The next phase of light-rail expansion in Puget Sound could come with a half-billion dollars for education in the region thanks to last-minute wrangling on the new state transportation budget.
A likely vote next fall for expanded light rail in the Puget Sound area could generate about $500 million to boost education for children who are homeless, from low-income families, in foster care or otherwise need extra help from preschool all the way to college.
What does half a billion dollars in education money have to do with public transportation?
Not much, but it has a lot to do with politics, the art of compromise and a late-night maneuver by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, to help pass a new statewide transportation package last summer.
If the Sound Transit puts a $15 billion ballot measure before voters in November 2016 and it passes, fees on the projects’ construction contracts could generate about $500 million over 16 years.
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Those fees would go into an education fund that would be distributed to the Pierce, King and Snohomish county governments based on their share of the population within the transit district’s boundaries.
County councils will decide how it’s spent.
King County expects to receive about 60 percent of the proceeds based on population, said Frank Abe, communications director for King County Executive Dow Constantine.
That would be about $300 million on top of the “Best Starts for Kids” countywide levy that voters passed earlier this month, which will collect $392 million over six years to improve prenatal care, early-childhood parenting skills and teen mental health.
If a transit measure is put on the ballot next year and voters approve it, Constantine and the council would convene an advisory group in early 2017 to begin hearing recommendations.
The first dollars wouldn’t flow until at least September 2017, and possibly later depending on construction schedules.
Farrell said the money can’t be used to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary school-funding decision because that would just widen the gap between wealthy communities that approve higher local taxes and poorer ones that don’t.
But the money can be used to enhance education for the kids who need it the most in the region, whether it’s making preschool more affordable, keeping homeless children in their neighborhood schools or helping foster kids go on to college.
“It could truly help fill some gaps for some really vulnerable students if we do this wisely,” Farrell said.
Lawmakers had struggled for three years to come up with new spending for transportation.
By early summer, they had reached a compromise on a new $16 billion, 16-year transportation package.
Republicans wanted to end the practice of using sales taxes collected from state road-building projects to pay for schools, law enforcement and social programs rather than road construction.
Democrats wanted legislative approval for the Sound Transit district to raise up to $15 billion in additional taxes from Puget Sound area voters, mostly to expand light rail — a key step toward placing a new measure on the November 2016 ballot.
Potential light-rail destinations include Everett, Redmond, Tacoma, Ballard and West Seattle, as well as bus rapid transit on Interstate 405.
Democrats agreed that sales taxes on new state road projects would flow into the state’s Connecting Washington account, which pays for road construction and other transportation improvements. That shift will happen over four years.
Republicans agreed to allow Sound Transit to seek $15 billion from voters, scrapping the previous $11 billion limit set in the Senate.
But the approval came with a catch: a new 3.25 percent fee that would be applied to construction contracts for the projects funded by the measure.
That money — up to $518 million over 16 years — would then flow into the general fund to replace the lost road-construction revenue and could be spent however lawmakers wanted.
But Farrell, who is the vice-chair of the House Transportation Committee, thought that was a bad deal for voters in the Sound Transit District, which covers the most populated areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
“If we’re raising our own taxes, we should not be sending that money back to the state to fund prisons in Walla Walla or whatever,” Farrell said.
She tweaked the compromise plan to ensure that the fees generated by a potential transit ballot measure would stay in the Puget Sound region in a fund dedicated to education.
The amended deal passed in the wee hours of the morning.