Afternoon Jolt

Subarea Equity Is Dead, Long Live Subarea Equity

Rare editorializing from the Sound Transit staff at board meeting as it lays out surprise Ballard-to-Tacoma line.

By Josh Feit December 4, 2015

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The big news at today's packed Sound Transit Board meeting where ST staff unveiled cost estimates and corridor options with hypothetical or "representative" alignments, came late in the hearing. 

After staff presented its parade of oversized, color-coded maps depicting travel times, ridership numbers, and news of a newly-conceived Ballard-to-Tacoma line through a second downtown Seattle tunnel—more on that later—Sound Transit CFO Brian McCartan dropped a bombshell. Walking the board through his black and white mimeographed handout on agency funding principles, McCartan said: "We are defining equity in the context of an integrated, regional system," letting the board know they'd been misinterpreting the longstanding ST principle known as subarea equity.

Subarea equity was a bit of a poison pill that transit progressives agreed to in the mid-90s during the "Sound Move" era when ST1 was first getting under way. The idea, pushed by antitransit East side suburban Seattle plotters (Rob McKenna, to be specific), was that dollars generated in one area of the regional system could only be spent on projects in that area. In other words (and these were the days when the suburbs were wealthier than the city), Bellevue wasn't going to foot the bill for Seattle projects. The antitransit scheme was clear: Seattle was going to run out of money for its projects and, domino-effect style—since a mass transit system that doesn't converge in the city doesn't make any sense—Sound Transit would be scrapped altogether.

Seattle lefties actually embraced the idea themselves early this decade when, fed up with the fact that Seattle's tax base was subsidizing suburban sprawl lifestyles in general, they believed Seattle should go it alone and focus on its own inner city transit system.

This afternoon, McCartan read the actual language of ST's authorizing legislation out loud to the board. It only says the board has to submit a proposition to the voters that (itals mine) "identifies the degree to which revenues generated within each county will benefit the residents of that county..."

The idea that local money has to fund local projects, McCartan noted, was only something the board superimposed on the legislation. Additionally, he said the board has the flexibility to determine what constitutes a benefit in the first place, pointing out that a project "doesn't have to be physically in one area" to provide a benefit.

Beefing up system capacity in downtown Seattle, for example, with a second tunnel, certainly benefits Redmond commuters.

In fact, Redmond mayor and ST board member John Marchione seconded McCartan saying "the values and benefits don't just stay within the sub areas any more."

"Now that everyone is focused on a truly regional system," ST spokesman Geoff Patrick said after the hearing, "the board has to look at equity in that context."

Seattle city council member and ST board member Mike O'Brien made this very point at an ST board meeting exactly a year ago when the board identified the corridors it wanted staff to study (for today’s meeting.) Defending his fellow Seattle board member, mayor Ed Murray’s failed amendment that they specifically include a second downtown Seattle tunnel on the list, O’Brien said: “This facility is critical not just to the people of Seattle, but frankly to the folks that are coming from either end of the spine and need that capacity too.”

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Speaking of a new downtown Seattle tunnel, ST staff took the unusual step of editorializing at today’s board meeting in its presentation, nudging the board toward a Ballard-to-Tacoma option that would run a third line through a new downtown tunnel with transfer stations—like at Penn Station in NYC, or any other basic transit system worldwide—at the current Westlake stop, International District stop, and Sodo stop before taking over from today's existing line for the rest of the trip through Southeast Seattle and on to Sea-Tac—and Tacoma.

Rearranging the plumbing of today’s line, an Everett-to-International District line, with similar transfers, would then jag east on a new, separate line to Redmond, while a third line would jag west on a separate line from Sodo to West Seattle.

This new Ballard-to-Tacoma option, ST staff argued, would outperform two other options that are also on the table: A far less expensive, at-grade, stand-alone line (no Penn Station style transfers) from Ballard to West Seattle, and a Ballard-to-West Seattle line that also tunnels through downtown with the transfer stops.

The surprise proposal overlapped with ST's revised version of subarea equity because while it’s the most expensive of the Ballard proposals (as much as $5.3 billion), it’s regionally focused, which would prompt voters in Tacoma to both vote for it and share the costs.

"Sound Transit Three is about building a regional system," mayor Murray told me after the meeting. "And for that regional system to work, one area of the system needs the other areas of the system to work."

"I used to argue that the city of Seattle needed to be part of the region," Murray added, "and what you heard the mayor of Redmond saying today, is that this region needs to include Seattle."

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