A Special Session Would Be a Disaster: What We Can Do Instead

On Thursday, I wrote about the State Senate listening tour’s Seattle stop on Monday (Bartolome Day), and why we’re in a much better position than they think. I want to add more detail about what the Senate is trying to do, and how we can do an end run around them.

The Problem

The Republicans (and the two turncoat Democrats) have outlined a “ten point” scheme (PDF) they want implemented as part of any transportation package.

Most of these are designed to privatize operations, or cut pay and benefits for workers. The last one is the worst for transit: it “would make changes streamlining the state’s existing regional transit authority boards.” Hmm… where have we heard that before? It’s yet another attempt to make the Sound Transit board directly elected, and susceptible to attacks from moneyed interests. Given the political pressures that exist today, suburban ST board members could even direct ST money for road projects, as has been a desire of some legislators in the past.

The State House would surely reject legislation like this, but the concessions necessary to get the current Senate to vote for a package would be disastrous. As Mike Lindblom pointed out on twitter yesterday, I even missed how bad it got this year:

Now, honestly, I’d like to see the portion of I-5 in the city replaced with part of a regional and interstate rail network, but in the meantime, we do need to keep it from falling apart.

Unfortunately, the relationship Seattle Senators have with the rest of the state is similar to that of abuse victims. They beg for scraps when they have the voter support to pull the Senate Democrats into the 21st century, much as the minority Tea Party has taken control of the US House Republicans. Senate Democratic leadership hasn’t been shifting the debate, just building consensus, resulting in a move farther and farther toward highway expansion.

This lack of leadership hasn’t just allowed a shift to the right in policy – it also cost the Democrats their Senate majority, preventing any fix for Metro this year. Without a majority, the only package we’re going to see from the state is one we have to oppose.

We should not be asking the legislature for a special session, and shouldn’t be tying transit funding authority to a statewide package. Seattle and King County have to step up and take care of this ourselves.

The Solution

Most voters are never going to know the whole story of the County first spending more than $100 million from their capital budget to prevent cuts for a while, then getting a 2 year congestion reduction charge from the legislature, a fee that soon expires. What most people see is that Metro is in constant crisis, and constant crisis desensitizes voters and erodes support.

With a property tax measure likely requiring 60% to pass countywide, there’s a high risk in leaving this to the county alone. If they thought they could have passed a stable funding measure with the tools they have now, they would have done so two years ago – it’s possible, even likely, that they can’t.

Fortunately, we have a very transit supportive electorate in Seattle, even in special elections.

People are starting to figure this out, too. The West Seattle Transportation Coalition formed around asking for a Seattle ballot measure – and as Seattle has around 2/3 of Metro service, saving that would be much better than nothing.

We could also do more than just save service. As WSTC calls for, we could fund in-city routes back to pre-recession levels. We could even fund a Low Income Fare to help undo the damage done by repeated fare increases.

There’s a political benefit, too. If Seattle saves our service, but the eastside can’t, we get serious leverage to oust Senators on that side of the lake. By the 2015 session, we could win back a Senate majority and fix things properly countywide.

The Twist

In the event Metro gets a new revenue source or sales tax closes the gap, the city measure would also have a fallback plan. As Metro revenue increases, city funds would be reprogrammed into the Transit Master Plan. Suddenly, we’d have funding for faster and more reliable bus service, the downtown connector and Broadway extension, and even BRT on Madison – and potentially more of our streetcar network.

A vote would need to be soon – likely April of next year, as it takes time to plan service changes and even to get the revenue from a measure after it passes. If the state doesn’t perform a miracle this fall, and the county doesn’t have a clear path to success, we won’t have time to lay the groundwork later – we need to build a proposal now.

Transit supporters – will you join us?

About Ben Schiendelman

Ben Schiendelman joined in 2007 to better consolidate news and information about our upcoming transit expansions, and to build a better base to further grow our system. He previously wrote the blog Higher Frequency, and worked on the 2008 Mass Transit Now campaign. Ben refuses to own a driver's license.




Comments

  1. Michael Martin says:

    Ben is ABSOLUTELY spot on with this assessment! We can’t wait for some watered down proposal from this horse and pony show touring around the state.

    • Fred Flintstoned says:

      Shame Murray’s gonna win the election, I doubt he’d be willing to stick it to his base, SFH dwellers such as myself.

    • Transit_Alliance says:

      Several labor organizations already are preparing draft legislation. The funding source would be a moderate payroll tax (firms with more than 20 employees only would pay). It’s a progressive solution for a progressive city.

  2. Agreed. Seattle should never expect even solid Dem majorities in both houses of the legislature to deliver the kind of transportation policy the city needs. The rest of the state needs to understand that when they’re dealing with the city of Seattle, they’re dealing with our voters, not with our legislators. That would be powerful.

    • Fred Flintstoned says:

      “That would be powerful.”

      How would that be powerful to a legislator in Eastern Washington exactly?

  3. Madeline Crawford says:

    Yes! I agree this is totally necessary. How soon do we need the proposal? How can we help?

    • William C. says:

      Yes, a fantastic idea, and I say that as someone who lives on the Eastside. What can I do to help?

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        I will follow up in a separate post with next steps – we need to build a little organizational support first. And I’m sick, damn it. :(

  4. I think this is a fantastic idea. We know what we want, and we have the means to make it happen. Let’s go!

  5. I like the idea. The only thing that makes we a little bit weary about Seattle creating its own tax to fund Metro routes within Seattle is the possibility that Metro might use this as an excuse to shift money within its own budget from Seattle to the suburbs, by giving Seattle the brunt of the 2014 service cuts.

    If this were to happen, the net effect would be Seattle residents paying taxes to prevent service cuts in the suburbs, while getting minimal benefit themselves. What assurances do we have that this scenario would not happen?

    • This is an example of the dangers of district-based representation. Thankfully, the Executive has veto power.

    • Ben Schiendelman says:

      Yep, I’ve thought about this too. When Mayor Nickels was trying to figure out how to get rid of 40-40-20 (http://seattletransitblog.com/2007/06/06/metros-404020-rule/), we were worried about similar issues, so it’s not a new threat, although it doesn’t seem to impact existing city funding for Metro routes.

      I think a measure could state it would only provide revenue as long as the proportion of Metro funding between their three subareas stayed within a window similar to how it is now.

      • I continue to think that we should be pushing for Metro subarea equity, in the same style as Sound Transit. The three subareas are already defined.

        It’s true that there would be a short-term hit — right now the West subarea is subsidized by the South and the East ones. But once that is addressed, then we would have an ironclad rule that guaranteed that any future West subarea revenue would be spent here. And it would also put an end, once and for all, to complaints from suburban King County that their money is being spent on buses that aren’t serving them.

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        Tying local funding to a requirement of equity would act as a guarantee, at least for quite a while.

      • Sure. I’m just thinking, politically, how do we decide how the equity is distributed?

        Sound Transit’s model has the advantage of being an easy sell. People like the idea of paying for what they get. I think that Seattleites would happily vote for enough revenue to pay for their full share of pre-recession subarea service, taking into account both the lack of suburban subsidy and the revenue losses that we’ve had for the past few years.

        If we say that Metro needs to preserve the current subarea proportions, then in effect, we’re saying that Metro should permanently privilege Seattle. That may be the right thing to do from the economic and environmental and urban-planning perspectives, but it will hardly be popular in the suburbs. And while my first priority is Seattle service, I want the suburbs to have good transit too (to the extent that it makes sense).

        Ultimately, I think that the ST subarea equity model sets a strong precedent for targeted transit funding. If the Eastside decides that they don’t need as much service as they’re paying for, then they can lower their taxes and their revenue. If Seattle decides that they want more service, then they can raise their taxes and their revenue. With the ST model, there’s never any doubt about where new revenue should be spent, or what should be cut in the face of reduced revenue.

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        We can’t create something like Sound Transit’s model with a city measure. We can just require that proportion stay relative to something else in order to receive funding. I agree we should have some kind of long term equity model for Metro, but past making sure we don’t just lose money the burbs in this measure, trying to have that conversation as part of a measure to save bus service will just muddy the discussion of saving bus service.

      • Fair enough. :)

      • William Aitken says:

        The last thing we want is something like the ST funding model. Because it requires both subarea equity and a uniform tax rate, it forces ST to spend oodles of money in outlying areas, just so that it will have enough to do something worthwhile in North King. The funding structure is part of the reason that we end up with half assed lines to nowhere rather than useful transit where there’s density.

        Another problem with subarea equity is that it encourages bickering whenever routes (as will inevitably happen) cross regional boundaries. You see this with ST with the way that ST Express has been funded, and with Seattle’s contribution to East Link, and a little effort with a search engine — even Bing will do — suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

        Add to that a board that is comprised by politicians whose day job isn’t Sound Transit — I have many of the concerns that others here have with the idea of an elected board: the Port of Seattle isn’t a model to emulate — but I think that the current board is structurally biased to over defer to city governments.

        I agree that something needs to be done to reassure Seattle voters that a tax to support transit won’t turn in to a massive unjustifiable subsidy for the rest of the county, I’m just very suspicious of regional factionalism, both on philosophical grounds, and because, when all is said and done, it hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past.

      • Subarea equity and an equal tax rate are different things. ST currently has both, but there’s no reason it has to be that way. I haven’t heard anyone say why the equal tax rule exists or what good it’s doing

        Cross-boundary lines haven’t been that big an issue. The transit agencies and governments have been pretty much in agreement that for the most part, cross-boundary routes benefit the suburbs more than the city, because without Seattle the suburbs wouldn’t exist, and everybody has to go to the city at least occasionally. If the suburbs did exist on their own, it would be a much smaller and less significant region like Spokane, with much fewer jobs. The exceptions are where there’s really heavy two-way demand like the 550 and 150 and the airport, or the reverse commute on the 255. But I think the suburbs are still paying for all of these, because it’s not an overwhelming majority reverse commute, and again, those suburbs and their jobs and that transit route wouldn’t exist if Seattle weren’t there.

  6. I like Ben’s proposal a lot!

    That said, I don’t want to promise Seattle voters that all routes have been saved, when we should be getting ready to restructure the routes around the opening of U-Link. Keeping the routes as they are in northeast Seattle and Capitol Hill would be a disservice to northeast Seattleites and Capitol Hillers.

    Promising to save service will get taken literally by the minority of riders on these routes who have reason to oppose such a restructure.

    I would be disappointed if a property tax proposal just added platform hours. We also need to fund the Pedestrian Master Plan and Bicycle Master Plan to be completed in less than a century, and fund capital improvements for the transit system, like making downtown an all-off-board payment zone and making the bus stops next to train stations first class, safe, and comfortable places to wait for a bus (which means, at a minimum, RTA signage and weather-proof schedule posting).

    If we want to get a measure on the ballot and get it passed, we’ll have to do something many here have been averse to doing: Build a coalition. That starts with the West Seattle group that has rightfully kept their distance from STB so far, as this blog has not historically shown itself to play well with others.

    • Will Douglas says:

      There’s no public support for the kinds of massive restructures that often get proposed here. I agree about additional funding for the Pedestrian and Bike Master Plans (and the Transit Master Plan too!) and that requires the legislature being willing to give us additional taxing options.

      In fact, maybe that’s how we play the politics here. We move ahead with our own funding plans to restore pre-recession service. Then we hold a statewide transportation funding package hostage for those additional transit taxing options. If we don’t get them, we torpedo a statewide package when it inevitably goes to the ballot.

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        I agree, we get to set the tone of the debate by saving what we have, then we forge ahead and demand more, having shown we can’t be held hostage. It’s a powerful position.

        I do fear funding the ped and bike master plans along with Metro. I could be convinced, but it’s going to be hard enough to win 60% just for Metro. Looking back at 2011 prop 1, the more complex a measure gets, the harder it is to pass. But I *would* like to fund them.

      • The critics of 2011 Seattle Prop 1 criticized the lack of platform hours to fund bus service. Your proposal solves that problem.

        The critics of 2011 Seattle Prop 1 criticized the regressiveness of car tabs. Your proposal solves that problem. Moreover, I have yet to see a campaign in Seattle oppose a property tax levy on the grounds that it is the “wrong” funding source.

        The critics of 2011 Seattle Prop 1 also said there was not enough funding for pedestrian projects. So, let’s fund pedestrian stuff, which needs to happen anyway in preparation for the opening of Northgate Link and Lynnwood Link.

        The critics of 2011 Seattle Prop 1 also said there was too much for streetcars (or more precisely, that it funded streetcars at all). It’s the part about funding streetcars that I think would be the most controversial point.

      • Will,

        There was lots of support for the 132 restructure, and it has turned out to be both popular and ballooned ridership. Thank you for not coming down to South Park and organizing against the 132 restructure.

        I don’t get why you oppose increasing bus access to University of Washington Station and Capitol Hill Station.

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        Brent, if you want to save Metro, I highly recommend using public praise, and private criticism. :) There’s polling on a lot of this stuff – we don’t need to speculate.

      • Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound critical of you, the proposal, Metro, or the STB Board. I’m all for the proposal, in whatever form it takes, and grateful for the legwork you’ve done.

        I also recognize Will has worked for the cause, too, even if we disagree over semantics.

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        I know! I just wanted to make sure details get discussed out of the public eye. There will be an opposition.

      • William C. says:

        Okay, I get your point about not supplying ammunition to the opposition, Ben. But to keep this open to legitimate criticism, where do you plan to be discussing the details?

  7. Stupid question: Why have we always funded transit with sales tax (plus fares, federal grants, county transfers from other taxing bodies, and city grants)? If we have always had the authority to fund from property tax, why haven’t we?

    • Ben Schiendelman says:

      Definitely not a stupid question! When we’ve asked for authority in addition to the basic authorities a city already has, saying “we need funding for transit,” the legislature has given us sales tax. If we then went and used property tax, the legislature would have just said “hey, you didn’t need this after all.” That wouldn’t help our case when we needed something else.

  8. Will Douglas says:

    Ben nails it here. Seattle has all the power here yet our legislators act like they are powerless. They ought to simply be funding our transit operations for its own sake. But if they don’t, then yes, we should move ahead with our own funding plans. This is not only good policy but it sends a message to our legislators that they exist to do our bidding. Too often they seem to believe it’s the reverse.

    • John Bailo says:

      If Seattle were honest and unified, any prominent politician could easily mount a campaign to undo the mandate in the State Constitution limiting property tax increases.

      If Seattle really wants to pay for all this infrastructure, things that it thinks would enhance the value of it as a city, I could be allowed to raise its property tax as high as it wants. At the same time, someone in Okanogan county would not be paying for light rail in Seattle that benefits an apartment builder.

      To sweeten such a deal, and to make this state less regressive for poor people, I would slash the sales tax (and even the B&O taxes) by a third. Also you would allow for any kind of density desired (as all would benefit from the increased tax revenue collected in the high density areas).

      Really, if someone on the Seattle Transit Blog network wanted to pay the bizarro version of Tim Eyeman and get this rolling and find a representative who was willing to put his reputation where his opinion is (like a Reuven Carlyle) could get the process going for drafting an amendment, or initiative…whatever legal machinery it takes…to remove the cap. As a Republican I think this is very fair and localized way of funding things. Even Rob McKenna ran on a form of property tax funding (swap for education) during his campaign.

      • Lack Thereof says:

        If Seattle really wants to pay for all this infrastructure, things that it thinks would enhance the value of it as a city, I could be allowed to raise its property tax as high as it wants. At the same time, someone in Okanogan county would not be paying for light rail in Seattle that benefits an apartment builder.

        I’m sure you’ve seen this map or one like it. No state taxpayer outside of King County pays for anything that happens in King County. All state expenditures in King County are 100% paid for by taxpayers in King County.

        And for every King County tax dollar spent by the State of Washington on a project within the County, another 61 cents of King County money is spent elsewhere in the state.

        any prominent politician could easily mount a campaign to undo the mandate in the State Constitution limiting property tax increases.

        The major liberal objection to the plan is that, in exchange for paying for our dream transit on our own, we get no relief from our responsibility to pay for the rest of the state’s infrastructure. Okanogan county won’t have to pay for our transit, but we’ll still have to pay for all their stuff.

        But us liberals, being generally in favor of helping the needy, are pretty soft on this point. We’re generally willing to send tax dollars out to far flung counties if it can do some good out there. When we start getting treated like a piggy bank for pointless freeway expansion (to enrich suburban/exurban landowners), we start to push back.

        Palatable or not, though, it’s not politically possible to lift that cap. The state voters just defeated an income tax that wouldn’t have applied to anyone making less than $200k. If they won’t vote for that, they won’t vote for anything authorizing taxing powers as broad as what you suggest. Even if it is offset with massive tax reductions in other areas.

      • John Bailo says:

        Palatable or not, though, it’s not politically possible to lift that cap.

        I really don’t buy that at all…here you tell me Everyone is chomping at the bit for all these government services, yet at the same time you tell me you can’t get the majority of people to vote down this tax limit which would fairly fund all the services you desire.

        I really cannot resolve this in my mind. Are you telling me you must therefore pull the wool over people’s eyes and tax them unfairly to give them things that they have no understanding of?

        And even if it fails or falls short, why is no one even speaking about it (except me)?! Why has no one tried to mount a campaign to lift this restriction when each and every year that the 2/3rds majority for revenue increases was voted in, the complete armada of Democrat leaders railed against it and defeated it?

      • John,

        Seattle voters are chomping at the bit to raise taxes and fund services.

        State voters are not.

        The relevant limits here are state limits. Repealing them would require statewide action. But the state isn’t particularly interested in repealing these, because if Seattle could tax itself, then Seattle would stop voting for stupid measures like “roads and transit”, where we send huge piles of money to rural counties, in exchange for the option to tax ourselves a little bit.

        Does it seem weird to you that we have statewide restrictions on the taxes that cities can levy on property within their own borders? It seems weird to me, too. But that’s the world we live in. At least until Olympia’s revenue problem becomes so severe that they can no longer afford to sue Seattle when we pass our own taxes anyway. ;)

      • John Bailo says:

        @Aleks

        Does it seem weird to you that we have statewide restrictions on the taxes that cities can levy on property within their own borders?

        It seems insane!

        Especially since many, many other states have no such restrictions, even some with the largest cities in America, like New York State — where the property taxes on New York City are (appropriately) sky high, especially in Manhattan. These, in effect, provide the millionaire’s tax that this state has long sought.

        Seattle could tax itself

        If the restrictions are lifted, then Washington State could also add property taxes that provide for infrastructure that all in the state benefit from. For someone like me, who is not a Seattle-exceptionalist and who would like to see the whole state develop and grow and provide reasonably priced housing and jobs not just in Puget Sound but all over Washington State, and to create projects like Medium Speed Rail and advanced smart grid technology to link us together from Silverdale to Spokane and Kennewick to Blaine, this would provide the needed revenue.

        Although it seems reverse thinking, the current Democrat republican coalition in power might be able to create the political bloc necessary to fix the Washington State Constitution.

        Amending the Constitution

        Amendments may be proposed in either branch of the legislature. The Legislature must approve the original proposal or an alternative to the proposed initiative with a 2/3 vote. The approved proposal is then placed on the ballot at the next state general election, and becomes law if approved by a majority of the electors. The state constitution may not be amended by voter initiative.

        http://lib.law.washington.edu/ref/waconst.html#amend

      • Lack Thereof says:

        You’re not going to get that 2/3 vote in the legislature, Bailo.

        It’s been said already, but I’ll simplify it. Our state’s legislators know that if they want the people to approve funding for any statewide package of projects, it has to have overwhelming support in King County, because it is going to go down in flames in the rest of the state, which is idealistically anti-tax. They rely on a captive, dependent Puget Sound electorate to provide a local supermajority, which can overcome the anti-tax sentiment of the rest of the state.

        If King County and the rest of the state’s urban areas were suddenly able to pay for desired local projects on their own, their dependency on large statewide packages disappears, and local voter support for them softens. They’ll still support them (we’re Democrats, and Democrats generally like infrastructure), but not on the same level, and not in the numbers required to overcome resistance from the rest of the state.

        So any state legislator outside Seattle who voted for your amendment would be kneecapping their own ability to raise statewide revenue from the voters.

  9. Ben;

    a) I’m a big supporter of most of the Republican 10 point package such as redirecting state transportation sales tax towards bridge repair, but like you have reservations about tinkering w/ the mass transit governance structure. It seems to work so why should that change?

    b) I would like to see some grudging understanding that transit advocates in other parts of our state just might end up in the lurch. What some on the Far Right and the Far Left want is region versus region. What the roads lobby in both parties wants is to paint all transit advocates as Seattle-centric instead of in other counties too.

    c) If you guys in Seattle have your butts kissing wall, I understand if you do what you have to do. As you know, inter-county connectivity will still lurch from crisis to crisis too.

    Good luck.

    Thanks.

    • Ben Schiendelman says:

      Most of the 10 point thing sounds good but creates far worse problems. I’d love to write another piece about the real reform WSDOT needs – they need to accept actual traffic patterns and stop planning for car growth that doesn’t happen.

      I don’t think transit advocates in other parts of the state were getting *any* traction anyway. Taking away the Seattle hostage situation gives pro-transit groups the ability to seriously leverage the state, and that will help everyone.

      And – thanks. :)

      • Ben;

        Go ahead, give it a good sortie. I’d love to see the farcical Seattle hostage situation end, being I recently used 100% mass transit buses to go from Burlington to Everett to West Seattle to see a dear Republican friend to the Washington Policy Center in SoDo to see a former teacher in Bothell and then take buses all the way home during (Skagit River) Bridgeddon. So yeah, we need to band together and fight the road lobby bullies.

        Joe

      • I would like to see WSDOT introduce a notion of sub-area equity, like Sound Transit. If we oppose shipping our transit tax dollars to Federal Way, would should also oppose shipping our highway tax dollars there as well.

        (I guess you would have to have some exception for interstate highways through places like Snoqualmie Pass where people from all areas drive through, but almost nobody lives).

      • I would like to see WSDOT introduce a notion of sub-area equity, like Sound Transit. If we oppose shipping our transit tax dollars to Federal Way, would should also oppose shipping our highway tax dollars there as well.

        Sadly, that’s never going to happen. The only kind of subarea equity that we’ll ever pass is the kind that has a short-term effect which is bad for Seattle and good for the rest of the state. The nature of cities and urban growth means that any such system will eventually become good for Seattle and bad for the rest of the state. But we can only win if we play the long game. :)

        Of course, you can argue that Washington State’s structural revenue problem means that it doesn’t really matter. Unless something changes, as time goes on, Olympia will have less and less money to spend on anything. Taxes will be cut, but not raised (thanks to Mr. Eyman). Meanwhile, Seattle will keep raising local taxes (such as through Ben’s fantastic proposal that is currently under discussion), and using the money to improve services and quality of life in our area. So we may get a form of “subarea equity”, simply because we’re the only jurisdiction that believes in good government.

      • Any guesses on what stance Murray or McGinn would take on a property tax to fund transit?

      • Jim Cusick says:

        “I guess you would have to have some exception for interstate highways through places like Snoqualmie Pass where people from all areas drive through, but almost nobody lives.”

        Why?

      • @Jim: For the same reason a lot of buses (and Sounder trains) running through downtown Seattle during rush hour aren’t considered Seattle buses for funding purposes: because they primarily serve people from elsewhere. I-90 running by a farmer’s land in central Washington doesn’t just serve the farmer, it serves lots of people in greater Seattle and Tacoma and Spokane.

      • Among the most expensive pieces of highway we have are at mountain passes. Almost nobody lives right there, but lots of people living 50 miles away, one direction or the other, drive through it. Including a lot of trucks that gets stuff to the stores you shop at, even if you don’t drive through there, personally. Compare to, say, highway 395 in Spokane. That highway is virtually useless to anyone living in Seattle. Hence, people in Seattle should not be required to pay for it.

        That being said, my idea of highway sub-area equity is really just a dream. Given how much people in rural areas depend on Seattle to subsidize their roads, I doubt it would ever happen.

      • Jim Cusick says:

        “For the same reason a lot of buses (and Sounder trains) running through downtown Seattle during rush hour aren’t considered Seattle buses for funding purposes: because they primarily serve people from elsewhere. I-90 running by a farmer’s land in central Washington doesn’t just serve the farmer, it serves lots of people in greater Seattle and Tacoma and Spokane.”

        Then is the argument that the interstates (and in this case, the mountain passes) are of general social and econonmic benefit the justification for not putting in a toll, but instead using general [gas] tax monies to fund upkeep and improvements?

      • @Jim: Depends who you ask, and how rhetorically you ask. I mean, I’m sure you can formulate a coherent opinion on this stuff. I think that basic roads are a social good. Local streets, highways between towns, bridges over bodies of water, mountain passes, that sort of thing. I also think that much of the Interstate system amounts to urban destruction. But sometimes (especially where mountain passes and bridges are concerned) the same bit of road can provide the clear social good of basic access and also be the sort of urban freeway that makes sense to toll. I-90 across Mercer Island is a great example of this — it’s necessary for basic access for Mercer Island to have road connections to both sides of Lake Washington, but the need for huge twin-span freeway bridges comes from peak commuter demand across the island.

        In this analysis, it makes more sense to toll the parts of freeways that aren’t bridges and mountain passes. But, of course, it’s almost always bridges that are tolled, for a variety of other reasons, some fairly compelling.

      • Ben Schiendelman says:

        Asdf: we don’t have to guess. Murray said he wouldn’t support a local measure. Although he usually changes his mind if you quote him. The mayor said he was open to one.

      • Jim Cusick says:

        In and interview on KIRO radio a few years ago, when defending tolling on SR-520, and I-405, the former Secretary of Transportation, Paula Hammond made the statement that these particluar facilities were ‘value added’ facilities, and it was only fair to have the users pay a proportional amount of the cost of capital improvements.

        Urban freeways are very expensive, rural freeways are relatively cheap.
        Urban freeways have high ‘ridership’, rural freeways have low ‘ridership’.

        Mountain passes have high operating costs, relative to ‘ridership’.
        Bridges and tunnels have very high capital costs.

        The reason I questioned asdf’s comment was that there is no reason to ‘make an exception for the Interstate Highways…’.

        Apply the same metrics to the highway system as is done with transit.

        or, stop making the ‘social good/engineering’ argument at all, regardless of mode.

      • Jim Cusick says:

        @Avgeek Joe from Skagit CountY

        One point to make about this: “So yeah, we need to band together and fight the road lobby bullies. is that surprisingly, the road lobby is actually everyone, in a subtle way.

        One question about your Burlington – SoDo trip… how long was it?
        Having done a Bothell-Olympia mega-commute, which included a shot at taking the bus all the way… I decided on joining a vanpool.

      • Jim, my Burlington to West Seattle to SoDo to Bothell to S-W trip was 12 hours.

        From Burlington to SoDo was 4 hours or so.

  10. Mark Dublin says:

    Ben,

    Keep me briefed. I like this course of action a lot. Wish I could be at Monday’s meeting, but my Lockhaven neighbors and me need to talk with the City Monday night.

    Would like run by our Senators the fact that the southern Swedish province of Skone, where all the policemen everybody laughs at in the Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander novels come from, runs service at a hundred miles an hour around a province about the size of King, Pierce, and Snohomish, often on single track.

    Trains Easter egg purple, Look up “Pogatog.”

    For respiratory ailment: Cut up fresh ginger, boil to pepper spray. Add fresh lemon, lime, and honey, drink, go to bed under every blanket and quilt in the house. Saved me last week in Gothenburg.

    Mark

  11. Our state transportation process is out of date. Basically, things work (or don’t work) the way they always have. We have projects that are discussed in committees and then compromises are made so that everyone gets a little something. The average voter has no idea what is going on until the construction signs go up. This is an OK system if the legislature acts the way it used to act, with plenty of reasonable compromise on both sides. But times have changed. There are Republicans who believe that government taxes are too high, so just about any road project is a bad idea. Meanwhile, there are Democrats who could care less about new road projects, but only want to fund transit projects. This means they are likely to sign up for whatever proposal is in front of them, as long at they get transit funding (or the right to tax ourselves to get transit funding). There is little discussion on the merits of the particular project. The political system is broken.

    Furthermore, there is no good reason for the public to be so ignorant of the various proposals. A few years ago, letting the average citizen know about the various transportation proposals would have been ridiculous. You would have to send out notebooks full of proposals every so often. It would be a mess. Right now, it is a bit better, but still not as good as it should be. It takes a lot of effort to dig out the various plans. Furthermore, it is even harder to figure out what the state is actually in the process of building. I know that list includes 99 (through Seattle) and 520. Both of these have been debated and discussed quite a bit. But how much discussion was there about the changes to 522. According to the WSDOT website, there are three projects there: widen the road to four lanes (split into two pieces) and add an interchange over the one traffic light along the route. It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to figure out which one to do first: the interchange. Eliminate the interchange, and there are no stop lights between Monroe and Bothell. This eliminates bottlenecks and reduces the need to expand to four lanes. So, what do they start with? Half of the four lane expansion. I don’t see how that will help things (unless, of course, one of the lanes will be carpool). Meanwhile, the more cost effective changes are delayed, and waiting for funding. That just seems crazy to me.

    This is just one example. I’m sure there are many more. The problem is, the public is quite ignorant of these proposals, and the state seems to believe that we will eventually build everything, without any consideration of the possibility that we won’t. We’ve built “ramps to nowhere” before, so it seems like it could happen again.

    My point is not to complain, but to suggest a change in process. If these projects are made more public, we (the citizens) can do a better job of prioritizing than the legislators. They have failed (for the reasons mentioned). On the other hand, there are plenty of folks (myself included) that would love to see a list of proposals, and maybe “vote” on each one. I’m not proposing direct democracy, just a way to make a recommendation. That is the way democracy is supposed to work. If we can come up with reasonable proposals, we can lobby our representatives to support them. As it is, we can’t do that, because we don’t have such a proposal to recommend. I know there are a lot of representatives who would love to trumpet some sort of “moderate roads package” that included a bunch of relatively cheap, cost effective improvements. Unfortunately, no one has come up with such a proposal. More importantly, there there is no easy way to come up with such a proposal because the information surrounding it is so difficult to gather.

    • Under the principle of “safety first”, the number one priority for that stretch of highway 522 should have been adding a concrete barrier to the median of the existing lanes.

    • Ben Schiendelman says:

      To a large extent, a process by which the public voted on what would be considered most important would turn into a contest between which special interest could advertise the most. Regardless, we have nearly zero impact on the legislature *until* we stop the hostage situation.

  12. Isn’t there a state-imposed ceiling on property taxes the same way there is with sales tax? I think school levies are limited to a small percentage of the state funding, to prevent rich school districts from getting too far ahead of poor districts. Can we really raise enough property tax to replace the CRC and expand Metro without hitting the property tax ceiling? If so, why didn’t we do it twenty years ago, and … there’s DP’s city subway right there.

    • I’m no lawyer, but my reading of the 55th Amendment suggests that all constitutional limits on property tax levies can be overridden by a 60% majority of voters. There are also statutory limits (see RCW 84.52.043. Any city may have a maximum tax rate of $3.375 per $1000 of assessed value. Seattle’s regular tax rate is about $1.90/$1000, and its total tax rate is about $3.29/$1000, which means that we have some amount of room to grow. It’s not clear to me whether it’s the regular rate or the total rate that’s subject to the cap.

    • Reading some more. The relevant limit appears to be RCW 84.52.052. Basically, it appears that there’s no limit on how high the rate can go, so long as 60% of the voters approve it.

      In addition, Seattle’s regular rate is at $1.90/$1000, well below the limit. And we probably have quite a bit of “banked” capacity from the 55th Amendment. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that we could raise rates by quite a bit just from city council approval. Of course, we could raise them even higher with voter approval.

      Finally, if needed, we could create a city-wide transportation benefit district, which has no statutory limit on tax rates at all.

      Basically, it seems like we have an essentially infinite amount of taxing authority. I’m frankly not sure why we haven’t exercised this before. My only guesses are [a] the difficulty of achieving a 60% vote, and [b] the fact that seniors (who are the most adversely affected by property taxes) tend to be politically more vocal than poor people (who are the most adversely affected by sales taxes).

      • Matt L (aka Angry Transit Nerd) says:

        In addition, Seattle’s regular rate is at $1.90/$1000, well below the limit. And we probably have quite a bit of “banked” capacity from the 55th Amendment. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that we could raise rates by quite a bit just from city council approval. Of course, we could raise them even higher with voter approval.

        Back up there. Remember that Amendment 55 also specifies a 1% of assessed value limit on all regular (non-voter-approved) levies. If they all add up to more than that, the rates are reduced in accordance with RCW 84.52.010. This was actually a serious concern a few years ago when the housing crisis caused property values to plunge. There’s may be some room to grow now, but not much.

        Finally, if needed, we could create a city-wide transportation benefit district, which has no statutory limit on tax rates at all.

        We already have one. It levies a $20 VLF. The Prop 1 that went down in flames a couple years ago was the STBD, not the City.

      • Matt L (aka Angry Transit Nerd) says:

        Also RCW 84.55 limits the growth of regular property tax levies to 1% per year plus new construction. Increasing beyond this limit requires a public vote, though with a simple majority threshold.

      • Matt L (aka Angry Transit Nerd) says:

        It turns out that none of the measures passed by Seattle voters over the last few years was an excess levy. Rather, they were temporary lid lifts under RCW 84.55.050 to raise our regular levy rate.

        Source [PDF].

        Also my reading of RCW 84.52.052 may restrain when excess levies may be used: “in which a larger levy is necessary in order to prevent the impairment of the obligation of contracts”

        That PDF would seem to confirm this: all of the excess levies listed were “Maintenance and Operations” levies that backfilled funding when the regular levies were insufficient to maintain services at their existing level.

      • Amendment 55 allows unused property tax authority to be “banked”. Chances are good that we have quite a bit of unbanked authority.

        I think you’re right about excess levies.

      • Prop 1 failed because the city did a horrible job explaining where the money was going. They essentially said “here’s a long list of projects – we’ll fund some of them, but we won’t tell you which ones until the measure passes”. Not surprisingly, everyone assumed that the stuff that would get funded would be in someone else’s neighborhood, and, consequently, voted “no”.

        We can do better than this by proposing something clear and focused instead.

      • Matt – I read your post on City property taxes on Angry Transit Nerd. From the numbers and laws referenced there, it seemed like King County might have more capacity to increase property taxes than the City.

        What are King County’s options for raising property taxes to fund transit, either via the Council or a public vote?

      • Matt L (aka Angry Transit Nerd) says:

        Chad – King County is currently levying 1.34166 out of a cap of 1.80, leaving .45834 available. They could do a lid lift with a public vote with a simple majority, same as the city.

        Note that King County already levies .075 under RCW 84.52.140.

  13. Paul in Bellevue says:

    I would be very skeptical about any tax or governance changes made in the context of the weird unstable three-party power structure at work in the State Senate right now. Their ongoing road show deserves to be ignored. However, I do agree that there should be some aspects of the level of service that the City of Seattle should take upon itself, with City funding. I also think Bellevue, after next month’s election, will start to be friendlier toward shouldering some part of the load as a means of improving the level of service here.

    And I use that term “level of service” because many of the commenters are right that it is very difficult to ensure equity when multiple levels of government are contributing to infrastructure and operating funding of a common network. At the Federal level MAP-21 is starting to lay down a baseline for measuring the level of service provided to the public by transportation service. Once this has matured (and WSDOT is very immature in this area), it will be possible to quantify the cost vs. quality tradeoffs. We need this in order to maintain a stable definition of equity.

    Ultimately I-5 reconstruction will need to happen. It has been written elsewhere that the stars are starting to line up for some sort of toll funding of such improvements. Sooner or later this is coming. It’s one of the few things libertarians and progressives agree on.

  14. I wish we could get some historical perspective on transit. When I was a kid, a long time ago, in a universe far away, riding the bus cost forty cents for my round trip, which I rarely needed, as I would ride in with Mom to work. She Cabrini, me Odea. What were we doing right that has changed so drastically over the years, that it necessitates WW III to finance something for the public good?

    • Nothing right at all, unless by doing right you mean the great burning of all that cheap and easily accessible Carbon. I believe oil has since demanded, and gotten, a little payraise for itself. (theoildrum archives may be educational.) Oh, and perhaps a little less inequality regarding income–but we have skyboxes in stadiums now. Isn’t that just grand?

    • I’m not really sure what Jeff is asking, or how getting a ride is relevant to the history of transit projects, but even in the early 80s Metro was 40 cents (60 cents peak). But inflation happens. Oil prices go up faster than inflation. Environmental regulations are more stringent, which raises the price, but that’s what you have to do to keep the air breatheable and water drinkable. Also, there has been a major shift in the economy which makes the price of things more burdensome. Wages used to rise with productivity, but since the late 1970s all the money has been going to the top and wages have not kept up with inflation while the price of essential staples has often exceeded it. Plus the breakdown in consensus that publicly-funded infrastructure is a good thing. All this leads to rising costs and stagnant wages that both objectively make it more expensive to build something and subjectively more burdensome to do so.

      • Oops, I’m forgetting, peak fares didn’t exist yet. It was 40 cents one zone, 60 cents two zones. Peak fares came a few years later, around the time that bus fares reached $1.

    • Ben Schiendelman says:

      Our funding level was keeping up with the proportion of people who wanted to use it. As a higher proportion of people want to use the bus, our funding level had to increase to meet that demand. It didn’t, because it’s hard to organize to keep a status quo level of service.

  15. http://www.leg.wa.gov/JTC/Documents/TRM/2011UPDATE/6LocalTaxes.pdf
    the 60 percent super majority cited by Ben relates to bond measures.

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