Public Interest Transportation Forum -

The reality of what the Sound Transit
Prop 1 Do-Over does and doesn't do

The Sound Transit Board approved placing a 15-year mass transit (mostly light rail) construction plan and associated 5/10 percent sales tax increase on the November 4, 2008 general election ballot.  The following list provides a summary assessment of issues related to the proposed Prop 1 tax hike and spending plan.

Sound Transit taxes if prop 1 passes would total $107 billion over 45 years

Sound Transit states in the Prop 1 ballot title that the measure would cost $17.9 billion over 15 years, but the Prop 1 taxes are forever, just like the passenger railroad lines to be constructed are meant to operate forever. All of the Sound Transit taxes over 45 years -- 15 years of phase 2 construction and 30 more years to pay off the last 30 year bonds, plus continuation until 2016 or longer of the 1996 ten-year plan -- total up to a staggering $107 billion.

Prop 1 would cost families tens of thousands of dollars over the coming years

Based on assumptions provided by the Department of Revenue sales tax collectors in Olympia, Sound Transit claims that the Prop 1 would cost the average person $69 per year in sales tax the first year of the program. However, an independent assessment of Sound Transit tax collections over the next 45 years calculates to an average of about $60,000 per household.  Half of this is the new taxes for Prop 1; the other half is the Sound Transit taxes first approved in 1996 and reaffirmed by technical language in the 2008 Prop 1.

Prop 1 in 2008 costs the same as Sound Transit's part of Prop 1 in 2007

The Sound Transit taxes of Prop 1 in 2007, and those collected by the Prop 1 Do-Over in 2008 are exactly the same: 5/10th of one percent permanent increase in the general sales tax.  That's why this page calls it the Prop 1 Do-Over.

Sound Transit light rail is behind schedule and over-budget

Central Link Light Rail in Seattle is scheduled to begin service in early July 2009, and time will tell if that commitment -- made in 2001 -- is fulfilled. However, the 1996 commitment to build light rail from the northern edge of the University District to a park & ride lot south of SeaTac Airport by 2006, cannot be met with the taxes approved in 1996.  A major reason for Prop 1 is to gain additional money to bail out and complete the 1996 phase 1 plan.

Prop 1 would not reduce congestion

Traffic congestion will not be reduced by Prop 1 investments. While the proposed light rail expansion fed by bus service has the capacity to carry many hundreds of thousands of people, the officially forecast ridership is nowhere near the passenger train capacity. This is because the train tracks and stations don't actually serve the vast majority of trips that people want to take. Sound Transit's Prop 1 plan forecasts only 62,000 new one-way transit trips daily in 2030 if it wins, compared to if it doesn't. In 2030, 15 million trips per day are expected by private vehicle and transit combined.

The claim in a Sound Transit study that the plan may cut traffic 5% to 30% is based on agencies taking extra follow-up actions such as promoting ridesharing. These extra activities are not funded by Prop 1, which by itself yields a reduction in trips that is less than 1/2 of one percent. Doing the extra actions to reduce trips further does not require building light rail in the first place. Furthermore, many of these extra actions are already underway by other government agencies and private companies.

Prop 1 would do little to expand transit in the immediate future

A very small part of Prop 1's 15-year expenditure, about 8%, is dedicated to short-term relief of the daily crowding on buses and commuter rail now irritating transit customers throughout the region.  Most of the Prop 1 investment, 88%, goes to light rail, which will take a dozen or more years to begin to be put into service. The Prop 1 taxes planned to go immediately to expanding Sound Transit Express Bus service with about 25 more buses is said to yield 17% more service hours across-the-board and up to 30% on high-ridership routes. This much additional bus service, if achieved, is about a 2%, one-time increase in all the daily public bus service now offered region wide. Recent annual ridership growth is over 7%. 

Prop 1 sales taxes have no end date

Sound Transit calculates that its additional Prop 1 sales taxes for light rail would begin to be rolled-back about 2038, which would be 15 years after Prop 1 construction is completed. This is to be taken with a grain of salt, because the language of commitment is similar to what was said in the first Sound Transit campaign in 1996, when the agency implied that taxes would be rolled back around 2006. It's now clear that the first phases of light rail funded in the 1996 ten-year Sound Move plan are going to take twenty years to finish instead of ten. Significantly, Sound Transit has not stated the end date for the new Prop 1 taxes in the ballot title, and other ballot language affirms that the 1996 taxes can go on as long as Sound Transit needs the money.

Relatively few travelers would ride Sound Transit's light rail

Sound Transit brags that its planned light rail to be constructed by Prop 1 taxes would have the capacity to carry a million people each day. However, the tracks don't go to all the places where people need to go. Sound Transit's forecasts show light rail ridership failing to grow beyond a few hundred thousand, yielding a light rail market share of less than two percent of all trips across the region. The share is greater for work trips to a few urban centers like downtown Bellevue, downtown Seattle, and University District that are already served by buses and will continue to be served by buses. The addition of a rail line simply moves riders from buses to trains.  Billions going to light rail could be more effectively spent on providing incentives for ridesharing, building more HOV and HOT lanes to speed the passage of buses, and adding more bus service on the many overcrowded routes the region has right now.

Prop 1 provides limited benefit across the region

Sound Transit supporters claim that 70% of homes and 85% of businesses in the Sound Transit district will be near rail stations by the end of construction in 2023. This raises a question: what does "near" mean?  Answer according to Sound Transit calculations: Up to a half-mile walk to a train station, or up to a quarter-mile walk to a bus stop where a bus will take you to a train station, or a 2.5 mile or less drive to a parking lot at some of the train stations. Without asking if this is "near" enough, the Puget Sound Regional Council calculates that if 125 miles of Sound Transit's light rail were completed by 2040, the average household in the region would have a 30 minute or less transit trip to only one percent of employment locations in the region. This tiny percentage is reflection of the cruel fact that the tracks of Sound Transit's light rail won't go to all the places that people need to go.

Light rail expansion would take 15 years to complete

Sound Transit states that the light rail expansion of Prop 1 will be completed in 15 years.  Sound Transit claims Prop 1 light rail will connect Bellevue and Northgate to Seattle even sooner, by 2020.  But Sound Transit said back in the late 1990s that using existing ST taxes  light rail would be built by 2006 between a park and ride lot in SeaTac at South 200th all the way to the northern edge of the U District at NE 45th Street.  Instead, the completion of this much light rail now requires the doubling of taxes that Prop 1 tries to provide and would take at least until 2016. So, along with the promise of a tax rollback in 30 years, the 15 year construction plan of Prop 1 is best taken with a grain of salt.

Extended and improved bus service would be better than light rail

Light rail generally moves more reliably than buses on mixed-traffic lanes, because trains use a dedicated track way that is lightly used compared to a typical roadway used by buses. However, the high construction and operating cost of light rail means that far less geographic coverage can be provided with light rail than can be achieved with a similar investment in buses.  While Sound Transit's light rail plan has only a few dozen stops, the bus system provides thousands of places to get on and off. Technology and public policy favoring more bus priority on roads can provide a transit system that provides more service sooner and less expensively than is possible with urban passenger railroads. This priority is being provided on city streets all over the world, including Paris, Los Angeles, Beijing, and in downtown Seattle on Third Avenue and along 15th NW.  Buses on well-managed HOV and HOT lanes, or on arterial lanes with bus priority, move quickly enough to attract hundreds of thousands of customers daily.

Light rail across the I-90 floating bridge would create more traffic congestion

If Sound Transit's plan to operate light rail on the center roadway of I-90 by 2020 comes to pass, that corridor's capacity would be reduced for people-movement, cargo-movement, and vehicle movement. Although the prospect of light rail is forcing WSDOT to add another lane in each direction on I-90 across Lake Washington, all vehicle lanes on the outer roadways of this Lake crossing will be narrower and slower.  Computer modeling shows vehicle flows would be impeded by removing the present-day reversible HOV express lanes in favor of light rail track in the center roadway.  A lane of closely spaced buses and other HOVs can move more people per hour than trains holding 800 people.  Why?  Because the light rail trains in Sound Transit's plan must operate with miles of empty track between them.

Prop 1 contributes to global warming

Because light rail trains run on electricity and cars run on liquid fuels, a Sound Transit study calculates that the transportation system to be built with Prop 1 taxes would cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 100 thousand metric tons per year in 2030, approximately 1 percent of annual emissions. However, this figure does not include the greenhouse gas generated by light rail construction, and also does not take into account the potential for greatly reduced emissions from private vehicles beginning by 2020 because of new power systems such as plug-in electrics with batteries. Furthermore, the environmental Record of Decision for the six mile tunneled portion of Central Link light rail that is to be completed under Prop 1, indicates that the greenhouse gas emissions of construction would not be compensated by people riding the train in the decades ahead if the emissions of cars are reduced to near zero by new technology. Because a new generation of low emission buses are available to be deployed quickly, it is likely that spending the Prop 1 dollars on expansion of bus service would be more helpful to the global climate than building light rail in a tunnel.

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