Seattle’s growth slows again as Eastside grows faster

Redmond has grown 31% since 2010 (image by author)

Seattle added 11,440 residents in the year ended last July, faster growth than any other city outside the sunbelt, and enough to make Seattle America’s fastest growing large city since 2010. But that is still the fewest residents Seattle has added any year this decade, and a halving of the peak growth seen in 2016. Meanwhile, the Eastside has accelerated with more growth just as Seattle has been slowing. There’s been a shift too from King County to neighboring suburban counties. Seattle metro area growth has begun to resemble the more typical suburban pattern elsewhere in the country.

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Will the Seattle TBD be renewed?

The Seattle TBD funds additional service hours on Metro route 120 since 2019 (image: Zack Heistand)

In 2014, Seattle voters approved a six-year tax package for Metro transit via the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD). It included a 0.1% sales tax and a $60 vehicle license fee, and the taxes expire this December. In recent weeks, there have been hints that the expected renewal may not be on the Fall ballot. Via the Seattle Times on Friday evening comes a report confirming that regional leaders are focused on a bond measure for Harborview, with other tax measures taking a back seat. The STBD taxes may be allowed to expire or the sales tax be extended at its current rate only, roughly halving the revenues of the Seattle TBD.

Meanwhile, a meeting of regional transportation boards heard last Tuesday that Metro is preparing a 20% service reduction in response to a projected budget shortfall of $2 billion over the next decade. The worsening projections include both the expiration of STBD funding and an extended period of lower sales tax revenues countywide.

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Metro faces steep challenges in 2021

RapidRide expansions may be delayed (image: Kris Leisten)

Last week, King County Metro General Manager Rob Gannon delivered a sobering assessment of Metro’s challenges in returning to normal service. Funding from the CARES Act has back-filled most of the revenue declines for 2020, but massive shortfalls in fare and tax revenue lie ahead after that once-off money runs out.

Between foregone fares and lowered tax revenues, Metro expects a revenue shortfall this year between $240 and $265 million. That is mostly replaced by $243 million in CARES Act money that is being disbursed through the FTA. There are strings attached to what kind of spending can be supported through CARES Act dollars, but Metro anticipates the money will be completely or very nearly completely spent down in 2020.

Beyond that, the prospects for further federal aid are uncertain, and certainly will not be sustained at the rates in recent stimulus legislation. The revenue forecast from the King County budget office is for a reduction in sales tax alone of $397 million between 2020 and 2022, though budget director Dwight Dively indicated on May 5 that he expects the actual deficit to be somewhat worse.

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Whether to cut Sounder North?

Sounder Train at Carkeek Park (image: Sound Transit)

When we wrote recently about Sound Transit’s post-COVID funding shortfalls, the comments conversation turned quickly to Sounder North. The lightly used commuter rail line is everybody’s favorite local example of a transit service serving too few riders at extreme costs per rider. As the only Sound Transit rail serving Snohomish County to date, it has survived persistent concerns about costs in the past. Lynnwood Link is now nearing completion and is anticipated to open in 2024. Is it finally time to cut Sounder North?

Snohomish County, like other subareas, will shortly have to delay or suspend some future projects as the COVID-induced recession reduces tax and fare revenue. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests cutting Sounder would avoid roughly one and one-half years of delays to Everett Link.

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I-976 moves to the Supreme Court

Prospects for Link reaching Tacoma would recede further if I-976 removes the Sound Transit MVET (image: SounderBruce)

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.

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Metro ridership shifts hint at the future

Where transit boardings have fallen the most (blue) vs the routes with the least ridership loss (yellow) (image: King County Metro)

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.

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Sound Transit Board sharpens pencils for ST3 program savings

Every element of the previously expected $98 billion funding through 2041 will be under pressure in a severe recession. These estimates are from last Fall (slide: Sound Transit)

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.

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How much is too much for a transit parking garage?

Parking fills up early at stations like Puyallup, but at what price tag should we add more garages? (image: Sound Transit)

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.

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Losing the West Seattle Bridge

The closed West Seattle high bridge (image: SounderBruce)

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).

Long after the COVID crisis has receded, it will have a disastrous impact on mobility within West Seattle and to downtown. The bridge normally carries 100,000 cars and 25,000 transit riders daily.

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.

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Sound Transit considers ST3 delays as financial outlook worsens

Extensions under construction or already committed, like downtown Redmond seen here, will be prioritized. Later extensions may be considerably delayed (image: Sound Transit)

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.

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ST3 BRT projects delayed

Branding for the Stride buses on I-405 and SR 522 (image: Sound Transit)

Bus Rapid Transit on I-405 and SR 522 is likely to be delayed. Only the Burien to Bellevue service is now expected to open on time in 2024. Expectations for service on the northern part of I-405 and SR 522 have slipped into 2025.

The delays were first publicly shared at last Thursday’s Sound Transit Board meeting. (though implicit in the latest financial plan from last Fall where 2024 BRT ridership expectations were dramatically lowered).

In Bothell, Sound Transit intends to open a bus base by 2023. The update to the Board flags some issues with permitting and right of way acquisition. If the base can open by 2023, however, that will open the way to an on-time start of service on south I-405 between Bellevue and Burien in 2024. Other construction on south I-405 is mostly being conducted as part of WSDOT’s expansion of express toll lanes in the area and is on schedule. Sound Transit is in final design for the in-line stop at NE 44th in Renton and was about to start construction before the COVID-19 delays intervened. Pre-construction work is underway at the planned transit center in South Renton.

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Sound Transit set to adopt low income fare program, update enforcement policies

Fare Enforcement Officer on Link (image: Sound Transit)

This afternoon, the Sound Transit Board will consider participating in King County’s program to offer free transit passes to participants of several state benefit programs that are income-based. King County intends to eventually expand the program to all households with income below 80% of the federal poverty level. At the same meeting, the Board is expected to update fare enforcement policies and reduce penalties for non-payment.

Very low income transit passes

The free transit passes for very low income households complements the existing ORCA lift program. While the existing program offers 50% discounts for households with low incomes, the expanded program reduces to zero the cost of passes for the very lowest income households. In combination, this means a single person could have a free transit pass if their income is below $9,992, or a 50% discount with income up to $24,980. A four person household could avail themselves of free transit if their income is below $20,600 or a 50% discount with income below $51,500.

When first proposed by King County, the free transit passes looked set to cause some confusion because it could not be used across all local agencies. Riders could travel for free on King County Metro services, but would have to pay on Sound Transit. With Sound Transit now set to participate in the program, this inconsistency is resolved, but a new inconsistency arises unless Pierce and Snohomish County agencies also participate.

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No King County transit ballot measure this year

KCM Route 193 at Tukwila Park and Ride (image: Matthew Bates)

King County voters will not be asked to vote on a Metro funding measure in August after all. In a statement on Monday afternoon, Claudia Balducci announced the decision not to proceed with the countywide measure. This seems to clear the way for Seattle to run a replacement of the expiring taxes for their transportation benefit district in August.

Had the corona virus crisis not intervened, King County was expected to finalize a measure this month funding the service currently paid for by the Seattle TBD and increasing service elsewhere in the County by perhaps 450,000 hours annually (equivalent to just under 10% of total current Metro hours). The King County measure would also have funded a low income free fares program that is already scheduled to launch in June, and might have funded electrification at some bases.

The proposal had obvious challenges. Transit measures are risky with county voters even in a better environment. A loss at the ballot box in August would have meant existing Seattle taxes expiring in December, and it probably would not have been possible to run a replacement Seattle measure before the Spring. A November Seattle measure would have been awkward because it could only be filed before the day of the August election.

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The regional revenue proposal for Metro

Metro buses in Bellevue (image: SounderBruce)

King County is contemplating a 0.2% sales tax increase that would replace the expiring Seattle TBD taxes and raise a total of $160 million annually for Metro. The package under discussion would extend the service hours funded by Seattle’s 2014 levy, currently about 350,000 hours annually in Seattle. It would add new funding for 450,000 to 550,000 hours elsewhere in the County.

The planned August 4 ballot measure must be filed by May 8. Effectively, the deadline for a King County decision is much sooner. Seattle is not yet on board and wants to see the County proposal this month so the city has time to deliberate whether to support the County measure or pursue their own. A series of meetings up through March 23 are scheduled to finalize the County’s proposal.

Metro is funded by a 0.9% countywide sales tax. Since 2014, this has been supplemented by a $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax in Seattle. Those will expire at the end of December. I-976 removed the city’s authority for the vehicle license fee, but the tax continues to be collected while litigation is ongoing. With Seattle paying higher taxes than the suburbs, service became correspondingly more Seattle-centric. Suburban leaders want a countywide tax that extends the improvements in Seattle service levels since 2014 and ‘levels up’ the transit service outside the city.

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Metro sees higher costs, greater funding needs, in long range plan

RapidRide in Bellevue (image: Shane in the City/flickr)

Metro Connects is King County Metro’s long range plan. Developed in 2016, it lays out a 25 year vision for the evolution of the Metro network. The plan envisioned a 70% increase in Metro bus service hours by 2040 over 2015 levels. In recent months, Metro has been updating their analysis of how much the plan would cost to implement, and delivered an initial update to the Regional Transit Committee last week. The analysis has already identified billions of dollars in additional costs over the projection in 2016.

The Metro Connects plan was, by design, an unconstrained and unfunded vision of the future network to meet the needs of 2040. Baseline expectations for tax and fare revenue indicated enough funding for just 30% of the additional capital costs and 50% of the extra service hours originally identified. Early goals including RapidRide expansion have been scaled back. The initial plan was to open 13 new lines by 2024. In 2018, that was reduced to just 7 lines by 2027.

A report last June found Metro could reach its 2040 targets with a renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (about $54 million annually) and another $220 million in county funding. A county ballot proposition is being considered for this August, but it will likely be sized at no more than $160 million including replacement of the Seattle levy. That can only be a down payment toward the 2040 targets. Last week’s update to Metro Connects’ costs push those goals further out of reach.

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NE 130th station advances

Preliminary design of NE 130th station (image: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit’s System Expansion Committee unanimously approved a motion on Thursday to advance work on a Link station at NE 130th. If adopted by the full Board later this month, as seems likely, Sound Transit will proceed with design work and the first of the construction required to avoid serious disruptions to riders if the station were built entirely after Lynnwood Link has opened.

The motion defers to next year a second decision: whether to continue toward an early partial build or early full build. The early partial build would construct enough of the station to avoid an extended window of single-tracking trains through the construction zone after 2024, but would open the station for service much later. The early full build would complete the station so it could open in 2025 soon after the rest of the line.

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Balducci: rethink University St Station renaming

University St station, with entrances not adjacent to Union St

The Sound Transit Board will reopen the decision, approved by the Board just two weeks ago, to rename the University Street Station in downtown Seattle as Union Street/Symphony station. The news came at the conclusion of Thursday’s Executive Committee meeting when Claudia Balducci announced that she would bring a motion for reconsideration to the next Board meeting.

Last month, you recall that we voted on the naming of the University St station. I wanted to just let you all know I’m going to bring a motion to reconsider that decision. I’ve come to believe Robert’s Rules of Order actually contain deep wisdom on the human condition. One of those rules says if you vote and you feel you have made a mistake, you get to ask for reconsideration. My decision on that was based on the tension between the rider experience and wayfinding, versus the safety impacts of how our system works with acronyms for stations. Since that vote I’ve visited that area. The doors are nowhere near Union St. And there’s been some reporting that showed we have acronyms like Angle Lake station. Do you know the acronym for Angle Lake station, colleagues? “200”, nothing to do with the name of the station. So we have that precedent already of that acronym. I think we should really revisit it and I’ll be asking that we do that at the next Board meeting.

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Legislature has hearing on Sound Transit bills

Senator Liias testifies at yesterday’s hearing (image from TVW)

The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing yesterday on several bills relating to Sound Transit. The most significant is SB 6606, a bill from Senator Marko Liias to reset MVET valuations. That bill saw a substitute amendment that would somewhat offset the revenue reduction to Sound Transit. The offset would not be enough to satisfy Sound Transit’s request they be made whole for lost revenue. Four other bills relating to Sound Transit were also examined, but are unlikely to proceed.

Liias’ bill, as we reported last week, repeals several sections of I-976. It would also replace the valuation schedule for vehicles subject to the motor vehicle excise tax. The new schedule is similar to one adopted by the Legislature in 2006, whereas Sound Transit uses an older schedule dating to 1999. Liias’ proposal would tweak the schedule for vehicles more than ten years old, thereby avoiding a small tax increase for owners of the oldest vehicles if they were to simply adopt the 2006 schedule.

A substitute bill from Senator Liias, filed on Monday, maintains the revised schedule from the bill as first introduced, but adds two significant amendments.

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Paper transfers on Link

Paper transfers (image: Oran Viriyincy)

Should Link accept paper transfers?

The idea surfaced recently in Sound Transit’s ongoing examination of fare enforcement. Making it easier for riders to pay fares is one part of the response to concerns about the impacts of fare enforcement. Currently, Sound Transit can accept transfers from other agencies if riders are using an ORCA card, but not otherwise.

The disadvantages are obvious. Buses are slowed by cash payers and paper transfers. Link, by not accepting these transfers, somewhat indirectly drives ORCA card adoption. A policy change would also import the lively market in fraudulent use of transfers into the Sound Transit system.

There also appears no practical way to manage the inter-agency accounting. The ORCA system shares fare revenue between operators by electronically tracking transfers, a task which becomes impossible with paper.

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Liias bill would reset MVET valuations

Link and Sounder trains (image: AtomicTaco/flickr)

Senate Bill 6606, introduced last week by Senator Marko Liias, is the latest effort in the Legislature to resolve the three years old controversy over the MVET valuation schedule. The bill would potentially reduce Sound Transit tax revenues by just over $1 billion over the next 20 years.

The MVET valuation schedule has been a political challenge for Sound Transit and the Legislature since the first higher car tab bills began arriving in mailboxes in early 2017. Sound Transit has levied a 0.3% MVET since 1996, and added another 0.8% MVET with ST3 in 2016. The latter heightened awareness that Sound Transit was using a valuation schedule from 1999 that assigned relatively high values to newer cars. An alternative schedule which the Legislature approved in 2005 will not take effect for Sound Transit taxpayers until 2028. That is the year when the original 0.3% MVET expires after bonds are paid off, and the remaining 0.8% MVET is reset to the newer, generally lower, schedule.

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