Lessons to learn from failure of Seattle transit referendum

Little attention has been paid to a referendum in Seattle last week on raising the sales tax and licence plate fees to help pay for transit. Voters turned the idea down by a 55 to 45 per cent margin.

The sales tax would have gone up by .1 per cent — a minimal amount that would be unlikely to be noticed by anyone. Licence plate fees would have gone up by about $60 — a somewhat lower figure than has been bandied around by car tax advocates in Metro Vancouver.

Many who support the car tax suggest that it should be about $75 to $100 per vehicle. This was met with outrage here when it was being actively considered, about 14 years ago. Eventually, the NDP government of the day and the incoming BC Liberals decided the car tax would not fly, and refused to condone it — even though it remains one of TransLink’s available options to raise funds for the transit system.

In Seattle, about one-sixth of bus routes will be cut, as a result of the referendum defeat. Many of these routes are overcrowded now, so congestion on the remaining routes may end up being quite dramatic.

In the Metro Seattle area, there are a variety of transit services. Sound Transit, which operates in several counties, operates express bus, light rail and commuter rail, and this is partially funded by a sales tax increase that voters approved in 2008. The U.S. government also contributed large amounts towards Sound Transit’s capital costs, and there is an ambitious expansion plan that dwarfs anything being planned in this area.

The Metro Transit bus routes that face cuts are in Seattle itself. Yet most people in the region do not live in Seattle, and they are the ones who use their cars the most. Transit options that will appeal to them are not on the chopping block.

If Sound Transit is able to expand, with commuter rail from Everett to Tacoma, and an expanded Link light rail system, it is almost certain more people will use transit.

If TransLink can craft some transit options that appeal to people outside Vancouver itself, there is a chance its referendum,  planned for sometime next year, could pass. Unfortunately in this region, Vancouver gets the lion’s share of attention on transit, even though it already has the best transit — three SkyTrain lines, commuter rail, and buses that run until late at night in almost all areas of the city.

The car tax could even get enough (albeit grudging) support if some real effort was put into making commuting fairer — by instituting lower tolls, but putting them on all bridges, for example.

The transit options that could appeal to voters outside Vancouver include expanding commuter rail service, and having it available on weekends and during the day. Expanded light rail in Surrey is a must. So are extra buses in underserved areas, notably the South Fraser and Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows areas.

A genuine effort to crack down on fare cheats, which has started, needs to be ramped up as well. People object to paying more taxes, when others are busy cheating the system with impunity.

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