Renewing our Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD)
July 7, 2020
I am hopeful you and your neighbors will get to decide whether to renew the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) at the November 2020 election. I’m honored to chair the City Council Committee on STBD that will be considering it this month.
WHAT IS STBD?
STBD is the Seattle Transportation Benefit District. It’s another way that State law allows cities to raise money for transportation needs.
CURRENT: From the 6-year measure approved by Seattle voters in 2014, we raised about $55 million in 2019 with a combination of a 0.1% sales tax and $80 from car tabs, also known as vehicle license fees ($60 approved by voters plus $20 approved just by the City Council).
PROPOSAL TO RENEW: Many elected officials and I believe we should provide voters with the opportunity to renew the measure for another six years by continuing the 0.1% sales tax we are already paying. Mayor Durkan agrees and she sent that proposal to City Council July 7. State law allows us to ask voters to double it (to 0.2%), but we do not think such an increase makes sense considering current economic challenges. Depending on the sales of goods and services in the coming years, the 0.1% should raise approximately $25 million per year (about half the amount of the current measure because it excludes car tab revenue).
[Note: Tim Eyman’s statewide Initiative 976 approved by voters in November 2019 (even though a majority of Seattle voters rejected it) suspends our ability to collect the car tab dollars, though some localities (including the City of Seattle) are suing to overturn I-976. If the courts overturn I-976, the City Council would have the authority under State law to continue to collect $20 of the car tabs and increase that to $40.]
I hope my colleagues on the City Council will join me in supporting renewal of the Transportation Benefit District for at least three reasons. (For a more detailed Pros and Cons section, see below.)
1. STBD Delivered: The STBD approved by voters in 2014 was very successful and has earned the right for renewal.
2.Transit is Vital: Mass public transit moves the most people in the most affordable and environmentally friendly way.
Essential: While transit ridership is down due to COVID, transit remains a transportation lifeline for thousands of our neighbors — it’s essential transportation for essential workers. Moreover, transit will undergird our economy as it reopens and revitalizes. In the first year of renewal, we face a tremendous need to increase transportation options for the 100,000 residents of West Seattle until the high bridge is replaced.
Affordable: Because society smartly subsidizes this public good, bus transit is affordable and helps low and moderate income neighbors get to their jobs, schools, and errands.
Environmental: Increasing transit ridership is a key solution to address climate change and traffic congestion.
3. A Reasonable Renewal: The renewal simply asks people to pay what they already pay. It is not a stealth increase hidden under the term “renewal” like some ballot measures.
To sum up the benefits, here’s my recent quote on renewing STBD:
“I believe we must renew our successful Seattle Transportation Benefit District before it expires because it’s essential, affordable, and green,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, Chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee. “Our economy, our workers, and our environment are counting on us to preserve our basic transit services. Continuing this small tax is necessary as our economy reopens to preserve transit subsidies for our low income neighbors, seniors, and students — and to make sure buses get people everywhere they need to go, which includes boosting access to and from West Seattle.”
July 1, 2020: Our City Council President creates a temporary “Select Committee on the Seattle Transportation Benefit District” chaired by me (because I chair the Council’s regular Transportation & Utilities Committee).
July 7, 2020: Ballot measure language transmitted by Mayor Durkan/SDOT to City Council. City Council.
July 6: City Council approves its Introduction and Referral Calendar (to refer the STBD ballot measure to the STBD Committee)
Friday, July 10: STBD Committee; presentation by SDOT.
Friday, July 17: STBD Committee amends and votes.
Monday, July 27: the “Full” (regular) City Council votes.
Tuesday, Aug 4: deadline for our City Clerk to transmit the Council-adopted and Mayor-signed measure to King County Elections (for putting on the November 3 ballot for Seattle voters.
Tuesday, Nov 3: final day to vote on the STBD measure. Votes of at least 50% + 1 in favor of STBD would approve the measure.
PROS AND CONS (AND PROS):
Before I was elected last year, I would often criticize government officials for being “cheerleaders” for tax measures without presenting pros and cons. So, here are some points to contemplate as the City Council considers putting the STBD renewal onto the November ballot:
Pro: SUCCESSFUL: The 2014-2020 STBD delivered on its promises and has earned renewal.
Rebuttal: The changes to the program did not take away from what voters approved, but rather expanded the scope to include free ORCA passes to public school students and other subsidies benefiting those in need.
Pro: CONTROL: A Seattle measure enables Seattle to emphasize the routes it wants when it wants them. This is very important considering the fact that we need to shift more bus service to West Seattle while the West Seattle “high bridge” is out of commission.
Con: SHOULD BE REGIONAL: Transportation is a regional issue requiring regional solutions.
Rebuttal: Yes AND the systems are regional (King County Metro for buses and Sound Transit for light rail and buses). STBD supplements service within the regional system because Seattleites use it so much. Moreover, Seattle collaborated for months with King County elected officials to consider a regional measure for the ballot. But early this year, the County suddenly needed to focus on the public health response to COVID, which led them to postpone the regional discussions for the foreseeable future. And, frankly, County voters, on average, have been less enthusiastic about supporting transit tax measures than Seattle voters. The current STBD is expiring which requires a decision this year. Those eager for more dollars to go toward transit should know that, in addition to Seattle having the ability to vote for more, King County also has the authority in the future to ask voters to pay up to 0.2% additional sales tax (and Seattle would typically get nearly half the benefit of such a measure). In other words, King County could ask voters throughout the county to approve a measure — in addition to Seattle’s — as the need for transit grows again.
Pro: “AFFORDABLE”: Mass transit for the public provides an affordable transportation option to move people to and from jobs, schools, and other important activities that keep our economy and daily lives moving.
Con: It’s affordable if you use it. If you don’t use the transit, you still might be paying for it depending how it’s funded.
We all hate traffic. If more people ride transit, there will be fewer cars on the road — which will reduce traffic for those who need to use a car.
To provide some context about cost, mass transit is generally considered a societal benefit (for reasons mentioned throughout this post) and, throughout the U.S., taxpayers subsidize this benefit: fares paid by riders typically cover less than half of the cost to operate a transit system (i.e. the “farebox recovery ratio” is less than 50%. For more info on this, CLICK HERE).
Pro: GOOD FOR THE EARTH. We need to address climate change and most low occupancy vehicles, like cars, are a major source of harmful emissions.
Con: There’s not really a con here unless a bus is using gasoline (instead of an electric or hybrid) and is completely empty.
Pro: IT’S JUST A RENEWAL: Instead of imposing a new or higher tax on residents, this is just a renewal of the existing STBD tax.
Con: RIDERSHIP IS DOWN: Due to the COVID pandemic with the need for social distancing and the increase in employees working remotely, bus ridership has plummeted — why not just let the tax expire?
Tens of thousands of essential workers are still using transit in the midst of this pandemic and transit will be an affordable transportation option for all workers — especially low-income workers — as the economy reopens and recovers.
Moreover, we have tremendous financial needs to deal with our city’s bridge problem — including the need to increase options for 100,000 people in West Seattle until the bridge is repaired or replaced.
Pro: REDUCES TRAFFIC: We all hate traffic (as noted earlier). If more people ride transit, there will be fewer cars on the road which will reduce traffic for those who need to use a car.
Con: TAX: It’s a tax.
Rebuttal: Even though I’m a Seattle Democrat, I have not been afraid to question and even vote against an occasional tax measure. But, for the reasons noted above, I strongly support this one (STBD renewal). Moreover, the City Council is simply putting STBD onto the November ballot to give that choice to you.
Pro: NOT A TAX INCREASE. We already pay the 0.1% sales tax and would simply continue it under the renewal.
Con: REGRESSIVE: A sales tax is regressive (and so are car tabs a.k.a. vehicle license fees) — and regressive taxes are bigger burden to lower income families than to higher income families because lower income families pay a greater portion of their income.
Rebuttal: Until our State government provides more progressive options to raise revenue for transit, we have little choice but to use existing State law. Also, the proposal for renewing the STBD is simply to maintain the existing 0.1% sales tax, rather than increasing the tax. From the perspective of the taxpayer, if Tim Eyman’s initiative 976 survives our lawsuit, people will be paying less for STBD because they will no longer pay the $80 car tab ($60 from STBD approved by voters in 2014 and $20 approved by City Council). From the perspective of the city government and transit riders, this loss of revenue to support transit makes STBD’s 0.1% sales tax even more vital.
Pro: FLEXIBILITY: Buses are highly flexible because we can change routes as needed vs. a fixed system such as a streetcar or light rail. Of course Seattle loves its light rail and it’s already a vital spine of our regional transit system that is, thankfully, growing as our population increases. Many of us District 4 residents are looking forward to the new stations opening in the U District (Brooklyn Ave) and Roosevelt neighborhoods, thanks to the Sound Transit 2 measure. It’s important to note, our light rail system relies heavily on buses to move people ‘the first-last mile’ to and from the stations — another reason we should advance STBD renewal to the November ballot.
Con: There’s not really a con here; buses are flexible and an essential piece of our regional transportation system. Granted, light rail is cooler, but you need to be able to get to a station. Take a bus!
For our City Council’s Committee website, CLICK HERE.
For the proposed ordinance as submitted by the Mayor to the City Council, CLICK HERE.
ORCA CARDS: To see whether you qualify for the ORCA Opportunity (free for students and public housing authority residents), CLICK HERE or ORCA Lift (50% off if you are in a low income household), CLICK HERE.
EQUITY: For the Transportation Equity Workgroup, CLICK HERE.
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Contact me directly at [email protected] with any questions, or to schedule speaking engagements.