Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Seattle puts $1.55 billion transportation tax on November ballot

By meerna Jul11,2024
Seattle puts .55 billion transportation tax on November ballot

Voters this fall will officially have a chance to decide whether Seattle should invest $1.55 billion over eight years, with most of the money going to maintaining roads and bridges. (Ryan Packer)

The Seattle City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance sending an eight-year renewal of the transportation tax to the November general election ballot. Adjusted for inflation, the $1.55 billion property tax represents a roughly 30% increase over the $930 million Levy to Move Seattle tax passed in 2015 and set to expire at the end of the year. Under the plan, the average homeowner would pay $21 more per month, or $252 more per year, than they do now.

The new levy includes few big-budget projects, unlike the Move Seattle Levy, which included the John Lewis Memorial Pedestrian Bridge in Northgate, the Lander Street Bridge in SoDo, the RapidRide G Line overhaul of Madison Street, and other flashy items. Instead, the package focuses transportation spending on the city’s significant infrastructure maintenance backlog, which has continued to grow during the Move Seattle era, while leaving some decisions about how to address large unfunded infrastructure projects on the city’s books for another year or decade.

During a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall Wednesday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell presented the fee as an example of a comprehensive approach to transportation in Seattle.

“Some people have a choice about how to get around, and some don’t,” Harrell said. “Our tax was designed to meet the diverse neighborhood communities of Seattle and understand that we live, fortunately, in a world where we have different ways of traveling and we want to get input from all communities and neighborhoods.”

Mayor Bruce Harrell, commenting on the tax sent to voters before it was officially signed, portrayed it as an approach that values ​​transportation choices, even if the current way the city’s transportation system operates contradicts many of the city’s goals. (Ryan Packer)

Rob Saka, the chairman of the city council’s transportation committee, who brought the bill to yesterday’s vote, also echoed that theme: “We need to move beyond the steps where we pit one mode against another and one person’s choice against another person’s choice. This transportation package is not about the balkanization of our roads, our people or our elections. It’s about us all coming together, as you can see here today.”

It’s worth noting that city leaders were joined by representatives from the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the MLK Labor Council and the Cascade Bicycle Club, but not by representatives from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, Disability Rights Washington or most of the other groups that have pushed for more city transportation spending — and that helped launch the 2015 Move Seattle campaign.

The Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC), which led the Move Seattle campaign, announced the launch of a campaign to pass the tax renewal shortly after it was signed. “The Keep Seattle Moving Tax Campaign has launched,” TCC wrote. “It will mobilize a coalition of businesses, unions, advocacy organizations, and Seattle voters to pass the tax in November.”

The group’s press release touted “$160.5 million for Vision Zero, safe routes to school and neighborhood safety projects; $151 million to improve transit corridors and connections; and $133.5 million for cyclist safety” as successes for safe streets advocates.

“No matter who you are, this tax will make getting around Seattle safer and easier,” Kirk Hovenkotter, TCC executive director, said in a statement. “Voters will soon have the opportunity to make a generational investment in our city’s transportation future.”

Final touches

During the long process of deliberations by the City Council, which began in early May, most attention focused on a small group of amendments that drew attention to the push for increased funding for new sidewalks, intended to address a significant number of gaps in the pedestrian network. The amendments also funded freight improvements requested by business groups and the widely popular Safe Routes to Schools program. The amendments also added $15 million to activate and modernize downtown along Third Avenue, $8 million for “low-pollution neighborhoods” and $3 million for structural repairs to Pioneer Square streets.

A last-minute amendment by Councilwoman Tammy Morales sought to increase the total tax amount by $150 million, but was rejected by her colleagues due to concerns about price shock and deference to property owners. While the council was in favor of increasing the total proposed by Mayor Harrell by a more incremental $100 million, or $12.5 million per year, they clearly did not want to stray too far from the original package Harrell proposed, especially without the approval of the chamber of commerce, which opposed Morales’ amendment.

One final amendment was approved Tuesday. Introduced by Councilman Dan Strauss and approved by a 6-3 vote, it would allocate $20 million to build a bike lane along NW Market Street and Leary Way NW, completing the Burke-Gilman Missing Link in a way that would apparently appease industrial owners who have blocked the planned path along Shilshole Avenue NW for decades. That funding was diverted from mainline maintenance, money that had been set aside for outside grant opportunities. Strauss’ gambit originally failed in committee, as did a plan to redirect sidewalk funds to repave the Ballard Avenue coffee strip.

The tax, which Mayor Harrell ultimately signed into law Wednesday, focuses on what he calls “bold fundamentals,” while leaving decisions on how to fund some of the big projects for another time. (Ryan Packer)

While there are fewer detailed lists of projects than what voters saw nine years ago under Move Seattle, the barriers around transportation spending are actually more restrictive. Move Seattle had three big “groups” of spending priorities—safe routes, “congestion mitigation,” and maintenance—and only those overarching categories had spending levels set by an ordinance that voters ultimately approved. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office, could shift funds as long as it didn’t change those overarching totals by more than 10 percent, and city leaders consulted with the tax oversight board.

The fee goes further and sets spending levels for each individual spending category. For example, the measure allocates $66.5 million for People Streets and Public Spaces, and if SDOT can’t spend that amount — beyond a 10 percent margin — the City Council would have to approve the change by a supermajority of at least seven of the nine council members. Other provisions include at least $32 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, $111 million for new sidewalks and $34 million to repair existing sidewalks.

The transit fee is a huge part of Seattle’s budget; Move Seattle funds about 30% of SDOT’s budget. As a result, the ordinance commitments approved this week are likely to be the north star for city transit investment through 2032. Those commitments are:

“Back to Basics” Maintenance Projects

  • 15 pavement reconstruction projects along the entire corridor
  • Pavement repair projects in 400 locations
  • Repainting 3,600 pedestrian crossings
  • 34,000 spot sidewalk repairs
  • Contribution to the construction of at least 10,000 ramps adapted to the needs of disabled people
  • Funding for the city’s first preventive bridge maintenance program
  • Planning work to replace the northern segment of the Elliott Bay sea wall and five other bridge structures: the 1st Ave S and 4th Ave S railroad bridges in SoDo, the W Dravus Street railroad bridge, the NE 45th Street viaduct, and the Magnolia Bridge.

Investments focused on security

  • 12 safety changes across the corridor
  • “Responsive Safety Designs” at 70 High-Collision Locations
  • Traffic calming measures implemented on 50 corridors across the city
  • Contribution to at least 70 projects that “improve safety and fund safety education programs” in schools
  • 10 new traffic lights
  • $30 million investment in complete reconstruction of Seattle’s most dangerous state highway, Aurora Avenue N, to match planned $50 million investment from state legislature
  • 350 blocks of new sidewalks, with at least 250 to be completed or under construction by 2029.

Transit projects

  • 160 individual projects to improve bus reliability, access, equity and safety, with a focus on “critical performance points affecting many routes”
  • Corridor-wide improvements on Rainier Avenue S (RapidRide R), Beacon Avenue S, Aurora Avenue N and Denny Way/E Olive Way.
  • $9 million for public transit safety programs implemented by the city or created by King County Metro or Sound Transit
  • Light rail access improvements including along N 130th Street, S Henderson Street and at the Judkins Park Station.

Seattle officials have shied away from sweeping “RapidRide+” bus rapid transit promises under the Move Seattle Levy, which fell through due to a series of unforeseen obstacles, including the Trump administration’s transit-averse approach and the global pandemic. While Move Seattle campaign materials promised to add seven RapidRide lines by 2024, only one has been delivered so far — Line H — and the long-delayed Line G is finally set to open on Sept. 14. In addition to the delays, three RapidRide lines promised in Move Seattle have been downgraded from RapidRide status altogether, and the new tax has fallen on earlier promises for the R Line, modernizing Route 7.

A more cautious approach may be warranted given the promises made under the previous tax, but the lack of clearly defined projects by signatories may also make it harder to drum up enthusiasm among public transport advocates.

Now, with the ordinance headed to the King County ballot, the work will be handed to an independent campaign to bolster public support for the tax. If past results are any indication, these campaigners will face a favorable environment. Most recent Seattle taxes have passed by wide margins, and the Move Seattle tax was approved in 2015 by 17 votes despite a concerted opposition effort that is unlikely to materialize this year.

Multiple recent polls have found that a transportation tax would be much more favorable to Seattle voters, even if a larger amount were proposed.

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and writes for Urban planner since 2015. They write about multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, conservation, and local policy. They believe in using Seattle’s history to help achieve the vibrant, diverse city we all want to live in. Ryan’s writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Portland BikeAND Seattle Bike Blogwhere they also served as temporary editors for four months.

By meerna

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