Wednesday, April 23, 2014

King County voters reject bus funding, but who will "pay" in the end?

On today’s front page it is announced that a King County referendum to raise money to meet public transit budget shortfalls was apparently rather easily defeated. It wasn’t so much the sales tax, which would have been raised one penny per $10; it was raising the annual car tab fee to $60 that seemed to inspire the ire of voters. Tim Eyman, the anti-tax fanatic who authored an initiative that overturned a rise in the car tab voted on by the legislature, called the car tab issue “radioactive.” A few weeks earlier I recalled being seated on a bus opposite a woman who stated that although she was a regular bus rider, she intended to vote against the referendum because it wasn’t “fair” to car drivers.
It is curious how a fee increase that is little more than the cost of a modestly-priced restaurant outing or a trip to the movie theater—or a half tank of gas—discombobulates many people so.  On one hand, I can understand the frustration of lower income people with junk cars not wanting to be saddled with an additional tax, no matter how small. On the other, I understand less that of people of the higher income brackets and right-leaning, who oppose it on “principle”—that they oppose any tax increases (however it hardly affects their pocketbook) regardless of the rationalization for it. That may include, of course, keeping fewer cars off the road that may “annoy” them during rush hour as they travel from their right-wing suburban outposts, to their cushy jobs in downtown Seattle. According to the INRIX Traffic Scorecard, Seattle is already tied for seventh for the worst traffic congestion in the country.
And that is how it often is in this allegedly “blue” state. If people are not perceived to share equally in the “pain”—such as the implementation of a state income tax on the wealthiest residents—it is likely to be opposed not only by those made paranoid by the big money ad campaigns in opposition, but by newspaper editorials (the Seattle Times) that spread the fear that once the water is tested, all will be affected “in time.” It doesn’t matter at all that the poorest residents in this state pay the highest percentage of their income in taxes, while wealthiest get off extremely lightly.
So what now of public transit service? Metro says that service cuts are now inevitable, which means fewer and even more crowded buses. The well-off right-wingers in their gas-guzzling SUVs will say that those who use bus service will have to foot the bill from higher bus fares. You think the Seattle Times is a “liberal” newspaper just because of its gender and gay rights politics? Raising bus fares for those on low-incomes is their editorial board’s solution to the funding problem, in opposing the referendum. I recall a time when one zone bus fare was only 25 cents; fares have risen far more than inflation since then, with income for many people who ride buses remaining stagnate; Metro fares are already the highest in the country, tied with the New York and Philadelphia systems.
Metro does indeed also have some of the highest operating costs per rider in the country, but this is because Metro decided to “accommodate” a certain variety of rider living in far-flung suburban and rural areas who don’t like crowded buses with people they generally don’t like to associate with, by running highly expensive “commuter” routes that run one way during peak hours; these bus routes constitute nearly half of all Metro bus routes. These people should be included among those paying the price for the rejection of the initiative.

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