Voices of the People’s Budget: Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union

This is the fourth part in our series, “Voices of the People’s Budget.” On the evening of October 30th, labor leaders, community organizers, social service providers, and engaged citizens came together for a People’s Budget Town Hall. Here they shared their concerns about the Mayor’s business as usual budget and began a conversation about what is necessary to make Seattle affordable for all.

Katie Wilson, Transit Riders Union

Transcript of Speech as Delivered

Hi there. My name is Katie Wilson and I am the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union. Public transit in our entire region is woefully underfunded. For many years, Metro has been struggling just to maintain current levels of bus service, even though the population is growing, ridership is growing, and the number of people who rely on public transit just for basic because they can’t afford a car is growing.

Buses are overcrowded, service is not frequent enough, and the schedules are so tight that our bus drivers don’t even have time to use the bathroom. Now as you probably know, on the ballot, in this month’s election, is funding measure for public transit, Seattle Transportation Proposition 1.

[On November 4th, Proposition 1 passed.]

Originally this was designed as an emergency measure to preserve threatened service, but at the end of September, after the first round of bus cuts already took place, the County Council abruptly voted to cancel future cuts.

So now if Prop 1 passes this month, Seattle will be able to add some much needed bus service to overcrowded and unreliable routes. We need this new funding. Despite the regressive nature of the proposed taxes, this sales tax and the car tab fee. But make no mistake: Even if Prop 1 passes, that is not enough. Even if Prop 1 passes, we are not out of the woods, and the City needs to act quickly and decisively to raise badly needed additional funding for public transit infrastructure and service.

Even if we’re able to add some service in Seattle for now, we cannot be confident that bigger cuts are not in store in the next few years.

Metro’s financial situation has not materially changed. The County Council just decided to kick the can down the road a-ways. They’re banking on a booming economy, and on optimistic sales tax revenue projections. And they’re digging further into Metro’s reserve fund to fill the gap in the meantime.

So if the economy takes another dive, or even slows down in the next few years, all bets are off. Metro will be just as dependent as ever on the volatile sales tax, and the next time there will even be less of a cushion to break our fall. Now even if the County’s optimism is correct, Proposition 1 would not be enough. Our transit system is an emaciated skeleton—it’s a shadow of what it should be.

Have you ever tried to get across town on the bus and had to take two or three hours because of late and overcrowded buses and unreliable connections? We should be talking about doubling our transit service. If you’ve ever been to a city with a world class transit system you know the difference. You want to go somewhere? You don’t have to meticulously plan every connection. You can just go out to the stop, knowing that a bus or a train is going to come within just a few minutes and you’ll be on your way.

Have you ever tried to get across town in rush hour, in a car, and had it take forever because traffic is so bad? That’s because our public transit system is not near good enough that people can get out of their cars, that they can leave their cars at home. Until our transit system is that good, we’re going to have congested streets, polluted air, and we’re going to be making climate change worse. We need a massive expansion of public transit infrastructure and service to get people out of their cars. And if this City and our elected officials take seriously the environmental catastrophe that our society now faces, they should be using all means at their disposal to expand public transit.

This year they have an opportunity to show us how serious they are. Yes, we need new funding authority from the state, and yes that is going to be hard to get. But there are things that our City Council can do right now:

The first very modest thing they need to do to demonstrate their commitment to making public transit affordable and accessible to every person in this city is to increase funding for the human services ticket program. Thousands of homeless and low-income residents in this city depend on these bus tickets for basic mobility. Seventy three organizations get them through city funding. They were asked, they use these tickets to get to shelters, to banks, to appointments—this vital program is chronically underfunded. We’re asking the City to double their contribution to this program, from $1.6 million to $3.2 million this year in this budget.

Now beyond that, as Councilmember Sawant mentioned, the City has the power to pass two progressive funding mechanisms, to generate new revenue for improving and expanding public transit. They can pass an employer tax, and they can increase the commercial parking fee. Depending on how much those are raised, together those could raise up to maybe $30 million annually for public transit. What could this money go toward?

As Sawant mentioned, night owl service is one big thing, another thing is capital improvements. There’s a lot of capital improvements to make bus friendly corridors that will improve service. Thank you, let’s all fight to make those things happen.

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