More than 40 agencies are responsible for how we all get around in King County, so compiling the total transportation spending figures gets quite complicated.
How should we get around? How should we pay for it?
Those questions lie beneath virtually all of the transportation arguments that continuously swirl around the Puget Sound region.
What those debates — about light rail or tunnels or traffic — often lack is an understanding of what is actually happening: what we’re spending money on and where that money comes from.
Yes, we’re spending more on public transit than on highways. No, all your money is not being spent on bike lanes.
The confusion is forgivable. There are more than 40 transportation agencies in King County, all with their own budgets and funding. It’s complicated.
Here, for the first time, is a rough total of what all those agencies are doing, how they’re helping us get around and how they’re paying for it.
HOW IT BREAKS DOWN PER PERSON
It amounts to about $2,170 per person in King County, or $5,705 per household — although a chunk of that is paid by businesses.
WHERE THE MONEY GOES
The money went to build new light rail, operate a booming bus system, maintain and improve roads and bridges, and pay the costs that come with borrowing money to do all of the above.
WHERE THE MONEY COMES FROM
We paid for that spending with sales tax, gas tax, property tax, federal grants, fees on drivers and fares from transit passengers, and with the proceeds of selling bonds backed by all that tax revenue.
The big finding
Getting King County’s 2.2 million residents (plus visitors!) from point A to point B is a pricey endeavor. We spend nearly $5 billion a year to get around.
We’re spending more on transit than on roads
We spent about $2.5 billion building and operating trains, buses and ferries in King County in 2017, compared to about $1.6 billion building and maintaining roads, highways and bridges. Countywide, far more people commute by car than they do by transit. But more of those costs are borne by private individuals than by the government — you have to buy your own car, you don’t have to buy your own bus.
We’re spending more, per capita, to build new transit than anywhere else in the country. But we’re playing catchup. We’ve been building roads and highways here for more than 100 years; we only started building light rail about 15 years ago.
There are a lot of agencies responsible for how we get around
Vancouver, B.C., has one government agency responsible for public transit — buses, trains and ferries — and major roads and bridges in the metro area, which covers 23 cities and towns.
Here, we have dozens. The Washington State Department of Transportation is in charge of highways and ferries. King County is in charge of roads that aren’t within any specific city and is also responsible for most of the county’s buses. Sound Transit is in charge of light rail, commuter rail and inter-county buses. The Seattle Department of Transportation and dozens of other municipal DOTs in smaller cities are responsible for city streets and sidewalks.
And none of that even includes the half-dozen transit agencies in neighboring counties.
The big arguments are over (relatively) small money
Think of the debates that have dominated the local transportation scene over the past couple years. Bike lanes and car tabs spring to mind. But in the big scheme of a nearly $5 billion transportation system, they’re small potatoes.
Most agencies don’t even have dedicated budgets for bike infrastructure, instead folding projects into larger roadway spending. Seattle dedicated about $10 million specifically to bike projects in 2017. That’s about 2.3 percent of total Seattle Department of Transportation spending and about 0.2 percent of total countywide transportation spending.
Car tabs and license fees brought in about $364 million in 2017 — about 8 percent of total revenues. But the car tabs that everybody’s fighting over — the ones imposed by Sound Transit 3 based on an inflated car-valuation formula — brought in about $106 million. That’s about 2.2 percent of countywide transportation revenues.
Funding comes from everywhere
Drivers often complain that they fund the roads through gas taxes, and that transit riders and cyclists should be pitching in to fund roads. But while the gas tax does make up the biggest chunk of highway spending, it’s hardly the only funding source. And it’s only a fraction (11 percent) of total transportation funding.
Drivers and non-drivers alike pay sales tax that provides 2.5 times more transportation funding than the gas tax, in King County. Likewise, we all fund the federal government, which provided more funding (through grants and low-interest loans) than the gas tax.
How we analyzed the data
More than 40 agencies are responsible for how we all get around in King County, making it quite the slog to try to compile total transportation spending figures.
There are four major agencies — Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Sound Transit, King County Department of Transportation and the Seattle Department of Transportation — but also smaller, municipal departments of transportation in outlying cities. And all those agencies categorize their funding sources and spending slightly differently.
Here’s how we went about compiling total transportation funding and spending in King County, and some of the caveats with the data:
Data for the big four agencies is for 2017. Data for other municipal DOTs in King County was compiled by WSDOT and is for 2016.
Why don’t the total spending and revenue figures match up exactly? Several reasons. One is because some of these agencies (WSDOT and Sound Transit) bring in and spend money from broader geographic areas, but we limited our analysis to just King County. When you look at the agencies’ overall budgets, they’re usually balanced.
Also, agencies sometimes end a given year spending more or less than they brought in that specific year. For instance, Sound Transit’s 2017 budget document notes a decrease in the agency’s cash balance (for just King County) of about $223 million. In previous years, the agency built up that cash balance that it’s now spending down, as it expands light rail throughout the region.
Because of the ways that agencies organize and present their budgets, we had to make some assumptions when slotting budget items into broader categories.
For instance, the Seattle Department of Transportation spent $69.2 million on “signals and corridors” in 2017. That’s money spent on things like traffic lights, transit-only lanes, the city’s traffic management center and revamping roads for RapidRide bus routes.
Does that fall under transit or roads or something else? We put it under roads. Buses use roads too, after all.
Similarly, replacing the floating 520 Bridge is a multibillion dollar project for WSDOT. That bridge is mostly used by cars, trucks and buses. But it also features a 14-foot wide walking and biking path. We couldn’t segregate the money used for that path from the overall project, so all the cost for the bridge project is classified as roads and bridges.
You may quibble with these categorizations, but such choices — even if you reverse every debatable choice we made — will affect the data only on the margins. The vast majority of budget items fit much more cleanly into a broader budget category.
You’ll notice there are sizable amounts of money categorized as “other,” especially on the funding side. Much of that money comes from state and local general funds, which are themselves funded by various federal disbursements, local taxes and fees.
WSDOT is, obviously, a statewide agency. The data for WSDOT’s funding in King County come from looking at the agency’s statewide revenue and then taking King County’s share, based on either population or car registrations.
For instance, WSDOT’s car-tab and license-fee revenue figure comes from the statewide figure, multiplied by King County’s share of car registrations and driver’s licenses.
On the spending side, WSDOT breaks down its capital spending into specific projects, so it was able to give spending figures for just King County paving and projects. For WSDOT operations spending — money spent running central administration and generally “operating” highways — we took statewide figures and multiplied them by 29.46 percent — King County’s share of the state’s population.
Likewise, WSDOT’s debt service represents King County’s share of statewide agency debt service, based on population.
For Washington State Ferries operating costs, we took the statewide figure but multiplied it by King County’s share of total ridership — only the Vashon Island, Bainbridge and Bremerton routes serve King County, and those routes also serve other counties.
Sound Transit is not a statewide agency, but it does cover parts of Pierce and Snohomish counties. But the agency has, written into law, a policy called sub-area equity: Tax dollars from one geographic area must be used for projects that benefit that area.
So the agency was able to fairly cleanly separate its King County-based funding and spending from its total spending.