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Referendum: Bad news from Seattle

April 23, 2014

This is not a good sign.  From today’s Seattle Times: “Voters rejecting new money for transit; bus cuts coming”

A list of transit cuts is headed to the King County Council this week, after 55 percent of voters were rejecting a sales-tax and car-tab increase in the Tuesday night count.

“There are no other options but to cut service,” said County Executive Dow Constantine. He said he will publish a plan to slice one-sixth of Metro Transit’s operating hours, including elimination of 72 routes. Customers on most other routes would notice fewer bus trips, or more crowding.

Transit managers have warned of this for months, even as ridership climbs to near-record levels of 400,000 passengers per weekday. …

The 10-year measure called for increasing the sales tax by 0.1 percent, or a dime per $100 purchase; and enacting a $60 annual car-tab fee. The combined revenue, just over $130 million for 2015, was to be divided 60 percent for bus service and 40 percent among county and city street departments.

The Times also provides a precedent on how the TransLink vote is likely to be treated.  Here’s their editorial from April 6 opposing the proposition:

 If voters approve Proposition 1, King County would have no incentive to do the hard work of bringing down labor costs that still saddle Metro with the fifth-highest driver costs in the country, behind only Boston, Santa Cruz, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

If voters turn down Proposition 1, King County threatens a round of devastating bus-service cuts, many on popular routes including those carrying students to college. County and Metro leadership should not let that happen.

The threat ignores other options, including further fare increases and ever tighter control of administrative costs and capital expenses.

Saying no to Proposition 1 is not a message that transit does not matter. It does. The region, particularly job-dense downtown Seattle, needs reliable bus service. Nor should a no vote be read in Olympia as a sign the state Legislature does not need to pass a transportation package that includes less regressive transit tax options. It does.

Vote no on Proposition 1, and send King County government a message that Metro has more work to do on righting its cost structure before asking voters for more revenue.

Of course, Metro in Seattle’s King County has been cutting service already, as has TransLink (“service optimization” it’s called) – and it won’t matter.  The opposition will go after labour costs, or administrative costs, or whatever is next in the line of sight.  The argument will always be that until the transit agency demonstrates better cost control, we shouldn’t give it more money.  And only brutal cuts that demonstrably hurt those most vulnerable will be a sufficient indicator.

But the most vulnerable, as likely demonstrated again in Seattle, don’t vote in numbers to make the difference.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Rico permalink
    April 23, 2014 9:22 am

    Very sad, hopefully we can learn from this and produce a better outcome.

  2. April 23, 2014 10:44 am

    The sadness is the positions taken by the two Seattle factions for and against the proposition. The interests are moving people efficiently and in a timely fashion. Why are we gambling this on a Vancouver referendum? Do we really want the gridlock of Seattle? It is really a non-negotiable in a growing region.

    • April 23, 2014 9:28 pm

      The interests are moving people efficiently and in a timely fashion

      Absolutely, and in Vancouver we face a slightly different solution than Seattle, but not that different.

      If the purpose is to move people efficiently and in a timely fashion…you can start to address all existing inefficiencies:

      a detour thru Champlain on the route 49…cost: $500,000/year
      A proposed detour to avoid Robson square….cost: $500,000/year
      …and $1 million which can be spent or saved …to move people faster and more efficiently…
      $1 million on 2 routes, $1 million on 1% of the network.

      If the question is to throw more tax payer money at Translink to serve some special interests at the expense of good and efficient transit…As far as I am concerned, I don’t see the point.

      …Vancouver politicians have still to provide indication they are serious about transit…
      (…so far, they have opposed to transit improvement on the 49 avenue able to save $500,000 )


      If the question is, as suggested by yvrluyens below, to throw money on white elephants to please the suburbs voter, but which will provide little added transit value but will be very expensive to operate, I don’t see much of the point either…

  3. April 23, 2014 12:31 pm

    This is a bad result for Seattle, but the way that this was structured made it hard to win. This was a special election with low turnout and the road funding was poorly defined (40% for local roads, probably maintenance, but people didn’t know what they were getting).

    Seattle area residents might also have a case of tax fatigue. By my very rough calculations, they pay about the same per capital transit tax as we do but get much less for it. Both less service and lower quality service. (Translink does get much higher fare revenue because it has higher ridership.)

    Translink total tax revenue 921m of which I estimated 800m for transit, divided by a service area of 2.3m gives approx $350 per person per year.

    Seattle has four agencies, Sound Transit, King County Metro and Pierce Transit and Snoho Community Transit that raise very roughly 1150m per year in taxes for a service area of 3.3m which also gets you to $350 per person per year.

    Seattle also has three big ticket road expansion projects (Alaska Way Deep Bore Tunnel, 520 Bridge, I-405 lanes plus I-5 rebuilds in south King County) that have a greater reliance on tax revenue because tolls will probably cover around $2b of the $8b price tag for these.

    So Seattle area residents have a legitimate issue with the efficient use of tax dollars. However, a good chunk of this is the fault of Seattle area residents which vote for a patchwork of transit and road jobs that make no sense. Sound Transit made a mistake going with a mostly grade separated light rail. It should have gone full metro or stuck with express and limited stop buses. And to appeal to a broad enough voter base, it has had to compromise its routes. The people voted for the Deep Bore Tunnel which is stupid. So Seattle area residents have thrown a lot of money at transportation and will continue to do so. Nevermind that the meagre returns are the fault of the voters themselves, they are frustrated. Another reason that Christy Clark was right the first time: referenda are terrible ways to do transportation planning.

  4. April 23, 2014 12:35 pm

    What’s wrong with cost control ? Unionized drivers and public servants with excessive pay and benefit packages are one major reason for our of control operating costs and excessive taxation in our country, too !

  5. April 25, 2014 6:43 am

    Tax, tax, tax….the people have spoken. I hope this sets the tone for all future politicians who look for the easy way out for their poor leadership skills.

    • Thomas permalink
      April 25, 2014 11:14 am

      indeed. Politicians have to show cost control and value for money, first, then ask for more taxes, and that is why a referendum might fail in MetroVan !

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  1. Clarification: “Service optimization is not a cut to service” | Price Tags

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