WPC: “Sound Transit officials may not need any tax increase to build more light rail”

Folks, if there’s any truth in this Washington Policy Center op-ed, I think we need to discuss a potential option if we do not get ST3.  Most of us here are not too keen on extending the spine to Everett with an expensive Paine Field detour of questionable value when a better bus network & a vastly improved marketing campaign would work wonders.  Almost all of us here are of the view that Ballard needs a light rail spur.

So when I came across these Washington Policy Center allegations, I had to share so we could discuss this:

Sound Transit officials may not need any tax increase to build more light rail.  How?  Because of the revenue that is hidden in the way Sound Transit officials calculate their future borrowing costs.

Sound Transit officials’ most recently adopted financial plan through 2023 assumes they will borrow $7.3 billion at a 5.75% interest rate, paid off over 30 years.  Their interest rate cost assumption is high, especially since they are actually issuing debt now at far-lower interest rates.

In 2012 Sound Transit officials borrowed $216 million at a rate of only 2.62%, less than half of what they assume as their future interest rate cost.  Just a few months ago, they borrowed $1.3 billion as a federal TIFIA loan at a 2.38% interest rate.  The TIFIA loan can be paid off over 40 years, and the first payment isn’t due until 2028!  Today, Sound Transit could borrow money for 30 years at fixed interest rates between 2% to 3% (or at lower variable rates), about half of its current budget assumption.

So what does this mean?

If Sound Transit officials simply changed their financial plan to assume a more-realistic 3% interest rate, they could borrow an additional $2.2 billion without raising regressive taxes and keep their debt payments the same.   That is enough public money to build light rail to downtown Redmond (approximately $800 million) and build much of the line from Ballard to U.W. (approximately $1.7 billion) without raising regressive tax rates at all.

Sound Transit’s financial report shows the agency thinks it can only borrow $7.3 billion at current tax rates, when they may actually be able to borrow closer to $9.4 billion without raising taxes.  This is not fair to the taxpayers.

We agree with using conservative estimates and careful budgeting by public agencies, but in this case, the interest rate estimates Sound Transit officials are using are extreme, and come at the expense of the taxpayers.

I am of the view we do need these projects as a state.  I am also of the view we need to force Snohomish County to come to reality about their transit situation.  I am finally unqualified to speak of transit needs between Tacoma & Seattle – I will leave that to the comment threads.  But this is something we in the STB community need to discuss and have a no-new-taxes contingency plan ready to unite behind and present to Sound Transit’s Board if necessary either if the legislature nips ST3 in the bud or the voters reject ST3.

One last thing: If you have evidence the above WPC op-ed is untrue, present it.  Otherwise…

Timing out Ballard to Issaquah via Sand Point

View post on imgur.com

A couple of days ago there was a great deal of discussion about the merits and costs of a Sand Point crossing. There are two things that a study would find out that everybody would like to know; the monetary cost of the crossing and the potential ridership over the connection. Unfortunately I can’t give any insight into those things. What I can to do is provide some tangible benefits based on travel time using Seattle Subway’s previous posts about the Crossing, Ballard Spur and Better Eastside rail.

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New Apartments at Othello


Any Link riders through the Valley have no doubt noticed the monolithic Station at Othello Park going up for what seemed like forever. Well, it’s done*, and the Seattle Times wrote it up:

Other developers will judge the Station at Othello Park’s success by how much rent it can charge and how quickly it fills up.

A new project is doing well if it leases 20 apartments a month, researcher Cain says. By that measure, the Station is right on target.

As for apartment rents, Cain says, the Othello project is charging about 40 percent more per square foot than older buildings in the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill and the Central District — but about 12 percent less than the average rent at similar new buildings on Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods closer to downtown…

But Southeast Seattle is a new frontier for the industry. Before the Station at Othello Park, “that area hadn’t seen any conventional [for-profit] new construction in many years,”  Cain says…

“I have heard lots of developers say they are waiting to see how the Station at Othello Park does,” said Al Levine, the [Seattle Housing] authority’s deputy director.

It’s nice to hear that the initial reports are good, but as with everything else let’s not judge the first project of a hoped-for  rebirth of the Rainier Valley based on a few months of data.

Because of developer hesitation, this is, however, a relatively important project. And if it turns out that the Rainier Valley is so hopeless for market-rate development than not even light rail can rehabilitate it over the next decade or so, then that would call in question, if not light rail as a whole, then the decision to go through the Rainier Valley in general and especially via MLK in particular.

* The article implies it’s done, but a source tells me the complex is leasing but not quite done with construction.

Link Ridership by Station, June 2010-February 2011

STB recently obtained from Sound Transit per-station boarding statistics for both June-October and October-February. This continues the series from the first half of 2010.

A cursory glance at the numbers shows little qualitative difference between the first data set and the next two, so I think the analysis back then still stands. The June-October period is the peak ridership to date, and interestingly about half the total growth was at Westlake and Seatac.

Link Q1 Ridership Graphs

Weekday Riders Per Hour, Courtesy Sound Transit

I’m a big numbers nerd, and when I came across these graphs of Q1 Link ridership data I felt had to share them. It’s pretty interesting to see what time rush hour is for Link and that Friday is the line’s busiest day. Make sure you read Martin’s “how to understand ridership numbers” post before drawing wild conclusions from these.

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Link Fares on Their Way Up, Too

Photo by Sherwin

Not only will ST Express restructure fares next month, but Link fares are going up on June 1st too:

Starting June 1, 2011, adult Link fares will rise 25 cents.  Link tickets for adults will start with a base fare of $2.00 and add five cents to the base fare for every mile of your trip.  See the chart below.

Starting June 1, 2011, all youth Link fares will become $1.25, for all one-way trips on Link light rail.

All reduced Link fares will remain 75 cents, for all one-way trips on Link light rail.

This means fares will vary between $2.00 and $2.75 depending on distance. The cheapest ride of  Metro, Link, or ST Express varies with who you are and time of day.

Potential Relief for Mt. Baker Transfers

Seattle DPD

There’s been a lot of attention to height limits in the draft North Rainier Neighborhood plan update, but from a transit perspective a more interesting element aspect is a traffic revision that might dramatically improve bus-rail transfers at Mt. Baker, one of the worst design aspects associated with Central Link.*

The “bowtie” concept would turn both MLK and Rainier Ave. in this area in to one-way streets, northbound and southbound respectively. SDOT models expect this to improve traffic flow (by eliminating the need for left turn signals and suicide lanes), provide space for bike lanes and wider sidewalks, and ease pedestrian crossings. It eliminates a horrific intersection at Rainier and MLK.

Even better, the diagram at left indicates that there will be one northbound lane on Rainier for buses. The current location of the Mt. Baker Transit Center would become a regular street with bus layover space; the geometry of Rainier would change so that the stops could be directly aligned with the Link station’s entry plaza, basically where you see the large crosswalk in the picture.

Not only are good intermodal transfers important in their own right, but with Metro looking for efficiencies, this would make it much less painful if some Rainier Avenue buses have to stop running downtown.

At Thursday night’s meeting, the bowtie was somewhat controversial because it might divert traffic to other streets. There was also skepticism about the models. With some more outreach, hopefully DPD and SDOT will address the concerns so this project can move forward.

* I’m not pointing fingers here. I’ve never gotten a good answer on who is to blame.