40/40/20 demonstrates the pitfalls of regional transportation planning

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.

Comments

  1. 1

    spews:

    I agree with much of your argument, at least, many of your points.

    I had written around similar ideas in the way McGinn and Mallahan messages were formed around the western light rail proposal.
    http://manywordsforrain.blogsp.....t-for.html

    Something of that scale would require financing resources McGinn does not control, but, the more I think about it, the more I see metro transit as less of a regional transportation provider, and more of a provincial sandbag.

    The annex of unicorperated King County should start to drive municipalities away from depending on the county as a provider, to more of a facilitator. Seattle has an intracity transportation problem, as well as a need to participate in an actual regional transportation system, but that aint metro.

    As time passes, and othe King County cities want to solve their own problems without the county micromanaging their solutions, other cities in the county will want to push away from the Ron Sims City of King County.

    Seattle Transit and Sound Transit should be enough “authority” and resource control to put up with, er, participate in.

  2. 2

    chicagoexpat spews:

    Seattle’s proven itself incapable of even having a transportation policy.

    Anything would be an improvement, especially diluting the nutso uber-environmentalists who seem to have a strangle hold on anything competent coming from city gov’t. Diluting them in a regional transportation committee may be the only way to get anything done.

    It’s city politics has gone from decades of non-policy by the likes of people like Nickels, Drago, & its endless debating society it calls a city council.

    Not much hope in the future, either. Its erstwhile mayoral candidates only offer a choice of

    McGinn, who has only a anti-transportation policy that only caters to trust fund kids & Critical Mass, who think it’ll be kewl to let grass grow in the streets,

    and

    Mallahan, someone with as little experience as McGinn, but whom (by default) can only do better than that. The fact he’s said he’d fire Nickels non-transportation head Grace Crunican (idiotic, but typical of what passes for competence in Seattle), can only give one hope.

    Of course, the tea party version of the left, this web site, has not been heard from yet on the race.

  3. 3

    Deb Eddy spews:

    The fact, David, that you and others continue to see a need to empower the politically-correct Seattle and to punish the, for sake of argument, unpolitically-correct Kenmore (totally random choice of city here) misses the point that we are a REGION. And a job and a transit rider in Kenmore are no more or less deserving of inclusion in and accommodation by that system that the oh-so-cool denizens of Belltown or Beacon Hill. The REGION needs a transportation SYSTEM, regardless of one’s favorite mode. Regional governance is D-E-A-D — too much turf, too much opportunity for mischief in designing the regional government (I know; I tried and am now willing to admit that we just can’t do it that way). Instead, I think there’s more hope in designing/ determining performance measures for the “new” — or maybe even existing — funding that will — hopefully — tend us in more efficient/effective directions. This, too, will cause some heartburn, because we’re going to have to deal with the problems inherent in designing regional transportation on top of local land use control … I have no doubt we’ll get there, but balkanizing the system by segregating Seattle and its authorities is unlikely to be helpful, in the long term.

    I give you high marks for having the conversation with Tom and for having tried to wrestle with the issue as intelligently as you did here … good job.

  4. 4

    You will be told the truth now. spews:

    You say you want performance measures but what we get is 40-40-20, so that metro has to send a bus to underutilized areas instead of areas where people are waiting, begging, stranded on the side of the road, users of bus transit.

    you say you want recognition that “a transit rider in Kenmore [is] no more or less deserving of inclusion in and accommodation by that system that the oh-so-cool denizens of Belltown or Beacon Hill” yet instead of actually treating every transit rider equally, instead we get this 40-40-20 crap which FORCES Metro to WASTE money on routes with fewer riders (whether they are cool, jocks, hippies, nerds, we don’t care; they are all riders) when there are other routes with MORE riders.

    So until Metro fixes this, it’s perfectly reasonable to start talking about saying well screw that we in Seattle are going to push for raising our own taxes to provide more transit here.

    You think it is fair for the state or the region to tell us we’re not allowed to raise our own taxes to provide more transit here?

    Where there are in fact more riders? And more potential riders?

    Where’s the “performance” in that?

    What’s happening is funding is by sales tax and instead of aiming the hours at the riders, the hours have to be aimed at politicians each of whom demands bus hours regardless of whether or not their part of king county needs or can use bus hours the most, in terms of creating or serving more riders.

    Instead of serving riders, it’s serving the politicians.

    40-40-20 is a formula for pork distribution not any effective allocation of resources to get the most riders.

  5. 5

    Don't you think he looks tired? spews:

    Agree with @4. Seattle needs a home rule charter that allows us to spend OUR tax money on OUR transportation needs and OUR schools and let King County and Washington State deal with their problems themselves. I think they will find that they need Seattle more than Seattle needs them.

  6. 6

    spews:

    Having spent some years in Everett I can tell you that Seattle’s struggles with metro were used as reasons not to have Everett Transit combine with the county’s Community Transit. For the longest time the roles and responsibility of CT delivering people to Everett, while providing basic service to the rest of the county.

    Snohomish County struggled with less service with the poorer tax base and resented Everett for not participating in the county transportation requirements.

    The lesson for me was/is back then the attitude was Fuck Everett! And i am sure it still is.
    But, the citizens of Everett controled their own intracity transportation. At least somebody was happy.

    We are a region when they want your money, and it is fuck you if you want equity.
    Many people move away from civilization, but demand those services, they chose the upside and are demanding others supplement the downside.
    This is nearly as bad as the people that chose condo living in Seattle and expect everybody else give them a backyard in the firm of a public park (but I digress).

    Annexation should be driving out the extremes in economic disparity within King County, and the county should be stepping back away for controlling to more of a facilitator, but power is never released willingly.

    King County is not the region anymore, how will the county deal with that?

  7. 8

    spews:

    There’s nothing regional about the Tukwila to Seattle Link, the Downtown to Northgate Link, or the proposed Ballard to West Seattle Link. It’s not Link, it’s Rinky Dink. It’s a glorified bus route on rails. It’s a milk route. It’s slow, meandering, doesn’t get people out of their cars and off the freeways, and too, too expensive.

    Some say Central Link is racist. Articles have been written about how blacks don’t feel welcome on it and are still riding buses through the valley, and who Link has mostly white people on it. Some say it’s a rail line for the whites who are gentrifying the rainier valley. And some say gentrification is a form of racism.

    Here’s a smart light rail line. Start at Tacoma, build it along side I-5, and run it all the way up to Everett, with 5000 stall park&ride lots every 5 miles.

  8. 9

    Jarvis spews:

    Goldy is absolutely right. Regionalism is really nothing more than one of those feel good concepts that sounds nice but in reality gives us a lot of bad decisions.

    Seattle needs more authority to go it alone on transportation. Give us the right to make our own decisions, and we’ll tax ourselves without bothering anyone else — just stop kicking us in the teeth at every chance, and get out of our way!

  9. 10

    ArtFart spews:

    @8 Troll, it sounds like you’re proposing to re-create the Interurban.

    What a thought…after all the yelling and posturing and logrolling and billions of dollars, if we’re lucky we’ll get back what we had 75 years ago! Then again, that would beat the hell out of going back to oxcarts and shoe leather.

  10. 12

    Commentator spews:

    If Seattle has higher sales tax rates than other nearby cities, it will lose big ticket sales to those cities. People will go a few extra miles to save hundreds of tax dollars on a car, furniture etc.

    40/40/20 at least resulted in more dollars available. What is the source of tax income? What percent of sales tax dollars collected inside Seattle come from people who don’t live in the city?

    Dig more into where the money comes from, not just where it goes.

  11. 13

    SeattleJew spews:

    GREAT THREAD!!!

    I do not havde Goldy’s expertise on this and some of the others postijng here seem to know more than I do as well.

    What I do know is that

    1. the LA solution, endless roads with busses for the poor, is both a disaster and even less viable as automobiles become more expensive to operate.

    2. Seattle has likely wasted 100s of millions or perhaps billions because of a political process that is not working. Voting not to fix the viaduct, to build then not build the monorail, to not figure out how to distribute I 520 traffic, to build then not build the RH Thompson, to NOT widen streets in downtown Seattle …. all this is expensive, VEREY expensive.

    Like Goldy, I am skeptical of area wide planning because we lack the sort of leadership needed to make such a thing work. OTOH, I am also skeptical that Seattle has that sort of leadership, esp. under Mike McGinn either.

  12. 15

    Mark spews:

    The irony, of course: Stanton and his suburban Republikan friends would prefer funding empty burb buses rather than full Seattle routes.

    That way they can point to “the waste that is public transit.”

    Same way Reagan held up Nixon era corruption as proof “you can’t trust guv’mint”. Great strategery. If you’re intellectually bankrupt.

  13. 16

    Mark spews:

    “Some say” ultra white conservative clowns like Troll sound ridiculous when they try to channel Jesse Jackson.

    Does Troll have an ounce of self-respect left? Seriously.

  14. 18

    Mark spews:

    Yeah. When he was born. And, as a child. Basically, the time in his life before Reagan “inspired” him to be self-centered and cynical.

  15. 19

    spews:

    Hi Deb Eddy @ 3

    Thanks for posting.

    I have no doubt we’ll get there, but balkanizing the system by segregating Seattle and its authorities is unlikely to be helpful, in the long term.

    Why can’t Seattle do things for itself, if we choose to?

    The 40/40/20 split rankles. It’s not fair. It’s an inefficient allocation of finite resources. It’s an obvious power play.

    As a walking, biking, busing taxpaying Seattleite, I’m already paying for roads that I don’t use. So I’m not real clear why I’m subsidizing underutilized buses to and thru the suburbs while our buses are packed and service is being cut.

    I understand a little bit of extortion, to buy off the burb votes so that Seattle can help itself. But the 40/40/20 split is parasitic and punitive.