Tomorrow at 11am, the Seattle City Council will, in its capacity as the Transportation Benefit District Board, consider a resolution to put a $60, 10-year vehicle license fee (in addition to the $20 the TBD has already levied) on the ballot this November.

The $60 fee would generate about $20.4m annually. The Council would write a budget for the TBD each year, with a strong legal presumption that it would be divided as follows:

  • 29% for “transportation system repair, maintenance, and safety;”
  • 49% for “transit speed, reliability, and access improvements.” Some, but not all, of these would come from the Transit Master Plan;
  • 22% for “pedestrian, bicycle, and freight mobility,” drawn from the respective master plans. This implies the creation of a freight mobility master plan.

There is also a requirement to “support and implement the goals of the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.” That presumably means a thumb on the scale for low-income and minority neighborhoods, although they already received consideration in the TMP’s corridor selection and weighting process.

Sections 8-10 deal with the rigamarole involved in messing with the allocations. Much more detail after the jump.

Attachment A sketches out the intended sub-breakout of spending. Its main force, in my view, is rhetorical, in that deviations from the chart can be attacked as “not what we agreed to” and “not what the voters approved.” To editorialize, the way the $100m for transit is split out leaves a lot to dislike:

  • $40m for bus corridor enhancements from the transit master plan.
  • $18m for the 4th/5th Avenue streetcar connector and Aloha Streetcar extension. This provision will fund planning and design necessary to win matching funds, and provide some of that match. It’s not enough to build either outright.
  • $20m for trolleybus expansion. In the past, I’ve heard of Metro’s desire to fill in the wire gaps to electrify the 48, move wire from James to Yesler, extend it on Madison St to 23rd Ave, and so on. I haven’t gotten a firm answer, but I think it’s things like that.
  • $10m for “transit access projects“, which is placemaking on transit corridors and various marketing and outreach efforts for transit.
  • $12m for “neighborhood transit connections“, to get people outside walking distance to transit corridors to those corridors. At best, this replaces inefficient Metro routes with alternative service delivery methods; at worst, it’s more “neighborhood circulator” routes, which people support at meetings, but then don’t ride because the only way to serve low-density neighborhoods is to take a circuitous route that no one with a choice would ever take.

My general comment is that I’d like to see as much as possible diverted to the first two items, which are the high-payoff, vetted improvements that bring more riders, make the experience better for existing riders, and (most importantly) concentrate investment in dense and densifying corridors, rather than spreading it everywhere.* I really see little value in extending the trolleybus network beyond filling obvious gaps in the wire and high-capacity trolleybus BRT, where appropriate.

SDOT wrote the Council with similar concerns, although the cited numbers have been overcome by events:

SDOT specifically requests that the language in the Summary of Options, Transit Detail be amended to read as follows:

The $60 and $80 VLF options would generate $6M over the 8-year term specifically to complete planning, alternatives analysis, environmental review, preliminary engineering and design for 1) a “Downtown Connector” of the First Hill and SLU Streetcars ($5M) and 2) First Hill Streetcar extension to Aloha Street ($1M) and 3) Other HCT corridors as funding is available. No construction funding would be available through this proposal.

This would leave much more flexibility to serve the other three HCT corridors with BRT or rapid streetcar if federal or private funding materializes.

There are also two amendments in play, which my sources suggest aren’t likely to get very far. Councilmember O’Brien proposes that the fee increase be $80 and be levied for 12 years, increasing the revenue stream that can be bonded against and enabling bigger projects.  It would also use a slightly larger proportion of the extra $20 for transit projects and a slightly smaller one for the bicycle, pedestrian, and freight pool. It would also allow Seattle to press the need for additional revenue authority in Olympia.

Councilmember Nick Licata’s amendment would explicitly ban any spending on high capacity transit except for the 4th/5th avenue streetcar connector and the Aloha extension. This would prevent rapid streetcar or trolleybus BRT implementations to Fremont/Ballard, along Eastlake Avenue, and on Madison St., which serve some of the city’s densest corridors and where less ambitious bus improvements are apparently far less cost-effective.

*Full disclosure: I’m a member of citizen Transit Master Plan Advisory Group, although I’m but one voice on it. I think the consultants are doing a very good job producing that document.

30 Replies to “Inside the Pending Seattle License Fee”

    1. That he’s not rail’s biggest fan and that he loves to poke Mike McGinn in the eye.

      My guess, anyway.

  1. “I really see little value in extending the trolleybus network beyond filling obvious gaps in the wire”

    I do. It’s cheap, it’s quick, riders like it, it dramatically reduces lifecycle emissions and noise, especially on hills. There’s plenty of trolley-appropriate frequent-service routes out there that $20 mil won’t get to. The oft-quoted number on STB is $1 million a mile. Metro people tell me it’s more like $3 million for modern construction with steel posts. I have a post coming up about the James/Yestler change, although I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to with Madison — there’s already wire to 19th. The only goal with Madison that I know of would be to electrify the 11, which means wire all the way to the lake.

    1. There are two possible benefits of extending the wire on Madison to 23rd:

      – Extend the 12 First Hill turnback trips to 23rd, rather than terminating at 15th.
      – Add/convert trolley trips on the 11 that turn back at 23rd.

      I agree that electrifying the 11 in full would be ideal, but I’d be happy with wire up to 23rd if it meant significantly fewer diesels and/or more service between 15th and 23rd.

      1. This added service will become very important as density increases in that area. There are a bunch of apartment buildings going up now or in development from 17th to 23rd on Madison, so it will be able to support a lot of transit service.

  2. “social justice” requirements?

    Between that , the 1 percent for Art, and endless meetings for the neighborhoods. We’re lucky to get more than bus shelter wraps with Gandhi and MLK quotes

  3. Martin,

    I only skimmed the pdf, but I think it’s incorrect to state that the VLF would specifically advance a particular streetcar route downtown—especially since any effort to secure the matching funds you mention would require an alternatives analysis.

    And worth noting that the PMP also already incorporates social equity concerns.

  4. I asked this in an earlier post, and didn’t get any enlightenment. I’ll try again.
    Rapid Streetcars and Rapid Trolleys. Any definitions for minimum schedule speed?
    It seems to be a Seattle coined phrase to imply ‘anything faster’ than what you’re currently getting.
    A Metro study in 2008 talks about both, ,but stops short of saying what speeds would have to be attained to qualify as ‘rapid’.
    Of course all the BRT type enhancements mentioned (signal pre-emption, fewer stops, off-board payment, etc) speeds things up, but you can do that to almost any route and save some time. But how much time? The report is a good primer on cost/mi, and candidate routes.
    Google give some additional hits on Rapid-Streetcars and Trolleys, but nothing with an APTA or FTA reference. Maybe I need to dig deeper.
    Maybe it’s just an advertising thing like the ‘New-Improved’ labels on most things you see in the grocery store.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think you’re going to find the kind of cut-and-dried academic definitions you want. As far as I know, it’s just a handy moniker to indicate bigger investment for more efficient service.

      Where a streetcar stops being a streetcar and starts being lite light-rail is pretty much a matter of which sounds better to you. In Seattle, it seems rapid streetcar is becoming the preferred way of telling voters “something shiny on rails, faster than the SLUS and cheaper/faster-to-build than Link.”

    2. Seattle and Atlanta are in the national spotlight over at on local funding for ‘rapid streetcars’.
      “Displaying genuine entrepreneurship in his approach, the mayor suggested that the city could invest in five high-capacity rapid transit corridors, four of which qualify for rail. Instead of relying on slow-moving Sound Transit, which is building the Seattle region’s light rail network, Seattle could be more successful by playing alone and avoiding having to deal with the delicate matter of regional cooperation, Mr. McGinn argues.”
      There’s some good links in the article, including lots of STB links.

      1. (I was half afraid the article would say they’re after our federal funds – wait, are there any federal funds?)

    3. I agree it is frustrating to using undefined terms like that. The lines that were planned were saving roughly 10 minutes on what I would guess were 30-40 minute trips. That certainly satisfies my definition of rapid.

    4. I think of a “rapid streetcar” as a streetcar with wide stop-spacing (1/4 mile to 1/2 mile) and some segments of lane priority, as well as signal priority. LAs rapid bus service is basically just the same as what some agencies call a limited service in that it doesn’t stop as often. Streetcars further reduce dwell time with offboard payment (although this can be used on buses, it is rare due to infrastructure costs). I don’t think there needs to be some exact definition, but a range of standards would be appreciated. The main thing to me is stop spacing. True BRT or Light Rail should be more like a mile between stations, local bus service is usually 500-1000 feet, and this rapid streetcar or an “enhanced bus” idea would be somewhere in between.

      For the Transit Master Plan, what they call BRT is what I would call “enhanced bus,” similar to RapidRide. A real BRT system should completely mimic a light rail system down to ROW separation and very wide stop spacing with real stations. Neither RapidRide or Swift really qualify.

  5. They better be seriously considering electrfying the 8. But won’t they need a bigger maintenence facility for trolleys?

    1. I think you’d need a more than $20 mil to electrify the 8 — certainly, if you do other, more urgent projects like James/Yestler first.

      1. in my opinion Denny should be electrfied, and the trolley runs turn around at 23rd. Diesels continue on.

      2. the only problem is that I don’t think they can cross link’s OCS with ETB OCS … might force the SB 8 onto Rainier Ave w/#7 … although they could terminate the #8 at Mt Baker TC/Link Station and have a different bus (diesel) (like the 42) take over the southern portion of the #8

      3. I would love to see stop-level data for the 8. It seems like the southern part is very busy, but how many are riding all the way to queen anne? It also seems like a lot of people are just riding between queen anne and capitol hill, which would justify perhaps electrifying Denny and going back to the old turnaround at 15th they used to use for every other trip. I know Metro considers it a really successful route, but if there is momentum to electrify part of it they should really see if it can be split.

      4. I’d rather see the turnaround extended to 23rd. That way, you provide a transfer to the N-S part of the 8, and you also provide extra service to East Capitol Hill, which could definitely use it (especially if the 12 tail goes away).

        The E-W part of the 8 is definitely extremely busy at all times of day.

  6. Is there going to be a serious NO campaign? I’d like to see it go down because there’s no rail money in it. It worked for the old Roads & Transit campaign – too much roads, not enough transit, so it went down.

    Then they’d have to put forward something more comprehensive – $80 with rail.

  7. I spent a half hour this morning trying through numerous articles, the STDB website, various other city web pages, emails to the leadership and staff, news stories…and failed to find out whether this requires a 60% or 50% majority. Anybody know?

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