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.
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.