Will Tax Hikes Be Worth It for an Expanded Sound Transit System?

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.

Why the Northwest Needs to Back Car-Sharing

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, it should come as no surprise that your cities have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

In 2015, Seattle was ranked as the fifth most congested U.S. city. 89 hours were lost to traffic jams, and the evening commute that should have taken 30 minutes at the speed limit averaged over 20 minutes longer than that.

Congestion in Seattle is only getting worse each year. At number nine on the list, Portland isn’t much better. These Northwest cities are already geographically limited in the number of vehicles they can handle. Post-recession, as they’ve quickly grown as economic and cultural hotbeds, they are attracting more and more new drivers every day.

Why All the Congestion?

Simply put, streets in Seattle are not used efficiently — there are far too many vehicles on the road. If something is not done to address the issue, the city will not be able to grow sustainably.

A better public transportation infrastructure could significantly reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles clogging city streets.

Already, Seattle has a Link Light Rail system, in which the city is heavily investing to expand and extend its viability and carrying capacity. There are also plans to expand bus routes.

Seattle’s geographic setting and opposition from community members makes it difficult to widen roads in the metropolitan area. Rather than address congestion issues with the expansion of lanes and highways, government leaders have been working toward the opposite.

Lanes have been shrinking to improve pedestrian safety and make it easier to walk. Transit lanes are favored over general lanes in order to promote bus use. The city is also encouraging commuters to bike. All of these changes require capital — which is limited — but they also require Seattleites to fundamentally alter their commuting habits, which is easier said than done.

What other options exist?

Turning to Car-Sharing

Cities with public transit systems should encourage car-sharing in addition to public transit use, as studies have shown that individuals who use one are more likely to use both.

While many car-sharing services and platforms exist, Uber is one company at the forefront of the trend. It is the most popular car-sharing app and continues to grow in both users and drivers.

Northwest cities should encourage people to use platforms like Uber, but also encourage people to participate as drivers in order to increase their viability and reliability for commuters and further decongest roads.

Taxis and car rentals have long been pieces of the economic pie in large cities, so the varying car-sharing services that have been on the rise in the past few years fit in naturally.

Given the growth that cities like Seattle are experiencing, it is imperative that they offer both residents and visiting travelers as many transit options as possible. While improvements in public transit are steady, they are also costly.

Bringing in and promoting car-sharing platforms would complement public transit perfectly by encouraging commuters to leave their cars at home, while still providing them with the option for car-based travel.