Seattle says fund our transit

July 18, 2011

Chris Mobley and Sam Bernstein report on a battle over public transportation.

SEATTLE--Area bus riders will literally be left on the side of the road if a $60 million budget gap isn't filled at the county bus agency.

King County Metro Transit, which is the primary transit provider for the Seattle area, faces massive budget cuts. As a result of the recession, sales tax revenues nosedived, leaving Metro, which depends on such revenue for 60 percent of its funding, to grapple with its worst financial crisis ever.

The agency has offset initial cuts by redirecting money from transit expansion plans, increasing fares, raiding capital reserves and extracting concessions from the transit workers union. Now the well has run dry.

When the King County Council held a recent forum about the transit crisis, more than 330 people testified about how the measures would affect them, while many more stood in a line that stretched around the block, waiting for a chance to have their voices heard. Local media estimates of the crowd size range from 500 to 1,000 people.

But for those who were able to make it inside, the impassioned pleas to save transit services from the budget ax were compelling.

Seattle residents line up by the hundreds to speak out against cuts in public transportation
Seattle residents line up by the hundreds to speak out against cuts in public transportation (SW)

"Maintaining bus service in these times is a bread-and-butter issue," said Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza. "Access to transit determines access to work and a job, which determines access to housing, food and health care."

The theme of social justice ran through many testimonies about the importance of an affordable, efficient and effective public transit system. "This is a social justice issue and an LGBT issue," explained Ben Crowther. "The LGBT community experiences higher rates of poverty and, as a result, depends more on public transit."

Vicky Foster added that for people with physical disabilities, the bus is often their only means of travel. "The lives of people with disabilities will be devastated," said Foster. "They don't have other transit options. We have to save the bus system."

Mae Mullin, who is deaf and blind, explained that public transit is central to her daily survival. "I rely on the bus system to be independent," she said.

Without a new source of funding, Metro will have to cut service by 17 percent as early as the beginning of 2012. This will result in more than 85 routes being eliminated and 106 routes being reduced or revised. According to Metro, nearly 80 percent of transit riders--more than 380,000 riders a day--will be impacted by the service-reduction plan.

These cuts will return Metro to 1996 levels of transit service. This is despite the fact that the county has seen an 11 percent increase in population in the last 10 years, and year-over-year transit ridership is up by 5 percent.

Despite not having an expansive rail-based transit system, the Seattle area has the 14th highest transit ridership in the country, with 17 percent of commuters using the transit system. Many bus routes are nearing capacity. If these cuts go through, buses that are already crowded will now come less often, if at all.

Another potential impact is on the Link light-rail system. Without connecting buses timed to allow commuters to transfer to their train, ridership on the $2 billion system could plummet. Despite planned expansion of the light-rail system, ridership could still fall if fewer commuters have a means to get to the stations.

NOT ONLY will the cuts affect commuters, but the environmental impact could be devastating.

As more people seek other transportation options, greenhouse gas emissions will surely go up. Nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state come from transportation. By cutting 17 percent of Metro service, more people will be forced to cars to commute (if they can afford them).

In addition to greenhouse gases, cars and trucks emit other environmentally hazardous gases that have a significant impact on the health of city dwellers. Transportation accounts for 68 percent of all air pollution in the Seattle area, according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. Medical research has shown a strong correlation between air pollution caused by car and truck emissions and increased rates of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, as well as higher rates of cancer and heart disease.

In Seattle, like most U.S. cities, some of the poorest and most diverse neighborhoods are situated along the busiest transit corridors. For example, the International District, south of Downtown Seattle and situated next to Interstate 5 and many other major traffic arteries, has a 50 percent higher rate of asthma and a 102 percent higher rate of contracting airborne disease. The neighborhood is 81 percent nonwhite and has a median household income of $13,000 per year.

Another problem associated with car and truck use is that storms wash petrochemical pollution from the area's roadways into surrounding waterways, such as Puget Sound. According to a 2007 study by the State Department of Ecology, 6.3 million to 8 million gallons of petroleum flow into Puget Sound from roads and parking lots every year. To put that into context, the notorious Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of petroleum into Prince William Sound in 1989.

These transit cuts will not only make getting to work harder, but could also jeopardize the health of the area's residents.

County politicians have proposed a temporary two-year, $20 car tab fee to offset the budget crisis. This car tab would put off the catastrophic cuts until 2013, when a long-term solution must be sought. The King County Council has until July 22 to either approve the car tab by a two-thirds supermajority, or a simple majority of the council can vote to put it on the ballot of an upcoming election.

But this solution has many problems.

To start, Seattle and Washington state taxes are already, according to multiple studies, the most regressive in the country. Without an income tax, state and local governments rely solely on a mix of sales and property taxes to fund key programs and services.

In fact, a 2010 study rated Washington state as having the most unfair tax system in the country. The bottom 20 percent of income earners pay 17 percent of their incomes toward a myriad of state, county and city sales and property taxes, not including additional user fees. The wealthiest 1 percent only pay 2.6 percent of their income in taxes, according to the study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

This disparity has only been exacerbated by the ongoing economic crisis, as various government agencies have turned to increases in regressive taxes to fund critical programs.

Despite the fact that the greed of Wall Street and the wealthy was the cause of the economic crisis, it is working people who are asked to bear the burden of paying for social services and infrastructure.

And if the politicians duck their responsibility to manage public services by putting the matter on an upcoming ballot, it's not at all clear that voters hammered by the recession will approve the measure. What's more, voters would be asked to approve a tax increase just to maintain existing service rather than to fund an expansion. In the last year, voters in neighboring Whatcom, Pierce and Thurston counties have all rejected sales tax increases to maintain current bus service.

In an area that is home to immensely profitable companies like Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft, it would be a hard pill to swallow for most voters to pay more for existing service without extracting something from these companies. And in a state that has handed out nearly $6 billion dollar in tax exemptions to wealthy companies and individuals, it would be rightly seen as a slap in the face for voters to have to pay more for Metro.

THE COUNTY council does have alternatives to sales tax increases to save Metro without adding to the tax burden of working people.

The state legislature has authorized the county to levy an "employer tax" that would tax businesses up to $24 per employee. By some estimates, this could raise $40 million annually. Businesses would pay a small premium for having their employees get to work on time. While such a tax is obviously unpopular to corporate interests, it would create a much larger base of support among the vast majority of working-class residents.

Another option is the creation of Local Improvement Districts (known as LIDs). The county could work with local municipalities to create these LIDs, which would tax commercial property owners in order to fund infrastructure or services in their area.

The South Lake Union Streetcar line was funded using such a scheme. Nearly half of the $50 million construction costs of the streetcar line were paid for by businesses along the route. It would not be hard to imagine that the creation of several LIDs in the major employment centers of King County could also pay for the budget deficit that Metro faces.

Ultimately, a full reform of the state's tax structure is the best long-term solution, but without public pressure, this will never happen.

With transit issues now capturing the attention of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region, activists should seize the opportunity to not only fight the transit cuts, but also to demand that the rich pay to fund a much-needed expansion of service. Rather than accepting a plan to balance the Metro budget on the backs of the poor and working people, we need to demand more transit service, new bus and rail infrastructure, more frequent routes and a progressive means to fund it.

Martin Luther King Jr., for whom King County was named, didn't help to inspire a movement by demanding what politicians found acceptable. He demanded justice. So should we.

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