Seattle Subway-Backed HB 1304 Gets First Hearing February 9th

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Three construction workers in Sound Transit vests walk a construction site with crane overhead.
Roosevelt Station construction in 2019. More stations could be on the way if HB 1304 passes. (Credit: Sound Transit)

Rapid transit help could be on the way for Seattle. House Bill 1304, a bill to enable local rapid transit funding, has its first hearing scheduled on Tuesday, February 9th in the House Local Government Committee.

Shaun Kuo covered the proposal when author Representative David Hackney (D-11th Legislative District) first dropped the bill; we estimate the changes made to the City Transportation Authority (CTA), which was formerly used for ill-fated monorail expansion plans, could allow Seattle to raise more than $500 million per year once authorized by a citywide vote. That money would be spent expediting and adding new grade-separated transit.

Seattle Subway has provided a useful step-by-step guide to submitting testimony:

  1. Click here to submit testimony
  2. Select Committee: “Local Government
  3. Select Meeting: Select “2/9/2021 10AM”
  4. Select Agenda Item: “HB 1304 Grade Separated Transport
  5. Select type of testimony: “I would like to submit written testimony.”
  6. You will be sent to another page.
  7. Select Position: “Pro
  8. Fill out your information
  9. Write your testimony (limit 5000 characters)
  10. Submit Testimony

It only takes a minute to register as “pro” and leave a brief comment.

This potential funding source comes at a time of high need; earlier this month, Sound Transit revealed $4 billion worth of projected cost increases for Seattle’s Sound Transit 3 (ST3) light rail projects. The agency attributed the jump to rapidly escalating construction costs across the region and skyrocketing real estate prices in station areas. Without intervention to add revenue and control costs, significant delays to the delivery of ST3 light rail projects are likely. That’s why we must act.

The new revenue source could help Seattle ensure the stations promised in the ST3 ballot measure are built in a timely fashion and turn to expanding the system, with Seattle Subway eying extensions of the Ballard Link to the northeast, West Seattle Link to the south, and the additions an “E” light rail line along Aurora Avenue, among others (see map below). While an amended CTA can’t single-handedly build the Seattle rail map of our dreams, it would allow Sound Transit to begin planning expansions and building existing lines to fit those future plans rather than plodding along without a long-term vision and making blunders that require expensive retrofits later.

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 latest Seattle vision map indicates places where updated station interchanges must be designed. They want to design future stations for easy expandability. (Seattle Subway)

Beyond stabilizing ST3 budgets, Seattle Subway has enumerated 11 other benefits they see HB 1304 providing.

  • Stabilize the ST3 funding gap;
  • Maintain and expedite ST3 projects;
  • Future-proof ST3 for expansion;
  • Decrease Sound Transit land acquisition costs;
  • Avoid unnecessary and costly future retrofits;
  • Provide surplus land for affordable housing;
  • Make available new tools to expand light rail;
  • Remove obsolete RCW language;
  • Serve more underserved neighborhoods;
  • Cost-saving long-range transit planning;
  • Prepare to attract new federal transit dollars;
  • Rebate program for low-income individuals.
Stabilize the ST3 funding gap;
Maintain and expedite ST3 projects;
Future-proof ST3 for expansion;
Decrease Sound Transit land acquisition costs;
Avoid unnecessary and costly future retrofits;
Provide surplus land for affordable housing;
Make available new tools to expand light rail;
Remove obsolete RCS language;
Serve more underserved neighborhoods;
Cost-saving long-range transit planning;
Prepare to attract new federal transit dollars;
Rebate program for low-income individuals.
HB 1304 could be a gamechanger. (Graphic by Seattle Subway)

Seven legislators are signed on the bill thus far. Democratic Representatives Liz Berry (36th Legislative District), Joe Fitzgibbon (34th), Frank Chopp and Nicole Macri (both of the 43rd), Steve Bergquist (11th), and Gerry Pollet (46th) have signed on to Rep. Hackney’s bill as co-sponsors.

We encourage you to comment on the bill to ensure Seattle continues to build the sustainable transit-rich future we deserve.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that HB 1304’s first hearing has been pushed back a week to February 9th instead of February 3rd. Tentatively still 10am but we’ll update as needed.

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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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Daniel. Thompson

HB 1304 makes sense in that it avoids Sound Transit subarea equity and uniform tax rates among Sound Transit subareas, and does not require voter approval outside Seattle. Some subareas want more transit, or have bigger funding needs. However the current debate about whether HB 1304 should be limited to rail, or grade separated transit, probably won’t matter for three reasons.

1. Completing the ST 3 projects for the N. King Co. subarea (second transit tunnel, West Seattle and Ballard rail lines) will exhaust any levy revenue raised in Seattle under HB 1304. ST is now estimating a $4 billion cost overrun for construction, land acquisition and soft costs to run rail to West Seattle and Ballard from just four years ago when ST 3 passed, and ST has previously revised its future general fund and farebox revenue projections downwards for the N. King Co. subarea, both short term due to Covid-19 and long term due to working from home. Simply completing the ST 3 projects in the N. King Co. subarea — if ST’s new cost and revenue estimates are remotely accurate — could cost up to $10 billion under HB 1304, which will exhaust most of Seattle’s tax capacity for other needs like emergency housing, affordable housing, bridges, lids over I-5, completion of the convention center, and so on, including other transit projects and Metro.

2. The second transit tunnel was estimated to cost $2.2 billion in ST 3. The N. King Co. subarea is to pay half ($1.1 billion) and the four other subareas half, or 12.5% each, which is $275 million/each. New ST cost estimates suggest the cost of completing the second tunnel at closer to $3.56 billion (which was predicted when ST 3 passed). This means the five subareas will have to come up with an additional $1.36 billion, or $680 million for N. King Co. and $170 million per subarea for the four other subareas. The four other subareas were not keen on paying towards the second transit tunnel to begin with considering they did not get tunnels and there is capacity for their rail in the existing transit tunnel, and quite frankly I don’t think that except for the East King Co. subarea they have an additional $170 million each anyway, right when they are beginning on their rail projects they have waited decades for. HB 1304 will not allow these smaller cities to levy separate transit levies, even if they wanted to. Although it is called Seattle Subway, I am not sure any projects funded under HB 1304 will be below ground, including the second line through Seattle.

3. I worry Seattle Subway is making the same mistake ST made, and that is creating (or really finishing) a rail spine without first/last mile access that is frequent enough to make up for the fact most trips including rail will add a transfer and a seat, things commuters especially hate. If you live near a large park and ride that serves rail you are ok, but if you have to rely on declining and reallocated Metro feeder service your trip will become longer despite rail. HB 1304 does not allow levy funds to increase bus service through Metro, which IMO is the fundamental problem rail will face when it opens from Everett to Tacoma to Redmond despite declining Metro revenue and service levels: longer trips with an additional seat and transfer.

Finally, I wonder how even Seattle voters will feel about a levy that asks them to pay twice for the same ST 3 projects, and ST’s and Move Seattle’s very poor record at accurately estimating the cost of projects (which will really frighten the four subareas outside N. King Co. when it comes to new ST cost estimates for the second transit “tunnel”). If ST underestimated just the costs of completing rail to West Seattle and Ballard by $4 billion when ST 3 passed just four years ago can anyone really rely on ST’s new cost estimates before passing levies and beginning construction?

RossB

While an amended CTA can’t single-handedly build the Seattle rail map of our dreams, it would allow Sound Transit to begin planning expansions and building existing lines to fit those future plans rather than plodding along without a long-term vision and making blunders that require expensive retrofits later.

Don’t be silly. Of course Sound Transit could continue to make blunders. These blunders have nothing to do with lack of long term planning. Holy cow, they plan on building a subway from Tacoma to Everett! That is crazy, but part of their plan. So is building a train from Issaquah to South Kirkland — a line that would not help anyone get to Seattle any faster.

The problem is lack of execution, and messed up priorities. First Hill has been skipped twice now. Twice! The Mount Baker Station is so bad that a strong proponent of ST called it awful (https://seattletransitblog.com/2012/04/18/the-awfulness-of-mt-baker-station/). It lacks stations in places like the UW, or north of it. The current recommendation is that the Ballard Station be at 14th Avenue, a very long way from the cultural, employment or residential center of Ballard (https://seattletransitblog.com/2019/03/21/a-better-ballard-option/). I could go on. This has nothing to do with long range planning, and everything to do with mixed up priorities.

For example, why on earth is West Seattle next? West Seattle literally has a freeway that connects it to downtown. The new, very expensive light rail bridge won’t even add any stops! Most of the riders will have to transfer, and they will get nothing out of it. They would be better off with the old bus, let alone a faster one that went into a bus tunnel. The argument for West Seattle rail is extremely weak. The idea that it should be the next project — and likely one of our last — is appalling.

This is not the result of poor long term planning. In fact, the board actually is making the West Seattle line worse, based on the ridiculous assumption that it can easily be extended south. We simply don’t have the money to do that — no city our size has ever done that. Unless, of course, you ran it on the surface, which this bill expressly prohibits (and is probably difficult anyway, given the geography). Yet they now favor having the line face south — farther away from the only significant destination in West Seattle that could possibly be served by this boondoggle (The Junction).

Sorry, but ST’s problems have little to do with their lack of long range planning, and everything to do with a failure to understand urban transit.

Anonymous

Good to see you’re still soapboxing your ST hate. Some day maybe you’ll graduate into saying something useful.

Anyway, sign me up for this bill. Let’s get this done.