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Voters in the Seattle and the Puget Sound area face a ballot measure in November on funding a large increase in their public transportation system, Sound Transit. The measure, dubbed ST3, is designed to more than double the light rail system in the multi-county region, adding 62 miles to the current 57-mile system.

If the measure is approved, construction is slated to take place over the next 25 years.

Proponents of the measure argue that the region needs the expanded public transport system for three major reasons.

The Pros of the System

The first reason Sound Transit is an excellent idea is the traffic congestion that’s rampant throughout the region. Sound Transit notes that light rail particularly will ease traffic congestion owing to the ability of light rail to be constructed in bylanes separate from vehicle traffic. Mass transit buses, on the other hand, must use existing roads. While the multiseat ridership does redeploy travelers from other vehicles — and there is some provision for expanded bus service in S3 — it does not have the same traffic reduction impact as light rail.

The second is the carbon-neutral footprint of mass transit vis-à-vis vehicle traffic. The overwhelming majority of cars burn fossil fuel, and the resultant carbon emissions contribute to global warming. Light rail, however, reduces dependence on individual vehicles, while burning cleaner fuel as well.

The third reason could be dubbed “strike while the iron is hot.” Over the past several decades, population in the Puget Sound area has increased massively. A concomitant increase in mass transit capacity is, in the view of the measure’s proponents, overdue. The measures include provisions for a tunnel in Seattle to reduce congestion and emissions. Should the November measure be rejected by voters, proponents think the tunnel will either be built on a reduced scale, or never come to fruition at all.

There Are Just Heavy Taxes to Support It

Opponents have centered on the heavy tax burden S3 will cause, ensuring that it doesn’t end up in the pockets of bureaucratic departments and will be a long-term benefit to the local communities that the expansion will service. In total, the package is estimated to cost $54 billion by the time it is completed. The initial total cost of $20 billion, over the expected inflation during the quarter century before it is completely finished, will balloon to that amount.

Those amounts will be collected from a combination of taxes: 0.8% of a car’s assessed value, a 0.5% sales tax, and 0.025% of real estate assessed value.

Individually, the median taxpayer in the area will spend $169 annually on the expansion of Sound Transit. That’s $0.46 per day for the duration of construction.

An Intense Debate

Essentially, proponents of the plan argue that Puget Sound needs a rapidly expanding transit system for a rapidly expanding region. They point to cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, which emphasized the car and have come to rue the pollution and congestion they spawn.

Opponents focus on the tax increase, which they argue will fall disproportionately on poorer and middle income citizens. Families with incomes below $21,000 pay nearly 17 percent in state taxes currently. Those with income between $21,000 and $40,000 pay close to 12 percent. Families with incomes of more than $500,000, however, pay only 2.4 percent.

And property taxes? Those are disproportionate as well. Those in the lowest 20 percent of income pay over three times as much as those in the top one percent.

So will the wave of Sound Transit’s future be a streamlined commute with clean energy or less burden on the pocketbook? Only voters will eventually tell.

10 Replies to “Will Tax Hikes Be Worth It for an Expanded Sound Transit System?”

  1. The cited article ‘…Sound Transit notes that light rail particularly will ease traffic congestion.’ does nothing of the sort to prove that it eases congestion. I’d say show me the specific measureable KPI that any of the ST light rail has reduced congestion at all. There isn’t any.

    Is traffic congestion better between Seattle and not-quite-SeaTac airport? Nope. i5 and the surrounding corridors still sucks.

    So, show me where the value for my already-paid dollars are going–we’ve been paying on the first couple of plans for years. ST wants more money? Show me the results first, prove to me it reduces congestion for the bulk of us in any meaningful way, then come back and ask for more money.

    1. The STB post associated with this quote did not make the claim that LRT would ease congestion. People using LR can avoid that traffic congestion, but they won’t relieve it for the rest of us.

    2. Grade-separated rail allows riders to bypass congestion. That’s not the same thing as decreasing congestion. When a hundred buses are truncated, a hundred more cars will take the space as they see suddenly think of more trips they can take. Meanwhile tens of thousands of transit riders will be Out. Of. Traffic. The population suburban Link goes through is hundreds of thousands of people, so a hundred more spaces for cars won’t make a difference to most of them.

      It’s irresponsible for transit agencies to say rail will reduce congestion. Even if that’s intended to mean trains bypassing congestion, the public will understand it as meaning my car will go faster. If ST is saying that now, we need a clear citation to prove it. The link above goes to an STB article that does not appear to say this anywhere.

  2. No one in the lowest 20% actually own property and they don’t directly pay the tax. And any low-income person would tell you that their high rents have nothing to do with current tax rates.

    1. >> No one in the lowest 20% actually own property

      Citation please. Good luck, because I find the claim to be ridiculous. A few years ago, you could get a nice condo in SeaTac for less than 30 grand. This means that someone of very marginal means would have been able to buy property. Meanwhile, there are plenty of folks who own property, then lose their job. It happened a lot a few years ago (there was a major recession, you may have heard about it).

      >> and they don’t directly pay the tax.

      Nonsense. Property taxes are paid indirectly, just as B and O taxes are paid indirectly. Keep in mind, in this state, we tax both on the value of the land as well as the value of the building (it would be different if we only taxed on the value of the land). So, assume for a second that every landlord raises rent as much as possible. Now, someone with a parking lot is considering building an apartment. Last year, building an apartment didn’t make sense. Rent just wasn’t that high yet. What with the cost of construction, as well as planning, etc., it just isn’t worth it. But this year, rent just hit that magic number, and it makes sense to build. But if the builder adds a new apartment, then costs go up — the owner has to pay more in property tax. Thus rent has to be even higher to justify the conversion.

      With higher property taxes, you have fewer new apartment buildings. With fewer new apartment buildings, rent is higher. In this indirect way, a higher property income tax is passed on to renters.

      1. Basic economics 101 describes supply curves and demand curves and talks about how these curves change when you introduce a new tax, and what happens to price and the quantity sold as a result of the tax.

        The answer is that some of the tax burden falls on the producer, and some on the consumer, and how much of each, depends on the market. Somewhat paradoxically, the tax burden falls mostly on the side that has more market power. For instance, if it’s a buyer’s market, sellers are already selling at the minimum price they are willing to accept, so any new taxes must represent themselves in higher prices. Whereas, if it’s a seller’s market, the price is determined by what the buyers are willing to pay (which does not change as a result of a tax), so the price remains nearly the same sellers bear the brunt of the tax.

        In the case of the Seattle rental market, this is clearly a seller’s market, so econ 101 says the tax burden should end up falling mostly on the landlords. However, in practice, the actual effect of the ST3 property tax on rents is going to be very small compared to the numerous other market forces (like zoning restrictions that kneecap growth), so rents will probably continue to go up, but they’ll go up by essentially the same amount, with or without the ST 3 taxes.

        (Of course, once the projects funded by ST 3 get built, people’s willingness to pay for rental property near station sites will drive rents up further, but this is a separate effect from the taxes themselves).

      2. My rent went up this year by much more than what it should have based on the potential property tax increase passed along to me as a renter.

        I fail to see how it is tied in any way to property values.

        But I also recognize that there is a reason why landlords all over town are jacking up rent as quickly as they can: Fear of rent control legislation.

        I suspect such legislation will not sympathize with apartment owners’ need to pass along property tax increases.

        Sadly, if the legislation is designed to keep rent increases to inflation or less, I’m morbidly afraid the housing construction market will shut down, and the displacement will be massive.

        All of this has very little to do with the outcome of Regional Proposition 1.

      3. There’s no sign that the legislature will allow rent control anytime soon. That’s like saying soon we’ll be living in a paradise of cheap autonomous taxis that won’t cause more traffic congestion: don’t get a loan with that as collateral because it may not happen or happen soon enough.

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