by Bryce Kolton
Since its passage, the City of Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District (STBD) has consistently funded transportation improvements across the city, such as more frequent Metro buses, subsidized ORCA cards for income-qualifying residents, and pre-paid ORCA cards for Seattle Public School high schoolers.
Initiative 976 (I-976), on the ballot this November, directly cuts revenues from Vehicle Licensing Fees (VLFs), impacting revenues to governments and agencies around the state, especially Seattle. If I-976 passes, effects would be immediate; Many of the gains made through the STBD would immediately be lost. The STBD currently funds 350,000 of King County Metro’s roughly 4 million annual service hours. King County Metro estimates that impacts would likely include overcrowding, increases in customer pass-ups, reduced bus frequencies, and deteriorated service availability, especially within Seattle.
In 2014, Seattle voters approved the STBD through a 0.1 percent sales tax increase and $60 annual Vehicle Licensing Fees (VLFs), also known as car tabs, for citizens who can afford it (the city runs a VLF rebate program for income-eligible motorists). We aren’t alone –– about 60 other communities across the state fund their TBDs by one or both of these sources, improving vehicle, bus, ferry, and rail access across Washington.
When the program began in 2014, only 25 percent of Seattle households lived within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute or better frequency all-day service. The original goal was for more than half of all households in Seattle to be served at that same level by 2020. Through the STBD, the city met that goal in 2016, and continues to improve: today, 71 percent of households in the city enjoy frequent, reliable transportation access. The STBD directly added 6,780 weekly bus trips to Seattle residents, mitigating overcrowding, expanding access, and creating opportunity for Seattleites across the city.
Investments from STBD benefit all areas of Seattle, including neighborhoods the city has designated as having low access to economic opportunity. Access to transportation has been found to be a crucial factor in upwards social mobility. Historically underserved populations, such as Southeast, Southwest, and far North Seattle, have benefited directly from faster, more frequent service (e.g., Metro bus routes 106, 120, and the E line), and multimodal street improvements. STBD also funds the ORCA Lift program and saved Metro’s 24-hour Night Owl service from being permanently cut.
Recently, the STBD has been expanded to also target noted “problem areas” with spot improvements. Improvements such as queue jumps, which move buses through intersections before other traffic, and bus-only lanes, which provide reliable access for buses, have compounding positive benefits for reliability and speed. The STBD also improves bus shelters, and has funded longer bus pads to serve rear doors on long buses, improving safety, comfort, and access for riders.
The loss of revenue if I-976 passes would also hurt regional programs that many Seattle citizens use, such as Sound Transit’s Link light rail expansions, state-wide paratransit for persons living with disability, Washington State Ferries daily sailings and improvements, SR 520 West End completion, and I-90 Snoqualmie Pass expansion. Transportation benefit districts are not just for transit: most cities use TBDs to fund road improvements as well, such as Spokane, where its TBD provides 60 percent of the city’s annual road maintenance budget.
We write this message to you as your fellow citizens, having gained intimate knowledge of the positive impacts STBD has had on our city thanks to our volunteer work serving as members on STBD’s oversight board, the Seattle Transit Advisory Board. In 2014, we Seattleites took a step to expand greener transportation service and improve access. We’ve gained more frequent bus service for all and expanded transit access to those who need it most. Let’s keep it up! Vote “No” on I-976 this fall.
Bryce Kolton, Capitol Hill
Alex Wakeman Rouse, Rainier Beach