Angry Transit Nerd

Because Seattle Deserves Better

Funding Transit (or, Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Property Taxes in Washington State)

Yesterday Ben Schiendelman posted on Seattle Transit Blog, suggesting a Seattle-only property tax levy to purchase service from Metro as a way of backfilling funding lost by the expiration of the Congestion Reduction Charge next year. There was some confusion about the extent of the city’s authority to levy property tax. I have spent my Saturday night studying the constitutional provisions and statutes governing property taxes in Washington (you’re welcome) and here is what I found.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so my interpretation may not be accurate.

There are three limits on property taxes:

  • Article VII, Section 2 of the Washington State Constitution limits the sum of all regular property tax levies, except those levied by a port or public utility district, to one percent of the “true and fair value of such property in money.” Note that this means the limit is calculated based on market value. In 2013 in King County the effective limit was $10.28 per $1000 of assessed value. This limit can be exceeded by a 60% vote (simple majority for school districts) of the people for either general levies or to service General Obligation bonds – together these are known as excess levies.
  • RCW 84.52.043 limits the city to a maximum regular levy rate to 3.375 and all taxing districts other than the state and a number of special-purpose districts to 5.90 in aggregate. Excess levies are not subject to this limitation.
  • RCW 84.55.010 limits annual growth in property taxes essentially to one percent. This can be exceeded by holding a public vote under RCW 84.55.050 with a simple majority threshold. This is referred to as a levy lid lift.

Also, I believe RCW 84.52.052 limits when taxing districts other than school and fire protection districts may seek approval of an excess levy to circumstances “in which a larger levy is necessary in order to prevent the impairment of the obligation of contracts.” The levies currently in place in King County seem to bear this out – the only general excess levies in place are Maintenance and Operations levies that were imposed when regular levies failed to produce sufficient revenue to sustain current service levels.

What does this mean for Seattle? Well our current regular tax rate is 3.14774, leaving .22726 available under the 3.375 cap.

What about the 1% limit? Well we’re in very good shape there – our overall tax rate is 10.50991, and by my calculations after subtracting out port and excess levies we’re down to 7.63361, well under the cap of 10.28.

What about the 5.90 aggregate limit? Well that one’s complicated, but my calculations say we have 1.4626 left before we hit that cap.

What does it mean for funding Metro? Well, the total assessed value of all property in Seattle in 2013 is $112,521,604,618. If we were to attempt to fill the entire $75 million shortfall, we would need a tax rate of .66654 – well beyond the city’s limit.

A Transportation Benefit District does not have the authority to levy a regular property tax.

However, next year the Seattle Parks Levy is up for renewal, and something the City is considering is establishing a Metropolitan Park District which would be able to levy its own property tax. This could free up some of the City’s taxing authority.

Another option that I’m particularly interested in would be the establishment of a City Transportation Authority under RCW 35.95A. Under current law such an authority has the power to levy up to 1.50 with voter approval. However, the statute as written limits such authorities to building and operating monorails. A few months ago I wrote up an initiative to remove this restriction, but upon further reflection did not persue obtaining 246,372 signatures to put it on the ballot.

Where’s Your Bus? Don’t Ask @kcmetrobus

Today was a frightful day for everyone who rides Metro buses, and I wish the operator involved a speedy recovery.

But today is just the latest example of King County Metro’s egregious disregard for effective communication with riders about disruptions to transit service. The incident happened around 9:20 AM, but the first mention of it on Metro’s Twitter feed wasn’t until 11:58 AM:

Really, @kcmetrobus? Service through downtown Seattle is severely disrupted and you say nothing about it?

But maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. After all, Metro runs an “Eye on Your Metro Commute” blog to tell us these things, right?

Nope. You see, this incident happened after 9 AM, and “Eye on Your Metro Commute” only covers the peak commute hours, because obviously anyone who rides buses in midday is a loser and We’ll Get You There…When We Get You There.

But wait, hold on. The background image on Metro’s Twitter feed has something to tell us.

Well you fell down on that last part, but OK, how about we give that website a try. Now, when I want to check for service alerts, it’s probably because I’m on some street corner somewhere wondering where the fuck my bus is, so I’m sure that website is mobile-optimized.

Well, that’s not exactly a responsive layout, but I guess those headers are big enough to hit without needing to zoom in. But which one do I want? I’m pretty sure I’m not concerned about “planned construction or events,” but “Service Advisories” sounds closest…

Are you fucking kidding me? The lines in that table are too small to read, much less click on. And none of them seem to have anything to do with the disruption!

Hold on, let’s go back to the first page. What’s that in the upper right? “Metro Transit Alert RSS Feeds?” Hmm, that might be the ticket…assuming you have a mobile device that formats RSS in some readable format, which none of the ones I tried do. Otherwise, you can finally get the information you seek if you can pick it out of the RSS and HTML that surrounds it.

You see, Twitter is a service that is perfectly designed to deliver concise, timely updates to a large number of people. It should be the primary way information about service disruptions is disseminated online, not an afterthought.

A key word here is concise. Twitter limits tweets to 140 characters, so it’s important not to waste them, say by repeating yourself:

But maybe I’m being too harsh, I mean the Twitters are newfangled technology. It’s not like there are any good examples of how to…

Or maybe there are.

But there is one sure way to get up-to-the-minute updates from @kcmetrobus — make sure @kcmetrobus is on the bus with you.

Belltown-Uptown Transit Improvement Open House

SDOT has just announced an open house for the Belltown-Uptown Transit Improvement Project on August 21st from 4-6 PM at the Urban Oasis Cafe, 2929 1st Avenue.

Following the Broad Street BAT lane which was installed a few months ago, this round of improvements includes new trolley wire on Denny Way between 1st and 3rd for eastbound buses, so that southbound 1, 2, and 13 buses can skip the dog-leg on 1st and Broad with its attendant unprotected left turn.

Excitingly, this project would also eliminate the terribly substandard stop at Warren and Denny in favor of a new stop just west of 2nd Avenue next to the Cisco building. This new stop would also have a shelter. I contacted SDOT and they confirmed that Metro will close the stop at 3rd and Broad (in the triangular parklet) and the 8 will serve this new stop.

Construction is planned for Fall, with Metro switching over as part of the February service change.

More information is available from the SDOT flyer.

Metro’s Kevin Desmond: I Give Up

SEATTLE – At a press conference this morning, ostensibly called to discuss looming cuts to bus service, King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond shocked reporters by launching into a tirade against the Washington State Legislature and his bosses on the Metropolitan King County Council.

He began by presenting a map showing potential reductions in service across the county. “So Shoreline, yeah, they’re fucked. Wedgwood, Laurelhurst, fucked. Burien, totally fucked.”

He then lambasted the Legislature for passing only a temporary funding source in 2011, setting the stage for the current crisis. “How the hell am I supposed to do long-term planning for regional growth when I don’t know if the rug will be pulled out from under me next year? I keep getting complaints about overcrowded buses, and I can’t do a damn thing about it. I’m not a fucking miracle worker. I can’t turn water into wine and I can’t turn shit into service hours. The motherfucking Legislature needs to stop using Metro as a political football and give me a funding source.

“And don’t get me started on West Seattle. That backstabbing [Governor] Gregoire was supposed to get me an MVET as part of this tunnel deal, but she threw me under the bus at the first opportunity. Plus the measly mitigation funding is about to run out and the stupid tunnel boring machine isn’t even in Seattle yet!”

Desmond then tore into the members of the King County Council, saying “They publicly order me to go find ways to cut costs, but then they pull me aside in the hallway and say, ‘Don’t touch the route that goes by my house, because my neighbor’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate rides it sometimes. So leave it alone.’” Pounding his fist on the podium, he added “it’s fucking bullshit.”

He then announced another fare increase to take effect next year, stating “I’m forwarding every piece of hate mail I get about this to Larry Phillips. Every damn one.”

Desmond then became even more agitated, announcing that he was “going back to New York where the politicians realize that transit costs money.” He then shouted “Desmond out,” dropped the microphone on the floor, and stormed out of the room.

As of press time, King County Executive Dow Constantine had not responded to a request for comment.

[If you haven’t figured it out by now, this piece is satire. For serious coverage of the press conference that happened today, see West Seattle Blog. Happy April Fool’s Day.]

Dissecting the New September Service Change Proposal

Today Metro released an updated proposal for the September restructuring associated with the start of RapidRide C & D. The headline change is that they’re deferring changes to the 26, 28X, 31, and 355X until the opening of RapidRide E, a sensible move. Notably, the Queen Anne-Madrona restructure that Bruce Nourish of the Seattle Transit Blog has written about a couple times remains intact. However, in response to concerns about the loss of service on 6th Ave W, Metro has apparently done what an STB commenter suggested:

Concerning West Queen Anne service, why not extend Route 1 to serve 6th Ave W and Queen Anne Ave and terminate at the current Route 3 terminal? People on 6th Ave would still have some service and could transfer during off peak times to either route at Queen Anne Ave/Boston St. It would also provide a one-seat ride for 6th Ave W residents to downtown Queen Anne.

However it looks like that comes at a price for Kinnear residents, as the proposal would reduce off-peak frequency to 30 minutes and night frequency to 30-60 minutes, from current levels of 20 minutes mid-day and half-hourly until midnight.

Other changes:

  • Route 5 would continue to operate on Aurora instead of moving to Dexter.
  • The 15X would be preserved to prevent overcrowding on the D Line during peak.
  • The 16 would be use a more direct routing to Northgate via North Seattle Community College.
  • The new Route 18 would continue to First Hill via Yesler Way.
  • New Route 40 has been renumbered Route 20 and would continue to the Admiral District, but would no longer have weekend service.
  • All-day service to Colman Park would be preserved on the 27, but the 27 would use Boren Avenue and Seneca/Spring to downtown instead of Yesler. This makes no sense.
  • Route 30 is off the chopping block, but would be truncated to only operate between the UW and Sand Point.
  • Route 33 would be interlined with the new incomprehensible Route 27 so that buses continue to turn off 3rd Avenue and get stuck in freeway traffic.
  • New Route 32 would use Stone Way instead of Wallingford Ave N, and W Mercer Place instead of Harrison in Uptown.
  • Route 37 saved from the chopping block with 4 morning and 4 afternoon peak trips.
  • Reduce peak frequency on the new Route 50 to 20-30 minutes.
  • Retain peak-hour trips on the 55 to prevent overcrowding on the C Line.
  • Make the 56X more express by travelling directly from Admiral Way to the West Seattle Freeway, skipping Chelan Ave SW.
  • No added service on Route 120.
  • Route 125 would continue to use the Viaduct instead of serving SODO, and would terminate at Westwood Village instead of backtracking to Alaska Junction.
  • Route 128 would continue to double back on itself to serve South Seattle Community College instead of continuing to Alaska Junction via SW Genesee Street.

In many cases this constitutes a watering-down of the ambitious original proposal. But in light of the histrionics on the King County Council on Monday over one lousy bus route, getting these changes approved will still remain an uphill battle.

Go Big or Go Home

As I’m sure anyone who reads this blog is aware, two weeks ago Seattle voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 1, which would have paid for transit speed and reliability improvements as well as road repairs with a $60 car-tab fee.

There has been plenty of speculation about why it failed. I think it’s true that a lot of people weren’t clear on what they would get out of it. But more importantly, it was clear what they wouldn’t: any meaningful improvement in Seattle’s transit system.

“But half of it would have gone to transit!” you say. True, but to think that a few queue jumps would actually substantially improve mobility in this city is delusional. What’s worse, the update to the Seattle Transit Master Plan shows that our city’s leaders are also delusional. This process looks doomed not to produce a bold new direction for transit in Seattle, but rather to recommend a slew of expensive projects that will prove inadequate to handle the transportation needs of our growing city.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the current TMP draft [PDF]. On page 3-5, they discuss the modes evaluated in the study. You may notice that the highest-capacity mode considered is this oxymoronic “rapid streetcar” concept. What’s a “rapid streetcar?” I’ll tell you. It’s when someone says “Oh, giving light rail trains their own lane is a huge hassle. Let’s just give them a lane when it’s convenient, and we’ll just run them in traffic everywhere it really matters.”

They spend all of page 3-6 trying to validate this concept by talking about the trams in cities in France with smaller populations, 70% gas taxes, and in the case of Lyon, a three-line subway system. I absolutely love their choice of photos:

Look at that “rapid streetcar” moving effortlessly through heavy downtown traffic!

Okay, so I’ve expressed my skepticism about this “rapid streetcar” concept. But the real fun starts on page 3-7, where they examine the three corridors deemed to have the highest travel demand: Madison, Downtown to Ballard via Westlake and Fremont, and Downtown to Roosevelt via South Lake Union and Eastlake. First, this gem:

“Corridor 6 (Capitol Hill – Downtown, via Madison) was evaluated only for BRT and Enhanced Bus service, since rail is not feasible due to steep grades.”

They’re eliminating their highest-capacity mode not because the demand doesn’t warrant it, but because it is incapable of handling the terrain. But wait, it gets better:

“Longer, higher capacity vehicles are not feasible on Madison due to steep grades.” You see, the hill breaks on Madison are too sharp to use 60-foot articulated buses, which is why Metro currently only uses 40-foot buses there. But look at that graph. The dotted line is the maximum standing capacity of 40-foot buses on 5-minute headways. The projections say that these buses would be crush-loaded for most of the day, and that during rush hour passengers would be left on the curb. Better yet, the report estimates the the per-mile cost for BRT here is as high as it is for the streetcar mode on the other corridors, as Madison’s narrow right-of-way, high traffic volumes, and diagonal alignment conspire to make serving it with high-quality bus service very challenging.

The Briefing Book prepared as the first step in this update of the Transit Master Plan, specifically the Travel Demand and Transit Market Analysis section, shows how the next two decades will present our city’s transportation system with great challenges:

  • The Puget Sound Regional Council projects Seattle to take on 100,000 new residents by 2030. The authors of the Briefing Book add that if recent trends in more people preferring urban living continue, actual population growth could exceed the PSRC forecast.

  • Seattle is also expected to become home to 200,000 more jobs in the same timeframe.

  • The Center City is expected to accomodate 44% of the population growth and 63% of the employment growth. (This is easy to believe when you see the new apartment towers going up in Belltown and the Amazon juggernaut that has parked itself in South Lake Union and developed an insatiable appetite for engineers.)

What really gets me, though, is on page 2-50. Here the authors talk specifically about the Center City, with astute observations like:

A significant number of trips are made throughout the day between all market areas in the central part of the city; this same area is expected to accommodate a majority of population and employment growth in the next 20 years. Demand for short- to mid-length transit trips is high today and is likely to grow substantially.

And the kicker:

Transit service connections between Center City market areas (and Center City adjacent neighborhoods) vary widely in terms of service quality today. Although transit service frequency is generally 15 minutes or better, many connections cannot be completed in an amount of time comparable to the automobile or even the bicycle and often walk times are faster than transit travel times. A transit trip between Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill on local routes takes more than 30 minutes to complete. This would take about 10 minutes in a car and about 20 minutes on a bicycle. A transit trip between Belltown and Capitol Hill also takes about 30 minutes including walk time and wait time. This trip takes about eight minutes by car and 15 minutes on a bicycle.

I can confirm this. On Friday I took Metro Route 2 from 3rd & Bell to the Polyclinic on First Hill. Total distance: 1.6 miles. Total time on the bus: 25 minutes. I could have gone to Ballard in that time!

This is completely backward, yet unsurprising considering that our transit system has been and continues to be very strongly focused on suburban commuters to the detriment of city dwellers. Besides the obvious example of peak-hour-only expresses to far- flung suburbs, there’s the fact that folks headed from downtown to Bellevue at rush hour can pay Sound Transit $2.50 to be whisked through an underground tunnel, over a bus-only on-ramp to the HOV lanes on I-90 and into Bellevue, whereas Queen Anne residents pay Metro $2.50 for a slow slog up 3rd Avenue to the 1st & Broad morass. The only thing resembling rapid transit in our town is being built by Sound Transit, and therefore has mile-plus stop spacing in Seattle to ensure that folks in Lynnwood have as fast a ride downtown as folks in Ballard.

(Seriously, mid-day 15s are scheduled to take 26 minutes from 15th & Market to 3rd & Pike. Sound Transit estimates the trip from Lynnwood to University Street will take 27 minutes. Plus Sound Transit keeps talking about 8-minute headways to Lynnwood, while Metro says RapidRide D will only be every 10 minutes during peak.)

So what do we do about it?

The really sad thing in all of this is that Seattleites demonstrated multiple times that they see the value in true rapid transit in the multiple votes on the Monorail. There were many problems with that plan, not the least of which is that monorails are simply not a practical technology, but Seattleites weren’t afraid of a 1.5-billion-dollar price tag.

There has been debate on whether Seattle should take on the task of building out our rapid transit system. But I firmly believe that it should. Sound Transit is a regional agency with regional goals. Its planned light-rail network largely parallels our region’s freeways and contributes to continued suburbanization. While I think they are the agency best qualified to build and operate rapid transit in Seattle, I think the City needs to take on responsibility for planning and funding extensions within the city limits.

I’m not the only one advocating for this. After I began writing this post a page appeared on Facebook advocating for a Ballard Spur off the Brooklyn Link station. And now Ben Schiendelman of the Seattle Transit Blog has set up seattlesubway.org, pushing for a true subway system serving the city.

I think the logical first step is push the city to fund an alternatives analysis, including fully grade-separated rapid-transit, for the Ballard-UW, Ballard-Downtown, and West Seattle Junction-Downtown corridors. As a funding mechanism, the city could reinstate the Employee Hours Tax. Having this work done would allow us to apply for federal grants and go to the voters with a solid plan and good estimate of the costs.

When it comes to actually building such a system, I have some ideas for funding that too. The most obvious one is general obligation bonds backed by property tax revenue. The state constitution allows the issuance of bonds in excess of limits if approved by a 60% vote of the people (you may recall this was the funding mechanism for the failed Forward Thrust plan several decades ago). The City currently has about $1 billion of capacity available, but a measure for even 200 or 300 million would be a good start.

As for the rest of the capital expenses and operations, I firmly believe the Legislature should grant local authorities the authority to levy a payroll tax. In Washington State we have a strong sense of taxes-as-user-fees, so much so that we enshrined “gas taxes are for roads” in our constitution. The biggest driver of transit demand and transportation demand in general is employment. Therefore, a tax on employment is a logical way to pay for transit. Other cities like Portland and New York fund their transit systems through a payroll tax. As a percentage of the wages and salaries firms pay to their employees, a payroll tax is more progressive than sales taxes. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on Seattle’s now-defunct employee hours tax and statistics from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, and I believe that a payroll tax of one-half of one percent (lower than Portland’s tax of .6918%), levied solely within the City of Seattle, could bring in about $250 million per year. Thinking bigger, I would love to see a regional payroll tax replace the sales taxes for transit we currently pay.

Seattle needs to recognize that our city and our region are growing. Building dense, livable communities and connecting them with high-quality transit is essential to maintaining our economic competitiveness while meeting our climate and sustainability goals. The time has come. Let’s do this!

Danny Westneat, You Disappoint Me

He tells the tale of John Littel, a carpenter from West Seattle who sat on the CTAC III committee making a recommendation to the Seattle City Council on the vehicle license fee that they may ask the voters to approve in addition to the $20 VLF already imposed without a public vote. The final recommendation, made a week ago, calls for the full $80 fee authorized by statute, to be divided “30 percent for system preservation and safety, 50 percent for transit improvements and 20 percent for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.”

When I learned of this recommendation a few days ago, I was surprised and uneasy. The $20 VLF for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District is already being collected. Metro’s only hope of staving off disastrous cuts is another $20 VLF. To have talk of an $80 VLF while the question of saving Metro service is still open seems like terrible timing in my opinion.

Westneat continues to describe the disastrous effect the recession has had on the carpentry industry. He then contrasts that with the burgeoning employment at Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union. To look at the situation where a carpenters, through no fault of their own, find themselves out of work and struggle to support their families while pimply-faced youth make a king’s ransom banging on a keyboard all day and say, “This isn’t fair,” is perfectly understandable. It’s not fair.

But then Westneat makes a dubious connection. “But this is way too much money at the wrong time for stuff that’s hardly a top priority. The feds have crippling war debts. The state just cut people off health care and laid off teachers. Now Seattle’s going to raise taxes for things like bike lanes, transit planning and traffic calming?”

“Seattle’s no middle-class town anymore. Maybe a hundred bucks a car will be greeted with a shrug. Maybe the crowds of young creative-class workers pouring out of Amazon just want the bike lanes, and are willing to pay for them.”

Damn those Amazon yuppies with their bike lanes! It’s all their fault! It is quite a historical irony that what was a century ago a “rich man’s toy” is now the mode of transport of the working class while the lowly bicycle is apparently the exclusive domain of the rich, educated elite. I live in Belltown, and one thing that has struck me when walking the streets late at night is the number of bicyclists I see. Who are these people who are willing to share the streets with drunk drivers and the world’s finest taxi drivers? Are they Amazon yuppies pedaling home from the sushi bar? Perhaps, but I find it more likely they work in the foodservice or retail industries, heading home after a long evening shift. (I’d ask them, but trying to take a survey of passing bicyclists at 1 AM would be a little weird, even for Belltown.)

Let’s take a closer look at the funding plan. Along with their letter of recommendation the CTAC III submitted a spreadsheet that specifies in greater detail how much funding should be dedicated to each program. The “Bicycle Safety and Access” program is allotted less than 7% of the total. This might explain why the Cascade Bicycle Club (of which I am a member) is already advocating to increase the share for bicycles. The lion’s share goes to the “Transit Corridor Improvements” program, which aims to provide speed and reliability enhancements for Seattle’s transit service. By increasing the speed and reliability of transit service, you not only provide greater satisfaction to transit riders and provide a more attractive alternative to driving, you make transit more cost-effective. Conversely, when you let buses get stuck in traffic through failure to give them priority, you squander the taxpayers’ money.

I have no doubt that should this $80 VLF be passed, it will be a strain on some working families. But a great many working families also depend on Metro bus service, as was clear from the many people who packed hearings to press the County Council to adopt the $20 fee. We must remember that that fee comes with an expiration date in 2014. Those two years need to be spent finding ways to make Metro service more cost-efficient while also making it work for more of Seattle’s hardworking families.

Another interesting item in the committee’s recommendation letter is the recommendation that the Freight Master Plan be completed using funding from the transit category. The efficient movement of freight over our city’s roadways is important to many blue-collar industries.

Ultimately it’s up the City Council (well, technically the Board of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, but it’s the same people) to decide how much to ask voters for, how much to spend on each program, or even whether to wait until later to go to the voters. I’m not going to advocate for any position. But it needs to be clear that this is about a lot more than bike lanes. It’s about building a transportation system that works for everyone, and it’s doing so not by additional regressive sales taxes, but by a tax on the vehicles that fill our streets.

The End Is Nigh(?)

I expressed my amusement and told her that I’m just some dumb schmuck with a blog, and that these cuts won’t happen until after many public outreach meetings at which she and her neighbors would have an opportunity to shout at the politicians and planners who will actually be making these decisions.

But now it is looking like she, I, and all the other citizens of the county will have an opportunity to vote, literally, on whether these cuts will be necessary. The Legislature has authorized King County to enact a “Congestion Reduction Charge,” or more accurately a $20 Vehicle License Fee for the next two years. However, the authorizing legislation required a 2/3 supermajority of the County Council to authorize it. There was hope this might be possible with the vote of Jane Hague, Councilmember from District 6 representing the Eastside, but immediately after the legislation passed she announced she would not vote to enact the fee. But the legislation also allowed the fee to be enacted by a public vote, which the Council could authorize by a simple majority. It is now looking like the 5 Councilmembers representing the most urbanized parts of the county are willing to let the voters decide Metro’s fate.

This brings me back to a post I have been meaning to write for a while, since even before Jarrett Walker wrote his post on why Metropolitan Statistical Areas, which are agglomerations of counties, are useless when talking about metropolitan areas.

King County’s boundary has not appreciably changed since 1867, predating the admittance of Washington as a state. It was pared down to that from its original 1852 boundary which stretched to the Pacific Ocean. Until the adoption of a home-rule charter in 1968, it was governed by three Commissioners and a hodgepodge of elected officials, and was largely an administrative division of the state rather than a coherent local government. The original “Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle” was created after an earlier failed attempt to modernize the County’s government. Its boundaries were drawn more tightly around Seattle and its closest suburbs.

But in 1972 the Legislature, in granting Metro the authority to levy a sales tax, made its boundaries co-extensive with King County’s. And then in the early 1990s Metro was merged into King County government. So since 1972 that same 1867 boundary is used not only to determine who gets to vote on decidedly urban services such as transit, but also who has to pay for them. The sales and property taxes used to fund Metro bus service are collected countywide, and a vote on the Congestion Reduction Charge would include all citizens in the county.

But Metro buses don’t serve the entire county. And wouldn’t you know it, places where Metro service is sparse or non-existent tend not to want to pay for it. Here is a map showing the 9 County Council districts and how the precincts within them voted for Transit Now! back in 2006.

First, a disclaimer: don’t read too much into the specific precinct color. As it turns out, voting precincts are rather volatile, and the boundaries depicted on this map reflect the precincts as they are today, not when the vote was taken. The purpose of this map is to show general geographic trends.

Areas in blue, light blue, and teal are where the measure failed. Areas in green, lime, and red are where it passed. The areas of strongest support are where you’d expect: the U-District, Capitol Hill, and Fremont. Also unsurprisingly, rural areas of the county that get no bus service tended to vote against it.

One thing that people have been asking is why Julia Patterson, the Councilmember from District 5, has been so reluctant to support the CRC. Taking a look at the map, this should come as a surprise to no one. Here’s the breakdown of the vote by council district:

  1. 61.7%
  2. 70.8%
  3. 50.1%
  4. 71.7%
  5. 46.4%
  6. 57.2%
  7. 42.3%
  8. 56.6%
  9. 43.6%

Councilwoman Patterson is wise to be cautious: Transit Now! failed in her district.

“But Matt!” you say. “Transit Now! was sales tax! This is a vehicle license fee!” Yeah, and that makes it worse. For one thing, in Seattle where support would likely be strongest, car owners are already paying an additional $20 this year for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District. And taxing cars to pay for transit, while logical from an economic perspective, is sure to provoke more of the “War on Cars” rhetoric we’ve already heard so much of.

The CRC passing a public vote is far from assured, and proponents will have to mount a very strong campaign. But ultimately this is just a stopgap measure, and it just enables us to have a discussion about long-term sustainable funding for Metro. The politics of our state seem to dictate that decisions about the best interests of the Puget Sound Region won’t be made in Olympia. Whatever the ultimate funding and governance structure, it will need to be regional. I’ll have some more thoughts on this in a future post.

I’m sure that someone will suggest that Sound Transit should assume control of all local as well as regional transit. I’m not sure this is the right solution, but I will say I would rather have voters in Everett voting on the future of transit service in Seattle than voters in Skykomish. We can’t expect 21st-century solutions from a 19th-century institution.

My Take on the Tunnel vs. Surface/Transit

Two days ago I read a very disappointing post on Seattle Transit Blog. I personally think the deep-bore tunnel is a terrible investment, but Ben Schiendelman’s post was just a lot of handwavy projections of the impact of the alternatives on two individual commute patterns, and in my opinion did little to advance the argument in favor of I-5/Surface/Transit. So I’m going to present the facts as I see them and explain why they lead me to oppose the tunnel.

History

Let’s start by reviewing how we got here.

March 2004: WSDOT releases a Draft Environmental Impact Statement which contains 5 alternatives, including 2 elevated viaducts, 2 tunnels, and a surface option.

July 2006: WSDOT releases a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement which analyzes two alternatives: a viaduct rebuild and a cut-and-cover tunnel which would eliminate the downtown ramps but retain ramps at Elliott and Western.

March 2007: In an advisory vote, Seattle voters reject both alternatives studied in the 2006 SDEIS.

December 2007: Governor Gregoire appoints a 29-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee to provide feedback on new alternatives being developed.

December 2008: The Stakeholder Advisory Committee makes their final recommendation to “move forward with an Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Plan that includes improvements to I-5, transit, surface streets and potential for construction of a deep bore tunnel” and “a state-funded Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement should include review of an I-5/surface/ transit hybrid, including the proposed building block investments. Sufficient funds should also be included within the SEIS for design and necessary environmental review of construction of a bored tunnel with a commitment to bring it to a record of decision.”

January 13, 2009: Governor Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels sign a Letter of Agreement to move forward with “a four-lane bored tunnel, together with improvements to city streets, the city waterfront, and transit.” Among other things, the letter states that “the allocation of specific project responsibility to each jurisdiction carries with it the responsibility for…project cost overruns” and “the parties agree to…support efforts to obtain state legislative authority for King County to implement a 1% Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.”

February 2, 2009: While working on the bill authorizing funding for the deep-bore tunnel, some legislators express opposition to the provision authorizing Metro to implement an MVET. Governor Gregoire then tells the Legislature that the MVET authorization “doesn’t have anything to do with the tunnel.”

May 12, 2009: Governor Gregoire signs ESSB 5768 which does not include an MVET authorization but does state that “Any costs in excess of two billion eight hundred million dollars shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel.”

The Options

One of the criticisms I often hear is that it is not clear what tunnel opponents mean when they talk about “Surface/Transit.” For the record, we’re referring to what was referred to as “Scenario L” in the Stakeholder Advisory Committee process. Here is a map and a fact sheet on “Scenario L.”

This document describes the Bored Tunnel Alternative.

Below are maps of the two alternatives. Notice that the map for the I-5/Surface/Transit alternative has quite a bit more ink on it. It includes many changes to I-5 and the downtown street grid as well as an Alaskan/Western couplet of three lanes each which is more pedestrian-friendly than the six-lane two-way boulevard that had been a part of an earlier surface proposal (and arguably more pedestrian-friendly than the four-lane boulevard in the tunnel plan).

“This plan includes a lot of transit.”

Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, has on several occasions said this of the deep-bore plan. And in one sense, he is correct.

However, with the exception of $30 million from the state in construction mitigation funding for transit while the tunnel is being built, all of the funding for transit is supposed to come out of King County Metro’s budget, to the tune of $190 million in capital expeditures and $15 million annually for operations. That’s why the State was supposed to grant Metro authority to implement a 1% MVET.

King County Metro, however, doesn’t exactly have a lot of extra money lying around. Declining sales tax revenues in the recession have put the squeeze to Metro’s budget. Metro has so far staved off cuts by implementing schedule efficiencies, raising fares, and raiding a surplus in a capital account to prop up operations. However, unless new funding sources become available, Metro may end up having to cut service, not expand it. Additionally, Congress is threatening to pull funding for RapidRide C, the already-planned West Seattle line. This could delay the opening of that line, to say nothing of the additional Burien/Delridge line called for in both the tunnel and surface/transit plans.

Both plans call for more transit service. But unless the State comes through with additional funding options for Metro, it is unlikely that much of that transit service will materialize.

But won’t somebody think of the economy?

One of the common themes bandied about is that a surface option would be a disaster for the economic vitality of Seattle. In the Publicola debate about the tunnel, David Freiboth stated (around 19:00) that “We spent about a year looking at the facts, looking at all the options, looking at what it would take to replace this structure, to provide for one of two limited-access arterials that we have running through this town that are vital for our economic integrity, and the jobs that are needed for the economic vitality of this working port and the other aspects of this town. When this got boiled down what we found was, that the two alternatives that the state was bringing forward, the surface and the rebuild, weren’t viable.”

However, this is at odds with the presentation made to the committee shortly before they made their recommendation which stated that the “primary impact area accounts for approximately 5% of the regional economy” and “if the viaduct was taken down and not replaced, the change in output or jobs less than 0.5% on average,” ultimately concluding that “all scenarios have limited effects on the regional economy during construction and operation.”

Reclaiming the Waterfront

Something else that David Freiboth said during that debate really piqued my interest. He said, “We brought in a firm from Denmark, GEHL architects, to take a look at the livability issue, what that would do to the livability of this town, and they concluded that the surface option was not viable. It was going to destroy the livability that we already have, it was going make this town more dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles.”

I tracked down the presentation to which he referred, and it is true that the report was critical of the effects of the surface option, stating “the less vehicular traffic on the surface, the better.” However, this also leads them to be critical to the deep-bore tunnel, since it would still increase traffic on the surface relative to today. They point out what many of us already realize: the City’s efforts to make the waterfront a nice place will fail because “none of the scenarios create a nice waterfront at a good human scale that is possible to activate with human life.”

Ultimately they say “a scenario that provides high quality urban spaces is one that reduces traffic capacity in the city.” And while Freiboth states that “we’re not talking about replacing what we have there, we’re going from six lanes down to four lanes,” I challenge this characterization. While true that the tunnel would have only two lanes in each direction, the project also includes a four-lane surface boulevard that would supplement the tunnel. Today there is no useful connection between Alaskan Way and the south end of the Viaduct. Ultimately that is why the tunnel was chosen: it largely preserves the existing capacity. Freiboth talks about the 100,000 daily trips on the Viaduct as if they were a force of nature, unyielding and inavoidable. But research has shown that city traffic is in fact very elastic. If a significant change is made to traffic capacity, congestion probably will get worse for a time. But eventually it will reach equilibrium as people make different decisions about where to live, where to shop, and when to travel.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of different components that comprise this projects $4 billion price tag, and four different entities are responsible for parts of the funding. However, what really matters is the cost of the tunnel itself vs. the cost of improvements to I-5. Both would be the State’s responsibility and both could be funded from gas taxes (unlike transit, the seawall, or the waterfront park).

The State’s estimate for the tunnel portion of the project is $1.96 billion. The estimate for I-5 improvements was $553 million. That’s quite a big difference, and I-5 serves more bona fide “through trips” than SR-99.

Ultimately, a surface option provides greater flexibility for future uses. It would be a part of the downtown urban fabric. If congestion makes transit unreliable, treatments such as bus lanes and signal priority can be applied. If in the future traffic volumes fall due to rising gas prices or other factors, surface streets can be reconfigured with wider sidewalks, on-street parking, bike lanes, or even at-grade rail transit. The deep-bore tunnel, on the other hand, is a very expensive bet on the status quo, and would never be useful to pedestrians, bicyclists, or transit.

Conclusions

I deliberately did not talk much about the usual talking points, but I’ll quickly run through them. First, the tunnel will be tolled, resulting in significantly more trips being diverted to the surface. Second, a tunnel introduces significantly more construction risk than a surface or elevated project, which could result in damage to downtown buildings, delays, lawsuits, and cost overruns. Third, the tunnel plan leaves the unsafe viaduct up until the tunnel is completed – 2016 at the earliest.

Governor Gregoire has boldly declared that “we have no cost overruns in this project at all, zero.” Of course, in 2008 she declared that the Viaduct was coming down in 2012 whether Seattle liked it or not. Now she’s singing a different tune.

Here is what I think should happen:

  1. The State should find funding sources for Metro, and there should be a clear funding plan and implementation timeline for the additional RapidRide line(s), rapid trolley network and downtown transit improvements as soon as possible.

  2. The seawall should be replaced and the waterfront boulevard built and connected to SR-99 at King Street and the Battery Street Tunnel.

  3. The changes to I-5 should be implemented.

  4. The Viaduct should be closed and torn down.

  5. Then, if the worst fears come true and downtown traffic becomes atrocious, build the tunnel. Apparently as recently as 2008 Governor Gregoire felt that the safety concerns about the Viaduct were enough to trump concerns about traffic congestion, so why should we believe we couldn’t get along without it for a few years? But I strongly suspect that downtown traffic will remain manageable without the need for this extremely expensive facility.

Seattle Transit and Tourism

But as illustrated by this forum thread on TripAdvisor, there’s something that needs examination all the more if the Ride Free Area is eliminated, and that’s the subject of visitor passes. The Ride Free Area is often defended as being friendly for tourists. After all, the Ride Free Area is home to Pike Place Market, the Waterfront, the Seattle Art Museum and several high-rise hotels. But if it was eliminated without the introduction of any sort of visitor pass, then those tourists could very well be paying cash fares on buses in the CBD, which would run contrary to the goal of moving buses through the CBD as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Tourism is an important part of Seattle’s economy. According to the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, in 2009 visitors to King County spent $6.9 billion. Tourism is the fourth largest industry in Washington. Last year, the American Society of Travel Agents released the results of their annual survey on the top 10 summer tourism destinations in the US, and as they state “several changes occurred this year, most notably Seattle’s return to the top 10, displacing Chicago for ninth place.” Hear that, Chicago? You can have an NFC Championship bid, we’ll take tourism.

The other 9 cities on the list were Orlando, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, Honolulu, and Washington, DC. You know what else these cities all have in common? All of their transit systems have a pass available that is valid for 7 days or less. Every one.

Here in Seattle, on the other hand, the last pass that could have any utility for visitors vanished on January 1st with Metro’s elimination of the Weekend Day Pass. As part of efforts to coordinate fares across the region, the ORCA participating agencies agreed that agency-specific passes should be eliminated. But the only regional passes currently available are monthly. I believe that a 7-day pass, properly marketed, would not only make Seattle more tourist-friendly, but could produce a net gain in income for the transit agencies.

The MTA in New York released some data on how their 7-day passes were used. Amazingly, almost 35 percent of these passes are not used enough times to be a deal over paying per-ride (13 rides). They didn’t release any statistics on how many people who buy these passes are visitors vs. New Yorkers with bad math skills, but I know that when I visited New York a few months ago I bought a 7-day pass even though I was only staying for a weekend. But I’m a transit nerd and half the reason I went to New York was to explore the subway, so I’m pretty sure I got my money’s worth. It’s easy to imagine many other visitors do not.

Notice that I said “properly marketed” earlier. According to the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, more than half of visitors to King County arrive by air. But while we have a fancy new train to whisk them to downtown, observe how we tell them about it (photo by Oran Viriyincy):

Link Light Rail? What the hell does that mean? The people to whom “Link Light Rail” means anything likely don’t need directions to the station. There are some large banners around the airport asking “Why Ride Light Rail?” but none that I have seen saying what it is or where it goes. The other night I met an Australian tourist in a Belltown bar. He was staying at the City Hostel in Belltown, and we had this conversation:

“Seattle is a big city.”
“Hardly. It’s only 600,000 people. We’re only the 15th largest metro area in the US.”
“But it cost me $40 to take a cab here from the airport.”
“Dude, you could have taken the train for $2.50.”
His face falls. “There’s a train?”

Yes, there’s a train. A few months ago I had a layover at the Philadelphia airport, and something that struck me was that every wayfinding sign in the airport, even the ones behind security, had directions for the “Train to Central Philadelphia” very prominently placed at the bottom of the sign. Signs directing you to the CTA Blue Line at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport simply read “Trains to City.” A visitor to your city doesn’t need to know what the marketing name of the train service is, or the name of the agency that runs it, or what their governance structure is, or how they’re funded. They just need to know there’s a train that they can take downtown.

Once you’ve gotten them hooked into taking Link from the airport, you try to sell them on the pass instead of one-way fare. The monthly regional pass has a break-even point of 36 rides, so you could set the break-even point at 9 for a 7-day pass. A $3 pass would be sufficient for any ride within King County, so you get a pass price of $27. You could even decide to bump the break-even point to 10 rides for an even $30. After all, if their plan was to take a cab to downtown, you’ve just saved them at least $35, and assuming they plan to return to the airport within 7 days, you’ve saved them the return cab fare as well. You’re on par with the Gray Line Downtown Airporter which still claims to be “the least expensive transportation between the downtown Seattle hotels and the Seattle-Tacoma (SeaTac) International Airport.”

If you need to sweeten the deal even more, you can do what cities like Paris do and combine your transit pass with an discount card for lesser-known museums and attractions. They get business they might not otherwise see, and you add to the value proposition for your pass.

Now of course the devil is in the details – what form would this pass take? Flash passes are more vulnerable to fraud, and don’t operate within the ORCA framework. Asking visitors to pay $5 on top of the pass cost for a card they’ll never use again isn’t a great way to sell it. A disposable paper ORCA card would do the trick, but I have heard rumors that there are concerns over the cryptographic security of the disposable media that are compatible with ORCA. I don’t have an answer to this question. But I think that it is important we find one. The owner of a Belltown pub once told me that he instructed his bartenders to “take good care of the regulars, and scam money off the tourists.” Our transit agencies could afford to adopt this philosophy.