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Flashback: The Seattle Times was for funding Metro bus service before they were against it

Readers, welcome to another installment in our Flashback series, where we enlist the help of past Seattle Times editorial boards to debunk shortsighted and poorly reasoned editorials published on the Times’ op-ed page in the present day.

Today, 2000, 2006 and 2008 Seattle Times are going to be helping us defend Metro against 2014 Seattle Times, which is urging voters to oppose King County Proposition 1 in a myopic editorial which ran in print yesterday.

First, some background: King County Proposition 1 is a measure on the April 22nd special election ballot that would address the chronic transportation funding problems created by the implementation of Tim Eyman’s Initiatives 695 and 776, which were on the ballot in 1999 and 2002, respectively.

I-695 attempted to do two things, in violation of the single-subject rule for initiatives: Repeal the statewide motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) and require future increases in revenue be subject to a public vote. I-695 was overturned by the courts, but then-Governor Gary Locke, afraid to stand up to Tim Eyman, asked the Legislature to reinstate the repeal of the MVET, and it complied, blowing a huge hole in state and local transportation budgets.

In 2002, Eyman followed up with I-776, which sought to repeal local motor vehicle excise taxes collected in just four of Washington’s thirty-nine counties (King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Douglas). I-776 passed narrowly. It, too, was challenged in court, but it was partially upheld on appeal.

Eyman, an anti-rail libertarian, had hoped that I-776 would force the cancellation of Sound Transit’s Link light rail project by eliminating Sound Transit’s MVET, along with the MVETs collected by the four counties named above. However, the courts ruled that since the agency had already pledged the MVET’s revenue to pay off bonds, it could not be repealed. Sound Transit has continued to collect its MVET, but King County’s MVET – a crucial source of funding for county roads – went away.

With the loss of statewide and local MVET funding, King County became very dependent on the sales tax to fund transportation improvements and operations.

When the Great Recession hit, Washington families sharply curtailed their spending, which in turn caused sales tax revenue to fall dramatically. Metro’s financial situation became precarious, and King County appealed to the Legislature for help.

The Legislature authorized King County leaders to raise vehicle fees to save Metro bus service, but only temporarily, and only if a supermajority of the council voted aye. The votes were mustered and the fee was enacted, but it is now due to expire, and Metro is once again in a very precarious situation.

King County leaders, well aware that serious cuts to bus service had only been temporarily averted and mindful of the need to do something about the deteriorating condition of many of the county’s roads, soon began lobbying the the Legislature to pass a comprehensive transportation package that would allow the county to once again collect an MVET. But session after session, they got nowhere.

The House did pass a transportation package in 2013, but the hopelessly and bitterly divided Senate Republican caucus refused to even put a proposal on the floor for a vote, producing only hot air and excuses in the wake of fruitless negotiations, to the great frustration of the House and Governor Inslee.

With time running out to save Metro and fix deteriorating county roads, the King County Council opted to use the only tool left in its toolbox: Form a transportation benefit district and ask the people for the authority to act.

That is how we ended up with Proposition 1, which asks voters to replace an expiring vehicle fee and raise the sales tax one tenth of one percent.

The Seattle Times, sadly, is against Proposition 1. As mentioned, in an editorial that ran in the print edition yesterday, Frank Blethen and his editorial board equate the steep cuts that have been proposed to bus service to scare tactics, and urge a no vote to “send King County government a message.”

It’s easy to forget that once upon a time, Blethen’s Times was in favor of raising revenue to protect existing service and make possible new service.

The 1996 Seattle Times backed the Sound Move proposal to build a regional light rail system. The 1999 Seattle Times opposed Initiative 695. The 2000 Seattle Times supported a proposal to backfill the hole blown by I-695 with a sales tax increase. The 2002 Seattle Times opposed I-776, and the 2006 Seattle Times supported the Transit Now proposal to expand RapidRide.

But the days when the Seattle Times could be considered pro-transit are over. The Times now not only opposes funding for transit expansion, as it did in 2008 when it blasted Sound Transit Proposition 1, but also funding to preserve existing service. Yesterday’s editorial doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the change in position, but alludes to it by repeatedly finding fault with King County leaders for trying to save Metro and invest in the county’s beleaguered road services division.

Blethen’s Times professes to still care about Metro, but refuses to support a measure that would save over sixty of its routes from elimination, and dozens more from severe cutbacks in service. The Times argues:

Saying no to Proposition 1 is not a message that transit does not matter. It does. The region, particularly job-dense downtown Seattle, needs reliable bus service. Nor should a no vote be read in Olympia as a sign the state Legislature does not need to pass a transportation package that includes less regressive transit tax options. It does.

Vote no on Proposition 1, and send King County government a message that Metro has more work to do on righting its cost structure before asking voters for more revenue.

What universe is the author of this unsigned editorial and his boss living in?

Metro has already cut costs. It has already raised fares (four times since the recession hit). It has already deferred capital projects to protect existing service. The agency has been backfilling for years. It is now out of Band-Aids.

KCDOT (the King County Department of Transportation), meanwhile, is even more pitiful shape. Badly needed repairs and maintenance to county roads are being deferred because KCDOT has so little funding to work with.

If the Times really cared about reliable bus service and well-maintained roads, it would wholeheartedly support Proposition 1, and welcome King County leaders’ efforts to act when the Legislature would not. Instead, the Times is urging a no vote and foolishly holding out hope for a statewide transportation package.

The Seattle Times of yesteryear would have mocked and debunked the arguments that today’s Seattle Times is making. Don’t take our word for it. Here’s the 2000 Seattle Times on the importance of saving Metro bus service:

King County Executive Ron Sims wants the County Council to put a sales-tax increase on the November ballot to keep buses rolling and fix a variety of regional transportation snarls.

The council on Monday should meet him two-thirds of the way.

All of the council’s attention, and political energy, must be on forestalling deep cuts in the Metro bus system that are coming courtesy of Initiative 695.

Sims wants three-tenths of a cent, but the council should stick with two-tenths of a cent. That increase would raise $80 million a year, which, combined with administrative cuts and a 25-cent fare increase, should keep the Metro bus system whole.

Emphasis is mine.

That editorial, which went on to discuss the possibility of some money going to Sound Transit to help with light rail construction costs, concluded by unequivocally declaring that King County Metro bus service was worth protecting:

Slow down. Take first things first. Sound Transit may crave the extra money, but it has the decency to say the first priority needs to be protecting the buses.

The coming cuts in bus service are real. This is a region that depends on buses for commuters and as basic transportation for thousands of households.

Don’t play games with the buses; shore up their financing. That is the best choice on Monday.

Again, emphasis is mine.

Don’t play games with the buses; shore up their financing. That’s what the Seattle Times told county leaders to do in September 2000. Their words!

And the following month, they offered the same advice to voters:

If motorists think traffic is nasty now, imagine it with another round of Metro transit cuts if King County Proposition 1 is defeated.

The measure, which would increase the county sales tax from 8.6 percent to 8.8 percent, is a response to the car-tab initiative that rolled back state vehicle licensing fees to $30. State money for roads and transit was slashed, and transit-dependent King County will get a serious hit.

The Legislature softened the blow with a one-time grant of $36 million, but 160,000 service hours were cut, and another 475,000 hours are at stake in next Tuesday’s election.

Though the state Supreme Court struck down I-695, the financial impacts remain.

Transit has two kinds of clients. Commuters are a large bloc who ride the bus to work, but have an alternative.

Pare back bus routes, and more cars will blossom on roads.

Well said, 2000 Seattle Times! If we don’t protect our Metro routes, gridlock will only get worse. Metro riders who do own vehicles aren’t going to keep riding the bus if service becomes infrequent and inconvenient as a result of deep cuts.

In 2006, the Seattle Times continued its pro-Metro advocacy by backing a proposal nicknamed Transit Now to create several RapidRide lines throughout the county, arguing the increase in the sales tax was well worth it:

Of all the transportation-related money measures facing voters the next few years, the easiest “yes” vote belongs to King County Proposition 2, which boosts bus service throughout the county.

The downside of the “Transit Now” proposition is it would raise our already-high sales tax one-tenth of 1 percent. The upside, a dramatic increase in bus service throughout the region, is altogether more important. This forward-looking plan promises such reliable bus service that riders along key lines can throw away their bus schedules. Another bus will be along shortly, within 10 minutes.

That editorial went on to say:

Traffic in our area, especially in our rapidly growing suburbs, is reaching a breaking point.

The region cannot accommodate an employment population projected to grow by 22 percent over the next decade if our entire focus is on cars. Buses are flexible and reasonably priced. We need a dependable bus system to ease the headaches of anticipated highway construction, such as replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

This worthwhile investment would raise $50 million a year at the beginning, $75 million a year the 10th year. It would likely convert thousands of automobile drivers into bus riders and take some of the sting out of the daily commute.

The juxtaposition between these editorials and yesterday’s is really something.

2006 Seattle Times is correct. We do indeed need a dependable bus system to ease the headaches of highway construction. But we won’t have one if we don’t pass Proposition 1, because service would be cut system-wide by about 17%. 2014 Seattle Times failed to mention this, but it is worth noting that the cuts would fall disproportionately harder on rural and suburban communities.

Two years after endorsing Transit Now, one of the arguments the Seattle Times used against Sound Transit Proposition 1 (which proposed extending light rail in three directions) was that we should be funding Metro instead:

No doubt, more people will take transit. But they will demand service over a wide area — and a price they can afford. Wide and cheap. A spider web of service.

In King County, that’s Metro: It costs 0.9 cents of tax on every dollar and has buses that go to more than 9,000 stops.

In the very first installment of the Flashback series, we turned to the 1996 Seattle Times to help us refute the argument that we should not be building light rail.

Now we see that the Seattle Times has turned its back on Metro as well as on Sound Transit. The transformation is complete. Frank Blethen’s op-ed page is now a full fledged member of the anti-transit libertarian flying circus.

The Times says we need to send county government “a message” by voting no, but last year, it was for continuity in county government, not for “throwing the bums out”. It endorsed Dow Constantine and the returning incumbents on the county council for reelection who faced challengers. Of Constantine, the Times wrote:

Dow Constantine deserves to be re-elected — and no doubt will be re-elected — as King County executive.

He has done a good job even in the eyes of many who voted for his opponent. He has been an able administrator of county government during a time of prolonged economic weakness.

King County Proposition 1 has the unanimous support of the King County Council as well as Executive Dow Constantine. We have to wonder: Why is it the Times doesn’t trust the word of the very people it supported to govern King County, who have patiently been explaining everywhere they go why Proposition 1 is necessary?

Maybe it’s because the Times, like Rodney Tom, fears that passage of Proposition 1 would prevent the road warriors in the Senate Republican caucus from using Metro as a pawn in future negotiations over a statewide transportation package.

Whatever Frank Blethen’s real reasons may be for opposing Proposition 1, the rest of us can’t afford to live in the fantasy world he and his editorial board increasingly inhabit. Metro’s peers to the north and south have responded to revenue shortfalls by eviscerating service. If we were to do the same in King County, traffic would become much worse than it is today, hurting our quality of life, negatively impacting freight mobility, and leaving families in many communities stranded.

We are for Proposition 1 because playing games with Metro’s future and ignoring our roads maintenance backlog would be a dangerous mistake.

Like the 2014 Seattle Times editorial board would if it had any of the sense of its predecessors, we urge an enthusiastic yes vote.