The passage of ST3 was one of the few joyous moments on an otherwise bleak November election night. Voters approved the proposal by more than a 10 point margin. Transit supporters declared victory and went home to plan for the long process of planning and building a massive expansion of the region’s transit network.
Unfortunately, it could all be in the process of unraveling. Transit opponents in the media and in the state legislature quickly seized on a few instances of driver complaints over higher car tabs to launch a renewed attack on the ST3 taxes. Republican and Democratic legislators have proposed bills to change the way that the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) is calculated after the media rediscovered the fact that Sound Transit is bound by the legislature to use a process of valuing cars at rates higher than the common “blue book” value.
Transit supporters initially failed to take this attack seriously. They reasoned that because the motor vehicle excise tax could not be repealed or changed without running afoul of the courts, there was no need to be concerned. Rather than recognize this as the opening of a new political campaign, they treated it as sour grapes that could be brushed aside by relying on policies that were more vulnerable than they understood. This was a serious mistake.
As a result, ST3 now faces the loss of nearly $6 billion in revenue if the legislature lowers the amount of revenue Sound Transit can collect from the MVET by changing the way the state estimates car values. This could jeopardize ST3 projects, potentially including rail to Ballard or West Seattle.
All this was under way even before the Trump Administration proposed a federal budget that would slash funding for ST2 projects currently in the pipeline, including Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link. Their budget proposal makes it clear that “future investments…would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from them.” In other words, if we want the remaining ST2 or any ST3 projects, we will have to pay for them ourselves.
As a result of Trump’s budget proposal, it is urgent to not only blunt the legislative attack on ST3 revenues–we must also begin working to get the legislature to give Sound Transit additional revenues to complete the projects voters approved in both 2008 and in 2016 without the benefit of federal matching dollars. The future of transit in Western Washington is at stake.
This experience provides urgent lessons for urbanists and transit advocates–they had better get ready for a long battle to preserve Sound Transit’s ability to raise the necessary revenues to build the ST3 projects.
Add More Progressive Revenues
Alongside the MVET, ST3 includes sales and property taxes, but does not specifically ask the state’s wealthiest residents or largest corporations to pay anything else. Viewed against the backdrop of the state’s regressive tax system, the ST3 revenue sources are vulnerable to the kind of public backlash we’ve seen with the MVET–even if that backlash is being overstated by a hostile media.
The MVET itself is a progressive tax, and the overall package remains highly progressive. The savings residents will enjoy from being able to ride cheap electric trains rather than drive expensive cars that burn expensive gas will more than make up for the relatively low average household annual taxes of $361. Even with the higher MVET, ST3 costs the average household less than a dollar a day–and builds out a transit system that will get people out of crippling traffic.
Ironically, the changes to the MVET that Senate Republicans are discussing could actually make it more regressive. Sound Transit’s initial analysis of switching to the 2006 depreciation schedule not only shows that it would cost taxpayers at least $6 billion, but that it would hit low-income car owners even harder. Sound Transit explains “owners of vehicles that are less than 11 years old would receive lower bills under the 2006 depreciation schedule while owners of vehicles older than 11 years old would receive higher bills.”
Despite these facts, the media has created the perception that voters are outraged about the MVET, and has provoked legislators into reacting. While advocates are right to fight back and protect the existing revenues, it would be wise to consider ways to extract concessions from legislators in the event they insist on changing the MVET valuation formula.
We should demand that legislators rebalance the ST3 funding package and take steps to accelerate project delivery in exchange for any change to the MVET valuation. For every dollar lost to ST3 from changes in the way car values are calculated, the legislature must restore those funds through the closure of corporate tax loopholes. Several Democratic legislators are exploring a low-income rebate for the ST3 taxes, modeled on Seattle’s low-income car tabs rebate. This is a solution worth exploring, but here too, the legislature must replace any lost revenue.
We should also prepare to drive a harder bargain, given the loss of federal funds for ST2 and ST3. The legislature needs to adopt progressive revenue sources that would ensure the ST2 and ST3 projects are fully funded even if the federal government never contributes another dime. A carbon pricing system, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, would be an obvious and appropriate revenue source. So would higher taxes on the rich and on large corporations.
Counter the Media
Sound Transit’s ballot initiatives have passed by wide margins ever since Sound Move was approved in 1996. Transit ridership is growing and freeway traffic is as nightmarish as ever. Public support for passenger rail projects in the Puget Sound region will only grow over time.
Yet local media continues to treat rail projects with a far greater degree of skepticism than almost any other type of public infrastructure project. The same media outlets that treat a freeway widening project as natural and normal treat a passenger rail project as strange, unusual, and often frivolous. This attitude is particularly strong here on the West Coast, despite years of successful transit projects and growing ridership.
This anti-rail bias extends to how stories are written and structured. The agency delivering the rail project is always painted as a dishonest, scheming bully. Those who raise criticisms about the project or the transit agency are always painted as scrappy heroes standing up against an uncaring, corrupt bureaucracy. Transit supporters are rarely ever given space to speak in these stories. It’s as if most reporters and editors learned about how to cover rail projects by reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sound Transit will always be reported on as if they were Vogons. Opponents will always be a lovable Arthur Dent.
Media bias hasn’t reduced public support for rail. But it does create pressure on skittish politicians to pass laws that undermine Sound Transit’s ability to deliver projects. Because the media gives breathless coverage to a few voters complaining about higher car tabs thanks to ST3–while rarely ever mentioning whether those complainers voted for it, or that it passed by a wide margin–legislators believe they are under pressure to cut the supposed burden of the ST3 taxes. (To his immense credit, Mike Lindblom of The Seattle Times has reminded readers that his paper provided extensive coverage of what ST3 would cost the average Puget Sound resident, including the MVET.)
Transit advocates will need to mobilize on social media to ensure that legislators as well as reporters hear routinely from voters who strongly support ST3–and the voter-approved revenues that will build those projects. They will also need to remind legislators and reporters that the only way out of the region’s crippling traffic woes is to build the ST3 projects as quickly as possible, and that reducing Sound Transit’s ability to collect the voter-approved ST3 revenues will make that traffic worse.
Solve the Pierce County problem
Although voters in King and Snohomish County approved ST3, voters in Pierce County rejected it. To make matters worse, the Democratic Party has been racking up losses in local and state elections, capped by the disastrous election of Republican Bruce Dammeier as Pierce County Executive. Many of the Democrats who voted for the bills to change ST’s governance structure are from Pierce County. It could become a hotbed of anti-Sound Transit attitudes if nothing is done to address the crisis.
Many Pierce County residents believe that ST3 does not benefit them enough. While it does extend Link light rail from King County to Tacoma via Fife, expands Tacoma Link, and adds additional Sounder service, this was not enough to win over Pierce County voters–particularly those who do not live in Tacoma or commute to Seattle. ST3 won in Tacoma, but lost badly in Puyallup and Sumner.
The result has been a fast-growing narrative in Pierce County that it is unfair to make residents pay the ST3 taxes, or that Pierce County is being taxed to fund Seattle’s rail projects (totally ignoring sub-area equity policies). Pierce County politicians are understandably influenced by this narrative, including Tacoma Democrats, who have voted for anti-Sound Transit bills.
Some transit supporters in blog comments have reacted to this by suggesting Pierce County be cut loose from Sound Transit and abandoned. Not only would that be seriously damaging from a transit and an environmental perspective, it’s also politically suicidal. Sound Transit needs Pierce County’s legislative delegation to help ensure that the agency survives and has the revenues and legal authority it needs to continue building projects. Solving the Pierce County problem is essential to Sound Transit’s long-term success.
The legislature must help solve the Pierce County problem by providing additional revenue authority to Sound Transit to allow them to help expand transit service in that region. This could include a restoration of Pierce Transit routes cut earlier in the decade. It could also include additional BRT and rail projects in the county, particularly outside of Tacoma. Those who wrongly argue these communities are somehow not deserving of better transit need to accept that without giving more to Pierce County, they will have little reason to help us defend ST3 and its revenues.
Treat Transit Like a Political Campaign
Finally, transit supporters need to engage in a permanent campaign to sustain and grow public support for transit. The ST3 vote shows that mass transit remains popular in the Puget Sound region as a whole. Opponents know this, and are instead attacking Sound Transit’s actions and its revenue sources as those are some of the only viable options they have.
It would be nice if the passage of ST3 had silenced the critics and ensured that Sound Transit would be left alone to continue doing excellent work delivering the projects voters approved. We now know it won’t be that easy. Transit supporters need to gird for a long war that will not end anytime soon. If we’re going to deliver the ST2 and ST3 projects, and be able to even think about eventually passing ST4, we’ll need to learn from recent mistakes and rapidly pivot to building a sustained campaign for transit that can overcome persistent opposition.
Right now, transit is viewed separately from other major issues. Trump’s attack on Obamacare has generated widespread outrage in Western Washington and caused constituents to flood Congressional town halls. Trump’s attack on Sound Transit is another serious threat to our way of life–but when it comes to transit, legislators are hearing more from transit opponents than supporters. This must change. Local transit advocates enjoy geeking out over policy details, but these do not win the political battles that must be won in order to build these projects in the first place.
The federal government isn’t coming to save us. We are on our own. If we are to successfully resist Trump and build resilient, sustainable cities, it’s time for legislators to tackle Washington’s broken tax system and ensure our transit projects are fully funded.
Robert Cruickshank is a transit rider and progressive campaigner who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Senior Communications Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.