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King County may increase sales taxes and tabs to find money for buses, roads
King County Executive Dow Constantine said he is ready to look for another way to fund Metro bus service in the county if the state Legislature does not pass a stateside transportation package.
“A statewide transportation package that is fair and balanced is still our first choice, but in the absence of action by the state, an imperfect local option becomes necessary so that voters can have the chance to save bus service and maintain roads,” said Executive Constantine.
Toward that end, the Metro workers union, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 announced a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract that, if ratified, could preserve some bus service.
The tentative agreement calls for a one-year wage freeze followed by a 2 percent fixed-rate wage increase in each of the remaining two years of the (existing) contracts.
The tentative wage agreement would save between $8.4 million and $12.7 million over the life of the contract, or about 40,000 of the 600,000 hours of bus service that would have to be cut in the absence of stable funding.
“Local 587 recognizes Metro is in the midst of an unprecedented funding crisis,” said union President Paul Bachtel. “This is an agreement we feel we can take to our membership – one that reflects our shared desire to keep our operators on the job and buses on the road for our customers.”
County leaders have proposed the establishment of a Transportation benefit district to allow a new tax to be approved just for King County transportation needs.
To accomplish that the county must request authority from the state to ask its voters to fund transit service and roads in cities and the unincorporated areas through an increase in the motor vehicle excise tax. Referred to as the "local option," the revenues raised through such a measure would allow Metro to avoid cuts to bus service. It would also provide funding for cities and the unincorporated areas to maintain their roads and make related transportation improvements.
According to media reports, the exact amounts have yet to be set.
Meeting the most dire needs would require a sales-tax hike of 0.1 percent or 10 cents per $100 purchase, and a $60 car-tab fee, said Sung Yang, the executive’s chief of staff. The law allows 0.2 percent and $80, respectively.
A sales tax would add to the 90 cents per $100 spent (0.9 percent) that Metro collects already, and 90 cents for Sound Transit. (A 50-cent per $100 countywide sales tax in restaurants and bars, to finance Safeco Field, expired in 2011.)
According to the King County Executive’s office, the cuts that would be required in the absence of funding are unprecedented in Metro’s 40-year history, and would roll back service to 1997 levels, despite the fact the county has grown 22 percent with 360,00 more people. At a time when that population growth would call for increasing service by 15 percent, under Metro’s service guidelines, Metro faces cuts of up to 17 percent.
The Legislature granted King County temporary funding authority for transit two years ago, pending action on a comprehensive statewide transportation package. Those two years will expire in 2014, along with fund reserves, compelling Metro to outline a proposal to cancel 74 bus routes and reduce and revise another 107 routes to reduce costs starting next year.
Metro Transit held off making service cuts for five years by creating more than $800 million in reforms and efficiencies, along with the temporary Congestion Reduction Charge. Metro needs an estimated $75 million in annual revenue to keep existing service on the road and purchase replacement buses.
Metro last month carried 412,000 average weekday rides, its second-highest ever. The agency is nearing the annual record of 119 million riders last seen in 2008.
But there are other impacts from transportation funding shortfalls.
The county Road Services Division has 40 percent fewer workers than in 2009 as a consequence of the lack of funding. As a result, the roads system is deteriorating, service levels are reduced, and fewer roads will be able to be plowed should a region-wide storm strike.
Changes proposed on Mercer Island include the elimination of Route 202 that stops on S.E. 24th Street at the Park and Ride at the United Methodist Church. It provides access to and from I-90 via West Mercer Way.
Route 204 will remain and will ‘combine’ with the 202 for service between the Island’s South-end and the Mercer Island Park and Ride via Island Crest Way. It will operate for more hours of the day— between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. instead of ending at 3 p.m., but will not run during the weekends. It will only run every 60 minutes instead of every 30 minutes.
Other routes to be eliminated due to low ridership include the 201, 203, 205. Route 216, which stops at the park and ride will remain.
Three months of public meetings are now underway in advance of County Council consideration next spring of the proposed service cuts.