Seattle's Tallest
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Martin is correct that the media will likely spin a VLF defeat as a vote against taxes[1], but from the (normal, non-transit) people I talk to, the VLF’s largest problem isn’t that it’s a tax, but that it doesn’t do enough. Imagine if Obama had run on a campaign of “hope and a little bit of change”. “We’re not going to do all that much, just a little”. No one would be surprised a candidate with that slogan could not make it past an early primary. Why would we be surprised if the VLF whose slogan is essentially that goes down to defeat?

Martin also mentions that the $100 VLF[2] is all the state has given the city to work with for transportation, which is sadly true. I tried to make the point in my post the other day that Seattle should be more aggressive in getting taxing authority for transportation. I think there are a number of reasons to go for this approach, including Seattle’s unique transportation needs and  its willingness to approve large projects.

Seattle has different transportation needs from other cities in the state, particularly when it comes to transit, walking and biking. As I said the other day, if the city doesn’t going after taxing authority we’ll never get the transportation systems we want. Even if we let Sound Transit do all the heavy lifting for rail transit, we’ll still have to wait decades to get the correct amount for Seattle, and voters in other parts of the Sound Transit district might decide they have the right amount of transit and stop approving new projects before we get to a place where Seattle’s needs are being met.

Seattle could build large projects if it wanted to. We know this because Sound Transit has managed to build Central Link, is currently building U-Link and will build North Link and the First Hill Streetcar with mostly funding from Seattle. Seattle on its own was able to build the SLU streetcar prototype, while not a big project, it showed that the city can build rail on its own. Similarly Portland, which is both smaller and less affluent than Seattle, has been able to build its streetcar with entirely in-city money. The funding capacity for more ambitious projects are here in the city limits. It’s just a matter of getting the authority from Olympia.

Seattle voters like large projects and usually approve them. I believe there is solid evidence that  larger transit projects can be successful with Seattle. I hate to bring this up, but Seattle voted for the monorail project at least five times, and have voted for Sound Transit five times now as well. However, voters don’t really understand small projects, and while “a little money here or there” might make a number of small improvements, most people want large improvements and large ideas they can point to and imagine. I would not be surprised that ballot measure full of small transit projects would fail but a ballot measure to implement the entire Seattle Streetcar system would pass or a Second Avenue subway would pass.

Obviously, I think the VLF is a good idea and want the it to pass. I just wish our elected officials would be fighting with Olympia over our ability to build the projects we want. I’m sure if they did that would find the Seattle voters to be very willing to vote yes. It’s our duty to push our elected officials in the right direction to get what we want. Otherwise, they might here the wrong message and think we won’t pay for more transit.

[1] From experience in the  ST2 fight, the media horse-race game is more annoying than meaningful. Roads and Transit going down was supposed to be a vote against transit, though transit passed on its own a year later.

[2] Of which $60 is under proposal.

57 Replies to “Opinion: Seattle, VLF not Ambitious Enough”

  1. ” Seattle on its own was able to build the SLU streetcar prototype […]”

    Actually, Vulcan paid just under half the capital cost via a LID, and King County Metro originally paid about 75% of the O&M costs. SLU employers now kick in additional money to operate 10 minute headways in the PM peak, so that number has probably changed a little now. Regardless, the city paid and pays only a fraction of the up front and ongoing costs of building and operating the SLUT, and that level of corporate sponsorship seems unlikely for any of the possible expansion lines.

    1. Actually a 4th/5th connection couplet downtown would cover its operating cost as well an Eastlake extension through reallocation of route 70 service hours. Similar reallocation of service funds for a Fremont/Ballard line could also happen but I haven’t see a way to do that explicit spelled out. So your point is only really applies to the capitol portions of any likely extension.

    2. While Vulcan is the major landowner along the SLU line, a LID could easily be used in other potential streetcar corridors (or any corridor)–it’s basically a localized property tax. In my opinion LID is as close a substitute to Tax-Increment Financing (which Portland uses) as we have in Seattle.

      Of course, there are also sponsorships on the streetcar stops which may be more difficult to sell in other areas (not all of Portland’s have ads either I’ve noticed). Vulcan does not sponsor any stops, though it is mainly major institutions like Group Health:

      1. The city would need to change the sign code to allow advertizing in bus and streetcar shelters. They have not done so because of their fear of opening up the billboard issue.

      2. Didn’t Vulcan sponsor the stop just south of Denny? I rarely ride southbound, but the stop had a “2201 Westlake” decal on it (at least until West Elm moved in this week).

    3. Well the SLUT as a “prototype” shows exactly what Cascade Bicycle Club said, if you put the tracks on the side of the road instead of the middle, you’ll create a bicycling hazard.

      What I don’t understand is why doesn’t the SLUT have signal priority? Without it, it’s as slow as molasses. We know why it doesn’t have any bicycle racks, bicycling is faster than riding.

      Anyway as much as I would like the city to spend the tax on a dedicated right-of-way rail system I don’t see $100/vehicle being enough money to do it.

      1. Well the SLUT as a “prototype” shows exactly what Cascade Bicycle Club said, if you put the tracks on the side of the road instead of the middle, you’ll create a bicycling hazard.

        I don’t disagree that the design for the SLUT could have done a better job of accommodating cyclists. However the cyclists themselves contribute to the problem by using insanely narrow tires on their bikes rather than the fat tires you will see on European city bikes in places like Amsterdam or Vienna. Fat tires don’t get stuck in streetcar tracks. Fat tires also don’t get stuck in storm grates. Fat tires roll over potholes and curbs much easier than skinny tires too.

      2. Fat tires that will span road grates also don’t clear the chain stays on any of my road bikes including my cyclocross bike (max 32mm). Beach cruisers (weight, quality, riding position) and mtn bikes (gearing + suspension no full fenders) aren’t really that good for most commuting.

      1. I think Andrew is right here. Funding for the SLUT was from the City of Seattle tax base. Getting developers to pay a Transportation Impact Fee or using a LID is a valid way to fund local projects and Olympia has given cities broad authority to implement this. I can’t help but to point out though what a sweet heart deal this was for Vulcan and Seattle. Vulcan got zoning changes and fast track permitting for relatively little money. Seattle off loaded the majority of the operational cost to King County Metro and managed to parlay all future advertising revenue into the city contribution. Maybe Bellevue can use future advertising revenue in the tunnel as part of it’s contribution… “now entering Bravern Tunnel, exits to the right.” :=

  2. Why doesn’t Seattle go the full bore and re-instate the pre-Eyman style registration fee based on vehicle cost?

    It seems like you guys whine all day about what the state is doing, instead of just charging ahead and playing to your base.

    If you want taxes, tax yourselves.

    If the state cuts taxes, then you should be cheering…more money for you to tax.

    Seattle can be his very high income, high tax island where costs are high, incomes are high, and taxes are high.

    But if everyone else wants to live in a cul de sac and have a yard, just leave us alone.

    1. The city is using the flat VLF because that is the tool the state has offered. The tool you describe is not allowed by the state.

      I have friends who do live in cul-de-sacs. That’s not where they wanted to live. That’s where they could afford to buy. None of them seem happy about living in cul-de-sacs, once they realized the only way to access the transit system was to drive.

    2. Yeah, U.n. known, I think you don’t realize that the city can’t just create a tax without that authority being granted by the legislature first.

    3. All city taxing authority is granted by the state. The state created the city, and the state tells the city what kinds of taxes it can raise and how much. The rationale for this is, it prevents one city from having a runaway tax rate that squeezes the revenues the county and state can raise, and it also keeps the rate similar across cities (although not identical due to urban/rural differences and large city/small city).

    4. In a more rational world, this would be done through property taxes. But you have to remember the so-called “Bridging the Gap” levy from a few years ago. It’s the one that was supposed to fix the streets. Oddly enough, it didn’t. Why? Because the backers lied about the numbers.

      The local politicians wouldn’t dare try to stick “Bridging the Gap II” out there. So now it’s the “VLF.” But it’s dead on arrival, largely because we, the voters, remember that we were lied to before. Yeah, folks, I’m sure you don’t like this analysis, but it’s true and you know it.

      I’m going to be surprised if this VLF gets even one-third support. Between that and what Eyeman’s going to do to the tolling, you’re going to have a whole lot to whine about this year!

      1. John never accused people of lying. He sometimes tells us what he wants (especially about hydrogen cars). And he tells us his transit good deeds (riding Link sometimes, or taking the bus to the airport).

        That word lying bugs me because to me lying is an intentional untruth. People say Metro lied about Transit Now or was unfaithful to it, but the reality is the economy changed drastically from when Metro made those promises, and Metro’s revenue unexpectedly went way down too. You can’t pull the rug out from under somebody and then complain they don’t have the rug.

      2. I’m going to be surprised if this VLF gets even one-third support. Between that and what Eyeman’s going to do to the tolling, you’re going to have a whole lot to whine about this year!

        You know I suspect it is the pro-road crowd is going to have the most to cry about. If Eyeman’s nonsense stands then there won’t be money to fund some very major road projects (see Deep Bore Tunnel, 520 replacement, Columbia River Crossing) because the state is going to be unable to sell any tolling bonds.

        No VLF means the city has just that much less money to fix roads. It means buses and bikes are more likely to be in the way of cars and slow them down. It means there won’t be money to help all road users in key cycling and transit corridors. It means more cars on the road as more people give up on transit that is late, crowded, or never comes.

        So go ahead and gloat about how you and yours won this battle in the “war on cars” but after the party is over don’t come crying to us when you find you’ve cut off your nose to spite your face.

  3. The shame of it all is that progressives in Seattle could be focusing on stopping the Eyman initiative against market-based traffic management on state highways, instead of fighting over percentages in a package that is really only a model (and could be shifted later, for example, to build *more* sidewalks, if the council sees the public supporting such a move, which will only happen if the VLF passes — a point lost on the guy campaigning against the VLF because it doesn’t have as much money as he wanted for sidewalks).

    If you want the last $20 of the city’s potential VLF on the table (which could be more sidewalk heavy), it is imperative to pass the first $60.

    Defeating the $60 package is an act of cutting off our noses to spite our faces, and Tim Eyman is laughing at Seattle’s collective naivete. There will be no second VLF package (and therefore no additional VLF money for sidewalks) if this one goes down.

    1. There is no precedent for such a statement. Sound Transit failed the first time, and went back to ballot the next year – and then did the same thing again the next time around.

      If this goes down, another VLF package will go to ballot, probably next year.

      1. And it’ll get voted down again. And again. And again. Eventually, even you people will get the message.

      2. If this goes down, another VLF package will go to ballot, probably next year.

        This is what David Miller is hoping for, I disagree with his approach and wish he was working instead with the council to set priorities for the VLF money.

        If Prop 1. is defeated then I hope David and others like him are looped in early on coming up with a revised proposal.

      3. No, Ben… If this VLF package gets voted down there will NOT be another package next year. None of our elected officials will support it because they can’t.

        The state will need to put a transportation measure on the ballot, and they don’t want the competition. And the city has half a dozen levies stacked up to run over the next few years.

      1. Yes, it is your nightmare. I can see the fear ‘n whining already starting. Boo hoo.

      2. Actually it is a nightmare for those who want more roads. If it passes and is upheld by the courts you can forget ever financing another road project in the state with tolls. That means no DBT, no 520 replacement, no CRC, and a good number of other planned projects such as re-surfacing I-5 that will never happen.

        So as you roll over broken pavement and are forced to take the long way around because a bridge is closed you can thank Eyman’s war on transportation funding.

  4. I for one think Seattle voters deserve to know how they rank in comparison to similar sized cities with respect to total transit/transportation taxes collected and services rendered (both operating and capital).
    In the bigger tax/spend arena many voters feel the incremental approach to taxing every little nook and cranny of wealth for a new and innovative revenue stream has got to stop – or at least be justified against the bigger picture.
    In other words, how well are the combined transit agencies doing with what they are getting?
    If I knew the answer or where to look I’d spend some time on it.

    1. The tax-cutting here has been brutal. Seattle residents pay far less than people elsewhere for buses and trains.

      1. Evidence? Tax cutting and general low tax rates are far less brutal here than in the South or in places that are closing schools because they choked their education funding with constitutional amendments. Metro’s fare is the highest in the country for a comparable system. Of course the systems with large subway networks like NYC cost the most in fares and taxes, because you’re getting a lot for your money (both in the transit you actually use, and the transit that’s available to you at any moment).

    2. For any given piece of information, there’s a cost (a quantifiable, per-voter cost) to go from having that knowledge as activists to informing voters. For a given campaign, we usually only target a specific, small group of swing voters – it’s incredibly expensive to cause voters to “know” something.

      In general, a comparison to other places is VERY hard to inform voters about. Most people, when presented with a comparison like that, simply ignore it, assuming that there’s another, unknown piece of information that makes another city “different”. The cost to make comparisons like this is astronomical for any meaningful slice of voters.

      So honestly, there are other tactics that work much better. You have to find cheap, values-based pieces of information that resonate with what people already believe.

      1. Then I’m sorry to say, by following that strategy progressives will likely be consistent losers. In my view, we lost the DBT battle in part because perceptions (as inaccurate as they were) were wide spread that a) the battle was already lost b) McGinn was some how a bad person not to be trusted and c) failing to do something (build it) was bad. Those perceptions were spread and reinforced through a whole network of information management much of which was imperceptible to the public. Progressives failed to address these perceptions instead trying to get people to “believe” facts instead of addressing perceptions and by following a strategy that did not address the general public. For why this is important I’d suggest taking a look at the book “Moral Politics” ( or a number of other works) by George Lakoff.

        In the case of McGinn, it was very interesting to note that many people had this visceral feeling about him but couldn’t pin point when they have formed those feelings. Little did they know they’ed been suckered into that perception.

        Under the current system, it is going to take resources and to “go big” in order to counter this. But there are also ways of countering the established MEME’s through guerilla (asymmetrical) operations that are audacious. It could mean however attacks on the establishment in ways that are rather counter to our northwest culture. It basically means showing where the money is speaking and who is repeating the false MEME’s. It means shaming media outlets that are in the pockets of the powerful interests and establishing reliable alternative media for people to turn to when they realize they can no longer trust their newspaper or tv news channel. It means not acting like a meek, laid back pacific north westerner. After all the pro DBT folks were certainly not meek in smearing the Mayor.

        I think STB is just such an alternative that can exist in a network of outlets that people can access for more factual information about civic issues. It could be as simple as printing off pages of articles and leaving them all around town. It is using an old school distribution method to build a gateway to new media. Because like it or not, the VAST MAJORITY of people who vote, don’t read twitter, or get their news online. If for a number of supposedly “swing voters” that might spend time online, their not getting their news
        from Publicola or STB or The only hope of achieving the desired outcome of elections is creating an effective public awareness of the issues and of who is “manipulating” them. And it isn’t just about “facts” but addressing values and perceptions.

    3. Honestly, this isn’t about anyplace else. This is about local values, and local transit. I find it frustrating that information about other places gets shoved at people here . . . as if it matters . . .

    1. I’m not 100% certain, but I don’t think it can because it’s not based on the value of the vehicle.

  5. I’m curious as to whether voters are seeing this as a referendum on the mayor. If so it might be doomed.

    1. Of course, the mayor has no control over these funds. They are divvied out by the council, acting as the Board of the Seattle Transportation Benefits District.

      1. Yeah, but the plan is seen as the Mayor’s baby. People are going to see it as two referenda: one by the people by voting on the VLF, and one by the council in choosing how to implement it.

      2. @Kyle. I would disagree about people seeing this as the mayors baby. The Times and the like would like you to think that but I don’t thing the population as a whole sees it that way. It’s pretty heavily weighted towards road maintenance (totally makes me think of Nickels) and bus improvements (people think of Metro).

      3. Oh yeah, it’s the mayor’s baby alright. The mayor is highly unpopular for a variety of reasons, a major one being that he’s seen as radically tilted toward bicyclists and utterly hating motorists, except when it comes time to grab some of their cash.

      4. Jake, if the mayor utterly hated motorists he wouldn’t be proposing spending 25% of the VLF funds on motorway improvements.

        But you knew that already. You’re just trolling.

    2. Only 18% of the CTAC recommendation is for fixing the streets. And it’s only a recommendation, without the force of law. There are plenty of reasons this thing will be ground into the dust, and that’s one of ’em.

  6. I agree in general but have an additional concern. Hypothetically I’d like the city to get on top of its maintenance budgeting. We need a reliable stream of revenue to maintain the existing infrastructure. Bridging the Gap did not fill the hole, nor does the portion of the VLF money allotted to this. What’s mind boggling is there is no plan to get all the way there, we just keep deferring maintenance. Worse this appears to be systemic and not just a transportation issue, Parks departments is another sad example.

    An underfunded transportation system is a real deterrent to expansion. For example, the $20 fee imposed by metro to prop up the bus system is playing a role in the current anti-VLF arguments. When I bike to work across a a roadway/sidewalk network that is in not that great of a shape it doesn’t help my confidence in SDOT’s ability to maintain additional assets.

    Don’t read this as a blanket statement against anything new. A long term plan to get this situation under control rather than continuing to not keep pace would go a long way.


    1. A very big issue in road maintenance is available funding sources, for example you might find t4america’s “The Fix We’re In For” report interesting:
      “In 2008, all states combined spent more than $18 billion, or 30 percent of the federal transportation funds they received, to build new roads or add capacity to existing roads.” It’s a funding category problem: there’s just more money available for *new* than there is for keeping up the existing infrastructure.

    2. Maintenance is a time bomb across America, essentially because the boomers have not maintained and augmented the infrastructure that the WWII and Silent generations built. But sometimes the best way to maintain something is to replace it with a better alternative. If we fix all the potholes and sidewalks first, and replace existing buses and roads rather than looking forward, we’ll end up with a better version of the high-energy, high-automobile-dependent system we have now. That will be an increasing economic drag and will make us uncompetitive with cities outside the US, which are better prepared for future spikes in oil prices and climate change and the like. It’s like how employer-based health insurance is a drag on American companies, who are competing against international companies that don’t have these costs.

      1. How about building sidewalks throughout the WHOLE city?

        If the future has us walking around because of no oil , we need somewhere to walk

      2. Hey, if there’s no oil and no cars, the streets should be great places to walk ;-)

        Seriously, though – in Seattle alone, just getting Tier 1 projects from the Pedestrian Master Plan completed is north of $800 million. That gets you an arterial sidewalk network citywide, with drainage.

        At our current rate of ~$15 million/year on pedestrian projects (not all of which are new sidewalk construction btw) that pencils out to a very long time. And that’s just Tier 1 projects.

        The VLF would give us some more money to spend on new sidewalks and other pedestrian priorities. One more reason to support it IMO.

    3. Bridging the Gap didn’t fill it because the proponents lied through their teeth about it. Funny how voters remember crap like that, isn’t it? There are a bunch of reasons why the VLF will be crushed, one of them being that you’d pretty much have to be on drugs to believe a single word or number coming out of those who are supporting it.

      1. If you’re gonna accuse people of lying, you best have specific evidence to back it up. Otherwise you’re just committing baseless libel.

  7. Seattle could build large projects if it wanted to. We know this because Sound Transit has managed to build Central Link, is currently building U-Link and will build North Link and the First Hill Streetcar with mostly funding from Seattle.

    +[some very large number]

    Let’s fit it on a bumper sticker and attach it to Conlin’s car!

  8. I do see city council candidate Dian Ferguson among the short list of named opponents of the VLF. Drat, I was going to vote for her, but that is certainly not happening now.

  9. I agree that the proposal on the ballot isn’t ambitious enough. The council should have used the full authority ($80) over a long enough period to bond for multiple rail projects. We simply need to start moving on more transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in order to provide the car alternatives that will make Seattle more affordable and competitive! ( starting at 38:58)

  10. I have to agree, the council should have identified specific projects to be funded with the VLF and should have made sure they were sexy projects with “sizzle”.

    Go big or go home as they say.

    I remember the library bond measure from years ago. The city put a bond measure to fund the new Central Library on the ballot which went down in flames. The city came back (a year?) later with a larger bond measure that while it had slightly less for a central library in it included money to rebuild or renovate every neighborhood branch library in the city as well as funding a couple new branch libraries. As we know that measure passed.

    The council could even have played a bit of a shell game with the funds. Put sexy or high priority projects the city was planning on funding out of the general fund in the VLF measure and use the freed general fund money for all of the boring stuff they are proposing in the VLF measure. A bit deceptive? Sure, but if it lets you claim the VLF includes say $20 million for bridge maintenance then so be it.

  11. Mr. Smith, I don’t think you get the mood of the Seattle voter at all. We are struggling with all the increases in taxes, car tab fees, water rates and parking fees. This bill isn’t going down because its not “big” enough. Its going down because its too much tax on top every thing else. Get your head out of the clouds, Mr. Smith. We are in a major recession. Enough is enough.

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