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.
Fortunately, limited-income seniors, disabled homeowners and veterans are getting a break, with a more generous property-tax exemption taking effect this year. This change is past due and needs to be communicated broadly, so everyone eligible is aware of the opportunity.
This is happening because of a legislative change last year. Instead of a fixed $40,000 income limit for participants, the program is now indexed to counties’ median income every five years. If median incomes rise, more people will be eligible for tax exemptions.
In King County, this raised the threshold to $58,423 this year. Income limits are rising in 13 of the state’s 39 counties. In Snohomish County, the level is now $55,473, in Pierce it’s $45,708 and Kitsap’s is $48,574. Seniors are defined as those 61 and older.
The changes increased the number of eligible property owners in King County from an estimated 37,000 to around 80,000. Yet only 16,000 currently take advantage of the program.
In other words, only 20% of eligible seniors, disabled homeowners and veterans are getting tax breaks available to them
Taxing property is the closest thing we have to a wealth tax in the U.S. unless or until Sen. Warren gets her way. More property taxes and fewer sales taxes would make Washington State’s tax mix more progressive. As a bonus, it turns out that land taxes are another way to encourage efficient use of a limited resourceand help create walkable communities.
And yet, the proverbial fixed-income senior is often used as an argument against raising property taxes. Few people I speak with about this are aware that the exemption exists, let alone that it’s increased. So let’s get the word out, especially now that people may be more income constrained due to the coronavirus-induced recession.
Last fall, Sound Transit announced a new naming scheme, and then quickly backtracked after community criticism over the term “red line.” Various schemes have been proposed in the meantime, including here on our site. Yesterday ST unveiled the revised scheme to the public.
Why are we doing this? Since 2012 our plan had been to switch to line color names for our light rail lines. In fall 2019 we began using the Red Line for Link and the Orange Line for Tacoma Link, and we planned to launch East Link as part of a new Blue Line in 2023.
The community quickly told us that our use of Red Line was insensitive to the history of redlining in our region. From the 1930s–1970s, banks and insurance companies routinely denied loans or insurance to people of color based on where they lived, concentrating people of color in certain neighborhoods and prohibiting them from other neighborhoods. Redlining perpetuated poverty and denied people of color the ability to build and pass down wealth.
Though dozens of agencies worldwide use a Red Line in their systems, we agree that in English and in North America, the term Red Line unavoidably carries the weight of that racist legacy. We can do without it, so we will.
The agency also provided a detailed FAQ that tries to anticipate many objections and give people some more context. It emphasizes how the agency worked to avoid overlap with other systems like the letter-based RapidRide and Snohomish County’s color-coded Swift BRT.
Now that every agency has created its own naming scheme that doesn’t infringe on the others, maybe the next step could be to integrate them a little better, so that a rider might understand the whole system without having to know which specific taxing authority funds the service.
A few months ago, we mentioned that Community Transit was considering a truncation for many of its commuter routes to Northgate Station in 2021 to re-use bus hours for frequency. The second phase proposal for the restructure was presented to the CT Board on Thursday and is now available for online public comments.
The changes are tentatively scheduled for Fall 2021 and would largely be budget-neutral, using the reallocation of service hours to boost frequency on commuter routes. The 800-series routes serving the University District, along with most of the ST Express routes, would be truncated at Northgate Station. The 400-series routes and ST Route 510 would continue to serve Downtown Seattle via the express lanes. Each of the proposed changes will be described after the jump.
We like to style ourselves a pro-transit blog but I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re actually pro-density. Among density’s chief benefits is the ability to capture efficiencies from people living close together. Yet under COVID-19 guidelines, we’re being taught to live the opposite: socially distance, keep six feet apart from one another, and do our best to stay home and away from enclosed indoor spaces.
Some are using the crisis to make the argument that contagion is a major downside to dense urban living – they point to New York City and chalk up the high rates of infection to its population density. Yet while major metropolises have been the ones headlining daily news coverage on the virus, its spread has been anything but localized. There are now COVID-19 cases in the majority of counties in the US.
I’m not arguing that density should be tossed out as a key epidemiological factor in the coronavirus’s spread – I think it’s clear that being in crowded quarters almost certainly increases the susceptibility of infection. But there are serious fallacies in interpreting “social distancing” as “we shouldn’t live in cities,” as I outline below.
As the 9 year, $900m Move Seattle levy nears its halfway mark this year, it’s a good time to take stock of what small projects are already done, and if the big-ticket items are on track. SDOT’s Annual Report provides some clues.
Through 2019, SDOT had spent $324m in Move Seattle funds to match another $321m from other sources for those projects. Spending remains under budget, partly because most construction work is happening later than planned.