How to Bring More Light Rail to Seattle, in Four Not-So-Easy Steps

It’s Seattle vs. Olympia, Seattle vs. the suburbs, and Seattle vs. Seattle.

By Josh Feit January 27, 2015

Four tricky political layovers dot the route to more light rail in Seattle. A proposal known as Sound Transit 3 (or ST3) potentially on the November 2016 ballot would extend the currently approved ST2 (the Seattle to Lynnwood, Microsoft, and Federal Way lines) to include Everett, Redmond, and Tacoma—north, east, and south, respectively. It would include more light rail in Seattle as well. On the wish list: a Ballard-to-downtown line and a West Seattle–to–downtown line.  

The four steps that need to happen first, though, are no small feats. First, Sound Transit needs new taxing authority approved in Olympia. Second, suburban members of the Sound Transit board need to sign off on Seattle’s inner-city transit agenda. Third, Seattle itself needs to get consensus on what it wants in the city. And finally, in November 2016, voters need to approve the whole shebang.


Step 1

The state legislature will need to approve ST3 in the first place. Currently in Olympia, pro-transit Democrats in the state legislature such as assistant ranking transit committee member senator Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo) are trying to convince the Republican majority to sign off on a transportation package that includes a bill to give Sound Transit taxing authority. The Sound Transit component of the transportation package outlines about $15 billion total in new taxing authority, including a brand new property tax of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The light-rail-authorizing legislation also includes extending Sound Transit’s 0.5 percent sales tax and a 0.8 percent motor vehicle excise tax (or MVET), both of which are only authorized to complete Sound Transit’s buildout to Lynnwood, Microsoft, and Federal Way.

The Republican-dominated state senate—controlled in turn by antitax ideologues—has rejected similar local taxing authority requests in the past, most notably last year, when a transportation package for bus service didn’t pass GOP muster. “Sound Transit has replaced [Metro funding] as the significant local option,” Senator Liias says.

The taxing authority bill for light rail has 20 Democratic cosponsors and zero Republican sponsors. The senate transportation committee chair, Curtis King (R-14, Yakima), says many legislators are skeptical of using the property tax, which he says is intended for education, not light rail. “Another concern,” he says, “is the MVET request [which] goes back to the debate [about] why is it necessary for the people that drive a car or truck or own a car or truck to pay for light rail?” Asked why there are no Republican names on the legislation, including his own, Senator King said: “I don’t believe anybody brought it [the light rail legislation] to me and asked me to sign it—not that I necessarily would have.”  

Senator Liias calls the light rail component of the transportation package “a big ask with emotional strings.” In particular he notes the MVET, which is toxic for Republicans due to initiative hawker Tim Eyman’s history of getting the MVET capped. (Some Democrats are also wary of the regressive sales tax.)

Despite the fact that Republicans “weren’t ready to sign on yet,” Liias says, light rail funding has actually received “a warm reception.” While there aren’t GOP cosigners, he says the fact that “no senior Republicans have come out and quashed the idea is a good sign. They’re keeping their powder dry. They’re open to discussions.”

Liias notes: “If we can get Everett and Tacoma stations, you’re going through a lot of Republican districts. And that’s good for bipartisan support.” There are nine Republican senators whose districts would be served by light rail and 10 Republican state reps. 

Senator King keeps it vague: “Authority for Sound Transit is undoubtedly going to be considered as we work on a transportation package.”  

The Sound Transit High Capacity Transit study areas. (click to enlarge)

Step 2

If the legislature actually approves Sound Transit’s taxing authority request, there will need to be subsequent horse trading among the pro-transit advocates themselves: members of the Sound Transit board. The transit-friendly board is made up of competing players like Seattle leaders mayor Ed Murray and city council member Mike O’Brien vs. suburban leaders like Redmond mayor John Marchione, Pierce County executive Pat McCarthy, and Edmonds mayor Dave Earling.

While the board is “very unified,” O’Brien says, about using the taxing authority to extend light rail to Redmond, Everett, and Tacoma, and inside Seattle, the details (how much each project costs) will cause a family feud. Edmonds’s Mayor Earling, who chuckled about a recent suggestion by Mayor Murray that Seattle would require a second Seattle tunnel for light rail, says, “The commitment from day one has always been [that] we need to build the spine. And the spine is from Tacoma to Everett and then across Lake Washington up to Redmond. That’s the focus. That’s the highest priority for many of the people in the suburbs.”

As for extensions for Seattle, Earling says, “that’s still open for discussion as far as the board’s concerned.” Late last month, the suburban members of the board voted down a motion from Mayor Murray and O’Brien to put a new Seattle tunnel in the blueprints and shared regional costs for ST3.


Step 3

Ballard to Downtown Seattle transit expansion study. (click to enlarge)

There’s a battle within Seattle itself, between constituencies in favor of building a Ballard-to-downtown line or a West Seattle–to–downtown line. With about $3 billion slated for Seattle in the $15 billion ST3 project—and the Ballard and West Seattle wish lists costing as much as $3.6 to $4.6 billion respectively—something’s got to give. O’Brien says, “It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where we build the most expensive version of both those connections in a Sound Transit 3 package.”

O’Brien’s solution: Building Value Village versions rather than Nordstrom versions. For example, he suggests an indirect transfer line connecting Ballard to Sound Transit 2 at the U District station at Brooklyn and 43rd, which would cost more like $1.2 to $1.9 billion. “Fifteen to 18 minutes from Ballard to downtown,” he says of his value-pack option, “with 100 percent reliability? It’s not as fast as going direct, but it’s a step up from what they have now. And there are great inner-city connections, Ballard to the U District and Capitol Hill.”

For West Seattle, citing the costs of straining tunnel capacity in downtown, O’Brien suggests running a line from West Seattle to the SoDo station instead of Westlake.

“A scenario where we have to pick either Ballard or West Seattle,” O’Brien says, “is problematic. We need Seattle to be strongly behind Sound Transit, as opposed to pitting folks against each other in a divisive fight. We need Seattle voters to be thrilled about this.”


Step 4

The final stop on the way to more light rail: a planned November 2016 vote. And without Seattle voters feeling excited about ST3, it will not pass.

“I completely agree with that,” Edmonds’s Mayor Earling says. “Which is why I’m willing to acknowledge that there will be some improvements in Seattle. What they are? That’s a discussion to be had later.”


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