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Sound Transit 3 Changes Spark New Debate

Sound Transit 3 Changes Spark New Debate

The Sound Transit Board has unanimously approved revisions to its proposed ST3 expansion plan, shortening construction timelines for several light rail projects based on public comment, and raising the tab from $50 billion to $54 billion. That’s not enough to silence some critics. Yet the apparent thirst of many residents in traffic-choked Central Puget Sound for more transit, sooner, may still spell success for the related November ballot measure.

Some opponents such as Bellevue City Council Member Kevin Wallace believe ST3’s new property tax would especially hurt consumers and the economy if the legislature in 2017 also decides to increase the state property tax in Puget Sound to pay for additional basic education spending, related to the McCleary decision.

In McCleary, The Washington Supreme Court in 2012 ruled the state cannot rely on local levy money to adequately fund basic education. Pressure has been building for the legislature to act before the Court’s 2018 deadline.

“We have to deal with that huge tax increase first before we get to fund future extensions to light rail,” Wallace said.

Tax Fatigue, And Then Some

At a June 15 meeting for the Eastside Transportation Association, Wallace warned that tax increases from both ST3 and an education levy swap resulting in higher state property taxes in Greater Seattle school districts could have severe impacts on King County’s middle class homeowners.

“This is the kind of thing that would cause people to lose their jobs,” he said at the June 15 meeting. “We could have a recession over it.”

However, Redmond Mayor John Marchione says opposition to ST3 due to possible levy reform is a “red herring.” Marchione is a member of the Sound Transit Board.

“Four years ago they talked about this levy swap,” he said. “If we wait for the legislature to act, we’ll never get anything done. For all I know this (levy reform) will be an issue four years from now.”

The expansion plan will add $400 more in annual taxes for an average household, on top of existing taxes for Sound Transit’s first two phases, the Seattle Times reported. The exact amount per household varies according the valuation of the property.

Families Concerned About Tax Impacts Of ST3

In public comments to Sound Transit on ST3, some have expressed worries about their ability to pay the transit system tax increase needed to deliver additional service.

One Snohomish County resident wrote that the agency needed to cut ST3’s costs in half, warning that “most families do not and cannot afford such a high increase of taxes.”

The revised ST3 plan speeds up some light rail project completion dates by three to five years. The light rail lines to downtown Redmond and Federal Way would open in 2024, four years earlier than originally proposed. In Seattle, the West Seattle segment and Ballard line would open in 2030 and 2035 respectively, three years earlier. ST3 also adds several minor light rail segments, such an extension from the Bellevue line in Overlake up to the South Kirkland Park and Ride.

However, the changes don’t come cheap. The revised plan adds an extra $4 billion to the $50 billion estimated total cost, an eight percent increase. The new plan would now add 62 new miles of light rail and 37 new stations, according to Sound Transit, versus the 58 miles of light rail and 39 new stations in the previous ST3 plan.

The plan also includes more Sound Transit express bus service including a bus rapid transit (BRT) route that would run from Burien north on I-405 to Woodinville and Bothell, then southwest from there to Lynnwood. The BRT would open in 2024.

The agency also operates commuter rail lines to and from Seattle, to the north and south.

Light rail now runs from Sea-Tac Airport through Seattle to the University District. As part of ST2, the Central Link Light Rail will be extended from the University District to Lynnwood.  It will also be extended from Sea-Tac Airport to Federal Way. Construction is currently underway as part of ST2 to extend the light rail line from Seattle and across Lake Washington on I-90 to reach Bellevue and Redmond. All three ST2 projects are expected to open in 2023.

Some recent arrivals to Seattle wonder why light rail to Bellevue and Redmond from Seattle could not have been routed across the old State Route 520 bridge, which is being removed now that its replacement is completed. The answer is precisely the reason the new bridge had to be built. The old 520 floating bridge, which opened in 1963, was determined after the 2001 earthquake here to be vulnerable to collapse during a deeper quake or a severe windstorm.

Completion Dates, Not Taxes, Key For Others

The faster completion dates for light rail reflect the sentiment of many public comments made to Sound Transit about slow timelines.

“My 20-year-old daughter will be retired before you get to Everett,” one person wrote regarding the proposed light rail line.

A Seattle resident demanded the agency “consider a much faster timeframe” for the light rail projects in the city because “we simply cannot wait 20-plus years for rail to reach Ballard and West Seattle.”

Redmond Mayor: ST3 Vital to Job Centers

While local officials like Wallace believe ST3 could hurt the economy, Marchione said the added transportation infrastructure is vital to job centers on the Eastside.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the transportation planning agency for King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties, projects 3.2 million commute trips each weekday in those jurisdictions in 2040 and 19 million total trips daily. Although transit could comprise as much as a fifth of all commute trips by then, it is projected by PSRC to account in 2040 for only about four percent of all daily trips. Non-commute trips also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and off-peak congestion.

The revised ST3 plan would slightly increase their projected 682,000 daily rides per day on all its modes by 2040, according to the agency,. Assuming each Sound Transit boarding represented a commute work-trip, all Sound Transit riders would make up 16 percent or almost one-sixth of the projected 3.2 million Puget Sound commute trips in 2040.

A 2015 PSRC study showed that single occupancy vehicles (SOV) remain the primary mode of travel for all trips in the region.

Many ‘Wanted Rail And They Wanted It Faster’

Some transit advocates like Shefali Ranganathan believe the revised ST3 plan shows that Sound Transit is listening to feedback which indicated people “wanted rail and they wanted it faster.”

Ranganathan is the executive director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a statewide policy and advocacy nonprofit.

“For us to accommodate people that want to live and work here we must make the infrastructure improvements that will move the thousands of people moving here,” she said. “We will never have the road capacity for all these people.”

However, Mariya Kargopoltseva believes the debate over light rail timeline’s distracts from the larger issue. She is the director of the Coles Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center.

The question is whether “we should take on more massive taxation while the first phase is still incomplete,” she writes.

“By drawing our attention to timelines, Sound Transit is downplaying their $54 billion dollar price tag,” she writes.

Support Indicated In ST Phone Survey

Despite criticism from many residents the proposal appears to have regional support at the moment. A phone survey conducted by Sound Transit in May found 65 percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat supported ST3. The agency was forced to pull its previous survey after the Public Disclosure Commission found the questions might have violated state law due to their wording.

Critics like Wallace believe many Puget Sound residents who support ST3 have misconceptions about what it would accomplish and how soon.

Not A ‘Panacea’ For Many Commuters

“Voters think this is going to be a panacea for their problems in trying to get home to their kids at night,” he said. Instead, it means more taxes and, for many residents, no benefits in their community for 22 years, he added.

While Sound Transit has focused on light rail infrastructure, other metropolitan areas across the country have turned to bus rapid transit to solve their traffic problems. For example, global nonprofit Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that the city of Cleveland “managed to transform a modest $50 million investment in bus rapid transit into $5.8 billion in new transit-oriented development.”

Stakeholders who haven’t done so yet can review ST 3. You can also attend the June 23 meeting at which the Sound Transit Board will vote on whether to send the amended proposal to voters for approval. Public comment to the agency on the plan can be submitted using this online form.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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