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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Subarea Equity: A Stupid Policy Is a Stupid Policy Is a Stupid Policy

Posted by on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 11:36 AM

I love and respect the geeks at Seattle Transit Blog because they know more about transit and transportation than I do, and I love and respect Dominic for a lot of the same reasons. (Also, how could you not? Just look at that cute little punim!) But that doesn't mean I think they're always right.

Case in point, their recent shaming of state senator and mayoral candidate Ed Murray for saying he supports eliminating Sound Transit's subarea equity provisions. STB's Ben Schiendelman berates Murray for not having "a better grasp of the issues" while Dom implies that Murray is not "smart about transportation." But it's subarea equity that's stupid, not Murray.

Originally pushed by Rob McKenna in an effort to kill Sound Transit by fanning intraregional feuding, subarea equity requires that tax dollars raised in each of the agency's five subareas—Snohomish, Pierce, East King, South King, and North King (Seattle)—be spent in their respective subareas. Equitable sure, but an incredibly inefficient means of prioritizing transportation spending. A triumph of politics over policy.

When Portland built its hugely successful light rail system they initially focused their resources on the dense downtown core, and then built out to the suburbs. Subarea equity has forced Sound Transit to build the entire region at once; it's a big part of the reason that our light rail system is taking so long to build.

It also didn't work out exactly the way suburban proponents had hoped it would. The outlying subareas were hit harder by the Great Recession, and their economies have recovered much slower than Seattle proper, particularly the South King subarea, which has seen its sales tax revenues fall far short of what is necessary to build the promised light rail extension to Federal Way. But thanks to subarea equity, Sound Transit lacks the flexibility to shift money to where it's needed. (I'm not arguing that it makes sense for Sound Transit to shift money to South King, just that if it did make sense, Sound Transit couldn't.)

Subarea equity has always been an artificial constraint imposed by politicians on transportation planners. And the fact that it hasn't worked out as badly for Seattle as McKenna had intended doesn't make the policy any smarter.

Dom and Ben fear that without the subarea provisions in place, and with a majority of Sound Transit board members representing suburban areas, Seattle will get screwed in the upcoming ST3 proposal, jeopardizing the construction of a westside line (West Seattle and/or Ballard). And it is certainly reasonable to air those concerns. But no ST3 ballot measure can pass without overwhelming support here in Seattle, and that overwhelming support isn't coming for a measure that doesn't lay down track within city limits.

As for their characterization of Murray as not having a grasp of transportation issues, well, that's just plain silly. For even STB admits that subarea equity is bad transportation policy. "[Subarea equity] does force Sound Transit to make some goofy decisions," STB's Martin Duke wrote in 2008, "because it has to spend like crazy in outlying areas to offset the huge capital costs in the core." And in 2011 Duke argued that a more flexible policy would better serve the region: "Precise formulas are not the answer. In general, arbitrary divisions are obstacles to sensible resource allocation."

That's pretty much what Murray is arguing for. "It's an outdated formula," a somewhat exasperated Murray told me by phone. Instead, Murray says he wants to replace subarea equity with a more flexible formula "that is density driven, instead of just slicing up the pie." Murray isn't advocating for ditching subarea equity and replacing it with nothing. He's advocating for ditching subarea equity and replacing it with a policy that directs Sound Transit's resources more toward where they're needed.

That's smart transportation policy, and shows a clear grasp of the issues.

Whether it's smart politics, well, that's another question. I've long felt that Murray's embrace of transportation regionalism, while dead right from a policy perspective, is more than a little naive on the politics. Given my druthers—and more importantly, sufficient local taxing authority—I'd much rather Seattle just build light and street rail on its own like Mayor Mike McGinn proposes. But Olympia will never give Seattle the MVET or sales tax authority necessary to fund my druthers. Hell, it's not even clear that Olympia will give King County the MVET authority necessary to preserve Metro bus service and maintain our roads.

So while it's endlessly frustrating to give politicians and voters in Pierce, Snohomish, and South King veto power over what kind of transit system we build here in Seattle, those are the handcuffs Olympia has slapped on us. And lacking the taxing authority to build a transit system outside those constraints, the least we can do is implement policies that better spend the resources we have.

[NOTE: While I was writing this post, Murray posted a guest op-ed on the same subject. So please feel free to read Murray defend his policies in his own words.]


Comments (31) RSS

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Will in Seattle 1
Or we could just make Seattle a state, and cancel the Deep Bolluxed Tunnel.

But hey, everyone loves austerity, so long as they are Rich or Ultra-Rich. Which is a massive majority of less than 1 percent of the population.
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 25, 2013 at 11:47 AM · Report this
rob! 2
For a second there I thought the Subaru Equity might be a new car designed for equal appeal to men and women, gays and straights.
Posted by rob! on April 25, 2013 at 11:51 AM · Report this
Goldy, Portland MAX is actually quite useless for getting between the city's urban neighborhoods, such as the inner Southeast or the Alberta area.

It leaves downtown (slowly), crosses the bridge (slowly), chugs through the Lloyd District (slowly), and then jumps on the highway and hightails it out to the suburbs. Same deal in the other three directions.

As with many of our regional-analogy follies, Portland is not the shining example that it is made out to be.
Posted by d.p. on April 25, 2013 at 11:55 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 4
I am currently seeing why this country doesn't work politically.

I live in an area of dense apartments where a lot of lower income and immigrant families live. Many of us walk and ride bikes and take buses as well as cars.

Hence the sidewalks are some of the most used.

The City of Kent wanted to improve one very much used street which has no sidewalks. There are many kids who have to stand waiting for school buses in what amounts to a gravel pit. There is a day care center that sits there like something out of the old south.

The big spenders at City Hall proposed a project that, while a solution, was probably 10 times what was needed and imposed high real estate taxes and created a whole governmental management group. The Republicans, of which I am a member shot it down...the whole thing.

So here's where the system fails. All we needed is was an extra wide sidewalk for both people and bikes. The liberals turn it into a boondoggle. The republicans shoot it down. The end result is the People suffer.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on April 25, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 5
Why do you hate gravel pits so, SROTU? They never did anything to you!
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 25, 2013 at 12:27 PM · Report this
Goldy…much like "objective truth" there is no self-evident "right" policy. The "politics" are everything.

This platonic notion that there's an objectively perfect policy to transportation building and funding that is untainted by politics is the precise trap that many fall into in politics.

What works here is what works. And even you seem to admit that it doesn't work to be naive about the politics of it all.

So, that leaves me scratching my head a bit as to your intention. STB and Dom are arguing that what works is what works, and Ed Murray and you seem to be arguing that "what is perfect is what is perfect."

But, then you hedge your bet and admit that politics matter.

It's all very confusing. And that makes me suspicious.

This election will give us plenty of what I call "Transit Silver Medalists." By which I mean politicians who will tell us they LOVE transit They dream about transit. They advocate for transit. They'll use their influence on behalf of transit. They'll move heaven and earth for transit…

…just as soon as we build all the highway projects we can dream of.

In the end, transit will not be sufficiently built if it is a 2nd priority to highways. And it seems to me, according to the politics of building transit, Murray's position places transit into 2nd place.
Posted by Timothy on April 25, 2013 at 12:33 PM · Report this
Martin H. Duke 7
Things I also say in the two posts that Goldy quotes me on:

"SAE [subarea equity] will end up working to Seattle’s advantage"

"In fact, a flexible policy within the framework of a subarea rule probably works out best in practice. Voters do seem to show little regional solidarity and resent dollars moving elsewhere. Furthermore, when ST3 rolls around subarea equity may guard against some cynical maneuvers that the ST board could try. It’s best to leave well enough alone."
Posted by Martin H. Duke on April 25, 2013 at 12:38 PM · Report this
Goldy 8
@7 Yes, and I provided those links. And I also lay out your arguments, if attributing them to Ben and Dom not you.

But the point is, it is misleading to characterize Murray as not having a grasp on the issue—or leave the impression that he is anti-transit (or anti-Seattle)—when STB actually agrees with his basic critique of subarea equity.
Posted by Goldy on April 25, 2013 at 12:47 PM · Report this
Goldy, you frequently complain about the distribution of state funds for schools, roads, etc. (rural counties get back way more than they kick in). Won't exactly the same thing happen to Sound Transit expenditures if sub-area equity is removed?
Posted by ratcityreprobate on April 25, 2013 at 12:54 PM · Report this
But isn't there are pretty fundamental difference between agreeing with the *basic critique* of something and agreeing with what to actually do about it?

Isn't that difference nearly the whole ball of wax?

I am sure STB and McGinn and Murray and you and Dom all actually agree with the basic premise that more transit options are good for us. But that's not really the issue here, is it?
Posted by grkle on April 25, 2013 at 12:57 PM · Report this
Martin H. Duke 11
@8 I understand the point you're trying to make -- that SAE is far from perfect. But Ed Murray, in context, is not making an abstract statement about defects in SAE. He is saying that Seattle can't afford to go it alone on rail. When pressed on the observation that thanks to SAE Seattle/Shoreline will pay for any such rail in any case, he says that we have to get the money from outer suburbs to properly afford it. It's hard to make a conclusion other than that Ed Murray thinks we can't afford more light rail unless we get more suburbs to help pay for it -- which as you point out, in practical terms means we won't get any more rail.

As to whether or not he has a grasp of these issues - I don't know what's in his heart, and I'd distance myself from Ben's assertion. It's possible he just doesn't want ST 3 to succeed; that he has radically different assessment of regional politics than you or me; or, that he hasn't fully thought through the implications of things he's saying. Ben seems to think it's the third, but I'd say that I don't know. I imagine Senator Murray would argue it's the second.
Posted by Martin H. Duke on April 25, 2013 at 1:01 PM · Report this
Goldy 12
@9 First of all, I'm not very concerned that we will end up substantially subsidizing the other subareas, because any ST3 measure has to be written to appeal to Seattle voters.

Second, folks consistently misunderstand my stance on the way we broadly subsidize the rest of the state. I'm all for redistribution of wealth. I think we all benefit when we build and maintain a rural Washington that preserves agriculture and agricultural communities. I don't begrudge building the hydroelectric, irrigation, and transportation systems that make their economy possible, and I'd like their schools to be as good as ours, regardless of local property values.

But I do begrudge the lie that the flow of money goes from them to us, and their refusal let us tax ourselves to pay for the infrastructure and services we want and need.
Posted by Goldy on April 25, 2013 at 1:04 PM · Report this
@12 Goldy…it seems to me you're missing the point.

The concern with doing away from SAE is not that we Seattleites will end up footing the bill for Rail in the suburbs, it's that if the suburbs believe they will be subsidizing us, they will not support ST3 at all.

Murray is suggesting that he has the ability, through his relationships, to convince the suburbs to send their money to Seattle to build out rail here.

The question is…do you believe him?

I'm doubtful. Not because I don't like Murray (I do) but because I think that's naive politics.
Posted by Timothy on April 25, 2013 at 1:10 PM · Report this
Martin H. Duke 14

I think you're right that it won't be a question of having absolutely no projects in Seattle. However, all the incentives are to build as little as possible in Seattle, as cheaply as possible (say, streetcars rather than real light rail) to give pro-transit voters in Seattle an excuse to vote for it. The real money has to be spent on the perimeter where the swing voters are.
Posted by Martin H. Duke on April 25, 2013 at 1:10 PM · Report this
STB is not Ben, Ben is not STB. It's a collection of authors with varying views. Please treat it accordingly. Saying "STB believes that" is as silly as saying "SLOG believes that..."
Posted by 2nd and Seneca on April 25, 2013 at 1:21 PM · Report this
Mickymse 16
You're wrong on this, Goldy... and admit to it when you agree with the theory that McKenna and other suburbanites put it in place hoping to screw over Seattle.

I, too, think it was a bad policy to implement; but after a few years it's now bad policy to remove it. SAE prevented us from building more quickly inside Seattle, screwing up our system, but it now guarantees revenues freed up to build more inside our City areas. Removing it now simply guarantees more funds go to extending further into the suburbs and building more park-and-rides.

I'm not arguing against more expansion to a broader regional area... BUT the higher ridership and potential to change lifestyles and reduce congestion and auto pollution lies inside Seattle first, not in spreading out to Everett, Tacoma, and Issaquah more quickly. In fact, building lines outwards faster than inwards could actually accelerate sprawl.
Posted by Mickymse on April 25, 2013 at 1:22 PM · Report this
It's right there in the name SOUND transit. It's a regional system, as it should be given how the area will grow over the next 50 decades. Believe me, I'd love to have light rail in West Seattle in my life time, but the second the 'burbs think their tax dollars are only going to build rail in Seattle proper, it's game over for ST3. There is no separating policy from politics, one is the product of the other, and in a democracy, you just have to accept that reality and work with it.
Posted by Westside forever on April 25, 2013 at 1:32 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 18
@16 has a very good point.

Was just reading today's UW Daily about new transit in Seattle, which would otherwise be used to subsidize the inefficient suburbs.
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 25, 2013 at 1:45 PM · Report this
Yes, SAE may be a dumb idea. But when it benefitted the suburbs and hurt Seattle, it was just "the way things are", and couldn't be changed. Now that it looks like Seatle might, horrors, actually benefit from SAE, then of course we have to get rid of it. So I guess if we want to get rid of stupid ideas, we must find some way to show that they benefit Seattle. My concern with Ed Murray is that he has more loyalty to his Olympia connections than he does to the people of Seattle.
Posted by Don't you think he looks tired? on April 25, 2013 at 1:48 PM · Report this
@6, except that Murray has probably built more transit than any other politician in the state over the last thirty years. He won key transit money in the 03 and 05 state transpo package. When it comes to actually building transit, Murray has a better resume than any other mayoral candidate. How much transit money has Harrell or Steinbrueck or McGinn actually generated? Murray has won millions and millions for transit - the other candidates have nothing but rhetoric on their resumes.
Posted by c'mon girlfriend on April 25, 2013 at 1:50 PM · Report this
Cascadian 21
The way to allow the city to have a higher investment in transit that is propotional to its level of density and importance to the region is for the state to lift the cap on how much Seattle can finance additional projects above and beyond sub-area equity. Sub-area equity is the political tool that keeps the suburbs on board without making the system entirely suburban. We should keep it, and then have the state give Seattle and other local jurisdictions the ability to supplement regional projects with local projects funded with local money.

If Ed Murray wants to outmaneuver McGinn on transportation, he should be advocating for local funding for additional local projects, planned within the regional context. McGinn is moving in that direction but too slowly. Murray could beat him to it, neutralize one of McGinn's few advantages, and run away with the race. But instead he's playing to relatively conservative, car-centric Old Seattleites.
Posted by Cascadian on April 25, 2013 at 1:55 PM · Report this
Goldy 22
Again folks, Murray isn't suggesting that we ditch subarea equity and replace it with nothing. He's suggesting we should ditch in favor of a formula that drives resources toward density. Such a formula would inherently protect Seattle's interest.

Second, my main disagreement with Ben and Dom is the way they use Murray's position on subarea equity to categorize him as not having a grasp on the issue. Regardless of whether it inadvertently protects our interests, Murray is right that subarea equity is bad policy. Surely we can find a more rational metric for allocating resources.
Posted by Goldy on April 25, 2013 at 2:54 PM · Report this
@21 You mean he's playing to... the Times?
Posted by oh realllly? on April 25, 2013 at 3:08 PM · Report this
@22 Why on earth would Seattle give up subarea equity at this point? Neither you nor Murray have actually published an alternative: "density blah blah trust me" doesn't count. It's only a risk to Seattle for Seattle to give up SAE for ST3. If Murray wants to help lift the caps on self-taxation so we can fund our city's projects, then that's worth writing about.
Posted by oh realllly? on April 25, 2013 at 3:16 PM · Report this
cressona 25
Goldy @22: Again folks, Murray isn't suggesting that we ditch subarea equity and replace it with nothing. He's suggesting we should ditch in favor of a formula that drives resources toward density. Such a formula would inherently protect Seattle's interest.

Goldy, please accept that Ed Murray is smarter about these things than you are. This is a Trojan horse gift to Seattle light rail supporters. He's smart enough to know there's no direct political way to kill light rail expansion. Instead, you've got to figure out how to offer some kind of poison candy so that light rail expansion can be killed from within with its supporters' blessing.
Posted by cressona on April 25, 2013 at 4:46 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 26
@23 exactly, the suburban market.

Meanwhile, Global Warming is NOW. Not tomorrow.
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 25, 2013 at 5:16 PM · Report this
So, this density-driven formula, anyone willing to expound on that?

Because right now we've got zero information and a "trust me".

SAE is basically the only thing keeping Sound Transit politically viable in the suburbs, and the suburbs won't go for any new density-driven formula if it doesn't let them build massive park & rides in low-density wastelands alongside freeways. Which any serious formula definitely would not.

Posted by Lack Thereof on April 25, 2013 at 5:48 PM · Report this
Also, you say that no ST3 ballot measure can pass without overwhelming support here in Seattle, and that overwhelming support isn't coming for a measure that doesn't lay down track within city limits.

But that's wrong. Seattle will vote for basically any transit package, whether it directly benefits the city or not. Seattle will get a cheap token project, and the Seattle Subway will be dead.
Posted by Lack Thereof on April 25, 2013 at 5:52 PM · Report this
And finally, he's running for Mayor of Seattle, not county exec or a regional office. He needs to be aggressively advocating for more infrastructure money in Seattle, not giving it for free to the region at large.

A mayors job is to fight for the City's self-interest, not the regions.
Posted by Lack Thereof on April 25, 2013 at 6:02 PM · Report this
subarea equity predates McKenna; see the RCW enabling legislation here:…. sections 8 a and c are relevant. the ST policy went further and divided King County into three subareas. the basic concept probaby came from Representative Fisher.
Posted by eddiew on April 25, 2013 at 10:11 PM · Report this
roddy 31
@28 "Seattle will vote for basically any transit package" is wrong on many levels.

First, the monorail proves that even Seattle voters have a pain point when it comes to transit. Second, although it may well be easy to get a majority in Seattle, a transit package would have to have overwhelming support from Seattle to bring a measure over the top in the greater Seattle area.
Posted by roddy on April 26, 2013 at 6:01 AM · Report this

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