I’ve had a couple arguments in recent weeks over the merits of regional transportation governance reform, first with State Sen. Ed Murray, and more recently with Seattle Port Commission candidate Tom Albro. I’ve no reason to doubt either’s intentions, but I just can’t help but be cynical about a John Stanton/Discover Institute backed proposal that would inevitably dilute Seattle voters’ control over their own transportation planning dollars… a legitimate concern that’s perhaps best illustrated by Metro’s ass-backwards 40/40/20 rule, which dictates that 40% of new service goes into Metro’s East area, 40% into Metro’s South area, and only 20% into the Seattle-centric West area that comprises 36% of the county’s population.
The Regional Transportation Commission—chaired by Seattle Democratic King County Council member Dow Constantine but dominated by representatives of suburban cities—seems poised to formally oppose a proposal by King County Executive Kurt Triplett that would designate Metro bus service cuts as “suspensions,” rather than permanent cuts. At a meeting of the RTC on Wednesday, representatives of the suburban cities expressed support for designating the cuts as permanent.
The difference sounds semantic, but it’s actually substantive—once there’s enough money to add service again in a few years, “suspensions” would be restored at the same levels they were cut (i.e., if 10 percent of service was cut in Seattle, 10 percent of the restored hours would be in Seattle); in contrast, “cuts” would be restored according to the “40/40/20″ rule, in which suburban areas receive 80 percent of new service to Seattle’s 20 percent.
Now, I don’t question the need for regional transportation planning and cooperation; buses, trains, cars and trucks cross city and county lines, so it would be stupid for our roads and transit not to interoperate. And I don’t question either the need for suburban buses, or the fact that service to these less dense areas necessarily requires a larger subsidy per passenger mile than more crowded, and thus more cost-efficient, city routes. (The fare to expense ratio in Metro’s Seattle-centric West area was roughly 26% in 2007, compared to 14% for the East area.) But when the political compromises necessary to facilitate “regional governance” result in rigid, sub-area allocations like Metro’s 40/40/20 rule, or Sound Transit’s subarea equity provisions, it can’t help but hamper the ability of Seattle taxpayers to provide themselves the level of service they want and need.
It also can’t help but lead to the sort of petty, manipulative, subarea politicization of transportation planning decisions, such as the row above over whether the current round of bus service cuts should be labeled as “permanent” or “suspensions.” I’m all for expanding suburban service, but when you cut more cost-effective urban routes to address the current budget crisis, only to eventually replace them with less efficient suburban routes, it can only make the next budget crisis even worse. Regional governance reform advocates argue that it would make delivery of services more efficient, but that assertion simply isn’t supported by the limited regional planning we have now.
Take Sound Transit for example. From the original ballot measures in the 1990’s to 2007’s failed roads and transit measure to last year’s successful transit-only Phase 2, ST’s proposal’s have been distorted and hamstrung by its incorporation as a regional agency that encompasses tax-hike-hostile parts of Pierce and Snohomish counties which see little local benefit from building light rail in Seattle and the Eastside. But ironically, even as the suburban and exurban areas of ST’s taxing district held virtual veto power over Seattle’s ability to build light rail within its own borders, the equity provisions assured that tax dollars would only be spent in the subarea in which they were raised.
Yeah, I know, ST is much more than just the Central Link light rail, but what was the purpose of requiring Seattle to ask Pierce and Snohomish county voters for permission to tax itself to build a line from the airport to Northgate? If the fate of the Central Link had been left to voters from SeaTac to Seattle alone, would it really take over two decades to complete?
For me, that’s part of the visceral appeal of Mike McGinn’s light rail expansion proposal; it empowers Seattle voters to seize control of our own transportation planning, based on our own priorities, and without the need to politically accommodate the more road-enamored suburbs. On the other hand, if, as governance reform advocates have proposed, all planning, construction and operations were under the strict auspices of a four-county regional transportation authority, this sort of local self-determination would be nigh impossible. Voters in Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties might let Seattle expand light rail into the neighborhoods, if we give them something in return. Or, they might not. Hell, it’s always politically popular to fuck Seattle.
In the end, it would be harder to argue with the inherent logic of regional transportation planning if I believed that was all that was at stake, but what we’re really talking about here — both in the microcosm of Metro’s bus cuts, and in the macrocosm of a proposed four-county, roads-and-transit RTA — is the ever more dire, and increasingly politicized competition over scarce and dwindling resources. There was a time when major transportation infrastructure projects were mostly paid for with state and federal dollars, but as this burden has been steadily shifted onto the shoulders of local taxpayers, and as local taxing capacity has gradually been eaten up by transit and other demands, the roads versus transit debate has increasingly become seen as an either/or proposition in the eyes of those who advocate for the former… especially where Seattle-area voters are part of the electoral equation.
Hamstrung by a narrow and regressive tax structure that can’t possibly keep pace with economic growth, everybody understands that there is a limit beyond which even Seattle voters won’t raise our already stratospheric sales tax, thus every tenth of a percent that goes to rail is reasonably perceived as a tenth of a percent that won’t go to roads. That’s why the pro-roads camp opposed Prop 1, and that’s why they’ll oppose any effort to give Seattle the MVET authority necessary to expand light rail into the neighborhoods: it’s tax capacity they covet for other purposes.
So when the same pro-roads/anti-rail advocates make up some of regional governance reform’s most vocal proponents, is it any wonder that I question their motives?
There should be more regional transportation planning and cooperation, and in the end a multi-county RTA does make sense if your goal is to efficiently plan, deliver and operate an integrated, multimodal transportation system. But only if there are sufficient revenue resources to meet the task at hand. Otherwise we just end up exacerbating the same sort of roads vs transit, suburbs vs city, subarea vs subarea political infighting that already hobbles our transportation planning efforts today.
And we’ll never get the level of regional cooperation we truly need, until we change the way we finance transportation construction, maintenance and operations in Washington state, and ultimately restructure our unfair and inadequate tax system as a whole.