HB1304, which would allow existing monorail taxing authority to be used for light rail, happened to show signs of life at just about the time that ST3 projects sank into serious financial trouble. Inevitably, these two subjects have merged in the discourse. That’s unfortunate, because the bill is best thought of as solving a long-term structural problem rather than a current revenue shortfall. Transit advocates should seize the opportunity to clear this legislative veto point and then argue about how to use it.
The design of Sound Transit is driven by the “spine” between Tacoma and Everett. The basic narrative is that local leaders in Pierce and Snohomish Counties thought, and continue to think, that light rail is important to the economic development of their core cities and convinced the legislature to authorize an agency large enough to take their interests into account. And so supermajorities in Seattle offset skepticism in outlying areas to allow each subarea to fund its stated priorities.
Setting aside recent financial difficulties, ST3 is bringing this model to an end by completing Link from Everett to Tacoma. There are certainly ideas for more suburban projects: Everett Community College, Tacoma Mall, Burien/Renton, Totem Lake, all-day Sounder, and so on. But it’s far from clear that these will capture the public imagination, while demand for new rail in Seattle remains bottomless.
To address that demand, new funding models are in order. A separate, Seattle-only funding mechanism, like HB 1304, would allow differential taxation to match the demand where it is highest. While this may not be especially urgent in 2021, transit activists would be wise to clear the legislative hurdle when the opportunity arises.
This is because the other hurdles are significant. It is a suboptimal time to make major changes to long term plans, like going to the ballot with new taxes. ST3 shortfalls in Seattle might also consume all of this new authority. Here’s hoping the cost reduction process bears some fruit, and legislators put real effort into reforming permitting authority and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to reduce costs in the future. But let’s get the authority and then debate how and when to use it.