Keep new sales taxes aimed at saving buses

KING County Executive Ron Sims wants the County Council to put a sales-tax increase on the November ballot to keep buses rolling and fix a variety of regional transportation snarls.

The council on Monday should meet him two-thirds of the way.

All of the council's attention, and political energy, must be on forestalling deep cuts in the Metro bus system that are coming courtesy of Initiative 695.

Sims wants three-tenths of a cent, but the council should stick with two-tenths of a cent. That increase would raise $80 million a year, which, combined with administrative cuts and a 25-cent fare increase, should keep the Metro bus system whole.

After statewide voters approved a rollback of license-tab fees, the Legislature provided the county with a one-time grant of money to get Metro buses into 2001. Preventing cuts that would start in February and hit full force by next June takes a new stream of money.

Sims gamely stepped into the breach to recommend a bump in the sales tax. But he also added in money to help Sound Transit extend the first phase of its light-rail line from the University District to the Northgate transit center.

He put together a list of other roadway improvements that were both politically strategic and a long-time source of irritation for drivers around the county.

The extra tenth of a cent could finance bonds for $750 million in transportation projects.

If the full three-tenths were approved, the sales tax would go from 8.6 to 8.9 percent. A King County family with a household income of $53,400 would pay an extra $76 a year in sales taxes in 2001, according to county and state estimates.

Sims tries to bolster his case for the full amount by pointing to polls and focus groups that suggest voters and motorists want more than the status quo; they want old headaches dealt with--now.

After a weekend of political horse trading, it's hard to know what to expect at the K.C. corral on Monday.

Sims had muttered earlier that he might be open to pulling the Northgate light-rail piece from the equation. Others on the council more fervently dedicated to buses might go for the extra tenth of a cent, if they got still more improvements to the bus system.

Targeted roadway improvements and park-and-ride lots in selected council districts could reshuffle the council voting alignments. Sims is hunting for seven votes out of 13.

Slow down. Take first things first. Sound Transit may crave the extra money, but it has the decency to say the first priority needs to be protecting the buses.

The coming cuts in bus service are real. This is a region that depends on buses for commuters and as basic transportation for thousands of households.

Don't play games with the buses; shore up their financing. That is the best choice on Monday.