“Will”, “Should,” and 520

520 Bridge under construction, 1962 (wikimedia)

While agreeing with almost all of Ben’s post on 520, I’d like to make a subtle distinction about what I think should happen, as opposed to what will.

I agree that it is extremely unlikely the State will modify the bridge to easily accommodate light rail, as that would cost more than $400m and introduce some project delay. I agree that 520 is not a particularly high priority for rail and probably isn’t even in the cards for ST3. And I agree that in the abstract a Sand Point/Kirkland alignment is superior to one over 520, although I’d add several more shades of uncertainty on that point in the absence of any serious engineering analysis on either corridor.

Given that uncertainty, it would certainly be nice if we preserved the option of going over 520. The question is how much that is worth. I’ll leave comment on how McGinn is or is not damaging his relationship with Olympia to the political hacks. From a pure resource-allocation perspective, it’s really a question of where the hundreds of millions come from, and how much of it must be done during the bridge’s construction.

If it comes from the gas tax kitty for the bridge, then that’s great; taking gas tax revenue reduces the pernicious things the State can do with it.  If it’s coming from somewhere else (a TBD, tolling, or anything else that could be used for transit) I’d agree with Ben that there are other priorities that are more important on both the East and West side, especially since we may not need that investment after all.  Similarly, if most of the required changes can be deferred to the moment of rail construction, and the immediate needs are relatively inexpensive, then the core objection that the bridge is not rail-ready is a stronger one.

I don’t think Mayor McGinn’s planning has advanced to the point of seriously looking at immediate costs and revenue sources, but they are crucial to the validity of his points.

Holding out for Grade Separation

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We still don’t know much about the light rail plan Mayor McGinn will likely put before the voters that we didn’t know before the election.  However, one thing that is for sure is that it won’t be grade-separated from end to end, and that’s enough for some to make blanket statements that anything less than full grade separation is unacceptable, that we should wait to do it “right”, etc.

The Transport Politic makes a strong, Seattle-centric case for at-grade light rail, but here are some other political and financial observations:

  1. The unspoken assumption of the absolutists is that ST3 will deliver full grade separation if we were to wait for it.  In reality, that may be the case if we wait for the Sound Move bonds to get paid off in the 2030s and 2040s.  Otherwise, we’ll get whatever additional taxing authority the state gives us.   That may be billions more, or it may be less.  Dealing with that kind of uncertainty, it makes sense to accomplish whatever we can so that our ambitions can fit in whatever package Olympia gives us.  More after the jump. Continue reading “Holding out for Grade Separation”

Once More, For Old Times’ Sake?

Last year, the Governor vetoed Transportation Benefit District authority for transit agencies. As she clearly really likes that line-item veto power, we’d like to ask her to do it again – to veto the “private provider” language in SB 6381, currently headed to her desk.

Wednesday morning, Rep. Marko Liias asked his colleagues to sign on to a letter to urge the governor to veto this provision. Essentially, it’s turning out that the provision would affect more grants than originally intended, would violate federal regulations, and could potentially apply to the downtown tunnel – in addition to other issues.

I think a lot of us have already called the Governor’s office (maybe more than once) to ask that she veto this portion of the bill. Thanks to Rep. Liias, there’s a new way we can help – call your Senators and Representatives in Olympia and ask them to sign on to Liias’ letter!

Additionally – Seattle legislators, I’m looking at you. Your constituents more than any others depend on transit facilities, and impacting those could be very damaging to those constituents’ ability to get to work.

News Roundup: City Government Ethics

Photo by Oran

This is an open thread.

Legislature Poisons, Steamrolls Transit Funding

[Update: Chopp may be reconsidering, there could yet be support for the Liias amendment if he gets enough pressure. Please call him – that’s on SB 6774! The bill we need calls to Gregoire on is SB 6381 – we want her to veto the “private provider” provision.]

Sources in Olympia tell us that transit is under attack in the legislature right now on two fronts – as usual. Today, though, there’s at least something we can do!

First, we understand that Mary Margaret Haugen attached a requirement to regional mobility grant funding – transit agencies would only be eligible for these grants if they provide access to their facilities for private transit operators (airport shuttles, limousines, etc.), under a “pilot project”.

Transit champion Rep. Simpson submitted seven different amendments to try to straighten things out – from requiring FTA approval (PDF), all the way to renaming the requirement the “The Legislature Forces Public Transit Providers to Convert Publicly Purchased Infrastructure into Private Property or Risk Losing State Grants and the Gift of Public Funds Pilot Project.” Of his amendments, two passed, but neither removed the teeth of the requirements. The bill’s headed to the Governor.

Given that the federal transit administration has already pointed out significant problems with the state’s plan, it would be a good step for the Governor to veto the private operator provision – and we’re hearing that with enough pressure, that could be a possibility. If you want to help, call her office at 360-902-4111 and urge her to veto the private transit provider provision in the transportation budget!

In addition, Representative Liias’ amendment to provide emergency funding for Community Transit and Pierce Transit is almost dead. Even with TCC, Futurewise, Pierce Transit and the ATU fighting for it, the Senate voted against concurring with the House transportation funding bill it’s attached to, requesting that the House “recede from” (remove) the amendment.

This means the transportation funding bill will go into conference committee, and we’re hearing Liias may be forced to remove the amendment, under pressure from Haugen. Either Chopp or Clibborn (especially Chopp) could step forward to ask House Democrats to defend the funding amendment. It’s frustrating to hear from a representative that they’re supportive of transit, but see no evidence of that in their actions.

So in addition to calling the Governor, your other action item today could be calling or emailing Speaker Chopp’s office to let him know you want Liias’ transit funding amendment on SB 6774 saved! Chopp’s office phone is 360-786-7920, and he’s chopp.frank@leg.wa.gov.

State Revenue Proposals may Help Transit

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Both the House and Senate in Olympia have released details of their revenue plans.  As we’ve noted before, to the extent that these eliminate sales tax exemptions, they will also slightly increase revenue at local transit agencies, all of which rely on sales tax for a large chunk of their revenue.

The House proposal (thanks Publicola) contains, by my count, $458m in new sales tax revenue from repealed exemptions in the 2011-2013 biennium.  Our Metro revenue predict-o-tron tells us that that amounts to about $12.5m a year for King County Metro, or about 100,000 service hours.   That’s about a quarter of the budget hole Metro faces in that period.  For Community Transit, it’s about $2m, not enough to restart Sunday service, but enough to buy back about a third of the weekday cuts.

The Senate budget is presented in a way that makes it much harder to figure out what’s sales tax, but my count (see this) says that there’s about $180m for the state over two years, or $5m a year for Metro.  An email to Sen. Murray to clarify the numbers did not generate a response in time for this post.  Anyone who knows more about the taxes mentioned here is welcome to correct the record on this.

Pierce Transit in the Worst Shape of All

Image via Tacoma Tomorrow (click to enlarge)

Evan Siroky at Tacoma Tomorrow has a detailed report on Pierce Transit’s long range budget situation, and it isn’t good.  PT’s reserves run out in 2012, at which point the bottom falls out.

Using current revenue sources, annual service hours will fall by 57% – from 622,000 to 265,000, as the number of bus routes plunges from 51 to 23.  The end of service would move from midnight to 9pm on weekdays, and from 10pm to 8 or 9pm on weekends.  Weekend headways would increase to 60 minutes.

As the map above indicates, there would also be a substantial reduction in the areas PT serves. Unlike in King County, the PT district is not equivalent with the County.  These unserved areas would still be paying taxes to support PT; should the lack of service persist, they would likely pursue the time-consuming and complex “deannexation” process.

PT also provides 33% of service from Tacoma to Olympia, and that would end.

Metro and Community Transit faced potential 20% cuts when their sales tax collapsed.  Spokesman Lars Erickson explains that PT’s would be much deeper because “Pierce county experienced the recession earlier and deeper.”  The long term deficit is about $50m/year.  PTCT saved about $72m through 2012 through staff cuts, fare increases, and deferral of most capital expenses.

The good news is that Pierce Transit assesses a 0.6% sales tax, so they have a further 0.3% they can access with a public vote even if the legislature never comes to the rescue.  The chart below the jump pitches what could be done with that money: a gradual increase to 638,000 hours, including a fourth major trunk route.  The Pierce Transit board is likely to decide on a course of action this summer.

See also the TNT on this subject.

Continue reading “Pierce Transit in the Worst Shape of All”

Bad Legislation, Good Legislation

First, the bad news. We’ve discussed SB 6570 in the recent past. A state bill, it would allow private transit operators, such as Microsoft’s Connector service or airport shuttles, to use transit-only facilities, including such facilities as BAT lanes, flyer stops and transitways. Our Puget Sound transit agencies have responded in a letter to the chairs of Senate and House Transportation, calling out efficiency problems, costs, and safety issues that would be caused by the bill. Potential delays in HOV lanes, for instance, could cause agencies millions in additional operating costs.

The Federal Transit Administration has also weighed in on the issue, pointing out that projects receiving federal funds require a case by case evaluation to be opened to private transit operators, as opposed to the state bill’s blanket exception. The FTA says clearly: “such a use would appear to conflict with FTA’s rules where those transit facilities and highway lanes … were funded with FTA grants.” The state bill has an exception for state projects that receive federal funds, but this wouldn’t cover agency, city or county facilities, as the FTA points out – and Sound Transit, especially, builds a lot of HOV access ramps.

As we stated before, it doesn’t appear that legislators voting for this bill are considering its impacts, or legal obligations regarding receipt of federal funds. Senate Transportation clearly did not exercise due diligence before passing this bill out of committee, and we hope House Transportation does not make the same mistake.

Fortunately, there’s also good news out of Olympia. The state’s regional mobility grant program for transit, recently stripped of funding in the Senate, has seen $14 million replaced in a House Transportation amendment expected on HB 2838, the House Transportation funding bill, which passed out of committee yesterday. Representatives Mary Lou Dickerson (36th) and Marko Liias (21st) led this effort, and reportedly it passed unanimously. These grants have gone to a number of urban transit agencies in the past, generally to fund congestion reduction capital projects, and it’s good to see House Transportation sticking up for transit funding.

Editorial: Digging in on SR520

520 Bridge under construction, 1962 (wikimedia)

As reported in multiple media outlets, various stakeholders are digging on over the design of the 520 bridge — Mayor McGinn, Microsoft, and some legislators have all staked out pretty firm positions.

I have to admit that I’m a bit conflicted about the McGinn position.  In the largest sense, he’s right: 520 will still basically be new car-oriented infrastructure and we ought to have incorporated light rail in the bridge in the first place.  His recognition of the fundamental shifts needed in transportation are perhaps 10 years ahead of Olympia’s.  On the other hand, he is (through no fault of his own) very late to this party, and there is a safety issue in the meantime.  Moreover, although everyone likes to wrap themselves in the transit flag it seems that lots of stakeholders* really have other interests at heart.  To call out one example, if Speaker Chopp is fired up about getting rail across the lake he has a funny way of showing it.

There are also some technical concerns.   I’ll focus on those below the jump:

Continue reading “Editorial: Digging in on SR520”

HB 2855 Dies Without Floor Vote

Andrew Austin, Policy Associate for Transportation Choices Coalition, is in Olympia today and reports that HB 2855, which would have provided new taxing authority to maintain transit service in King and Snohomish Counties, was not put to a vote by the House leadership. (Seattle representative Frank Chopp is the Speaker of the House.)

Bills had to pass out of their originating house by 5 pm today, so the bill’s failure to advance means means there will be no relief this session. We’ll have more in the coming days.

Crunch Time for HB 2855

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[UPDATE 2/16 7:30 am: Publicola says the bill is in trouble in the House.

UPDATE 2/16 12:00 pm: To lookup your legislator go here.]

HB 2855 is the bill that would allow a temporary $20 increase in automobile license fees and therefore avoid budget cuts in many of Washington’s transit agencies. This $20 increase can be enabled by a simple vote of each agency’s governing board (in King County’s case, the County Council).  A further $30 is available to certain counties (basically, Puget Sound*) with a public vote.  Bertolet says the $20 fee would provide Metro $28m/year, or about 224,000 service hours.  We have 50,000 hours in service cuts planned through 2011, and about 385,000 in the two years after that.  Arithmetic tells us a $40 fee should put Metro right on track for its pre-recession plans.

I don’t have the revenue figures for the CT district on hand, but a tax rise should enable the agency to buy back at least the elimination of Sunday Service, which would take about 48,000 service hours to restore completely.  Most, but I don’t believe all, other transit agencies in the State actually have some sales tax authority remaining, although sales tax increases require a public vote.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the last day for it to get it out of the House.  Transportation Choices has an action page allowing you to email your legislators.  If it passes the House there are still obstacles in the Senate and the Governor’s office. Senate Transporation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) is reportedly opposed, and Governor Gregoire chose to veto a $20 measure last year.

Anyway, click on the link to contact your representatives.

* Population > 1m; population > 500,000, adjacent to > 1m; population 200,000, adjacent to > 500,000.  The Venn diagram suggests the second category is entirely enclosed by the third, but whatever…

SR-520 News Roundup

SR-520 Alternative A+
SR-520 Alternative A+

Well none of us were able to make it to the press conference this morning but here are some news clippings.  [Update from Sherwin 5:34pm: The Seattle Channel has full video coverage of the event here.]

From what I have gathered it was an interesting showing of elected officials from all level of government, something very unusual. It appears that there are divergent opinions among those advocating for something besides the A+, i.e. better transit connections for some, narrower footprint for others, less traffic for others, but the fact that House Speaker Chopp, Senator Murray, Rep. Pedersen, Mayor McGinn and City Council members Licata and O’Brien were all in attendance is interesting never-the-less.  Stay tuned.

Coverage from those that actually get paid to report below the jump.

Continue reading “SR-520 News Roundup”

HOV or Transit Lane on 520?

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As reported by multiple outlets, the City of Seattle and House Speaker Frank Chopp appear to have shifted their opposition to the SR520 plan, with less emphasis on unworkable highway tunnels under the cut, instead pushing for the HOV lane to become transit-only.  The Stranger claims they’ll ask for light rail tracks on the bridge in anticipation of Link operations across the bridge:

Sources tell us that city leaders will soon release plans for a set of specific requests. Among them, the sources say, the city wants: only four lanes dedicated to traffic and the other two lanes dedicated to transit only, light rail tracks laid on the bridge for future use, no ramp leading to the Arboretum, and a smaller footprint through the Montlake neighborhood. This layout could include a transit-lane connection from 520 to the north side of the ship canal.

More after the jump. Continue reading “HOV or Transit Lane on 520?”

Editorial: The Olympia tax fight matters for transit

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[UPDATE 2:28pm: If you’d like to put together your own package of  sales tax exemptions, this Dept. of Revenue pdf lists them all.  The list of special-interest giveaways is mind-boggling (livestock semen?  gun safes?).  Of particular interest, gasoline (p.291) would yield about $28m for Metro.  Taxing all personal and professional services (p.285) would net over $100m a year.]

One could be forgiven that the coming legislative struggles over plugging the State’s general fund deficit are orthogonal to the transit funding crisis.  And indeed, the profound decisions to be made are likely to drown out calls to rescue struggling local transit agencies with more tax revenue.

However, of all the new revenue options being covered, one stands out as being useful for transit, and that is the option of reducing exemptions in the Sales Tax.  Unlike other options, such an expansion would also increase the revenue of all other state entities that use the sales tax — including all county transit agencies and Sound Transit.

I’ve spoken to a number of veteran Olympia watchers and no one has definitively verified or challenged my layman’s interpretation.  Perhaps that’ll happen in the comments.

Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations, using the 2011 revenue estimates reported in the Schmudget blog and the estimate that Metro sales tax collections in FY 2011 will be 5.5% the size of the State take*:

  • Extending the tax to candy and gum would raise $1.5m;
  • bakery products, $0.9m;
  • a variety of consumer services, $6.5m;
  • financial services, $10.5m (mentioned in the Seattle Times) ; and
  • removing the non-resident exemption, $2m.

More after the jump.

Continue reading “Editorial: The Olympia tax fight matters for transit”

Important Bills this Session

Washington State Capitol Panorama (wikimedia)

There are two important bills we’ve identified for transit funding this session:

HB 2855 would restore the $20 vehicle license fee for transit that Governor Gregoire vetoed last session.  Since this already passed the legislature last year, you have to like its chances if it’s given the time in what should be a busy session.

Section 9 has a provision to form a panel of stakeholders to create a “blueprint for public transportation services”:

The blueprint should, at a minimum, serve to guide investments in public transportation and establish a plan to significantly improve connectivity between transportation providers and across jurisdictional boundaries.

There’s a little concern that this could be an effort at the hated “governance reform,” which we bash here and here, but a source in Olympia tells me that that isn’t a threat in this case.  Rep. Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), one of the sponsors, did not reply to a request for comment on this provision.

HB 1591 would change the law governing Transportation Benefit Districts (TBDs).  Currently, they are limited to 10 years of tax collection on a single ballot measure.  The bill would extend the period to allow standard 30-year bonding, meaning that the overall size of the package could more than double.  A TBD could be a big part of whatever plan Mike McGinn puts together to build light rail, so this bill would dramatically improve the chances of doing something worthwhile.

There’s also an amendment by STB favorite Geoff Simpson that would loosen limits on having overlapping TBDs, and specify that at least 50% of any amount over $20 per year must be used for transit.

My Olympia source says this bill “has momentum” in the House; prospects in the Senate are not as bright, but Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) is for it.

In other news, Publicola has a good writeup on various bike bills to which I don’t have anything to add.

News Roundup

"First revenue Link train to Seatac, WA", by DWHonan

Op-ed: What to Expect in Olympia

by ANDREW AUSTIN, Policy Associate, Transportation Choices Coalition

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As the holidays quickly approach so does the 2010 Legislative Session. This year the legislature will be convene for a “short” 60 day session that starts on January 11th. Due to the State’s budget crisis it is expected to be a fast-paced session focused on filling a $2.6 billion (and growing) hole in the state’s operating budget. That said, Transportation Choices Coalition will be working hard on behalf of you everyday to ensure that Washington residents have the choices to take transit, bike, or walk in their community.

Transit Funding

Across the State transit agencies continue to face a financial crisis due to declining sales tax revenues. If new sustainable revenue is not identified in the next two years, agencies serving Anacortes to Walla Walla will be forced to make drastic cuts to their service, cuts that will hinder our region’s economic recovery, clog our roads, prevent us from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and leave transit riders abandoned on the side of the road.

As the 2010 legislative session approaches Transportation Choices will be working for you in Olympia to educate the legislative leadership on the transit funding crisis. We will be organizing this year to ensure that transit plays a central role in future transportation revenue packages. But we can not do it alone and need your help communicating with legislators about what transit cuts will mean to you and your local community. We will hold our annual transportation advocacy day on January 28th in Olympia and one of our major issues will be transit funding.

Transit Oriented Communities

Following up on last year’s transit oriented communities legislation we will continue to push for a combination of planning measures and incentives that promote transit-oriented development, particularly in rail transit station areas. We are advocating for grant dollars that cities can access for planning, infrastructure upgrades and affordable housing in “high performing station areas.” These high performing station areas are the ones that will make the most of their proximity to light rail and other high-capacity transit investments by zoning for walkable, mixed-use development, with a healthy mix of housing types in their station areas. (For more on these concepts, please see our new report, co-authored with Futurewise and GGLO, Creating Transit-Oriented Communities: A Blueprint for Washington State). Finally, we will also join Futurewise in continuing to push the legislature to require comp plan updates to factor reducing greenhouse gas emissions into future growth management plans.

Complete Streets

For many years TCC has been working with our city partners and the public health community to implement complete streets guidelines at the local level. We believe the state could do more to incentivize local governments to adopt complete streets policies, which means designing local roads with all users – including cyclists, pedestrians and transit users – in mind. This year we will attempt to establish the framework for a grant program for complete streets projects in cities to incentivize and reward complete streets programs around the state.

Reprinted with permission from the Nov. 30th TCC Newsletter.  See also Erica Barnett’s write-up of TCC’s report in presentation form.

Legislative Preview

[UPDATE: Erica Barnett has written up the briefing.]

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If you’re a transit advocate, following the happenings in Olympia can be a pretty masochistic exercise.  Nevertheless, the Transportation Choices Coalition is probably the one organization most closely aligned with the principles of STB.  The man they send to Olympia to take all the bullets is Policy Director Bill LaBorde, who will be giving a preview of what’s to come, and exactly what kind of defensive crouch you should use:

FRIDAY FORUM: 2010 Legislative Preview
December is here and the 2010 Legislative Session is almost upon us. With a short session and the State’s budget crisis worsening, expect the legislative session to be fast-paced and focused on filling the $2.6 Billion and growing hole in the state’s operating budget. That said, Transportation Choices Coalition will be working hard on your behalf everyday to ensure that Washington residents have the option to take transit, bike, or walk in their community. Find out what’s on our legislative agenda with a special sneak preview this Friday.

As always, feel free to bring your lunch.

WHAT: 2010 Legislative Session Preview with Policy Director Bill LaBorde
WHEN: Friday, December 4, 12 – 1:30 pm
WHERE: Downtown YMCA, 909 4th Avenue, Seattle

I wish I could go.

Long News Roundup (I)

Map by Oran, of course
Map by Oran, of course

Stories we didn’t have time to get to or didn’t have anything to say about are below.  There are so many that another installment is coming soon:

Legislators Back SR520 Option A+

The Times reports that a 12-member panel of legislators endorsed Option A+ (pdf) for the 520 bridge, which basically makes it a 6-lane road but eschews any sort of direct connection to the University.  The ‘+’ indicates some pedestrian and HOV/transit access enhancements not shown in the video.

This option is bad news for transit in two ways: it doesn’t provide a good connection from SR520 to the UW Light Rail station, and it’s underfunded by $2 billion.  (The more transit-friendly options are even more expensive.)  There’s much speculation that this shortfall is behind many Olympia shenanigans (by Seattle rep Frank Chopp, no less) to soak Sound Transit for the I-90 crossing.  Of course, no one is questioning $157m in lids through extremely wealthy neighborhoods on the Seattle side alone.

Yesterday’s meeting materials are online.  A video of the much less controversial East end of the bridge is here.