by Carolyn Bick
King County Metro bus operator Sam Smith is worried about job security. Already, he said, Metro had to cut 200 part-time driver jobs in August, as a cost-saving measure, due to the economic fallout of the current novel coronavirus pandemic. In September, Metro reduced bus service by 15%. If Proposition 1 — which would continue a portion of public transit funding for the next five years — doesn’t pass, Smith thinks his job is likely on the chopping block. He also worries about the effect a lack of funding will have on the wider public.
“Cuts in transit right now are counter-productive. Routes that run in heavily populated areas such as the A Line, E Line, and the 7 which serves South Seattle are packed at capacity,” Smith said in an emailed statement to the Emerald.
In an effort to prevent these cuts, the Transit Riders Union (TRU) will be holding a Day of Action on Oct. 6, which is meant to frame public transportation as a mutual aid effort and make the case for voters to pass Proposition 1 in November. The TRU will also join national transit riders unions across the country that day in calling for the United States Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which includes $32 billion in emergency transit funds.
For the last six years, Proposition 1 has funded the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD), which supports essential transit, various capital projects, and transit access programs such as the ORCA Opportunity program that allows youth and low-income riders to take a majority of public transit for free. The expiring Proposition 1 uses a sales tax of 0.1 percent in conjunction with $60 car tab fees to raise $50 million annually to partially fund public transportation services, according to the STBD’s site.
But thanks to anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 — which eliminated car tab fees but is currently under litigation — appropriate levels of funding for public transit services are in jeopardy. And even with the renegotiated sales tax increase to 0.15 percent — after the Seattle City Council decided that increasing the tax to 0.2 percent was too much — “the new measure is somewhat smaller than the expiring one, and the funding will be spread over more spending ‘buckets’ (e.g. the need for focused service on W. Seattle), so some of the bus service cuts are due to this (as opposed to recession-driven revenue shortfalls),” TRU General Secretary Katie Wilson said in an email to the Emerald.
If Proposition 1 doesn’t pass this year, 150,000 hours of bus service would be cut, along with the ORCA Opportunity program, access programs for seniors and improvements along major transit corridors, TRU Lead Organizer and Day of Action coordinator Matthew Lang said in an interview with the Emerald. He said that while he understands people don’t like the tax, the cost of losing mobility for people who rely on public transportation is much higher, particularly for essential workers who often work low-wage jobs and rely on public transit to get to work. These essential workers tend to be People of Color — specifically, Women of Color — who are more likely to live in South King County due to economic disparities and Seattle’s history of redlining.
As King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay (District 2) pointed out in a statement emailed to the Emerald, these workers and the entirety of South King County will disproportionately bear the burden of lost hours. There already isn’t enough reliable public transit for people in South King County as it is, he said.
“We know that a disproportionate amount of essential workers in our region, especially those working low wage jobs, come from communities that will be most impacted by transit cuts,” Zahilay said in the statement. “We have asked these communities to sacrifice in order to keep our basic operations in government and business running amidst a global pandemic. Now is the time to invest in this needed community infrastructure, not divest.”
Longtime public transit rider and TRU’s co-founder Pauline Van Senus said in an emailed statement to the Emerald that she has been riding the bus throughout the pandemic, despite the fact that she is an older Washingtonian. She said she sees a “broad spectrum” of people riding the bus, from disabled individuals to older folks carrying bags and boxes of food from the food bank to people just out to enjoy a day at the park.
According to the Transportation Choices Coalition, 19% of Seattleites don’t own cars, and more than 100,000 people have continued to rely on public transit to get to their jobs. Van Senus herself relies on the public transit system to travel to gardening and house-cleaning jobs. If the public transit system is cut, she said, “[i]t’s going to knock a major support system out from under people at the low end. It will for me. There will be a lot of places you just can’t go.”
But there’s yet another need that may not immediately spring to mind, Lang said. The unhoused community and people experiencing homelessness tend to use the bus system to get out of the rain and snow — both of which are approaching as the year deepens into autumn — as well as, more recently, out of the smoke, which blanketed most of the state in mid-to-late September and created dangerous outdoor conditions.
“Coming into a bus out of the smoke — we know that that was a big place for folks to temporarily make sure they were safe and able to breathe at least moderately fresh air,” Lang said. “I think it’s important for us to realize just how important for the unhoused community our bus system is. It is the only way to get around the town, first of all. … When it’s cold, it’s warm on the bus. When it’s raining real hard, it’s dry on the bus.”
Lang said the Day of Action was inspired by Sherae Lascelles, an advocate for vulnerable communities who is currently a candidate for Washington State’s 43rd District and whom the TRU endorsed. As opposed to just “dropping flyers,” Lang said, Lascelles leads by example. To that end, Lang decided it would be a good idea for TRU members to ride public transit alongside regular patrons and speak and interact directly with riders. These TRU members will be masked, of course, and will be handing out masks and hand sanitizer in an effort to show people how to safely ride public transit.
Lang also said the Day of Action is not the only time the TRU will be out in the field. He said the day is simply meant to kick off the campaign for Proposition 1 and that they will be out in the field every day, connecting with voters, right up until Election Day on Nov. 3.
But even if the ballot measure doesn’t pass, Lang said, the TRU will continue its in-person outreach on public transit.
“It’s going to be our primary method of authentically connecting with riders in the field,” he told the Emerald.
Editor’s Note: The Emerald originally wrote that Lascelles is running for the 42nd District seat. This was a typo that has been amended. Lascelles is running for the 43rd District seat. The Emerald also mistakenly wrote that King County Metro further reduced bus service from post-pandemic levels, when it actually reduced bus service from pre-pandemic levels.
Featured image is attributed to Gordon Werner under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.