Sound Transit asks Legislature for regional funding authority to meet public demand for more mass transit

Nov 20, 2014

State must grant local authority before Sound Transit Board can propose projects and revenues to voters

The Sound Transit Board today voted to work with the Washington State Legislature to secure local funding authority for a Sound Transit 3 ballot measure that will provide the opportunity for voters to expand mass transit for the region.  

High-capacity transit investments are the best way - and in many cases the only way - to significantly expand transportation capacity in the state's most congested corridors as the region's population grows a projected 30 percent by 2040.  

"For the Sound Transit Board to be able to put a measure before voters in 2016, the Legislature must first grant local authority to the agency," said Sound Transit Board Chair and King County Executive Dow Constantine. "Once the state provides flexible funding tools, the Board can move to decide on a package of specific high-capacity projects, and the means by which voters can choose to fund them."  

In adopting its state legislative agenda for 2015, the Board voiced support for a bill with a range of flexible options to fund a ballot measure that can be considered by local voters. The Board discussed amounts that represent the maximum new revenue authority that could be proposed to voters, with the flexibility for the Board to propose lower amounts:

  • Property tax of up to 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation ($75 annually for a $300,000 house). A property tax was identified as a way to establish a more progressive revenue source for regional transit investments that reduces reliance on the sales tax.
  • Sales tax of up to an additional 0.5 percent ($.50 on a $100 purchase)
  • Motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) reauthorization of up to 0.8 percent of vehicle value ($80 annually on a $10,000 vehicle). The 0.8 percent MVET was part of Sound Transit's original enabling legislation but was rescinded in 2003. Through 2028 Sound Transit is continuing to collect 0.3 percent of the original MVET.  

To enable the possibility of a Sound Transit 3 ballot measure as soon as November 2016, the agency needs additional revenue authority from the Legislature. No decisions have been made about the scale of the measure. In discussing the request to the Legislature, Board members emphasized the importance of maintaining enough revenue capacity for the projects and services that transit customers and stakeholders say they want, and flexibility to choose from multiple revenue sources.

Cumulatively, the revenue authority requested could generate a maximum of approximately $15 billion in new revenues over a 15-year period. That would more than cover the approximately $9 billion in new revenues needed to support a 15-year package roughly comparable to the 2008 Sound Transit 2 measure, and would provide flexibility to discuss additional projects and services. The Board would not necessarily seek to exercise the full authority for all of the sources. In addition to new revenues approved by local voters, a Sound Transit 3 measure would also include funding from other sources including but not limited to bonds, grants and existing taxes.

Next year, the Sound Transit Board is poised to begin the major public involvement effort to shape the Sound Transit 3 measure. A June 2014 survey conducted by Sound Transit reflects regional residents' extremely high concern about traffic and support for Sound Transit. Voters by far see transportation and traffic as the region's greatest problem, and 85 percent support further transit expansions in the years ahead. Action by the Legislature to give local voters options to expand service is supported by 75 percent of voters.

"We look forward to starting this crucial conversation with the Legislature," said Sound Transit Board Vice Chair and Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland. "Everyone who lives or travels in our region will benefit when voters have the power to create more transportation options between Tacoma, SeaTac Airport and Everett. Job creation and a globally competitive state both depend on building infrastructure that meets our needs and fulfills our long-term vision."  

"We need to extend light rail from Lynnwood to Everett and connect the largest manufacturing center in the state," said Sound Transit Board Vice Chair and Everett City Council member Paul Roberts. "We need to give commuters an alternative to single occupant vehicles stuck in traffic. Today's commute frequently exceeds 90 minutes. Even buses are standing room only and stuck in gridlock. It's time to build light rail to Everett and elsewhere in the region."

"We need support from the Legislature to ensure high-capacity transit services reach more communities in the years ahead," said Sound Transit Board member and Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler. "These expansions will not only benefit riders but drivers by reducing the number of vehicles on the road. They are necessary for our future economic health. Companies won't locate and expand here if their employees and products can't move."

"The buses that provide critical transit service for our region, including South King County, are over capacity and increasingly getting stuck in traffic," said Sound Transit Board and King County Council member Joe McDermott. "The public's call for more and better transit grows louder and louder each year. We need the revenue tools to respond."

The vision of a light rail spine between Everett and Tacoma and all the way to downtown Redmond is a continuing focal point of the Sound Transit Board, along with studying other high-demand corridors. In 2023 Sound Transit is on track to extend light rail service north to Lynnwood, south to Kent/Des Moines and east to Redmond's Overlake area. This year Sound Transit completed a number of corridor studies exploring options for establishing expanded high-capacity services on the remainder of the spine and in other areas.

Fast-growing demand

The Sound Transit District is home to 50 cities and more than 40 percent of Washington's population. In the coming years the entire 0.9 percent sales tax and 0.3 percent MVET tax that currently fund Sound Transit will continue to be devoted entirely to enabling current projects and services, including the Link light rail extensions as well as popular Sounder commuter rail and ST Express bus services.

After failed mass transit votes in 1968 and 1970, the region waited more than a quarter century to form Sound Transit, while its population grew more than 55 percent. While those years of underinvestment in infrastructure still plague commuters, the region is on track to hit a major milestone in 2023 as Sound Transit delivers more than 30 miles of Sound Transit 2 light rail extensions approved by voters in 2008 that will carry more than 350,000 train and bus riders each weekday by 2030.

Link light rail ridership has increased in double-digit percentages every year since the system opened in 2009. The latest numbers show that Link's average weekday ridership was 37,242 in the third quarter of 2014, 18 percent higher than in the third quarter 2013.

The University Link light rail extension, with new stations on Seattle's Capitol Hill and at Husky Stadium, is on track to open in early 2016, six to nine months early and approximately $150 million under budget. In 2016 Sound Transit is also on schedule for an early opening of an extension of Link service one stop further south from the airport, to Angle Lake.

Next steps

In December the Sound Transit Board is scheduled to update the Regional Transit Long-Range Plan, which identifies the mass transit extensions that are eligible to be included in future ballot measures. In January 2015 Sound Transit is poised to begin the process of shaping a Sound Transit 3 ballot measure for voter consideration in November 2016 or thereafter. While working with the Legislature on funding options, Sound Transit will launch an extensive public involvement process in mid-2015 through mid-2016 that gives the region's commuters and local jurisdictions opportunities to shape the ballot measure.

As this work on the ballot measure moves forward, Sound Transit will continue an ambitious initiative to work with other transit agencies and the state to create efficiencies and stretch dollars by further integrating the planning and operation of transit services in the Puget Sound region. In September 2014 an initial Transit Integration Report documented the efforts that are underway, with initial work focusing on Sound Transit and King County transit services.