A side-by-side comparison from Seattle Subway, which is supporting a 30-year tax measure to expand light rail all over the region.
A side-by-side comparison from Seattle Subway, which is supporting a 30-year tax measure to expand light rail all over the region. seattle subway

On Tuesday morning, the scrappy nonprofit Seattle Subway released a new video laying out their vision for expanding light rail all over the Puget Sound.

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"Let's not settle for an incomplete system," a voiceover says as lines on a map grow into an exciting real-city-sized light rail system. "It's time for Sound Transit Complete."

"Sound Transit Complete" is what the transit advocacy group is calling its vision for Sound Transit 3 (ST3), the light rail measure that's going to be on your ballot next fall.

While most of the talk up until this point has been about a 15-year tax measure that funds new light rail to Ballard, West Seattle, Everett, Redmond, and Tacoma, Seattle Subway's plan would stretch that measure over 30 years and fund even more routes to the North, South, and East.

Is it doable?

WHERE WE'RE AT NOW:

After a fight in the state legislature earlier this year, our region got the authority to tax itself for a massive ballot measure to expand light rail to Ballard, West Seattle, and places outside the city.

Now, Sound Transit has to figure out what exactly that ST3 package is going to look like.

The agency got the authority to ask voters for new taxes that would amount to about $15 billion over 15 years. (The legislature didn't limit the number of years Sound Transit could extend those taxes over, according to Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick, which makes the 30-year plan possible. Sound Transit could also use already existing taxes and federal money to spend even more in that timespan.)

Sound Transit is now in the process of studying a bunch of different projects, how much they'll cost, how many people would use them, and so on. On Friday, Sound Transit's board—which is made up mostly of elected leaders from around the region—is going to hold a workshop to talk about those specifics. Then they'll start figuring out what a package on the ballot would look like. It works like a menu of options. They have to decide what they want and what you, the taxpayers, are willing to pay for. They also have to figure out just how you're going to pay for it (what mix of property, sales, and car tab taxes).

SEATTLE SUBWAY'S PITCH:

Seattle Subway—a collective of ambitious transit nerds who use the term "subway" as a reference not only to underground transit, but to the scope of public transit they want to see in Seattle—doesn't have a favored tax mix and their project list is flexible. Their main argument is that the ballot measure should span a longer stretch of time and fund more projects instead of expanding the system piecemeal with multiple ballot measures over the next few decades. They support the same tax rate that would be put forward in a 15-year plan. They just want it to last longer.

"The basic concept is this:" the group wrote on Seattle Transit Blog, "Sound Transit puts forth a ballot measure that has more projects with more time to pay for them and more time to construct them. By planning and building a system instead of multiple votes for a few lines at a time, we have the ability to think and act strategically, save staff time and set ourselves up for more federal funds."

What makes that risky is that the overall price tag for ST3 would be bigger.

Supporters believe voters would be willing to support the bigger plan once they could see a map of projects that excited them—projects they'd actually use.

"Aren't we more likely to get the whole city to vote for it if the whole city benefits from it?" says Jonathan Hopkins, Seattle Subway's political director. The same goes for the rest of region. Hopkins believes committing to more rail lines on the East side will make voters there more likely to support the proposal.

Puget Sound voters' history with transit measures is mixed. Way back in 1968, King County voters rejected a plan for a public rail system that would have been mostly funded by the feds. These days, transit votes are usually popular. Still—as if I need to point this out to anyone who lives in this city—expansion of our rail system has happened at a glacial pace. Seattle Subway has been pushing its vision for getting us more rail faster for years.

Now, they believe the region is finally ready to sign on for something big. They also believe a 30-year plan will make for better planning, construction, and financing.

"The whole region is hungry for not being stuck in traffic two hours a day," Hopkins says. "What we’re expecting is for our legislators to live up to our aspirations as a region and to do what folks need."

WHY IT MIGHT NOT WORK:

When it comes to appealing to voters, a huge package has its downsides, too.

"[To say] 'You get to ride this train in 30 years,' that’s not exactly compelling," says Shefali Ranganathan, the new executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, the group that led the campaign for the last Sound Transit measure, ST2, and will do the same for ST3.

Opponents could call a 30-year measure a "never-ending tax," Ranganathan says.

"That yard sign writes itself," she says. (Ranganathan is fresh off a campaign against anti-taxxers over the city's Let's Move Seattle levy.)

Ranganathan also says that in order to buy into Seattle Subway's idea, she needs more specifics from Sound Transit about exactly how much different light rail lines would cost. That's part of what the Sound Transit board will get into on Friday.

"Those are nice lines on the map, but my question is, 'Can you actually do all of that with the tax authority we have in the timeframe Seattle Subway is proposing?'" Ranganathan says.

Instead of the 30 years Seattle Subway is pitching, Ranganathan says she expects the board to craft package that spans 20 years.

"That’s the trick," she says. "What’s best mix of projects that mostly completes the network in a reasonable amount of time but doesn’t give people complete and total sticker shock?"

One other thing to keep in mind: However the ST3 package ends up, it will also have to have enough new projects spread across the region to comply with the requirement for so-called "subarea equity." That rule requires that taxes raised in each of Sound Transit's subareas (portions of Snohomish, Pierce, East King, South King, and North King Counties) be spent in those areas. (Here's more on the pros and cons of that complicated policy, if you're into that sort of thing.)

HOW TO GET INVOLVED:

The Sound Transit board's ST3 workshop happens Friday at 10 a.m. at Union Station.

That meeting is open to the public but it won't have a chance for public comment. So if you're stoked about Seattle Subway's idea, they suggest you send a note to emailtheboard@soundtransit.org—which, yes, is a real e-mail address.