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Washington State Capitol from 15th Avenue SW

Sounder Bruce photo of our State Legislature

Disclaimer: This commentary is solely the views of the author and not of STB as a whole. This commentary was started and now modified for the Senate Bipartisan proposal released 12 Feb. 2015. Nor is this commentary restricted to one transit agency… so with that, read on!

First, please note I’m not going to use as a picture any Republican legislators.  Republican legislators get enough mug shot time on here anyway and I doubt they or their communications staff perceive mug shots here or on The Urbanist as a form of honorium.

Second, as I’ve editorialized in the past, Republicans can and should find a way to embrace transit.  By doing so Republicans manage better limited transportation dollars for congestion relief and remain relevant with Millennials for starters.

So to hear from The Urbanist that Rep. Ed Orcutt was a yes vote on Community Transit’s local option bill HB 1393 to pass out of committee was a relief.  Apparently after listening to his “pithy & succinct” – to quote the late Rick Epting, my community college journalism professor – comments on TVW, Rep. Orcutt understands the alternative is direct state support of mass transit via Transit Operating Support as documented in this graph which is a nonstarter for many Republicans.  In the words of State Senator Curtis King, state direct support of county-level transit agencies like Pierce Transit would be a “black hole that we will never, ever fill“.

Okay so what have Republicans proposed as an alternative to direct state aid to transit in the recent past and presently?  Grants and also now local options with voter approval.  To quote Rep. Orcutt’s speech, “I really believe that transit should be done locally and those decisions should be done locally.”

What does this strategy result in regards to helping county level transit agencies?  Let’s parse the Republican strategy by prongs – and to spare your e-mails there’s a bit of a jump as you can just click on the post title to read the details:

  • Grants: Sure, grants are great. Grants are good for promoting a good cause, good branding for the grantor, are for helping nonprofits & occasionally the private sector participate in fulfilling public transit needs, and with accountability attached and enforced help protect the integrity of the public purse to fund specific missions.
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    However, recently at my request, Rep. Dan Kristainsen’s office reached out to the Washington State Department of Transportation to explain why were certain projects denied grants.  They got back, “WSDOT receives [requests] for public transportation funding [that] far exceeds available resources.  Each time that we select projects to fund, many other valuable projects remain unfunded on the list.  We estimate that under current funding we are able to fund about half of the $68 million dollars in requests we received for the consolidated grant program. “Instead of funding expanded, improved service between Burlington – a crucial terminal for the Tri-County Connectors & a neighboring growing bedroom community, WSDOT wants state legislators to fund for instance…………….. many electric vehicle (EV) parking stalls throughout the state, a $3 million park & ride for Sound Transit in Summer, a park & ride in a small Skagit community, a Tacoma Link Expansion that already has access to Sound Transit’s revenue streams to the tune of $2,500,000 and over $9 million to Mason Transit on the Olympic Peninsula for, “new park and ride lots and make improvements to an existing park and ride. The project will increase the number of parking spaces in their service area from 154 to 506 when completed. The project will also add curbside chargers for electric cars.”  That said, I’m happy I guess that Sound Transit’s Double-Tall request for service between Everett & Seattle made the cut – that’s essential to congestion relief in a truly necessary, statistical way.
    [An aside: I guess now the State of Washington does truly contribute to Sound Transit!]
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    So basically grants aren’t a good idea to fund operating services.  Capital needs, yes.  The problem is that there are serious, genuine limits on transit agencies to raise revenue to pay for operating authority.
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  • Underfunding Sound Transit 3/ST3: We learned via PubliCola today (12 February) that the Senate Republicans propose to give Sound Transit significantly less taxation authority at $11 Billion than requested at $15 Billion.  Without any ideas, suggestions or reduced legal requirements to make up for that $4 Billion gap.  Odd how the conservative think tanks of this state always propose cutting legal requirements for a variety of things but no regulatory relief for Sound Transit & other transit agencies.  Odd how Boeing advocates want light rail to Paine Field, but there’s a funding cut to a major job creator.  It doesn’t help when Sound Transit doesn’t request expedited permitting and seek other efficiency measures either since there’s nothing revolutionary on the engineering side planned for ST3…  All of which does put ST3 at risk a year and a half from a scheduled public vote and Sound Transit prefers public votes in presidential election years.
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  • Putting Transit Taxes But Not the Gas Tax Increase to a Public Vote: The definition of hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.”  It’s hard for fellow Republicans being ideologically consistent in demanding a public vote on transit taxes and have Representative Ed Orcutt chew on pro-transit advocates every sortie to the House Transportation Committee for Pierce Transit changing transit district boundaries because several Pierce County communities wanted to leave.
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    So basically the State Senate wants to jack up gas taxes disproportionately for new roads of questionable congestion relief value for an enormous sum of money, hand a relatively small amount of new revenue over to “multimodal” to be dispensed in grants (see above for flaws), and oh… if Governor Inslee decides to be a bully and impose the low carbon fuel standards plan without a public vote… the $750 million goes over to more roads.  I do agree with a policy to deter Governor Inslee’s tax grab, but isn’t the appropriate policy making state law a public vote on the low carbon fuel standards plan?  Ditto a public vote on the gas tax increase?
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  • Public Votes on Local Transit Taxes: Sure, that’s great – let the people vote on how much tax burden can they carry and how.  This state’s electorate has decided, wrongly or rightly in repeated plebiscites that voters should vote on taxes in the Era of Eyman.  Voters have generally shown support for transit at the ballot box with few exceptions.  Having public votes on transit taxes, as with school district levies, keeps a lid of sorts on demands on the taxpayer.  But if a whopping 11.7 cent gas tax increase and a subsequent carbon tax increase were to pass on through without voter consent – watch for your wallets and hope somehow transit taxes can also be supported.
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    There is also the sensitive matter that some transit agencies have exhausted their full taxation authority.  Island Transit comes to mind and their Tri-County Connector portion linking March’s Point/Anacortes to Oak Harbor is in dire straights.  However, Island Transit Boardmember Jill Johnson did politely reassure me that, “Everyone has their creative hats on. We are all (Senator Bailey, Representative Hayes, the Transit Board, and Transit Leadership) are trying our best to identify the best available and most cost-effective options to keep some form of this connection in place.”
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    So basically when the grants are tapped out, when the taxation authority is gone, you start losing basic connectivity in a transit net.  Granted Island Transit at one point was dangerously close to having signature gathering for a public referendum on all of its taxation authority.  But there’s also Pierce Transit which lost over 40% of its service hours in the Great Recession.  Then there’s Community Transit which hasn’t had a vote in 13 years on increasing its taxation authority, and without that levy lift will have to spend most – if not all – of its currently projected new income from the economic recovery just to maintain service against increasing congestion between Snohomish County destinations & Seattle.
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    If these transit taxation authority lifts are going to work – then there needs to be better strategy than currently concocted.  Put gas taxes to a vote too, require gas taxes & transit taxes be voted on only in a general election and make sure these transit tax lifts don’t become normal.

Ultimately, in the final analysis, the State Senate bipartisan proposal on transportation is imperfect.  It’s biggest flaw is that it disproportionately funds roads, it continues a flawed grants process and while gas taxes go up without a vote of the people, transit taxes will have to face voters in a general election.  Where is the ideological consistency in that?

I agree with an e-mailed statement from Transportation Choices, “Washington State continues to focus too much funding on highway expansion without a clear plan to adequately address the safety and maintenance of our existing highway network.  We need to  put more of our transportation dollars into critical safety and maintenance projects.”  This too is lacking in a State Senate proposal according to TVW that has spread out over 15 years (FY 2016 to FY 2031):

  • $1.4 billion in preservation, maintenance and facilities
  • $8.1 billion in improvements [new roads]
  • $375 million to cities and counties
  • $578 million for ferries
  • $486 million for transit grants
  • $240 million for the Washington State Patrol

So $32.4 annually on average for transit grants and $540 million annually on average for new roads with a case only for a few of the projects listed like the 520 Bridge.  Not to mention a nice wad of new money to Washington State Ferries (WSF) – an agency that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence – without any reforms of WSF such as competitive bidding of new ferries, putting WSF on a fare freeze, the like…

If this sounds like perpetuating problems – now’s the time to tell your State Senator.  If you think this is a sweet deal, keep quiet because your State Senator will perceive silence as assent.

5 Replies to “North by Northwest View 09 – A Flawed Republican & Senatorial Response to Mass Transit Concerns”

  1. “This editorial is solely the views of the author and not of STB as a whole.”

    That’s a contradiction. There’s a distinction in journalism between editorials and commentaries. An editorial is the official opinion of the publisher and is signed by the entire editorial board. A commentary is an article representing only the author’s views. So this is a commentary, as are 99% of the articles on STB. STB invokes editorialship only in rare circumstances, e.g., election endorsements, open petitions, and things it considers extraordinarily vital and urgent. So please change the word “editorial” in the article, both for STB’s journalistic reputation and to avoid public confusion over what its positions are.

  2. Hi there,
    Thanks for drawing some attention to WSDOT’s public transportation grant programs. I work for WSDOT’s public transportation division, and our director would like to chat with you to clarify a few points about how our grant programs work and how they’re administered. I looked for but could not locate the best way to contact you through the website, so you’re welcome to contact me via the email address I provided and I can arrange the conversation.

    Thanks!

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