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We are used to a debate about regressive taxation every time a transit proposition is on the ballot.

Sound Move (ST1) in 1996 was funded by a 0.0.5% 0.4% sales tax increase, a vehicle license fee of $30 per $10,000 value, and a 0.8% car rental sales tax. Sound Transit 2 in 2008 was funded by a 0.0.4% 0.5%% sales tax increase.

The failed King County Proposition 1 in 2014 featured a 0.1% sales tax increase and a $60 vehicle license fee increase, with a potential $40 rebate for low-income car owners who requested it. (Unsurprisingly, opponents of Regional Transit Proposition 1 who are now championing bus rapid transit were nowhere to be seen during that campaign, except for those who opposed that bus-only measure.) Seattle Proposition 1 in 2014 used the same revenue menu as the failed county proposition, which had passed handily in Seattle.

Community Transit Proposition 1 in 2015 consisted of a 0.3% sales tax increase within its district. Pierce Transit’s narrowly-defeated Proposition 1 in 2012 consisted of a 0.3% sales tax increase.

Regional Transit Proposition 1, a.k.a. Sound Transit 3, if approved by voters, will be funded by a 0.5% sales tax increase, a vehicle license fee increase of $110 $80 per $10,000 value, and a property tax of $25 per $100,000 value.

Property tax, which disproportionately taxes the wealthy, was added to the mix by ESSB 5987 last year. When the Sound Transit Board opted to make use of this much more progressive tax source for Regional Transit Proposition 1, some among the well-to-do started decrying the funding for RP1 as regressive. Sure, an income tax would be even more progressive. But if we had to wait until one is adopted in this state before we start funding essential services, like transit, we’d likely have to wait a long, long time.

So, back to sales tax, about which the well-to-do are complaining much less …

You may have noticed higher up in the ballot Initiative 732, which would reduce the state sales tax by 1%, while imposing a carbon tax that is designed to replace that chunk of sales tax revenue. The proposed 1% sales tax reduction is twice the sales tax increase proposed in Regional Transit Proposition 1.

Some I-732 critics have been calling for funding of programs for community reinvestment so the poor aren’t hit hardest by the imposition of the carbon tax. This is where Regional Transit Proposition 1 comes in, as a major investment program that reduces Puget Sound communities’ reliance on polluting energy sources, while simultaneously creating lots of family-wage jobs.

The largest carbon pollution source in the state, by far, is automobile exhaust. The more the availability of transit enables people to do most of their trips without a car, the less carbon tax the transit-reliant will be paying.

A chunk of automobile-created pollution is diesel vehicles, including buses. One can argue whether diesel buses contribute to climate change, but regardless, the transit agencies using them will end up paying the carbon tax. Luckily, Sound Transit gets 84% of its electricity from renewable energy sources. Upon completion of ST3 capital projects, Sound Transit would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by roughly 800,000 tons annually.

Bus rapid transit typically comes without the pollution-fighting benefits of electrified rail lines. The catenary required to electrify BRT lines would cost roughly the same as the catenary required for rail lines. BRT would also need the same right-of-way priority investments that rail does, given our 1st world political environment, in which movement away from SOV lanes is a firing offense.

Compare the air-quality impact of all-bus systems vs. one with electrified rail. Some ST3 opponents have pointed to Bogota, Colombia, with a massive bus system and several full BRT lines, as an example of BRT being just as effective as rail. But check out Bogota’s live-time air pollution map, and compare it to that of Mexico City, where Zach was last week. Indeed, Mexico City is now more breathable than much of the suburban United States.

By opting to build electrified high-capacity transit, rather than a fleet of smog-inducing diesel bus lines, Regional Transit Proposition 1 becomes the capital investment program opponents of I-732 have been calling for in their nit-picking of what I-732 doesn’t do by itself.

Vlad Gutman-Britten listed several other ways in which Regional Transit Proposition 1 will help fight climate change. Seattle Subway suggested an even more clever and simple way to fight climate change and offset the tax cost of RP1 for a typical Sound Transit district taxpayer: Cancel your Seattle Times subscription.

In short, I-732, while being a full frontal assault on regressive taxation, benefits greatly from the capital investments in Regional Transit Proposition 1 that will help reduce the burden of the carbon tax on residents of King, Pierce, and Snohomish County. Regional Transit Proposition 1, while relying partially on sales tax, will have the burden of its most regressive tax element more than wiped out by the passage of Initiative 732.

For the sake of the future mobility of the denizens of our region, the fight against poverty, and the future of the atmosphere, please approve both!

39 Replies to “Do I-732 and Regional Prop 1 Mitigate Each Others’ Rough Edges?”

  1. Small quibble. I wouldn’t call property taxes progressive. To quote this article

    broad consensus has not been reached on the basic issue of whether property taxes are regressive, proportional or progressive

    On the other hand, there is a clear consensus that sales taxes are regressive and a progressive income tax is progressive. So I think saying the property tax is a less regressive form of taxation (versus a sales tax) is a reasonable thing to say. My guess is it is also less regressive than a car tab tax.

  2. I-732 taxes fuel for transit at a dramatically lower rate – it starts a 5% of the regular carbon tax and increases gradually to the full tax over 40 years. (I certainly hope that the price of diesel will be completely irrelevant to electric transit vehicles long before then…)

  3. I-732 would impose a regressive tax on carbon. Just about everyone (including those who favor it) know this would hurt the working class. It seeks to mitigate that problem by reducing the sales tax (which is also regressive). Whether you think it does so adequately is a tough call. I would guess that some folks come out ahead and some come out behind. Personally I think it is close enough — and the issue big enough — that is worth the risk to the working class. This is the biggest challenge of our time, and I believe that the Washington model is the right one. Nationally this could easily lead to a tax on carbon along with a reduction in FICA taxes (on employers and employees). Just as we led the country by being the first state to legalize the possession of cannabis, we could lead the country in creating a simple, effective carbon reduction system.

    ST3 is a different issue. It increases the sales tax a half cent, while improving transit. This is a regressive tax, pure and simple. There is no decrease in one tax to go along with an increase in another. It is just an increase.

    It is possible that the pain felt by the working class with this tax is offset by the improvement in transit. I seriously doubt it. The plan is so poor that it will result in improvements for only a handful of people, most of whom are probably well off. Unlike Swift, this doesn’t provide an improvement to the folks working at the Olive Garden or the 7-11, it only improves things for people who choose to live a very long way away from the city but commute to downtown. Most of the people who live like that are office workers who choose to buy property with a lot of land — they aren’t even the working class commuters who live in closer places like Renton or White Center. Unless you believe that somehow, magically, our transit system will behave like nothing else ever built in North America, overall this will hurt working class families more than it helps them.

    As for this reducing greenhouse gases, yeah, probably a little. But not as much as simply giving each transit agency the same amount of money, let alone building something that be would cost effective. It is really a stretch to believe that projects like light rail to Fife will make a significant dent in CO2 emissions. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Most of ST3 is for dubious rail plans, and large park and ride lots. You only save carbon if you actually reduce the number of trips taken. Running an empty train won’t do it. This is seat of the pants planning based on hunches and arbitrary, non-scientific goals (e.g. completing the spine). Similar hunches have been wrong in every city that has tried them.

    But the most bizarre, insane part of this article is to suggest that Bogota has worse pollution than Mexico City because they invested in BRT. This is not only ridiculous, but it is anti-transit misinformation of the worst kind. We saw this with the CKC. Read the comments and it is pretty common to see people complaining about the possibility of “diesel buses belching out black smoke” as if electric powered buses (by battery or wire) were somehow a futuristic idea akin to flying cars. The idea is even more ridiculous given the fact that Seattle already has those vehicles.(and they carry more people than Link).

    Bogota has terrible pollution because they have lots of old, poorly performing cars and trucks. Old public buses are being phased out, and none of those are part of the BRT (those vehicles are relatively clean — But now Mexico City is a model for air quality despite backsliding on the improvements they had made — What a ridiculous argument.

    1. Bogota is moving most of its diesel buses to milk runs rather than phasing them out.

      I’m not attacking BRT. I’m saying electrified rail is better. I am very pro-BRT, unlike the temporary BRT advocates in the NoST3 campaign, who mostly cheered when the HOT lanes were undercut for the sake of SOVs having access to all the lanes.

      Link now carries more people than all the Sound Transit buses combined, and most of those buses are hybrids.

      You missed the whole point of the article, in which I point out that making quality transit more available enables people to avoid the carbon tax.

      1. You missed the whole point of my comment: ST3 does not produce quality transit.

        When I referred to the magic electric buses, I meant the trolleys in Seattle, run by Metro. These carry more people than Link. Interesting that a handful of runs in Seattle exceed those very nice, very popular routes run by Sound Transit. It is as if density and proximity are the key to ridership. Imagine that.

        Oh, and you do realize that if Bogota does build a subway, they aren’t getting rid of the BRT. It is pretty obvious when you look at the proposed map ( The two will work together. Imagine that. They are basically trying to figure out how to handle 10 million trips a day (according to that video on this very website). Their BRT is doing fairly well, of course, carrying 2.2 million a day. When do you think Link will carry a million — when they finally add service to Fife?

      2. Why is the number of boardings the only criterion ST3 opponents seem to care about? Speed, frequency, and cleanliness are nice, too.

        There is BRT in ST3, working together with rail. Imagine that, Ross! Thanks for trying to put obviously unfactual arguments in my mouth. That’s just lame, dude. The only BRT opponents I know of in this debate are the ones working on the NoST3 campaign.

    2. If Mexico City is cleaner now that parts of the US, that’s an amazing improvement. In the 80s and 90s and 00s the air pollution was comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. A book I read on Mexico City blamed it mostly on vehicles, especially the old buses. If I remember right it’s also in a valley surrounded by hills, which traps the smog. If Bogota had the same problem with old buses, it’s good it phased them out.

      1. The city still has a bit of a smog issue since it is at 7000 ft in a big bowl surrounded by mountains. The level of pollution there is to the point where its not strong enough to be noticed every day but still more than a place like Seattle

      2. Look at the article I referenced. They were doing better, but now have slid back. Like cities in the U. S., most of the improvement was due to improved regulation, not by giving people better transit. Public transportation helps (of course) but not as much as regulation. This explains why things have slid back when the loosened the regulations (the transit didn’t get worse but the pollution did).

  4. King County Prop 1 in 2014 was hardly a vote on BRT. It’s at best disingenuous to suggest that someone who claims to be pro-BRT is lying simply because they voted against it.

    The principal issue at hand was whether or not Metro needed more taxes to run the existing service, or whether the improving economy, efficiency improvements, and cuts to the very worst performing routes in the network would be sufficient to keep things working. There was no meaningful promise of new BRT service, or in fact any explanation of how any excess revenue was to be spent.

    The proposition failed, and hardly anyone noticed. I did… my bus was cut… but my impression is that most commenters here view that as positive outcome (for the record, I voted yes, and also, at least at a policy level, agree that losing the 202 was a positive outcome).

    1. As an expert on my own mind, I know my argument is presented with totally honest intentions.

      I still have yet to see ETA or any other organization now backing BRT-better-than-rail actually support any ballot item for improved bus service, even the proposition that funded RapidRide.

    2. Preserving existing service or adding service is the same thing; it just depends on how future economic fluctuations change the baseline. If the economy tanks, Seattle’s Prop 1 will lose the recent additions but will keep the pre-2008 level of service, while King County will go below the pre-2008 level. (For simplicity I’m ignoring the the first round of cuts that went through in 2014, since it was a relatively minor effect.)

    3. And the reason for that is… the suburban Metro service is inadequate, especially in south King County which has a lot of transit-dependent people but few frequent corridors.

      1. Exactly, Mike! Express buses don’t work very well for people trying to commute to jobs in the suburbs. Two-way train service breathes economic life into the suburbs. Call that sprawl if you will, but Seattle isn’t a skyscraper metropolis, and the suburbs aren’t without lots of apartment complexes. We need jobs, and transportation to them, throughout the urbanized region.

        One other note on bus scavenging (as Ross calls it): When buses get realigned from express service on clogged freeways into neighborhood service, it enables the older buses to get retired and the neighborhoods to be served by newer, cleaner buses. And more frequently.

      2. >> the suburban Metro service is inadequate

        and ST3 won’t change that. If this was a massive expansion of appropriate suburban transit (i. e. bus service and commuter rail) than I would be fully in favor. But it isn’t. Most of the money goes into light rail service that won’t provide much benefit, because the handful of stops are nowhere near where people live and the current plans already take it far enough away from the urban core.

        But somehow slow, infrequent, two way train service to places like Fife Station will revitalize the entire sprawling suburban region. From Bonney Lake to Ruston, from Lakewood to Covington — revitalized! Just like, well, like … like, well nowhere else on earth. But hey, we are special. Our trains are magic!

        Oh, and about the bus scavenging (not my term, but whatever). As I said up above, there is none of that to be found for the north end. Once Link gets to Lynnwood, the service savings pretty much go away, unless you are willing to run the train very infrequently. Is that the plan?

        I doubt there will be service hour savings in the south end either. Unlike the north end, I haven’t done the math, but my guess is there won’t be that many routes that could be truncated father south than Federal Way.

        Oh, and how many routes will be truncated, anyway? Because right now they are running express buses from Seattle to Tacoma, and those don’t stop at Angle Lake. I am guessing — I’m going to way out on a limb here — it is because it would represent a major service deterioration. People would rather go directly to their most favored destination (downtown Seattle) even though it means missing out places like Angle Lake and TIBS.

        So basically you are saying we should spend an enormous amount of money so that suburban riders can experience a major deterioration in service. But in exchange we get a handful of extra service somewhere else. Sounds like a great plan.

  5. The most regressive aspect of transit funding are transit fares and passes.. This cost does not vary based on income unless the rider has the time and energy and low income to take advantage of a subsidy.

    Even regressive sales taxes can be argued as more progressive than transit fares are.

    1. And the fare doesn’t depend too much on the distance traveled. The fare is the same if you go from Othello to Crown Hill or several blocks downtown.

      Then again, if you did otherwise you wind up with a complex distance fare structure like the Copenhagen Metro has.

      1. I should also mention that ST and Metro now make combo Metro-free-ride/Link-free-day-pass ticketbooks available through numerous human service agencies.

        Fares tend to be inherently regressive, but ST’s is probably the least regressive fare system in the country, outside of some rural agencies that don’t charge.

    2. Link’s fare does depend on the distance traveled; it’s just that it goes in 5-mile increments, so Westlake to Beacon Hill is in the minimum tier. Bus fares are flat within the zones, but Metro’s fares are irrelevant to ST3.

  6. Brent;

    About that “firing offense” thing, the reason why Secretary Peterson was shown the door was because she was very left-wing and very much incompetent. New management in WSDOT is needed.

    I mean after all, “WSDOT ignored the legislature’s rejection of the the Columbia River Crossing by continuing to spend money on planning work”. At some point the legislature had to stop that abuse of executive power that Lynn Peterson was doing. Let me also remind STB regulars this very blog did a series of posts to sink the Columbia River Crossing by a leftist activist and the only reason why a moderate Republican-leaning (and anti-Trump to the hilt) transit activist backed Jaime Herrera Butler tow years ago was to sink the Columbia River Crossing. The only way to finish the job was to spank the elitist out of office – I think a, “Thank You Senate Republicans”, is due.

    For those of you wondering why I voted for Bill Bryant in spite of his (misguided) opposition to ST3, it’s because of s–t like the above. Better WYSIWYG Governor and a clean house than the alternative. WSDOT is not much a friend of transit anyway.

    Oh and yes, I voted FOR I-732 and I have helped ST3 get passed. Offering to volunteer Thursday to help too!

    1. Secretary Peterson’s dismissal was a transparent political ploy to embarrass the Governor and score cheap political points among anti “I should be allowed to drive my car however I please” exurbanites”.

    2. It sounded to me like a political firing to appease those who don’t like the HOT tolls on 405.

      1. Well that was the break even point…. but for us transit advocates Peterson’s shameful work to keep the CRC alive past our/STB concerns and past state legislative directives should mean we thank Senate Republicans on this one.

      2. What break even point? Did the legislature not approve the tolling and order WSDOT to implement it? And then when it were implemented they scapegoated the pawn. That’s hypocracy. There were legitimate problems with the implementation of tolling: the private vendor taking a third of the revenue, double-charging people or charging them on days they didn’t drive and draining their account without telling them and then charging the pay-by-mail rate. But this wasn’t about those. i heard it from several Eastside acquaintances, “They were supposed to add an HOT lane and that would have been fine, but instead they took away a general-purpose lane and made it a toll lane, so they actually gave us less than what we had before.” That’s what the groundswell of anger was about, that and the de facto effect of moving the bottleneck to Bothell where it affected different people and they saw it as “new” congestion. That’s what precipitated the legislature firing Peterson: people didn’t want tolls.

    3. The way I remember it, the consultant working on the plans required a bit of money to shut up and go away. Oregon was still dealing with the bills after it got the boot too.

    4. I suppose I should be more clear. SOV-lane advocates weren’t cheering for the firing of Peterson so much as the decision to open up the HOT lanes more of the day to SOVs. Not a peep was heard from the supposed BRT advocates in the NoST3 campaign defending the HOT lanes.

  7. I’m not quite sure why a carbon tax should be labeled regressive. A regressive tax is one that disproportionately raises revenue from the poor, but that’s not the case here.

    Affluent people tend to own more cars and drive them farther than poorer people. The people with the longest commutes (in miles) are not the poor, but people who live in high income suburbs. Given that the primary source of carbon is automobiles, the general effect of a carbon tax should be progressive, that is, greater on high income households. That’s particularly true for a carbon tax coupled with a sales tax decrease, since sales taxes are regressive–the poor have to spend more of their income than the rich.

    1. Poorer people will generally buy less gas than richer people, just as poorer people generally spend less money overall, but probably spend more on gas as a portion of total income, just as they generally have to spend a greater portion of their total income.

      To the best of my understanding tax policy experts that have studied it think the overall effect will be to make Washington’s state taxes slightly less regressive, but still quite regressive overall.

      1. In fairness, it is reasonable to expect that a typical poor car owner will tend to own a dirtier-burning, lower-MPG vehicle than a wealthy car owner, even if it isn’t a Tesla. That’s where the carbon tax could be more regressive than, say, a flat car tab.

        Regardless, Ross’s approach won’t get us more quality transit. It will just get us less transit, even if we end up passing an ST 2.5 four years from now, which will simply be a scaled-back version of ST3 that will still not pass Ross’s quality test. And I know he doesn’t agree with his cohorts’ never-rail ideology. He’s smarter than that, even if he is dumbing down his rhetoric for the sake of this election, or at least this discussion.

      2. Also, there isn’t so much affordable close in housing. Lake City and its equivalents really aren’t close to too many job centers.

      3. What Al said. Besides, it isn’t just the driving, Raise the cost of energy and pretty much all of your essentials go up. Food, clothing, shelter all get more expensive. That is the whole idea, really. Those vegetables that come via the old truck aren’t as good a value as the ones that travel by Sprinter Van. Cheap clothes from overseas are loaded on trains, not trucks. Meanwhile, adding insulation is finally a good deal (for a homeowner or a landlord who pays the heat). Businesses and consumers all adjust, and the economy becomes a lot more fuel efficient. It has happened before, during the oil crisis (we were a lot more oil dependent back then) and we managed to make some pretty big efficiency gains. But we back slid a bit because it just doesn’t matter as much anymore. With a high carbon tax it would.

        But it does hit the poor pretty hard. Which is why lowering the sales tax (which also hits the poor hard) makes a lot of sense. It is both a reasonable policy and a model for the nation.

    2. “The people with the longest commutes (in miles) are not the poor, but people who live in high income suburbs.”

      That’s the kind of thinking that leads to these problems. Theoretically it should be rich people living in exurbs that have the longest commutes, but in practice there are lots of teachers and hospital workers and others who drive twenty or forty miles to wherever they can get a job. Many of those jobs are in transit-inaccessible locations, and the places they can afford to live also have little transit.

      1. There are quite a few low and middle wage workers who arbitrage their work schedule for a nicer house and drive further as a result. It’s well known that many bus drivers, because they start work at 5 am or earlier, drive long distances to commute in uncongested traffic. The same goes with nurses and police officers, some of whom have 3/12 or 4/10 shifts that allow them to miss most of the traffic.

  8. I Voted Yes on I-732 and Yes on Prop1 – You Should Too!

    Act Now On Climate Change! Mass Transit Now!

    Greg Rock
    Sustainable Energy Engineer

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