The Transportation and Ballot Issues committees of the Municipal League met on September 22, 2016 to hear presentations by opponents and supporters of the proposed expansion of Sound Transit services that would be made possible by approval of Proposition 1. At the conclusion of the meeting, and following discussion of the arguments advanced in the presentations and other materials, the members of the committees voted unanimously to recommend that voters approve Proposition 1 to fund expansion of Sound Transit services. The Municipal League Foundation recommends a “yes” vote on Proposition 1.
Proposition 1 requests a $54 billion investment in transit facilities for the Puget Sound region. Although the cost for households ($29 billion in new taxes over the planning period) sounds large and is significant, it is smaller compared to the large typical annual cost of owning and operating a motor vehicle ($3,000-$4,000 a year for fuel alone) or the projected losses from time spent in gridlock (not to mention reduced aggravation) that will accompany truly region-wide reliable mobility.
Opponents of the measure raise legitimate concerns about the cost and appropriateness of adding 62 miles of light rail system to our region. Bus rapid transit (BRT) systems are often cited as a cheaper alternative that can be more quickly implemented. BRT systems, however, do not always offer exclusive rights-of-way and the escape from congestion that light rail does. Sound Transit has responsibly managed significant public works projects and has earned the region’s trust as a result. Should the voters of our region provide the significant commitment to extending that trust by authorizing this proposition, the Agency should be very careful not to jeopardize that authorization with a lack of transparency or misuse of public resources.
There is no perfect solution to this region’s transit challenges and, to their credit, proponents of ST3 have not presented the plan as such. Four decades ago, we rejected Forward Thrust, and this region reaped the whirlwind. We now have the opportunity to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Presented by Claudia Balducci (King County Council), Maud Daudon (Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce), Abigail Doerr (Mass Transit Now), and Rick Stoltz (One America)
● Our region is projected to grow by 1 million people in the next 25 years
● Our transportation system has already lost its resiliency; a single accident can tie up traffic in the entire region (citing regional traffic impacts of overturned fish truck on SR 99, March 24, 2015)
● Building additional highway capacity is expensive everywhere – and virtually impossible in many key corridors of our region. It is not possible to absorb or effectively mitigate projected growth through our highway system.
● Congestion is already extreme in many parts of the region, with marked increases in travel times on popular routes, heavy costs for businesses, and damage to air quality – not to mention to our quality of life
● We are at a moment when we have a chance to get it right and build a transit system that will serve our region far into the future; doing it by bits and pieces is more expensive and will take longer
● Sound Transit has proven itself a responsible, accountable agency that can and has delivered major construction projects ahead of schedule and under budget; the Agency’s early missteps have not recurred
● The ST3 plan is responsive to strong public demand; over 40,000 comments were received with many people asking that the plan include more and be completed quicker; modifications from the initial proposals made it possible to respond affirmatively to some of these requests
● Expansion of light rail is expensive because of the region’s geography and because of Sound Transit’s commitment to separating the right of way from streets and highways; As an example, a good deal of the expense comes from tunneling in order to create a separate new right of way rather than operating on the surface (in contrast to systems in other cities).
● ST3 will provide assured mobility for residents among all the major residential, commercial, and industrial centers of the region
● Light rail, the largest cost item in the ST3 proposal, is a superior method of assuring mobility which integrates well with other modes – such as local buses, park-and-ride facilities, and bike trails – while operating on dedicated rights of way to improve reliability and minimize interference with road traffic; it offers the best option to urbanize our region without destroying our quality of life
● Extending service to further out population centers, as ST3 will do, makes a major contribution to equity for low-income, immigrant, and other disadvantaged people who cannot find affordable housing and meet other costs in major urban centers
● Sound Transit has been a leader in identifying parcels of surplus property that can be used for transit-oriented development that serves low-income families and communities well
● Even the best designed bus rapid transit (BRT) system is vulnerable to traffic delays and inevitably adds to highway congestion at some point; the operating costs of BRT are far higher than light rail on a per rider basis
Presented by Maggie Fimia (former King County Council member) and Kevin Wallace (Bellevue City Council member) – People for Smarter Transit (NoST3)
● ST3 will not reduce congestion on the streets and highways of the region.
● It is impossible to predict population growth and transit demand so far into the future;
expanding the light rail network to relatively low density parts of the region rather than relying on alternative solutions reduces our ability to adapt to future needs.
● Adding 62 miles of light rail and some new bus services will cost 54 billion dollars, with a substantial portion of the cost deriving from light rail extensions with the lowest projected ridership.
● Light rail is a transit solution for high density urban cores and is not the right answer for lower density parts of the region. There are alternative ways to improve mobility in the region at far less cost; improvements in bus service – including capital improvements for bus rapid transit (BRT) services– can provide the necessary added capacity more quickly, improve the flexibility of service planning far into the future, and do so with large cost savings when compared with the ST3 plan.
● The new facilities and services will result in only modest increases in use of the system
● ST3 proponents cite an annual tax increase of $169 per individual. This number assumes
$39,740 annual income, $5,333 vehicle value and $183,931 home value for the individual in question. A more appropriate assessment would be a family in the region with an annual salary of $90K that owns vehicles worth $45K, and a property valued at $450K. Such a family would pay $1000 per year.
● The legislature granted Sound Transit “senior” taxing district status. If the region’s voters authorize ST3 property taxes and then the legislature authorizes additional property tax collections to fully fund state education programs, the total property tax load in certain areas could exceed the statutory limit. “Junior” taxing districts in these areas - such as water, fire and library systems - could see their taxing authorities automatically reduced or eliminated (to fit the total property tax rate within the statutory limit) if the legislature does not provide a remedy when making changes to total property tax rates.
● According to the Puget Sound Regional Council, our region will spend $174 billion on transit and transportation improvements between 2010 and 2040 – not including all of ST3’s planned billions – and still be $36 billion short of meeting all the projected need.
● There is too much flexibility in the ST3 plan – voters have no assurance that the promised system will actually be built
● The voters of the region should turn down the expensive ST3 proposal, press the legislature to solve the education funding problem, and then work on a smaller program (“ST2.5”) that fits within funding realities, delivers the most cost effective solutions, and addresses congestion while increasing mobility
Rationale for the Recommendation
It cannot be denied that our region faces a transit crisis. Given projections that the region will receive more new residents than the current population of Portland in the next 25 years, expanding transit infrastructure is imperative.
Proposition 1 (ST3) delivers on a “triple bottom line” – improved mobility for the region, improved conditions for businesses, their employees and customers, and improved protection for the environment and our quality of life.
Providing inexpensive, reliable, and accessible transportation to residents of outlying communities makes an enormous contribution to equity for low-income people, recent immigrants seeking to establish themselves, and senior citizens and persons with disabilities who are often transit dependent.
Evolving technological solutions, such as driverless vehicles – if and when they are widely accepted – will be an excellent way to complete the “last mile” of trips throughout the region, but they cannot solve the congestion problems that come from using low-capacity vehicles on highways between employment and residential centers.
Constructing a region-wide light rail system provides greater benefits at lower overall cost than any of the plausible alternatives. Truly comparable systems, including Bus Rapid Transit solutions, must account for the cost of exclusive rights-of-way and grade-separated facilities that achieve the escape from congestion and interference from other vehicles that is expected of light rail. When these costs are considered, the significant savings sometimes associated with alternatives to light rail drop quickly. Sound Transit’s plan, including the selection of light rail as its preferred technology, is based on extensive, years-long stakeholder involvement and outreach. The plan is based on and follows the community direction. The ST3 plan has been extensively studied with careful comparisons to alternative modes of transit and to highway expansion – the alternatives all come up short.
The price tag of $54 billion over nearly 30 years is a consequence of the responsible practice of calculating the project’s cost in “Year of Expenditure” dollars – i.e., taking account of the best estimates of expected inflation.
The complicated Proposition 1 financing package was the best compromise the agency could negotiate with the legislature; efforts to improve Washington’s regressive tax structure must continue, but they should not hold up the important work of building out a transit system to improve mobility throughout the region. Creating one comprehensive plan that creates a complete system and committing to completing it provides significant savings in costs, speeds completion of the entire program, and greatly reduces uncertainty about the outcome. Sound Transit as an agency has proven itself capable of accountable and reliable oversight of large capital projects and operations of a complex transit system.
The Municipal League Foundation recommends a “yes” vote on Proposition 1.