King County voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot measure in April to raise the sales tax one-tenth of a cent and approve a $60 car tab fee to fund roads and buses.
But KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson wants residents of King County to remember it wasn’t that long ago that we were approached with another big ask in the name of Metro.
“In 2005, there was a tax increase and what was promised to the voters was if you vote for this we will increase routes by 20 percent by 2016. So the people of King County said OK that sounds good. We’re two years away from 2016, and now we’re told if we don’t vote for another tax increase we’re going to cut routes by 17 percent.”
Wanting some answers, Monson called up King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski. He asked Dembowski if we were just blatantly lied to regarding the promises made to get approval of the previous tax increase. Dembowski wasn’t on the council at the time, but he doesn’t believe the community was lied to.
“Frankly, the recession came in 2007, the great recession, the biggest economic catastrophe since the great depression and Metro is funded with nine-tenths of a penny sales tax and a little bit of a property tax, and it just smoked their books,” says Dembowski.
Looking at some of the recent transportation projects, Monson cites Bertha and the 520 Bridge project, he asks Dembowski why King County residents should hand over more money to transportation and transit projects.
“We’re giving you guys, meaning local government, state, federal, we’re giving you guys enough money, it’s just that it’s not getting spent well,” says Monson. “How much money should the average family contribute to transit? Do you know how much the average family in King County does right now? It’s close to $1,000.”
Dembowski says he understands the frustration with transportation projects that have gone awry. “It is frustrating and voters deserve to hold folks accountable and I think that’s what we’re doing here.”
They’ve incorporated a number of accountability measures, Demboski says. The first one he laid out for Monson was a sunset clause on the taxes. Monson was skeptical of this.
“You know what is going to happen with that?” says Monson. “What happens with every sunset clause, they’re going to come to us in ten years and say we’re not asking for a new tax, we’re just asking for a continuation of this old tax.”
Dembowski says they also plan to require an annual report to the voters each year, that will show what the money is doing.
“We’re going to publish it broadly and widely on the Internet,” says Dembowski. “We’re taking some steps in the right direction because I’m not unsympathetic to those complaints.”
But with hundreds of thousands of riders per day, Monson still doesn’t understand why Metro can’t be more self-sufficient. “How can you come to us and say this business that has 400,000 customers a day can’t make it on its own, they need you for subsidies?”
Dembowski asked the same thing when he came to the council, and says he learned that King County’s transit system requiring subsidies is not unusual.
“It turns out no transit system in the country, not a single one, is self-sufficient, but Metro at about 29 percent fare box recovery, in other words what the riders pay to use the system – at 29 percent, we’re one of the best in the country, and we’re going to keep that up there,” says Dembowski.
And not all the funds from these increases will go to transit, Dembowski points out.
“It’s split 60 percent transit but 40 percent roads, so for example Lake Forest Park would get about $350,000 to invest in roads and streets, potholes, safety repairs, bridge maintenance. The money would be delivered directly to our cities on a 40 percent allocation basis, so this is not one of these transit-only deals.”
At first glance, Demboski says he too was skeptical of the proposal. So he went to speak with the director of Metro to see if the tax could be any lower.
“I think this is as lean as we can get to fix the issue and make some investments on roads before they begin to go south, that’s more expensive to fix,” says Dembowski, pointing out the council unanimously approved the ballot measure. “This was unanimous across the political spectrum to ask voters for this authority. I think those members on the council are committed to making sure that our government runs as efficiently as it can.”
Ultimately, he says the voters will decide how much is enough to pay for Metro.