxes to fund universal preschool and create a permanent new tax district to increase spending on parks, and raise taxes for programs that are expiring soon, like Bridging the Gap.  In addition, the cost to Seattle taxpayers of fixing the Bertha tunneling machine and completing the Alaskan Way Tunnel project are unknown.

Seattle's support for Proposition 1 may not translate into votes for the Mayor’s plan. This new plan is a different proposal in which taxpayers would be asked to approve higher regressive taxes while receiving less in public services than they would’ve received under Proposition 1.