Columbia River Bridge, photo by flickr user reverendkomissar

Nearly everything about the way transportation issues are decided in Olympia puzzles me. In King County — and Seattle in particular — voters have fairly consistently shown support for transit in general and fixed-guide-way transit in particular, going back as far as Forward Thrust* in 1968. However, Olympia pays for nearly no transit here, and recently hasn’t done much to give Seattle, Bellevue or King County realistic means to expand transit. Meanwhile in Clark County, it seems voters and a number of elected officials don’t want light rail to be a part of the Columbia River crossing project, but Olympia putting $450 million into and has fought vigorously for $850 million in federal transit (FTA New Starts) money for the project.

That’s more federal money than any transit project in the history of the state has received, including U-Link and Central Link. I understand that the FTA New Starts money is needed to help complete the automobile part of the bridge, but still it’s confusing to me that the state leadership in the Olympia has put so much energy into transit projects with so little support and so much opposition, but have done so little in our area where help isn’t just wanted but needed.

*Forward Thrust failed at the polls because it required a 60% super majority to pass, but had majority support at 50.8%.

73 Replies to “Olympia and Transit”

    1. There were two votes. The first vote had a higher margin, maybe that’s what you’re thinking of.

      1. The first vote, in 1968, was 50.8%. The second, in 1970, was only 45% in favor.

    1. No doubt. Seattle and King County basically generate the state’s wealth, and get screwed in return. In fact, in seems like Olympia* takes glee in finding new ways to throw poop at Seattle.

      *basically rural republicans

      1. In many cases it is irrational considering they (rural counties) are often the benefactors of King County wealth (we export tax money, they import it). It seems the rational thing to do would be to nurture that economic engine instead of trying to whack it with a crowbar.

    2. Anti-Seattle and Anti-Clark county sentiment? It seems the residents there don’t want what Olympia is serving.

  1. If from 1993, you took all the time and money spent building the current system and instead built a SkyTrain, elevated, and only using the existing bus tunnels for downtown, we would have had a fast, countywide regional transit system 100 or even 200 miles in “fixed guideways”.

    That, the buses and some subsidized taxis would do it. Maybe we cancelled the wrong project, ETC.


    1. The cost of building the Canada Line was shared between TransLink ($335 million or 22 percent), the federal government (29 percent), the provincial government (28 percent), the airport authority (19 percent), and the City of Vancouver (2 percent)

      British Columbia picked up an even greater share of the tab for the Expo and Millenium Lines.

      And a Skytrain equivalent wouldn’t come anywhere near Kent.

      So shut up, John!

      1. Funds for the project came from several sources: the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provided a $500 million grant for the initial segment and $57 million for the line to SeaTac Airport; $2.07 billion came from local sales tax; and the remainder from a 0.3 percent (or $30 for each $10,000 value) motor vehicle excise tax, or “car-tab” tax, which is levied in the Sound Transit District.

        These taxes are collected in Seattle and the North King County cities of Shoreline and Lake Forest Park and the South King County suburbs. Taxes in neighboring counties are reserved for projects in those areas.


        2 billion in sales taxes!!

  2. Point taken, but I think you have to look at it from the context of Olympia, which is the context of state politics. If pro-transit allies start investing funds into Sno/King/Pierce, many parts of the state will have a knee-jerk, anti-Seattle bias.

    But at the state level, King is a liberal stronghold, Snohomish is a bellwether, Pierce is moderately conservative, Spokane is still too modest in size for its split decisions to have an impact. Clark, on the other hand, is the place where dreams go to die. Look at some of the past elections-on any office or initiative-and Clark racks up massive votes in lopsided tallies. So I would assume that, in addition to the actual need for rail to be piped from an established system in Portland into downtown Vancouver (which is a nice spot…I’ve always enjoyed my trips there), that it makes sense electorally. By building a base of support for transit and rail outside of metro Seattle, you transform not only the final vote count, but the perception of the broader public in the state.

    Clark is tailor-made for that transition.

    1. Clark County should be ground zero for a Seattle-Portland transit activist organizing effort to help get us more allies. If we’d beaten Don Benton last November a lot of these problems we face today would go away.

    2. Or, perhaps people in Portland and the government of Oregon are just really good at manipulating Olympia!

  3. What I don’t understand is why the legislature won’t let us tax ourselves, and ONLY ourselves, to pay for more transit. It seems this would not affect the rest of the state. Am I wrong that it would not affect the rest of the state?

    1. They need Seattle’s votes to pass any tax increase statewide. So if Seattle can just go off and do our own thing, that doesn’t work for people outside the city who can’t get statewide approval for transportation packages without us.

      1. Right. If we had broad self-taxation authority, we could effectively secede from the state by taxing ourselves for the services we need while blocking all tax initiatives that would benefit the rest of the state. When I read some guy spewing anti-Seattle bile, this all sounds really good to me.

      2. +1 – this is why. Because they don’t agree with their own voters, and need Seattle to overrule them. Irony!

      3. We should succeed, the cons on the other side of the mountains hate us anyway, why should we pay for anything for them? They are pretty much a Red State living off of us Blue Staters.

  4. The key here is that the CRC is primarily a highway expansion. There is no way we’d be able to get Olympia to fund a mass transit only bridge over the Columbia, even if it were almost all paid for by the feds.

    1. A *massive* highway expansion, which will, roughly speaking, cover half of Mercer Island.

      1. It won’t, though, because if that funding goes to a public vote, it’s toast. :)

      2. Nathanael,

        Do you mean “Hayden Island”? Isn’t this a thread about the CRC?

        It really won’t cover anywhere near half of Hayden, or even half of its business district. Hyperbole can be good, but most folks know that it basically just takes out the burned Red Lion and the strip of eateries just west of the existing freeway.

        Yes, the project is way too big, no doubt.

    2. Isn’t that crazy? A free project that achieves half their transportation goals and improves climate change, and they won’t take it?

  5. We haven’t done a good job of organizing in the suburbs for transit. The problem with most Seattle transit advocates is they don’t really care about, or in some cases actively oppose, investing in transit in the suburbs. The problem is that is totally unworkable politically since Seattle has only a fraction of the votes in Olympia. You cannot get more state funding for transit without building alliances and that requires organizing the suburbs.

    We don’t have to, and shouldn’t have to, wait for these places to become more dense and urban. By ignoring and disdaining the suburbs we cede them to people who are ideologically opposed to transit.

    Light rail was the issue that cost transit-friendly Democrats control of the State Senate as it helped Don Benton get re-elected in Clark County. Seattle transit advocates need to be working their asses off for transit-friendly electeds across the state and that requires building support in those places for transit.

    We have to be willing to support more bus and rail service outside the urban centers if we’re ever going to see improvements here in Seattle.

    1. Transit investment should take place where the resulting transit will be well used and contribute to economic development.

      Some suburbs qualify but not others. Here in the Seattle metro area, we need investment in South King County service almost as much as we need investment in transit in the city. And we need to undo some of the damage that brutal CT cuts did to the north end. But investment in the suburbs beyond those priorities just won’t have the same bang for anyone’s buck that investment in Seattle will. Coalition-building is good, but we need to go into it with open eyes about which transit investments will actually bring regional benefits.

      1. Nah. We need direct trains from Kirkland to Enumclaw and hourly bus service meandering into every cul-de-sac. That’ll totally get all the anti-government-waste voters on board with us!

      2. We need direct trains from Kirkland to Enumclaw and hourly bus service meandering into every cul-de-sac.

        Direct trains to every cul-de-sac.

      3. “That’ll totally get all the anti-government-waste voters on board with us!”

        It might, actually. People who rail against “government waste” are frequently massive recipients of ridiculous subsidies. When they say “government waste” they mean “That pork didn’t come to me!”

      4. …the trouble is, such people are also often ungrateful jerks, so if you give them their pork, they may STILL refuse to give you your much-needed projects.

      5. Nah. These are the voters who decry the “empty buses” they see everywhere, when the only empty buses are the ones sub-area equity forced upon the balance sheets.

    2. Well put. We need to lead the conversation on transit in most if not all 39 counties.

      This need not be Seattle versus the rest of the state, especially as other counties such as Skagit and Whatcom see our taxdollars bleed elsewhere. This needs to be one state pro-transit, period. No more sniping based on geography or political party.

      I apologize for the late response, I had two volunteer gigs on Island County today. Obviously, I took transit.

    3. It’s an issue of coverage vs. productivity. It’s entirely possible to build a network that *everyone* can walk to – but doing so with a set budget invariable results in crappy and unproductive service everywhere, as you have to spread coverage out so much that you end up overserving places with very few people, while underserving places with huge amounts of people.

      The problem with many suburban areas is that they have such a low population density that serving them with transit is inherently unproductive and inefficient. The same platform hour that could serve hundreds or thousands in Seattle only serves tens in Fall City, if that. Toss in the design choices made in many suburban road networks (cul-de-sacs, incomplete grids, and poor walkability) which inherently make effective service impossible or even dangerous, and it’s no surprise that most municipalities concentrate transit service where the people are, and where the urban fabric makes serving them efficient.

      Again, it’s a question of values, but if you have a culture the values government efficiency over fairness (which is what we have in the US, frankly), then you’re going to have transit that is more frequent and accessible in cities than in suburbs, and if you choose to live in the suburbs then poor transit access is going to be a consequence you’ll have to live with.

    4. What Avgeek is advocating is transit between the largest city centers in every county, not to every rural house. The idea is to get to neighboring cities, or to transfer in a chain across the state. There’s enough demand for that, and there would be more demand if such transit existed. Right now you can get from Bellingham/Oak Harbor to Lakewood (perhaps not all in the same day), but then what? Some years you can get from there to Olympia or Vancouver or Aberdeen, maybe all day, maybe just at rush hour, probably not on weekends, but it’s on-again, off-again.

      Obviously, some counties in Eastern Washington may be too small to support this, but almost all of Western Washington could.

      1. Mike,

        You can actually get all the way to Salem, if you can take two days to do it. From Olympia you have to go to Elma on the Aberdeen bus and change there to the Centralia line. From Centralia you can take two separate but co-ordinated vans for free bus that run out of Longview all the way to the 134th Street P’n’R in Vancouver, then C-Tran into Portland, Tri-Met to Smart and Smart all the way to Salem.

      2. Well-put Mike. I wish I was in a position to live in the U District of Seattle and get a UofW degree, but I’m not for financial & family reasons.

        Transit in areas like NW Washington State is best – and also partially due to our national obesity crisis – where there’s a walk to the bus stop that will take you to a hub and go from there. We simply cannot afford financially or health-wise regular bus runs for every Skagitonian or even Sedro-Woolley (my hometown) neighborhood and frankly we should stop doing this for the schoolkids as well.

      3. Here’s another way to look at it.

        The Avgeek model: hourly buses between the largest city centers in each county, connecting to the periphery of urban transit (e.g., Sound Transit). People can figure out the last mile (or ten miles) on their own.

        The Bailo model: high-speed (200 mph) rail between the above cities, and selected rural stations. In large cities it would not stop at the periphery, but go seamlessly through with one station (like Sounder) or several stations (like BART). Frequency has not been determined yet, but hourly is the working assumption. The statewide network is already in design, and plans to push it east to Chicago are being fast-tracked. This will give a farmer in Arlington a 15 minute trip to downtown Seattle (one-seat ride), a 1 hour trip to Portland (one-seat ride), a 1 hour trip to Omak (1 transfer in Seattle), and an 15-hour trip to Chicago (1 transfer in Seattle).

  6. If you look at Washington in comparison to other states, we’ve done a better job funding transit by relying on local funding. I did a study on this for another state a few years back, and the states that were heavy on state transit funding had more meager funding overall. We suffer because the sales tax we use for transit is productive but unreliable. Also, we’ve doubled transit spending over the past decade or so, but all of the increase is for capital projects and debt rather than service.

    In the old days (before ST), local transit agencies could weather economic downturns by delaying capital projects, but now most of those are ST projects and local agencies no longer have that flexibility. Combined with a loss of MVET thanks to TIm Eyman, the local transit agencies are more vulnerable to the economy than ever, despite higher funding for transit overall. At some point I think it’s worth asking whether funds should be shifted from capital projects even today to maintain a constant operation level. The money’s been offered up by the public, but the capital projects are considered more important and the division of capital and operating into separate agencies limits flexibility that could help get through hard times like we’ve experienced lately.

    1. When you use unreliable revenue sources but focus them on capital investments (as Sound Transit does), you have enough slack in the timing of the investments that you can afford to continue operating the service.

      And if we automated the service (like Canada Line), in some Seattle routes we wouldn’t even be providing a tax subsidy to operations…

    2. In the old days (before ST), the only way to get from Seattle to Lynnwood or Tacoma outside unidirectional peak expresses was on the predecessors to the 358 and RapidRide A, so it took two or three hours. The only way to get from Seattle to Bellevue (outside unidirectional peak expresses) was on buses that meandered through Beaux Arts and every Mercer Island exit. Delaying capital projects has a cost, and it’s the usability of the transit system and its ridership. Our current transit system competes better with cars than it did before ST, but it’s still nowhere near a 50% even choice for users. If we were just talking about delaying a subway renovation for a couple decades, no big deal. But we’re at a stage where transit is severely handicapped vs cars, and needs capital investment. We need to finish RapidRide and make similar enhancements to several other routes (44, 48, 120, Madison BRT, 169, etc). When we’ve finished those, then it’ll be easier to take a break from capital projects.

      1. I have to correct you on the Seattle-Tacoma service pre-ST, Mike. Pierce Transit was running the 594 all day in both directions by the mid-’90s, though with less frequency. Had ST not been formed, PT would have had to cannibalize its local service to keep up with demand — it probably would have ended up more like Community Transit in its priorities.

      2. Erm, yes, Pierce Transit started the Tacoma Express, but as I recall it was only a year or two before Sound Transit took it over, and it was pretty clear that ST was going to be created soon.

  7. Forward Thrust required 60%?!? Good grief, Olympia was always against us. It’s a wonder that we even got this far.

    1. Yeah, if it had been Sound Transit style, OR if it had just been in Seattle, it would have passed. It was a direct bond issue. Direct bonds still require a supermajority!

    2. I was surprised to learn that Forward Thrust was just a half-point shy of 60%. That means that the people who say it failed because King County didn’t think rapid transit was important are full of it.

    1. Look at the last vote for an income tax – It failed by a wide margin despite being narrowly targeted on the rich. It also cut state property taxes by 20% and cut B&O taxes for small businesses. If something like that can’t pass, it’s time to just give up and look elsewhere.

      1. That last income tax was poorly marketed. The campaigning for it was extremely weak and ineffective.

        Polls showed that after the election was over, most voters never understood those 3 core points.

      2. That doesn’t mean it was poorly marketed – it means it’s nearly impossible to market it.

      3. It has a high psychological hurdle for passage. People are afraid the sales tax won’t really come down to compensate, or that it’ll be back up at its current level in a few years, and the net result will be that they’re paying 1/3 more state taxes. The example of California looms large: its sales tax is within a smidgen of ours and it also has an income tax. People who haven’t experienced a state income tax assume it’ll be like the federal income tax; e.g., 28%-ish. Even if it’s low like 3% at first it will creep up. So in other words, approving a state income tax opens the door to effectively a 30% tax increase.

        If the proponents want to market an income tax, this is the impression they need to counter. And if they believe the effective tax rate will be lower than this feared rate, they need to explain how it’s ironclad guaranteed to be lower, and not just a simple legislative vote away from 30%.

      4. Funny – people in Oregon say that we (Oregonians) should grow up and get a sales tax! -and dump the income tax!

      5. I personally voted no on the income tax out of concern that even though the threshold was $250,000 today, it would end up decreasing in the future (or staying the same, but decreasing in real value via inflation) until effectively everyone ends up paying it.

        There’s also the concern of the bureaucratic red tape that a state income tax would create.

  8. Seattle folks don’t get it. You will always vote for someone with a D next to their name, why should Oly cater to you?

    The elections are won in swing districts

    1. So make it a Green vs. Democrat swing district and Olympia might listen.

      This is actually a serious proposal. But you have to get people in Seattle to stop wasting their votes on Republicans, first.

    2. The way the Dems are pissing off their urban constituents, there might be some socialist/democrat swing districts in Seattle soon.

    1. If we could get rail from Seattle to Olympia (not Lacey), we would start having a lot more of a say.

      1. Ben;
        There are buses from the Amtrak station to the state capitol. Try using Google Local to plan your route.
        GO BEN GO!

    2. The problem isn’t where the state capital is, the problem is:

      a) A Republican Party – my party – that needs a wayfinder to the 21st Century
      b) A state where Tim Eyman’s initiatives have done immense damage to transit
      c) A divided but unconquered (yet) group of transit advocates
      d) State Senator Curtis King

      There you go.

      1. b) A state where Tim Eyman’s initiatives have done immense damage to transit

        This seems to me to be the worst of the four. The power of the purse should never be in the direct hands of the people. It is a horrible idea in a representative democracy. Initiatives should be used for social issues, for crime and punishment issues, and for recall. People are, and have always been, too knee-jerk when the question of government spending is broached. That’s why our system was developed, because we as a populous are easily swayed by the breeze of the loudest yell.

      2. redmondrider;
        I disagree as to the power of the purse. I just feel we need to put a check on taxing & spending, and since most taxpayers can’t get down to the state capitol to stop either special interest tax loopholes or special interest spending requests we need some kind of a firebreak. Eyman is doing it the wrong way though as I’d rather target the wasteful spending, and save the money so we can fund true needs in a recession.

        I do think half the problem is there is an entire industry towards dumbing down the American public. G*d Bless Seattle Transit Blog staff for stepping into the breech to advocate for transit!

      3. Eyman’s general problem is he’s using a crane truck to pound a nail, so the collateral damage dwarfs the supposed benefit. But he and his allies also have a specific transit problem, that transit is bad and socialist, at least anything beyond a token coverage service, while more highways and free parking and untolled bridges express America’s capitalist freedom. A flat toll is tolerated to pay for the same bridge, but no commie congestion charges or toll-for-transit subsidies.

  9. One thing folks here on the Seattle Transit Blog need to be careful of is becoming a Fox News style echo chamber for the transit savvy crowd.

    The default mode for even those in the central Puget Sound region is the automobile.

    This includes those people such as the ones I have conversions with daily, who are focussed on using non-automotive transportation.

    Don’t compartmentalize the politics into an us vs. them debate, since the battle to be won is local.

    Local for Avgeek, and local for everyone else.

    Pitting local, and personal, transit options against each other is the one most self-destructive exercise taken on this blog.

    The focus of the effort needs to be on shifting the center of gravity for the general public’s mindset.

    Trust me, the default mental state here is to drive, and if our weather didn’t cover up that fact by scouring out the polluting effects of that mindset, this region would look like LA, air quality and all.

    Essentially, “we have met the enemy, and they is us.”

    1. One thing we need to do is think wholistically about the metropolitan area as a single unit, and not cities vs suburbs. People’s lives do not end at municipal boundaries, especially after 50 years of car/highway domination. In German cities, compact live-work-shop-play cells have always prevailed, and there are cultural inhibitions to commuting to a job in another city or moving to a different region from your parents. That is patently not the case here, especially after 50 years of intentionally obliterating it. We do need to revive it with more compact, self-contained neighborhoods in both the city and suburbs, with frequent rapid transit between them, and at a higher priority than more single-family blocks and strip malls on the periphery. But we mustn’t get too extreme or draconian about it. Real people live in in-between density and have a right to expect some level of transit to their neighboring communities, nearby workplaces, and shopping centers. It’s not right to draw a circle around Seattle and Bellevue and say to everyone outside it, “No transit for you. Your neighborhood/city is too incorrect. When you zone everything to 4-8 stories, then you can have transit. Until then, suffer with your cars, and I don’t care how much oil you use.” Better urban centers will evolve over time; they can’t be forced all in one year, especially in a democracy that has a lot of people who believe in low-density and highways.

      Pitting cities against suburbs ignores the fact that parts of the larger/closer suburbs are becoming more like Seattle neighborhoods; there’s an increasing convergence of needs, expectations, and problems. And the lower-density parts of these suburbs are like the lower-density parts of Seattle. A large 5×5 mile rectangle of medium density like Chicago may be ideal but it has never existed here: we have smaller urban islands in a sea of houses — both in the city and in the suburbs. Transit needs to serve the community we have, not the community we wish we had.

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