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Friday, April 11, 2008

Light Rail ‘08. Version 2.0

posted by on April 11 at 15:57 PM

The Sound Transit board is currently debating between a 0.4 and 0.5 percent sales tax increase for Sound Transit 2—which they may or may not take to voters in ‘08.

The idea behind raising the tax is to get more transit into the package so that Pierce and Snohomish voters (and board members), who won’t exactly get much out of light rail to Northgate and across I-90 to (near) Microsoft, will have some tangible goodies to vote for—more bus rapid transit, more frequent Sounder service, and a streetcar in Everett.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword: The increase would bump the project from $6.3 billion to $7.5 billion, perhaps enough to turn off voters. And really, the extra goodies aren’t so noticeable.

However, a last-minute light bulb from Rob Johnson, the political director at the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, is making the rounds at ST right now, and it may actually convince voters to get behind a bigger package (enthusiastically). It may also convince board members like Aaron Reardon and John Ladenberg, the Snohomish and Pierce County Executives, respectively, who are currently cold and lukewarm on an ‘08 measure, to go for it.

The idea would even be hard for KC Exec Ron Sims—who is suddenly the biggest obstacle to ST 2—to turn down.

The idea is this: Use all the money from the extra 10th of a percent ($1.2 billion) and give it directly to the Snohomish, Pierce, and King County transit agencies. If you divvy that up by population, that’d be about $650 million for King, and $300 to $400 million each for the smaller counties.

Johnson’s artful “Local Only” pitch is this: Let’s give voters something for today (buses) while also investing in tomorrow (rapid mass transit).

In my opinion, that simple sweet tweak seriously improves the potential for passing a transit measure in November. And equally important right now, it will get some of the reluctant board members in the Yes column.

Is it legal? Does ST have the right to tax on behalf of KC Metro, Pierce Transit, and Snohomish County’s Community Transit? Yes, according to ST—because they already have operating contracts with all three agencies, and it would just be a matter of updating the contracts.

Johnson has run the idea by Sound Transit and, so far, according to spokesperson Ric Ilgenfritz, the board hasn’t bitten.

They should.

P.S. (and I might start doing a lot of this in the next few weeks, so apologies in advance): I’ve been interviewing Johnson and reporting on his work for several years now. I met him 5 or 6 years ago when he was just starting out—I think he still lived in the suburbs…at his mom’s?—and he has turned into one of the true stars in the the political community. And I don’t mean a star in the Reagan Dunn way that some grating young politicians can be, I mean, he’s a true asset to the the public, and he’s a gem in a reporter’s Rolodex.

Whether we’re on the same side of an issue (light rail 2008) or the opposite (Prop 1), he answers questions with out a grain of b.s., does an outstanding, clear job advocating his side, and is upfront when he may be off-base. He seems to savor tough questions, and always does his best to let you know exactly where things stand. He’s courteous in an old-fashioned way, gets to know you personally without being a creep, and on the occasion when he loosens up a little, he’s a blast to be around. (Genius Awards ‘05?)

If I stop covering local politics, Johnson is one voice I’ll miss. And one you won’t be able to. Guaranteed.

RSS icon Comments


Oh I how I wish I could miss that voice. One of these days, maybe I'll set the world on fire just like Feit has.

Posted by Mr. Poe | April 11, 2008 4:06 PM

I dunno if I agree with this.

Bus service in the suburbs is extremely unused. i doubt that many people who don't already ride the bus there would be induced to start doing so on account of increased service.

Increasing service is very inducive to people like me that are always waiting somewhere for a bus to come and often find it over-full.

In the suburbs (where I have in fact tried to take the bus), bus service is far OVER-provided. The bus that goes in front of my parents' house would be most efficiently served by a Honda Civic. Nobody there wants to ride the bus. They don't just not care how often it comes. They probably don't even know.

Posted by John | April 11, 2008 4:13 PM

Oh oh also wondering... does Everett Transit get left out? That would sort of piss me off, considering that Everett the 3rd densest settlement north of Shoreline.

Posted by john | April 11, 2008 4:16 PM

So let me get this straight -- ST is looking at exactly the same level of taxation they were in Prop 1 -- but with much, much less light rail.

So glad we voted Prop 1 down!

Posted by MHD | April 11, 2008 4:18 PM

Me too.
Cuz a rail-only, with some increase in bus service, will pass in Obama '08... If we had passed the $17 billion package last year, we'd be paying a lot more ... and it'd be for 182 miles of roads.

Posted by josh Feit | April 11, 2008 4:40 PM

John @2, there are two kinds of suburban bus routes, those that are over-used and those that are under-used. The under-used tend to be part of the original systems laid out years ago and then largely forgotten. Newer routes, laid out in response to obvious demands, tend to be well used. Time for KCMetro to update the old stuff and make it all productive.

MHD at 4, the reason ST2.1 yields less light rail than Prop 1 would've, at the same tax rate, is time frame: ST2.1 has a 12-year time horizon, ST2.0 was a 20-year plan.

Posted by Perfect Voter | April 11, 2008 4:48 PM

I'm tree-hugging, transit-riding leftie. But please.

Posted by rh | April 11, 2008 4:50 PM

Somehow I don't think voters are going to vote to impose forty years of freakishly high sales taxes on their neighbors so Metro, CT, and PT can get a lot more buses going now. King Co. just approved a FAR smaller sales tax increase for METRO, and it (Transit Now) hasn't even kicked in.

Look - the cost of ST's trains is way too high, because every other light rail system in the country is paid for mostly by federal grants. Noplace - including Portland, Denver, LA, etc. - would have any light rail if those regions tried to pull the shit ST does (massive sales tax increases and what does U-Link cost - $550 million PER MILE???).

What ST wants on the cost side is so far out of line it doesn't come close to being funny. TCC gets most of its money from ST and the ATU bus driver locals, so I can see why Johnson is so hot for it. But this is a lousy deal from the standpoint of 99.9% of the people here.

Want more light rail? Convince the legislature to give ST a tax on employer payrolls, a tax on miles driven, or just make it get the money from the feds. Commercial real estate owners and developers, and a handful of big employers, are who benefit from light rail. Make them pay, not the families who pay too much sales tax already. Most of them wouldn't ever ride the trains.

Posted by cat spit | April 11, 2008 4:55 PM

"Bus service in the suburbs is extremely unused. In the suburbs (where I have in fact tried to take the bus), bus service is far OVER-provided. The bus that goes in front of my parents' house would be most efficiently served by a Honda Civic. Nobody there wants to ride the bus"

Nice, john. I like how you throw all "the suburbs" into one heap. Nothing like applying a narrow snapshot approach to a region of 3.5 million people.

The middle class suburbs of South King County, Pierce County and Snohomish County are filling buses and commuter trains up. The big problem is too MANY transit users. Not too few. And last time I checked, congestion wasn't getting any better, and gas + parking wasn't getting any cheaper.

The story is different in high-end East King County....which is why light rail makes a lot of sense connecting Bellevue to Seattle with light rail.

Posted by James | April 11, 2008 5:13 PM

"I'm tree-hugging, transit-riding leftie. But please.

Apparently, rh has a whole bunch more cheap crap made in China to purchase.

Hundred bucks per year for the median household. Buy more stuff to pile in landfills, pay more. Buy less stuff, pay less. Buy food or medicine, pay nothing.

Since when did tree-huggers embrace rampant consumerism? Or, maybe rh believes in "the right to dine out?"

Is this attitude particular to the Wal*Mart generation, or what?

Posted by James | April 11, 2008 5:30 PM

Interesting. So basically, the world is not coming to an end, and we're just arguing about how much it will take to get the parties in bed together.

Sure hope they don't forget to calculate global warming emissions net impact of the build ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 11, 2008 5:32 PM

"Look - the cost of ST's trains is way too high, because every other light rail system in the country is paid for mostly by federal grants."

Where does catspit come up with this spit? Just making it up as he goes along, along with all the other anti-rail whiners?

"Noplace - including Portland, Denver, LA, etc. - would have any light rail if those regions tried to pull the shit ST does (massive sales tax increases and what does U-Link cost - $550 million PER MILE???)."

This is classic axe-grinding. First, catspit complains about the lack of federal funding, then he bitches about the U Link segment - one of the most productive lines in the coutry in terms of ridership - which is half paid for by the feds.

The dollars for mile figure is meaningless. The dollar per rider (or passenger mile) numbers are how rail systems are evaluated.

If somebody were to know what they are talking about, of course.

"The shit ST pulls" is called a public vote. I wonder what catshit would prefer - that general fund monies are used to build light rail (as they do in PDX) or where the government simply increases the taxes without a public vote (like they do in Vancouver).

Once anti-rail nuts figured out they were swimming against the tide of public opinion, they came up with a whole host of different excuses as to why "we can't build light rail here." I wish these clowns would just be honest with their internal-comubustion-loving ways. But I won't hold my breath.

The last time I saw this level of nitpicking around a particular issue, it was loopy Naderites telling us that Al Gore was a slave to Big Oil in 2000. And we all know how well that turned out.....

Posted by James | April 11, 2008 5:46 PM

What percentage of the sales tax comes from North King County? Will the bus funds be divided 40 - 40 - 20 screwing Seattle?

Since even Resolution 75 requires the agency to limit their spending to regional problems, so will the buses only be regional out of city service or will they try to fund streetcars like the Waterfront line?

Posted by bob | April 11, 2008 5:51 PM

That's pretty much clear indication that sub-area equity, at least on taxation, is silly.

Posted by Andrew | April 11, 2008 5:58 PM

@13 - yes. But since we pay 40 percent of the taxes, it should be different. Once again we do the lifting and the suburbs do the grifting.

I look forward to Eyman running for Gov.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 11, 2008 6:00 PM

@13: No, Sound Transit doesn't use the 40-40-20 formula. They follow subarea equity, which basically means money raised in a certain taxing district (North King, South King, East King, Pierce, and Snohomish) stays in that taxing district.

But I think Josh or somebody at TCC did their math wrong, because if you divvy up $1.2 million by population among the three counties, King constitutes a much larger than 50 percent share of these counties' population and would be due for more than $650 million. If that's all King is scheduled to get, then they're not using a direct population formula.

Posted by lorax | April 11, 2008 6:44 PM

a bit of deja vu

During the JRPC days in the early 1990s, the concept of adding three-tenths for local service to the RTA measure got a lot of play. It may have been advanced by Councilmembers Street and Choe. The discussion also led to a debate about the allocation of the new service hours on the Metro Council. The suburban cause was led by Councilmember Barden who advanced the position that all new funds should be spent in the suburbs until they had Seattle levels of service. The Seattle debaters were led by Councilmember Jane Noland (e.g., density, ridership, street grid). The split of new hours proportional to subarea population was the compromise chosen. The more recent 40-40-20 is latest iteration.

In the JRPC days, the guesses at the LRT costs were vastly underestimated, so they thought they had more fiscal capacity.

Johnson is smart. He needed to add something to his argument. He correctly points out that folks are eager for more service. If ST2.1 only had east Link LRT, service levels would not improve much or happen very soon.

I suspect it would be legal. The RTA authorizing legislation allows interim bus service; they provided shuttle service on Mercer Island; they provided shuttle service to Lynnwood transit center. Another approach would be to have large bus element in ST2.1, since ST relies on others to actually operate its bus service anyway. Of course, Everett should be included; it has a great street grid and will take more growth in the coming decades.

John at 2 should visit the Kent Transit Center and examine loads on routes 164, 166, 166, 168, and 169, or look at Route 174 on SR-99, or Route 253 at Crossroads.

Posted by eddiew | April 11, 2008 6:52 PM

It's really refreshing that, whatever reservations Pierce and Snohomish counties have about ST2 '08, it comes down to wanting more transit in the package.

Concerning Rob Johnson's proposal… Hey, if that's what it takes to give the package the momentum it needs to (A) get on the ballot and then (B) pass, then great. Still, this idea smacks more of political wheeling and dealing than of real regional system planning. I'd much rather see the extra 10th of a cent used to do something Sound Transit had been planning to do anyway, especially if that something is extending light rail farther north and farther south.

Even then, I'm a bit leery of how they would extend light rail, especially to the north into Snohomish. If you build the stations close to I-5 and away from urban centers, you doom the line eternally to being nothing more than a commuter rail line.

Now if Ladenburg and Reardon get on board and Ron Sims is left as the only major stumbling block, then that should be a clear indication that the political stars have aligned. Sims is going to be against any viable light rail package. In fact, if Sims did support some package going to the ballot, that might be an indication it's a loser.

Posted by cressona | April 11, 2008 6:58 PM

"@13 - yes. But since we pay 40 percent of the taxes, it should be different. Once again we do the lifting and the suburbs do the grifting."

ALWAYS count on Will getting it wrong. 40-40-20 is King County Metro, all the way.

Lorax got it right. ST does not subscribe to 40-40-20. Ron Sims' brilliant plan to allocate bus service according to political whims, rather than ridership demand / farebox recovery, has been a catastrophe. On the council side, Sims had Maggi Fimia and Rob McKenna pitching this plan. Any time you have those three flakes pushing a particular policy, watch out!

And, yes, Ron Sims has lost his mind. Whatever mind he had left.

Posted by Will in Stupidity | April 11, 2008 7:34 PM

LOL, you just got p0wned by someone that pointed out we should get 50 percent in King County ... and you attack me for saying it should be a high percentage in Seattle of the King County revenue?

Look, we in Seattle are where the votes are. Period. We're the margin of victory - mess with us again and try to shove something down our throats that disrespect us and ST2.1 will look like RTID/ST2 did.

We're the margin of victory - period.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 11, 2008 8:34 PM

@19 - "we pay 40 percent of the taxes."

No we don't. What it should be is an income tax on corporations that run a profit.

Those taxes would land on whom the commuter trains benefit. Direct a tax at them, not families who have to buy clothes, shoes, soap and light bulbs to survive, and other things to allow their children to function.

Posted by No, We Don't | April 11, 2008 9:14 PM

Income tax?

Are you that out of it that you have no idea you're in WASHINGTON STATE - where my IRS forms are telling me we have NO STATE INCOME TAX?

Go sleep with Rossi.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 11, 2008 11:54 PM

That we don't currently have a state income tax doesn't preclude us from having one -- albeit a limited one -- in the future. Though I don't believe ST has the statutory authority to levy one currently.

Also, I really don't understand the Rossi comment.

Posted by joykiller | April 12, 2008 12:02 AM

"Those taxes would land on whom the commuter trains benefit. Direct a tax at them, not families who have to buy clothes, shoes, soap and light bulbs to survive, and other things to allow their children to function."

No We Don't is concerned about his kids upgrading their PlayStation2 to a PlayStation3. This is a heavy burden to carry.

Have you seen the cost of bars of soap lately? Why, a .4ths sales tax increase might increase the yearly soap budget by...10 cents!!!

And since the average cost of parking in downtown Seattle is now $250 per month, and No We Don'ts Belltown dinner budget is roughly equivalent (for one night out) it's obvious we're reaching the breaking point.

Plus, No We Don't is so socially aware, he is committed to defending the 23rd Amendment whenever he can: the Right To Own A Brand New Car Amendment. NWD realizes all our money should be flushed down Detroit Auto Inc's toilet, Saudi Oil Inc's sinkhole, or wasted on just about everything Made In China...but the LAST thing we should spend money on is a mechanism to get to work. Or, a method to continue economic expansion and sprawl-fighting land use patterns. Don't spend money on transportation infrastructure at a time when people have to export the bulk of their money to large banks...why, Morgan Stanley needs that money!

It's tough to tell if No We Don't is living in a Blue Blood bubble, or a homeless activist rathole. Either way, his perspective is equally twisted.

Not surprisingly, this No We Don't clown doesn't propose a tax on those who "benefit from roads." Since we're so good at fighting wars to make sure said roads are consistently jammed with cars, such talk would be considered totally un-American.

Hey, NWD. If you need a light bulb, let me know. I just picked a bunch of long-lasting low wattage bulbs up at Ikea. The 2 extra cents I would have had to pay for the four-pack (had light rail taxes been imposed) would have certainly broken the bank. Thank God I have my expensive car, and shitty, unreliable bus service to pull me through!

What basement did these nuts crawl out of, anyways??? My dog has better reasoning skills. Seriously.

Posted by James | April 12, 2008 12:34 AM

Whether it goes to the ballot this year, next or later, it's probably going to get voted down. This area has a tax-averse population that continues to grow, and Prop 1 has left people feeling out of favor about taxing themselves even more to fund ST.

Posted by Gomez | April 12, 2008 1:08 AM

The agency has learned its lessons, the hard way. As an initial step, it needs to be pointed out that all the financial planning to date for ST2 presumes ST1 money will be extended for phase 1 work and bonds, but kept separate from the ST2 projects and bonds.

The concerns expressed above about the “money” issues will be dealt with in the plan going before voters (in 2008 or 2010) in several ways:

- no more than $2.6 billion of bonds will be sold (30-year term);

- taxes will not be used for operations after 2025; and

- the taxes will be reduced after 2030, to .15% (from the .8% or .9% up until then).

That’s three layers of protection for taxpayers. The agency is committed to fiscal responsibility in the next phase.

Posted by just the messenger | April 12, 2008 6:43 AM

-This area has a tax-averse population that continues to grow-

Excellent reasoning, as usual, Gomez.

Those Obama voters are a conservative bunch!

Posted by Gumby | April 12, 2008 7:51 AM

Just - please provide proof. ST has never and will never make a promise without an out.

Use all the money from the extra 10th of a percent ($1.2 billion) and give it directly to the Snohomish, Pierce, and King County transit. agencies.

Over how many years? And why wouldn't the 40-40-20 rule be in place if it was given to directly Metro?

Posted by bob | April 12, 2008 5:35 PM

Another 1/2 cent sales tax increase? You've got to be kidding! We already have a crazy high sales tax...and it hits the poor the most. It will only reinforce what many of us already know: Reardon, Patterson and Ladenberg are tax-and-spend Dems who dont give a crap about poor people.

Posted by sno ho | April 12, 2008 10:05 PM

Look, we in Seattle are where the votes are. Period.

There's 580,000 people in Seattle. There's 974,000 in the East King and South King ST districts combined. There's another 1,047,000 in the Pierce and Snohomish ST districts combined. That means there's over 2,000,000 people in ST's taxing area that are not in Seattle.

Do you try to make stupid comments or does it just come naturally?

Posted by Bax | April 13, 2008 11:07 AM

No one seems to have said this yet, but aren't sales taxes considered totally regressive?

Posted by Dawgson | April 14, 2008 12:00 PM

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