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.