Seattle Voters Approve Transit Expansion: Report From Former UTC Director

The following report was prepared by Dr. Siim Sööt, UTC director from 1998 to 2000. In early 2015, Dr. Sööt was appointed by Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to serve on the state’s Expert Sound Transit Review Panel (ST3), to oversee that proposed expansion of the public transportation system in metropolitan Seattle. Dr. Sööt served as the Director of the ST2 panel and as a member of the ST3 panel.

utc1_editedDuring the November 2016 election, the voters of the Seattle Sound Transit (ST) district approved a $54 billion expansion of the public transportation system.  It is the third time that Sound Transit received such authority, known as ST3.  At the beginning of this decade, ST2 was passed.  In each case the Governor appointed an expert review panel to examine the veracity of the methods used to identify the proposed additions.  The deliberations during ST2 included the proposed placement of light rail on a permanent floating bridge, the I-90 bridge across Lake Washington.

The ST3 package included a variety of transit and transit access improvements including extending service to Tacoma to the south and Everett to the north as well as the high-tech communities to the east. Seattle area is home to Microsoft, Costco, Amazon as well as a variety of other high-tech companies that rely on access to the area’s labor force, one spread over a challenging topography interrupted by bodies of water. This makes deriving solutions to growing traffic particularly complex. The ST3 service area has recently been among the fastest growing metro areas in the nation.utc3_edited

Perhaps what is most difficult for the transportation professionals is how to build for the future with declining federal financial support for the new systems.  The days of massive federal contributions to new rails systems are in the past.  The 1964 Urban Mass Transportation Act was passed with the objective of providing half to two thirds of the cost of approved new rail systems. ST3 is anticipating 10 percent of the cost to be covered by federal funds, and even this is uncertain.

utc8_editedThe burden then falls on the local tax payers to decide if they want to support new additional taxes on top of the taxes levied by the two previous approved transit measures. With this backdrop, it is particularly noteworthy that at this time of aversion to new taxes the voters of the ST district approved the expansion plans.

(Images courtesy of Dr. Siim Sööt.)