Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Sound Transit should be forced by the Washington State Legislature to build the light rail tracks and stations already funded in the tax elections of 1996 and 2008, before authorization is provided to hold an election to raise taxes a third time in 2016

by John Niles


The Seattle Times front page headline on October 31, 2014: 

"Sound Transit floats $15B plan to expand mostly rail service"


Reaction of Public Interest Transportation Forum:

Sound Transit is asking Washington State's Legislature to let the agency put higher taxes on the ballot in 2016.   This should not be allowed to happen.

Raising transit taxes is not needed for much more light rail to be put in place. Lots of light rail construction for Seattle is already happening with the tax funding already approved by voters..

But  future ridership volumes on new trains are arguably uncertain, based on history to date. Because of Sound Transit slowness in opening new stations and meeting ridership forecasts so far, it is now prudent for the State Legislature to force Sound Transit to first build and operate the planned expansion of the system citizens are already paying for, before letting the agency call an election to raise its tax rates still higher. 

Instead, let's verify that the crowds predicted by Sound Transit show up over the next few years to ride the light rail already paid for. There's reason to be skeptical. Ridership on light rail so far is thin compared to the expansive ridership promises used in 1995, 1996, 2007, and 2008 to sell higher taxes, which have been approved twice..

Without any of the $15 billion of taxes and spending reported in the Times' headline of October 31, even without any new taxes at all, the present Sound Transit taxes approved in the 2008 ST2 election pay for the planning, construction, and operation of light rail from South 200th in Sea Tac -- now called Angle Lake Station -- all the way to Northgate Station. 

As the Times reported, Sound Transit forecasts that light rail ridership will double when stations at Husky Stadium, Capitol Hill, and Angle Lake open in 2016.  100,000 per day is expected to be reached within a few years, especially when the extension to Northgate is opened in 2021 or so.  But will light rail ridership actually meet Sound Transit hopes?

It never has so far. 105,000 is the number of passengers that Sound Transit earlier said would be riding light rail every day in 2010. This was the promise back in the 1996 Sound Move tax election . Yet the Initial Segment of light rail finally opened in 2009, and sees about 35,000 daily riders today.  The main reason is that construction has gone much slower than planned. This excuse has been declared legal by the courts, but does this history justify sending a bigger share of household budgets to Sound Transit?

Some of us say "NO."  Sound Transit has also missed a revised lower ridership forecast it made in 2003 when it knew construction would be slower than originally anticipated.

Seattle's 18 year-old Sound Transit still has more customers every month on its Regional Express buses than on the total of its railroad services!  Hooray for buses, but many of Sound Transit's bus passengers were supposed to be switched to trains years ago. 

In summary, this track record of Sound Transit does not yet justify more light rail taxes when the agency already has plenty of tax money to spend on construction of light rail over the next decade, and on planning for the future beyond that.  For example, the extension of light rail to Microsoft in Redmond is on a short path to construction, fully funded without any new money from taxpayers, as is the planning work that sets up extending light rail to Federal Way and Snohomish County.

Supporters of Sound Transit in the Legislature should be asked to explain the reason to authorize Sound Transit to have an election in 2016 to raise taxes for a third time, when most of the ridership benefit on trains from the previously-authorized taxes of 1996 and 2008 has not yet occurred!

Perhaps Sound Transit's main interest in raising taxes in 2016 is to restructure its present financial plan to avoid a required vote on six billion dollars in additional borrowing?  That's a story for a different that citizens should look into.  In the meantime, No New Taxes for Sound Transit.

Email John Niles if you have questions or wish to discuss.

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Last modified: January 07, 2015

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