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.]