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ON BLAST: 90 years of fucked up Seattle public transit history

To those of you who would say “do the math” or “figure it out” to King County Metro, don’t pretend like this is just some half-cocked plan that popped up out of the blue; the ingredients that created this measure have been simmering for ninety fucking years. Metro’s budget is as complicated as it is for a reason, with 54% of its overall revenue coming from sales tax — which, as you can imagine, doesn’t work out too well in an economic recession.

Another one of the approximately eleventy-infinity reasons sales tax to fund metro blows? It comes from the county, not the state. Although the impact we’re discussing is on King County and the City of Seattle, tons of what’s been gumming up the work is all state politics. For the record, it’s fucking weird that we don’t get money from the State for transportation amongst the State’s biggest metropolitan area. For context, Los Angeles gets 31.6% of its operating budget from grants (federal, state, and local); San Francisco’s BART gets 17% of its operating budget from the State of California. King County gets 9% — or $58 million — of its budget from grants, and only a small part of that is from the state. In the 2004-2005 fiscal year, WSDOT gave just $15.3 million to local transportation systems.

The state impact is why we’re so mad at current mayor — former House Transportation Committee chair — Ed Murray. But the bed he lied in while working in Olympia was getting made before he was even born. Read on for a history of us treating ourselves to a terrible mass transit system, and why King County Metro is fresh out of financial options.

(And if you haven’t read why the Seattle Times and Ed Murray are both on blast, do that, too.)

1922: No tax money for streetcars. When Seattle overspent — to the tune of $15 million — on their publicly-owned street railways in 1918, people were pretty mad. After a grand jury investigated the deal and called the mayor stupid, the State Supreme Court blocked any hope of tax dollars supporting the streetcars, demanding that all the operating budget come from fare revenue — because then, like now, instead of serving the public good, money is withheld as a punishment for a perceived fault in the administration of a civil service. Attempts at outside revenue fail when automakers pressure bond houses out of stepping in.

1939: The streetcars meet their inevitable death. The city acquires a $10.2 million federal loan to clean up the 1918 streetcar purchase mess, stars paving over the streetcar tracks, and begins taking all the streetcars to the scrapyard. Seattle starts planning their new, trackless Seattle Transit System; the last streetcar dies in 1941.

1944: The infamous 18th Amendment. In 1944, legislators started eyeing Washington’s twenty year old gas tax — implemented in 1921 — as a potential source of state revenue. The Legislature, and then the voters, reacted by passing the 18th amendment, which gets bandied about a lot in situations like this. It restricts gas tax funds for “highway purposes.” Yeah, one could potentially argue that “highway purposes” means public transit, too — and people eventually did — but we’ll get to that in 1969.

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Sure, the amendment made sense at the time… but it’s important groundwork for how we pay for pretty much everything, transit-wise, with levies and car license fees. It’s also important to note that this was by no means a time before public transit; we’d just switched over from streetcars to buses, and those buses had a ridership of 130 million. Transit’s omission from the amendment hardly seems coincidental.

1947: Private transit fails. We used to have many private transportation options, owned by power company Stone and Webster, which ran local power company Puget Sound Power and Light. After a 1934 antitrust decision separated Puget Power from their parent company, they maintained control of a few bus companies until 1947, when antitrust regulators mandated they sell ‘em off. (Puget Power’s Seattle services would later be bought out by Seattle City Light.)

1952: Communism? Modernizing the area’s mass transit system plays a major role in a proposed new King County Charter; voters reject the charter after critics call it “communistic.”

1968: Forward Thrust loses on transit. In the late 60s and early 70s, many city measures were introduced by something called the Forward Thrust committee — including transit measures. In 1968, King County voted on a new rapid transit system run by Seattle Metro (then mostly just handling wastewater) and the Kingdome. Voters approved the Kingdome, but rejected transit.

Also, ha ha, “forward thrust.”

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1969: O’Connell v. Slavin fucks everyone. Richard H. Slavin, who as of 1970 was the director of the Washington State Planning and Community Affairs Agency, was taken to task by then-Attorney General John J. O’Connell over $250,000 in a 1967 emergency state budget. (For context, this budget gave $715,000 to the Horse Racing Commission.) The budget, passed by the Legislature, sliced out the $250k in order to help Seattle build a comprehensive public transportation plan.

At the time, they justified it as a move “to promote future savings in the construction, reconstruction, repair and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges, and city streets.” O’Connell was not having it; he said that the fund appropriation violated the 18th Amendment. The State Supreme Court, unfortunately, agreed with him, and poof — precedent set, no gas tax money for transit for the next forty-plus years and counting.

1970: Bye-bye, bonds. Voters reject four transit-related bonds, causing the federal government to reroute transit aid to Atlanta instead of here.

1972: Fuck your electrics. Seattle Metro finally gets its voter-approved transit line, funded by a .3% sales tax — but voters say fuck you to a modern, electric transit system that might’ve saved money in the long run. Before this, voters had not approved a transit tax since 1918.

1973-1994: Mostly good. Despite the Legislature trying to nab away vehicle excise tax at one point, for 20 years Metro had a grand ol’ time — ridership steadily grew, and services expanded.

1995: Whoa, slow down. Voters reject a Regional Transit Authority (later Sound Transit) measure for a gigantic, $6.7 billion transportation system over three counties that would’ve featured commuter rail, light rail, express buses, and expanded HOV lanes — despite this Ish Ed, then nine years old, being super-adorable in a pro-transit political ad directed by a guy that looked like a gray-haired Weird Al. A much-smaller plan passed the following year.

1999: Initiative 695. Ah yes, 1999 — the year that Tim Eyman graduated from obnoxious local nobody to the Disney villain of irresponsible policy-making. Parts of the transit-gutting 695 were declared unconstitutional by the State, but the heart of the measure is still with us today: super-regressive $30 state car tabs.

Before Eyman stepped in, car licensing was one of the state’s few progressive tax structures, with car owners paying 2.2% of a car’s value in yearly excise tax. Switching to the regressive, flat-rate $30 actively fucked poor Washingtonians in an immediate, super-noticeable way — basically a fucking case-study for all regressive flat rate taxes to come. You only saved money if your car had an assessed value of about $1500 or over. If you’d been driving a barely-running, $500 beater car, your tabs went up by about $20 a year.

Since 29% of the vehicle excise tax went to local transit, local communities have been scrambling to keep their buses running ever since — measures like 2011’s congestion reduction fee. Thankfully, Eyman didn’t entirely get its way — if the initiative had gone into effect in its entirety, it would’ve been nearly impossible to impose new taxes to fund programs like public transit — but he did fuck over transit commuters throughout the state. He brags that he saved Washington taxpayers $9.75 billion dollars over the first 10 years 695 has been in effect; we read that as he has cost the state about a billion dollars a year since 1999.

2002: Initiative-fucking-776. Because nobody learned their lessons in 1999 — and Eyman’s temper tantrum from the partial-veto was still raging — in 2002 voters approved I-776, the dumber little brother of 695. 776 restricted local governments from adding their own excise taxes and limited local license tab fees. The language seemed deliberately manipulative, especially considering the attempt to gridlock Washington into a regressive system: “Working class folks, not just rich people, should be able to afford a newer vehicle. $30 is reasonable.”

While the measure was shot down at first for being unconstitutional, it was upheld by the State Supreme Court in October 2003, leading to this gem of a shouting match between Eyman and local teddy bear Ron Sims:

"I tell my children not to interrupt, not be rude," Sims said after Eyman mocked Sound Transit’s position on continuing bond sales.

Eyman replied that Sound Transit was “interrupting the voters.”

Notably, 776 repealed many taxes that the public had already voted on.

2005: The Monorail is killed by the “next time” excuse. Yesterday’s rejection of funding for King County Metro was subtle, almost gentle. “This just isn’t the right plan,” people said, while still citing support for public transit. Still, it brought to mind a much more aggressive case: the death of Seattle Monorail Partners (SMP).

Greg Nickels threatened to withdraw support for SMP if they couldn’t get a measure for the West Seattle-Ballard monorail line ready for the November 2005 ballot, despite voters supporting a monorail line in four previous elections. While at first, SMP tried to call his bluff instead of giving an incomplete plan to voters, their plans quickly changed when Nickels and the Seattle City Council made good on their threat.

Even though SMP put a really shitty, expensive monorail measure on the ballot to appease their city allies, Nickels and the Council did not restore support, and even threatened to block construction permits. The pressure also resulted in a this-or-nothing addendum to the ballot measure: “If rejected, no new monorail would be built.”

Because the plan was shitty, voters rejected the monorail. And because everything was shitty, the rejection gutted SMP, which had been working to upgrade our transit system since they were created by a public vote in 1997.

We don’t always agree with Jan Drago, but she nailed it speaking of the shady ballot measure as a then-City Council member: the task of building an integrated transit system in Seattle “will pass to future generations.” With how things turned out financially and politically, there likely won’t be another opportunity to upgrade the city’s transit for a while.

2011: The Congestion Reduction Fee. Totally fucked by Amendment 18 and Tim Eyman, King County Metro doesn’t have many places to turn when sales tax revenue plummets during the recession — so the King County Council approves a $20 fee on vehicle tabs to make up the $60 million deficit, collected in 2012 through 2014. The fee expires next month, at which time Metro will be 100% fucked.

2014: THIS SHIT. FUCK EVERYTHING. We have no monorail, very little light rail, and a not-yet-operational streetcar system… and Metro is about to cut services by 15-17%. Good luck getting anywhere, dudes.

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