First of three parts
Part 1 Ridership today and the suggested Sound Transit sales tax increase.
Part 2: Real riders speak, and Sound Transit's model isn't what they want to buy.
Part 3: The must-do agenda for transit and smart growth.
As memories fade of last November's failed and little-lamented Proposition 1, Sound Transit's board of directors now struggles with when to bring a big new transportation funding package - mostly rail, no roads, all Sound Transit — back to a regional ballot.
Which is the better time to let voters slam-dunk a big new sales tax boost for Sound Transit's vision?
Should it be in 2008, when a young and progressive presidential election turnout would vote green for rail transit?
Or in 2010, when taxpayer wallets will be looser with the economy back to full throttle? By then, light rail cars shuttling between downtown Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport could even warm the doubters to the main attraction of Sound Transit's plan: light rail to Bellevue, taking two existing vehicle lanes off the Interstate 90 floating bridge.
Or is there a third choice - the best - now not even being considered at Sound Transit? A different, stronger, broader transit plan, to be acted on as quickly as possible, costing less and doing more, and much sooner, to meet our region's pressing needs?
Sound Transit's staff and board profess great faith in "public outreach" to gauge sentiment and aid a decision. Never mind skeptical reviews of past survey methods and universally cautionary advice from regional writers (plus #, #, #, and #). Now, according to King County Council member and Sound Transit board member Julia Patterson, the agency should hear from people "who don't come to meetings."
I don't go to meetings now, but I used to. As the state's secretary of transportation and a member of the Sound Transit board of directors for six years, I voted with enthusiasm for the light rail segments soon to provide welcome benefits from the airport in and out of Seattle and to Husky Stadium and, perhaps someday, along Interstate 5 to Northgate.
Now I live in Seattle. I can't drive because of poor eyesight. So almost every day I ride the Metro Transit and Sound Transit buses with the rest of the regulars, learning and thinking at first-hand about our transit systems. I've gained new insights about the connected questions of energy scarcity, population growth, fairness to taxpayers, strengthening of neighborhoods, and protection in the Puget Sound area of water quality, the regional landscape, and natural habitat against sprawl and climate change.
I believe that big choices perhaps soon headed for the ballot about the next steps for transit must be examined with a vigorous, evidence-based progressive critique of where we should be going, and why. How does our regional transit system actually work? How can it work better and offer more in the future? With so much at stake, we had better get it right. There will be no cheap do-overs.
The overwhelming case for transit expansion
The public should certainly care. The case for transit system improvements could hardly be stronger. Family budgets are hemorrhaging from relentless gas-price increases. Deep anxiety feeds on the worldwide drumbeat that oil production has about peaked so that, unlike the last oil crisis, new supply won't ease the pressure on prices. Time now for a Prius? The trade-in value of the gas hog in the driveway has sunk like a rock. Federal statistics show that miles driven by vehicles in Washington have dropped 5 percent or more from a year ago, a huge shift over so short a period.
A sea change is at hand for transit and the public it serves. Over the past year, it's become standing-room-only on key buses for ordinary riders. Every transit system is reporting unprecedented ridership increases.
Regular people in big numbers suddenly are realizing they actually need transit - a very powerful idea when it takes root outside the hothouse environment of transit's familiar supporters.
Catching the news hook of the first annual National Train Day, Sound Transit's own surging ridership was touted in a breathless press release.
The new statistics — Sound Transit's and others' — are trustworthy tallies of who transit's new riders will be, where they will be going, and what they will need in services.
They speak on behalf of regular busy people almost never heard at Sound Transit's meetings.
They make the case for a dramatic change in the pace, direction, and goals of transit's program for our region. They certainly should unsettle Sound Transit.
But before turning to these real-world polling results, let's set the context. That involves the entire picture of transit in the region, not just Sound Transit, the newest kid on the block.
The size and growth of transit ridership in the region
The Seattle metropolitan area is a pretty strong transit market, as these things go late in the golden age of the gasoline-powered private car. People here take transit for a higher proportion of journey-to-work trips than in any but just a handful of other metropolitan areas in the country — New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh:
- King County Metro serves more than 150 transit routes in Seattle and the suburbs, including many high-density arterial commuter routes. Metro now logs about 380,000 daily boardings.
- Pierce Transit, with about 45 local, inter-city, commuter, and express routes, now stands at about 50,000 daily boardings.
- Community Transit in Snohomish County has 64 routes, including commuter routes to Seattle's University District, Bellevue, and downtown Seattle, as well as Everett and the Boeing plant there. Community Transit now stands at about 38,000 daily boardings.
- Sound Transit, the multi-municipality entity serving all three counties, has express bus routes on regional freeways and the HOV network and two rail lines operated on BNSF Railway tracks. In the first quarter of 2008, Sound Transit averaged 50,000 daily boardings.
- Then there's Everett Transit, with perhaps 9,000 daily boardings, and Washington State Ferries, with about 13,000 daily boardings of foot commuters across Colman Dock in downtown Seattle.
In round numbers, that puts transit boardings across the region at roughly 540,000 every day. Sound Transit accounts for just nine percent of the total. Altogether, the systems have gained about 37,000 new daily boardings compared to a year ago. Sound Transit has produced a little less than a fifth of the overall growth, combining a nice bump on the express buses with another noteworthy chunk from expanding the number of trains on the Sounder south commuter rail runs.
None of this is to mention 20,000 or so daily vanpool passengers, a potent market for transit growth, up 8 percent over the previous year, and thousands of trips on paratransit for disabled or elderly riders. Sound Transit operates no vanpools and no paratransit.
Paying for regional transit and supporting explosive growth
How is all this growing transit use paid for? Partly from fares, although no part of the overall system covers costs from fares. The rest largely comes from discrete, voter-approved slices of the 8-plus percent sales tax everybody pays every day:
- For King County Metro, 0.9 percent in the sales tax rate, most recently increased by 0.1 percent by voters in 2006. That was to support the "Transit Now" initiative for 15 percent to 20 percent expansion in service spread over 10 years.
- For Community Transit in Snohomish County, 0.9 percent in the sales tax rate, most recently increased in 2001.
- For Pierce Transit, 0.6 percent in the sales tax rate, most recently increased in 2003.
- For Sound Transit, from a taxing district that covers the most populous parts of all three counties, a further slice of sales tax at the rate of 0.4 percent, over and above the slice already going to each county's transit system. This now raises for Sound Transit about $280 million a year. Plus a tax on rental car fees (raising about $2.5 million a year), and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) that hits the average household about $70 a year and raises about $72 million a year for Sound Transit.
The suggested Sound Transit sales tax increase
The debate at Sound Transit is about asking voters to approve another 0.4 percent in the sales tax, doubling the 0.4 percent it already receives. (We will ignore here an even more bullish plan to ask for a 0.5 percent increase!)
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