Sound Transit should hold off putting its costly expansion plan on November’s ballot, give the region time to discuss options and prepare a smaller, leaner alternative.
THE Puget Sound region must improve its transit network to make it work better for today’s residents and businesses, and for tomorrow’s.
This will take large investments, careful leadership and extensive collaboration between government and taxpayers.
There’s no silver bullet, especially not the complex and evolving $54 billion plan Sound Transit is rushing onto November’s ballot. Voters should be given more time to consider alternatives, such as a smaller, more incremental plan. More important, taxpayers need a clearer explanation of what they’ll be paying altogether — something not easily pieced together from Sound Transit’s public documents.
By our calculations, the mix of current and proposed Sound Transit taxes would cost King County homeowners about $20,000 over 25 years.
Sound Transit’s board, composed of elected officials from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, is scheduled to finalize the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) plan on Thursday.
Slow down. A November ballot measure is too soon. Sure, the agency has provided much promotional fanfare around the Christmas list of expansion and new services. But there has been little discussion of other options for investing tens of billions in the region.
Further, some state officials have grave concerns about the effects of this massive increase on the state’s ability to fully fund public education — under order from the state Supreme Court.
The board should pause and give voters time to understand and respond to the region’s largest ballot measure.
Pausing would allow for a more extensive, regional conversation about whether ST3’s mix of light-rail, buses and heavy rail should take the lion’s share of spending over the next generation.
Board members should consider a leaner Plan B that would continue extending the system’s north and south spine. It should rely more on flexible, rapid buses and less on costly, fixed light rail duplicating current bus routes. As proposed, light rail would get 86 percent of ST3’s capital spending.
A pause and reset would not stop Sound Transit’s progress. It has funding for years to build and complete rail from Seattle north to Lynnwood, south beyond Sea-Tac and east to Redmond.
Despite ST3’s breadth and significance, the formal outreach and comment period concluded before routes were finalized, and financial details were disclosed.
More troubling is that ST3 might limit the public’s ability to finance other important work. This is a problem with looming education tax increases.
State Treasurer Jim McIntire and some lawmakers are concerned ST3 consumes part of the state property-tax cap, which is being eyed as a potential solution to the education-funding gap.
Taxpayers also need to understand what they would pay.
ST3 would bring annual Sound Transit taxes on the average household to around $740 — to start.
Because ST3 includes a new property tax based on home values, its taxation would rise with the real-estate market.
ST3 also increases Sound Transit’s sales tax by 55 percent, from 0.9 cents to 1.4 cents, and nearly quadruples its vehicle-license tax, from $30 to $110 per $10,000 of value.
Over ST3’s 25-year span, and with inflation, the average King County home-owning household would pay $20,000 or more — not counting other transit taxes.
ST3’s cost is another moving target. Sound Transit last year pitched a $15 billion project, but extended it to $50 billion in March so it could build for decades without needing another vote. Then it kept growing.
After fretting about ST3’s schedule and project list, the budget in May rose to $54 billion, to speed things up and placate those cities wanting more.
That’s just for starters. ST3’s permanent taxes mean the region might pay forever. It would also take forever, figuratively, to reap the benefits.
Even under the accelerated schedule, the light-rail spine from Tacoma to Everett won’t be complete until 2036.
A blank check raises accountability questions. Sound Transit should be subject to voter oversight periodically. Limited funds also impose spending discipline.
The region needs infrastructure investments. But it’s not clear the farm should be bet on ST3, especially before more discussion of alternatives.
For these reasons, it’s time to tap the brakes on ST3.