City Hall

2011 Light-Rail Ballot Measure Will Face Challenges

By Erica C. Barnett August 11, 2010

At his press briefing this morning, Mayor Mike McGinn talked about the need to move forward quickly with the city's Transit Master Plan so that he can propose a city ballot measure to pay for light rail in 2011. However, council sources say that unless the economy recovers dramatically, a 2011 light rail measure looks unlikely.

First, the context: Creating a transportation improvement district (essentially, a citywide special taxing district) gives the council some new options to pay for transportation projects.  Of those, some can be approved by the council without voter approval, and others require a citywide ballot measure.

The council, by itself, can raise the commercial parking tax, pass a vehicle-license fee of up to $20, or impose transportation impact fees on new commercial and industrial buildings.

Taxes that require voter approval include vehicle-license fees up to a total of $100 (i.e., if the council passes a $20 license fee, the city can only put another $80 on the ballot); a sales-tax increase of up to 0.2 percent, and tolls on local streets. Of those, McGinn reportedly wants to use the vehicle-license fee to pay for light rail; city council members have said light rail should be funded regionally, not locally. (McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus says the mayor has not identified a funding source for a rail ballot measure.)

Now for the challenges:

First, a 2011 ballot measure, whether it goes on the ballot in August or (more likely) November, would compete with either the Families and Education levy—a major (last time: $69 million) property-tax levy that pays for early-childhood education and other education-related services—or a new tax to pay for the seawall, which the council has said it plans to put on the ballot next November. Additionally, council president Richard Conlin has said he wants to put a proposal to pay for the Seattle library system, probably a property tax, on the ballot "before the 2013-2014 budget cycle." Particularly in a down economy, it's hard to convince voters to pay for more than one large tax increase at a time.

Additionally, there's little precedent for putting elements of a transportation benefits district on the ballot. Although seven cities have created TBDs since the state legislature gave cities the authority to do so in 2009, only one city---Burien---has tried to put a transportation funding proposal on the ballot. Burien's modest 2009 proposal---a $25 license fee that would have paid for street maintenance---went down in flames, with nearly 75 percent of voters opposed. Seattle is undeniably more tax-friendly than Burien, but that city's example should be cautionary.

And, as mentioned previously, the council is generally skeptical about putting light rail to a citywide vote. Sound Transit passed in three counties in part because it spread the taxes (and benefits) around the region; McGinn's still-nebulous proposal would draw on a much smaller tax base, making every Seattle citizen carry a larger share of the burden.
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