NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, April 7th, 2014

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the courts ruled that since the agency had already pledged the MVET’s rev­enue to pay off bonds, it could not be repealed.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.

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