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

Today, Mayor Jenny Durkan transmitted legislation for a Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) proposal that would maintain a 0.1% sales tax and is anticipated to generate between $20 and $30 million annually over the next six years to fund essential transit service, capital projects, and transit access programs like ORCA Opportunity.

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. 

This STBD measure 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.     

“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.”   

This comes at a challenging time, but the need for an STBD package has never been greater. Our shared economic recovery will be complex and multifaceted, and our approach will change as we continue to see surges in the virus. But there is one recovery principle we cannot dispute: An equitable COVID-19 recovery depends on keeping our city moving.  

The STBD proposal centers around five key priorities:    

  1. Provide safe, efficient, and frequent transit for all Seattleites, particularly our essential workers fighting against this global pandemic.   
  1. Preserve a robust, connected transit system in Seattle that centers equity  
  1. Make investments that address acute mobility needs in areas like West Seattle  
  1. Invest in ORCA Opportunity for students and Low Income Access program for our vulnerable neighbors 
  1. 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 

Through our current voter-approved Transportation Benefit District, we’ve done some incredible things. It is that spirit, vision, and leadership that the STBD measure put forward today aims to preserve so that, as recovery picks up, we are prepared to help all move forward.  

A graph showing how people commute in Downtown Seattle.

We’ve seen a significant drop in drive alone trips to/from downtown Seattle for work at peak times and an increase in transit ridership.

Whether you are commuting downtown, getting to a doctor’s appointment,  or going to school, our current Transportation Benefit District funding has contributed to a major expansion of access to frequent transit service for Seattle residents, including:  

  • Added over 8,000 weekly transit trips on King County Metro routes and investing in 350,000 service hours across weekdays, nights and weekends.  
  • Expanded access to frequent, reliable transit by growing the portion of households within a 10-minute walk of transit service arriving every 10 minutes or less from 25 percent in 2015 to 70 percent in 2019.    
  • Launched programs, like ORCA Opportunity for students and low-income seniors, that provide free access to transit to ensure that transit remains the backbone of mobility for all Seattleites, no matter your economic status.   
  • Supported community-based programs and trainings to increase mobility and access to transit for seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income people.    
  • Revised the Night Owl service network to improve 24/7 service, supporting those who work late or rise early.  
  • Improved transit connections and reliability to meet emerging needs, ensuring that there is a bus every 15 minutes or better during peak times.  
  • Piloted a program and partnership with Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) to distribute approximately 1,600 free 12-month ORCA cards to low-income SHA residents.   

Today’s STBD proposal ensures the critical elements of our transit network are maintained, equity in access is prioritized more than ever before, and we are poised to scale up service as our pace of economic recovery continues to grow.    

Transit ridership might be down today as a result of COVID-19, but we are preparing for the future and building back stronger than ever before.  

The measure we are submitting today and hope to see put before Seattle voters this fall is an opportunity to prepare for where we want to be in 2021 and beyond. Many Seattleites were frequent bus riders before the COVID-19 pandemic and will expect service to be there as the economy re-opens. We can’t recover if people can’t get around.  

With each phase of economic re-opening, we have seen transit ridership increase, and in many parts of Seattle, transit has continued to see strong ridership for essential workers throughout the pandemic. Maintaining access through our Transportation Benefit District is a critical economic-recovery strategy, where transit will continue to be the backbone of mobility in Seattle.   

People and families in Seattle are facing extraordinary economic challenges. Together, we must make strategic choices about how to build back stronger than before.   

We do not take lightly the ask being made of all Seattleites to continue the support they have provided over the last six years, which has made us a national leader in transit ridership and growth.   

At the same time, a renewed commitment to our Transportation Benefit District measure is essential for a successful and equitable economic recovery. The long-term impacts of congestion, increased pollution, diminished opportunities for the many who otherwise lack affordable mobility choices, far outweigh the up-front, smart investment we have an opportunity to support for our future.    

Chart showing how many people can fit in a bus compared to single occupancy vehicles

To aid in recovery for residents disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this 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.  These routes currently benefit from the investments made possible by our current STBD.   

We 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 for the STBD measure put forward today.   

King County Metro Routes in Seattle with highest daily ridership during COVID and percent people of color by Census Tract.

We must take action to preserve what we have all worked so hard to create.   

Seattle residents are confronting challenging economic realities.    

  • Every aspect of society is seeing the economic impact of COVID-19. King County Metro, who provides the majority of transit service within Seattle, is facing a significant budget shortfall. The most recent projections estimate an unprecedented loss in sales tax revenue and farebox collections totaling $280 million in 2020, and up to $615 million 2020-2022. These economic conditions have and will continue to require significant reductions to transit service levels over the coming years.   
  • SDOT is facing our own budget challenges. Even in the best of times, we could not procure the transit service necessary to maintain our critical network of frequent service without a dedicated source of revenue through a Transportation Benefit District without compromising other critical work. More challenging is the fact that this ability is hampered by the statewide passage of I-976 in November 2019. While the City and others continue to contest the constitutionality of the measure in court, the current uncertainty clouds the City’s ability to put the renewal of voter-approved vehicle license fees back to voters.     

In the past decade, Seattleites have overwhelmingly voted for measures to pay for transit improvements and against ballot initiatives to undo or limit our local investments.   

Six short years ago, for example, Seattle voters approved our soon-to-expire STBD measure by 62%, which has helped pay for more reliable and equitable transit service to keep our growing city moving.   

Additionally, Seattle voters said no to I-976 by 76%, indicating resounding support for the funding needed to continue building a bright transit future for our city. Unfortunately, the statewide passage of I-976 in November 2019 clouded the City’s ability to put vehicle license fees back to voters and has necessitated spending reductions for our current, soon-to-expire, STBD by nearly 50%.   

While the City continues to pursue legal action in our courts related to the constitutionality of I-976 to ensure that all cities have the transportation funding options they need, too much uncertainty remains about the future of vehicle licensing fees as a reliable source of revenue as we work to meet legislative deadlines for a fall ballot initiative.   

An immediate consequence of this reality, however, is a Transportation Benefit District that, at least initially, will be less resourced than our current six-year STBD that expires at the end of the year. We made the hard, but fiscally prudent decision to maintain, without increase, the existing .1% sales tax, which is projected to generate $20 – $30 million annually for the next six years, while leaving the door open to discussions about additional revenue pathways as our economic recovery permits and legal uncertainties dissipate.    

A graphic for the Transportation Benefit District.

With this new package, we are again asking Seattleites to renew their commitment to a vision of an equitable, connected city through transit.   

At a time of great economic challenge, the new Transportation Benefit District package proposed today aims to both right-size our transit investment to be fiscally prudent on our path to economic recovery, while doing our best to protect the all-day transit service that is essential to building back stronger than ever before. While this means the package will not fully maintain the same service levels we have today, these funds will allow the City to prioritize transit access for those who need it most, maintain a strong 15-minute service network across Seattle, and be poised to do more as recovery necessitates and resources allow.   

In a changing service environment, we will continue to invest in programs that provide free transit access for students, lower barriers to ridership for low-income and vulnerable populations, and in capital improvements to keep people moving safely and reliably.  

COVID-19 has created an immense and disproportionate burden for communities of color. In order to build an equitable recovery, we must continue to offer programs that enhance access to transit.

The ORCA Opportunity program, for example, will be funded at 100% of previous levels, ensuring all Seattle Public High School and income-eligible middle school students are eligible for a free, unlimited use ORCA card, as well as all Seattle Promise scholars. Our community outreach and training programs to increase transit access for low income and vulnerable populations will be funded at 150% of previous levels.    

Graph of ORCA Opportunity  Performance 2016-2019

We know that for those who continue to ride transit, travel times have improved while traffic levels are low. In order to keep people moving reliably and safely, we must continue to invest in critical infrastructure for transit, like red bus lanes and traffic signal changes. These improvements invest back in the community by keeping more workers employed and help to ensure our transportation dollars buy as much service as possible.  

Though this is a measure aimed at helping all Seattleites, we are also facing a mobility crisis for all communities in, around, and for all who rely on access to West Seattle as a result of the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge closure in March of this year.   

This includes the many freight and maritime businesses in the region who play a critical role in the vibrancy of our economy. The High-Rise Bridge served more trips than any other bridge in our city, with upwards of 120,000 travelers every weekday. Current detour routes have travelers heading south, cutting through some of the most diverse communities in our city, who already face disproportionate levels of pollution, asthma, and environmental injustice.   

Whether it is by bus or boat, we know that transit is the most efficient way to move people to and from West Seattle, and reduce the cut-through traffic in those communities most acutely impacted by the High-Rise Bridge’s closure. With new funding, we will be better positioned to deploy the transit options that help travelers continue to access the goods, services, and activities they want and need. This, too, is critical to our recovery.    

The proposed renewal of the Transportation Benefit District is a critical step towards an equitably COVID-19 recovery.   

Seattle has invested in a robust, connected transit system and we can’t let the COVID-19 pandemic halt our progress. This proposal will provide safe, efficient, and frequent transit for people and keep our city on the road to economic recovery.  

Learn more about the proposed transportation benefit package and programs supported by our current Seattle Transportation Benefit District on our website.