Seattle Regional Agency Sends $22.8 Billion Transit Proposal to Voters

Published October 8, 2008

Officials of a mass transit agency serving the Seattle region have agreed to ask area citizens to vote on a $22.8 billion transit measure in November.

The measure (ST2) would expand the region’s light rail system by 34 miles and add commuter trains and buses. It would be funded by a sales tax increase of 0.5 percent and extend previous taxes from the agency’s first phase (ST1), which passed in 1996.

If ST2 is approved, Seattle’s total sales tax would rise to 9.4 percent.

The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority—known as Sound Transit—was created in the early 1990s by the Washington State Legislature to operate as a single transit agency for King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.

Previous Measure Rejected

The Sound Transit board’s July decision to seek the nearly $23 billion spending measure comes less than a year after voters rejected a combined $47 billion roads and transit proposal. Local officials believe the public is more willing to accept a slimmed down, transit-only proposal.

Sound Transit officials say the new plan will allow an additional 163,000 daily trips if ST2 passes. But officials also estimate about two-thirds of those trips will come from the existing transit system. That means only some 54,000 daily trips will be new.

In addition, trips do not equal riders. Because many passengers, such as commuters, ride more than once a day, their daily trips are double-, triple-, and sometimes quadruple-counted. The number of new individual riders is estimated to be about 24,450.

Huge Per-Rider Costs

Comparing new daily riders (24,450) to how much taxpayers will have to pay ($22.8 billion) shows the cost would be about $932,515 per new rider.

In the most expensive market in the Puget Sound (Eastside King County), the average cost of a condominium is about $320,000.

It would be less expensive for taxpayers to purchase every new passenger a condominium within walking distance of his or her employment ($7.8 billion), purchase 4,000 articulated buses ($4 billion), fully fund the 520 bridge replacement ($3.8 billion) and tunnel option for the Alaskan Way Viaduct ($4 billion), and fully fund the projected statewide budget deficit ($2.5 billion) for the next legislative biennium.

“Although fewer than 5 percent of commuters use transit, transit receives about 20 percent of federal transportation spending, and sometimes more in many states,” said Ronald Utt, an economics and transportation expert at The Heritage Foundation.

“Moreover, what little transit use there is is usually concentrated in only a few areas,” noted Utt. “Seventy-five percent of transit ridership takes place in just seven metropolitan areas, and New York City accounts for 42 percent.”

Less Is More?

Although the new project is smaller than the one voters rejected in 2006, the sales tax increase is the same (0.5 percent). Perhaps more importantly, the new tax will be collected in perpetuity. The measure does not contain a sunset clause on the new tax collections.

That means voters would be getting much less for the same tax increase Sound Transit officials proposed in their previous ballot attempt.

Congestion Could Worsen

The transit proposal includes connecting the cities of Bellevue and Seattle by devoting the center lanes on Interstate 90 to light rail. According to Washington Policy Center research, doing so would reduce overall vehicle capacity on the I-90 bridge by 15 percent during the morning peak commute and 8 percent during the afternoon. It also would increase vehicle delays on the bridge by 27 percent during the morning peak drive and 24 percent during the afternoon peak.

Across the I-90 bridge, ST2 would cause average vehicle speeds from Bellevue to Seattle to fall 21 percent during the morning peak commute. Drivers headed from Seattle to Bellevue in the afternoon would see a 17 percent decrease in speeds.

Freight vehicles would suffer the most. During the morning peak drive, the I-90 bridge would be able to handle 24 percent fewer freight trucks into Seattle. The bridge’s freight truck capacity during the afternoon peak drive out of Seattle would fall by 19 percent.

“When Puget Sound area voters learn they are being asked to spend $22.8 billion to make traffic worse, Sound Transit officials just might be facing their second ballot defeat within a year,” said Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the Washington Policy Center.


Michael Ennis ([email protected]) is director of the center for transportation at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle.