Mayor Durkan Announces Six-Year Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposal to Aid in Equitable COVID-19 Recovery

Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposal Would Maintain a 0.1% Sales Tax to Fund Essential Transit Service, Capital Projects, and Transit Access Programs like ORCA Opportunity

Seattle (July 7, 2020) – Mayor Jenny A. Durkan today transmitted legislation for a Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) proposal to generate between $20 and $30 million annually for transit over the next six years. If approved by the City Council, the STBD would go before Seattle voters this November, and would support access to frequent and reliable transit service after current funding sources expire at the end of 2020. The STBD proposal ensures the critical elements and bus routes of Seattle’s transit network are maintained, equitable access to transit continues to be prioritized, and allows the City to scale up service as Seattle’s transit ridership recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.   

The STBD proposal will:  

  1. Provide safe, efficient, and frequent transit for all Seattleites, particularly essential workers fighting against this global pandemic.  
  2. Preserve a robust, connected transit system in Seattle that centers equity.
  3. Make investments that address acute mobility needs in areas like West Seattle.
  4. Invest in ORCA Opportunity for students and Low Income Access programs for our vulnerable neighbors.
  5. Maintain the voter-approved 0.1 percent sales tax to provide needed resources for transportation investments and ensure continuity of critical services despite financial restrictions caused by I-976 and COVID-19.

“Over the last decade, Seattle has been one of the fastest growing cities in America, and we have the most consistent increase in transit ridership of any city in the country. That incredible ridership growth – which sets Seattle apart from other major American cities – is thanks in large part to our STBD investments,” said Mayor Durkan. “This STBD proposal is about preserving that work to create a robust, connected transit system in Seattle. And it’s about providing safe, efficient, and frequent transit for working people – particularly our essential workers. An equitable COVID-19 recovery depends, in part, on people getting where they need to go.” 

Due to state law, a transportation benefit district has limited taxing authority, and transportation benefit districts are primarily funded through vehicle license fees (VLF) and/or sales taxes. The soon-to-expire STBD measure passed in 2014 was funded in part by sales tax and VLF. VLF is currently unavailable as a revenue source due to the statewide passage of I-976, which was rejected by more than three quarters (76 percent) of Seattle voters. Plaintiffs, including the City of Seattle, are currently challenging the constitutionality of I-976; oral arguments were heard in the Washington State Supreme Court on June 30, 2020.

During a period in which the City’s and its resident’s finances are strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mayor is transmitting legislation to maintain the 0.1 percent sales tax to fund STBD, which is projected to generate between $20 and $30 million annually over the next six years. The City could consider additional transit funding options should VLF revenue again become available or if a regional transit measured is pursued in future years.

I believe we must provide Seattle with the option to renew our successful Transportation Benefit Districtbefore it expires because it’s essential, affordable, and green,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, Chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee (District 4, Northeast Seattle). “Our economy, our workers, and our environment are counting on us to preserve our basic transit services. Continuing this small tax is necessary as our economy reopens to preserve transit subsidies for our low income neighbors, seniors, and students – and to make sure buses get people everywhere they need to go, which includes boosting access to and from West Seattle.”

“Because of the West Seattle Bridge loss we have gone from 21 lanes off the peninsula to 12; this will be the case through at least the end of 2021. To address the fact that no number of detours will be able to handle the current number of cars seeking to get off the peninsula, SDOT’s goals are to increase West Seattle bus commuters from 17 percent to 30 percent. To accomplish that we must have a commitment in this proposal to address the unique access problems West Seattle faces without the bridge,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1, West Seattle/South Park).

To aid in recovery for residents disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the STBD proposal will focus resources on investing in routes that serve working people and communities of color. Even as transit ridership decreased for the broader population during the pandemic, King County Metro and Sound Transit continue to provide transportation for an average of 130,000 essential daily trips, and ridership has increased in recent weeks as King County moves into Phase 2. The ten Metro routes with the highest daily ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic all serve higher percentages of communities of color. 

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will continue to engage the community-led Transit Advisory Board and Transportation Equity Workgroup, in addition to community members and organizations to prioritize equity investments and center community in transit decision-making.

“I joined SDOT’s Transportation Equity Workgroup to ensure that people had a say in transportation decisions even though they may have very low incomes and be from populations which are not usually represented when policy is being designed,” said Rizwan Rizwi, Co-Chair of the SDOT Transportation Equity Workgroup. “Doing what is right can be difficult especially in periods of economic uncertainty, while the STBD proposal is not perfect, it is the right decision for Seattle and I look forward to helping shape investment decisions alongside the City and its residents.”

“ATU 587 represents the transit workers, who have suffered greatly to keep essential service moving and get Seattleites where they needed to go during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as communities were told to stay home and stay healthy, our bus drivers and other essential workers showed up on the front lines to keep people safe, moving, and healthy. May we forever honor our transit workers who lost their lives. We applaud the Mayor for thinking ahead to the future needs of Seattle and the ongoing mobility struggles. ATU 587 is proud to support this proposal which meets both the needs of our members and all of the working people in Seattle,” said Ken Price, President, ATU 587.

“Transit justice cannot be separated from the right for racial and economic justice. In Seattle, the Black community and other communities of color are more likely to have to commute farther for work, and to live in areas with higher rates of poverty, pollution and other harmful environmental stressors,” said Michelle Merriweather, President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “At the Urban League, we fight for access to lasting opportunity for African American and other underserved communities. Access to safe, reliable, and affordable transit is absolutely critical for our work, and this proposal is a step in the right direction.” 

“Access to safe and reliable transit service is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Transit is essential and we must ensure that those who rely on transit can get where they need to go. If we choose to disinvest in transit now, the consequences will be devastating for generations to come. We can’t let I-976 and the pandemic stop our incredible progress over the last decade. We must keep transit running for the health and future of our city,” said Alex Hudson, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition.

“As we think about an economic recovery from COVID-19 for our downtown core, we must have reliable transit to ensure people can get where they need to go. Investing in our system’s infrastructure and service will be critically important requires a new commitment from all levels of government to ensure access to jobs,” said Jon Scholes, President and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

“MLK Labor has a long history of supporting transportation benefit district proposals because working class people rely on public transportation to get to work. Now more than ever, essential workers need safe and reliable access to transit so they can perform the jobs that society relies on us for,” said Nicole Grant, Executive Secretary Treasurer of MLK Labor.  

In addition to maintaining a robust, connected transit network and critical programs like ORCA Opportunity, this STBD proposal will focus on investing in neighborhoods with acute mobility challenges, like West Seattle, and neighborhoods that historically face environmental injustices, like South Park and the Duwamish Valley.

Before its necessary closure, the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge served upwards of 120,000 travelers every weekday. Current detour routes have travelers cutting through communities that already face disproportionate levels of pollution, asthma, and environmental injustice. New funding can help deploy more frequent transit options to help residents access work, goods, services, and activities, and decrease pollution by providing reliable alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles.

“People who are transit-dependent need to be able to access our communities. We will continue to fight for reliable, accessible, and equitable transit that gets us where we need to go,” said Anna Zivarts, Director of Rooted in Rights.

“A new STBD package can play a key role in our efforts to not only reconnect West Seattle, but mitigate the disproportionate impacts felt by many in the region. With the closure of the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge in March, detour routes off the peninsula lead traffic south. The increased traffic along the detour routes disproportionately impact the south end of West Seattle and Duwamish Valley where communities already face higher rates of asthma, air pollution, and congestion. As a Co-Chair of the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force, I’m committed to ensuring we mitigate these impacts to the greatest extent possible, and increasing transit must play a key role in those efforts by providing drivers a sustainable alternative that gets them quickly and directly to their destination,” said Paulina López, Co-Chair of the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force.

“As Seattle grew faster than any other major U.S. city over the last decade, so too did the call for a transit network that is reliable, accessible, and affordable for all. Our STBD, which expires at the end of this year, led to one of the highest rates of increased transit ridership in the country and largest drops in solo-commuters heading downtown. The STBD measure put forward today aims to preserve that spirit, vision, and leadership as our economic recovery picks up, so we are prepared to help move everyone forward. At a time of great economic challenge, this Transportation Benefit District proposal strikes the right balance of being fiscally prudent on our path to recovery while protecting the all-day transit service that is essential to building back stronger than ever before,” said SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe.

Councilmember Pedersen will sponsor this legislation, which will be first heard by the City Council this Friday, July 10. Visit SDOT’s website for more information on the new STBD proposal.