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.