Seventy-three people came to the Kirkland City Council chambers Wednesday night for a public hearing on the proposed congestion reduction charge to help fund King County Metro services.
The proposed fee would last for two years and add an extra $20 each year for license tab renewals.
The extra revenue would help the county agency bridge the remaining $60 million shortfall. Without the extra revenue, Metro would have to reduce the transit system by 17 percent.
“Metro is a workhorse for this region, mainly in getting people to and from work,” said King County Councilman and Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee chair Larry Phillips. “This will provide us some very valuable input from the public.” And input is exactly what they got, as nearly half the people in the room took the opportunity to speak their mind. “
The voters in this state have consistently said they want a $30 (car-tab) tax and you should let the voters decide this issue,” said anti-tax initiative activist Tim Eyman, who lives in Snohomish County. One of Eyman’s biggest initiatives was to cap car-tab taxes.
The issue before the committee is whether to let the congestion reduction charge go to voters, have the King County Council take the vote – which would need a supermajority to pass – or to force Metro to forgo the proposal by King County Executive Dow Constantine and make deep cuts.
“We would like to see the King County Council adopt the ordinance instead of spending $1 million on an election,” said Kirkland City Councilman Dave Asher, who presented a letter from the council in favor of the ordinance. If the King County Council opts to vote on the ordinance, the measure would need a supermajority to pass. “This is an economic issue. This is a jobs issue. This is a human services issue … I guess we would ask you to be ‘super.'”
Some were in favor of the charge, but would like to see it imposed differently.
“A $20 tax is a hardship on those who can’t afford it,” said Linda Seltzer of Redmond. “I would like to see a waver for senior citizens and those who are unemployed.”
Others want to see Metro look more at the way it does business.
“Our transit drivers are the third-highest paid in the country,” said Birch Hand of Medina. “Why isn’t it more in line with the national average?”
Cindy Springer, who lives near the downtown Kirkland Transit Center, said, “There are 400 buses that run past my home every day. My kitchen window looks into those buses when they are stopped and the majority of them are empty.”
Springer also brought a printed out eBay posting for a 99 cents Orca Card, which is to be sold to the public for $5.
Two other speakers echoed the empty bus sentiment.
“I work in downtown Bellevue and all day long all I see is empty buses,” said Lori Sotelo of Mercer Island. “I’d like for you to fix your budget before you come after mine.”
One Kirkland resident suggested privatizing the bus system. Another took the committee members to task for being late to the hearing. Some even took issue with the name of the proposal and the fact that “tax” is not included.
Others saw scare tactics by Metro in the informational packets handed out for the hearing.
“The staff has done a great job of scaring people by telling them their route will be cut,” said James Watkins of Redmond. “Every time you promise and each time you under deliver. What will be different this time? And now you want to have a $1 million vote you’ll lose.”
According to Metro, five main bus routes would have to be cut on the Eastside alone and at least six others would have to be reduced. In Kirkland, route 277 from Rose Hill and Juanita to the University District would be eliminated and the 236 to Woodinville and the 238 to Bothell would be discontinued after 7 p.m.
Route 930 from Redmond to Totem Lake and the 935 from Totem Lake to Kenmore would be reduced to hourly and the 251 from Redmond to Bothell would be reduced in frequency and stop at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.
In Belleuve, the 925 from Newcastle to Factoria would be eliminated. Overall, the agency would have to cut 85 routes and reduce 106 throughout King County.
For some, the issue was very personal like a blind man from Seattle, who said the bus is his only means of transportation. Others wondered how their children, who take mass transit, would get to school and back.
Speakers from the audience also included a spokesman from the University of Washington, who administers the U-Pass, a reduced fare bus card for students.
The 17 percent service cuts would reduce passenger trips by 9 million a year. Metro, which is primarily funded by sales tax, has had to deal with a revenue reduction of $1.2 billion from 2009-2015 due to the down economy.
Metro has closed that gap to $60 million through layoffs and four fare hikes of 83 percent during the past four years and deferred service exspansion. But Metro only estimates that the $20 car-tab tax, which is authorized by the state Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregiore, would generate $50 million.
Metro also estimates that 95 percent of bus riders own a car.
The Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee will have to make a decision by July 25, but will hold two more public hearings: 6 p.m., July 12 at at the King County Council Chambers and 6 p.m. July 21 at the Burien City Council Chambers. Testimony can also be submitted online through the metro Web site.
Kirkland Reporter Staff Writer Matt Phelps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-822-9166 ext. 5052.