Seattle voters could pay extra tax to speed up light rail construction

The measure, approved 29-18 in the Senate and 50-49 in the House, allows Sound Transit to offer and pay for transit improvements in specific cities beyond what is provided in the agency’s planned expansion or expedite delivery existing plans.

To do this, the Sound Transit Board would create “Enhanced Service Areas” encompassing subsets of the region in which the agency operates. The boundaries of an area should at a minimum incorporate an entire city or town, but can be drawn to include multiple municipalities and unincorporated areas.

The council would propose improved service or a faster construction schedule, which would be paid for by increasing car charges or increasing commercial parking fees – but only for residents of the improved service area. It would then be up to voters residing in that area to approve the tax increase and pay it.

“As the light rail system has been built in Seattle, people are absolutely hungry for it to be bigger, faster, all of those things,” said State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat and the main sponsor of the bill. “They’re eager to start building a much more robust system that people can use before they retire, to do the kinds of trips that aren’t possible right now, like crossing town. [light rail] trips.”

Sound Transit is in the midst of a massive expansion of its light rail system. In 2016, voters approved a $54 billion plan for the third phase of light rail construction. When completed, the light rail will stretch from Tacoma to Everett and from Seattle to Redmond. Seattle will also get a second line, one that would connect West Seattle to Ballard.

But the completion of the entire system will not be until 2036 at the earliest. And budget deficits during the pandemic – when ridership drastically dropped – led to talk of project delays.

Pedersen explained that a key factor in how quickly a project can be delivered is the amount of money available to the agency. It’s not that it takes 20 years to build every station between Northgate and Everett, but that the agency can’t afford all that construction simultaneously.

His bill would allow cities with pro-transit voters to generate the extra cash needed to build more projects at the same time.

It would also allow cities to pay for a more robust version of what is already planned under Sound Transit 3. Pedersen points to the second downtown tunnel that Sound Transit plans to dig. A more economical basic version of the tunnel would do the job, but lack the space to allow transfers to other lines, if Sound Transit wanted to build intercity lines in the future.

“We’re going to be making an absolutely massive investment in the new downtown tunnel,” Pedersen said. “For a relatively modest investment, they could essentially future-proof the tunnel and this line by including expansion capacity for a cross line. I mean, we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, but in the scheme of [a $54 billion investment] it is relatively small.

The idea for more local funding came from volunteer transit advocates in Seattle Metro who want to see Seattle and the region build a fully connected rail system. To achieve this vision, advocates said, Sound Transit needs to invest more now in future-proofing existing infrastructure. Improved Service Areas are one way to pay for this.

Pedersen’s bill garnered the support of several Seattle City Council members, including council president Debora Juarez, Alex Pedersen and Dan Strauss. Strauss testified in the state legislature in support of the bill.

“We know we need more light rail and we need it faster for our city,” Strauss said. “And if we’re able to generate dedicated light rail revenue streams, we’ll get our trains faster and we’ll have more of them.”

Strauss said his particular focus is delivery of the West Seattle-Ballard line, which affects his district in the northwest corner of the city. “Our desire is to get to Crown Hill or beyond with the next build. And we don’t want to wait until 2036.”

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the agency supported the bill during the legislative session, but did not request or initiate its creation.

The measure gives Sound Transit the power to create enhanced service areas wherever it operates in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. It also applies to any Sound Transit service and could pay for things like extra bus service or weekend Sounder train service. But Seattle is the most likely early candidate for the additional tax and would likely make investments in light rail.

Over the years, Seattle residents have consistently voted to raise their taxes to pay for local and regional transit measures. Sound Transit 3 has tripled car costs for area residents, giving some residents shock sticker. But even when voters across the state passed a ballot initiative in 2019 that reduced car tabs to $30, 76% of Seattle-area voters tried to keep the higher fees in place. This ballot initiative was knocked down later by the state Supreme Court.

Transit advocates in Tacoma and Everett aren’t sure voters in Pierce and Snohomish counties would have the same appetite for special transit taxes.

Laura Svancarek, advocacy coordinator with Tacoma’s Downtown on the Go, said some Pierce County advocates worry that additional funding for faster delivery of the project to Seattle could lead to further resentment among Pierce residents, who are also paying for Sound Transit 3, but are low on the project priority list.

“One of the reasons it’s so difficult to get public transit here is because people are looking at expanding the system in and around Seattle and then seeing how long it takes to get to us. There’s a feeling of ‘I pay my taxes too.’ Why don’t I get more?’ “said Svancarek.

Brock Howell, executive director of the Snohomish County Transportation Coalition, said he supports the plan to give local jurisdictions the power to pay for additional public transit.

“My personal view is that it’s unlikely to be used in Snohomish County. But I don’t share the concern that that means we won’t be able to get regional packages through,” Howell said.

Seattle City Councilman Strauss said he hopes the Sound Transit Board moves as quickly as possible to put a possible improved service area in front of Seattle voters. But the bill was just passed on March 9 and sits on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, awaiting a signature. Sound Transit’s Patrick said the agency’s board has yet to discuss when or how the improved service areas might be used, so it’s too early to say when voters might see the issue on a ballot.

Jose P. Rogers