Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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.

35 Replies to “Redefining the State’s Role in Transit”

  1. The state has a lot of other priorities that need funding first, like education. WSDOT has a history of projects that not only don’t include transit, but are downright hostile toward it, so I wouldn’t count on them spending wisely. And state funding granted to local authorities often comes with too many strings.

    The best thing the state could do immediately is raise the maximum allowed sales tax rate for PTBA’s from .9% to 1%
    A FULL PENNY TO FUND TRANSIT is a simple message to sell voters. Perhaps the state would want to restrict that authority to agencies that offer Sunday service – hint, hint, CT….
    The other thing they could offer is a flat fee on property (per acre, res. unit???) that benefits from having frequent service (better than 15 minutes for at least 14 hours M-F…?). I’m not sure on the constitutionality of that.
    I would support anything that is sustainable and stable for the long haul and not increasing the antagonism of cars vs. transit.

  2. A couple of observations on this. Washington has pretty strong funding for transit, in part because we have enabled significant local funding options and local voters are more generous with transit funding than most state legislatures. I found in a survey of some other states a few years ago that those relying predominantly on state funding had much more meager transit budgets. According to Transportation 2040 (huge file, see Figure 22 on page 44), under current law transit will take in over 60% of all transportation funding in the Puget Sound region over the next 30 years, with local jurisdictions getting about a quarter and state highways getting a little over 10%. That doesn’t mean more isn’t warranted, but it’s worth noting as a baseline.

    The big challenge I’ve seen facing transit agencies over the past decade since I-695 has been the reliability of funding, more than the total amount. (We’ve also used bond financing too liberally, but that’s a different issue). The sales tax fluctuates wildly with the economy, unlike the old MVET that was more steady. Each time local agencies have gone for new funds and promised new services, the economy has intervened and cuts have occurred instead leaving promises deferred. In my ideal world, either the state would prioritize enabling more stable local transit taxes, or higher levels of government with a broader tax base would help fill the revenue gaps during hard times to provide a more stable revenue stream.

    Another factor that’s contributed to revenue issues for local agencies is the separation of capital and operating funding between agencies – with Sound Transit taking on most capital funding in the Puget Sound region and local agencies focused mostly on operation. Before ST, transit agencies could help weather economic hardship by deferring capital projects in order to keep operations constant. The capital program provided “ballast” in a way. Without large capital programs the local agencies are now more exposed to the economy, with dips in revenue resulting in immediate service impacts and painful job losses.

    I agree that the state could choose to play a role in capital funding – though legislators are also facing a deluge in other competing needs for taxes. (I don’t agree that funding for better transit speeds and reliability on roads is somehow a lesser form of support; for WSDOT that seems like a sensible priority). But I might suggest that if a fund was created for transit support, that it be devoted to capital spending during good times and operating support when transit revenues drop due to the economy. The first funding priority ought always to be to provide a stable revenue base for service in my opinion. There are plenty of other ways to make funding more reliable, but reliability ought to be the measure of any proposal put forward at this point.

    1. British Columbia kicked in roughly 1/3 of the costs of building the Canada Line — which as a result was then able to be built both quickly and well — and is doing so again for the Evergreen Line. The province is not in denial that its primary urban/economic center is of great importance to it.

      The Commonwealth of Massachusetts picks up much of the tab to MBTA operations, because being about to get around the Boston area is vital to keeping the state’s entire economic engine humming.

      And then there’s the rest of the world, where no one would even question the value of urban transit infrastructure to the health of national economies.

      All Washington does is “authorize” its urban areas to tax themselves. Using unreliable, regressive mechanisms. And at maximum levels that would be generous to label “anemic.”

      Do not delude yourself: there is nothing “strong” about this. It is anti-urban political boxing, and it is a fundamental denial of the reality of this state’s economic map.

      1. But I might suggest that if a fund was created for transit support, that it be devoted to capital spending during good times and operating support when transit revenues drop due to the economy.

        This is actually a pretty good idea, though. The fund must, however, be ample enough to truly build good projects well in those flush times, and to truly fill the operating gaps (and not just soften the blows) in rougher times.

      2. When I lived in Boston the MBTA was a service district comprising I thin 76 towns and cities. I guess only recently MBTA was consolidated into the Massachusetts DOT and given some dedicated state funding, but it still relies most heavily on its constituent towns and cities for funding – and if they’re to rebuilt their aging rail systems they will need a ton of federal funds.

        I don’t disagree that states and the federal government are better suited to funding large capital projects, or that Canadians have benefitted from their decision not to fund an urban freeway commuter system as we did. Ideally larger-scale governments will fund really big projects because their broad tax base allows them to channel large volumes of money with borrowing. When the feds funded 80% of the interstate system (and 90% of HOV lanes), states didn’t need to borrow much at all because federal funding could arrive when needed. And if you can avoid borrowing you have *twice* as much money to use on transportation because you’re not giving more than half you money to financiers (which is equivalent to putting it in an incinerator if you have any other choice).

        Even without state funding, Sound Transit could have avoided much of its borrowing costs by applying funds from its entire service area to building out the rail system. But the subarea equity policy prevented that There hasn’t been enough trust between local policymakers to put money into someone else’s district and expect them to do the same for them (years later) when it’s their turn to build. It’s not crazy to think that the ST rail system could have been built for half the cost (and years faster) if there was enough trust among policymakers to put the entire service area proceeds into rail to build it out incrementally. That would be theoretically possible if people believed their part of the line would be completed eventually (and were willing to wait that long), but that’s asking a lot of people charged with looking out for their constituents. If you take that political reality and expand it to the statewide level, it can be even more difficult to trust that investments dedicated to urban transit will someday benefit the other half of state residents who don’t live in the urbanized Puget Sound.

      3. The existence of ST Express didn’t stop opportunistic pretend-pro-transit Federal Way City Councilmembers from publicly bashing ST over not having enough funding to get Redondo Heights Station built sooner (when the fault really lay with the suburban politicians who insisted on sub-area equity).

        They whined about the $12 million in taxes they’ve paid into ST, but neglected to mention the cost of building the Federal Way Transit Center or to operate buses 574, 577, and 578.

        If we actually had pro-transit legislators from Federal Way, the odds of the state coughing up money to help build light rail to downtown Federal Way faster would go way up.

      4. Rob,

        Those towns and cities — 76-ish with full local service provided by the T, 175 including those served by commuter rail — pay into the system at agreed rates, and the Commonwealth basically picks up the rest of the tab.

        How that latter part has worked changes every so often with the times and with the political climate.

        Prior to 2000, the Legislature wrote a blank check, which naturally made it hard to calculate the rest of the state budget around.

        This let to semi-justified accusations that the T was profligate, so they instituted a dedicated revenue stream based on a portion of the statewide sales tax.

        Which made the 2008 crisis disastrous for the agency (sound familiar). So now they’re working legislatively to switch to a less spastic, but still state-supported, fixed revenue stream. (They’re also, crucially, looking to relieve the T of fiduciary responsibility for Big Dig-mitigating capital projects, which has been the primary source of agency debt. Projects which should have been paid for out of Big Dig funds, and never just offloaded onto a fixed-budgeted agency.)

        None of that is happening in Olympia. It’s basically still, “Building it is your problem; running it is your problem; we’ll let you tax yourself, but only with a very small pie that will never sustain you. Oh, and BTW, we’re going to take the rest of your money and build a Cross-Base Highway with it.”

      5. It’s not crazy to think that the ST rail system could have been built for half the cost (and years faster) if there was enough trust among policymakers to put the entire service area proceeds into rail to build it out incrementally.

        And that’s the real problem. It’s not about “trusting” that an urban project will be precisely reciprocated in the suburbs. It’s about the entire metropolitan area doing what makes sense for the entire metropolitan area, recognizing its economic inter-dependence. “Sub-area equity” is just a bullshit extension of the “welfare moms” fallacies that controlled suburban-vs-urban political discourse 35 years ago — it manufactures a false outrage that less-deserving types creatures are stealing your shit, obscuring the fact that suburbs are totally dependent economically on the core city, its infrastructure and its services in a haze of ignorance.

        If you take that political reality and expand it to the statewide level, it can be even more difficult to trust that investments dedicated to urban transit will someday benefit the other half of state residents who don’t live in the urbanized Puget Sound.

      6. If you take that political reality and expand it to the statewide level, it can be even more difficult to trust that investments dedicated to urban transit will someday benefit the other half of state residents who don’t live in the urbanized Puget Sound.

        Same smokescreen, thickened to the point of suffocation.

        Rural Washington’s economy benefits from the Puget Sound economy now. Without it they’d be Saskatchewan.

        And we don’t need to promise a benefit from state-funded urban projects; they’re Welfare Queens on an obscene level already.

        Only 30 years of lies from Olympia Republicans and spinelessness from Olympia Democrats allows the kettle to keep calling the lightbulb black.

    2. Rob makes a good point that is too often lost in the rhetoric of demanding MORE for transit. About half of all current taxes go towards transit, yet transit fails on its end of the pact by not increasing mode share above 10% of all trips taken in the region.
      Eventually, transit will wear out its welcome at the polls and in Olympia, when the promises to move masses consistently fails the test. When the road surfaces that 80% of all trips taken fail to the point of being very noticeable, or trip times fail by any national standard of acceptability, then transit will have nothing but two big holes left to look at in their feet.
      When transit starts to actually lower the cost per rider, rather than find ways to make the same trip cost much more, then I’ll be impressed.
      Today?, not so much.

      1. MIke, define your terms better. Are you talking about 10% of all vehicle trips or 10% of all people taking trips?

      2. That’s like giving somebody a pocket knife and complaining that he hasn’t chopped down a tree in year. Chopping down a tree requires a good axe or a chainsaw, and increasing transit share to 25% or 50% requires 10-15 minute service on ALL core routes, full-time regional expresses, and half-hourly night owls. Metro has been begging and begging for this for over a decade, but only a tiny fraction of it has been funded. Every piece of the transit infrastructure that’s not there gives people another reason to drive.

      3. That’s interesting data, MIke. Thanks for the link!

        I see that fewer than half of all trips are by SOV. ;)

        And yet, nearly the entirety of all our asphalt is devoted to them!

        This data should help sell a lot more HOV lanes.

        Happy New Year!

      4. As we embrace the New Year, let’s agree that transit is a superior form of moving many people from A to B. I see the challenge as transit having a responsibility to take advantage of it’s ability to move people at lower unit costs than by SOV and do it in a way that impacts the environment less.
        There’s the problem. Transit has made a good argument to voters and lawmakers for years, yet has failed to increase it’s mode share in any meaningful way. New systems coming on-line (Link, Sounder, Streetcars) actually have increased the cost per rider over the modes they replaced – doubling or tripling the cost of a ride. I could accept that IF they also began moving masses of people, but so far, that’s not been the case either.
        The Puget Sound is opting for solutions that are proving to be too costly to support in operating costs year in and out, and massive building programs that consume precious tax revenues to support generations of debt. Just look at S.Kink Co.s predicament right now. Most of their sub-area equity is eaten up by Operations and Debt Service. I fear my friends and family have entered a death spiral for future transit support. The trajectory we’re on is not sustainable, given today’s new economic realities.
        Transit ‘Champions’, like Ruth Fisher and others are in short supply.
        Instead of begging for more and more, we should be taking stock of what we have, and figuring out ways to do more and more with less and less.
        Projects like FHSC, or North Link are not the answer to moving the mode share above 10%, given the high capital cost of each.
        That viewpoint is taken as heresy by many reading this, and dismissed as hyperbole, hand wringing, ‘the sky is falling’ comments. Maybe so, but until transit moves the bar upward in the mode split contest, it’s a tough sell anywhere, and especially in Olympia, when revenue is in short supply.
        Just something to think about going forward in 2012.

      5. Note that the 7 MSAs that are ahead of our area have well-developed rail systems. Also note that the mode share for transit is increasing over time, and our local transit mode share is above the mean of top 100 MSAs.

      6. I agree rail is usually cheaper to operate per passenger mile. That’s why they have it and one of the reasons we are building it. Will ours follow that cost profile. NO. It’s turning out to be a bad investment with sky high operating subsidies for generations to come. That’s my point.
        Here’s another good link to follow.
        We’re near the top of the cost of operation per person line on the first graph, at about $250 per person per year. Look at all the cities below us. Our SMSA average household income is about $63,500 for 2010 based on the Brookings data.

      7. I assume you meant this Transit Politic post. See the sixth graph there; we may be at the top of the heap in terms of per-capita funding, but we’re not an outlier in terms of the transit mode share it buys us.

        I’m still not convinced by your arguments that rail operations costs will be unsustainable in the long term. The real test comes in 2016 when U Link comes on line.

      8. Nice chatting with you aw. Yes, 2016 will start the next month/month cycle of the ‘The little engine that can’ commentary. So maybe by 2018 we’ll have a good answer to my questions. Till then, all I say is BS!
        I’m not very optimistic, given Airport Link is barely above 50% of the ridership at it’s projected stage. I’d hoped ST would get real with the modeling input stuff by now, but the N.Link boardings for Lynnwood at 16,500 per weekday convince me they haven’t recalibrated a thing. That’s more than all the current DSTT stops plus Seatac thrown in for good measure.
        Some interesting economic discussions on cycles show the S&P index has a long way to fall in the next 10 years before a true recovery returns.
        Everything I read says hang on folks, it’s going to get really bumpy on the ride down. If I wrong, everyone can laugh at me. If I’m right, we can all cry together.

      9. Just to be clear, I wasn’t making an anti-transit argument – just trying to provide some context about how transit funding stacks up with other states and modes for context. We have pretty good funding levels really, but a very unreliable cash flow. And if you’re lobbying for transit in Olympia it’s importation to know that they’re concerned about deteriorating roads and ferries too.

    3. “…under current law transit will take in over 60% of all transportation funding in the Puget Sound region over the next 30 years”

      Much of our highway infrastructure is already built out while we’re just starting to build out our rail network. In that context 60% doesn’t seem overly generous at all. With what’s going on on 520 right now, one can wonder if the solution to our transportation problems is to simply toll the entire freeway network plus major arterials and put the money towards maintenance, spot improvements, and even more transit improvements – Heck, even paying for bike trails to existing transit centers might be cost effective. Kirkland’s vision for the BNSF corridor would make biking to South Kirkland so much easier and pleasant.

  3. Construction will start in January 2012
    The Evergreen Line will be in service in summer 2016

    4 years to build a whole (elevated, separated) line and only a cost of $1 billion?

    It’s taking us 10 years to from SeaTac to Federal Way!

    I don’t even know why we have these elongated discussions about funding, when it’s so obvious to anyone who reads facts about any place other than Seattle, that the costs and timelines involved here are hideously wrong.

    1. The discussions are psychological therapy, to help us cope with the wait.

      Seattle is no worse off than most of the country. Boston and the northeast has a massive head start because they were already major cities in 1940 with extensive subways which they didn’t dismantle. The “Seattle process” keeps things from being done compared to Chicago and New York, but we do have a DSTT and the beginning of a subway. San Jose, Dallas, Phoenix, and even Portland and southern LA don’t have that.

      1. It’s worth noting though that the old east coast subways need massive rehabilitation and are struggling hard to figure out how they will pay for it! It’s a lot easier always to get people to pay for something new than to restore something old.

      2. Bailo’s Vancouver comparison is not invalid.

        The topographies are not that different. Nor are the demographics or the economics or the histories. They sprawled autocentrically at the same time and for the same duration as we did.

        But as Bailo, points out, they get great stuff done fast.

        (And Portland gets less-great-but-good-enough-for-a-city-its-size stuff done fast too. We have a lot more money than Oregon; Portland’s level of political will would translate to much better projects here, done equally fast.)

        [Well, that random reply is my last of 2011. Happy New Year Messieurs Orr, Bailo, and all!]

    2. Well it’s $1.4 billion for ~7 miles and quite a bit of it runs along existing railroad ROW. It was also supposed to be built as part of the Millennium Line that opened in 2002, so really it’s about 14 years late. But the grass is always greener…

  4. Rob makes a couple of key points that I think are worth repeating here.

    1) We need a reliable revenue stream for transit – especially for transit operations. Sales tax is a joke and unless we come up with better solutions – local options most likely – we’re doomed to this life of 1 step forward and 3 steps backwards. I hope we see some action in the next session for this and transit advocates SHOULD make it our priority.

    2) Capital funding could come from Olympia — but let’s be honest – transit is in the same boat as the rest of our budget and it’s f**cked. New revenue – Yes! When are we going to stop being a land of millionaires and a state that cares about it’s hungry, uneducated and the environment – I wish I could tell you.

    Next stop – Olympia

  5. This is yet another way density effects transit. The more people that live in Seattle, the more powerful our bloc will be in the Legislature. Mass helps fund the T b/c IIRC 73% of the state’s population lives in the Metro area. For Seattle and WA it’s only 53%. We need to loosen our anti-incity growth policies to make sure that as much population is focused inside the city as possible.

    And annex White Center all ready!

    1. Washington State now has a majority metro area population. 53% in the King/Pierce/Sno Seattle metro area, plus Vancouver and Spokane make a significant majority. Due to historical reasons, our State constitution and political environment has decided that it is a statewide interest to subsidize urban highway commuting. A large majority of WSDOT funding is spent in the State’s large metro areas, to support urban commuting. But the State sees transit as a local interest that only affects a small percentage of State population, and therefore should be locally funded.

      This might have been an accurate description a few decades ago, when the only transit was local-stop city service. But since the mid-1990’s a growing and significant portion of regional commuting has been on transit: commuter express buses, Sounder commuter rail, etc.

      It is completely within statewide interest to provide funding for metro area transit AND highway commuting, as most other urban states do.

  6. I have to say I’m not real happy with the transit options in Skagit County, but with this recession + key strategic priorities up here (namely floods & a new jail), transit expansion is in for a nice wait. Olympia right now is fighting like hell to keep higher ed accessible, some social safety net and whiny WEA members demanding MORE while all of this is going on.

  7. “d.p. says:

    Rural Washington’s economy benefits from the Puget Sound economy now. Without it they’d be Saskatchewan.”

    Saskatchewan is one of the wealthiest provinces in Canada. Think before you bash.

  8. We have been waiting for funding for the Evergreen Line since 2001. The province support has always been there and 30% is also coming from the Federal government. The transit line has been held up for the last 3 years due to lack of funds at the regional level, roughly 30%. The province and local mayors had to approve an increase in property taxes and fuel taxes. The fuel tax increase is roughly $0.08 per gallon. Transit planners would like to see more flexibility to raise funds through parking taxes (businesses paying for spots at malls, workplaces etc.) and road pricing and car levies. The local government was denied the car levy and the parking space tax in the past which led to 3 or so more years of waiting.

    1. PS Maybe it is time to look at tolling new projects like the Alaskan Way tunnel? New highway infrastructure in Vancouver is tolled in some places where there are alternative routes. The Golden Ears bridge is tolled and the new Port Mann Bridge or Gateway Project is tolled.

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