Sound Transit leaders are glad to hear people clamoring for more rail lines. On Thursday, the agency revealed how steep the price could be.
A $15 billion “Sound Transit 3” package could require a new property tax, higher sales taxes, car-tab taxes, or some combination, or other sources.
For instance, a new property tax might total $105 per $100,000 of assessed value, for a few decades, if the agency relies solely on that source for new funding. Existing sales tax would continue.
For $15 billion, Finance Director Brian McCartan says the agency could bring rail to most but not all of the marquee destinations on agency maps and the public’s mind at neighborhood forums: Everett, Redmond, Eastgate, Issaquah, Federal Way, Tacoma, Ballard, West Seattle.
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Sound Transit already collects the maximum sales tax and car-tab tax allowed under state law for its first two phases of rail and bus projects, so it needs another act of the Legislature to ask the voters in urban areas of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties for more.
“There is a growing excitement about a potential Sound Transit ballot measure in 2016. We have a lot of work to do,” said Board Chairman Dow Constantine, the King County executive.
Why startle taxpayers two years early?
Transit officials are issuing the numbers ahead of next year’s legislative session, figuring it usually takes two sessions to get major funding bills passed.
Some nine years remain until light rail is completed to Lynnwood, Overlake and near Highline Community College, to form a three-pronged, 50-mile network that is predicted to serve 280,000 daily passengers by 2030.
Even after construction is done, current tax rates would support only $1 billion in additional projects, McCartan said. That leaves $14 billion more to be mostly debt-financed through new taxes, probably without a sunset date.
“What I keep hearing over and over again is, ‘Mike, we need more transit in the city,’ ” said transit-board member Mike O’Brien, a Seattle City Council member.
“The advice I’m hearing from citizens is, go bold.”
Constantine and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said they want West Seattle officially added to the long-range plan, undeterred by the conceptual cost of $4 billion for a Duwamish River rail bridge and subway to West Seattle and White Center.
“It is the segment that is not currently in the plan that would carry the greatest number of people. It is the region of the county that is the most geographically isolated,” said Constantine, a West Seattle resident.
Meanwhile, the initial 16-mile, $2.6 billion line from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is serving close to 40,000 weekday passengers. People were standing in the aisles Thursday afternoon leaving the first outbound station at Westlake. Some transit backers wonder if the two-car trains ought to increase to three cars.
Ridership is expected to double in 2016 when Angle Lake, Capitol Hill and University of Washington stations come on line, fortuitous timing for a fall campaign.
Sound Transit is authorized to charge businesses a head tax, with voter approval, of $2 per employee per year. Politicians on the transit board have never sought that, and McCartan said it wouldn’t yield much income.
Board member Paul Roberts, an Everett City Council member, suggests also exploring a “local improvement district,” where landowners near transit stations chip in; or “tax-increment financing,” where landowners are charged a tax based on the likely boom a rail line brings in property value; or public-private partnerships.
He also insisted stations be kept simple, to conserve as much cash as possible to build more miles of track.
Seattle rail-transit opponent John Niles, a transportation researcher, commented: “Sound Transit should not be allowed by the state Legislature to ask the public for more taxes until the current projects under construction, including the extension to Northgate, are completed and demonstrate the ridership promised.” That would be at least 2021.
Officials also may choose to keep taxes the same, to sustain operations and design future projects, or float a plan for rail, bus, park-and-ride or other service totaling less than $15 billion.
Taxpayers now send 90 cents per $100 purchase to King County Metro or Snohomish County’s Community Transit, with new Seattle-only bus taxes on Tuesday’s ballot; and for Sound Transit an additional 90 cents, as well as a car-tab tax of $30 per $10,000 vehicle value that expires in 2028. The agency also collects a small rental-car tax, 0.8 percent, that those who live here rarely pay. These are some of the nation’s highest rates to fund public transit.
Even if Sound Transit stopped with the $20 billion in already voter-approved projects, the current tax rates need to stay on the books until the late 2030s, and the last bonds are to be retired in 2053, said McCartan.
But that scenario, where voters punt for decades on further expansions in a growing region, strikes transit officials as ridiculous.