Seattle’s Property Tax Limit

[See also the correction to this piece, with additional clarifying information about the reserve.]

Although Initiative 118 has ceased signature gathering, some fans of progressive tax sources still support amending the Murray plan to include property tax. The initial criticism of I-118 was that there wasn’t sufficient authority to pay for both buses and various other policy priorities, later refined into a reluctance to have two property tax measures (along with Pre-K) on the ballot simultaneously.

We can’t examine the facts of the competition critique, but we can look at the authority issue. Two weeks ago (before this issue blew up) I asked City budget expert Ben Noble, City Budget Director Council Central Staff, how I-118 would affect those priorities. Note the larger size of Mayor Murray’s proposal ($45m annually) compared to I-118 ($25m).

RCW 84.52.043 gives Seattle the authority to levy $3.375 annually per $1,000 of assessed value. RCW 41.16.060 provides a further $0.225 for firefighter pensions, currently in use, for a total rate of $3.60. In 2014 Seattle is levying $2.90 of that, leaving 70 cents.

Given the current state of the housing market, staff now believes the reserve should be at least 12%, or 42 cents, meaning there is only 28 cents remaining. Staffers are currently drafting the formal policy recommendation, based on the fact that “During last downturn, we saw a single-year drop in property values of this magnitude (~12%) (and actually the cumulative decrease over the three years of the recession was even larger).”  Property tax levies are enabled as dollar amounts, and the rate fluctuates with the size of the tax base. Therefore, a plunge in property values increases rates, possibly exceeding the limit and forcing cuts.

The Pike Place levy (6 cents) and Parks Levy (19 cents) expire at the end of 2014. If the Metropolitan Parks District passes, that doesn’t apply to the cap and removes the need for parks funding that currently does apply. As a result, the effective available rate is currently 28 cents and it could go up to as much as 53 cents at the end of the year.

Note also that if the tax base increases by more than 1% rates will go down, rather than increasing gross revenue. Thanks to action of the legislature and Governor Gregoire (in response to Tim Eyman’s unconstitutional I-747), total collected revenue cannot grow by more than 1% per year, except for newly voter-approved levies.

The Pre-K proposal is $14.5m per year, or about 11 cents, with the intent to increase four years later as the program scales up. Bridging the Gap, a collection of worthy transportation projects, taxes at a rate of 36 cents through 2015; Seattle will certainly seek a renewal, although the rate of that renewal is not yet determined. Merely keeping up with CPI inflation since 2006 would require roughly a 7 cent increase. Beyond that, there are certainly enough transportation needs to consume any politically plausible renewal rate.

Each cent of property tax generates about $1.3m annually at current property values, according to Mr. Noble. I-118 asked for 22 cents, but to reach the Mayor’s higher annual funding level of $45m would require 35 cents. To fund the plan entirely with property tax, pass Pre-K, and adjust Bridging the Gap for inflation would consume the entire reserve – before any follow-on phase of Pre-K, expansion of BtG, a parks renewal if the district vote fails, or any other conceivable need.

While it would certainly be plausible to fund a small slice of Metro operating hours through property tax, the bulk of the package will have to come from other sources if the city is going to meet its other goals through property tax, including transportation ones that directly benefit transit.

More Construction = Lower Prices

Any time we write about how more housing will lower housing prices, or at least limit their growth, some commenters say that we’re wrong because New York is dense and expensive. It’s as if we’re citing the “law of supply” instead of the law of supply and demand.

Anyhow, via Vox here’s a Trulia chart comparing new construction vs. rising prices.

Sadly, Seattle isn’t one of the labeled dots. Regardless, the density naysayers would have you believe that cities can sustainably be in the upper right quadrant of this chart. That may be so, but there’s no empirical evidence to support it.

Path Dependence: HCT on the Eastside

It turns out the Eastside Rail Corridor is good for at most 5,000 daily riders as a commuter rail line, which is about one rider for every blog post and op-ed that’s been written about it since BNSF decided to sell it a few years back.

That’s one of many things we learn from Sound Transit’s study of high-capacity corridors on the Eastside released last week. The study looked at two corridors in particular, the former BNSF corridor and I-405. As you can see from the chart below, the ERC doesn’t perform nearly as well as I-405 does.


There are several reasons for this. The less expensive version of the ERC alternative is single-tracked, which means trains could only run as often as once every 20 minutes. Ripping out the tracks and installing BRT or light rail improves ridership, but at greater cost (and encounters some issues with a narrow right-of-way).

Continue reading “Path Dependence: HCT on the Eastside”

News Roundup: Painfully Eloquent Microcosm


This is an open thread.

ST’s “South King” Study: The Hazards of Regionalism

As Frank initially covered on Saturday, Sound Transit has released a slide deck summarizing a new study of possible high-capacity transit options in a large, roughly L-shaped area connecting downtown, West Seattle, White Center, Burien, Tukwila, and Renton.  Sound Transit’s study doesn’t restrict itself to a single corridor, particularly in the West Seattle/White Center part of the study area.  Instead, the agency presents a wide variety of options for HCT throughout the entire study area, parts of which could presumably be mixed and matched to form more refined options, just as SDOT and Sound Transit intended with the first public draft of their Ballard proposals (later refined).

Everything from slow, low-cost semi-BRT to long, extravagant light-rail tunnels is on the table, and the route between Burien and Seattle could serve Morgan Junction, South Park, or just about any neighborhood in between.  To avoid duplicating Frank’s post, I won’t resummarize all of the options here—I’ll just reprint Sound Transit’s table, and add more specifics where needed below. (Please note that ST made a typo on Option A5 in this table — it is LRT, not BRT.)

Sound Transit's summary of HCT options.
Sound Transit’s summary of HCT options.

As could be expected in an area as confusing and topographically difficult to serve as this one, the options reveal competing, dramatically different ideas about the goals of major transit investments.  And Sound Transit’s evaluations of each option, which are on the last page of the study presentation, tip the agency’s hand about which goals its planning process is designed to serve first.  While it is wonderful that ST has finally given detailed study to an area it more or less ignored for many years, I would argue the agency is much too focused on new and speculative regional connections, and not focused enough on speeding up existing trips with extremely high demand.  As a result, I think it didn’t put together the best combination from among its menu of options.  Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to mix-and-match our way to the best option.  More below the jump.

Continue reading “ST’s “South King” Study: The Hazards of Regionalism”

Mayor Murray Unveils Plan D

Although some details leaked out yesterday, the official rollout of the latest plan to save Metro was at 9am this morning. In the City of Seattle, there would be a $60 vehicle license fee (VLF) and 0.1% sales tax increase, yielding $45m annually and entirely dedicated to transit. The cuts scheduled for 2014 will go through, but Murray expects $40m of this revenue to avoid “the vast majority” of the 2015 cuts — 90% of the current boardings in Seattle — to routes “mostly in” Seattle. This amounts to about 8% of the current, countywide system. The city may find $500,000 to restore the night owl trips in the 2014 tranche of cuts.

The intent is that the Council would put the money in large buckets and Metro would make specific route decisions, with protections in the intergovernmental agreement so that the post-cut network is the baseline for Metro’s service allocation decisions. Executive Constantine laid out the standardized framework for these agreements, called “Community Mobility Contracts,” yesterday. Mr. Constantine stated unequivocally today that “the money stays where the city specifies.”

$3m will go into a “regional partnership fund” for employers or other cities that want to match Seattle’s money to buy service on inter-city routes like the the 158 or 215. Even one-way peak expresses are eligible. The Mayor’s office says these are good for Seattle employers and they keep cars off Seattle’s streets. Seattle residents righteously indignant at this “subsidy” for suburban residents might consider that 100% of Sound Transit Express service is funded by suburban subareas.

The remaining $2m will fund a VLF rebate for low-income residents.

Murray said that “when a regionwide solution is in place, we would phase this out,” although in the future Seattle might ask voters if they would like to use this money to improve service in “desperate” areas like West Seattle and Ballard. Murray said that in his opinion “we do not have real bus rapid transit in this state,” and had Prop 1 passed he would have focused on remedying that immediately. Aggressive capital plans will now have to wait for the legislature to free up the VLF funds, as “for the moment we’re managing our way through the crisis.” If the legislature were never to the act, by law the sales tax portion can be in effect for no more than 10 years.

This plan still has to pass the Seattle City Council before going to voters. Transportation Chair Tom Rasmussen, in response to a question, suggested he preferred VLF to property tax because Seattle voters have already approved it. However, he said Bridging the Gap was a mechanism for property tax to fund transportation, one that would likely continue. Mayor Murray showed no enthusiasm for having two property tax measures (Pre-K and transit), on the ballot simultaneously, closely following a Parks property levy.

In an interesting addendum, Shoreline Deputy Mayor Chris Eggen showed up to say his city was “strongly considering” participating in the regional partnership fund and/or Community Mobility Contracts, but could not commit to anything today.

SDOT to Pilot Red Bus Lanes

Red Bus Lanes Euston Road
Red Bus Lanes Euston Road. Flikr user Ian Fisher.

Per Bill Bryant, SDOT’s manager of transit programs:

SDOT is designing and plans to install new pavement markings to more clearly differentiate bus lanes from regular traffic lanes in locations where violations are a problem.

Initial locations include existing bus lanes on Pacific Street approaching the Montlake Bridge, Wall and Battery streets east of Third Avenue, and N. Midvale Place (Route 44) between 45th and 46th.

Success will be evaluated based both on compliance rates and on the durability of the painted bus lane surface. Other locations are likely if the initial installations prove successful. At this point we’re focused on 24/7 bus lane locations, but will try to adapt the new approach to part time (i.e., peak-only) locations if successful.

SDOT doesn’t yet have a cost estimate, but pouring a bunch of paint over an existing bus lane shouldn’t be that expensive. I suspect that this improvement, like all sensible bus improvements, will deliver measurable improvements to speed and reliability at almost negligible cost. On Battery St in particular (where I used to walk to work every day), the existing bus lane restriction is somewhat effective, but the channelization is complex and confusing to drivers unfamiliar with the area. A swath of bright red paint would help communicate to drivers where they aren’t supposed to be.

If these lanes prove to be effective (and they’ll still need more enforcement than today, to meet their full potential), I’d like to see SDOT go to the next step: mixing red color into the asphalt of the road surface the next time the road is paved. This ensures the color will last the lifetime of the road surface, and is the way most bus lanes seem to be implemented in the places (like central London, pictured above) where they are truly ubiquitous and permanent.

Sound Transit Releases Lynnwood-Everett Analysis

everett_lynnwoodLast week the Sound Transit board received the report of the initial planning process for the Lynnwood to Everett corridor, a corridor especially notable for two reasons. First, it has consistently been the highest priority for the Snohomish County representation on the Sound Transit Board. As a key political motivator for Sound Transit 3 in a subarea with relatively low funding capacity, the cost of this project is likely to drive the size of the overall ST3 package; if nothing happens to subarea equity, cost estimates in Snohomish County may determine how much is available to meet the effectively infinite demand in Seattle.

There are three light rail options and two BRT. Although they all terminate in downtown Everett, all five have the possibility of continuing to Everett Community College, like most colleges a decent generator of all-day demand (the figures in italics above).

There are five basic alignments coming down from Everett:

  1. Rail straight down I-5 (Option B);
  2. Largely elevated rail down SR99 to Airport Rd, and then over to I-5 (Option C);
  3. Same as #2, but with a sharp right turn to serve the Boeing plant (Option A);
  4. BRT down I-5 and to the Boeing Plant via separate lines, using freeway HOV lanes and business access and transit (BAT) lanes (Option D);
  5. BRT down SR-99 till it cuts directly south to the Lynnwood Link Station, mostly in new, dedicated right-of-way (Option E).

As with almost all of these studies, there’s a philosophical choice between low-cost, low-quality, low-ridership BRT options and more expensive, high-quality rail with significantly more ridership. The LRT costs and benefits are on the order of Central Link as a standalone line, and would allow Community Transit to get almost entirely out of the business of running North/South commuter buses. Roughly speaking, the BRT ridership numbers aren’t a clear improvement over current Snohomish County buses into Seattle.

Among the rail options, the cheapest option (B) has the lowest ridership, and like most freeway alignments has less development potential. However, as the fastest alternative it’s the clearest improvement over freeway express buses (currently 28-30 minutes). But even the diversion to SR99, with much more ridership and development potential, is about as fast as today’s buses while being somewhat more expensive than B. From the perspective of spending as much as needed to make the line as good as can be, Option C is clearly the best.

The Boeing diversion is a substantial addition in delay and cost that brings no net additional riders. Certainly the extension to the college is a better use of marginal dollars than Option A, in particular because rail is far more suited to the uniform all-day demand of a college than a shift-oriented workplace. It’s unclear how the presentation rates Option A as “high performing” in travel time, as it’s worst of the three rail options in that regard. It’ll be interesting to see how Boeing’s influential voice in Snohomish County policy affects this discussion.

Studies Provide a First Glimpse at Several New Regional Transit Corridors

Here's what we're studying in ST2.
Here’s what we’re studying in ST2.

As I mentioned on Saturday, the 2008 ST2 package funded a whole bunch of corridor studies around the region.  Sound Transit is now in the process of conducting first-pass, high-level conceptual planning around these corridors.  Should any of the alternatives prove worthwhile, a detailed public outreach and planning process will occur.  It’s important to note that none of these projects are funded for actual construction yet.  Nonetheless, the corridor plans give us our first glimpse of what a possible ST3 package might include, should one be put on the ballot in 2016 or later.

Last fall we got to see the first corridor study, Downtown to Ballard. ST completed preliminary work on Federal Way to Tacoma for the 2007 Roads and Transit package. Last week the ST board got a presentation on several more: Downtown to West Seattle (which I wrote about in Saturday’s post), Lynwood to Everett, and the I-405 corridor.  In June we’ll see Ballard to the U-District and on to Kirkland and Redmond, along with Kirkland to Bellevue and Issaquah.

In the coming weeks we’ll dive into each of these in turn and have a look at some of the options on the table.

Efforts Advance to Save Seattle Buses

Publicola broke the news on Friday, later confirmed by Keep Seattle Moving, that the group has suspended signature gathering for Initiative 118.  Per KSM’s blog post, the “mayor will propose a Seattle-only ballot measure to preserve Metro service in Seattle” and they “believe the City Council will support a ballot measure.”  Mayor Murray has previously stated that any effort to save Seattle buses should be long-term, regional, and take into account the various taxing obligations of the city beyond transit.

We look forward to seeing the details of the proposal on Tuesday.  The mayor, council, and others have all been looking at ways to preserve bus service in Seattle after King County voters rejected Proposition 1 last month.

Update 1:12pm: this post has been updated for clarity. Calling Tuesday’s announcement a “deal” is not quite correct.  Whatever is announced on Tuesday will likely have to be approved by Council and then go to the voters in the fall.

Sound Transit Presents Options for West Seattle & South King

As part of the 2008 voter-approved ST2 package, Sound Transit was asked to evaluate high-capacity transit on several corridors. Originally scheduled for study in 2018, we’re getting them 5 years earlier thanks to the efforts of Seattle Subway and the McGinn administration forcing the issue a couple years back. We saw Ballard last year, and now we’re getting our first glimpses at alternatives for West Seattle-Burien-Renton. At this early stage both Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail options are on the table.


Alternative “A” is a long, L-shaped route from Downtown to West Seattle and Burien and Renton that takes the ST2 study area literally. If Alternative “A5” looks familiar, it’s because it mirrors almost exactly the routing David mapped out in a post on the subject last year, tunneling to about Holden St. and surface-running thereafter. “A3” is a Delridge alignment, elevated South to Delridge and mostly surface-running beyond that, and “A4” is a BRT variant.

Alternative “B” splits the area into two separate lines, with one running from downtown to West Seattle, and another from Downtown, through South Park and straight on to Burien and Renton.  Planners noted that BRT (“B2”) would not be sufficient to meet demand from Renton to Seattle.  Light Rail (“B4”) in this alternative would serve the most riders (over 100K!) but would be the most expensive to construct, with two lines and everything north of Burien either elevated or in a tunnel.

Finally, Alternative “C5” runs mostly elevated light rail from Downtown to West Seattle, and then gives Burien/Tukwila/Renton a BRT route that’s not much different from RapidRide F. Renton-Seattle and Burien-Seattle commuters lose a one-seat ride in this scenario, but given the fiscal realities and other priorities of the South King subarea, that may not be possible anyway.

You can watch the presentation to the ST board at this link, which also includes bits on Lynnwood-to-Everett and I-405 BRT options. The comparison chart is below. Note that the costs* for most alternatives include a downtown Seattle tunnel south of Westlake, probably about $1 billion, but likely needed for a Ballard-downtown line as well.


West Seattle Blog has the full slide deck, which you can also find here. We’ll have more on these options in the coming weeks.

*  “Draft costs shown are conceptual level estimates only and are used for purposes of comparison”

Link Excuse of the Week: Tomorrow is National Train Day

Cascades at King St Station Photo by Jim Wrinn – Editor of Trains Magazine – Original Image HERE

This Saturday, May 10, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Amtrak, WSDOT, Sound Transit and others are holding a free event at King Street Station for National Train Day. There will be free samples from Tom Douglas, a tour of a Coast Starlight train, children’s activities, booths, and an nScale model train.

More details here>

KOMO’s coverage here>

See past Link Excuses of the Week here>

News Roundup: Already Here

This is an open thread. The report on West Seattle Link is coming tomorrow, so hold your horses.

Moving Forward on I-118

Seattle Transit Blog is eager to see Mayor Murray’s Metro plan, and open to the idea that it may be superior to the text of Initiative 118. However, we see no reason not to gather signatures for I-118 in the meantime. We simply cannot afford to wait for an alternative to develop, as Keep Seattle Moving must turn in 21,000 valid signatures from registered Seattle voters by early June.

Collecting signatures doesn’t necessarily mean the Initiative will be on the ballot. Ben Schiendelman, former STB staff writer and the spokesperson for Keep Seattle Moving, has told us that if the Mayor or City Council come up with a better solution they will drop I-118 and instead support that effort. We hope that the city does come up with a great solution. But until they do we need to keep working for I-118. As the $15 Now campaign has shown, the threat of a strong initiative can be a powerful tool for getting a superior final product.

In the next few days we will have an in-depth look at the benefits and weaknesses of I-118, and as soon as we have been able to digest the Mayor’s proposal we will do the same for it. But if Seattle wants to have the chance to chose the better of two options, we have to have two options. So go download the petition and start collecting signatures

The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Matthew Johnson, and Frank Chiachiere.

Cascades Without Amtrak?


Last month WSDOT quietly released a Request for Information,

“to gather information from providers of rail services about service delivery options to provide more convenient, rapid, and reliable intercity passenger rail service between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon.”

Noting that these submittals “are not responds to deliver the service”, WSDOT is nonetheless seeking input from the private sector (and presumably other governmental rail operators) about how to make Cascades more efficient and reduce its operating costs. If the responses sufficiently pique their interest, WSDOT may issue a full competitive Request for Proposal (RFP).

A little background: the Bush-era Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA) forced Amtrak to cease funding operations of its most successful routes (state-supported corridors of less than 750 miles). It was a masterfully cynical bill, for though Republicans generally love to hate Amtrak, they also love once-daily legacy service in their districts, which just so happens to be colossally expensive to operate. So they wrote a bill that trimmed the muscle and left the fat, as it were.

Amtrak had been funding 20% of Cascades service, but from October 2013 onward Washington and Oregon have had to bear 100% of operating costs. Though Cascades farebox recovery is relatively good at roughly 66%, farebox recovery is a rate, not an outlay. As Cascades is mandated to add at least 2 more trips between Seattle and Portland by 2017 as a condition of receiving $800m in stimulus (ARRA) funds, it is important to remember that farebox recovery could continue to improve while total costs rise. With a stalemated legislature that loves to play politics with rail, it’s the total costs that matter. Ergo, Cascades has no choice but to seek ways to cut costs.

While I’m no fan of British-style privatization (I lived there in 2008-2009), even the most fervent Amtrak supporters can admit, at a bare minimum, that the superiority of Amtrak’s operating procedures is not self-evident. Anyone who’s watched the sharpie-and-sticky-note shuffle at King Street Station will attest to the wasted time and money that antiquated procedures cause.

This RFI seems to be a good faith attempt by WSDOT to step back and see how things could be different with respect to insurance, labor, food and beverage service, coordination with host railroads, etc. There is significant precedent in bidding out operations, but this mostly occurs in commuter rail corridors, such as Keolis operating Boston’s commuter rail, or Bombardier running the Brunswick and Camden lines in Maryland, or TransitAmerica running CalTrain. For intercity corridors, only All Aboard Florida – which plans to inaugurate service between Orlando and Miami next year – will operate independent of Amtrak.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) comes of this, but as a frequent rider of both Cascades and long-distance trains I’d love to see things shaken up and solid funding secured. I dream of the day that we can:

  • Run modern software that allows for increased turnover, so that trains don’t always leave Seattle half-empty.
  • End unnecessary queuing procedures and assign seats electronically (if at all).
  • Have automated station and train announcements.
  • Break even or turn a profit on food and beverage service.
  • Reduce unnecessary staffing.
  • Design the schedule with performance in mind, with arrival times that make daytrips in both Seattle and Portland desirable while introducing skip-stop or express services.

How would you like to see things change on Cascades, if at all?

Action to Save Metro Heating Up

initiative118Initiative 118, the Seattle-only measure using property taxes to avoid cuts to routes that spend at least 80% of their revenue hours in Seattle, is collecting signatures. It’s also collecting endorsements from Seattle legislators:

former mayor Mike McGinn… West Seattle Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34); West Seattle Rep. Eileen Cody (D-34th); Ballard-area Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36); Southeast Seattle Sen. Adam Kline, 37th; Southeast Seattle Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37th); North Seattle Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-46); and North Seattle Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46th).

In an interesting bit of inside baseball, Mayor Murray got Sen. Kline to rescind his endorsement:

“He made a request,” Kline told me by phone. “I think he’s right. He pointed out that they wanted flexibility and I’m more than happy to give it to them.”… Kline volunteered that he’s on his way out of office and isn’t “subject to pressure,” nor did he get “steamrolled.”

This move made a lot more sense a short while later:

It appears we’ll have two efforts to restore service cuts. As always, the merits of any proposal are highly dependent on the details. STB will take a closer look at the text of Initiative 118 later, and the Murray plan whenever it emerges.

Map of King County Prop 1 Results by Precinct

excerpt of precinct level Prop 1 map
Click on map for interactive version.

Final results for last month’s King County roads and transit election at the precinct level were released yesterday. I compiled the results into an interactive map with numbers for yes votes, no votes, voter turnout, and number of registered voters. I also overlaid current Metro and Sound Transit routes on the map, using a solid dark line for all-day service and a wide white line for peak-only service.

Hover your mouse over or tap on your area to see how your precinct voted.