Transit advocates and light rail agency give mixed reviews of state’s transportation package

Bruce Sounder, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Democrats unveiled their 16-year, $16.8 billion transportation package to mixed reviews from transit advocates last week.

The package, which includes a bill outlining the projects Democrats want to fund and a separate funding plan, marks a notable shift in Washington state’s transportation priorities. Transportation committee chairs Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) included $3 billion in the package for street and highway maintenance, An additional $1.2 billion for active transportation projects that would create new walks and bike paths across the state, and $2.8 billion for projects that would expand existing transit services. Their plan would also invest about $2.6 billion in new road projects and provide $1.4 billion for incomplete projects in old transportation packages.

Pro-transit groups like Front and Centered have been calling for major investments in maintenance and non-motorized transport for years and “really feel validated” by the proposals, spokesman Paulo Nunes-Ueno said. However, Nunes-Ueno and other transit advocates are still frustrated with the Democrats’ decision to spend about $4 billion on freeway expansion projects: “If we keep trying to solve congestion by adding highways and ignoring the impacts of those highways on communities of color, frontline communities, and the climate in general, then we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The transit grant program leaves out the state’s most prominent transit agency, Sound Transit, which is currently building the largest transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound Regional Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit, and Commuter Rail Expansion.

For example, projects such as the widening of State Route 18 east of Issaquah and the replacement of the US Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County will not reduce congestion in these areas, but, studies to suggestencourage people to drive more often, which increases greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s the infrastructure that will ensure the use of fossil fuels for 30, 40, 50 years,” said Andrew Kidde of climate justice group 350 Washington. Kidde fears the transportation package will conflict with the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to about 50 million metric tons per year by 2030. In 2020, the state was emitting about 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

To align with state climate goals and reduce emissions, the state should have “invested more in local, existing, and regional rail projects,” Kidde said. The package would spend $3 billion to fund 25 new transit projects and provide $1.4 billion in grants to local transit authorities, 35% of which, according to Liias, will go to the King County Metro. The grants will help transit authorities expand their services and electrify their vehicles, he said; local transport agencies will have to apply and meet the new package requirements, including allowing anyone 18 or under to ride for free.

The transit grant program leaves out the state’s most prominent transit agency, Sound Transit, which is currently building the largest transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound Regional Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit, and Commuter Rail Expansion.

Lawmakers included $40 million for the Sound Transit Tacoma Dome Link light rail extension in the package. CEO Peter Rogoff said the investments were “unprecedented in recent times”. But he also reported the agency’s disappointment that Sound Transit did not qualify for one of the $1.4 billion in transit support grants.

“The proposal falls short,” Rogoff said at the Sound Transit board experience and operations committee meeting last week. The legislature passed an excise tax on motor vehicles for regional transit authorities in 2015, which gave Sound Transit the opportunity to develop an ST3 ballot measure with the caveat that they would no longer be eligible for state transit subsidies provided in the future transport packages.

Sound Transit also wanted lawmakers to exempt their purchases of new railcars and buses from state sales tax, which would “increase the ability to fund our projects and services,” the Sound Transit spokesperson said. Geoff Patrick. Patrick estimated that a sales tax exemption would save the agency $207 million on future railcar and bus purchases.

Sound Transit Board Chairman and University Place City Council member Kent Keel repeated the agency’s message on subsidies and sales tax exemptions at the Committee’s public hearing on Friday. transport senatorial on the funding bill. Funding sources for the proposal include $3.4 billion in one-time funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, $1.4 billion from increased license and car fees, and $5 billion from the Climate Commitment Act, Washington State’s “cap and invest” program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. gas emission.

“The Sound Transit light rail extensions are the most climate-friendly transportation projects in the state and deserve a stronger partnership and additional consideration,” Keel said.

Liias noted that as transportation committee chair, he does not have the authority to exempt purchases of Sound Transit railcars and buses from state sales tax. He said Senator Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island), who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, expressed support for the tax-exempt idea, but added that it’s unlikely it happens this year.

As for reassessing Sound Transit’s eligibility for grants, Liias said Friday’s hearing bill was the first time he’s heard “in concrete terms” that the agency would like to be back in the business. program. “I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do there yet, but we’ll definitely think about it,” he said.

Jose P. Rogers