Gas Tax Problems


As a self-appointed tunnel argument policeman I’ll point out some problems with this Eli Sanders post:

Because the question keeps coming up: Couldn’t we use those billions of dollars for something else right now?

The simple answer: Yes. We could definitely use those billions for something else right now. The list of needs, from social services to other transportation projects, is endless. But to re-appropriate those tunnel billions for something else you’d first have to remove them from of the place where they’re being held.

First of all:

There’s $2.4 billion in state funds allocated for building the downtown tunnel, but that giant hunk of money is cobbled together from a bunch of different sources: $339.8 million in federal funds (can’t re-appropriate those); $247.4 million in other state transportation funds (which could only be re-appropriated by an act of the legislature).

I made this mistake at first too, but a lot of that $247.4m is gas tax money, just not from the 2003 or 2005 gas tax increases. The rest is vehicle license fees and so on. There’s no way Sanders should have known that, as I found out in a private tweet from Mike Lindblom.


If you can get a constitutional amendment passed, then next you grab $700 million to $1 billion from the tunnel project’s pile of gas tax cash and leave the rest. It will be needed for tearing down the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct and implementing the I-5 improvements / surface transit option.

For the record, the DBT is $4.0 billion without transit improvements, surface/transit/I-5 is $3.5 billion. So the difference $500m or $700m if the state decides to keep its promises. However, in a surface/transit option the $400m in tolling money evaporates, so we’re down to the low hundreds of millions.

Lastly, a constitutional amendment is just about the most painful way to go about this kind of change. Much more direct is replacement of most of the gas tax with repeal of the sales tax exemption for gasoline. This subsidy amounts to $500m a year from the state (p.291) and $156m a year from local governments, including by my calculation about $28m from Metro. Some of this sales tax revenue would flow directly to transit agencies, and much of the rest to unrestricted funds with no constitutional requirement for highway building. That’s the equivalent of one U-Link every 3 years.

Looking at South Bellevue Walksheds

South Bellevue Park & Ride

Probably the most significant revision to B7 that Bellevue’s current study would be the addition of a new park-and-ride near the Bellevue Way on-ramps, which would substitute for bypassing the South Bellevue P&R.  The general principle of moving an existing commuter node to a freeway orientation just to avoid places where people live is pretty absurd, in my opinion.  Nonetheless, it’s obvious that this revision is simply attempting to make up for lost ridership on B7– something critics will say is the holy grail of good alignment criteria for Sound Transit.

The most glaring problem with this quick and dirty method of racking up ridership is that it fundamentally ignores what kinds of riders you would gain and what kinds of riders you would lose.  For all we know, it may actually turn out that this alignment may produce the highest ridership of all B segments.  But I’ve made a similar case before with the Vision Line, C14E– lots of riders from elsewhere will do you no good if it’s at the expense of neighborhood riders.

A look at the walksheds of the two stations below the jump.

Continue reading “Looking at South Bellevue Walksheds”

Pierce Transit Measure Event Tonight

The Yes on Prop 1 campaign is fighting to increase the sales tax dedicated to Pierce Transit from 0.6% to 0.9%, in line with what Metro and Community Transit collect and the maximum allowed under state law. This would restore revenues in absolute terms to pre-recession levels and avert a 35% cut in service, which would strip the system down to low-frequency runs on major routes and not much else.

Their kickoff meeting is tonight from 6pm to 8pm in Tacoma. Be there. I’m out of town but I believe Zach will find his way there.

The vote is February 8th. Register if you haven’t already, because ballots go out on January 21st.

News Roundup: Bad Press

Photo by Atomic Taco

This is an open thread.

Passes Are Expensive, but You Can Save


Erica C. Barnett complains a bit about escalating Metro fares (and pass prices) but, in the mark of a good piece, keeps perspective and recognizes tradeoffs:

Eighty-one bucks is a lot for me… Even as agencies are making service more expensive, they’re reducing its quality and frequency.

Riding the bus is still a great deal compared to owning a car… With prices that high, I’ll take a $9 monthly fare increase over car ownership any day…

The problem with ever-higher fares, of course, is that fare increases are a known disincentive to riding the bus (as are cuts to service). At some point, you get a drop-off in ridership, creating a vicious cycle: Fewer riders means less fare revenue means cuts to routes means fewer riders, and so on. The solution, instead of raising the regressive general sales tax even higher, is to create sustainable, long-term options to fund transit, something groups like the Transportation Choices Coalition plan to push for next session in Olympia.**

Of course, there is some revenue-maximizing fare level. My suspicion is, based on the political pressures at play, that we are well below that level, at least with certain types of service.

But really, I want to take this occasion to remind anyone in a position of influence at an employer that there are low-cost ways to help out your transit-riding employees. First, transit expenditures can be deducted from paychecks pre-tax, up to $230 per month, at no cost to the employer aside from the paperwork.

Secondly, if your workforce largely uses transit, cutting pay and replacing those dollars with a transit subsidy has positive tax benefits. Not only is the pay no longer subject to payroll or income taxes, but the subsidy itself is also tax-deductible to the employer.

Light rail tunnels revisited

Alignment profile for Central Link

Probably one of the Bellevue city council’s more common talking points against Sound Transit’s preferred East Link alternative is the purported tunnel inequity between Seattle and Bellevue alignments.  Bellevue Mayor Don Davidson has decried Sound Transit’s decision to fully fund the Beacon Hill and U-Link tunnels, but not one for downtown Bellevue.

Recently, Kevin Wallace followed in those same steps by countering my Seattle Times op-ed with his own piece, declaring that “Sound Transit protected these neighborhoods in Seattle and should do no less for Bellevue.”  What’s interesting about Wallace’s piece is that while he uses Maple Leaf and Montlake as the ST-favored poster boys for protected Seattle neighborhoods, he conveniently forgets that Link’s longest segment in Seattle is at-grade.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Light rail tunnels revisited”

One Year of Mayor McGinn

Photo by the author

The Sunday Times had what I thought was a reasonably fair portrait of the McGinn administration’s first year. In my view, an ideal mayor is both right on the substantive policy merits, and able to cajole the Council and State, through love or fear, into supporting his agenda.

On the first point, I think anyone that thinks Seattle’s transit, pedestrian, and bicycle agenda should be a higher priority than the free flow of cars has to be happy with policy coming out of the Mayor’s office.

On the other hand, just about everyone would agree that it’s the latter point where he needs to improve. Still, I have to object to one aspect of media analysis of this problem, well illustrated by this Times blurb about the seawall:

[The Mayor made a seawall] announcement that clumsily excluded Council members. The perceived slight hurt the new mayor-council relationship. The council struck back by punting a sea-wall ballot measure all the way into 2011.

Bad on the Mayor for not optimizing his council relations, but the Seattle City Council is not a collection of inanimate objects; they are actual humans with moral agency.  If they postpone an important safety measure mostly because the Mayor failed to show them proper deference, that’s a damning indictment of the Council.

Many differences between Council and Mayor have legitimate policy and interest group roots, and that’s entirely proper. To the extent that this is about who’s showing enough respect, both sides should grow up.

And that goes for Olympia too.

East Link Bellevue Council – The Tweet Edition

Take this for what it is. I was cleaning my house while listening so it certainly isn’t a complete record, probably has inaccuracies, and is certainly biased. I feel like a writer for The Stranger! I kid, I kid. It has a few interesting tidbit so I decided to pull it over to the blog from twitter.

  • Bellevue East Link study session lime stream
  • It’s funny watching Bellevue council members trying to pick apart the SDEIS. Don’t even try to nit pick with engineers. You will lose.
  • If you want to get nit picky you should first read the appendixes
  • and by nit picky comments (Robertson) I mean snarky and condescending comments, not detailed and genuinely inquisitive comments.
  • Paraphrasing Degginger [in response to Wallace] “how can we write into the scope of work the conclusion of what the study is supposed to determine is true or not

More after the jump

Continue reading “East Link Bellevue Council – The Tweet Edition”

Last Chance to Comment on SR-520 Tolling

On January 5th (scroll to the bottom) the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC), which has toll setting authority in the state, will take action on the proposed toll rates for SR-520. I would encourage our readers, and especially those of you that use SR-520 and I-90, to submit a comment to the WSTC (, including something along the lines of, “a portion of tolls revenue must be used to improve transit service”.

As transit advocates we need to make sure the WSTC, our Representatives and especially Governor Gregoire understand that transit is an integrated and vital part of our regional transportation system, and the state therefore has a currently unmet obligation to support transit. No more “foster this” and “leverage that”. Transit needs more money and as the use of tolling expands a portion of that revenue should go to support improved transit service in the corridor.

One Week Left to Submit East Link Comments

East Link

If you haven’t already done so, you have until January 10th to submit your comments for the East Link SDEIS.  While the Sound Transit Board isn’t bound to making its decision solely based on public input,  negative comments can often tip the scale in favor of less transit-friendly options.  Unfortunately, people with a bone to pick are always more vocal, which tends to skew what the majority of a city actually believes in.

From what I know, there’s a big race between B2 and B7 supporters to get SDEIS comments in, so quantity will play a factor.  Again, comments aren’t everything, but constructive input always helps, especially when it’s not all about how we need to insulate ourselves from light rail.  If you need reminding, the B2M and C9T/C11A alignments are the routes we believe are superior.  Conversely, the B7 alignment deserves to be canned for good, being the out-of-sight out-of-mind solution for people who couldn’t care less about the success of transit.

It’s also worth nothing again that the City of Bellevue has commissioned a $670K study to “perfect” B7, which they hope Sound Transit will consider for its final preferred alternative.  With the study being as late as it is, this is impossible if the new B7 isn’t in the Final EIS, and that in itself is impossible without delaying the timeline.  Delays add cost, and additional cost is the last thing Sound Transit needs to worry about right now.

Submit your comments to, or mail a letter to:

Sound Transit, Union Station
Attention: East Link SDEIS Comments
401 S. Jackson St., Seattle, WA 98104

What You Missed

You may have gone on vacation, but STB didn’t. Highlights since just before Christmas:

* not really.

Looking Ahead to 2011