WA: Seattle Vote Set on Tax, Bump in Car-Tab Fee to Save Bus Service

July 18--The Seattle City Council Thursday unanimously approved sending a funding package for Metro transit service to voters in November. The measure would levy a $60 car-tab fee and increase the city sales tax by 0.1 percent.

The measure would raise $40million a year for city transit, $3 million to support regional routes in partnership with other cities and $2million to give low-income residents a $20 car-tab rebate. The taxes and fees would sunset after six years.

Council members, sitting as the Seattle Transportation Benefit District Board, said public transportation is too important to working people and the city's economy to allow Metro's projected 16 percent service cuts over the next two years to take effect.

But in a 6-2 vote, the council rejected an amendment by Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant that would have replaced the sales-tax hike with increases to the city's commercial parking tax and employee head tax, which they said were less regressive.

The council did agree to direct some of the funding -- if voters approve the measure -- to expand outreach and access to low-income riders.

The funding package was proposed by Mayor Ed Murray in the wake of the failure of a county measure to fund Metro in April. Although it was rejected by 55 percent of county voters, 66 percent of Seattle voters supported it. That measure directed about 40 percent to county and city road projects; the Seattle measure would just support transit.

Metro revenues plummeted during the recession and the transit agency now faces a $75 million annual deficit. A King County $20 car-tab fee for buses expired at the end of May.

About 80 people, including dozens of transit activists, environmentalists and low-income advocates, attended the afternoon hearing. Several noted that with the city's fast growth, it needed more bus service, not less.

"The folks we serve really depend on public transportation," said Bill Hallerman, with Catholic Community Services. He said that the group serves about 30,000 people, most of whom are low-income and rely on Metro to get around town.

Paul Bachtel, a bus driver and president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said it would take $110 million to expand the transit system to meet the county's population growth.

"We don't have enough service as it is," he said. Of the proposed funding plan he added, "We look at this as a stopgap measure that's mitigating a coming disaster."

Council members said they were sympathetic to Sawant and Licata's concerns about the sales tax hitting low-income residents hardest. And they held open the possibility of imposing those taxes, in addition to the sales-tax increase, as the need for public transit continues to grow.

"I support continuing the discussion of increasing the commercial parking tax and the employee tax," said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen.

But he added, "Let's not park the buses, lay off hundreds of Metro workers and strand riders while we continue to debate how to have a more equitable tax system in the city and the state."

After the vote, Murray thanked the council for forwarding the measure to voters.

He said preserving transit service is "the most progressive act we can take" and vowed to continue to work for regional and state transit funding.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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