Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews

File:3-car Link light rail train in Columbia City, Seattle.jpg
SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Democrats unveiled their $16.8 billion, 16-year transportation package to mixed reviews from transit advocates last week.

The package, which includes a bill outlining what projects the Democrats want to fund and a separate funding plan, marks a notable shift in Washington state’s transportation priorities. Transportation committee chairs Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) included $3 billion in the package for street and highway maintenance, another $1.2 billion for active transportation projects that would create new walking and bike paths statewide, and $2.8 billion for projects that would expand existing transit services. Their plan would also invest roughly $2.6 billion in new highway projects and provide $1.4 billion to incomplete projects from past transportation packages.

Pro-transit groups like Front and Centered have been asking for major investments in maintenance and nonmotorized transportation for years and “feel really validated” by the proposals, spokesperson Paulo Nunes-Ueno said. However, Nunes-Ueno and other transit advocates are still frustrated by Democrats’ decision to spend about $4 billion on highway expansion projects: “If we continue to try and solve congestion by adding highways and ignore those highways’ impacts on communities of color, frontline communities, and the climate in general, then we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

For example, projects like widening State Route 18 east of Issaquah and replacing the US Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County won’t reduce congestion in those areas, but, studies suggest,  create an incentive for people to drive more often, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s infrastructure that’s going to guarantee fossil fuel use for a 30, 40, 50-year period,” Andrew Kidde, from climate justice group 350 Washington, said. Kidde is worried that the transportation package is at odds with the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to about 50 million metric tons per year by 2030. As of 2020, the state emitted roughly 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

To align with the state’s climate goals and reduce emissions, the state should have “invested more in local, existing, regional rail” projects, Kidde said. The package would spend $3 billion funding 25 new transit projects and provide $1.4 billion in grants to local transit authorities, 35 percent of which Liias said will go to King County Metro. The grants will help transit authorities expand service and electrify their vehicles, he said; local transit agencies will have to apply for them and meet new requirements in the package, including letting anyone 18 years or younger ride free.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

Legislators did include $40 million for Sound Transit Tacoma Dome Link Light Rail extension in the package. CEO Peter Rogoff said the investments were “unprecedented in recent times.” But he also flagged the agency’s disappointment that Sound Transit didn’t qualify for any of the $1.4 billion in transit support grants.

“The proposal falls short,” Rogoff said at the Sound Transit board’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting last week. The legislature passed a motor vehicle excise tax for regional transit authorities in 2015 which gave Sound Transit the ability to develop a ST3 ballot measure with the caveat that they would no longer qualify for state transit grants provided in future transportation packages.

Sound Transit also wanted legislators to exempt their purchases of new rail cars and buses from the state sales tax, which “would increase funding capacity for our projects and services,” Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said. Patrick estimated that a sales tax exemption would save the agency $207 million on future train car and bus purchases.

Sound Transit board chair and University Place city council member Kent Keel repeated the agency’s message on grants and sales tax exemptions at the Senate Transportation Committee public hearing on the funding bill on Friday. The funding sources for the proposal include $3.4 billion in one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds, $1.4 billion from increased license and car-tab fees, and $5 billion from the Climate Commitment Act, Washington state’s “cap and invest” program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Sound Transit light rail extensions are the most climate-friendly transportation projects in the state and are worthy of a stronger partnership and additional considerations,” Keel said.

Liias noted that as transportation committee chair, he doesn’t have the power to exempt Sound Transit’s rail car and bus purchases from the state sales tax. He said Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island), who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, expressed her support for the tax-exemption idea, but added that it’s unlikely to happen this year.

As for reevaluating Sound Transit’s eligibility for grants, Liias said Friday’s hearing  bill was the first time he had heard “in a concrete way” that the agency would like to be back in the program. “I don’t know yet what exactly we’ll do there, but we’ll certainly consider it,” he said.

3 thoughts on “Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews”

  1. Oh, and by the way, why do we taxpayers pay ourselves sales tax on the materials for these projects? That would be something worth taking on.

  2. Aside from the profligacy of transportation spending in general, at least these plans take the somewhat realistic idea that people WILL drive into account. The blather about fossil fuels is a red herring; people are buying and being encouraged to buy electric cars, so that stuff just won’t fly. Such bias!

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