Just about every year, we keep a close eye on Olympia during the legislative sessions to see if anything promising ever comes out for transit. Usually little does, but it’s a stark reminder of how much hope we have resting on the State’s shoulders. Once upon a time, before Tim Eyman declared war on transportation funding, the State did have a much more proactive role in ensuring local transit remained strong and robust. Over the years, unfortunately, State involvement and help for transit, either direct or indirect, has been measly at best.
At last month’s meetup with Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, an attendee asked the secretary how important she thought the State’s role was in terms of supporting transit. While there was some mention of WSDOT-sponsored rail projects and hints of local funding options here and there, Hammond’s answer, much to our dismay, had strong emphasis on highway capital projects (i.e., HOV lanes, direct access ramps, etc.), which suggested a stronger obligation to fund “transit” projects if they also help cars, too.
More below the jump.
But moving forward, State help will be critical over the next few years and will need to be much more than just laying pavement. Not a single major transit agency in the region has escaped a funding crisis over the recession, the Central Sound agencies in particular. King County’s $20 car-tab fee was more of a temporary reprieve than anything else, the implementation of which seemed eerily reminiscent to the Congressional stalemate over the national payroll tax debate. But what’s most important is that the temporary fee had one purpose– to give hope that a new funding authority would be granted by the Legislature within two years.
Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen. But aside from just providing new revenue sources, we often overlook a bigger role the State should be playing– providing some kind of support for capital projects, rail in particular. We don’t have to look further than neighboring Vancouver for a promising example– 40% of the costs to build the Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension will come from the provincial government to the tune of $583 million CAD.
That hefty contribution is one of the reasons why the line is expected to start service in summer of 2016, months before University Link even opens. While SkyTrain’s speedy construction is thanks to other factors, like a robust financing model and contract savings, there’s no doubt that the Province of British Columbia is playing a vital role in helping push Evergreen Line construction along. Emulating that here would undoubtedly meet institutional, bureaucratic, and cultural roadblocks.
When looking at Vancouver, it’s important to simply think about what should be done versus what could be done. In some respects, it’s somewhat encouraging that the State has obligated some interests in transit and passenger rail investments (at least compared to other states), but those interests are not nearly enough. The focus needs to stretch far beyond just roads and ferries, and begin to take into account Washington’s long-term future. The Transportation Commission own survey showed exactly that– that Washingtonians are willing to push the State to make a strong stand for transit.