st3mapNow that we’ve itemized three waves of projects that ST3 would deliver (1, 2 ,3), you might wonder how much this project will actually cost. There are a lot of numbers, some of them very large, that have circulated over the last year or so. But how much is it really going to cost?

I don’t want to read this whole article. How much is it going to cost me?

The easiest value to understand is the cost per individual. The median adult in the Sound Transit District will spend about $169 per year, or 46 cents per day. If you have your financial records together, you can use this Seattle Times calculator to compute your individual tax burden. Obviously, this bill will vary over time as car values, taxable spending, and house prices change.

I’ve used up my pageviews. How can I compute it?

An annual tax of 0.8% of the assessed value of autos, 0.5% on taxable purchases, and 0.025% of the assessed value of real estate. The last amounts to $100 a year on a $400,000 house.

I’ve been paying close attention to your series, and all the projects add up to maybe $20 billion. What’s this $54 billion figure I see in the paper?

Inflation. The individual project studies are priced in 2014 dollars because the studies aren’t attached to any completion date. The reporting convention is that the overall package is quoted in YOE (Year of Expenditure) dollars. The same project costs more when it finishes in 2030 than if it finished in 2025, because the purchasing power of a dollar declines.

You might wonder how you’re supposed to have any sense of whether a billion 2040 dollars is a high or low expenditure for infrastructure, and you’d be right. That’s why I’m a firm supporter of the individual cost estimates at the top of this article.

I thought the legislature authorized $15 billion in taxes. How can ST afford $20 billion, much less $54 billion?

Once again, this relates to reporting conventions. The original ST3 concept would have completed in 15 years, presumably with many fewer projects. As a shorthand, legislators referred to total tax collections in 15 years as a handle on the size of the package. Even in that case, some of that figure is 2017 dollars and some are 2031 dollars. And as it happened, various amendments to the bill chopped a few percentage points off the sum that Sound Transit can actually realize.

However, the tax was never going to stop after 15 years. In that period, Sound Transit would have sold bonds that it would have paid off with taxes collected after 2031. So overall, it would have been able to fund something like $25 billion of projects.

The last big leap in size occurred when they added projects that would arrive in up to 25 years. This accomplished two things. First, it meant they would accumulate capital for a longer period of time. Second, in the second half of those 25 years most of the ST1 and ST2 bonds expire, freeing up the revenue streams that pay off those bonds.

Sound Transit also expects billions in federal grants, amounting to about 13% of the total capital cost. This is in line with past experience.

So is it worth the money?

ST3 is the most plausible path to deliver wide-ranging alternatives to congestion and to direct growth into more sustainable corridors. We are just now reaping the seeds planted by the generation before us, and have the opportunity to do the same for the next. Whether that outcome is worth the investment is something for each voter to decide, although you’ll hear more from us about this soon.

45 Replies to “Sound Transit 3: What Does It Cost?”

  1. I am really surprised at $169 price tag.
    I calculated mine will go up around a grand.
    I have two cars, both 4 year old, both not luxury, each of those will go up by more than $300, and about the same for my greenwood house. Also one of the cheaper Seattle neighborhoods. I guess by 169 will go up, if I live in a trailer park with 70ies Chevy around Skykomish.

    1. If you have two cars, I imagine that you have more than two adults in the household? That doubles the median contribution.

      Also a Greenwood house costs well above the median for the Sound Transit District.

      1. Thanks Martin for the informative post.

        Actually, you don’t even need records to use the Seattle Times calculator. If you lost both your green car-tab bill, and your assessor’s white value card, there are lookups available from the state DOL and the assessor’s offices.


        DOL lookups

        King County assessor lookups:

        I’ll presume readers here know their IRS income (for the sales tax guesstimates) within a range of $15k, if not, then you’ve got a bigger fiscal issue.

    2. V: If you personally own your own home in Greenwood and have two cars, you are not median – this is across three counties where the average home value is $380k.

      That said:

      What did you use for your car and house value? People always overestimate both of those.

      Also: This is per tax payer, not per household. Is there another tax payer in your household?

      Also: I presume you itemize? You can deduct all of your ST3 taxes though it isn’t considered in that median.

      1. Financially speaking, the people who will be most affected by this are those who bought houses a while back and are now being hit by non-stop property tax increases. If you bought a house in the early 2000’s in Seattle or the Eastside (and probably other areas as well), your assessed value has probably doubled by now, while your income probably has not increased that much. While you might appear “rich” for owning a house, practically speaking you very likely might not be as most of that value is only on paper. Likewise, sales tax increases will affect those with lower incomes more than those with higher incomes.

        One thing I do have to say is that ST really needs to publish more than just a single “median” number. The median for rural Snohomish or Pierce counties is going to be very different than the median in Seattle. Same for people living in apartments vs. houses (I doubt most landlords are going to just eat the property tax increase, especially if you’re living in a house). The current number is rather misleading.

      2. Until there is a state income tax (never?) these are the funding sources that we have. Property tax is the most progressive of the options available.

        Let’s keep that property tax increase in perspective – a million dollar house will produce a $250/year tax bill for ST3 that can’t even keep up with inflation after initially being levied due to Eyman’s 1% rule. I find claims that this tax will produce any kind of affordability crisis highly out of scale with reality.

        There is nothing deceptive about publishing a median number, it’s exactly what it sounds like – most people will pay that amount or less.

      3. T.R.5000,
        so I used this year’s car tab transit tax value and next year’s assessor’s value for the house.
        Even if I consider two of us, that is $340, not more than a grand. Honestly, with median sold house price of >$666K in KC I really doubt the math of $169 for average taxpayer.

      4. T.R.5000: the tax rate shouldn’t need to be increased to keep pace with inflation. In theory, inflation will be accounted for in rising home value. In practice, average property values slightly outpace inflation.

      5. V,

        A few items:

        1) You realize the average person doesn’t own a house, right?
        2) $669k is Seattle. King County is $575k, Pierce is $284k, Snohomish is $395k
        3) $669k for Seattle is an average, not a median. It doesn’t take many $4M sales to skew the average.
        4) Even playing along with the Seattle average, a 2 taxpayer household would pay $167/year in property tax or $83.50/person.

        Presumably someone paying a mortgage on a $669k house is itemizing their taxes and paying about a .3 federal tax rate – this isn’t included in the online calculation but brings us to $58.45 in net tax increase for ST3 related to the property.

      6. Tim – That isnt how it works. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood elements of the Eyman property tax 1% handcuffs.

        If ST took in $100 the first year, I can take in $101 the next year. It doesnt matter what happened to property values – they split the cost based on relative value.

        Therefore growth will lower the individual burden but will not lead to more tax receipts for ST3.

      7. Keith, I think you’re confusing tax limits vs spending limits and general-fund accounts vs special-purpose accounts. The state and cities can’t raise their general-fund spending more than 1% plus the population increase. That was one of the arguments for the separate parks tax district: that would get parks spending out of the general fund to free up space for other things and allow more park maintenance and enhancements. But ST’s tax rate is capped at a specific level, and it can spend whatever that level brings in. So I don’t think the 1% thing applies to ST; it has a fixed limit.

    3. The car tax goes up by 0.8%. So if each car increases by $300, they would be valued at $37,500 each. That seems like a lot for a 4 year old car, let alone to have 2 of them for 1 person.

      Many adults in the region are renters, not homeowners, so that will bring the median down.

      1. We can’t really know how individual renters will be affected, as property tax costs are only one variable in what a landlord might charge — and perhaps not a variable at all, if you presume that rents are driven purely by what the market will bear, in classical economics. But for guesstimating purposes, Sound Transit presumes in its $169/adult figure that renters eat all the property tax increases in their apartments units.

      2. Interesting how until now agencies have always measured their tax costs in dollars per family, or per household. Apparently that number looked too high, so now ST is using cost per adult resident.

      3. Rents have gone up faster than taxes or inflation since 2000, so landlords can reach into the free windfall they’ve been making the past fifteen years to pay for increased taxes.

    4. Another key point that needs to be made over and over again is sub area equity. Since tax rates are the same across the Sound Transit region, Seattle (with our high property values) is going to produce a LOT more revenue that Pierce or Snohomish County. ST handles this by building more and better projects in Seattle. Thus, we are getting multiple transit lines while Everett and Tacoma just get one line.

      I hope voters in Pierce and Snohomish Counties realize that their tax revenue is staying at home. They are NOT subsidizing Seattle.

  2. I thought the legislature authorized $15 billion in taxes. How can ST afford $20 billion, much less $54 billion?

    Once again, this relates to reporting conventions.

    There’s also the maybe not so little matter of the possibility of federal grant money. It is very, very rare for any of these projects to get 0% federal funding, though San Diego built some of their light rail lines that way because they found it was actually cheaper to do that than expending a bunch of time and energy jumping through hoops to get the grants.

    There’s a whole range of stuff about the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant Program but it is really hard to estimate what it will provide.

    1. Indeed, CEO Rogoff has mentioned that some projects may be cheaper without federal funding, when the strings attached cost more than what the federal grant gives.

  3. I really appreciate the work you’ve done to break this all down. It obviously gets complicated. Personally I find the “cost per person” calculator to be wanting. We don’t have a progressive tax system, so despite more reliance on property taxes than a lot of proposals, it certainly will be a hit for some working class people. What interests me more is how this compares to other government spending.

    There are a couple pieces that make that even more complicated. One is subarea equity. How much are we going to spend in Seattle or Tacoma, for example, compared to how much is spent on local bus service. What if we just doubled the number of service hours (doubling frequency) across the board? How much would that cost (in comparison)? What about spending on other government programs. For example, how much would it cost to actually pay for Seattle’s day care initiative (give every kid free day care) compared to this?

    The other thing that I find very frustrating about the various projects is that they don’t break down the individual elements of each project. Or at least I haven’t read anything that has done so. For example, how much does the new downtown tunnel cost versus the new bridge? They get lumped together, which makes it harder to propose alternatives. Just to be clear, this is not a criticism of this blog — I think you have done a great job breaking it out as much as you can do — but of Sound Transit, for not releasing that information.

    1. One of the ST appendix documents does a good job breaking down revenue sources and project expenditures by subarea. However, that still lumps things like “Ballard Light Rail” into a single line item.

      The “what else could we by with this money” is always a fascinating since of the scale of major expenditures, albeit a bit of a red herring because this is a dedicated funding source, not out of a general fund. I will assume the “no” voter guide would highlight some of the other ways to spend all this money.

      1. You’re right about the “lump” problem, AJ. But would like some proof that average “no” voter on anything has a single alternative ready to take to the public. I also think that any dedication has enough different approaches within its boundaries that the “d” word is often an excuse.

        One thing I think would not only make agreement easier, and result better and more solid, is to do about what we did with the DSTT and the dual-power bus to joint-use to rail-only approach. Divide the work into phases, each one of which immediately starts providing service that transitions smoothly into the next one.

        Experience should have taught us how to spec out buses we can both operate and maintain. And reason DSTT conversion took more time than expected resulted from a technical improvement that saved us a lot more time and money than we lost.

        Invention of low floor trains and buses let us both avoid wheelchair lifts on all vehicles, and raising at least part of every LINK platform, by lowering the floor of every DSTT station by about a foot.

        Kind of measure I’m thinking of now would be a long-overdue all-day southbound transit lane between Northgate and the Westlake/Mercer area as cure for the Mess. Express buses- could have (at gunpoint if necessary) reservation along Mercer, into present streetcar and Rapid Ride lanes on Westlake.

        Example only. But do think that taxpayers find the work easier to understand, accept, and pay for than having to accept a project whose initial plans could be thirty years out of date fifteen years after groundbreaking.

        Mark Dublin

      2. The “no’ voter guide will be written by Tim Eyman, so I doubt it will mention how else we could spend the money (his attitude is to simply not spend it).

      3. The attitude of Smarter Transit is to not spend more money on transit. They are not interested in invesing more in BRT, they are just intersted in stopping Sound Transit. That’s why they were silent on the 5 bus measures on the ballot in the region since ST2 passed.

        They are mad because Eyman is an appropriate spokes person for their point of veiw.

    2. If you look at what else we could get for the money, you also have to look at whether we’d realistically be able to get it. Would the legislature allow it? Would the voters vote for it? The legislature does not want to make much changes to the tax structure or rebalance which agencies get which portion for what. Voters want something that’s immune to traffic congestion and road accidents and street maintenance.

  4. According to the Seattle Times’ calculator, my one-car Greenwood-homeowning household would pay about $1 per day more annually in order to build ST3. It’s totally worth it.

    I’ve never been a fan of using year-of-expenditure estimates for infrastructure projects like this, especially over a 30 year timespan. Since 1980 or so we have had very low inflation, and since 2009 we’ve had hardly any inflation at all. If that lasts, this will all come in well under $54 billion. But we could also see a return to 1960s/1970s era inflation. Who knows.

    Given that uncertainty, I don’t see the problem with using current-year estimates. But I am also not convinced that people are going to be swayed by whether this costs $20 billion or $50 billion. The question is whether or not people think building a larger rail system is worth their money. I believe we can and will win that.

    1. It’s not just inflation though. It’s inflation of cost of heavy construction materials. With the huge construction efforts in China and the Persian Gulf there have been years this has increased 12%.

  5. For the amount in car repairs, insurance, and replacement over the lifetime ST-3’s and I will share coupled with the time lost stuck in traffic, ten dollars a day would be cheap. So call me stingy, but never could pass up a bargain like this one.

    $1000/365 days = $2.73972602739726. Ever since the Reagan administration a few decades ago, our country has been falling apart, not morally or politically, but bridge by collapsing bridge, oil train explosion by broken bolt. Because taxpayers have been expensively convinced that bridge collapses and useless wars cost less.

    These last couple of wars, we’ve used our national VISA card, with usual interest and fees, because after forty years without a raise, the the people themselves, by intent, have lost sight of the difference between an income and a lifetime very high interest loan.

    Call ST3 a security measure, and maybe fewer people would sweat it. For once, truth in advertising. When plate tectonics does to rush hour I-5 what the Governor promised to do to the Viaduct in 2012, all ISIS has to do is claim credit. Almost worth it to watch our officials yelling at the top of their lungs that they deserve the credit.

    Author Kurt Vonnegut once said the world’s gravestone would have a one sentence epitaph. “The Good Earth. We could have saved the whole thing, but we were too damn cheap.” For our country, most fitting would be: “The United States of America. Penny-Wise, Dollar Dumber than a Dump Truck Load of Dog Crap. Who’s Going to Miss It?”

    Mark Dublin

    1. The part I find annoying is there seems to be no questioning that road expansions should happen.

      Anyone in Seattle vote for the huge reconstruction of I-5 and I-205 in Clark County or the ongoing expansion of I-205 and its interchanges? How about that huge I-5 widening project at Centralia? Or the I-5 expansion through JBLM?

      Apparently any highway project is unquestionably good so nobody need ask about those.

      Consider the choir preached to.

      1. Glenn, public transit- and a lot of highway projects as well, especially large number of major bridges- are caught in same trap as every other public service. The less money voters give the State, the worse Government works. Convincing people it deserves less money.

        But last monorail campaign showed me something up close. Much support was largely a protest against transit agencies’ refusal to address west side needs at all. Same, I think, for much pro-highway energy.

        Though I wonder if the Legislature isn’t, as usual, being more ideologically insistent than voters themselves. Personal experience again, but from extra miles I have to drive to avert a morning stuck in traffic, and conversations on Intercity Transit buses already stuck in it, first Sounder between Olympia and Seattle will carry a standing load.

        At least it might be good answer for I-5 past Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Where a ten lane highway would, one, be jammed in a year, and two, backed up all the way to Portland in ten.

        As soon as the new switch takes the new Amtrak route into the main line at the Nisqually River, passenger trains will pass Lacey station, 20 minute express bus ride into Olympia, a trapped drivers will have a highly-conspicuous very convincing blue and white chance of rescue.

        And vote accordingly.


      2. Some road expansion or redesign is warranted in situations. The amount of jams in these areas on Friday’s going out of Seattle and Sunday afternoon coming into the metro area seem to warrant the expansion.

      3. Sure, sometimes there is no choice but to expand the road.

        Did anyone vote on it?
        Did anyone at WashDOT go through the agonizing alternativez analysis?
        Did anyone perform public meetings to determine this is exactly what was wanted by local residents? Areas residents?

        What would have happened if Link had been given the same pass-through rubber stamp process?

    2. @Brian In Seattle Thanks to induced demand, any highway expansions would be filled with traffic soon, anyway. Grade-separated transit gives a way around this congestion and can move a lot more people for a cheaper total cost, lower environmental impact, and using much less land.

  6. Brian, coming from Michigan, and also pleasantly surprised by both the design of the LA freeways and the skill of average driver there, I think we could seriously increase our freeways’ capacity and efficiency by redesigning striped concrete things misbegotten from Date of Birth.

    A Los Angeles driver knows well in advance which lane they need to be in for a given exit. And no lane suddenly comes to an end. No, the legislature’s mis-design of I-405 north of Bothell should not be solved by putting buses on shoulders! The State Police are with me here.

    The Times noticed several months ago that not one column holding up I-5 between Ravenna and Boeing Field is up to earthquake-survival standards. Might also be worth checking out allegations that so many Washington bridges are crumbling that the legislature doesn’t even discuss them.

    And wherever our rail building is at any given time, bus transit highway lanes will also be needed. Before, alongside, and after regional rail. So there are indeed highway improvements which will supplement, rather than compete with, transit for funding. And give every future ST a better chance at the polls.

    Mark Dublin

  7. I have a slightly philosophical question on answering “So is it worth the money?: Do/should you consider just whether the parts of the system you’d use are worth the money, or do you consider the entire ST3 package?

    As an example, I’ll give my thinking on ST3:

    For me, I live in the North King subarea, and except for trips to/from the airport, I only travel into the other subareas every few years. Right now, on the basis of the North King project list, I’m on the fence on ST3, though leaning towards voting Yes- the projects aren’t ideal, but they may be the best that are likely to emerge from our political process- I’ll have to do some more reading and thinking before I settle on which way I’ll vote.

    I do have opinions on some of the projects in the other subareas, and if I lived in in the Pierce, Snohomish, or South King subareas, and I was voting on the project list for that subarea, I would be much more inclined to vote No on ST3- completing the spine seems to me to be a terrible use of transit funding in those subareas.

    But, as long as subarea equity holds, I won’t be paying to complete the spine, so the badness of those projects doesn’t seem to have much of a personal impact on me. I might say that while the ST3 package is a bad value overall, it’s a good deal for me in the North King subarea, or at least (possibly) a net positve relative to the likely consequences of voting it down.

    Will other people just be voting on the parts of ST3 they’d personally use, or do you consider the entire package?

    1. It’s a single network, a single region, and a single job market. The investment is not just for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren.

      As for suburbanites voting against ST3 because of the slow spine, who do you think caused the spine in the first place? It was people pressuring their representatives to “Get light rail now” and “Don’t leave us out”, and companies telling Tacoma and Everett they won’t locate there without something like it. Pierce and Snohomish may vote no on ST3 but it won’t be because the spine is too long or too slow; it’ll be because they don’t want to pay any transit taxes at all. The number of people who would change their vote based on the spine’s length or details is a small fraction of that.

    2. Most Every time I go to the San Juan Islands I use the layover time between train and bus to get something to eat.

      The tax money sent to the ferry system up there might not be something you personally use, but there are indirect benefits because maybe somewhere you do like to eat gets a little extra money once in a while from tourism headed that way.

      You might not see anything in ST3 that would benefit you directly, but maybe a street you need to cross will be less busy or a restaurant you like in spigot Hill will be able to have a broader menu due to increased business.

      As long as it’s cheaper to move the passengers by the light rail line that gets built than the buses it would have required otherwise, you come out ahead in the end.

    3. I live in South King county, and if ST3 were buses only in the suburbs and light rail only in Seattle, it would never have a prayer of passing.

  8. It’s a single network, a single region, and a single job market.

    It’s not a homogeneous region though- Take a look at the differences in population density between Seattle and the suburbs.. Take a look at the huge differences in per capita transit use between King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties. Treating the region as if it’s a single, undifferentiated area is false on its face and likely to lead to one-size-fits-all transportation proposals that fit no ones needs.

    Moreover, my guess is that the transit network is highly asymmetric- there’s a lot more reasons for suburbanites to come to Seattle, than for Seattlites to go to the suburbs.

    1. A transit network is a single network. Everybody travels for the same reasons: work, errands, recreation, family ties. The suburbs have control of their own land use and zoning: nothing is stopping them from making their cities more walkable and transit-friendly. People must travel further when land use is poor, but that’s more of a zoning issue than a transit-network issue. You may travel only within Seattle, but others travel to Bellevue, Kent, and Tacoma. The reverse commute on Lake Washington is equal to the traditional commute if not higher; that’s because a lot of people are going to Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland. In Renton and Kent it still seems like everyone is going to Seattle; the bus routes that direction have significantly more riders than the routes other directions. But the cities could move closer to equalizing that by having more attractive destinations. The region clearly does not have the same density or walkscore everywhere, but still people in every part of it need to get to all the parts, and that’s what the single transit network does.

  9. Using one of the tax calculators – the “first year only” one that you’ve pointed to at the Seattle Times, or the 25-year one at, is highly advisable, for the $169/year/adult is very likely to be well understating the amount for South Snohomish County, Seattle, and particularly Eastside residents, for Sound Transit’s number is based on an average vehicle value of only $5,433 and an average property value of $360,000 – the latter value which is nearly extinct in most of the aforementioned areas, but more common in South King, central and north Snohomish, and in most of Pierce counties.

    As you’ve noted, the amount will vary over time, as we’ll likely buy at least two replacements for each vehicle over the lifespan of the projects, plus the inflation on those as well as any other sales-tax purchase will mean more paid for a future generation’s transportation than for today’s purchases. In addition, there’s a possibility of sales taxes being applied to more areas than they are now, for there’s been talk about it being extended to services, and there’s been a long-standing effort to tax more Internet sales. ST would get a piece of those taxes no matter what happens this November. In short, whatever estimate these calculators come up with will be low.

    I disagree with the notion that ST-3 is “the most plausible,” for BRT, which Snohomish County officials wouldn’t even listen to, could have been operational in the Paine Field loop by 2020, high capacity transit that would serve today’s commuters while leaving plenty of money for a direct I-5 light rail alignment, which would open at least 5 years sooner than the PF loop, as well as valuable congestion relief for today, such as completing the north side of the 164th/Ash Way direct access ramp, which would eliminate the need for buses to cross general purpose lanes in that area. I’ve seen zero evidence of need for light rail for the relatively-low density Paine Field area, and that’s not being transparent. There’s also been no evidence of need to run a parallel line on the eastside between South Bellevue and South Kirkland (to/from Issaquah) when turning that line south (from South Bellevue to Renton and, ideally, Tukwila International Station) would have been far more prudent and would have given riders new choices, including those going to/from Boeing’s Renton plant, which apparently doesn’t have the clout of that company’s compatriots up north.

  10. Give “them” more and more money.

    Keep expanding the power of government over the power of the individual

    Gives ‘them’ more leeway with the taxes they already collect to blow it on things like the military industrial complex


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