Times at a loss to report accurately on Sound Transit

Stupid credulous hacks

Stupid credulous hacks

Read the headline, teaser and five-sentence story accompanying it at the top of the Seattle Times’ home page this afternoon, and you could be excused for thinking that Sound Transit has suddenly found itself in some deep shit. In fact, you might even be downright angry at the implied notion that Sound Transit might have misled voters last fall, and will soon have to come back for even more money.

You’d be wrong, but it wouldn’t be your fault. Rather the blame lies squarely on one of the stupidest bits of reporting, editing and headline writing I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading in the Times… and considering it’s the Times, that’s a pretty high bar.

Sound Transit isn’t “forecasting a loss,” they’re forecasting revenues coming in at $3.1 billion below original projections over the next 15 years… which is about $1 billion lower than the previous revised forecast. That’s not a loss, as you can’t lose something you’ve never had. Indeed, Sound Transit couldn’t possibly show a loss this year or the next or over the next 15… it’s a government agency, not a business, and government agencies just don’t work that way; they can only spend the dollars they have!

Furthermore, despite the lower forecast, Sound Transit still believes it can deliver the services promised, and on time. How? Well, despite all the naysayers, their budgets have long been on the conservative side, with fairly deep built-in reserves. Due to the recession, these reserves don’t leave much wiggle room anymore, but that’s why they’re constantly redoing their revenue forecasts… so that they have time to react to changing circumstances and respond accordingly.

And, now that they know that revenues are coming in significantly lower than projected, they’ll adjust their design and engineering to reflect the new fiscal reality. That means new stations may become standardized and not quite so fancy. Meanwhile, expensive changes and alternatives, however politically expedient, are much less likely to be adopted. They’ll also be force to be more creative in looking for savings in operations. (UPDATE: Seattle Transit Blog has more.)

But they are not, as the Times irresponsibly implies, operating in the red, to the tune of $3.1 billion or any other number. That’s just plain wrong, stupid, and in my opinion, an inexcusable reach for a sensationalist headline that does nothing but misinform the public.

UPDATE:
The Seattle Times has changed the headline to the more accurate “Sound Transit to collect $3.1B less.” That may not be as sexy as the first headline, but it has the virtue of being based in fact.

That said, I’m still at a loss to explain how the Times editors could have possibly gone with the first headline without realizing the obvious false impression it would make on readers. I mean really, it couldn’t be interpreted any other way. Meanwhile, for those of you who would still prefer to spin this into a story of Sound Transit mismanagement or dishonesty, here’s a graph from today’s revised forecast that tells the whole story:

revenues

Of course, this is also the story behind the revenue woes at every agency at every level of government throughout the state and the nation. Those who blame budget woes solely on profligate spending while ignoring the revenue side of the equation, quite simply have their heads up the ass.

Comments

  1. 1

    Michael spews:

    it’s a government agency, not a business, and government agencies just don’t work that way; they can only spend the dollars they have!

    Wouldn’t bonds count as spending money you don’t have? You can default on them, after all. This really is a question not a comment.

  2. 2

    Michael spews:

    I’m dropping this in here sense it’s transpo related.

    NJ: So if there were any new revenue sources for the program, it would come from the private sector?

    Peters: Yes, more money from the private sector and an evolution to a vehicle-miles-traveled methodology for paying for transportation at some point in the not-too-distant future.

    That’s Mary Peters, head of the Federal Highway Administration and transportation secretary under Pres. Bush calling for a “vehicle-miles-traveled methodology for paying for transportation.” I wonder how the right’s base will like that?

  3. 3

    JamesS spews:

    At least they didn’t do a headline like:

    Death Train on Verge of Bankruptcy!

    Maybe next week….

  4. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @3 Best tabloid headline I ever saw was:

    DONOR WANTS KIDNEY BACK

    It may be bullshit (then again, it may not), but at least it’s funny. The Seattle Times is merely gray.

  5. 6

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Who needs death panels when we’ve got death trains? When people get too old to support themselves anymore, just load ‘em on the train, which will take ‘em to a rendering plant where they’re thrown in a vat … hey! this might make a hell of a movie plot … oops, it’s already been done.

  6. 7

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    So if some rich bastard spends millions building a helipad on the roof of his office building he can deduct it as a “business expense,” but if the poor slob who empties the wastebaskets has to pay $300 a month for parking because the trains don’t run for the graveyard shift workers, that’s a nondeductible personal expense! That’s the fucking Republican Tax Code for ya. Why anyone bothers to work is beyond me.

  7. 8

    Michael spews:

    @7

    I help run a group-home, so I get guilted into the whole work thing ’cause people might die if no one shows up.

  8. 9

    busdrivermike spews:

    Told you suckers this would happen. They MIGHT get to Bellevue and Northgate by 2020

    Just wait until they start tunneling under the clay and glacial till that is Capitol Hill.

    JUST
    THE
    BEGINNING

  9. 10

    FakeDavidGoldsteinHA spews:

    I should be running The Seattle Times, both news and editorial. Those Blethens are horses’ asses. Where’s the justice?

  10. 12

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @8 Yes, you’ve got a point — sometimes there are altruistic reasons for working; but there sure isn’t any money in it.

    If you want to make real money you become a banker and get paid to dream up ingenious new ways to screw working stiffs and small business owners out of their hard-earned coin.

  11. 15

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    A Public Option For Retirement?

    One of the advantages of working for Sound Transit is that you get a pension. If you just ride on it, you’re probably paying into a 401(k), which as you now know is not going to pay for a life of travel and golf after you’re forced to retire.

    Time magazine has an interesting article about 401(k)s that basically says people who don’t have defined benefit pensions (and about the only people who still do are bus drivers and government employees) are screwed.

    Is there an alternative to working forever, i.e., picking up trash along the Sound Transit right-of-way for $9 an hour at age 75? Yes, says the Time article, by insuring retirement accounts against market disasters.

    Retirement insurance could be private or public. The article discusses both ideas. There is some support in the Obama administration and among Democrats in Congress for a “public option” (i.e., government-run) insurance program to protect retirees and about-to-retires against market drops. But the retirement calamity that has hit millions of Americans is taking a back seat to the higher-profile issue of health care reform.

    Nevertheless, you should take a look at this article for some ideas about how we’re going to manage to come up with the money to pay light rail taxes in the future. The collapse of America’s employer-provided pension system is second in importance only to the collapse of its employer-provided health coverage system, and is the next big financial crisis facing the besieged middle class. To hell with saving the automakers! With Sound Transit, you won’t need a car!

    http://www.time.com/time/busin.....-1,00.html

  12. 16

    Michael spews:

    If you want to make real money you become a banker and get paid to dream up ingenious new ways to screw working stiffs and small business owners out of their hard-earned coin.

    You should add non-profit grouphomes to your list.

  13. 17

    Jonesy spews:

    Busdrivermike: you’ve been spreading that pointless doom & gloom for over 10 years now. The only person better at transit FUD is Kemper Freeman himself.

    We get the fact you want commuter rail – not light rail – because you live on freaking Lummi Island. But, please – the world doesn’t revolve around you.

  14. 18

    northern spews:

    David –

    You should run a retraction. The Seattle Times does some dumb stuff, but this “loss” language came directly from Sound Transit staff.

    Here’s a link to a new staff report that says ST now anticipates having “Revenue Lost” of $3.109 billion by 2023:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.c.....033964.pdf (see page 7).

    It’s an example of 1) ST staff misreporting to the board (which it does all the time – it wants those people clueless), and 2) the Times reporter Lindblom mindlessly parroting what ST staff tells him.

    But seriously, run a retraction and explain that the lost revenues language came directly from ST’s staff – they are the boneheads this time.

  15. 19

    northern spews:

    Due to the recession, these reserves don’t leave much wiggle room anymore,

    Under the new forecast figures, there’s excess taxing projected through 2023 of about $2.85 billion. That’s wiggle room. Also, there’s absolutely no indication the reserves ST was planning on last year will be any less.

    Care to try estimating how much excess ST will have hauled in by 2025, 2030, and 2035?

  16. 20

    Jeff Smith spews:

    Sound Transit isn’t “forecasting a loss,” they’re forecasting revenues coming in at $3.1 billion below original projections over the next 15 years… which is about $1 billion lower than the previous revised forecast.

    This and your premise are factually wrong, as northern spews above. Will you do what you so often ask the Times to do, and correct your mistake?