Most Seattleites Are Willing to Pay More to Speed Up Link Light Rail Expansion, a Poll Shows

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New elevated section of track near Northgate Station with light rail vehicle testing. (Sound Transit)
A view of the new elevated section of track near Northgate Station with light rail vehicle testing. Seattle voters continue to show support for expanding Link light rail. (Sound Transit)

In a recent poll, 71% of Seattle voters said they would approve a new funding measure to avoid Sound Transit 3 delays.

Urbanist action alert: You can weigh in on the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) realignment plan and amendments ahead of the upcoming Board of Directors’ meeting by emailing emailtheboard@soundtransit.org. Comments will be accepted up until the meeting on Thursday, August 5th at 1:00pm. Verbal comments can also be provided at the virtual online meeting by signing up beforehand.

With the clock counting down to a planned final ST3 realignment Board of Directors’ vote this Thursday, the Northwest Progressive Institute has shared results from a recent poll gauging voters willingness to pay more to accelerate the completion of Link light rail expansion in the region. Their polling found that Seattleites remain steadfast in their support for expanding transit — despite sustained attacks on Sound Transit by right-wing saboteurs like Tim Eyman, whose Initiative 976 ($30 car tabs) nearly imploded the agency’s budget before being struck down by the courts.

Credit: Change Research and the Northwest Progressive Institute

Overall, 71% of Seattleites polled stated they were in favor of approving a new funding measure to ensure that ST3 projects can maintain their current timeline or be accelerated to open earlier, while another 5% expressed that they were unsure. Those numbers roughly equate to the 76% Seattle voters who opposed I-976 back in 2019, showing that enthusiasm for Link light rail expansion has not been diminished by the challenges and uncertainty wrought by a global pandemic.

QUESTION: The Sound Transit 3 light rail expansion projects inside Seattle shown on the map below may be delayed from opening to the public for several years past their original project completion dates primarily due to financial shortfalls. Would you support or oppose a new transit funding measure to speed up construction of current ST3 light rail expansion projects in Seattle?

Polling question shared with respondents by Change Research for the Northwest Progressive Institute
Credit: Seattle Subway and Northwest Progressive Institute

Young voters were most supportive, but no age group expressed strong opposition

Studying polling results closer reveals some generational trends. In a nutshell, the strongest support for a new transit funding measure was found among young voters aged 18-34, while the strongest opposition came from middle-aged voters aged 50-64, a cohort in which roughly a quarter of respondents expressed strong opposition. Here’s a complete breakdown of the results.

  • Strongly support a new transit funding measure
    • Young voters, 18-34: 68%
    • Ages 35-49: 51%
    • Ages 50-64: 35%
    • Ages 65+: 29%
  • Somewhat support a new transit funding measure
    • Young voters, 18-34: 21%
    • Ages 35-49: 23%
    • Ages 50-64: 25%
    • Ages 65+: 36%
  • Somewhat oppose a new transit funding measure
    • Young voters, 18-34: 3%
    • Ages 35-49: 6%
    • Ages 50-64: 10%
    • Ages 65+: 10% 
  • Strongly oppose a new transit funding measure
    • Young voters, 18-34: 8% 
    • Ages 35-49: 14%
    • Ages 50-64: 25%
    • Ages 65+: 16% 
  • Not sure
    • Young voters, 18-34: 0% 
    • Ages 35-49: 6%
    • Ages 50-64: 5%
    • Ages 65+: 9%

The fact that opposition was relatively weak across all groups is another strong indicator of the broad popularity for raising the funding necessary to accelerate the ST3 program.

These findings support advocacy by the MASS Coalition, of which The Urbanist is a member, urging Sound Transit to avoid disruptive delays on promised Link light rail expansion projects.

Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a funding measure for King County Metro in 2020, and it seems very likely that if given the authority they will do so again to keep Sound Transit on track. During Seattle Subway’s mayoral forum, all of the candidates expressed support for state-level legislative changes that would enable Seattle to have the power to fund light rail on its own, indicating that future mayoral leadership will be in agreement with Seattleites about raising more funds to bring light rail faster to a city that direly needs it. The wrong alignment plan could result in delays that neither residents — nor city leadership — want to endure.

Cities around the region are planning around the rapid transit ST3 will deliver and hoping to transform from carcentric one-class suburbs to walkable transit-oriented mixed-income cities where people can put down roots and age in place. Delaying transit will have a domino effect, delaying good land use decisions and affordable housing. Let’s build momentum instead of abandoning it.

Doug Trumm, Executive Director, The Urbanist

Will the Sound Transit Board of Director’s Heed the Call?

These polling results arrive at a very consequential moment because decisions made in the final alignment vote will impact the future of transportation and urban development in the Seattle region for years to come. The fact that Board Chair Kent Keel has expressed support for a hybrid realignment plan that allows for the ST3 program to move forward for now mostly on schedule — or close to it — is reason for optimism. Yet, with individual boardmembers’ proposed amendments still up for debate a lot of details remain to be determined. If the meeting proceeds as planned on Thursday, it is sure to be a nail-biter.

Sound Transit’s board is composed of members from across the region, so not all members may be swayed by a poll completed in Seattle alone. However, the strength of Seattle’s support, coupled by the fact that a majority of voters in the Sound Transit taxing district across all counties opposed the cuts it would have imposed by I-976, presents a strong case for boldly advancing forward with ST3 plans.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

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Samuelson

ST could have complied with I-776. All it did was require redemption of MVET-backed bonds ($700 million to service & ultimately redeem them). But NOOO, they circled the wagons and got the court to preserve its ability to collect its 0.3% MVET until their existing bonds were paid off in 2028 (some 25 years into the future).

During those same 25 years, ST was projecting it would collect ~$3.5 Billion in MVET, about five times as much as the cost of servicing the bonds which, I believe, was the only permissible use for the MVET after the court’s ruling.

So whomever complains below or above about corruption with municipal bonds should understand the full story instead of sweeping this chapter under the rug.

———-
High-capacity gondolas to WS and Ballard? Why not zeppelins?

Last edited 2 months ago by Samuelson
Marmar

Do voters want another ST3-like ballot measure to add taxes upon taxes they already pay for a network ST is challenged to deliver on time and on budget? The WS and Ballard Links can be delivered by high capacity gondola (as noted in Urbanist), for as much as 90% less than light rail, and seamlessly integrated into the LR spine stations at Interbay (&/or Roosevelt), ID and SODO. As ST vetted gondolas in 2014, what is keeping them from studying this HCT option?

Zach

Nobody wants the gondola outside of a select few folks and honestly it’s a lackluster solution to actually installing rail. And long term a rail line can be extended and expanded. Not so much for a gondola. A gondola doesn’t read as a transit solution than just an amusement park ride.

AJ M

Did ST vet gondolas in 2014? I’ve never seen the mode included in any detailed ST study.

SANDAG (San Diego) is seriously considering gondolas on several corridors as an effective last-mile solution for neighborhoods near light rail stations, so it’s plausible in Puget Sound, but the way ST’s levies are structured, I believe the gondola mode would need to be explicitly introduced in a future levy’s language.

Dan

Right now 17% of ST cost is just financing. This during a period when long term treasury bonds have consistently yielded less than 2%. Why is borrowing so expensive for us when interest rates are so low? Because of consolidation and corruption of municipal bond markets. We need to start regulating, investigating and prosecuting these bad actors to get our money back. After that we need to accelerate all construction. Most of these projects will be a positive contribution to the economy, every delay is just lost money.

AJ M

In the short term, ST certainly benefits from the historically low rates, and several recent bond issuances have locked in low rates for 20~30 years, saving hundreds of millions of dollars compared to 2014 projections. ST’s ability to deliver the core of ST3 is limited by the size of the debt, however, not the cost of the debt. ST is limited in the total amount of debt it can have outstanding at a given point in time, so while lower cost of debt allows ST to deliver more projects within the fixed debt ceiling, the ceiling itself is still unchanged.

The 17% figure is primarily driven by the fact that the ST3 project schedule requires ST3 debt to be added on top of the ST1 and ST2 debt, with everything rolling over until the ST3 projects are delivered, at which point ST will finally be able to pay down the balance. Even at historically low rates, carrying billions in debts over several decades certainly adds up. Also, once ST’s forecast gets into the 2030s and beyond, they assume interest rates more in line with long term historical averages, not the very low rates we see today.

In theory, ST could pay down ST1 and ST2 debts before launching into ST3, dramatically reducing that 17% figure, but also delaying all ST3 projects by at least a decade, if not more.

Samuelson

“just financing” -ha!- as if financing is meaningless. (That ‘financing’ proved absolutely essential in roping off the MVET from incursion by those ‘saboteurs’ in case you never learned that fact.)

asdf2

The phrasing of the question is definitely key here. For instance, I personally support transit and would probably lean “yes”. But, I can’t say that I would absolutely 100% vote yes without concrete numbers as to how much money for how many years earlier each project completes.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that the entire ST district must be taxed at a uniform rate, in spite of Seattle having far greater transit needs – and willingness to pay for it – than the surrounding suburbs. At some point, Seattle needs to be allowed to tax itself to fund its own transit needs in order for anything to happen, because I just don’t see the entire ST district voting for another transit measure anytime soon. This, of course, can’t happen without action from the state legislature.

AJ M

I read the question as anticipating ‘3rd party’ funding by the city of Seattle, using a city levy to fund the acceleration of ST3 projects within Seattle. I believe this can be done without any action by the legislature. Seattle already taxes itself to fund transit operations (the TBD car tabs tax) and transit infrastructure (Move Seattle and other property tax levies).

Reading the tea leaves, the next ‘Move Seattle’ levy will include greatly accelerating 130th and Graham and modest accelerations of WSBLE

asdf2

The amount of money that Seattle is allowed to raise with local taxes is limited. It’s enough to fund supplemental bus service, bus lanes, and, probably the acceleration of Graham St. Station. But, for the real expensive stuff like rail to West Seattle and Ballard, it won’t go very far. Only Sound Transit has the legal authority to raise the kind of money necessary to build something like that.

Joe

Seattle Subway has written House Bill 1304 to give Seattle its own means of funding ST expansion without waiting for tri-county approval. https://apps.leg.wa.gov/billsummary/?BillNumber=1304&Year=2021&Initiative=false

Last edited 2 months ago by Joe
J.S.

Should be noted that younger voters have the lowest turn out of any age group. So just because they are in favor of it does not mean they will bother filling out the ballot and turning it in. While the older groups, who also showed the strongest opposition, turn out far more reliably.

Side question as I could not tell from the website (as they actually say both, which made no sense) but was this poll on the street or online? If it was online I’d be very wary about drawing any conclusions from it. “Our poll of 617 likely August 2021 Seattle voters was in the field through Monday, July 12th, through Thursday, July 15th. All respondents participated online.”

Also they need to be more careful with their question. As asked it can be interpreted as meaning raising more money just to meet the original schedule, which was already a decade+ out before the delay or as meaning finishing projects faster than the original plan. You will get different answers to those two questions posed separately. A lot of people will not be happy to pay more money just to meet the original schedule, which is exactly how opponents of light rail will frame it. However if the extra money would finish the project even sooner than the original plan than that would be different, as people will feel they are getting something extra for more money.

OG Question: “The Sound Transit 3 light rail expansion projects inside Seattle shown on the map below may be delayed from opening to the public for several years past their original project completion dates primarily due to financial shortfalls. Would you support or oppose a new transit funding measure to speed up construction of current ST3 light rail expansion projects in Seattle?”