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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sound Transit Cost Only “Debated” by Usual Suspects

posted by on September 25 at 12:46 PM

Today’s P-I has a piece by Larry Lange about the “debate” over how much Sound Transit’s light rail expansion proposal really costs. The “debate” in question: Whether the plan costs $17.8 billion, as Sound Transit says, or $107 billion, as longtime light-rail opponents Jim MacIsaac and John Niles (really, really longtime opponents) say.

This debate is only a “debate” if you assume the following premises: 1) Sound Transit is lying and plans to violate a resolution its board passed to stop collecting the additional half-percent of sales tax in 2038; and 2) Seattle households are actually a whole lot richer (and spend a whole lot more money) than the US Census and city and state demographers say they are.

On the first point: Lange writes, “Transportation planner and Sound Transit critic Jim MacIsaac estimates approval of the measure would authorize collection of more than $107.3 billion over 45 years…”

There are two reasons why this “estimate” is wrong. First, it includes taxes from Sound Transit’s Phase 1—taxes the voters passed more than ten years ago, taxes that have nothing to do with the proposal on the ballot this November. Second, as mentioned above, it assumes Sound Transit will continue collecting the taxes well into the 2050s and beyond. That would require Sound Transit to build a third phase of light rail—Sound Transit 3—without getting authority from the voters, and to defy a board resolution mandating that the agency will discontinue the tax once the new lines are paid off around 2038.

On the second point: If the “typical household,” whatever that means, actually spent $284 on a half-percent sales tax increase, that would mean that a typical household in the Sound Transit taxing area spends nearly $57,000 a year on goods subject to sales tax—which excludes food, utilities, and rent. Considering that the median household income in the Sound Transit taxing area is only around $64,000, that’s a pretty hefty chunk to be blowing on clothes, iPods, and lattes.

A side note on that point: Sound Transit didn’t, as Lange reports, “assume a total of 1.3 million households throughout the three counties” and “divide the tax bill by more housholds” to get a lower result. They used those 1.3 million to arrive at a median—the middle point between the highest and the lowest-income households in the group. A median, unlike a mean, doesn’t require “dividing by” anything—and it doesn’t depend on how many households there are. For purposes of defining a “typical” household, it’s also more accurate than just dividing total income by the total number of households in an area—the method MacIsaac acknowledged he used to figure out how much a “typical” household would be spending. (The Mass Transit Now campaign has requested a correction).

Finally, as I noted here (and as Lange, oddly, did not report, despite reporting on the initial court challenge) a lawsuit seeking to change the Sound Transit ballot title to include the $107 billion figure was dismissed with prejudice by King County Superior Court judge John Erlick, who said, “There is neither a factual nor a legal basis for [Knedlik’s] proposed redrafting of the ballot title” or explanatory statement in the voters’ guide.

Knedlik, like Niles and MacIsaac, has a long history as a light-rail antagonist. In addition to being a perennial candidate and former attorney (he was disbarred for filing too many frivolous lawsuits), Knedlik sued Sound Transit (and lost) once before—in 2004, when he demanded a refund on taxpayers’ money and a rollback of Sound Transit taxes.

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Resolutions are non-binding, so it is entirely possible - indeed, likely - that ST will not honor the "commitment" to stop collecting the tax in 2038.

You know, kind of like they said they'd wait until Phase 1 of the Light Rail line was up and running before they came back to the voters for more money?

Posted by Mr. X | September 25, 2008 12:54 PM

Mr. X, I'm with you that Sound Transit hasn't exactly done a great job delivering when they said they would. And that's an understatement. I remember a few years ago Kirkland City Councilmember Dave Asher talking about how Central Link was on time and on budget, with no mention of that big mulligan they took back in 2001 or whenever.

But did they ever really commit to waiting until the initial line was up and running before building more? And isn't that putting them into a Catch 22 considering that they're not going to build the entire initial line anyway unless they do ask the voters for more taxing authority?

But there's a bigger point here. Is the fact that Sound Transit sucked in the past reason to presume they're continuing to suck when indications are that they've gotten their act together? And is ST's "original sin" reason not to move forward? Should we just give up on every agency that takes a while to get its act together? Practically speaking, what do we accomplish by teaching Sound Transit a lesson?

We start sounding like Israelis and Palestinians or Shi'ites and Sunnis when we get into this endless cycle of grievance.

Posted by cressona | September 25, 2008 1:13 PM

I think the most damning thing about the $107b number is that it assumed that Prop. 1 would cost $52b even if it isn't passed. Um?

Full details:

Posted by john jensen | September 25, 2008 1:32 PM

I'm less concerned about the $107 billion overall figure than I am with the "$69 per adult" figure. How did the "yes" campaign come up with that one?

And the current tax IS impacted by the new vote. It would be rolled back sooner if the measure is not approved. If the new measure IS approved, the current tax would be extended at the same rate to help pay for the Phase II projects.

Posted by mondobondo | September 25, 2008 1:34 PM

mondobondo, that number is from Sound Transit. It was figured by taking the median income per household of the region and then extrapolating from that median income to $125

(By this logic, the typical household spends $25,000 on items that are taxed per year -- which sounds reasonable.)

Finally, if you take the average amount of adults per household (1.8) and you do $125 / 1.8 = $69.

None of these numbers are pulled from thin air, and ST's planning documents are accessible at

Posted by john jensen | September 25, 2008 1:41 PM

I'm gonna put some hard numbers behind Erica's skepticism on sales taxes.

I looked at my last paystub for 2007. I had $115,784 worth of taxable income. Federal income tax, social security, and medicare totaled 33,407; then $10,440 to a 401(k), and another $2,119 in other payroll deductions (ADD, my gym membership, etc.), I took in $69,818 in income.

Consider housing alone: I pay $22,785 every year for my mortage, HOA dues and real estate taxes, leaving me with just $47,033 to spend on stuff.

That is, with $115k of income, I have $47,033 to spend on stuff. And I don't own a car, and I save a lot.

This year, I'll make double the average income in this area, and I still won't have $67,000 to spend on stuff, unless I rack up massive credit card debt.

Niles and McIsaac's numbers are bullshit.

Posted by We're all billionaires! | September 25, 2008 1:41 PM

mondobondo again, "And the current tax IS impacted by the new vote. It would be rolled back sooner if the measure is not approved. If the new measure IS approved, the current tax would be extended at the same rate to help pay for the Phase II projects."

Fine, but that's not what the "no" campaign is claiming. They're saying that Sound Move taxes we pay even in 2009 fall under the cost of Proposition 1. That's not true. The Sound Move taxes won't be rolled back for decades regardless of what happens, and the "no" campaign -- if it cares about being honest -- should only include Sound Move costs after the expected rollback date.

But they don't care about being honest. They want to create voter confusion, and that's why it's going to cost $52b for Proposition 1 even if Proposition 1 fails -- according to their own numbers.

Yes, yes, the tax is extended. We get it. That's not the same thing as raising your taxes tomorrow, however.

Posted by John Jensen | September 25, 2008 1:47 PM

There's an easy way to figure out how this would impact us normals. This is a tax, so it's going on your normal purchases and this assumes the average yearly taxable purchase for each resident to be at about 13,000 (3 iPods and a pair of shoes a month!) or so.

To find out the impact, do the following:
1) Take your rent, utilities, monthly food bill and average monthly purchases
2) Add them up
3) Divide by 30, this is value A and your average daily expenses.

4) Take $69, divide by 12
5) Divide again by 30, this is value B

Compare value A to value B. Which is larger? And by how much? What kind of cuts in your daily lifestyle would have you have to make to handle this new tax?

Personally, I'd have to stop getting venti when I could get a grande. The struggle!!

Posted by AJ | September 25, 2008 1:55 PM

"The Sound Move taxes won't be rolled back for decades regardless of what happens,"

Well that's not true. If you look at the ST2 planning documents, they show that $2.3 billion of Phase I taxes would have been used on Phase II by 2023.

If that $2.3 billion of Phase I taxes isn't needed for Phase II, the rates will be rolled back well before 2023. ST can't just keep taxing if it doesn't need the money for voter-approved projects . . . .

Posted by RDF | September 25, 2008 2:09 PM

"[...] the rates will be rolled back well before 2023" is wrong. Sound Move taxes wouldn't roll back until Sound Move debt is serviced. That debt servicing cannot begin in earnest until 2016, when construction of U-Link is finished.

The difference under ST2 is that much of the debt servicing would be put off for ST2, and then (debt servicing) would be accelerated after the completion of ST2.

Posted by John Jensen | September 25, 2008 2:29 PM


I'm too jammed up at work to hunt down a citation for you, but ST (and key elected officials who were staunch supporters) definitely stated on numerous occasions over the last 10 years that they'd wait for the first line to open before going back to the voters for more money.

Of course, it's probably safe to say that those promises were verbal and not in writing and/or actually binding.

Posted by Mr. X | September 25, 2008 3:11 PM

@ 10 "Sound Move taxes wouldn't roll back until Sound Move debt is serviced. That debt servicing cannot begin in earnest until 2016, when construction of U-Link is finished."

You are of course ignoring the accelerated debt payoff terms in Sound Move.

Even if those weren't operative, which they are, you aren't taking into account the sheer amount of tax revenue ST would haul in if the current taxes remained in place through some date like 2016. Between this year and 2016 for example, ST could be expected to take in about $4 billion from the car tab tax and the .4% sales tax.

That’d be more than enough to have paid off the outstanding bonds by that time (even in light of the the remaining Phase I capital and operating cost needs). No taxing at the .4% rate post-2016 is needed, under any scenario.

ST can't just keep its taxes at the current rates if it doesn't have a voter-approved need for that tax stream (and hoping some future measure will be approved is not a legitimate reason to fail to reduce the tax rates).

Take a look at the 2:59 p.m. posting here -

It shows that "$69 per adult per year" figure is WAAY too low.

Posted by jack | September 25, 2008 3:20 PM

@12: That's assuming the new tax can be expressed as a flat rate. It's not. A tax is a percentage. Furthermore, that person is doing strange math in assuming an equal contribution from absolutely every person in the area.

The average yearly taxable purchases for each adult resident figures out to be $13,000 (About $1,100 a month, or 4 iPods and a pair of shoes-- think of how much you spend on regular purchases that get taxed) or so, and since taxes come out of that, we take 0.5% out of $13,000 to get around $69.

19 cents a day, pushing the total ST sales tax up to 41 cents. Even if you don't have 41 cents in your pocket now, you have to realize that if you put all things together and divided by thirty, you spend the equivalent of dozens a dollar a day for your way of life. How does a 19 cent increase figure against that?

Posted by AJ | September 25, 2008 3:56 PM

There's nothing more boring than people whining about Sound Transit.

Just build the damn thing.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay | September 25, 2008 4:07 PM

"The average yearly taxable purchases for each adult resident figures out to be $13,000"

So says you. Maybe you're right. If you are, it shouldn't be ANY problem for you to use your number there to show why ST's actual 2007 sales tax revenue figure was $279 million. There are 2.7 million residents in the ST area. Show us the calculation that proves your "$13K" number is accurate.

If you can't use your "$13K" figure to come up with REALITY (ST's tax revenues of $279 million in 2007), then your number is WRONG.

It's really quite simple, stupid.

Posted by show me | September 25, 2008 5:23 PM

"ST (and key elected officials who were staunch supporters) definitely stated on numerous occasions over the last 10 years that they'd wait for the first line to open before going back to the voters for more money."

Mr. X, NIMBY perma-activist extraordinaire, always has a nifty new citation-free conspiracy behind his latest critique of light rail.

His arguments against rail never remain consistent (esp odd, given his hardcore dedication to monorail) can be traced back to his Sisyphusian fight against density. In the U District, of all places. And Mr. X's jihad against change.

You live in a city, the two things that make a city great (people & a dynamic environment), you fight.

And since George Bush is more likely to succeed in eradicating terrorism than Matt Fox is to stop growth and change in the U District, you can see how the status of "activist" begins to outweigh the approach to actual issues.

"Of course, it's probably safe to say that those promises were verbal and not in writing and/or actually binding."

Yes, of course, Matt. Those guys are crafty. They killed your monorail, and destroyed the Rainier Valley. Without ever going on the record.

Posted by Jeepers | September 25, 2008 6:24 PM

15: That includes business sales tax. The assumption is that 60% of sales tax comes from homes (186mil) and 40% come from businesses (94mil) = $279 million.

Posted by AJ | September 25, 2008 6:33 PM

"Take a look at the 2:59 p.m. posting here"

And take a look at Jack/BH's creepy obsession with Jackbooted Sound Transit Nazi thugs. This guy is a lunatic. Which means, by default, he fits in to the anti-rail camp quite well.

Posted by Cupcake | September 25, 2008 6:48 PM

Jeepers @16, I'm on your side, but I gotta say: lighten up a bit on Mr. X. I kinda feel like you crossed a line with that post.

Actually, while I've heard Mr. X do quite a bit of griping about Sound Transit's less-than-perfect history, I haven't heard him actually come out across ST2.

And there's a larger point here. There are a lot of voters who, rightfully or wrongfully, have some kind of a gripe with Sound Transit. Those are voters ST has still got to reach. The world has changed since 1996 or 2001 or even 2007, and people are ready to reconsider.

Posted by cressona | September 25, 2008 8:25 PM

Now, now. I'm concerned about how ST suddenly decided to put a brand new armed police force into the center of Seattle, without any established chain of command or citizen oversight. The first I heard about ST's new armed police force was just a couple of months ago.

Is the utter absence of police accountability to citizens deemed a good thing in "Sound Transit circles?" Unaccountable police forces are a bad thing.

Why do my concerns about ST's brand spanking new police force make you think I'm a lunatic?

Let's say this appointed police chief ST hired (who is it, anyway?) decides to have the troopers go hands on and frisk train riders based on racial profiling. You know, for security. To whom should citizens complain? They'd have to sue Sound Transit to get it to change its police policies, right? Is that how ST's board envisions things playing out?

Posted by jack | September 25, 2008 8:40 PM

Jack, the unaccountable, wild, SS-style armed force police force you're talking about? (



Separately, unarmed security is provided a private security firm.

Posted by John Jensen | September 26, 2008 1:33 AM


That's who is running the King County Jail (currently the subject of a Federal civil rights violations action) and that's who isn't keeping a lid on all the action in Highline/Burion.

But the group that'll be assigned to the ST Police force won't be part of Sue Rahr's chain of command, they'll answer to some Police Cheif of ST only.

What we don't know is what authority ST's board will be allowed to exercise over that Police Chief, via the contract terms.

Want to post that KCSO + ST contract? Make yourself useful, John.

Will ST's new Police Dept. use "random" bag checks in the stations, as the NYPD transit police do?

What, exactly, gives rise to your dismissive attitute toward civilian oversight and police accountability, John? I've never heard of you - who pays you and what is your background?

Posted by jack | September 26, 2008 6:51 AM

John - don't bite. You don't want this stalker in your life. He doesn't have one.

Do read jack's crazy fantasies of transit police getting in fire fights with other cops, with transit patrons ducking for cover. It gives you a little peek into the world of paranoid delusion - a massive conspiracy where the transit agencies, judiciary, police and media all team up to beat jack into a pulp. (a closer look reveals that the pulp is his mental state)

Posted by Cupcake | September 26, 2008 12:24 PM

@22: Jack, the King County Jail Guards and the Sheriff's deputies are a completely different group of people. I'm sure you'll find some other reason to panic over the concept of transit police, but you should at least get a few of your facts right.

Posted by J.R. | September 26, 2008 12:48 PM

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