Imagine a light rail network connecting Ballard, West Seattle, Everett, and Tacoma to the heart of Seattle. Imagine hopping a train to any of those places, instead of trying to plan around hours of traffic-choked roadways. (The average Puget Sound resident spends about 33 hours stuck in traffic every year.)
Imagine a faster, less congested, more connected city.
You're in luck. See those red lines, both solid and dotted, in the illustration above? Some of those are already built or under construction. But the entire network, which connects all the way to our northern, southern, and eastern neighboring cities when you zoom out—that's Sound Transit's vision of the future. They call the next step towards making it a reality the Sound Transit 3 expansion.
Here's the thing: It's going to cost $15 billion.
Which is why Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen is mighty concerned about the transportation package passed by the Washington State Senate earlier this month.
The state refuses to fund Sound Transit 3 from its own budget; worse yet, in the transportation package, it's limiting the amount that our region is allowed to tax itself to pay for light rail to just $11 billion.
Rasmussen says the $4 billion shortfall (only $11 billion allowed by the senate - $15 billion actually needed for ST3 = -$4 billion) could mean that Sound Transit "would choose between downtown to Ballard, or downtown to West Seattle and White Center."
Moreover, an incomplete $11 billion transit build-out is going to be a "much harder sell" on election day than the real $15 billion deal, says King County executive Dow Constantine. Sound Transit has been counting on $15 billion in taxing authority, and wants to ask voters to approve the expansion-funding taxes in the fall of 2016.
Constantine says voters are "hungry for transit"—this is backed up by polling across the region—and "we have to deliver for them."
And how has Olympia been responding?
Well, as mentioned: On March 2, in a tight vote, the transportation package cleared a big hurdle that it couldn't in previous years: the state senate. But the Republican majority in that chamber stuffed it with a bunch of terrible shit, including a sneaky so-called "poison pill" that ties Sound Transit 3 to the nixing of Governor Jay Inslee's plans to raise fuel efficiency standards.
Next up in the hurdle gauntlet: the Democrat-controlled state house, where the transportation committee is holding a hearing on the bill this Thursday at 3:30 p.m.
When the committee last considered Sound Transit 3 taxing authority—and just Sound Transit taxing authority, not any other transportation issues—in February, its members approved the full $15 billion in a 13-12 vote. All 11 Republicans on the committee stuck together and voted against it, a move the Seattle Transit Blog called "a remarkable display of anti-tax ideological purity."
Now the transportation committee will consider Sound Transit 3 again, but this time it's in the form of the senate's transportation bill, meaning it's linked with the larger transportation package and the poison pill on fuel standards.
Will Sound Transit 3 even survive by the time it gets all the way through this messy legislative process? "I have no way of knowing," says transportation committee chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island).
But, she says, "I think that Seattle should feel comfortable with this package. Because we’re not going to do something exactly the way the senate does." On a scale of one to ten, I give that statement a resounding meh. You can contact members of the transportation committee here.
Back in the senate, when the package was voted on earlier this month, 16 out of the chamber's 23 Democrats voted against it, in what one might call a remarkable display of liberal stand-taking. That group, which includes Seattle's Pramila Jayapal and Bellevue's Cyrus Habib, said the package did too much harm to the environment and would hamper the state's ability to fund education by taking nearly $1 billion from the state's general fund.
If asked to vote again on the same shitty transportation package, Jayapal says, "it would be hard" to support it. She postulated aloud what could happen next: "The house tries to fix it, and then it comes back to the senate, and then Republicans try to blame Democrats for killing the transportation package." In other words, if the package gets fixed, Republicans will blame house Democrats for making it too good on public transit and the environment, because, you know, there's just no way they could vote in good conscience for that sort of stuff.
Will the house Democrats cave by leaving Sound Transit 3 taxing authority at the $11 billion level, instead of upping it to $15 billion and then sending it back over to the senate? Will they leave the fuel standards poison pill untouched? Jayapal says Democrats need to hold a strong line and force the Republicans onto the defensive. "It's important for people on the outside to understand what the Democratic Party stands for," she says.
Seattle mayor Ed Murray, who campaigned on using his years of experience in the legislature to advance the city's interests at the state level, said in a statement that he would "continue to fight for the full local taxing authority requested by the region." Translation: Give this region $15 billion for light rail and other transit improvements, and not a penny less.
We'll see if the mayor can back up the tough talk with successful lobbying in Olympia.
"This is not a game for ideologues," says King County's Constantine, who heads the Sound Transit board. "We need to insist that they legislate—that they stick to principle and they are also pragmatic and get the job done... It's not a pretty process. It's not an efficient process... we just have to keep making our case."
This post has been updated since its original publication.