Sound Transit Updates Long Range Plan

Where to next? Photo via: Dennis Hamilton

Yesterday the Sound Transit (ST) Board met to review the Long Range Plan (LRP) update, including discussion of the existing LRP text and corridors. As a reminder, the LRP represents the fiscally unconstrained vision of the Sound Transit system, selections from which will be used to develop a Sound Transit 3 (ST3) ballot measure. This workshop (materials available here) was a check-in on the LRP process that began nearly a year and a half ago when the board decided to accelerate ST3 planning for a potential 2016 ballot measure. Over the next two months, the ST Board will finalize the updated LRP, which will then be used to develop ST3 investment scenarios which would emphasize investment priorities such as completing the “spine” or maximizing system integration.

Staff began the meeting by presenting a “Chair’s Mark-ups” of the 2005 LRP text. Staff updated the text to begin the discussion and reflect some of the changes that have occurred since the plan was adopted in 2005. These changes included adding recent board policy decisions concerning station access and transit-oriented development. It also included updated definitions of bus rapid transit (BRT), including grade-separated busways and bus-only lanes. Staff also attempted to “tighten” the goal language to reduce repetition.  Finally, staff presented a high-level overview of the light rail, high capacity transit, bus rapid transit, express bus and commuter rail projects identified by the public as part of the plan update.

Councilmember Roberts asked that text around system integration be added to reflect the integration work currently underway between Sound Transit and Metro. Secretary Peterson said that WSDOT should play a larger role, that there need to be better integration of long-term land use planning with LRP corridors and that Sound Transit’s projects need to support local land use decisions. Another member wanted to add citizens’ health to the goals, but was unsure how to measure it.

Corridor Changes

The workshop maps show the new rail and HCT corridors that came out of the public process. There aren’t many of them because the existing LRP is already extensive. The biggest addition is West Seattle-Downtown light rail, formerly a monorail corridor. The map below shows the existing long-range corridors in gray, and the new corridors in bright colors and numbers. In some cases rail and BRT corridors overlap; e.g., Renton-Kent-Puyallup has both an LRT corridor (#7) and a BRT corridor (#33). Only one would be built, but the plan has both options. The BRT corridor continues to downtown Seattle, basically a variation of the 578. But BRT implies more than ST Express: it means frequent service and transit lanes.

Continue reading “Sound Transit Updates Long Range Plan”

ST3 Funding Options

Potential ST3 Revenue Sources
Revenue Options for a “Large” ST3 package

Sound Transit held a board workshop on Thursday to begin considering financing options for ST3, the draft update to its Long Range Plan (LRP), and the timeline to a potential ST3 vote in 2016. This article covers the funding aspect (slides here) and timeline because that’s where most of the new information was. The LRP will follow in a later post. The 3 1/2 hour workshop consisted of the ST board and staff who did all the talking, and some forty observers including people from Metro and your reporter.

ST’s current state-granted taxing authority is 0.9% sales tax, 0.8% rental car tax, 0.8% restricted MVET (Motor-Vehicle Excise Tax), and an employer tax ($2.5000/ employee / month). Of these ST is currently maxed out on the sales tax and rental car tax. The MVET can only be used to pay existing bonds and expires in 2028. ST has never collected the employer tax so it’s an unused capacity. When ST2 construction ends in 2023 it will free up $1 billion, mostly in the Pierce and Snohomish subareas.

The staff presented three potential levels for ST3. The lowest level (“ST2a”) stays within the existing taxing authority and could complete planning and engineering of the “Spine” (meaning the Everett, Tacoma, and Redmond Link extensions) — but not construction. The middle level (“Incremental”) would require more taxing authority from the legislature and could construct one or two of the “best-performing” light rail segments (which ones were left unspecified). The highest level (“Large”) would be a similar size as ST1 and ST2 and require $15 billion in new taxes.

The board seems to be leaning toward the Large option. One board member cited deep public hunger in both Seattle and the suburbs for high-capacity transit (HCT). Another said a larger package would have a better chance of being approved by the legislature and by voters. A third said the board’s consensus seems to be for a “bold” legislative proposal, “more than we need”. The staff are assuming a Large proposal for planning, and the board can scale it back if it decides to go smaller. Mayor Murray emphasized the importance of clarifying their legislative ask and making sure any ST3 package goes big.

The presentation listed ten revenue sources used by other North American transit agencies: sales tax, rental car tax, payroll tax, MVET, car sales tax, car fuel tax, parking tax, utility bill levy, toll revenue, or property tax. Staff chose three of these for comparison and presented tax rates based on the use of one, two or all three sources. The three slides above show the results of this analysis. Of course these could be mixed and matched to balance the revenue among two or three sources.

Staff identified reliance on a single revenue source as potentially problematic because it would increase sales tax above 10% or hit constitutional property tax limits in King County. Property tax is also harder to bond against. Staff also noted that property tax is the least objectionable revenue source, as determined by rider surveys. Using this as guidance, Sound Transit staff will be developing a legislative agenda including adequate revenue capacity for any of these scenarios.

One board member suggested the staff consider additional funding sources such as LIDs (local improvement districts), the TIF model (taxing the added real-estate value of being near HCT), partnerships with companies benefiting from the service, and federal and state grants.

The potential timeline for a 2016 vote and subsequent ST3 construction is as follows:

Continue reading “ST3 Funding Options”

News Roundup: 140 Minutes

New Xcelsior coach at Bellevue TC (Atomic Taco – Flickr)
New Xcelsior coach at Bellevue TC (Atomic Taco – Flickr)

This is an open thread.

The Monorail’s Interesting Governance Structure


Buried in the text of the Monorail petition is this explanation of the proposed governance structure:

(a) Nominating Entities – Allocation of Nominating Sources and Nominated Candidates for Board Positions. The first and successive board members for the Board shall be selected only from the ranks of each of the following Seattle-based organizations or institutions of the successors thereto: for Board Position 1 – one individual from the Sierra Club Cascade Chapter, for Board Positions 2 and 3 – two individuals only from the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, for Board Position 4 – one individual from the Downtown Seattle Association, for Board Position 5 – one individual from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, for Board Positions 6, 7, and 8 – one individual each from each of the following University of Washington departments, a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s Economics Department, and a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, for Board Positions 9 and 10 – two individuals who regularly participate in the affairs of or belong to any of the City of Seattle’s District Councils, and for Board Position 11 – one individual from the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle.

These nominees would be confirmed by the City Council. The board would then pick its last two members, without Council approval, from a self-nominated pool of applicants. Public officials are explicitly prohibited from board membership.

By the standards of most Puget Sound rhetoric, the proposed entity is “unaccountable” because the members aren’t directly elected. But I’m on record that directly elected boards are terrible, in fact only accountable to single-issue hacks like us and people with a vested interest.

That said, the problem with this proposal is that the nominating entities are themselves unaccountable, although Council oversight partially mitigates that. Furthermore, several of the anointed organizations have a history of status quo bias and overwrought concern about “impacts” than bode ill for good transit planning.

The ideal form of accountability would be the Mayor appointing the Board with Council confirmation, and holding them accountable for the general conditions in Seattle of which transportation, including the monorail authority, is a part.

There are many good reasons to vote against the monorail petition, but the desire for a directly elected board is not one of them. What do you think of the proposed structure?

Revenue Projections Meet Reality

The shape of things to come at the north tunnel portal

Clark Williams-Derry, Sightline:

For far too long, “build now, pay later” has been the transportation budgeter’s mantra. In the 2000s, for example, Washington committed itself to massive road projects that it didn’t have the money to build. So the state floated bonds, assuming that revenue from gas taxes would show up to pay them off.

That hasn’t worked out so well. Traffic didn’t grow as expected, and gasoline and tolling revenue has gone AWOL as a result. Gradually, planners have come to realize that debt service will swallow up most of the state’s gas tax receipts, crowding out everything else. As the chart below shows, WSDOT predicts that within a few years three-quarters of the state’s gas tax receipts will pay for old projects.

There are plenty of sound reasons — from Marchetti’s Constant to congestion to gas price volatility to increasing environmental concerns — to assume that gas tax revenues might decline over time as people either drive less or more fuel efficiently.  Nonetheless, WSDOT has consistently projected gas tax revenue reaching for infinity.  For a few years now, Williams-Derry and Sightline have been hammering away at those overly-rosy WSDOT projections (and this one on USDOT projections is a classic).  Glad to see the agency take the note.

What’s interesting to me here is that it’s not the planners, but the bean counters who have finally seen the light.  The Office of Financial Management is stepping up and calling B.S.  It’s a refreshing acknowledgement that we simply won’t have the money to pay for all these road projects with current gas tax revenues.  In a sane world, that would mean fewer highway mega-projects.  After all, if people are driving less, you don’t need all those mega-projects anyway.  In an insane world, that might mean individual counties looking to get creative with new highway revenue sources while Olympia dithers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, sadly, talk of a new RTID pops up sooner rather than later in an effort to squeeze more highway money out of a system that’s running out of it.

November 2014 Election Endorsements

Here are STB’s endorsements for the November election. We’ve already written about our support for Seattle Transportation Proposition 1 (more bus service) and rejection of Seattle Citizen Petition 1 (monorail planning).

As always, our endorsements are entirely the product of a candidate’s positions and record on transit and land use. We endorse only in races where one candidate has exceptional strengths or exceptional weaknesses relative to their opponent.

The editorial board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Frank Chiachiere, Matthew Johnson, and Brent White.

State Senate

Marko Liias
Marko Liias

21st District: Sen. Marko Liias has long been an ardent transit advocate, as Vice Chair of the House Transportation Committee, and now on the Senate Transportation Committee. He was the lone voice of firm opposition on the committee when Sen. Bob Hasegawa sponsored his ridiculous bill to force Sound Transit to subsidize car ownership around train stations. If retained, Liias would be in an excellent position to replace retiring Sen. Tracey Eide as the top Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee.

Pramila Jayapal

37th District: In Seattle races, almost everyone is for transit funding and the real discriminator is land use. Pramila Jayapal, running for the seat of the retiring Adam Kline, had the right answer on the crucially important North Rainier rezone. Her opponent didn’t.

Matt Isenhower
Matt Isenhower

45th District: Matt Isenhower told us he supports expanded ST3 authority for Sound Transit.  He also wants to increase the share of the state transportation budget spent on public transit, since our state is  near worst in the nation on state transit funding. His opponent has ignored multiple opportunities to tell us his position on transportation issues. As one of the few possible Democratic pickups this year, this race could determine if ST3 is on the ballot in 2016.

Cyrus Habib

48th District: Rep. Cyrus Habib was one of the rare state legislators who endorsed King County Proposition 1 last spring. In fact, he campaigned pretty hard for it. Now, he is running for the state senate seat being vacated by Sen. Rodney Tom. For Habib, transit isn’t just an issue. It’s an essential part of daily living. There is nothing like having a bus rider in the senate to put transit front and center, and Mr. Habib can make the case in business terms that many senators understand.

State House

Jake Fey
Jake Fey

27th, Pos. 2: Rep. Jake Fey was a positive voice on both the Pierce Transit and Sound Transit Boards while in other elected positions. He is too enthusiastic about extending Highway 167, but that is understandable for a Tacoma Representative. Most importantly, we expect him to be the most effective advocate for ST3 from Pierce County.

Joe Fitzgibbon
Joe Fitzgibbon

34th, Pos. 2: Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon wrote a piece on transit following the defeat of King County Proposition 1 this past spring. He led the fight on Governor Inslee’s climate change task force to include transportation in any carbon pricing scheme. He has worked hard to make sure Washington’s regional mobility grants go to the projects that rank highest according to objective criteria, rather than spread around to well-connected rural districts where neither need for transit nor acceptance of taxes is as great.

Jessyn Farrell

46th, Pos. 2: Rep. Jessyn Farrell is a Transportation Choices Coalition veteran who remains engaged on local transportation issues, such as the selection of new SDOT director Scott Kubly. She is a reliable vote to support alternatives to the car. More importantly, she is one of three vice chairs of the House Transportation Committee.

Ross Hunter

48th, Pos. 1: Rep. Ross Hunter has a reputation as a numbers guy, and that aptitude leads him to understand the geometry that demands both more density and more transit investment. His opponent is running to “expose” the “debacle” of light rail.

Joan McBride
Joan McBride

48th, Pos. 2: Joan McBride mentions funding transit and fighting climate change as priorities in her voters’ guide statement. Her opponent mentions neither, but running as a libertarian is a poor indicator on both issues. She is well-connected to the Eastside leaders that will be telling her that ST3 is a high priority for Eastside communities.

Monday is the In-Person Voter Registration Deadline

If you aren’t registered to vote in the State of Washington, you can still register in person this Monday, October 27, at the King County Voter Registration Annex, Room 440 in the King County Administration Building (4th & James, downtown), 8:30 am – 1 pm, and 2 pm – 4:30 pm.

Want to do some campaigning to add more buses on our full bus routes? Check out the latest opportunities at the Yes for Seattle Transportation Propositon 1 website.

“The guy who was going to bring the SkyTrain to Spokane”

Karl Otterstrom at Spokane Transit HQ
Karl Otterstrom at Spokane Transit HQ

About two months ago, I visited Spokane, to research a post about the controversy then churning around Spokane’s central transit station, the STA Plaza, and while there, I met Karl Otterstrom, head planner of the Spokane Transit Authority. Subsequently, I have felt rather sad that the only piece on STB about transit in Spokane should be one focused on a negative, and arguably manufactured problem, when there is a remarkably positive and durable story to be told; and today, I’m going to fix that.

The story is about a transit agency, serving a mid-size city in a politically moderate region, which has remade itself along with the network it operates: from the caretaker of an expensive, atrophying, ex-streetcar system, to the operator of a relevant, growing, rider-oriented grid of bus routes, built around frequent service and timed connections. In thus reforming itself, the agency has won the trust of local voters, and positioned itself, and the region it serves, for a future of continued improvement and growth.

I sat down (electronically) with Karl, to have him first introduce himself, and then tell this story.

Bruce: First, can you tell me a little about your professional background?

Karl: I have a Masters in urban planning from the University of Washington, and a BA in urban and regional planning, from Eastern Washington University. I have been a land use planner, working on a variety of land use actions, from conditional use permits for rock pits in Idaho to comprehensive plan amendments in the Rainier Valley. In graduate school I emphasized in transportation planning and interned for the Federal Transit Administration, before landing a job with King County Metro in the service planning group. There, I primarily worked on longer-range service planning and policy issues, including RapidRide and Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement planning. I left Metro in 2009 to become the Planning Director for Spokane Transit. I also interned at STA in 2002 and involved myself in transportation planning issues, as a citizen and professional, since about 2000.

How long have you been interested in transit, what got you started?

Continue reading ““The guy who was going to bring the SkyTrain to Spokane””

ST Express Route 591: A Great Idea Whose Time Is Already Here

SODO Station, 3 miles from South Lake Union
SODO Station, 3 miles from South Lake Union
One of the route reorganization proposals that has been featured in several Sound Transit Service Improvement Plans has been replacement of ST Express route 586 (Tacoma to the University of Washington) with a new route dropping off these passengers at Westlake Station, to catch Link Light Rail to University of Washington Station. The 2015 Draft SIP gives this proposal a number, route 591.

I am not sure how popular this idea is among UW students living in Tacoma, who might want to simply reverse the direction of the campus loop, and have it serve the U-District on the way to UW Station in the morning, and then have it serve the U-District last before heading down to Tacoma in the evening.

But, really, former 586 riders will not be the primary riders of route 591. With the rise of Amazon’s South Lake Union campus, among other multi-story employers in South Lake Union, there is plenty of demand for a route that not only makes use of the popular Seneca St. exit and drops off at Westlake Station, but also then heads into the South Lake Union business district. That demand exists right now.

Meanwhile, ridership on route 590 has ballooned from 2,139 daily weekday trips in 2012 to 3,011 daily weekday trips in 2013. (See page 77 of the 2015 Draft SIP.)

Let’s take an inventory of how many public bus routes from south of downtown Seattle are doing the SODO crawl, and how many are using the Seneca St. exit from I-5.

Exit from I-5 via Spokane St. viaduct:
King County Metro 101, 102, 150, 177, 178, 190
ST Express 590, 594, 595

Exit from I-5 via Seneca St.:
Metro 143, 157, 158, 159, 179, 192
ST Express 577, 578, 592

For Tacoma-to-Seattle commuters, there is no need to argue over whether the current route 590 or proposed route 591 path is better. There is already plenty of frequency in the peak direction to allow the trips to be split into 590s and 591s, plus the possibility of picking up a lot more riders with direct service to South Lake Union.

I realize I have totally avoided the topic of how route 591 would get to I-5 from South Lake Union and/or Westlake Station. Feel free to get creative in the comments.

News Roundup: Occidental’s 4th Wall

Occidental Square in August, Ming-yen Hsu (Flickr -- CC)
Occidental Square in August, Ming-yen Hsu (Flickr — CC)

This is an open thread.

Bike Sharing, Social Justice, and Urban Villages

Green Street

I’ve seen several complaints raised on the web and twitter that Pronto Bike Share only serves the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, and has ignored lower-income neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley. Certainly if bike sharing is going to be a vital part of the city’s transportation infrastructure, equitable delivery of service should be a top concern. But while much of the criticism of station locations is is well-intentioned, and equitable access to bike sharing could certainly be improved, any analysis needs to account for how bike sharing operates in practice.

To understand this problem, it helps to think about the kinds of trips bike sharing is used for. Washington, DC’s Capital BikeShare provides some great data about their system usage. One of the key take-aways is that most trips are one-way: pick up at one station and return at another. The pricing structure of bike share systems encourages short trips, further incentivizing this behavior. Renting a bike for a couple of hours while you go run errands or meet someone for lunch gets rather costly. Car2Go uses a similar pricing model: one designed to get the vehicles back into circulation as quickly as possible.

Therefore, a single Pronto rack next to, say, the Columbia City Link station, would likely be underutilized*. An effective bike sharing system requires a relatively dense mesh stations within a mile or so of one another. To get the ridership levels you need within that service area, the overall population density across the entire network has to be moderately high. This is why it works well in cities like London, Paris, and DC, with a relatively uniform density per square mile.

Pronto Station Map
Pronto Station Map

One major factor working against the expansion of bike share in Seattle (besides the hills) is the “urban village” strategy we’ve adopted to handle growth. By concentrating growth in dense nodes surrounded by a sea of single-family housing, we’ve created a non-uniform density pattern that limits bike share’s potential expansion (this also presents challenges for effective transit, but that’s an argument for another day).

That’s not to say that bike share programs can’t be made more equitable or accessible. Philadelphia is doing some interesting work removing barriers to payment, for example. And to the Mayor’s credit, he is planning to expand Pronto out to the Central District in his 2015 budget (the CD’s status as a lower-income neighborhood is also an argument for another day – but the adjacency to the existing network makes it an easy add).

Making bike share work in the Rainier Valley (or North Seattle, for that matter) would require more than installing a single bike station next to each light rail station. It would be require dozens of bike stations peppered throughout the area. And until the Valley (or the North End) gets much denser, that would probably be a money-losing proposition. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be done! From an equity perspective it may be perfectly justifiable to expand access through subsidy, but that’s the conversation we should be having.

* Bike sharing can be successful for extending the walk shed around a transit station (54% of Capitol BikeShare trips start or end at a transit station) but it requires multiple rental stations to be effective. Adding more bike racks and lockers and Link stations is probably a better way to support last-mile access in Seattle, at least for now.

First Red Bus Lane Opens Today

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

[UPDATE: the other locations are Wall St. between 3rd and Denny, Midvale Pl. approaching Aurora Ave, and Pacific St. approaching the Montlake bridge.]

SDOT is unveiling it at 3pm:

First Red Bus Lane Installed in Seattle

First of four locations with new red marking; More on-street transit improvements coming

WHAT:  First block of red bus lane installed in Seattle

WHEN:  Today – Tuesday, October 21 at 3:00 p.m.

WHERE:  Southwest corner of Battery Street and Fourth Avenue

Today Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) crews will be completing Seattle’s very first block of red transit lane. Scott Kubly, director of SDOT, will highlight this brand new bus facility, explain where you will see more red lanes in 2014, and discuss other improvements to help transit in 2014 and 2015.

This is one of those simple things that makes a big difference. A NYC study suggests that painting the road a noticeable color increases compliance. Four other locations (announced at 3pm) will get this treatment in 2014. One also hopes this would encourage conversion of part-time bus lanes (like 3rd Avenue) into full-time ones.

Save the R.H. Thomson Expressway: Vote No on Prop 3

Imagine if this hadn't been built.
Imagine if this hadn’t been built.

We’re on the eve of the biggest civic mistake in the history of our fair city. After 4 decades of protest following their narrow defeat in 1972, anti-freeway activists are poised to prevail at last. In just 3 weeks Seattleites will vote on whether to dismantle  the RH Thomson Expressway.

The fabled roadway — long thought dead after being defunded by the City Council, only to be resurrected at the last minute by the barest majority of forward-thinking citizens — may not win any prizes for aesthetic beauty. But the workhorse highway dutifully carries 110,000 vehicles per day, providing both critical capacity and mobility through Central Seattle and an essential bypass of Downtown for people traveling through Lake City, Sand Point, the University District, the Central District, the Rainier Valley, and South King County. Yet the seismically vulnerable structure is due for replacement, and in an act of unparalleled delusion, we are balking. If approved by Seattle voters in November, Proposition 3 would remove all 6 cloverleaf interchanges, sink the Union Bay tunnel, remove the median, and narrow the roadway to just two lanes between the Arboretum and Madison St, and four lanes (two of them parking) between Madison and the I-90 interchange. This is not a road diet, this is a road hunger strike. We must step back from the edge before its too late. We must save mobility in Central Seattle.

Imagine a Seattle without the RH Thomson. People commuting from Kirkland to Boeing Field would be forced against their will to funnel onto an already-congested Interstate 5. Those accustomed to the swift trip underneath Union Bay would be subjected to a long slog through the surface streets of Montlake instead. Vehicles headed for I-90 Eastbound will have to backtrack all the way to Rainier Ave S. And let’s not forget that the booming retail corridor in the Central District owes its very existence to the RHT: the Walmart Supercenter at E Union Street, the Cabela’s at S Massachusetts St, and the 13 car dealerships that make up Atlantic’s famed Auto Row. Imagine Seattle without these sales tax revenues, 19% of which of which flow directly to our overburdened transit system.

Continue reading “Save the R.H. Thomson Expressway: Vote No on Prop 3”

Re-examining the Urban Village Strategy

Recently, councilmember Sally Clark bravely broached the subject of reexamining the Urban Village Model. It should be pretty uncontroversial that after 20 years we would step back and assess a policy, but in the eyes of NIMBYs even talking about looking at the possibility of change in Single Family Zones is considered a capital offense.

The Urban Village Strategy was developed during the Norm Rice era to ‘protect’ Seattle from change by concentrating all growth in existing urban areas. On the surface the idea is pretty sound. Put people and resources where there are already people and resources, the opposite of sprawl.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years. Both in Seattle itself and with the country as a whole. More people want to live in Seattle and more people want to live in walkable urban neighborhoods. PSRC predicts 1,712,000 additional people to be living in our region by 2040; for political, economic, social, and ecological reasons we need the majority of those people to live in Seattle or nearby dense, urban, walkable communities. Currently only 8% of Seattle’s land is multifamily with an additional 6% being commercial and mixed use. This artificial scarcity raises the value (and thus costs) of developable land in these areas resulting in higher prices. When you permanently remove three quarters of the city’s land (49% of the land is Single Family – another 30% is Industrial, Public Facilities and Parks/Open Space) from the developable pool this means almost all growth and change is concentrated in small slivers of the city. Not only do these neighborhoods experience artificially high prices, but they also experience rapid change as growth is artificially concentrated there.

Density most definitely has its benefits, but spikes of incredible density in a sea of single family might not be the best solution. This is especially true if you are worried about the lack of 3 bedroom ‘family housing’ which is best supplied through town and row houses and not towers. If we want more family housing we need to open up more of the city to family housing, allowing these homes to be spread around and not artificially concentrated on a few blocks.

Or at least we should talk about it. We are a growing, vibrant, intellectual city, not a religious cult. No past policy should have the status of unquestionable dogma. Hopefully other leaders and officials won’t leave Sally Clark out in the cold, but will join her in saying that no policy is beyond discussion, even Urban Villages.

Metro cuts: follow-up with Kevin Desmond

Following my post regarding Metro service cuts and Kevin Desmond’s reply, Mr. Desmond very generously added some key details of financial projections, made time for a phone conversation, and then later commented on a draft of this article. Though I am grateful for Mr. Desmond’s time and help, I believe the details provided are actually strong evidence that the cuts are much greater than required, and that cuts can safely be postponed until a recession is apparent. Below I’ll review the financial projections and their implications, and then show Mr. Desmond’s response and other comments.

Background: Metro (and the county Executive) have proposed a financial plan that includes 250K annual hours of service cuts, introduced in 2015 and 2016, and funds a Revenue Stabilization Reserve (RSR) at a level intended to avoid further cuts in the case of a “moderate recession.” Others believe that the cuts may not be required, might be smaller, or could be deferred until the need is clearer.

About the financial projections based on a moderate recession, Desmond noted that the proposed reserve funding was not intended to handle another major recession such as started in 2008, but rather a more typical and frequent “moderate” recession. His office provided the following results of modeling based on a “moderate” recession (amounts are $M), compared with the OEFA forecast that assumes no recessions:

Revenue Stabilization Reserve Balance: Metro-provided results of financial plan based on a Moderate Recession starting 2018
End of 400k Reduction (Proposed) 150k Reduction (Current service)
Year OEFA Forecast Recession OEFA Forecast Recession
2015 300.54 300.54 235.28 235.28
2016 170.02 170.02 68.54 68.54
2017 219.17 219.17 68.48 68.48
2018 281.99 226.49 103.43 47.57
2019 384.19* 228.35 175.08 18.52
2020 494.71* 213.20 252.14 (30.49)**
2021 635.58* 228.39 357.10 (51.64)**

*The RSR balances in this table sometimes exceed Metro’s proposed target level of 50% of annual Sales Tax revenue. In the County Executive’s proposed budget, the excess (if any) is included in the Ending Undesignated Fund Balance. At the end of the 2019-20 biennium, this amount is $170M. The excess would be available for service growth.

**A negative balance indicate the added amount needed so that other fund balance targets would still be met.


Continue reading “Metro cuts: follow-up with Kevin Desmond”

Seattle’s Proposed Linkage Fee

Affected areas in color, fee per sq. ft. Red = $16-22, yellow = $10-12, green = $5-7.

This Monday, the Seattle City Council is set to vote on a housing “linkage fee” — a tax on development to fund low-income housing. Given that it got all five votes out of committee, passage seems reasonably certain. As a member of team density, I’m supposed to hate this proposal. It does have its problems, but I think there are strong arguments ($) on both sides.

Only government subsidies can provide low-income housing. Even if we had a perfectly efficient housing market — and we’re not even close to that — anyone who can’t afford to pay the cost of capital of constructing a new housing unit is going to be out of luck. This is one of the few problems Seattle can’t solve by simply lifting caps on development. If we’re going to have a city open to all, there is an unavoidable role for government subsidy of housing costs, either through cutting checks for housing assistance or actually building social housing. This subsidy has to be funded somehow! However,

A tax on development is just about the worst possible revenue source. If the goal is to create the conditions for housing for all income levels, and it should be, then taxing new units is counterproductive. It’s true that landlords of new developments are unlikely to simply “pass fees on to renters,” as they’re already charging what the market will bear. But future supply is important for affordability too, and it’s not enough to simply allow developers to eke out a small profit.

At the very least, projects have to cover the cost of capital. The Council’s consultant report says that “all projects that DRA concluded would be financially feasible with no fee or performance requirement would still be economically feasible after paying the proposed fee.” (p. 4) But this assumes a threshold for “feasibility” of 6% return for residential projects and 10% for commercial ones (p.7).

The problem is that Seattle projects are competing for financing with ones in Bellevue, in Portland, and even in Jakarta, to say nothing of non-development investment opportunities around the world. Anything that impairs profitability deters construction of economically marginal projects, which are the ones Seattle most desperately needs to encourage. Indeed, the report (p. 11) later admits that

Continue reading “Seattle’s Proposed Linkage Fee”

Vote No on Seattle Citizen Petition 1 (New Monorail Agency)


It’s not very often that Seattle Transit Blog recommends rejection of a proposal to devote more resources to transit. Indeed, some board members voted for one or more of the monorail’s previous measures. However, the latest incarnation, “Seattle Citizen Petition 1,” attempts to address a real transportation need with a measure that is redundant, technically flawed, and that takes unnecessary organizational risks.

The petition, which would levy a $5 license fee to fund planning of a line between Ballard and West Seattle, is duplicative of recent Sound Transit efforts in the exact same corridor. Worse yet, the monorail plan would exclude promising underground options and alternative alignments like Ballard-UW.

These shortcomings lead to real technical problems. One reason that Sound Transit continually converges on underground alignments through dense cities is the intense opposition that elevated segments generate. Previous monorail plans never really solved this problem, and the current one envisions bypassing major activity centers and transit hubs downtown by traveling along the waterfront, a steep climb they hope to bridge with an added transfer to some other, unspecified, elevated technology, with the attendant transfer penalties and further political fights over elevated guideway.

The historical record suggests that new agencies running complicated capital projects will experience serious problems. Sound Transit had buy-in from local leaders and survived, but the Seattle Monorail Project did not, and didn’t.  Petition 1 will needlessly set up a new organization to learn the same hard lessons, and has not cultivated a broad base of support to get it through the tough times. The campaign is promising unrealistically short timetables, as if they are somehow immune to the Seattle process that afflicts every other public works project. Finally, the campaign rhetoric is very much in opposition to Sound Transit and the rest of the political establishment, which bodes ill for the joint planning and scheduling that creates a well-integrated transit system.

This measure’s probability of developing a high-quality transit line is virtually nil. Citizen Petition 1 is a waste of resources that distracts from much more promising and better-developed approaches to solve a real transportation problem. Vote No.

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