Crafting a King County Transit Package

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RapidRide D was the second busiest bus in King County last year behind only the E. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

There are probably a few King County Councilmembers kicking themselves right now for not running a countywide transit measure year. Seattle’s overwhelming 80.32% victory on Proposition 1 results suggests the city could have carried the vote for the entire county if that had been the proposition.

You can’t really blame them. The world was going to hell in a handbasket in March when King County voted to shelve the countywide measure as Covid’s first wave ripped through the country.

The pandemic is raging even worse now–though in a hopeful sign President-elect Joe Biden announced plans for a nationwide mask mandate to tamp down on the spread of the virus. Facing recession and another year of sickness and death, Seattle voted to stand by essential workers who rely on transit and make up one in three riders keeping society running so more fortunate folks can stay home. The revelation that people can be selfless and good is nourishing in cynical times when our ability to stand together rather than turn apart seemed in doubt.

Seattle’s vote will help slow the rate of bus service cuts in the region, but without action by the King County Councilโ€™s deeper cuts will be on the way. They will hit transit-dependent families hard. Investing now would be a show of solidarity. It’s the right thing to do, and it seems likely to pass.

Doubters will point to the failure of the 2014 countywide transit measure, but support for transit has grown since then. Running the measure in March was likely a drag on the 2014 measure. We can craft a better package now and run it in November when turnout is higher.

Crafting a package

In 2017, Metro laid out a long-term “Metro Connects” vision planning transit investments to take the network to 26 RapidRide lines spanning the county and full electrification of the fleet by 2040, which also means remodeling and adding new bus bases, which is a major investment as well. The County estimated implementing plan would increase half-mile access to frequent transit by 60%, taking the share to 73% countywide–plus, the rate would be even higher in minority and low-income areas, which would reach 77% and 87% respectively. This would be a huge step to take, and a fitting commitment to county’s low-income residents and communities of color who have borne the brunt of the pandemic as essential workers on the frontlines.

Best to get busy building if we plan to achieve those visions, but unfortunately the agency latest actions have centered on scaling back the vision rather than realizing it. A recent update proposes cutting the pace of expansion in half, noting the need for a dedicated funding source.

A county transit funding package should be on our near horizon, but we don’t need to limit it to transit alone. Another exciting result at the ballot this year was in Austin, Texas where voters approved both a major light rail and rapid bus package (including a tunnel downtown) and another $460 million measure investing in the protected bike network, pedestrian and trail improvements, and road safety interventions citywide. Austin pledged to finish 70% of its bike master plan for an on-street all ages and abilities bike network with $40 million from the measure, another $80 million is set aside for trails, and $65 million for Vision Zero safety upgrades. King County has some nice trails intermittently, but it lacks a cohesive network like Austin has planned.

King County Metro and the Seattle Department of Transportation should consider station access and street safety improvements as part of RapidRide upgrades, and that could be a way to allocate those investments. That said, a few marquee investments in the county trail networks could increase the measure’s benefit and buoy its prospects with voters.

Thanks to trail additions, the 2030 regional bike map looks impressive, but key gaps remain. (Map by Zach Shaner)

Southeast King County could use more trail connections and Shoreline is seeking a Trail Along The Rail tracking planned light rail opening in 2024, but will need funding to realize that vision. Another opportunity is closing the remaining gaps in the Eastrail Trail, a multi-use trail which would connect Renton to Woodinville via Bellevue and Kirkland by 2026, save for a few gaps.

Most of the Eastrail Trail would be done by 2026 if all goes according to plan, save for a couple gaps in Bellevue, central Renton, and Woodinville. (King County Parks)

The King County mobility measure could extend the Eastrail Trail northward and close the gaps in Bellevue and Renton. Improving and widening the Burke-Gilman Trail, Chief Sealth Trail, Interurban Trail, and turning Lake Washington Boulevard into a proper bike/pedestrian corridor could be some enticements on the Seattle side of the lake.

How much would it cost?

That leads to the question of how big the measure would need to be to fund all this. It’s somewhat scalable depending how many RapidRides we want to add, how much bus base work is needed, and how heavily to invest in trails and Vision Zero. RapidRide A through F Lines are in operation. Seattle’s Move Seattle Levy, though it promised seven RapidRides, appears set to build three. The County has salvaged RapidRide I Line from more ambitious earlier plans, and a Kirkland-to-Bellevue RapidRide K Line has been shelved. That means 10 RapidRides are already operating or funded.

Filling out the alphabet to 26 would take 16 more lines. Assuming a rough average of $50 million per RapidRide (which would leverage another $50 million in federal grants and perhaps more local match) would cost roughly $800 million. Accelerating electric bus base plans and doing some trail improvements would likely cost another few hundred million. So we’re looking at a billion-dollar package, at least, spread out over the length of the measure. With King County’s population of 2.26 million shouldering that load seems feasible, especially considering that Austin’s population of just shy of a million is investing a lot more than that in its bus, bike, pedestrian, and street safety network.

2017 Metro Connects plan for future RapidRide corridors. (King County)

If a countywide transportation benefit district is the mechanism, then sales tax or flat vehicle license fees are the currently allowed funding sources. The County could lobby the state legislature to add more funding sources, such as a corporate payroll tax or income tax, or make the vehicle license fee more progressive by pegging it to vehicle value (like Sound Transit’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax does). Another option would be run the measure as a levy relying on property taxes (with a low-income homeowner rebate).

We are at a tipping point where either we manage the decline of the county’s ambitious transit and climate plans or we invest and rebuild our momentum. On Friday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a $100 million low-interest loan to the Washington State Convention Center in order to continue construction on its $1.9 billion expansion on the site of a former county-owned bus station. If we have billions for a convention center, we should be able to fund transportation and climate action via an electrification and rapidification plan for our bus network. It’s just a matter of making it a priority.

Update: Did a little math and if Seattle passes a measure with 80.3% of the vote like it did with Proposition 1 in 2020, that measure would need only 34% in the rest of King County to pass countywide. This assumes Seattle accounts for about 36% of the county’s vote total, as it did this year, which might slip a bit. Regardless, it’s clear there’s a path to a countywide measure if the campaign is as strong as Prop 1’s was.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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eddiew

The post neglects sidewalks; they seem more closely linked to transit than trails. In Seattle, there are several frequent transit arterials that lack sidewalks; they should be added. In addition, many local streets lack sidewalks; perhaps they could have funding for walkways or calming. The post neglects the Legislature; the county and cities could ask for improved local options for transit and/or TBD. The post neglects maintenance; pavement management is a huge need; the county roads fund is on vapors; bridges and pavement are at risk. Climate change is a major issue; the county wants electric transit; battery buses are still unproven and have uncertain fiscal issues; perhaps there should be an expanded electric trolleybus network. The RR program has already been reset a few times; the SDOT reach was unrealistic; Metro Connects is unfunded and remains so; the 26 lines seem overly cute. The main speed advantage of RR is faster fare collection; perhaps we should duplicate SF Muni and use much more proof of payment fare collection; we could do that faster than RR. ST3 will be delayed. ST2 Link will be great if ST runs it on a short headway.

Douglas Trumm

Sorry that you found the piece neglectful! The 26 number comes from Metro Connects plan which yes is currently unfunded, as I point out, hence the proposal to fund it. Seattle’s more recent RapidRides have attempted to do sidewalk upgrades and some rapaving in conjunction with the project. Certainly we could do even more sidewalk additions and upgrades beyond the immediate corridor so long as we budget more money. Sounds good to me, and I do suggest appealing to the State Legislature to either provide more options or increase multimodal funding directly. I like the idea adding more trolleybuses and doing some local street calming, perhaps temporary open streets made permanent around the county in addition to smaller scale traffic diverters.

AJ

I like the idea of bundling trails with the bus service, as trails are cheap capital projects (compared to trains & highways) that can be spread around the county to gain support from communities that won’t be well served by train. However, is the RapidRide network the right starting point? The quality of the RapidRide lines seem to have deteriorated over time. I think I’d rather fund the certain baseline amount of service hours and have a pile of capital that can be used to create bus infrastructure where it is most effective and another pile of money to invest in station access where it is most effective.

Some RapidRide lines, like the A and E, are very coherent as they are linear and have significant dedicated ROW. Others like the F are just regular workhorse bus route with fancy stops. Looking forward to the un-built RapidRide lines, I don’t see one that stands out as a clear corridor for BRT Bronze service like the A or E. Some of these routes are so long, $100M gets you pretty much just stations and sidewalks, which is nice but not sure that’s the priority.

If the RapidRide project is an effective way to facilitate a stop diet and route reorganization, fine. But saying “let’s invest in these route over everything else in the network” doesn’t seem right, particularly when we can identify bus lanes, queue jumps, and whatnot that can be strategically located to benefit multiple routes.
Additionally, if you are committed to a particular RR project timeline, you are at the mercy of the local jurisdiction(s) to play ball at the certain time. With a “bus priority fund”, the county can have an open process, similar to ST’s station access fund, that can fund the best projects through a rolling selection process. Which cities facilitate the best projects will change over time as majors, city councils, and city staff change over time. I think a flexible but formal & transparent funding process would be best.

AJ

System Access Fund, not ‘station access.’ I think it’s a great framework and it will get the cities engaged as stakeholders.

https://www.soundtransit.org/system-expansion/creating-vibrant-stations/connecting-to-stations/system-access-fund

Jules James

Agreed. “Rapid Ride” is quickly becoming a bus color rather than a premium transit service. Make obvious distinctions — an express system traveling long distances with only a handful of stops. Otherwise we are just re-branding normal service and down-grading everything else to 2nd Class Carriage. King County needs 10 Rapid Ride lines — not 26 — for “Rapid Ride” to become the rubber tire step-child of a rail line.

asdf2

I would like to see more bus service, but I want to first know that Seattle and the Eastside (especially Seattle) are getting meaningful service improvements out of it. While I have consistently voted for every transit levy in the past, a levy that has everyone paying higher taxes, to fund benefits heavily concentrated in Kent, I’m not sure I would vote for.

Anonymous

Obviously a formal plan will stipulate what the effects of it will be. Metro Connects clearly shows the level of service increases that will be provided by corridor. If we built out the plan like Doug is indicating, the increases would be huge everywhere, especially in Seattle and the Eastside. http://www.kcmetrovision.org/view-plan/

Paul W.

We don’t need more bus service in King County — ridership is way down, and it’s not likely to rebound strongly as so many residents will be working from home to a great extent. Continuing to run underused buses serves no good purpose and it kills coho salmon.

Anonymous

“It’s Christmas Day, so we should assume that it will stay Christmas Day tomorrow, next week, the month after that, and even the next five years.” That’s an asinine position to have. It won’t be Christmas forever.

But if you want to save salmon, maybe start by taking increasing taxes, fees, and tolls on driving. Buses are a drop in the bucket for that problem but carry waaaaaay more people in the process than a typical car. Cutting back service or leaving it stagnant will only beget more private car ownership and driving that exacerbates the problem. We could take a radical approach by repurposing car lanes for walking, biking, and transit further reducing private driving. We could also impose state requirements that car manufacturers produce technologies that capture the pollutant from tires (there actually is a technological solution available) and mandate motorists to retrofit their cars.

But hey, keep making up excuses to oppose transit like any other right-wing fanatic.

Daniel Thompson

Who is “we” anonymous? Doug is talking about a county wide tax because most of the money is on the eastside these days, and you are not talking about eastside citizens in my experience.

Doug suggests Seattle alone could pass a $1 billion County wide transit levy mostly for Seattle without east King Co.’s approval, but I doubt that. Right now the eastside is moving to more subarea equity like for ST in its relationship with King Co., which means revenue is spent in the jurisdiction it is raised in. If your proposal is for a Seattle only transit levy then I understand the term “we”, but my concern then is I don’t think $1 billion is nearly enough to meet the goals. Not even close. Look what Seattle got for $1 billion in Move Seattle. Not much movement.

You talk about Christmas, but then propose large funding increases for transit when Metro is planning on a 25% reduction in service levels through 2040, and ST will most likely have to delay several ST 3 projects, including lines to West Seattle and Ballard. Buses run over bridges, and Seattle has a lot of bridges whose repair and replacement is unfunded, and every Seattle neighborhood demands the most expensive option, with no loss of car capacity.

The real issue going forward for transit is how to make sure a 20% to 25% reduction in fare revenue and general fund subsidies result in less than a 20% to 25% reduction in levels of service. It has been a long time since anyone in Seattle has had to meaningfully consider efficiency, and to prioritize. It is time to focus on the core mission of transit with the declining revenue we have, and not get caught up in every other tangential issue like global warming, equity, Urbanism, affordable housing, TOD’s and so on. Just nuts and bolts transit, because the future cuts will be hard.

Anonymous

By โ€œweโ€, I mean King County. Many of us outside Seattle want proper urban transit amenities, too, and are more than ready to pay for it. This plan will get us there.

Douglas Trumm

Daniel, I encourage you to find other comment boards if you consider the issues of “global warning, equity, urbanism, affordable housing, TOD” as “tangential.” Pretty much our bread and butter here.

One billion was a starting point, we can certainly run a bigger package if we want to ensure higher frequencies and add more stuff. The Move Seattle Levy definitely has had a rocky road but part of why $930 million didn’t stretch farther is that it tried to do everything from road maintenance and repaving to building an expensive Lander Street Overpass instead of focusing on transit and bike/ped infra.

Daniel Thompson

Doug, I did not write that global warming, equity, Urbanism and affordable housing are tangential issues, I wrote that they are tangential to the primary mission of transit, which is to provide mobility, especially to the economically disadvantaged.

For example, electric cars, or clean generation of electricity, will not lessen the primary need for transit. Even if all the housing in Seattle were affordable (like in the 1970’s), and there was no global warming, transit would still be a need. In fact many forms of transit, such as the construction of light rail and diesel buses, contribute to global warming, but transit is a fundamental need. Your proposal to dramatically increase transit coverage would also increase carbon emissions.

Let me give you some examples:

1. Metro plans to reduce service 25% through 2040. It also plans on a very expensive program to electrify its buses by 2026 that will force it to reduce levels of service to those people who most need transit. Personally, I think the transit levels of service are more important in that situation because global warming is not the primary mission of transit, and the carbon emissions saved are less important than the lost mobility for economically disadvantaged citizens. It is not uncommon for a tangential mission to contradict the primary mission.

2. Metro has recently decided to move service from the north — primarily the 41 — to disadvantaged communities of color in the south, although some claim the ridership does not support that, and disadvantaged folks live in the north too, and tend to ride buses. However I agree with this move because transit’s primary mission is to provide mobility to the most economically disadvantaged (although perhaps not electrifying the bus fleet would not force Metro to make this choice).

3. Transit cannot solve the affordability issue. TOD’s are primarily designed to deal with the first/last mile access issue. TOD’s if not publicly subsidized are not more affordable, especially if new. Upzoning generally follows transit lines not because it will fund transit but because affordable housing — if any is created — generally serves those who need to take transit, whereas the transit line followed existing density.

I think it is the same for Urbanism. Urbanism’s main mission, as I understand it, is to provide a better, more fun, and more holistic way of living. The best argument for Urbanism on this blog are those who have lived in Europe and state they find urban European cities a much more pleasant life experience (although I would also suggest they live in NY as a bartender as I have).

Urbanism won’t be less attractive or its primary mission lessened because electric cars become ubiquitous, working from home, or we implement cleaner forms of electricity generation, and ironically most Urban enclaves are not in the disadvantaged communities. Whether you live on a farm, or a five acre lot in Lake Stevens, or a single family home (all of which have lush vegetation that absorbs carbon) or in a dense Urban setting none are more moral than the other. It just comes down to what makes you happiest (and you can afford), which is the primary goal in life, and in housing too.

When it came to your suggestion of a levy to increase transit I did not criticize your goal. I just don’t think it will get the votes in East King Co. at this time to offset the no votes in South King Co., and even if it is a Seattle only levy I don’t think you could complete a fraction of your goals with $1 billion. I support your vision, but it still has to be funded.

Douglas Trumm

Only needs to hit 34% outside of Seattle if 80% of Seattle voters back it. It’s not a heavy lift.

Part of try to do here is show and analyze how all these issues are interrelated. Compartmentalizing provides a less complete picture. For example, electrifying transit helps reduce pollution in low-income communities where Metro is targeting those investments. It’s worth talking about tradeoffs but they’re not as simple as you let on.

Daniel Thompson

There are also large tolled projects that need further funding with the reduction in traffic and lower gas tax revenues. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/state-sees-new-budget-crunch-as-fewer-washington-drivers-take-toll-routes/?utm_source=marketingcloud&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=TSA_120720160243+Toll+increases+likely+as+fewer+Washington+drivers+take+toll+routes_12_7_2020&utm_term=Registered%20User

Whether you agree with these projects or not they are bonded and must be paid one way or the other, and buses use this infrastructure too. The remedy for tolled projects appears to be higher tolls although that assumes a return of congestion and no alternatives, and perhaps higher fares on transit except higher fares are fairer for peak commuters who might not return.

Some of these like the Seattle Tunnel were more for aesthetics than mobility, to allow Seattle to open up its waterfront. Others like 520 were necessary replacements. 405 was to deal with overcapacity. The problem for each is they have free alternatives if there is no traffic congestion.

This would suggest a statewide transportation tax including transit might be the best route. Otherwise I think a Seattle only levy would have a better chance right now than a county wide tax. The county just raised the sales tax for emergency housing, and the sales tax is one of the most regressive. Transit on the eastside is much more peak oriented, and without peak congestion a transit tax might not appeal to eastsiders.

My own opinion is any tax increase should probably wait until economic times are better so any transit/transportation tax has a better chance of passing, and we have a better understanding of how many transit riders — especially peak commuters — return after the pandemic ends and the economy recovers, which means riders are comfortable with packed buses and trains.. Right now we really don’t know what we will need, or can afford. General fund tax revenues that subsidize transit and fare recovery might fall faster than a new tax could raise. That would suggest frequency and not capital projects should be the focus.

In the past we built transit and roads to meet peak hour capacity, which at the time made sense. However peak hour traffic is exactly the traffic/transit that might not return. That is a problem for any kind of road tolling since there is little incentive to use toll lanes if there is no congestion, and for transit tends to mean lower peak and non-peak hour frequency.

I know a lot of transit advocates believe frequency on existing transit is the most critical component. With Metro estimating a 25% reduction in levels of service through 2040 (and even more in non-disadvantaged communities as that service is reallocated to disadvantaged communities) and ST extending completion dates under ST 3 for 5 years for projects like running rail to Ballard and West Seattle it might be better to focus any future transit revenue towards maintaining frequency first, and completing our currently scheduled infrastructure second. ST’s bonds have to be repaid too. Telling voters ST is extending completion dates five years but we want a new transit tax might be a tough sell.

The final reality is I think $1 billion is way too low, both to cover our existing bonds and unfinished capital projects, and to maintain frequency on transit. Especially if the gas tax revenue declines significantly. Move Seattle was $1 billion, and provided very few substantive projects due to serious project cost underestimating, and I am sure opponents will raise Move Seattle.

AJ

I think you are commingling the budgets of distinct entities that operate at separate levels. If WSDOT has funding issues, that can be dealt with by deferring major capital projects, a state-wide gas tax, or other revenues (i.e. more tolling). That issue is independent of a county level transit agency. There are a few inter-dependencies, such as ST’s Stride depending on WSDOT 405 HOT projects, but those are specific rather than general. I think the public is sophisticated enough to understand that if WSDOT and ST are delaying capital projects, then the County ask for more money makes sense. They might not like it, but neither do they like lower levels of service.

If the package starts to sprawl and fund major road projects and/or provided the ‘3rd-party funding’ for Seattle’s ST projects, I could see voters start to walk. But if it’s pitched as a bus and trails package, as proposed here, I think that’s distinct enough that voters will evaluate it independent of the budget woes of WSDOT and ST.