Given the broad regional enthusiasm for transit expansion, the real question is why wouldn’t the legislature support the region’s request to tax itself to provide adequate transit? The answer is a statistically relevant national trend going back over 130 years of data: rural district measures are nearly twice as likely to pass state legislatures than urban ones. In Washington, conventional wisdom is that rural and suburban legislators (who today are mostly Republicans) will hold the Puget Sound region’s needs hostage to a transportation package that they may or may not be interested in passing, as happened during the prior term.
The legislators who take this position ignore the fact that the state rises or sinks as a whole (as does our budget). For example, what will it take to get all of the Pierce County delegation (relatively split between Democrats and Republicans) to vote as a block in favor of the transit expansion so vital to Tacoma and Pierce County? They will likely expect funding for the $2 billion completion of SR167 to the Port of Tacoma in exchange for the right of Sound Transit district residents to choose to tax themselves. But, shockingly, not even that may be enough for legislators to allow the fastest growing big city in the country to keep its economy–and the state’s tax rolls–humming.
A business with a cash cow would ensure enough investment so that it could power the business for years into the future. As far as state budgets go, that cash cow is the Seattle metropolitan region area comprised of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. This metro region—home to half the state’s population—is the source of 75% of the state’s $381 billion in economic output in 2013 with all the tax revenues that go with such an intensity of people, goods, and services.
For this reason, the metro area is a net contributor to the state’s tax rolls. King County specifically only got back 62¢ for every $1 in taxes it generated the state in 2011. Lack of alternatives to congestion is killing productivity (due to car drivers’ 37 hours per year spent stuck in traffic) and limiting job growth. Sound Transit’s service area includes 80% of the population of the three-county area, as well as an overwhelming proportion of the economic output of the area and the state. Preventing investment to keep the region moving undermines the metro economy and therefore the tax collections that help power the rest of the state.
In addition to the indirect importance of the Puget Sound’s transportation on the state budget, there is a more direct argument. Sound Transit impacts two areas directly. First, it has employed 100,000 people—mostly in the construction industry—to build a system that will likely last us 100 years. Secondly, Sound Transit pays sales tax on its capital projects directly into the state general fund. That money comes from taxes Sound Transit collects only from the urban parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. This is not an insignificant sum. The state gets an average of $63 million per year from 2014 to 2023 inclusive, for a total of over half a billion dollars over ten years. By authorizing Sound Transit to build more, the state would actually be directly collecting a percentage as general fund tax revenue. ST3 could easily increase state revenues by $30 million or more per year once ST3 capital projects were in the execution phase.
Regional leaders recognize the great importance of transportation investments to the regional economy. Legislators must understand that what is good for the regional economy is also critical for the State’s economy.