nl1City Council member Nick Licata, who’s retiring after his term ends at the end of this year, would like his legacy to include amending Move Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $930 million transportation levy, to be smaller and less dependent on regressive property taxes.

Arguing that voters are approaching tax fatigue and that his alternative is more progressive than the mayor’s proposed property-tax levy, Licata has introduced amendments that would reduce the overall package by $100 million and cut the levy itself to $600 million, with the $230 million difference paid for through the commercial parking tax (which would increase from 12.5 to 17.5 percent) and an annual employee hours tax, paid by businesses, of $18 per employee.

He also proposed an amendment explicitly barring SDOT from spending any Move Seattle Money on streetcars, and another requiring the department to file annual reports showing how they’d spent levy dollars each year.

The cuts and substitutions, Licata said during a briefing on Move Seattle last Tuesday, would reduce the size of the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill to $179 in the first year, compared to the Murray option’s $275. It would also reshuffle the tax burden to employers in a way that appeals to the economic-lefty crowd (the bigger the company, the more it would pay), and to drivers in a way that appeals to the transportation-lefty crowd (drivers would pay more to maintain the roads they use).

Dig about an inch under the surface, however, and the Licata amendments are far less progressive—in both the economic and the political sense—than they appear.

Let’s start with that streetcar amendment. It reads, in its entirety, “None of the Levy Proceeds may be used to build or operate streetcars.” In other words (as an increasingly agitated SDOT director Scott Kubly pointed out last week), no matter how circumstances may change, or how priorities may evolve, or how much outside funding may become available, not a dime of the Move Seattle money could be used on streetcars for the nine-year duration of the levy.

This is no small prohibition.  Currently, Kubly noted, the city is finishing up the First Hill streetcar and may want to extend its northern terminus to Aloha in the future. Under the Licata amendment, the city would have no “flexibility to use the funds [for] the streetcar to have better access to light rail.” With per-mile ridership projected at about double what Link light rail is currently carrying, Kubly said, “This is a real transportation option. It’s not a toy.”

msLicata, a frequent rail opponent during his 18 years on the council, noted that Move Seattle currently includes no explicit references to streetcar, making it only logical to make the prohibition official. “This simply memorializes what was seen as the intent from the mayor,” Licata said. After a test back-and-forth with Kubly about whether the streetcar was or was not inherently a boondoggle, Licata concluded with a pretty cheap shot—”This is new information, that the levy’s intent is to build and operate a streetcar”—to which Kubly responded tersely, “That’s a mischaracterization of what I said.”

Although the Licata streetcar prohibition seems unlikely to pass, it did give Licata a chance to throw shade at rail investments, and on the mayor’s transit-oriented development agenda more broadly. Fixed rail is generally seen as more conducive to TOD (because a transit system that stays in place can be the foundation of a stable community in ways that buses can’t), but it’s also associated with gentrification and extra cost. Hence the tension.

In comparison, the parking and “head tax” should be no-brainers, right? Both are progressive—the former in the sense that it discourages driving by making it more expensive, the latter because big corporations pay more because they have more employees. Unfortunately, neither case is that clear-cut.

To start with the head tax: The trouble isn’t that employers pay it (Licata’s argument that it will “help shift the burden away from homeowners and renters” and onto big businesses is compelling). The problem is that in the service of making the tax more “user-friendly” and easier to implement (last time, businesses complained that the tax required too much paperwork), the Licata amendment eliminates the very provisions that made it progressive (in the environmental sense) in the first place—exemptions for employers who encouraged their workers to find another way to work besides driving alone. It was those exemptions that employers found onerous—as Licata noted, “80 percent of their complaints were about paperwork”—so Licata simply eliminated them. In the form Licata proposes, the tax would be easier for employers and give them no incentive to invest in alternatives to single-occupancy car commuting.


Although the commercial parking tax avoids this problem (there’s a direct nexus, or linkage if you will, between driving and paying to park your car), increasing the city’s already-controversial 12.5 percent parking tax by 40 percent is inherently regressive (in the economic sense). Because the tax is the same whether you’re driving a 1990s Honda or a late-model Jaguar, lower-income drivers will be hit hardest by the tax. Even if you believe, as I do, that it’s generally good policy to discourage driving and encourage alternatives, it’s undeniable that flat taxes, like the sales tax, hit poor people the hardest.

Moreover, a large increase in the parking tax for Move Seattle would tie up transportation funding capacity that could be used for other purposes in the future, such as in-city bus service. That’s one reason Transportation Choice Coalition program director Shefali Ranganathan said her group opposed using the tax to replace part of the proposed levy, because “there may be other uses” for the tax.

Finally, Licata’s proposal relies on the notion that voters are afflicted with “tax fatigue” and may balk at a $930 million but have no problem with a $600 million alternative. The consequences “if the public believes this is too large a bite of the apple,” Licata said, could be dire. First, the levy would have to wait at least two years, since the housing levy is up for renewal in 2016. In the meantime, SDOT would have to lay off a quarter of its staff and stop doing many of its core functions, Licata said. And that’s assuming another levy would pass in 2017. In other words, disaster.

Instead, Licata said last week, “Maybe the best approach is doing this [amended version] now to get the levy to pass at a smaller level. .. The goal here is to provide the best transportation package we can afford, and one that we are fairly certain the voters will vote for.”

The tax fatigue prediction will be familiar to anyone who reads the Seattle Times‘ editorial page–stretch the voters to their breaking point and eventually they’ll snap. With the exception of 2014’s county-wide Proposition 1, that alarmist prediction has never come true. In Seattle, there are approximately zero people who will vote against a $930 million package because of “tax fatigue” who will suddenly vote for it at $600  million. To the contrary, a smaller package does less for fewer parts of the city, meaning that fewer people will see value in voting for it.

Ultimately, a levy, or taxing package, will live or die based on whether voters think it’s worth the money, and whether it will help them get from Point A to Point B. Council members should scrutinize the details of the proposal, but squeezing it down to less than what we need and shrinking its impact on property owners out of fear that they’ll vote against it if they aren’t properly pandered to is a strategy for failure.

90 Replies to “Licata’s Move Seattle Alternative Isn’t Progressive”

  1. Shouldn’t someone ask Lisa Herbold, who is Licata’s lead legislative assistant, what she thinks of this idea?

    1. They certainly should, especially since transportation and development are red hot issues in West Seattle where she is running.

  2. The streetcar is a boondoggle — at least Licata has that right. It is simply an inefficient use of funds. We could move more people with BRT, at better speed and the same capacity. With the extra money, we could increase frequency. The sooner we pull that sucker up and replace the routes with (more frequent) bus service, the better.

    But the taxing mechanisms are less progressive, not more. The head tax is per employee, not per dollar. So if you have a high end consulting firm, with five employees each paid 200 grand a year, while your company nets a couple million a year, you pay the same as the very small bar down the street, that is scraping to get by (with its five employees). This makes it a very regressive tax (one of the most regressive taxes out there). The parking tax is also regressive, as mentioned.

    Meanwhile, a property tax at least goes up with wealth. Own a ten million dollar house and you pay 100 times more than someone in a $100,000 condo. Licata is a fool or liar if he thinks his proposal is more progressive — it is more regressive.

    1. “the streetcar”? Which one?

      See, this is exactly the problem of ‘mode-centric thinking’ which Jarrett Walker sometimes (hypocritically) complains about. The Jackson St. streetcar route is ludicrous; the South Lake Union streetcar route is absurdly short; but the streetcar from Yesler & Broadway to Roy & Broadway will probably be well-patronized and more effective than a diesel/CNG bus.

  3. The parking tax is very problematic. It is already 12.5% PLUS 9.6% sales tax, so 22.1%. It would become 27.1% under Licata’s proposal. The taxes erode the economics of private garage/lot parking and encourage drivers to park on the street instead (city meters don’t have the parking & sales taxes). This leaves off-street parking relatively empty.

    This is kind of stupid. We could use the garages to park cars (as they were designed to do!) and use the streets for more bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, etc. Instead, we’re using scarce street capacity for car storage while punitively taxing the abundant off-street parking. It makes no sense.

    All this hand-wringing about the unfilled parking garages downtown misses the point entirely. Those garages wouldn’t be so empty if the taxes affected street and off-street parking the same.

    1. Agreed. We waste too much road space storing cars. The only space for cars not moving should be for load/unload zones. Not for parking… especially not in congested areas.

    2. I agree the tax is a bad idea, but I don’t think it’s regressive. One, it’s entirely avoidable (take transit, park on the street, bike, walk). Two, it’s exactly the same for a guy in a Jaguar and someone bringing eleven people in a mini-van. Sorry, it’s not at the level of a sales tax in affecting the poor differentially from the rich. I think I’ve parked in a pay lot in the city twice in the past three years.

      1. It may be both regressive and avoidable, like the tobacco tax. If you don’t smoke, you don’t pay it. But studies have shown that poor people pay a higher percentage of their income on it than rich people. Of course they do. Rich people would have to smoke at very high rates to make up for the fact that it is basically a per cigarette tax.

        It isn’t so clear that this is the case with the parking tax. But again, you would have to have wealthy people use the parking lots a lot more (and using expensive parking lots a lot more) to make up for the fact that the rate ignores the wealth or income of the user. Wealth varies quite a bit these days (anywhere from negative amounts* to billions) but parking rates don’t (maybe two bucks a day to 200 bucks a day, if that). Given that the general wealth variance is much higher than the variance in parking rates, my guess is that this tax is fairly regressive (unless you have very high degrees of usage by wealthy individuals). So it is likely to be way more regressive than a property tax, the tax it replaces.

        The property tax, on the other hand, taxes property at a rate equal to the value of the property. The more property wealth you have, the more you pay. It is not progressive, but it is the least regressive tax we have.

        * I’m thinking of those with student loan debt as those with negative net wealth.

    3. Since the tax is a percentage of the cost to park in that spot, the question of whether or not it is regressive depends on the income level of people parking their cars relative to the cost of the spot they are parking in. People parking in spots that are more expensive (i.e. downtown) would pay more tax. My guess is that the vast majority of people driving downtown and paying the high prices to park downtown are already among our more wealthy residents. Most studies show that lower income people simply don’t drive as much, and I’d especially think that’s true for people going to downtown where the parking tax is highest. In this way the commercial parking tax may be more progressive than many other tax mechanisms we have.

      1. I’m not so sure about the idea of lower income people driving less. I think that has changed. I think the very low income people don’t drive, but as the city (like most American cities) becomes a lot more like most cities around the world, the wealthy tend to live closer, which means the poor tend to drive more. Besides, as I said above, you really have to have very high ratio of parking versus non-parking to make up for the wealth disparity. It is pretty common to have two people walking down the street, one with 100 times the wealth of the other one (he has a net worth of a million, she has a net worth of 10 grand). So is there 100 times the parking going on with the rich guy, or is the lot charging 100 times as much? My guess is neither, which makes it regressive. With a property tax, I don’t think you get that (most of that guy’s two million is wrapped up in his house, while most of the woman’s wealth is in her car). She pays property tax (indirectly) but not as much. Anyway, that is all a guess. I think you would have to do a study to really show what is happening. But my guess is that parking lot payments aren’t exactly the luxury tax that some make them out to be — in my experience it the mid-level professionals who don’t have enough time to spend hunting for parking lot (and typically women, for what that’s worth). Places like the U-District, Ballard and Fremont have paid parking lots (which I never use) but lots of middle class people do.

  4. Here’s where I’d go along with you, Ross. Any transit vehicle on its own right of way through a congested area, with a signal system designed to keep transit moving, will be much faster and efficient than transit sharing road space and traffic lights with cars and trucks.

    But precisely because the side to side “envelope” for steel-wheeled rail cars never varies, their transiway can be narrower than for standard buses. True, bus steering can be guided- but at the cost of one or another mechanism on the steering adding cost and complexity.

    For running surface- rails or concrete- we need to see some figures not only on installation costs, but replacement and maintenance costs over the years. For ride quality and safety, both rails and concrete need upkeep and replacement. From passenger experience, bad track and cracked pavement ride about the same.

    Like I’ve said before a lot of times, past a certain passenger loading, since buses can’t be coupled, safe following distance uses up ever large percentage of linear lane space. So the same transitway could progressively move from buses to joint-ops to railcars only.

    But Seattle’s constricted street space largely stems from the fact that the only boulevard median in the city is presently a parking lot along a golf course on Beacon Avenue.

    Take a tape measure to lane width on Westlake from Stewart to the lake, and Northbound Broadway near Swedish Hospital….Streetcar-way could barely fit, where busway definitely won’t.

    Meantime, though, tearing up existing tracks sounds like make-work waste of taxpayers’ money, channeled to Acme Streetcar Rail Tearing Up Inc. So since it’s likely that upcoming product liability suit from W.J. Coyote will wipe out this company- just follow decades of precedent and pave the tracks over.

    Neither the Waterfront nor Main Street will carry any streetcars any time soon- or buses either. However, when a transit system consisting of pedicabs and golf carts won’t handle rock concerts or game-nights, scraping off the pavement will cost less than putting down new track.

    Track uncovering takes less skilled labor than track laying. High school volunteers can handle it. So give the taxpayers a break, Ross!

    Mark Dublin

    1. Some good points, but also lots of misses.

      1) Ride quality of buses doesn’t even come remotely close to that of streetcars even on perfect roads. On perfect roads buses still shake because the flexibility of the tires produces some sort of oscillation – if you’ve ever been in a rubber tired train (e.g. Paris metro) you’ll know that rubber tired transport just does not deliver the ride quality of steel-wheeled. Now, perfect roads do not exist in our tax starved city (want to see taxes – go to Europe). On our 2.5 world roads buses are incredibly shaky and unpleasant to ride (one of the arguments that my friends driving cars with good suspension have cited when I’ve unsuccessfully tried to motivate them to take the bus) – just take a ride on 3rd Avenue in Belltown.

      2) Pavement replacement – first of all, tracks take far more beating than asphalt pavement before they become damaged (concrete pavement is much more expensive, and harder to maintain). Modern track is built with concrete rather than wooden ties and should last a very long time before it needs major repairs. By the time you experience a change in perceivable ride quality on rail you can expect to have repaved a road many times due to large cracks and potholes.

      3) Regularly repaving is going to be much more expensive than keeping rail in check. It’s also far worse for the environment.

      I think what you get what you pay for – streetcars are more expensive and deliver a better service.

      The success of a transit line ultimately depends on how it was planned – alignment, stops, dedicated right of way, signal priority. If you do this well you will be successful with a bus or a streetcar. But the streetcar will attract more ridership due to a much better rider experience and a higher capacity which means less crowding – especially when it comes to choice riders. And don’t try to convince me otherwise, this is like telling me that a no-frills Toyota Civic is as good as a Lexus RX because they can both do 60 mph on the highway… You get what you pay for.

      1. I never cared much for cars, so when my friends got fancy cars I could never really figure out why they were so excited. My commuter car worked just fine. But I suppose car people are like transit nerds I guess – they get excited about horsepower, or smooth acceleration or something. Me, I like a reliable, unexciting ride with an air conditioner and a decent stereo; I had assumed the majority of the populace did as well. :)

        How much more will it cost to add spoilers to our streetcars?

        Seriously though, the rail preference is based upon past experiences with both. Not everyone has it, and designing our transportation system around it not good policy.

      2. First, as I said, the success of a line depends first on its alignment (is it where people are), stop spacing (balancing average speed with access), and priority treatments to ensure reliability. This is true for both bus and rail obviously.

        After this is done, a lot of people care about comfort. The question is not how many current transit riders do, but what % of the total addressable market does. You are designing a service for everyone in Seattle, not just for whoever is riding now. Most people in Seattle drive and that’s largely due to the infrequent and unreliable service today. But even on high frequency lines many people still prefer to drive.

        But I guess that if you establish a proper high frequency and reliability bus network, the key routes will become so popular that investment in trams will become a natural way to increase their capacity anyways.

      3. I won’t deny that rail has a narrower side to side envelope required, that the ride quality is better, or that rails require less upkeep than pavement.

        However in the vast majority of cases the added construction and operating costs of rail are not justified unless transit demand is near or exceeds the capacity of a properly planned and designed bus corridor. Sure ‘rail bias’ might get you a few more riders but I have yet to see evidence the added ridership justifies the added costs except in cases where transit demand exceeds bus capacity.

        One point about ROW maintenance for rail vs. buses is the cost for rail maintenance is included in the O&M budget for rail while the road maintenance cost for buses using transit lanes is covered by budgets for road and street maintenance. This means for example gas tax money can be used to repave transit lanes or that repaving can be part of a general repaving of the street.

      4. Well it isn’t gas tax (that’s for highways mosty) but more property tax and other local taxes, but you are correct that it expands the budget.

        The problem is that you need a lot more of that budget – yes, it’s expanded but insufficient. If you ride on 3rd Avenue through Belltown (e.g. RapidRide D) you will experience a ride of extremely bad quality. I once filed pothole requests with the city and they sorta patched some up but the patches have deformed too and it’s still pretty bad.

        I have never experienced such a ride on a train – first, if your rails got so bad, your train would just derail, but to get such deviations in the rails (6 inches in some cases) would probably take 50 years. 3rd Avenue got this bad only in a couple years. So rails just never get to the point to which we get our streets and even if it’s possible to have smooth roads it requires a lot of tax spending and we don’t do this in this state/city.

        The cost of maintaining rails is a lot less than the cost of repaving roads, in part because it doesn’t involve high materials and labor cost work frequently. Also don’t forget that rail vehicles last a lot longer than road vehicles – amortization period is usually double or more.

        So my point is, yes, you have a higher capital cost, but for what it provides it may not be higher. ROI on that capital cost is likely not lower.

        Now on to operating cost – why are they higher for trains? Electricity is cheaper than fossil fuel per energy provided and we know Link, for example, has a lower cost per rider than most if not all buses. Link also carries many times more people than the bus lines it replaced, so rail bias or not, you can say that this rail replacement was successful at lowering operating costs, not increasing them.

      5. Here’s what a bad track looks like:

        Maybe it would take 50 years to get like that. However, I’ll remind you that we’re actively pumping groundwater out of parts of our downtown, causing portions of it to unevenly sink. On
        Anton, you seem to think that Seattle will maintain its rail lines, but can’t maintain its roads. I have no reason to believe that Seattle will actually maintain its rail. As I said, take the T in Boston or the Coast Starlight on Amtrak to see how bumpy rail can be. It’s also a lot of side-to-side as opposed to the up-and-down of a bus.

        As far as 50 years to degrade, I’ll remind you that we are actively pumping groundwater out of our downtown, causing portions of it to sink. We’re due for another earthquake. And, if additional streetcar service fares as poorly as the SLU in terms of ridership, there’s no way we’d prioritize maintenance of it.

      6. Anton, here’s what a bad track looks like:

        Maybe it would take 50 years to get like that. However, I’ll remind you that we’re actively pumping groundwater out of parts of our downtown, causing portions of it to unevenly sink. We’re also due for another earthquake any day now.

        I don’t know why you think that Seattle would maintain its rail lines when it can’t maintain its roads. If you want to experience bumpy rail, take the T in Boston or the Coast Starlight on Amtrak. A lot of the trains/light rail that I’ve been on also have excessive amounts of side-to-side motion, as opposed to the up-and-down motion of a bus.

      7. Well, that’s fun to watch but the construction standard and environment of the Napoleon, Defiance & Western Railroad you linked to couldn’t be any different than that of urban in-street rail in Seattle.

        First of all, those rails are laid straight on the ground with a seemingly very shallow roadbed ad no ballast. That’s crazy. It’s like building a house without a real foundation and then wondering why it flooded and is sinking in a thunderstorm…

        Second, this is built in a swampy area, which means that soil is unstable or even more reasons for a strong foundation if you are going to run ultra-heavy freight rail cars.

        So this railroad was designed to fall apart.

        Now look at the foundation for our modern streetcar track:

        The track lays on its own steel structure, almost like a bridge for itself – when you cover it with concrete you get a very strong steel-reinforced concrete guideway.

        So I don’t think our track will look like the video you showed even in 200 years if it was totally abandoned.

      8. “However in the vast majority of cases the added construction and operating costs of rail are not justified unless transit demand is near or exceeds the capacity of a properly planned and designed bus corridor. ”

        Sure, but the VAST MAJORITY of potential streetcar routes have demand exceeding the capacity of a properly planned and designed bus corridor. Heck, I can find a couple of routes where demand is exceeding bus capacity in tiny *Ithaca, NY*.

        Most of your trunk bus routes in Seattle have demand exceeding the capacity of a properly planned and designed bus corridor.

        Face it: buses are fundamentally low-capacity.

      9. I will say that Seattle has some of the stupidest streetcar alignments in the US, if not in the world. So the “is it really better than a bus?” question may make more sense in Seattle than elsewhere.

        By contrast, in Tucson, where the streetcar route is cherrypicked to be the busiest route in town, it’s pretty bloody obvious the streetcar was the correct thing to build.

        By the way, “rail bias” is typically good for a roughly 10% boost in ridership. Which is frankly enormous by public transit standards.

      10. 10% of the addressable market or 10% over existing ridership? It seems reasonable if not even conservative that it’s the former.

        Looking at the 2010 census, for Seattle we have 21% using transit.

        So if you gain 10% of the addressable market over those 21% then for Seattle this would increase ridership by 50% and it would be quite the jump in ridership. But then I think it’s more than 10% of the market being rail-biased. Many of my friends who take the bus are still rail-biased – they say they would take transit far more often if it was rail especially in its own right of way.

  5. … and here I am just questioning the assumption that property taxes are regressive. Really? Could we get some documentation of that? Generally taxes on accumulated wealth are really progressive. I guess the fact that people still paying off their mortgages haven’t actually accumulated wealth in the amount of the full value of their property counts against that, but… at the very least property taxes have to be some of the least income-regressive taxes in our arsenal. They’re unpopular in that they target a politically active group of people.

    1. (I’m pretty sure the tag of “regressive property taxes” is one of those Seattle entitlement things where people say, “That’s not progressive,” to anything that they don’t like, because they’re such “good progressives”. If there are actually numbers showing property taxes are nearly as income-regressive as the other options then I’ll stand corrected.)

    2. When it comes to terminology and taxes, things get confusing. This is because there are basically three types of taxes (at least from a wealth or income standpoint):

      1) Taxes that apply a higher rate the more you make. A progressive income or capital gains tax is like this. You pay 10% for your first $50,000 and 20% for your next $50,000 and 30% for every dime above that.. The end result is not only that the rich pay more, but they pay a higher percentage.

      2) Taxes that are the same rate across the board. The property tax or a flat income tax is like this. So a 1% property tax means that someone with a million dollar house pays 10 grand, and someone with a $100,000 condo pays a grand.

      3) Taxes that are a flat rate, or otherwise cut off at a certain point. Fees should be included in this category as well (e. g. bus fare is an example of this). So is a head tax. You pay the same whether you are a millionaire or a pauper.

      There are combinations. The most common is to have a deductible, which skews things towards the latter group. So, for example, a flat income tax with a $100,000 deductible would result in something similar to the first category for most people, even though millionaires would pay almost the same rate as billionaires.

      Strictly speaking, only the first group can be truly called progressive. The state of Washington, to the best of my knowledge, does not have that. Loosely speaking, the closer you are to the top (e. g. category 2 versus category 3) the more progressive the tax is. The property tax is a category two tax, and is applied to everyone. The parking tax is a little trickier — on the surface it is a category two tax as well. But it might be considered a luxury tax (perhaps wealthy people park in more expensive lots) but I doubt it. If anything, I would think the opposite — my guess is that the poor pay a higher percentage than the wealthy (making it more like a category three tax). The head tax is the least progressive tax. It is a category three tax. So, either Licata is an idiot and never thought seriously about taxation policy, or he is full of shit.

      1. Thanks for writing this excellent analysis. It is worth noting that Washington state has *no* progressive taxation. You’re going to have to fix that one of these years, or the lack of it is going to wreck the state. Probably around the time the current “internet money bubble” pops.

        All the functional states which have retained functioning economies for a long time (California, New York, the whole Midwest, most of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic) have some version of a progressive income tax or at least a progressive estate tax, and have had for a very long time. (I don’t count permanently broken states like Mississippi or currently broken states like Kansas as “functioning”.) Florida used to have an actual wealth tax (the ‘intangibles tax’); it was repealed fairly recently, which is probably the beginning of the end for Florida.

    3. Everyone pays property taxes, but only property owners can deduct them from federal income taxes.

      I’ve heard so many renters say “I don’t pay property taxes, so I’ll vote for this.” Then they complain bitterly that rents increased. That’s what happens in a tight housing market. Just because you don’t write the check doesn’t mean you don’t pay the tax.

      1. I agree, but either way, property taxes are in that second category (the rate doesn’t change). In other words, the more expensive the apartment (or condo, or house) the more the person pays. The rate doesn’t change, but at least the amount does. This makes it different than a head tax, where everyone pays the same amount, regardless of income. Hire two consultants at a million dollars a year and pay the same as two minimum wage workers. Like the property tax, the tax is passed onto the workers, of course. Not directly, but indirectly.

        I should say that the property tax is a bit more complicated than that, but ultimately the renter pays for it. Strictly speaking, no one “passes on” a tax; they charge what the market will bear. Someone will pass on a tobacco tax, because at some point, it doesn’t make sense to sell tobacco. In other words, the seller has a couple choices — either charge more, or sell something else. With a landlord, it is a bit trickier. Landlords charge what they can, and can’t switch businesses easily. So if it becomes unaffordable to rent out a room (because maintaining the room along with the taxes are too high) then they will do something else with the building. But what? The answer is usually abandonment. I don’t think we are anywhere near that right now, which means that it is different than the tobacco tax.

        But there are other things going on. Higher property taxes mean higher taxes for home ownership, which push the cost of renting up. In other words, if you simply had the taxes applied to condos and houses owned by the occupants, rent would go up (because of the increased demand for rental property). We also have something weird with our property taxes, which further complicates things. The tax is not on the land alone, but the land and the buildings. This provides a disincentive to increase the value of the property. Keep it as a parking lot (or house) and pay less in taxes than if you build a new building. This puts downward pressure on building new buildings, including new apartment buildings (which means downward pressure on new units, and thus upward pressure on rents).

        But again, this is all (roughly) in proportion to the amount of wealth of the unit you live in. If you live in a million dollar house, you will pay more (indirectly) than if you live in an apartment renting out for 2,000 a month, and that person will pay more than someone who lives in a 1,000 a month apartment. Like a lot of taxes, we all pay it (directly or indirectly), but it is probably the most progressive (or least regressive) tax we have.

      2. “I’ve heard so many renters say “I don’t pay property taxes, so I’ll vote for this.” Then they complain bitterly that rents increased. That’s what happens in a tight housing market.”

        Rent is not based on property taxes; it’s based on the pool of available renters at different income levels, compared to the number of other vacant apartments of different qualities and prices they have to choose from. The landlord sets the rent at the maximum level they can find somebody to sign a lease with a given level of effort. If the pool of high-income renters is large, they will pay a higher price and shut out lower-income renters. If the pool of high-income renters is small, then they’ll take another unit that’s larger or has a better view or a free first month, and you’ll have to either wait a few weeks for another high-income tenant or lower the rent.

        If the landlord raises the rent the same amount as a property tax increase, it means he could have raised it the same amount earlier and lost that income. Or if he couldn’t have raised it but does anyway, the unit will stay empty for a month or two or tree, and not earn any income.

        In the current environment, inflation since 2000 has been around 30%, while rents have increased around 100%. Landlords were profitible in 2000 so they’re making a huge windfall now. So we needn’t shed a tear if they have to take the tax increase out of their windfall, especially since current trends point toward rent going up the same amount anyway even without the tax.

      3. @Mike — Yes, but you didn’t address my third paragraph. Long story short, high property taxes may play a part in fewer units, which in turn pushes up prices. It is tough to measure — not nearly as obvious as many other aspects of taxes. But I stick with my fourth paragraph. Even if renters “pay” indirectly for property taxes (because the high taxes dissuades developers from building more units) it is still, at worst, in proportion to the value of each individual unit. This makes it better than a head tax. Much better.

  6. Seattle’s streetcar tracks keep hurting people:

    They’re also a huge waste of money compared to the alternatives. We should instead be choosing proper BRT + light rail. Licata’s amendment helps push SDOT to choose BRT (funded w/ levy funds). The levy includes lots of transit corridor work, which could very well involve BRT or streetcar enhancements.

    1. This. People constantly crash on the tracks. You can blame them for not being super, uber skilled riders or you can stop being a sociopath and start building infrastructure as if keeping its users in one piece actually mattered. I’m tired of literally cleaning blood off of bicyclists because SDOT keeps getting distracted by shiny objects.

      This absurd toll might be acceptable if they were a great form of public transport, but they’re terrible. Managing somehow to combine the characteristics of slow, inflexible, and expensive, streetcars need to stop being built in Seattle. (Ideally we’d tear out the ones we have an replace them with something safer.)

      I support Licata’s measure for this reason alone.

      1. The failure is one of poor design on SDOT’s part not an inherent property of street rail. Proper design can keep cyclists safe even with rails in the street. There are cities all over the world including Portland with plenty of cyclists and plenty of street rail where the rails aren’t death traps for cyclists.

      2. What Chris said. SDOT has managed to somehow use “worst practices” in its streetcar construction; it’s kind of weird actually.

  7. Licata’s anti SC amendment is just stupid. SC certainly makes sense in certain limited applications, and in areas where it makes sense seattle should have the flexibility to pursue it.

    His opposition is has it has always been – more about being anti gentrification than being logic based. I for one won’t miss him when he leaves the stage, Although I suspect he will still fire anti rail scuds once in awhile much in the way of Fimia or Niles.

    But seattle loves its curmudgeons, and Licata has drifted into that role

    1. I can’t think of any place in Seattle where a streetcar like what have makes sense. Our streetcars don’t have higher capacity than our biggest bus. Even with bigger streetcars, I can’t think of a place where it would make sense. With bigger streetcars, you can carry more people. So you could run it to capacity all day, and save a little money over buses. But we don’t have streetcars like that, and even if we did, I think the savings would take years and years to materialize. Of course, since a streetcar can carry more people, if you run them as often as possible, they would be more effective. But I can’t think of a run in Seattle where that is an issue. I can’t think of a case where we are running buses every 3 minutes (in a bus lane) and they can’t carry enough people.

      Meanwhile, there are lots and lots of operational disadvantages. Streetcars can’t go up steep hills (limiting the routes), they can’t avoid traffic, or avoid construction by changing lanes. Advantages often given to them (level boarding, off board payment, etc.) are available to buses (at a lot less cost).

      Streetcars in Toronto make sense because they have already paid for them and they are huge compared to our buses. It also helps that their city is extremely flat. We have none of those advantages.

      1. It’s not just about capacity, though; streetcars offer a much more comfortable ride.

      2. @Mars — So what? Since when did this become an amusement ride? Basically you are saying that the only reason we are spending millions on a streetcar is because it is more fun. Great. Wonderful. But I can tell you that almost everyone in the city could care less about that Not only do the tax payers think that is a waste of money — I’m guessing nine out of ten voters would dismiss a huge expenditure, with all the inherent disadvantages, just because it is “more comfortable”. But most riders don’t care either (which explains the really low ridership). I bet there are very few riders who will ride a full streetcar over a full bus. Of course, we’ve never had an experiment like that, since the streetcar is never full. But still, if a half empty bus arrives and is going where the rider wants to go, how many people think “No thank you, I would rather be late for my meeting just so I can have a slightly more comfortable ride”.

      3. …to Ross’ point about full bus > full streetcar…


        Have you ever ridden in the middle section of our streetcar when it’s actually full? I have. Actually that one is Portland’s, but it’s the same design as ours. There is so little to hold on to (literally half the people in the linked photo are holding onto nothing)—this is not the case with buses with their narrower passageways. And without anything to hold on to, you very quickly find out how false the idea that our streetcars have superior ride quality to buses is as you try to position yourself to keep your balance, inevitably muttering “…sorry” a few times when the streetcar, lurching around corners and rocketing away from stops, causes you to fall onto other passengers.

        You may say that this poor ride quality is only a feature of our streetcar and is not representative of all streetcars but the same is true for buses—that poor ride quality is only a feature of some of our buses and is not representative of all buses.

      4. RossB, you’re countering a lot of things there that I didn’t actually say. You listed advantages and disadvantages of streetcars, in general, as an abstract mode of transit, but you missed one of the advantages, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t overlooked. I don’t know whether the comfort of the ride will be enough to outweigh the disadvantages, as far as the specific case of the Seattle streetcar project is concerned.

        What I do know is that I’m tired of transit advocates acting like transit riders can be reduced to packets in a network, as though the only variables in a transit decision are cost and time. People are more complicated than that. You ignore the other factors at peril of making transit plans which will not work as well as you expect them to.

        The competition between buses and trains is dwarfed by the competition between driving in a car and any form of transit at all.

      5. Actually, packets in a network are a great analogy. You want to maximize throughput, you want to make sure packets get there safely (no corruption, dropped packets, etc), and you want to minimize latency. “Comfort” is an aspect of those goals. Maximizing throughput means ensuring people actually ride your line. A train capable of carrying 12k people per hour isn’t that useful if actual ridership numbers are a small fraction of that. Getting there safely means ensuring that people are physically safe, and that they actually reach their destination. Latency could be seen as time spent waiting at stops, missed transit connections, and delays in the actual ride.

        The reason why you design based on these abstract concepts is because you’re taking a macro view of the system. If you look at individuals, the system becomes too complex to design. If you look at things that appeal to most riders, you can optimize for that. How do you design a system for Steve, who thinks the temperature in the buses is always too hot, and Sue, who thinks the the temperature is too cold? Bill, who had a negative interaction with another rider and therefore refuses to take the bus any more? Mary, who wants to be able to open her laptop and get work done while she rides? You look at their common desires, as well as some outlying needs. They all want a minimal wait in a comfortable, dry place for their ride. They want easy access to enter and exit transit (both the stop and the actual vehicle). They want a quick, comfortable ride, etc.

      6. Excellent distillation of the reasons transit planners (armchair and otherwise) focus on what they do, Andres. I just want to emphasize a bit more the need to plan a system that is useful enough for as many people/trips as possible while being restrained by resources—that is why creature comforts often play second fiddle to abundant service (frequency, span, speed—themselves creature comforts, of a sort).

      7. Our fundamental need is a full-time frequent network throughout the city, and eliminating the bottlenecks that are slowing down buses. Additionally we need good regional transit but I won’t get into that here. So the question becomes, how much would it cost to build a complete frequent grid network (5-10 minute daytime, 15-20 minute evening), with the appropriate transit lanes, off-board payment, real-time signs, etc. That’s a good question for Metro or SDOT, which they haven’t addressed to my knowledge. (Hint: it would be a good criterion for Metro’s long-term plan.)

        Say the amount is X, and it consists of N (number) x B buses. Then the question becomes, since streetcars cost more than buses, how much more would it cost to implement some of the lines as streetcars? Then we look at Metro’s and SDOT’s current budgets, which are much less than X. (Several times less.) Then we look at currently-available tax capacities (property tax, sales tax, employee head tax, whatever). Again it’s much less than X.

        To get X we’d have to elect a better legislature to change the laws, convince exurban/rural legislators to go along with it, convince the city/county councils to propose it or draft an initiative, and convince Seattle/King County voters to pass it. Of these five, convincing Seattle voters is probably the easiest part.

        So assume we can’t get X at present, but we can get a modest increase, enough for one or two or maybe even five lines. There’s already two in planning: Madison and Roosevelt, so five is not too far beyond that. I’ll skip the CCC and Aloha extensions for now because I think they’re too short to have a significant impact. But full-length lines, bus or streetcar? If we build streetcars, then we can build fewer lines or miles than if we build buses. But that doesn’t decrease the need. Many parts of the city need better service NOW, and the lack of such service dampens ridership and people’s mobility. Several somewhat-better bus lines are better than fewer even-better streetcar lines. Streetcars have higher operating costs, so the SLU streetcar has sucked up funds that could have gone to a larger number of bus runs. The people who would have ridden those buses are the ones losing out. I’m not sure who’s paying for the FH streetcar’s operation or the CCC, but if it comes out of Metro’s base funds (by the city strongarming Metro into doing it), then a larger number of bus runs are displaced, and that hurts people’s mobility.

      8. PS. And I am a train fan and would prefer to have streetcars replace all bus routes except the smallest coverage routes. But the biggest issue for passengers is travel time and frequency. Link offers limited-stop express-level service at great frequency, so it’s meeting a niche that buses and streetcars don’t, and one that has been severely neglected until now. But the proposed streetcars are not faster than Metro buses, or more frequent, or more capacious, so they’re not doing anything except looking pretty. There are three kinds of service: inexpensive buses, mid-priced streetcars, or expensive light rail/heavy rail. Light rail/heavy rail gives significant benefits in travel time and frequency to compensate for their costs. Buses are nice because they’re inexpensive. Streetcars are in the middle, the worst of both worlds. The best of neither world. So why spend more money on streetcars than buses?

      9. @Mars — I’m not sure if I countered things you didn’t say. If I did, I’m sorry. You mentioned that one advantage of streetcars is that they are more comfortable (which, as Shane said, is debatable) and I said, essentially, so what? Really, so what? Riders don’t care, based on the number who ride it. Voters don’t care, or at least I would give you 10 to 1 odds they don’t. Seriously — have a vote tomorrow, between the two options that Mike suggested: More buses more often, or replace a handful of bus routes with streetcars (traveling slower, on average, than the buses) and my money is on the buses. Sorry for jumping on your argument, but I’ve seen it before. Just to be clear, I’ve been on the wrong side of many an argument — at some point you start grasping at straws, and that is a tiny straw.

        We’ve been down this road before, and it goes something like this:

        1) Streetcars carry more people.

        Some do, but not ours.

        2) They cost more initially, but then become cheaper than buses over time.

        Only if they carry more people (again, ours don’t).

        3) Well, they happen to spur development.

        The studies are inconclusive, and we are talking about Seattle here — we really don’t need to develop. Except maybe the Rainier Valley, which has a street car, connected to a light rail line, yet somehow Ballard is developing faster.

        4) They can reverse direction without turning around.

        I suppose that is useful in some very limited circumstance.

        [and now ..]

        5) They are smoother.

        Who cares. I don’t. Most people don’t. OK, sure, if it was free, than absolutely. It is like naming the stations. Of course it is great if you name them well, but who wants to pay an extra 10% for better names. Likewise, I don’t want to pay double or triple the money just so a ride is a bit smoother, when there are lots and lots of inherent disadvantages that come with it.

        This is coming from a guy who cares about the user experience. For example, I really love elevated rail. I really do. If it is close to as cheap as underground, then by all means, build it. It is about time that transit riders get the best ride in the city. But I don’t want to throw money away. I don’t want to build an elevated ride to Ballard — as great as it would be — over UW to Ballard light rail. The former is great, the latter is better. Compared to the streetcar debate, though, the difference is minor. I think folks can make a pretty good case for Ballard to downtown elevated rail over underground rail from UW to Ballard. I still lean the other way, but I think it is close.

        But streetcars are a different matter. Streetcars only make sense in very limited circumstances, and Seattle, especially with the streetcars we have, is not in that category. It isn’t close. Building them was a mistake. Extending them was a mistake. Every city makes mistakes and our streetcars aren’t even close to being our worst mistake. But the sooner we admit it was a mistake, the sooner we can figure out what to do next.

      10. RossB: “5) They are smoother. Who cares. I don’t. Most people don’t.”

        Most people who ride transit today may not care (although I disagree), but that’s not who you target. To improve service you target everybody else who is *not* on transit.

        In other words, with an uncomfortable people-as-freight service (network packets as you put it) you’ve managed to attract a part of the population that doesn’t care, but that’s just step one.

        How do you attract more people?

        Now, I agree that the first step is to provide a network of all-day frequent (10 minutes or less) service with high reliability (dedicated lanes everywhere where they provide a benefit). To get this up and running as quickly as possible it means buses.

        But even with this, many people still won’t ride the service. And that’s when you have to start upgrading the quality of the service starting with the highest ridership lines. And you don’t do streetcars, but you do trams so you can serve the rising demand without overcrowding (and of course, you keep your 10-minute or better service in dedicated lanes as originally planned with the buses). And then you have a night and day difference when it comes to ride quality for the people who do care – it is literally the difference between taking and not taking transit.

      11. Color me one of the streetcar skeptics. Given the added cost of streetcars they should only be placed in corridors where they have a clear advantage over buses. This also means using trams where there is a capacity advantage rather than the Czech trams that hold the same number of people as a 60′ bus.

        Now I do support the CCC and the North Broadway extension. I feel the relatively modest level of investment required for both projects is worth it to leverage the sunk costs of the SLUT and FHSC.

        Past that I only support further streetcar investment if it looks more like traditional American surface light rail. Which is to say in addition to capacity any future lines need exclusive lanes and full signal priority.

        So first convince me buses won’t have the capacity needed in the corridor then we can talk about possibly building rail. Note there are a limited set of corridors in the region where the capacity is needed and there is enough room to give rail exclusive lanes.

        The second case for rail is the one where full grade separation is called for. While these don’t necessarily have to exceed the capacity of buses the ridership potential should be fairly high to justify the expense. These are corridors like UW/Ballard or Denny/John where there is no room for putting exclusive lanes on the surface and terrain dictates any rail be elevated or underground.

      12. RossB, if people bought cars the way you appear to believe that they make travel decisions, every car on the road would be a matte-grey Honda Civic. There would be no luxury cars, leather upholstery, stereos, heated seats, or cupholders. Chrome would be nothing more than an obscure industrial additive. Power windows, automatic transmissions, sunroofs, the entire concept of an SUV? All imaginary.

        I cannot square the assertion that “most people don’t care” with the world I see around me, where people routinely spend substantial amounts of time and money seeking greater comfort in their lives, making decisions that would appear to be wholly irrational if you considered only cost and efficiency.

        Cars are a very nice way to get around, and people with the option of travelling by car generally take it. Most people in Seattle never use transit for any trips at all, and most people who do take the bus only use it for their commute to work. I want to invert this situation, and in order to do that, we have to tempt people out of their cars by offering something better. That means we have to consider *all* of the factors involved, not merely cost and efficiency.

      13. Mike: terminology confusion strikes again.

        Streetcars == light rail. Look up the history of the terms. Toronto is still using these terms correctly.

        The much more expensive alternative is “fully grade separated”, El or Subways, sometimes called “heavy rail” (though that’s used to mean other things too). Again, in Toronto, they still understand this.

        I don’t know why SDOT is buying particularly low-capacity streetcars, putting the streetcar tracks in the curb lane (they nearly always belong in the center lane of four-lane streets, as the 19th century streetcar builders knew), but also putting parking to the right of the streetcar tracks while the streetcar is in the curb lane (that’s *never* correct), placing the stops so that they don’t actually connect to the subway (Link) or intercity rail (Sounder/Cascades), making screwball slowpoke routings, etc. etc.

        None of these are failings of streetcars; they are failings of SDOT. Frankly, SDOT needs to hire an experienced streetcar expert from a city with actual streetcars, because *this is not how you build streetcars*. Link through the Rainer Valley is how you build streetcars, frankly…

  8. Fixed rail is generally seen as more conducive to TOD (because a transit system that stays in place can be the foundation of a stable community in ways that buses can’t),

    Except, of course, it must also be a significant improvement over what was there before. Replace a bus line with a rail service that is worse and you get nowhere. Build a transit system people want to live near, and you start to change development patterns.

    1. What you say is true if such systems were judged purely by performance, but there are other factors in play. There are certainly cases where SC will out perform buses, and there are situations where buses will outperform SC when measured purely on transportation metrics.

      However these systems are rarely judged purely on their economic performance. It is simply a fact that most people judge SC to be a higher quality mode than buses. Whether it is the smooth acceleration and ride, level boarding, or higher reliability is hardly material. People perceive SC to be higher quality, and it is this perception of quality that leads to their greater adoption and increased TOD capability.

      1. Eh, no.

        Bumpy rides? That’s related to pavement and track quality. I’ve been on some pretty bumpy rails (some of the MBTA lines in Boston, for example. Or Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.

        Level boardings? Build actual stations for a bus, just like you would for a light rail. Viola, level boardings.

        Smoke/exhaust? Run electric trolley buses.

        Smooth acceleration/ride? Again, that’s related to the condition of the ROW, it’s not something inherent to streetcars or buses.

        The *only* thing that you could definitely claim where streetcar might win out over an appropriate BRT line is either in the volume of people it can carry, or with a vague perception that a population might have about rail being higher quality compared to a bus.

      2. Ya. The ride is certainly bumpy on buses. You might want to wave your hand and blame it on the roadway, but our roadways are always bumpy compared to what you get with welded rail. And it is the bus that is most often responsible for the poor state of our roads along heavy bus routes. Just look at the street next to any bus stop and you will have your proof.

        And don’t even get me going on the jerky-jerky acceleration. It’s why buses are most often configured for seating as opposed to standing.

        And with that I am off to the airport to catch a plane to NYC. I have a little transit to ride this weekend.

      3. The state of our infrastructure is precisely why we’re having this discussion, and why this levy is so much larger than Bridging The Gap. Yes, our roadways are in rough shape. Spending a ton of money on rail isn’t necessarily the solution, compared to dedicated ROW where the asphalt is actually maintained. And if we don’t actually priorize transit maintenance, we’ll just end up with bumpy rail as well.

      4. Yep. And that is where rail systems excell. They are much cheaper to operate and maintain than bus systems. They cost more upfront, but often cost less in the long run (ridership defendant of coarse. )

      5. However these systems are rarely judged purely on their economic performance. It is simply a fact that most people judge SC to be a higher quality mode than buses.

        There certainly are a certain percentage of the population that would rather use the exact same service by streetcar than by bus. Attempts to explain this “rail bias” have been made but haven’t really determined exactly what the root factor is that makes certain people decide this. My own theory is negative experiences on so many transit bus routes in so many places in the USA.

        However, no matter what “rail bias” may exist in that certain people will prefer rail over a bus for certain trips, the “streetcar” has to be a significant improvement to make a significant change in travel patterns, and thus truly change the development patterns.

        There are places in Europe that have tram lines but also have a declining transit ridership base. Those cities (primarily in eastern Europe where finances are more limited) that have not put effort into making their tram lines truly better (including faster but also better in terms of station platforms, equipment, etc.) than what can be found on similar bus lines are those that are in decline.

        Those cities in Europe that have put money and effort into making their tram lines truly better than bus routes are the ones that are experiencing significant ridership increases. This helps those cities maintain transit friendly development patterns as people want to live near those routes, and thus businesses want to be located near them as well so that access is easier.

        So, if you build a streetcar line that is basically just like your bus routes, maybe the rail bias gains you maybe 1% or 2% ridership over the equivalent bus route. It’s there, and it has been measured under certain circumstances, but it really isn’t that much and really won’t change any significant land use patterns or transportation patterns.

        Some of the new tram lines through cities in Europe have been built to get from one end of the line to the other at somewhere above twice the speed the Portland Street car runs. I can’t tell you about the South Lake Union line, but I can tell you that if the Portland Streetcar were built that way it would have radically changed the way transit works through downtown Portland because at that speed it is slightly faster than the average speed of driving over that same distance.

        I can also tell you that, while it has been measured, the “rail bias” certainly did not save a large number of the Philadelphia streetcar lines in the early 1980s. SEPTA route 15 is really the last of the traditional streetcar lines left in operation, while other routes were converted to “light rail” (ie, separated from traffic and other improvements made) or abandoned and converted to bus. Even route 15 was brought back from “temporary abandonment” in 2005, after years of disuse, after the city demanded that it be put back into operation. The entire north Philadelphia trolley network vanished during the 1980s, when many cities were trying to build rail transit lines. By 1992 all of the streetcar routes were gone, and the 15 only brought back after 12 years of effort.

        Without significant advantages to rail operations built into their design, modern streetcars may very well suffer a similar fate if improvements in their operation are not made. History of street lines all over the world just don’t speak too well of what happens when sufficient investment isn’t made to keep them better (faster, more comfortable, better stations, etc.) than what could be done with a bus.

      6. Even if what you said was a “fact” (it isn’t) why are we even worried about it. Seattle is booming right now. The last thing we should do is spend a bundle trying to encourage development (whether transit oriented or not).

        As to whether they are cheaper to operate in the long run, that is simply dependent on ridership. A Toronto streetcar that is full operates at roughly the same cost as a Toronto bus that is full. But it can carry more people, and thus run less often, and thus cost less to run during the day. But our streetcars don’t carry any more people than our buses. Nor are they anywhere near capacity. They are nowhere near bunching, either. Far from it. They run so rarely that companies have to pay to run them more often, and even then, it isn’t as often a typical busy bus.

        So basically we would have to get rid of old streetcars, buy new ones, run them rarely and hope that they fill up so that maybe, sort of, someday we break even on the deal. Or we can just use the money to run the buses more often.

      7. Call it “rail bias” if you will, but there is an even older adage that describes it better and that is “quality sells”.

        And development won’t necesarily follow the transportation metrics, it will follow the money. When a major investment in rail is made in a certain neighborhood it signals that that neighborhood is a good place to invest and will remain so in the future. Private investment then follows public investment.

        This doen’t happen with buses because improved bus service doesn’t signal any sort of long term public investment in a neighborhood. And buses often are perceived as signaling social need more than neighborhood quality.

      8. “It is simply a fact that most people judge SC to be a higher quality mode than buses.”

        That has to be compared to the unmet mobility needs throughout the city. One or two or three streetcar lines would still leave a lot of neighborhoods out. So some people can enjoy comfortable streetcars while other people have nothing. Our primary responsibility is to get HCT or sub-HCT (convertible to true HCT) to all parts the city as quickly as possible, including crosstown corridors. If we could do all that with rapid streetcars, great, but we can’t. So let’s get better service to all those areas rather than streetcars in a few areas. We can always add streetcars later, when we have a better baseline level of service.

      9. >> When a major investment in rail is made in a certain neighborhood it signals that that neighborhood is a good place to invest and will remain so in the future. Private investment then follows public investment.

        This explains why the Rainier Valley is booming, with sky high rents, while places like Ballard languish, and have the cheapest rents in the city. Oh wait, it is the opposite. It is like the streetcar — the best possible streetcar we could possibly build, since it is connected to a grade separated light rail line that quickly gets you to downtown (unlike our other streetcars) — doesn’t matter that much.

        More to the point, which part of the route of the new streetcar needs development? Really — which part of that route is not bursting at the seams, and will undergo huge growth (right up to the legal limit) if it hasn’t already? I really don’t see it. If the point of a streetcar is to spur development, that line doesn’t need it. Thankfully, it doesn’t really matter. It will grow (or is already grown) and that silly little streetcar will have nothing to do with it.

      10. “Level boardings? Build actual stations for a bus, just like you would for a light rail. Viola, level boardings.”

        Andre: that doesn’t work. I’ve been on some of those, and the buses NEVER platform correctly. You never ever ever have level boarding; there is, at best, a terrible, large gap. To get level boarding working right, you need to be, to put it politely, on rails. I guess the Cambridge Busway and the O-Bahn in Adelaide might achieve proper level boarding, because *they actually put the buses on rails*.

        It’s true that you can get a lot of benefit from electric trolleybuses.

      11. “So, if you build a streetcar line that is basically just like your bus routes, maybe the rail bias gains you maybe 1% or 2% ridership over the equivalent bus route. It’s there, and it has been measured under certain circumstances, ”

        The ridership benefit from “rail bias” is more like 10%, though it varies by city. It has indeed been measured. Including in Philadelphia, on both ends (removal and restoration).

        Of course it didn’t save any of the lines. The question of whether to keep or remove lines is essentially political and not made for technocratic reasons. Only orders of magnitude differences in ridership are big enough to cause political shifts. :sigh:

      12. Nathaniel,

        Level boarding used to be much harder with buses, but technology makes it much easier for buses to line up precisely with platforms without using some sort of guideway for steering.

        I believe EMX and some of the South American BRT systems manage to achieve precise door alignments and level boarding using buses.

    1. I could be misreading Kubly, but I doubt he likes the streetcars, either. He has probably done the math, and knows that they just don’t make sense. It is telling that they are testing the waters, but clearly leaning towards using BRT instead of streetcars on new lines (like South Lake Union to Northgate). Since Metro has sullied the BRT name, and streetcars are quite often popular from an abstract standpoint they wanted to make sure there is no backlash — so they are defending their idea with the appropriate charts. But I doubt they will get much push back, there really isn’t much support for streetcars.

      At the same time, he is somewhat stuck with what he has. It would be a bold move to just cancel the whole thing. Murray isn’t that kind of a guy. He is a moderate, and wants to turn the ship around slowly. So my guess is we will live with the streetcar a few years, do a study, find them to be waste and then start ripping out the rails and putting in buses. They can probably find some other sucker (city) to buy the streetcars by then.

      1. The math gets a little perverse when the FTA gets involved. Since you frequently have to tear up the whole street to install tracks (due to the need to relocate utilities), suddenly you get a new road out of the streetcar project. And Federal money, while still taxpayer money, is basically “free” to a locality, we can get an entire corridor rebuilt and a shiny streetcar with modest local investment (perhaps roughly the same as it would have cost to rebuild the street). Since the FTA went through a phase of streetcar love, the result are all these little streetcar routes which would have been just as good (better?) with high quality bus service.

        Would the same FTA funding be available if you were building a trollybus route? I think it would, but only if the trolly wire wasn’t already there. I think trolley wire existed mostly on the first hill route, not sure about SLU.

        So the federal grants change the equation as far as the local investment is concerned. In SLU, private money changed the equation (if I recall Vulcan paid for 1/3 of it). In the first hill situation, Sound Transit paid for the entire thing. Now I think the mindset is “we might as well finish the system” by building the center city line.

      2. “So my guess is we will live with the streetcar a few years, do a study, find them to be waste…”

        That’s happening already with Roosevelt-to-downtown. The TMP recommended a streetcar, and it would leverage the SLU segment (and supposedly upgrade it). But SDOT said it’s leaning heavily toward BRT. Which heavily surprised me. I thought we were going to have to push hard to convince SDOT to question a streetcar in that corridor, but they’re doing it themselves.

      3. I wouldn’t be surprised if SDOT’s movement away from streetcars occurs due to supply issues. I’m sure SDOT folks having the fly to the Czech Republic to chase down a deadbeat streetcar vendor wasn’t much fun. :)

      4. I don’t know why SDOT and Metro like to get equipment from bad vendors.

        Is it due to low-bidder-must-win rules? We’ve had some serious problems of that sort in New York. In states with a certain amount of flexibility in the bid systems, the low bidder can be tossed for a bad reputation in favor of a reliable bidder like Siemens, Bombardier, or Skoda. (Skoda’s the Czech streetcar manufacturer with the *good* reputation. Inekon is a weird off-brand.)

    2. SLU trolley was $56 million (minus corporate funding of $25 million), so $31 million of public funds (plus . First hill line at $130, plus center city connector at maybe $30 million. So total will be around $200 million.

      Those street cars will do placemaking (yesler), they will be comfortable to ride in, if they can convert them to exclusive right of way they will be fast and convenient.

      The bertha tunnel is $4.25 billion of stupidity, the street cars are kinda dumb but they have real benefit. Not extending them to the U district or Ballard would be a good idea to limit further investment in something not as good as electric buses in terms of cost. But in the downtown and capitol hill they have marketing (tourism) and real estate power.

      1. No one said the streetcars were our worst transportation mistake, only that they were a mistake. The tourism and real estate value is exaggerated. I think more people Ride the Ducks (OK, that is an exaggeration, but still — the numbers on the streetcar are shockingly low).

    3. Per-mile ridership is an odd comparison for lines that are so short. You can’t take a streetcar from Broadway to the U-District, or Rainier to Broadway, or Rainier to the U-District, or Chinatown to 23rd, because it terminates far short of those. And that’s only a small part of the city where the streetcar exists at all, even with its CCC and Aloha extensions and Seattle Center extension. I’m not even sure what a per-mile comparison means in practical terms. The streetcar will be twice as crowded as Link? No, it will be less crowded, and that comparison becomes meaningless with the different line lengths.

      What’s important is how many trips the line (or network) serves compared to the population’s total desired trips. What percent of desired trips does the line (or network) serve? ST2 Link will serve a lot of people’s trips with different combinations (including trips with feeders), even if it’s a small percent of the total. The streetcar with all proposed extensions will serve only a fraction of trips in its area, because I’ve outlined several one-mile trips that it would serve only half of. And expecting somebody to transfer from the 60 to the streetcar, and possibly again to the 49, is just ridiculous. So buses will have to overlap the streetcar on both Broadway and Jackson Street, both because the segment is less than two miles, and because the streetcar’s frequency and speed is not spectacular. With Link there’s nothing equivalent, even a trip with a feeder. If you’re just going one station, Link may be superfluous, but if you’re going four stations or more its advantage is signiificant. The streetcar doesn’t even go more than three “Link stations” without turning, so it can’t accumulate a distance advantage.

      So please stop talking about “passengers per mile” as if it matters, and start talking about what percentage of people’s desired trips it will address.

  9. Regressive property tax? That’s a new one.

    This sounds more like the Income Rapers of Seattle (aka Emerald City Deadbeats) want an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top but want everyone else to pay for it.

    Yet, they’ll be no whining as the Productive People are forced to spend their income to increase the values of said property.

    Why any Newcomer would want to pay into this scheme is beyond me.

  10. Re: the whole tax issue, why should more affluent people subsidize your transportation? I can see financing roads with property taxes, but it makes a lot less sense to finance bus and rail with property taxes. Those who use the system should bear at least their fair share of the burden of paying for it.

    1. And people who use public transportation don’t pay property taxes, whether directly if they own property or indirectly in the rent they pay to their landlords?

    2. It because of how wealth has been redirected to the rich since the 1970s. Before that, one middle-class or skilled-labor income could support a family, including housing and a car and basic expenses. Since then the rich have captured all productivity gains and bought themselves tax cuts and tax caps. Regular wages have fallen behind inflation. At first that led to a few women in the workforce, but now almost all families have to be two-income, so relative wealth has dropped by half. And now families and singles can’t even afford apartments, or are approaching that point. Or the affordable housing is in Tacoma or Spokane where the jobs are not and it’s mostly car-dependent. So it’s only fair for the rich to give back a part of their windfall, which is at least partially illegitimate (in the sense that it came from unfair manipulation of the social contract, as some people see it). They would still be rich, and richer than their 1960s counterparts, and still have their McMansions and Lexuses and granite countertops. But at least a portion of it should come back to the middle class and poor, to prevent society from reverting to a 1930s or 1850s nightmare where people worked twelve hours a day just to survive in abject poverty.

      1. The single most important reason for increased wealth disparity has been the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve since Nixon closed the gold window in 1972. That policy has had strong bipartisan support since Volcker resigned in 1987. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama have declined to address this issue. In fact, President Clinton made the situation dramatically worse by repealing Glass-Steagall, an act which led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis.

        Wages have most dramatically lagged inflation in the housing, education, and healthcare sectors. Housing inflation is directly correlated with monetary policy. The inflation in education and healthcare reflects government subsidization and third-party funding, which removes incentives for consumers to demand adequate value for services rendered.

        Taxing “the rich” merely addresses the symptoms of the problems. It does very little to solve them.

      2. Kevin: you’re dead wrong. I’ve studied this for a LONG time.

        The single most important reason for increased wealth disparity is the cut in the top tax rates from 92% “earned” / 46% “unearned” (under Eisenhower) to 70% “earned” / 35% “unearned” (under Kennedy) to 33% “earned” / 25% “unearened” under Reagan to 45% “earned” / 15% “unearned” under G W Bush.

        You can track the meteoric rise in concentration of wealth directly to the Reagan tax cuts for the obscenely rich.

        Back in the days of 92% tax rates, CEOs didn’t bother to loot their companies; since it would all get taxed away from them anway, they instead invested in R&D, hired more workers for expansion, etc.

        Once the CEOs were able to loot their companies without paying much in taxes, they proceeded to loot them blind, started firing as many people as possible, and here we are today!

      3. You can actually track the massive rise in CEO “pay” (looting) directly to the tax cuts on the looted money.

        Worth noting: one of the things which the CEO class did with the money they looted was to spend it on bribing Congress to cut their taxes even more. (And also bribing Congress to let them move jobs overseas, etc. etc.) So it’s been a cycle of worse-and-worse: as these crooks get more money, they use a small fraction of it to influence politics to get themselves even more money and take money away from the rest of us.

  11. I dare to say that streetcars are cheaper than buses! Yes, actually cheaper.

    So, first of all, the main characteristics that make a transit line “successfully planned” have nothing to do with rail or bus:
    * alignment
    * stop spacing and placement
    * dedicated ROW
    * level boarding platforms

    You can provide those for either a bus or a train.

    However, beyond that there are two transit luxuries to consider:

    * Avoiding overcrowding: if your transit line is well planned, it will attract good ridership. Then scaling capacity becomes a problem because buses are very limited in how much they can scale and you end up with overcrowding. Overcrowding is one of the most oft-cited reasons for people avoiding public transit even if they live within the walkshed of a high-frequency line that goes where they need to go.

    * Providing a smooth ride: if you are going to maintain asphalt or (much more expensive) concrete so that the bus ride is smooth, it is much more expensive than maintaining rail to the same level of quality. In fact this is where rail really pays off. Rails require high-labor and material cost maintenance less frequently.

    So it’s cheaper to use rail on a properly planned transit line.

    Now, the SLU streetcar isn’t well planned – too short, no dedicated ROW, bad TSP, etc etc. But if it was a bus it would be equally bad. I do not support badly planned streetcars but that has nothing to do with my support for rail.

    I support well planned rail lines on full corridors. For example I think that converting the entire length of bus route 40 – *in addition* to whatever fully grade-separated line Sound Transit plans for Ballard/Fremont is a good idea. It’s in the TMP (corridor 8) and it should be something that SDOT does on top of what ST does.

    1. And just a note on – but do we need a smooth ride – the best analogy I got was from Mars Saxman:

      “if people bought cars the way you appear to believe that they make travel decisions, every car on the road would be a matte-grey Honda Civic. There would be no luxury cars, leather upholstery, stereos, heated seats, or cupholders. ”

      I would say – look around! I often see more SUVs than sedans. People strive their entire life to improve the comfort of their life. When you try to reduce them to the lowest common denominator that is bus service, they simply refuse to take it. How many? Well the majority of our population in the city.

      1. People buy SUVs (and other silly cars) because of a constant barrage of advertisements, not because of some rational decision about comfort. Sure, comfort plays a role, but it’s one of many factors. And stop saying that the majority of our population “refuse” to take the bus due to comfort issues – that is blantantly untrue. For the majority of people here, taking the bus simply isn’t an option. They don’t have service, or the timing doesn’t work out (< 30 min frequency, plus taking 2 hours to get somewhere instead of a 15 min drive).

      2. I opened my post with what makes a transit line successful – alignment, stop spacing, priority treatments, so I am not claiming that comfort is the sole reason.

        But comfort plays a huge role. I have tried hard to convince many of my car-bound friends to take transit. Many of them live with good access to high quality lines. The reason they cite is exactly comfort (ride quality being one of the specific things they mentioned).

        There is a lot of ridership to be gained by improving frequency, reliability and speed on our lines. But that will only go so far.Beyond that, it will be about comfort.

        At that point it’s cheaper to use rail, because it’s cheaper to serve the high demand you’ll get and it’s cheaper to provide high quality with it which is needed to attract even higher demand.

  12. Wow. Andres says people buy SUVs and “other silly cars” because they are gullible, if not stupid. What a liberal and progressive perspective.

  13. Responses to a few points:

    Rail bias–The 10% increment for apples to apples rail/bus is a 10% increase in share. So if a bus would have a 20% mode share, the equivalent rail line would have 22%. That’s more ridership, which is definitely a transit system goal, but so is cost effective construction and reducing construction time. It’s a policy call whether a corridor justifies the additional cost of rail.

    Rail comfort–It’s only comfortable if you’re seated. Once the system reaches a standing load, it’s no longer comfortable. BART, which was heavily focused on comfort, is a great example of this, now that its ridership has gone up so much.

    Rail and bus permanence–Thousands and thousands of miles of urban rail lines have been abandoned, only a handful have persisted. At the same time, numerous bus routes have been serving the same corridor since the 1920s. What keeps transit service in place is demand, not rails. As to the “perception: of permanence, I’d think that transit agencies would want to educate decisionmakers and the public, rather than spending hundreds of millions pandering to misconceptions.

    Bus capacity–If needs be, on street bus service can carry large numbers. In Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard carries about 100,000 bus passengers per weekday. Presumably a significant fraction of them will shift as the subway opens along that corridor, but there will still be tens of thousands. Geary Blvd. in San Francisco, which will not have a rail project for the foreseeable future, has about 50,000 weekday passengers. I think there is a level where grade separated rail makes sense. But single car on-street streetcars don’t have a big advantage over bus corridors with articulated or extended buses.

    Buses and TOD: You can look along bus corridors in many cities–Portland, San Francisco, Oakland–and see TOD. I’d agree that developers and the ever stupid bankers have an easier time understanding sites along rail, but bus-based TOD is happening.

    Parking tax and transit usage by income: I don’t know if the parking tax is the right funding source. But nationally and in every city I’ve seen data for, poorer people drive less and use transit more than richer people. Households without cars are much more common among the poor. The longest commutes go from high income far suburbs to the city center. And city centers, where highly paid managers and professionals concentrate, usually have higher average wages than other parts of the city.

  14. Nathanael,

    Rich people were able to avoid the marginal tax rates back in the day, as they do today. The reason why hedge fund managers become billionaires so easily today, in addition to the Federal Reserve largesse is because they pay zero taxes on their carry even though their margin tax rate (if they live in NYC) = 50%. VCs in California are exempt from state income taxes on their gains from start-ups. And so on. . .

    What you fail to understand is that the people who benefit from inflation, which is what money supply growth is, are those who get access to the money first and can leverage it. That would be “Wall Street” (broadly defined) and the real estate sector. That money growth has been off-the charts since Greenspan – and went parabolic the past 7 years. I don’t disagree with your characterization of Wall Street as looters, but it has little to do with marginal tax rates. 50% is still pretty high.

    Anyway, the people who lose from inflation are the worker bees who are the last to get their hands on the Fed’s new money – after prices have been bid up by those who got their hands on the money earlier. Think what would happen to housing prices tomorrow if interest rates were normalized, 20% down payments were required without exception, and banks were forced to hold the mortgages they issued on their own balance sheet. And think what would happen to the “rich” people who invest in real estate. You should be advocating for economic sanity as much or more than higher taxes.

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