Tax Measure to Fund Buses and Transit Could Have Significant Impacts in the South End

by Chetanya Robinson

A new transit measure on the ballot before voters this year could have significant impacts for communities in the South End, including new bus service connecting Seattle to south King County, free Orca cards for high school students, and traffic and pollution in the Duwamish Valley.

Proposition 1 would renew a transit measure approved by voters in 2014. The original measure was funded by a 0.1% sales tax (ten cents for every $100 dollars spent), plus a $60 car tab fee. The new measure eliminates the car tab fee and raises the sales tax to 0.15% (15 cents on a $100 dollar purchase).

Proposition 1 would raise an estimated $42 million per year to fund bus service and other transit projects for the next six years. The measure will preserve the bus service Seattle already has, with a few modifications, said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for Transportation Choices Coalition. 

“Part of what’s at stake is just the bus system that people have come to know and use,” Mesher said. “If this measure doesn’t pass, we’re going to be facing really significant cuts, and that’s going to be felt all over and particularly in neighborhoods that rely on transit the most.”

Each year for the first three years, the measure would fund between $12 million to $20 million per year to buy bus service from King County Metro. It would fund RapidRide routes and routes that make 65% of their stops in Seattle.

While bus ridership has dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of color continue to rely on popular routes in South Seattle and South King County, Mesher said.

The previous measure only funded routes with 80% of their stops in Seattle, but the new one is intended to help people in South King County and other suburban areas who were getting pushed out of the city but still need to commute into it. 

The remainder of the tax revenue each year would be spent on a variety of projects. Starting in 2021, up to $9 million from the tax can also be used for transit infrastructure maintenance, such as improving streets. This number would drop to $3 million per year in subsequent years.

Up to $9 million each year is also earmarked for “emerging needs” such as  transit to West Seattle during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge and COVID-19 related transit needs.

Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River CleanUp Coalition and chair of King County Metro’s Equity Cabinet, noted that during the West Seattle Bridge closure, it’s likely more cars will travel through the Duwamish Valley. “We need to get those people in a bus, so the impact will be less extra emissions and pollution,” López wrote in an email. 

She hopes communities of color facing environmental burdens will be prioritized if the measure passes. “Ironically these communities also lack for frequent, safe transportation,” López wrote.

Another slice of funding, up to $10 million per year, can be used to support transit access for low-income people, youth, and seniors, including transit passes for low-income essential workers (healthcare workers, first responders, and grocery store and pharmacy workers) and free Orca cards for high school students in Seattle Public Schools, called the Orca Opportunity Program.

Given the budget constraints created by the pandemic, Mesher suggested the Orca card  program could be cut if Proposition 1 does not pass.

Chelsea Gallegos, a social worker with WA-BLOC (Building Leaders of Change), remembers the student activism at Rainier Beach High School that eventually achieved free Orca cards for every high school student in the Seattle public school system. 

At the time, Seattle Public Schools required any student who lived within 2.5 miles of school to pay for their own transport there. Many students at Rainier Beach High School didn’t have cars and didn’t want to walk up to 2.5 miles — and many couldn’t afford the fare.

“This is a systemic issue,” Gallegos said. “If you’re telling a kid, yeah you can’t afford three bucks for lunch a day, so here’s free or reduced lunch — but it’s a five dollar round trip bus ride to get here — that doesn’t make any sense.”

Since the free Orca card program took effect, it has opened up opportunities for students beyond just school, Gallegos said.

“It’s been huge. There are students now who never really left the neighborhood that often,” she said. Many families with students in South Seattle high schools have been priced out of Seattle into South King County but still commute into Seattle for school, work, or community. 

“It would be such a tragedy and such a slap in the face to these students if they just quietly let the funding run out and put everybody back at square one, after all that hard work and organizing,” Gallegos said. 

Proposition 1 has a wide spectrum of support, from transportation advocates and labor unions to the Downtown Seattle Association and elected leaders including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and almost all of the Seattle City Council. The campaign has raised nearly $250,000, with large donations from the Seattle Foundation, Salesforce, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Vulcan, Jacobs Engineering Group, and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587.

There is no organized opposition campaign and no opposing statement on the ballot.

Even proponents, though, have trepidation about funding the measure through a regressive sales tax increase. “It’s choosing between that and cutting a ton of bus service,” said Mesher of the Transportation Choice Coalition. “Bus service is really essential, so …  we have to make that hard choice right now.”

Supporting the measure wasn’t an easy decision for Puget Sound Sage — a nonprofit dedicated to racial, economic, and environmental justice, said Giulia Pasciuto, a policy and research analyst for the organization. It came down to deciding to support “critical transit service” while continuing to put pressure on leaders in the state legislature to reform the tax system.

Pasciuto said Puget Sound Sage will also continue pushing for fare affordability, which the organization found is a top priority for people in South Seattle and South King County. Proposition 1 is a “stop-gap measure,” she said, but in the long run, “we need to be thinking about how we expand transit service and not just prevent the worst cuts.”

Chetanya Robinson is a Seattle-based journalist.

The featured image is attributed to SounderBruce under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.