Yesterday, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge by King County and others to I-976, the initiative approved by statewide voters last November to remove car tabs. Yesterday’s decision fast-forwards the case so it moves directly from King County Superior Court to the Supreme Court without a transfer to the Court of Appeals. The accelerated review means a decision is likely sometime this summer.
For Sound Transit, the outcome may take longer to play out. Sound Transit asserts it may continue collecting the MVET whatever the outcome of this case. If the initiative is upheld in this case, it probably means another round of litigation to sort out the unique Sound Transit issues.
To date, the initiative has not taken effect. An injunction granted in November remains in force and is now extended until the Supreme Court decides the case. Collections of the motor vehicle excise tax have continued although those may have to be refunded if the initiative is upheld.
In a February decision, King County Superior Court mostly upheld the initiative. While the Supreme Court may see the issues differently, it suggests I-976 is more likely than not to be found constitutional. Immediate impacts would include a reduction of funding for the state’s multimodal fund by 85%. The Seattle Transportation Benefit District would see about half of its revenues disappear, though those taxes were scheduled to expire at the end of this year anyway and a replacement with a higher sales tax levy seems likely. The STBD’s reserves could cover most of the cost of refunding vehicle license fees for 2020 if required, but it would start 2021 in a cash-poor position even if local voters approve new STBD taxes later this year.
Sound Transit’s expansion plans are obviously threatened by I-976, particularly now that the effects are magnified by an impending recession. A deep recession and I-976 together would exceed any margin of error in the ST3 financial plan several times over. Projects not already in construction would be cancelled or suspended into the far future.
The most expensive of these is Auburn Station, which is now to cost $120m in year of expenditure (YOE) dollars for 675 spaces (555 net new). Generous assumptions about inflation  make this $107m in current dollars. If this money were instead spread over 30 years for bus routes to Sounder, it would allow 10 additional buses to serve the Auburn area during Sounder operating times . A similar, though slightly less dramatic, story plays out at the other stations. The potential of these buses to improve several different outcomes is an exercise for the reader.
In my earlier days, this would be an occasion to slam the stupidity of the people in the charge. But in my thirteenth year of doing this, I know that things like this happen because of incentives:
Via a recent Metro briefing comes a striking map of how Metro ridership has shifted in the COVID era. The 10% of routes with the greatest ridership losses all serve the Eastside or a few Seattle neighborhoods close to the water. Very nearly all of the 10% of routes where ridership has been most stable are in South King County (as of last week of March).
It’s not quite a surprise, of course, except perhaps that it’s so stark. Higher income commuters are mostly commuting to an office and those workplaces have shifted to working from home. On the other hand, those whose workplaces are still open and who are required to be physically present are mostly commuting from South County.
Metro ridership is down about 75%. After a series of reductions between March 23 and April 20, just 34 routes are still running at normal or near-normal levels. Another 81 are substantially reduced and 104 routes throughout the county are not operating at all.
With Puget Sound transit ridership down to a trickle, no doubt many of you are missing your favorite bus or train route. Cheer yourself up with a Transit Supply sticker pack! All the local agencies are represented here in adorable sticker form.
Transit Supply is the brain child of Chris Arvin, a San Francisco-based designer. He creates stickers, t-shirts and more to celebrate transit agencies in other cities including Boston, San Francisco and LA. Arvin started selling unofficial transit merchandise about a year ago, he told me. “There can be a lot of negativity around public transit, but so many people love it, and for them, transit is part of what makes up their community,” he said.
For Arvin, it’s all about bringing people joy. “When someone tags me in a selfie excited that their items arrived, or when I hear a story about strangers connecting over transit because of my merch, it makes me excited to expand and bring that to more cities.”
He says Seattle has been a popular request and there will be more coming in the future. “You’ve certainly got a lot of transit fans out there!” he noted.
Yep. And until we can all get back on our buses and trains, stickers will have to do.
Yesterday’s Sound Transit Board meeting saw first steps toward the realignment of ST3 projects that now appears inevitable. In a preview of discussions to come, the meeting featured unusually intense questioning of spending on Sounder fleet procurement and parking garages in Auburn, though both moved forward.
Chairman Keel set the tone:
No project and no region is more important than any other. We are a regional board looking out for regional mobility.
Noting there would be no money for ‘nice-to-haves’, he continued:
The more we spend on any one project, the later we will deliver on other projects that have been promised to voters.
Expect to hear familiar arguments about regional vs local priorities in the next few months, particularly if the impact of the recession affects subareas differently.
Sound Transit 3, from its inception, has been a compromise between various regional interests. With likely economic trouble and a failed bridge to West Seattle, some people are interested in reopening the bargain.
Some of these people never liked taxes for transit in the first place, and seek a rhetorical opening for a redo. Others sincerely want good transit outcomes, and think that a retry might improve those outcomes. Still others are broadly supportive of Sound Transit but see an opportunity to address other priorities.
There isn’t much to say about people who don’t think transit is important, except that other parties should pay attention to who their friends are. Some people helping to tear down today’s plan won’t be there to build the next one.
Several future parking expansions for Sounder South stations are projected to come in far above earlier cost estimates. On Thursday, the Sound Transit Board is expected to approve a 675 stall garage at Auburn Station that will cost $120 million, 54% more than the previously approved financial plan.
At Sumner Station, Sound Transit intends to spend $81 million for a 623 stall garage, 41% above the earlier estimate. Sound Transit is selecting a project to be built at Kent Station, where the cost of a 534 stall garage has grown to $117 million, already 29% above the previous estimate.
The price tag per stall is extreme. Each of these planned structures are on sites with existing surface parking. At Sumner, the cost is $160,000 for each of the 505 net new stalls. In Auburn, the 555 net new stalls will cost $216,000 each. Even these dizzy numbers pale in comparison to Kent station where Sound Transit plans to spend $278,000 for each of the 420 net new stalls.
Beginning this weekend, Sound Transit and King County Metro are once again reducing service to meet demand for essential travel with fewer available drivers. They join several suburban agencies who have done their own second-route cuts, even as federal relief aid is expected to land here.
For Sound Transit, this means another frequency cut for Link, which will now run every 30 minutes all week beginning Monday, April 20. ST will have four-car trains on all Link trips. Several ST Express routes operated by Metro will also see new cuts to the number of trips. Ridership for Sound Transit has down 87 percent systemwide, while Metro is reporting a 70 percent decrease.
Sound Transit is also advising riders to only use transit services for essential trips, and to wear facial coverings. King County Metro has also instructed its security officers to enforce physical separation on buses where possible, and remove riders who are jeopardizing the safety of those on board.
On Wednesday, SDOT revealed bad news about the deteriorating West Seattle Bridge. The bridge now seems certain to remain closed through the end of 2021. It is not clear whether it can ever reopen to traffic. Any repairs are unlikely to yield more than another ten years of useful life. (The coverage of the technical issues by SCC Insight is recommended).
West Seattle will need a new road bridge no later than about the time Link light rail to West Seattle is scheduled to open. So while Seattle absorbs the budgetary impact of repairing and replacing its busiest arterial bridge, and West Seattle residents look forward to years of grinding traffic congestion, there may also be an opportunity to combine these projects and reduce the total cost of the new bridges across the Duwamish.
A lifetime ago, King County floated a countywide 0.2% sales tax increase for the August ballot, to replace Seattle’s expiring Transportation Benefit District (TBD) and expand its benefits to rest of the county. Weeks later, King County Transportation Chair Claudia Balducci had to shelve it as the virus ate everything.
The last day to file a measure for the November election is August 4th. To make that date, committee work would have to start no later than mid-July. It’s worthless to speculate about conditions in mid-July, but it’s also not hard to imagine how a measure would be both compelling and plausible.
The policy case for raising transit spending is strong independent of economic conditions. With strong growth, the robust transit network we don’t yet have countywide is critical to building environmentally sensible living and travel patterns. Seattle’s TBD has dramatically improved the accessibility of frequent transit while frequent suburban lines are scarce. Conversely, when sales taxes implode, transit becomes even harder to use.
Local transit agencies are facing financial challenges as revenues from fares and sales taxes decline precipitously. Federal aid has mitigated the most immediate operational impacts, but the affordability of the ST3 expansion plan is now in question. Sound Transit on Thursday signaled it was looking at a re-prioritization of planned capital projects. Decisions on delays to ST3 rail and BRT extensions may come as early as this summer.
In the near term, Sound Transit is financially well-positioned to maintain operations. Recent reductions in service are a result of operator shortages at partner agencies rather than budgetary concerns. Those can be restored as the virus crisis heals and more staff return to work. Transit operations are just $370 million in a more than $3 billion budget for 2020. Fare revenues will fall far short of plan this year, but that’s just $100 million in a full year. The larger part of Sound Transit’s budget is capital for system expansion. A sudden recession threatens a tax revenue shortfall with cascading effects on agency debt leading to extended delays for most ST3 projects.