Seattleites Support a New Funding Measure to Expand Light Rail, Poll Finds

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A view of an elevated light rail track with a train approaching.
The Sound Transit expansion is bringing light rail to Northgate in early October 2021. (Credit: Sound Transit)

This summer in the lead up to decision-making on whether or not to delay projects promised in the Sound Transit 3 measure, the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) released results from a poll conducted by Change Research Institute. Their data showed 71% of polled Seattle voters expressed support for a new transit funding measure to avoid ST3 delays. Fortunately, the Sound Transit board voted for a hybrid realignment plan that avoids the most substantial delays, keeping promises made to area residents largely intact.

Now NPI has released data from a second question included in the poll, and it shows similar high levels of support for a new transit funding measure.

Pollees want more of Seattle connected to Link light rail

When asked if they would support or oppose a new transit funding measure to connect the rest of the City of Seattle with Link light rail, 76% of Seattle voters polled voiced support, with 48% expressing strong support.

QUESTION: When all Sound Transit 3 projects are fully built, more than half of Seattle’s densely populated neighborhoods will still not have their own light rail stations. Would you support or oppose a new transit funding measure to connect the rest of the City of Seattle with Link light rail?  ANSWERS:  Support: 76%  Strongly support a new transit funding measure: 48% Somewhat support a new transit funding measure: 28% Oppose: 19% Somewhat oppose a new transit funding measure: 6% Strongly oppose a new transit funding measure: 13% Not sure: 5%
The new poll question released this week. (Credit: Northwest Progressive Institute)

The poll was conducted among 617 Seattle voters and has a modeled margin of error of 4.3% at the 95% confidence interval.

“We can’t afford to wait another quarter of a century to get Seattle’s other densely populated neighborhoods connected to Link,” said Andrew Villeneuve, NPI founder and executive director, in a press release. “Right now, we have just one high capacity transit line running through Seattle when we need several. Seattle Subway’s Vision Map shows us where we need to invest to ensure everyone in the Emerald City has access to high quality transit. While we work to accelerate delivery of ST3 projects, we should also be thinking about what comes after ST3, because we’re way behind getting multimodal transportation infrastructure built.”

A map of the Seattle Subway's vision map of a light rail system made of seven lines that would cover much of the city.
Seattle Subway’s 2021 Vision Map. (Credit: Seattle Subway)

The statement released alongside the poll by NPI acknowledges while voters appear to be “sold on light rail as a good investment, there is still the practical matter of delivering it to the neighborhoods that need it.” A major part of delivery will involve deciding how to finance new transit, an aspect of planning that is never easy.

A timely poll

Only weeks remain before Sound Transit’s Link light rail extension opens on October 2nd. On that day, thousands of Seattleites living near the 1 Line (formerly known as the Central Link) will gain access to fast, frequent transit running all the way from Northgate to Angle Lake. For people whose daily trips fall within the light rail service area, or who live near connecting bus routes, the introduction of the new stations will be a transportation game changer. Link light rail ridership doubled after the addition of the Capitol Hill and University of Washington Stations in 2016 and a similar surge in ridership is possible in 2021.

A map representing the Sound Transit Link 1 Line route with all stations and connecting bus routes listed.
A route map for 1 Line starting October 2nd. (Credit: Sound Transit)

As exciting as the Link expansion is, the fact remains that most Seattle residents will largely maintain their current travel habits because light rail will be located too far from their homes and the places they need to travel. This is why transit advocates like NPI and Seattle Subway are pushing to expand the light rail network across Seattle, and the the poll suggests the Seattle electorate is onboard.

Questions remain about how to fund transit expansion

The poll did not present any idea of what the new transit funding measure would be. Thus, it is hard to conclude how respondents would have reacted if they felt costs would have fallen too heavily on their shoulders when funding mechanisms start getting specific rather than broad and amorphous. However, the poll’s strong showing of support for a new transit funding measure indicates a majority of Seattle voters are willing to pay more for transit expansion, a finding backed up by a history of voter support for measures such as the Move Seattle Levy, the previous Sound Transit expansion referendums, and the Seattle Transportation Benefit District renewal, which passed with 80% of the vote in 2020.

However, until now Sound Transit has sought regional funding for its projects. There are practical reasons behind this approach. For one thing, congestion and the need for increased transit are not restricted to Seattle alone, and a regional approach acknowledges these needs, while providing for a larger and more diverse tax payer base to finance multi-billion dollar transit investments.

There is also the matter of a state-level hurdle that stands in the way of Seattle raising its own funding for light rail. While Seattle can raise money for other citywide transportation improvements like roads, bridges, buses, streetcars, bike lanes, and sidewalks, the City has limited authority to raise funding for “grade separated transportation improvements” (i.e., rail, on its own).

Shaun Kuo reported for The Urbanist back in January how State Representative David Hackney (D-11th Legislative District) proposed House Bill 1304, which would have amended “the existing City Transportation Authority (CTA), which was intended for Seattle’s monorail expansion ambitions, to fund grade-separated rail transit instead.” Despite 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) all signing on as co-sponsors, and words of support from King County Executive Dow Constantine and Sound Transit State Relations Director Alex Soldano, the legislation did not make it out of its legislative committee this season. Backers hope that it will be back on the docket next year.

While opening the door to independent revenue generation for light rail in Seattle would expand future funding possibilities, it is also conceivable that a regional approach to transit funding would continue to succeed. 54% of voters in the Sound Transit Taxing District approved Sound Transit 3’s referendum in 2016. While Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 ($30 car tabs), which would have dealt a huge blow to transit funding, passed statewide, it was rejected in the Sound Transit Taxing District. The Washington Supreme Court took note of this fact when it ruled I-976 was unconstitutional.

“The initiative passed statewide with about 53% of the vote, though it was rejected by about 53% of the voters in the Sound Transit region, about 60% of King County voters, and about 70% of San Juan voters, who depend heavily on ferries funded by motor vehicle excise taxes,” the court’s opinion stated.

If three quarters of Seattle voters were to turn out in favor of a Sound Transit 4 expansion funding measure, as the NPI poll indicates, the support would likely be enough to carry a regional or countywide measure forward.

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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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asdf2

The business of all light rail having to be spread out over a huge region with uniform tax rates is not sustainable any longer. There’s just no way to get enough badly needed projects in the city without doing a bunch of much lower value projects elsewhere, and there is a real risk that suburbanites balk and leave Seattle with nothing.

At some point, the state has to relax the rules to allow individual cities in the Sound Transit district to fund expansions of light rail using their own tax money approved by their own voters. From a fairness perspective, I think it is perfectly fine if sub-areas that want transit get what they want and pay more in taxes to fund it than those that don’t.

Stephen Fesler

Seattle Subway is proposing funding options that only apply to Seattle. A state bill is pending that would provide several funding tools only in the city for light rail. So that seems like it would address your point, doesn’t it?

RON DAVIS

I’d be interested to see some more data on regional support for light rail. I suspect that in Snohomish and Pierce, it might be a bit of a heavy lift.

While transport and its challenges are regional in nature, Seattle intracity rail can get a more riders per mile, and my instinct is to connect the most populated places as fast as possible. If the funding authority were to be put in place for Seattle, I’d favor this option as I think it would be more likely to pass/generate more value.

Another possibility, which would also take legislative work, is to create greater flexibility for each Sound Transit district to take on projects and tax itself. I could imagine a joint project with East King. Or to product authority to do this at the county level (which could drive a set of King County lines). Metro may have the ability to do this already (with a regional vote) and then hand over operations to Seattle. Would be worth looking into.

One way or another, we really need those purple, green and yellow lines!