We’re on an epic spending spree on transit and roads around here, but nobody’s ever tallied up what it costs Seattleites. Now someone has.
Bad traffic and lousy transit are Seattle’s signature messes. So it’s understandable the government would throw some money at them. But, man, are we riding off on a transportation-spending jag for the ages.
The state, the city, Metro and light rail have all asked for record amounts of new money recently for road and transit projects. Each does it separately — this fall, for instance, only Seattle is on the ballot, with a roads levy that it promises “costs the average homeowner only $12 more per month.”
Nobody to my knowledge has ever added them all up. Until now, when someone out of government, the retired state transportation secretary Doug MacDonald, compiled how much this array of transportation plans is actually costing Seattleites.
“The plans are always pitched from the agency’s point of view — how much money they will bring in, and what projects they hope to do,” MacDonald says. “I wanted to flip it, to look at it from the consumer’s point of view. How much are you paying? Are you getting results?”
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In his 30-page study, MacDonald focused solely on Seattle residents. He found we pay a staggering 28 separate taxes, fees and user charges that funnel into the big transportation arms of government.
In 2014, the “typical Seattle resident,” living in an average $450,000 home, was contributing about $2,000 per household, per year, to these roads and transit agencies.
But four major new tax plans would boost that by 40 percent, to $2,800 per household, MacDonald calculated. Two have already passed — the Seattle bus plan last fall and the state’s 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax last summer. Seattle’s $930 million roads and transit levy is up for a vote Nov. 3. Sound Transit is going for $15 billion more in property and sales taxes for light rail next year.
Eight hundred dollars more every year is serious money. You can tell reading MacDonald’s study that it wasn’t commissioned or requested by anyone in charge.
“Nobody in the transportation agencies is going around saying, ‘Hey, our plans are going to cost you $800 a year more!’ ” MacDonald says. “It’s obviously not in their interests to broadcast that. The reality is that this is a hell of a big jump. It’s a whole lot more tax burden on Seattleites than anyone appreciates.”
Of that $800 per-household increase, about $400 would be devoted to light rail, $275 to Seattle and Metro for buses and road work and $125 to the state. Again this assumes the ballot measures are approved.
Is it too much money? Seattle voters are famously friendly to tax levies. My own view is that Seattle failed for decades to build out true mass transit. So the sorry truth is that while it’s incredibly costly to build it now, it’s a bill that’s got to be paid. Even as it’s also true the rising tax burden is another force hammering the working class out of the city.
But it’s on the question of “Are you getting any results?” where I’ve become more skeptical. MacDonald notes that even with all this money, some of which is paying for great projects, the systemwide planning and setting of priorities just isn’t there to solve the city’s worst congestion.
“Where is Seattle’s No. 1 traffic problem?” he asks. “There’s no question it’s I-5. But I-5 isn’t mentioned in any of these plans. It’s an orphan. The question of what we should do to make our city’s main arterial work better isn’t anybody’s specific problem, so it’s been shoved aside.
“That’s my critique — that nobody’s looking at the big picture, for costs or benefits. The attitude is ‘We’re spending money, a lot of money, so we must be doing OK.’ ”
I don’t agree with MacDonald on everything (he thinks light rail is a waste of resources, while I think it’s worth the high price to build true mass transit that moves in its own dedicated right of way, out of traffic).
But I’m glad somebody’s asking “How much is too much?” And “Are we getting our money’s worth?” These lines of questioning have become lost arts in Seattle politics.