Capitol Lake
State Capitol Building, Olympia

So State House Speaker Frank Chopp may want to take a billion or two from Sound Transit. What’s new? The legislature has been going after Sound Transit money for years now, and this is just the latest attempt in a long line of attempts. I’ve been writing about the state’s transportation funding troubles for two years now, and much of this story will be familiar to long-time readers. Whole history (as I see it) below the fold.

For a long time now, the state has been short on cash for transportation with four big mega projects on the plate (the Ferry System overhaul, the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, the 520 bridge replacement and I-405 widening), and a ton of small projects. Part of shortfall can be blamed on the Tim Eyman-led MVET removal, part of it can be blamed 0n lower gas tax revenues due to people driving less and driving more efficient vehicles, and part of it has been caused run-up in construction costs we’ve seen over the last decade. It’s not like the state gas tax hasn’t been increased. The tax has gone up twice in the past decade: the first was the 2003 “Nickel Tax“, and the second was the 2005 9.5¢ tax. Even with these two gas tax increases, there still isn’t enough money, and there is ever-growing sentiment around the state that motorists were being forced to swallow tax increases to fund Seattle-area road mega-projects. Olympia has made tolling a big part of the plans to pay for the Viaduct replacement ($400 million in tolling revenues) and the 520 bridge ($800 million), but still, Olympia wants a way to get the money they need for Central Puget Sound Area projects without having to raise taxes statewide. What would you know, there is a Central Puget Sound transportation agency with billions of dollars in taxing authority already approved: Sound Transit!

The legislature’s first attempts to get Sound Transit cash were a part of a so-called “governance reform” package. Ben Schiendelman’s Seattle Times op-ed in March 2007 on this topic was one thing that motivated me to start this blog (I moved back to Seattle on March 25th, 2007, an started the blog about a month later). Ostensibly an attempt to get Sound Transit an elected board and roll it into a larger roads-and-transit agency, “governance reform” was at least partially motivated* as an attempt to get left over Sound Move funds and apply them toward road projects, something only Dino Rossi and Ted Van Dyk actually admitted but everyone knew. The state legislature created Sound Transit back in the early 1990s, and in 1996 voters approved Sound Move, a 0.4% sales tax increase that has funded all Sound Transit projects and services so far. In Sound Move, there was about $700 million in left over East King sub-area money that Sound Transit planned on putting toward East Link in ST2.  Before ST2 passed, there were repeated attempts in Olympia to implement “governance reform”, thereby freeing the $700 million to be put toward other East King projects, particularly the SR-520 bridge replacement (see Ben’s op-ed linked above).

Governance reform proved difficult to achieve, thanks to a dedicated cadre of Sound Transit supporters, and so Olympia tried a much easier tactic. The legislature created a regional roads agency framework and required the Sound Transit expansion to go onto the ballot in 2007 with such an agency in the Central Puget Sound (RTID). The strategy was brilliant for Olympia. If the measure passed, the Central Puget Sound taxpayers would be taxing themselves to pay for the state roads (among others) in their area. If the measure failed, transit opponents would paint the failure as Sound Transit’s, and that would make governance reform all the easier. And as we know the November 2007 measure was a huge defeat, and at the time everyone, especially the Seattle Times, claimed it was a major defeat for Sound Transit. Sound Transit’s future looked dim.

520 bridge
SR 520 Bridge, photo by Chispita

Thankfully governance reform didn’t pass (again) in 2008, but even getting Sound Transit back to the ballot in 2008 was an uphill battle. The majority of news coverage of the 2008 ballot was calling it a “do-over”, ignoring the fact there was a huge roads component to the 2007 ballot, and many in Olympia, especially Governor Christine Gregoire, made it clear they did not want Sound Transit on the ballot in 2008. There was even a fair bit of opposition in the Sound Transit board itself – Ron Sims famously opposed a 2008 Sound Transit vote – but the Sound Transit board led by Mayor Nickels finally approved a vote in July, and the measure went on to a huge victory.

So Olympia is stuck. Governance change isn’t really possibly any more after the voters overwhelmingly approved a Sound Transit expansion, but the State is still billions short on three of the four mega projects (the Viaduct has been mostly sorted out), and short on other transportation cash as well. So the latest tactic is to try to extort Sound Transit for a couple of billion dollars to lease the air rights to the center lanes on I-90 bridge (the center lanes that were designed to carry rail transit and that the voters approved light rail to run on).  Another day, another attempt to take Sound Transit funds away.

While it’s no surprise that some in Olympia want Sound Transit to have to pay for roads projects in one way or another, but it does seem very shocking that Chopp wants to take money away from transit for one of the stupidest transportation ideas I’ve ever read about: a partial-tunnel for the 520 bridge. It could just be a lip-service payoff for Chopp – the western part of the bridge is in the middle of Frank Chopp’s district. But I’m suspicious, especially in light of Chopp’s support for the Alaskan Way Megaduct™, also one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever read about; Chopp has proved himself a fan of terrible transportation ideas. If I were a state legislator about to endure a grueling battle to try to take funds away from Sound Transit, I might think twice before doing so for such a inane pet project as this, even if it is the Speaker’s.

*It was also partially motivated to simply screw over light rail, but this strikes me as a minority view. Most I’ve talked to in Olympia don’t actively dislike light rail, and many love it, they just know the roads are the state’s responsibility and have been looking for ways to fund them.

23 Replies to “I-90 Move Just the Latest”

  1. So how can we get the mainstream media take notice and embarrass him into stopping this backhanded bs to try and kill light rail (or at the least damage it)

    1. I don’t think his goal is to kill light rail, I just think he cares a whole hell of a lot more about the 520 bridge than East Link.

    2. I wonder if the Hawaii Democratic Party is getting pointers from Chopp, their is a State Senator trying to raid a recently passed transit tax to balance the state budget, and I don’t mean the City and County of Honolulu’s budget(the city county is the whole island of Oahu, by the way). The plan is to make it up by extending the tax. So far, have not heard much about Governor Lingle’s position on it(a Republican, by the way).

      Then we also have Governor Schwarzenegger in California raiding transit money to balance his state’s budget. This is not just a local thing.

  2. This goes back many years in many different states. In Austin, Capital Metro was formed in 1985 and ever since the legislature has been trying to get its grubby fingers on a half of the cent sales tax for roads. They are still trying today and are getting cover from the road loving newspaper there too. Seems to be all about political will, if you can’t raise funds for roads through taxes, steal someone elses money. In San Francisco, a number of agencies strapped for cash are calling in work orders that add up to 60% of the budget deficit even though they don’t seem to be really doing work that deserves the pay.

  3. The whole giant 520 replacement is a stupid idea, but if it’s going to be built I think from a transit perspective the tunnel under the Montlake Cut makes a lot of sense for connections to the Husky Stadium Link station. However, the environmental concerns are real and the UW opposes it though because of traffic and land impacts.

    1. If it were a transit tunnel I could be for it but not right now. Plan for it but leave the flyer stop in place until there’s more money in the bank (from tolls). Unfortunately the proposed Montlake tunnel is for cars and more cars in the U district are exactly what’s not needed. Only the HOV lanes should be connected at Montlake and only a west bound exit and an east bound onramp. Put the huge savings into a connection to Westlake/Mercer (fixing the mess in the process) and north bound I-5 (no 520 to south bound I-5). Build a cable stay bridge over Portage Bay that actually restores the shoreline rather than building concrete lid over it.

      1. A 520 connection to Westlake/Mercer? What do you mean by that? And the 520 replacement is not a stupid idea, it is an extremely important link between the two sides of the lake. No, I don’t like cars, but if we didn’t have the 520 bridge, our economy would be a lot worse. In terms of traffic, the 520 tunnel under the Cut is a good idea, as it would make the traffic over the Montlake Bridge be much less. So I really don’t know what to think about it; it would cost a lot, but it would offer a direct connection between the 520 and UW Station, and it would free up traffic going over the Montlake Bridge.

      2. Well part of the problem is the replacement bridge already is in the $4.5~$6 bn range. Put in a tunnel and you’re moving the price ever higher.

      3. Yea even the cheapest most bare-bones option is frightfully expensive. But I suppose that is what you get when the whole corridor from I-5 to Bellevue way needs to be rebuilt.

      4. I cable stay bridge over Portage Bay would also last forever, and after people got over the initial weirdness, be very beautiful.

        Which means that no one in our area would ever go for it.

      5. There’s been some work done on a high level bridge for Portage Bay. Better Bridge dot Org had this rather grandiose scheme. I do like the idea in terms of eliminating the 520 to Montlake Blvd interchange. Of the bridge designs over Union Bay this one is the least intrusive. The tie in to the Link Station could work. I’m not convinced it would fly with the UW and the suspended interchange at the bridge looks pretty iffy. I also don’t see any provision for rail but there’s really no workable provision for future rail with any of the proposed WSDOT options either.

        There was another portfolio of sketches done by a noted bridge designer which I can’t locate right now. It centered around just the portage bay bridge and had a cable stay design that would work and probably be less expensive that the cut and cover approach favored by WSDOT. If it lasts “forever” (100+ years) it ends up costing way less than the replace every 50 years approach.

        520 to Westlake/Mercer is not simple. Maybe a tunnel, maybe around the south shore of the Shipcanal. The point is there is no good reason to connect 520 with I-5 southbound. Coming from the eastside and trying to go downtown (the part with the tall buildings) it’s faster most of the time to exit at Roenoke. I know that’s “cut through” traffic which is to be avoided. Coming from the eastside to say SODO drivers should use I-90. WSDOT is kindly widening I-405 and adding lanes to I-90 so make people used it. We already know there are too many downtown exits on I-5 and removal is on the “to do” list. Eastside drivers going to say the Seattle Center need to get on Mercer. Currently you merge onto I-5 south and then barge across 5 lanes to exit at the Mercer Mess. Avoiding the 1/4 mile on I-5 seems like part of the solution. I also think exiting at Montlake should be HOV only (meaning off peak, like after 7PM SOVs can use it). Some people are going to want/need to drive to UW in a SOV and the options would be Unversity Bridge or I-5 north to NE 45th.

        Yes all this makes it harder to drive the U-district in a SOV; that’s the point. Especially with Link coming to Husky Stadium there should be significantly less reason for SOV trips from the eastside to UW. And since Link will get you to downtown with transporter like speed there’s no reason to clog 520 and the Montlake bridge with a westbound on-ramp or eastbound off-ramp. The proposed 6 lane no alternative 520 replacement is inadequate for today’s demand. By 2030 it will be worse, much worse than the current configuration. The only sensible solution is to eliminate some of the demand and streamline the corridor. Cheaper now and better for the future.

  4. Great post, Andrew. I agree that Speaker Chopp’s views on the Alaskan Way Viaduct are crazy, but he seems to have come down a lot from that position and is now in favour of a tunnel.

    Both the 520 and the I-90 I believe will need to be tolled if enough funds are going to be raised for the 520 replacement.

    Rep. Clibborn told me when I met her last week that much of what goes on is purely politics and that events move so fast that even politics gets left behind sometimes. We have seen this with her current support for funding the engineering study for the I-90 bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle. I am not entirely convinced that she was always against Light Rail on the bridge deck, merely that politics got in her way at some point and made it appear so. Anyway, she seems to be on board now.

    I hope that the same will happen with trying to snatch ST funding for road projects. Much of this dovetails in nicely with an earlier post of mine when I suggested that Olympia has a legislative lens through which it views the state as a whole. Politics is the art of the possible to which I would add that it is occasionally derailed by the appearance of the impossible, a wall difficult to see over. Funding roads comes naturally to Olympia because they are the state’s artery system, whereas our beloved rails and buses and trains go only on defined corridors and then chiefly in the major urban centers. Without roads, no one would be able to get to the stations and transit centers within our cities let alone between major centers such as Spokane in the east and Seattle in the west.

    Yes, of course I would like to see more rail between the two cities, but like it or not (and we don’t) most people traveling between Spokane and Seattle are going to use the I-90. The question then remains, how would we like folks to move around once they are here in Seattle and the Puget Sound? This where the Seattle Transit Blog comes in and provides its input to Olympia. I don’t think we can claim to represent the interests of the whole state – whole swathes of eastern Washington sadly hate Seattle and doubtless tell their representatives so in Olympia.

    So anyway, hopefully this explains something of what Olympia feels and the responsibilities of our legislators. Having said this, our role is to make sure that Sound Transit keeps its money safe. Other than the 540/545/555/556, Sound Transit doesn’t currently have a lot of use for the 520 bridge. I don’t see why its bank account needs to be raided for funding it anymore than Metro’s does or Community Transit either for that matter since both agencies use it as well as Sound Transit.

    Let’s hope that all of these things too shall pass. ST would do well I think to announce some start dates for ST2 projects. Looking at the terminus of Link at SeaTac Airport, I am thinking they should just carry on and plough further on south from there. The new buses begin in June but beyond that, does anyone know what is next? I remember asking Metro once to add a note to their timetables whenever they added a schedule change funded by Transit Now and to my surprise they adopted the idea. It may not have just come from me, but all of those Transit Now banners you see on some of the timetables are an excellent example of change-to-marketing-as-a-result-of-taxpayers-giving-us-more-money. Sound Transit needs to be just as visible with its projects-to-ST2 funding and I am sure once it kicks off a few that more of the public will pressure the likes of Speaker Chopp to back off taking their money.


    1. I think some of the ST2 bus service starts this year. I’m not sure what else is supposed to be coming up fairly soon.

      I’d love to see some Seattle to Spokane rail service along the lines of the current Cascades service. Say 2 trains per day each way between Seattle and Spokane. Maybe run one train each way via Stevens Pass and Wenatchee the other via Stampede and Yakima. I suspect such service might prove fairly popular as long as the speed competed well with driving, especially if the service extended into the Idaho panhandle. Probably unlikely since the existing and very successful Cascades service is having trouble getting money from the state, but one can dream.

      As for Rep. Clibborn there is some skepticism regarding her position on East Link. In past public statements she’s come across as rather protective of “her bridge” and opposed to either converting the center roadway to transit use or tolls on I-90. I don’t know if that is due to her past views being mischaracterized or if she’s slowly coming around on both issues. In any case it will take some time before I consider her to be sympathetic to my views on transit.

      One thing I think local transit supporters can do to bolster their case statewide is to attempt to connect with transit supporters in the rest of the state. It only helps our case if we are seen as not only wanting better transit in central Puget Sound but supporting Light Rail in Spokane or Clark County, or better bus service in Yakima or Bellingham.

  5. I agree Chris.

    Yes, I would certainly welcome two or more additional trains to our friends in Spokane and would use it in a heartbeat. It could either use the existing passenger line through Wenatchee or as you say the other line throgh Yakima.

    Maybe, our friends down in Portland could also lobby for an additional service to Spokane using the southern route through Washington.


    1. yeah, it is very flooded in that picture. It kind of looks prettier that way, in my opinion.

  6. This is a pretty good post in tamping down the flaming and explaining some of the backstory.

    One thing that really comes through to me, though, is that legislators are cuddly poodles, eager to get our attention and please us, compared with the agencies.

    For example, look at the list of projects needing big funding. Three of them- ferry system spending, 405 widening, and Viaduct replacement- are things I wouldn’t do at all, but generally get a pass with no critical exam even by transit bloggers.

    And if you think you need a scorecard to deal with the legislature, just try penetrating the thicket of rules, regulations, and trickle-down actual instructions to actual agency employees that are used to implement the law the legislators passed.

    This, incidentally, is one reason Mercer Islanders are about as tractable on highway issues as a tiger mother defending her young- they fought the state DOT for twenty years and won. In a sense they evolved into the saber-toothed tiger of the transportation world- and in the process did us all a big favor by putting a choke-chain and a muzzle on a DOT that began their 1960s rampage on MI by hiding all the critical testimony from hearings and illegally bulldozing a wide swath on the island.

    In the past few years STB has outperformed the local dailies in seeing the big picture. It gets a lot easier to figure out what is being reported and how to interpret it when more facts and less inflammatory language are used in posts, and Andrew has done very well here.

    1. For example, look at the list of projects needing big funding. Three of them- ferry system spending, 405 widening, and Viaduct replacement- are things I wouldn’t do at all, but generally get a pass with no critical exam even by transit bloggers.

      Giving the ferry system an adequate capital budget is absolutely necessary. The failure to properly fund that budget was why WSF was still running 70+ year old ferries everyone knew should have been replaced decades earlier. If we continue to fail to fund capital replacement and maintenance for the ferries there soon won’t be a ferry system.

      The ferry system is already down 4 vessels and the only reason we can keep the Port Townsend/Keystone route open is due to the willingness of Pierce County to lease one of their vessels to WSF. There are currently 4 ferries over 50 years old, these will need to be retired soon. In 8-11 years there will be another 5 ferries reaching 50. In 13-14 years another two ferries will reach 50. Considering the current construction schedule calls for a new ferry every 2 years that means it will take 22 years to replace the older vessels at which point it will be time to start replacing the 6 Issaquah class ferries.

      1. I personally wouldn’t do the Viaduct either. The I-405 widening I wouldn’t think about. I’m a 5th generation Seattle native, so I have a soft spot in my heart for ferries.

      2. Sorry, not buying it. There is no reason to keep increasing the size of the boats or the amount of the traffic and holding areas. Bainbridge is hopelessly snarled by the amount of car and truck traffic from the ferries and Kingston is getting that way. Most of the actual residents of Port Townsend don’t want more ferry traffic. Bremerton is just completing a ‘subway’ which will cure the downtown problem but dump the traffic from the boat in the shipyard traffic problem.

        And this is even before we consider the recent completion of a second Narrows bridge.

        The continual increase in the ferry size and traffic is part of a plan for continual increases in traffic and road spending west of Puget Sound that shouldn’t happen. Subsidizing suburban growth is even dumber in Sequim or Belfair than it is in Bellevue or Issaquah.

        Enough already. And yes, I’ve ridden the ferries all my life and actually lived on the water for 15 years and live west of the Sound now.

    2. In the past few years STB has outperformed the local dailies in seeing the big picture. It gets a lot easier to figure out what is being reported and how to interpret it when more facts and less inflammatory language are used in posts, and Andrew has done very well here.

      Good point.

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