Hackney Bill Offers Seattle a Path to Fund Rail Priorities

7
Roosevelt light rail station entrance with a 6-story apartment building in the background.
The colorful facade of Vida Apartments will be the first thing light rail riders see arriving in Roosevelt for years to come. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Tuesday, State Representative David Hackney (D-11th Legislative District) introduced an exciting bill that could provide Seattle a path to extend rail expansions beyond Sound Transit 3 (ST3) and help avert severe delays in ST3 timelines threatened due to cost escalations and dips in revenue due to the pandemic.

House Bill 1304 amends existing City Transportation Authority (CTA), which was intended for Seattle’s monorail expansion ambitions, to fund grade-separated rail transit instead. The idea is that if the whole Sound Transit Taxing District, which extends from Everett to DuPont, is not prepared to go from ST3 to ST4 in the near future, Seattle should be ready to forge on and plan for the long-term. Fellow Democratic Representatives Liz Berry (36th Legislative District), Joe Fitzgibbon (34th Legislative District), Frank Chopp (43rd Legislative District), Nicole Macri (43rd Legislative District), Steve Bergquist (11th Legislative District), and Gerry Pollet (46th Legislative District) signed on as co-sponsors.

“It’s clear that Seattleites support smart, well-planned transit expansion,” Rep. Berry said. “HB 1304 makes it possible to plan for the long-term, ensure we have resources to build Ballard to West Seattle expeditiously, and expand these lines into other parts of our city.”

Seattle Subway has been pushing the bill behind the scenes, and has been a big proponent of planning ST3 for expansion and passing a ST4 package to keep building momentum. They have floated using the CTA as a funding source in the past, and this bill would clear the legal obstacles to doing so.

“Our district has some of the worst air quality in the state due to multiple highways cutting through our neighborhoods,” said Rep. Hackney said. ”South Seattle and South King County have the largest gaps in the region between transit service needs and transit provided, making life harder on essential workers still going to work in person. If we are going to solve these issues, make transit more equitable, and avert the worst of climate change, then we need to plan future rapid transit expansion now and find every opportunity to build rapid transit faster. HB 1304 is a key tool to do this.”

Having a voter-approved funding source for further expansion would allow Sound Transit to build ST3 with expandability in mind, Jonathan Hopkins, political director at Seattle Subway, said. As an example, Seattle’s second downtown transit tunnel could be planned to include a track turnoff toward Aurora Avenue for a future light rail line. Doing so would save a lot of future expense and the need to shut down service during construction, as we saw with 10 weeks of single tracking during East Link construction–dubbed Connect 2020.

“One of the inspirations for this bill was Connect 2020,” Hopkins said. “To shut down the system after you have it operating for 10 years is wholly unnecessary. They should have added a junction in 2009 when the light rail line wasn’t in operation when we shut down the tunnel. We knew we wanted to connect to Bellevue and Redmond. We knew we wanted to go across the floating bridge. We knew exactly where we wanted to do it. There just hadn’t been voter approval to connect there so Sound Transit couldn’t spend a dime because of a quirk in state law and their authorizing legislation.”

Hopkins said the bill would help rectify the issue. Moreover, a voter-approved expansion plan would also allow (and legally permit) Sound Transit to begin acquiring properties for stations and staging areas sooner, Seattle Subway said. Rapid jumps in property values are the biggest factor driving up costs over initial estimates, so acquiring land sooner could save hundreds of millions of dollars. The bill would not provide enough revenue to singlehandedly close the ST3 budget shortfall that has climbed to nearly $5 billion, but it would provide tools to control costs and promote better system planning going forward.

“[Sound Transit builds] what the voters tell them to, and not a penny more,” he added. “It’s all they’re allowed to do. It creates a bias that they extend rather than densify the system.”

Getting into the legislation

Chapter 35.95A RCW of state law governs City Transportation Authorities. The existing law only allows the performance of monorail functions by city transportation authorities—namely in Seattle. However, the bill would broaden that performance to grade-separated transportation function, and allow for the function of grade-separated transportation facilities to transport passengers. The bill defines those facilities as:

[L]ight, heavy, or rapid rail facility, monorail, inclined plane, funicular, trolley, or other fixed rail guideway component of a transportation system operating principally on exclusive rights-of-way that is not regulated by the federal railroad administration or its successor that utilizes train cars running on a guideway, together with the necessary passenger stations, terminals, parking facilities, related facilities, any lands, interest in land, or air rights over lands, or other properties, and facilities necessary and appropriate for passenger and vehicular access to and from people-moving systems.

From Section 1(7) of House Bill 1304

Existing language in Chapter 35.95A RCW distinctly excludes fixed guideway light rail system. This expansion is important because a CTA is a municipal corporation and an independent taxing authority. It would be an additional avenue for Washington cities to generate funding for light rail and other rail projects–potentially high speed rail— as long as the electors within the authority area approve of the taxation. Sorry gondola advocates, permitted use would be limited to station access in this bill and is prohibited in existing CTA law.

However, an important change is the increase of the population requirement of a city to have these powers. The language in the bill raises that threshold to 500,000 residents, up from 300,000. This would pull it even farther out of reach for Washington’s mid-sized cities like Spokane, Vancouver, and Tacoma. Those cities have populations that are all around 200,000, and could feasibly hit the existing text’s 300,000-resident requirement in the foreseeable future. If Spokane and Tacoma continue to grow at a more leisurely 7% per decade (like they did this past decade), it would be more than 40 years before they hit 300,000. Considering how fast Bellevue is growing (21% in the past decade), even it could be in play with the existing threshold–though much rides on zoning decisions.

Hopkins said upping the population threshold was intended to increase the bill’s chance of passing, but that he supports lowering the threshold if local legislators back it. This could be done in a future bill if they’re not ready to get onboard at this juncture.

“Expansion to include Tacoma in this law would further equity in the region,” Tacoma transit advocate Chris Karnes tweeted. “We need to allow qualified first class cities to get ahead of the growth. Transit plans and projects have a long gestation period already (20+ years).”

Legislators may have reason to lower the requirement to 200,000 residents if advocates win over their representatives. But, reading between the lines, it appears state legislators in places like Spokane, Tacoma, and Vancouver don’t want to bring the funding authority to their districts. Car tab increases, as a revenue option, are controversial in many districts outside Seattle.

Empowering Seattleites to build more rail

Here’s how Seattle could exercise these new powers if the bill passes.

Seattle City Councilmembers would be able to propose creation of an authority by ordinance, or a petition signed by 1% of qualified voters in a proposed authority area could propose an authority. The authority area can encompass a portion or the whole city. Backers would propose what kind of public grade-separated transportation function will be exercised by the authority and propose an initial array of taxes. The proposal would then have to be voted upon by the voters in the proposed authority area. If approved, the city councilmembers in the authority area would become the governing body of the authority and form the authority with bylaws and officers.

A elevated rail line down the middle of Aurora Avenue with bike lanes, bus lanes, and a row of trees on the side.
What Aurora Avenue would look like with elevated light rail. (Credit: Ryan DiRaimio / Seattle Subway)

With approval of voters, the authority would have the power to:

  • Levy annual property taxes of up to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, a special yearly excise tax not exceeding 2.5% on the value of every motor vehicle (in 2002, a 1.4% tax was worth $1.5 billion for the Monorail Green Line), a up to $100 per vehicle license fee per year, and a 1.944% sales and use tax on rental cars–back of the envelope math suggests that these taxes and fees could raise $500 million or more per year if fully leveraged, primarily through the property tax;
  • Issue bonds to borrow money;
  • With its funding, the authority could acquire, lease, construct, add to, improve, replace, repair, maintain, operate, and regulate use of public grade-separated transportation facilities;
  • Fix rates, tolls, fares, and charges for the use of facilities;
  • Contract with other governments and private persons or corporations to design, construct, operate, or maintain facilities; and
  • Establish local improvement districts and exercise all other powers necessary and appropriate to carry out its responsibilities.
Seattle Subway's Seattle map include extensions of Ballard Link to Lake City, West Seattle Link to the airport and Renton, a new Metro 8, and the Aurora Line.
Seattle Subway’s Seattle vision map indicates places where updated station interchanges must be designed. Much of Sound Move and ST2 stations were not designed to expand or connect to new lines. (Seattle Subway)

New to these powers would be the ability to work with other transportation authorities like Sound Transit and public transportation benefit districts. Proposed changes would also allow CTA to negotiate and solicit competitive bids from private firms and corporations, establish offices, departments, boards, and commissions, appoint or remove officers and employees, fix compensation, employ specialized personnel, determine risks, hazards, and liabilities. Many of these new powers are spelled out to ensure that an authority can comprehensively execute its duties.

Among those responsibilities is a new one to take into account and report 30-year projected ridership, number of affordable housing units within a 15-minute walking radius of stations, and the number of transit-dependent households in the area. These numbers would be taken in the context of financing and systems plans, so that a CTA would have to plan with long-term ridership, and equity in mind. This could mean expedited additions of future services and future-proofed infrastructure to expand light rail to places like Renton, South Park, Georgetown, Kenmore, Burien, Edmonds, and the Aurora corridor in order to serve our region equitably and add them without disruption to the system.

Beyond adding funding, the ability to plan ahead will also stretch existing funding further, avoiding expensive late-in-the-game property acquisitions or major alterations to add junctions in light rail lines already in service.

“Imagine trying to tap into an underground tunnel when it wasn’t built to accommodate that in the future,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to require shutting down the system for a year, and it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of unnecessary dollars. So originally this bill was devised as a way to get ahead of that process and fix our planning process. So we build with the future in mind.”

Construction workers in Bellevue’s downtown tunnel. (Credit: Sound Transit)

The status quo isn’t serving the region well. “Every time we build something, we build it like it’s the last thing we’re ever going to do,” Hopkins said. “And that’s no way to run a railroad.”

Other Provisions

Section 9, which discusses post-completion and dissolution of the authority, has been nearly entirely rewritten. Previously, a petition could propose dissolution of monorail authorities through a process that ended up with a vote in 2007–an amendment in 2007 created for the 2008 dissolution of the Seattle Monorail Authority, whose economic woes led to a 2005 final vote that ended the Seattle Monorail Project. The bill would change this to allow dissolution of an authority once its work is done, debt is paid, and upkeep and operation transferred to another body. Alternatively, the authority could downsize to just carry out upkeep requirements like operation and maintenance.

Other sections that the bill would add to Chapter 35.95A RCW create systems for a city transportation authority to be more equitable. Section 11 would allow for a rebate program to refund low-income individuals up to 40% of special excise tax or vehicle license fee imposed by the authority. Section 12 goes much further, requiring an authority to create a system plan for implementing equitable transit-oriented development. This section dictates that at least 80% of disposed or transferred surplus property (such as staging areas used during transit construction no longer needed afterwards) must be offered at no cost, sale, or longer-term lease first to local government, housing authority, or nonprofit developer to develop affordable housing. This can be waived if it would be in conflict with a federal grant program eligibility, or if a transfer is done to facilitate permitting, construction, or mitigation of grade-separated transportation facilities and services.

Some equity measures were already built into the chapter, such as requiring signage that is accessible for persons with disabilities, non-English-speaking persons, and visitors. Another new section requires a city transportation authority to receive state funding to submit a maintenance and preservation management plant for certification by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Next Steps

This bill is still fresh. Let your state representatives know if you support the bill and what amendments you’d like to see to it. If you live in a mid-sized Washington city and you would like to have the power to establish a local city transportation authority, let your representatives know you want the population limit reduced.

Seattle Subway's Timeline for Success shows changes to long-range plans and then a CTA vote around 2022 so that the EIS due 2023 will incorporate the long-range visions.
Seattle Subway projects 2022 could be an ideal time for a CTA vote since it’d be done before the EIS for Ballard and West Seattle Link is finalized. That means expandability could factor into decisions. (Credit: Seattle Subway)

House Bill 1304 offers our cities more power to pursue emission-free transportation options, improve the quality of our urban built environment, and lessen our carbon footprint and environmental impact.

Doug Trumm contributed to this reporting.

Update: This article has been updated with the Hackney quote, the estimate of total revenue, the timeline graphic, and a caveat about limited use of gondolas for station access being possible under bill language.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Shaun Kuo is a junior editor at The Urbanist and a recent graduate from the UW's Jackson School. He is a Seattle native that has lived in Wallingford, Northgate, and Lake Forest Park. He enjoys exploring the city by bus and foot.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

7 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
asdf2

It’s not perfect, but at first glance, it feels like a step in the right direction. Different regions have different needs and willingness to tax. Post ST3, you start hitting diminishing returns out in the suburbs, while Seattle itself still has a lot of large unmet needs. If we want anything to happen, we need to allow Seattle to fund its own improvements, without being tied down by voters in Bonney Lake and Everett.

C

Is the Seattle Subway vision map shown in the article new? I don’t think I’ve see one that shows the green line extending through Kubota Garden and Skyway.

Anonymous

Doug attached that image, but looking the the year next to the copyright it does look like the newest vision map. Made their HB 1304 announcement perhaps

Doug Trumm

Yes I believe that’s the newest map because it’s the one Seattle Subway suggested including. Most of their maps cover the whole region, but this one is intended to focus on Seattle to pair with the CTA idea.

RossB

The bill is too limited. It is nuts to focus on one mode. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place (with the obsession over the silly monorail). If a gondola makes sense, then they should build a gondola. If bus improvements make sense, we should make bus improvements. Sound Transit 3 isn’t the only project in Seattle that is a lot more expensive than planned, so is this: https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/12/21/rapidride-the-corridors/. Except instead of being billions more than expected, it was “only” tens of millions more than expected. Fully funded, this would be a huge improvement for transit in Seattle, and would likely result in higher ridership, and more time saved than Ballard Link, let alone West Seattle Link. I’m not saying we shouldn’t build West Seattle or Ballard Link, but it is nuts to say that we shouldn’t spend money improving the transit mode that *more* people will use. Even after Link is completely built out, more people will ride the buses than ride the trains, just like most American cities. It is stupid to limit what can funded — once again — by mode. Just simplify the bill by saying “transit”, and don’t worry about what type.

AJ

I agree. This really feels like a mechanism to fund gold-plated West Seattle & Ballard Link and to plug the budget gap in the CCC Streetcar, and actually mobility improvements beyond those 3 projects – which are already funded – will only occur once the CTA gets to its 3rd Billion.

A mechanism that would fund an extension of the FHSC but not an improvement to the E is not a good mechanism.

Daniel Thompson

If you live outside Seattle it’s hard to object to a bill to allow Seattle voters to tax themselves. Obviously moving the population threshold from 300k to 500K is about removing objections from every other city in WA that will never reach 500k in population.

I have always felt uniform tax rates in the ST taxing district never made sense. Different subareas have different needs and costs. All uniform tax rates have done is left the North King Co. subarea with too little funding, and the eastside subarea with too much. I would much rather have Seattle and the N. King Co. subarea tax themselves to complete transit in their subarea/region than place ST 4 on the ballot

The one item not discussed in this article is the enormous amounts we are talking about. With recent disclosures over underestimating costs for construction, land and soft costs (a chronic habit for ST), and future revenue shortfalls in the North King Co. subarea, Seattle taxpayers will be looking at $10 billion just to finish rail to Ballard and West Seattle and fund North King Co.’s 1/2 of the second tunnel, costs Seattle taxpayers feel like they have already paid for with ST 3. And that is if ST farebox revenue ever returns to 40% again.

And now advocates want to bond subways, tunnels, and every kind of transit, when really a line from Ballard to the UW would be a better idea, but cost prohibitive. Plus Seattle is looking at over $1 billion in bridge repair and replacement. And another $1.6 billion for 6500 subsidized housing units (except that works out to $246,000/unit, about half what a subsidized unit has cost to build in Seattle in the past).

I have to think Seattle voters will remember Move Seattle, and how they got less than half the promised projects for $1 billion.

Seattle has to understand residents and companies can move, and the businesses and companies that can move the easiest are those with the most money. Plus Seattle has a lot of social issues today. Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue and the eastside will all have much lower tax rates across the board, from sales to property to business to vehicle, and then there is working from home and its affect on revenue in cities that pre-pandemic were commuter hubs like Seattle that will allow businesses to more easily locate their business for tax purposes.