Image: Jon Stich

You’ve got a no-brainer vote on your November ballot, at least judging from how a super-majority of you voted in the April 2014 special election. In that election, 66.5 percent of Seattle voters said yes to a 0.1 percent sales tax and a $60 vehicle license fee to prevent devastating cuts to Metro bus service. Unfortunately for Seattle, though, suburban and rural voters countywide outnumber city voters, and 66.5 percent of them were against the measure, bringing the total ‘no’ vote on bus funding last April to 54-46. 

This wasn’t the first time Seattle’s pro-transit vote had been undone. The reason King County was voting to prevent bus cuts in the first place was because the state legislature, led by an antitax Republican senate majority earlier in the year, failed to pass a transportation package. King County Metro had been counting on the state package—which the Democratic house passed before the senate sank it—because it came with the option of a 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax, a progressive tax on the value of your car, to prevent the bus cuts.

In May, mayor Ed Murray decided to put Proposition 1, a Seattle-only version of the measure, on November’s ballot. Via a 0.1 percent sales tax and a $60 vehicle license fee for Seattleites, Prop 1 would raise $40 million to retain 300,000 hours of Seattle bus service. Of the 550,000 countywide bus hours now on the chopping block, 63 percent are slated for Seattle. Murray’s plan would prevent about 87 percent of the Seattle cuts and 55 percent of the planned Metro cuts overall. 

But is Prop 1 a smart move in the larger realm of state and regional politics? After all, the city-only measure sets a problematic precedent. By balkanizing the state and regional transit system and going it alone, Seattle threatens the very principle of collective governance and progressive budgeting that so many liberals claim to support. It also has potential to backfire and ultimately dry up future funding. 

As Seattle state representative Reuven Carlyle sees it, going it alone cedes the debate to the right wing. Going it alone means the Tea Party has won, the Democrat says. “This notion that we can no longer govern effectively at the state level is the inevitable result of years of antigovernment, antitax, anti-investment ideology. The irony is that the other areas of the state would benefit, but with such an unwillingness [to raise taxes] they end up hurting themselves. At the end of the day we will fund our infrastructure needs, and those that can’t will suffer mightily.”

There are also local consequences. Think about it: If Richie Rich Seattle decides it can pay for its own buses, why should the state pony up funds for the city in the future? This not only has the potential of biting Seattle in the ass when we want the state to help pay for things like Alaskan Way tunnel project cost overruns—Bertha, the broken boring machine, is currently stirring up that persistent concern—it could also screw our regional partners in Metro. A future transportation package with bus funding isn’t going to pass without Seattle voters, but if Seattle already has its own buses, Seattleites won’t be motivated to vote in favor of other cities that rely on Metro to get theirs.

Other suburban cities are certainly nervous about Seattle’s go-it-alone path. “Will this be used as an excuse not to take action on bus funding?” says Deanna Dawson, head of the Sound Cities Association, the lobbying group that represents the 35 Puget Sound cities from Skykomish to Issaquah to Kent (basically all the cities in the region except Seattle and Bellevue). “It’s certainly possible.”

Republican state representative and house transportation lead Ed Orcutt from Kalama, in southeast Washington, says, “I think the first blush from [my caucus] will be, ‘Well, good, Seattle is going to pay for more of their transit,’ but then go, ‘Wait a minute, they’re going to expect us to pick it up in the next tax package.’ ” Translation: Republicans won’t be keen on picking up a Seattle tab once they know city slickers are able and willing to pay for it themselves.

The parochial approach is an odd one for Murray, who ran on a platform that regionalism is sacrosanct, particularly transit regionalism. Murray is a longtime Sound Transit supporter who believes that networking the region with buses and light rail trains is key to economic success. Immediately after April’s Metro measure lost, when Murray’s onetime nemesis, former mayor Mike McGinn, jumped back into the spotlight and came out for a Seattle-only property tax to fund transit, Murray harrumphed. But within a week, Murray was proposing a Seattle-only plan of his own—and he had King County executive Dow Constantine standing right by his side. 

The mayor insists the Seattle bus vote isn’t a rogue move. “This is a stopgap measure, not a Seattle alone measure,” he says, noting that thousands of workers commute into and out of Seattle for jobs every day. “We’re stopping the bleeding in a regional system. And we are stepping up and providing revenue for a regional system.” 

The mayor’s $40-million-for-Seattle-bus plan actually raises $45 million; he’s set aside a few million more as a potential matching grant for other cities that step up and pay for Metro bus service. This is part of an emergency King County program, announced by Executive Constantine the day before Murray rolled out his measure. “We wanted to have a program in place that allowed cities to partner with us to buy bus service,” Constantine’s chief of staff Sung Yang says, indicating the county is fully on board with Seattle’s Metro hail Mary. 

There’s a larger big-tent narrative for Murray in this play as well. He believes that promoting an urban and suburban bus system will bring suburban Republicans into the transit fold. And the endgame, he says, is to undermine the Republican unity. “Transit is no longer a Seattle Democratic-centric issue,” he says. “Transit is a suburban issue too. And if you’ve got Eastern Washington Republicans voting against their own party, that’s not good politics.”

Democratic state representative Joe Fitzgibbon says the Seattle-only bus vote undermines the Republicans in another important way. He says legislators from Seattle were “over a barrel” last session in negotiations because they were so desperate to save Metro—“just struggling to preserve what we had”—that the GOP didn’t have to give on anything else, which is why the transit package on the table was so skewed, with just 10 percent of funding going to multimodal transit and the rest to nonpublic transportation projects such as roads. 

If Seattle covers the heart of Metro’s bus service, Fitzgibbon says, “this liberates us to advocate for other priorities” like Sound Transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure. “Our leverage is increased if we’re not begging to preserve what we have.” In other words, any transportation plans now proposed by Republicans will have to make King County voters happy—otherwise new taxes won’t pass statewide. 

What’s good for Seattle, evidently, is good for the state. Seattle led on gay rights (recognizing gay marriage in 2004) and pot (relegating pot busts to its lowest priority in 2003)—both embraced statewide in 2012 when voters legalized gay marriage and pot sales. Next cutting edge issue? 

Buses, apparently.

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