This is part of a Sound Publishing special report on the Sound Transit 3 expansion proposal, which is on the ballot on Nov. 8. More
When Sound Transit unveiled a draft plan this spring for a massive regional expansion of light rail and bus lines, a collective gasp went up in the northern reaches of its service area.
The elected leaders from Snohomish County with the most riding on the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure were unwilling to support a plan that would have taken a quarter-century to start serving Everett with light rail and didn’t share their urgency about reaching the region’s aerospace manufacturing hub at Paine Field.
After the agency moved up the delivery date by five years, including the county airport, local leaders got on board. Light rail is now envisioned to reach Everett in 2036, instead of 2041. There’s even talk of speeding that up by another year or two.
“It seems like a long timeline, but it’s a complex project,” said County Executive Dave Somers, who serves on Sound Transit’s Board of Directors. “I think the timeline we have now is a realistic one.”
Still, the $54 billion proposal known as ST3 is a tough sell north of the King County line. There is a sense — supported by Sound Transit’s own numbers — that Snohomish County is bringing up the rear.
After chipping in nearly $1 billion in regional transit taxes since the mid-1990s, the return on the investment for local voters has been a system of buses and heavy rail that can be stalled by a hard rain.
For every dollar an Everett voter has paid into the regional transit system so far, they’ve seen roughly 83 cents in services and projects, data show. Contrast that to Seattle, where a subway system has been built and voters have seen $1.25 spent for every dollar they’ve paid in regional transit taxes.
Skeptics say that ST3’s emphasis on light rail and continuation of the under-performing Sounder north heavy-rail line are a waste of taxpayer money. Transit riders would be better served, they contend, by focusing on more buses, including bus-based rapid transit with dedicated lanes.
“With light rail, we’re getting a glorified, astronomically priced streetcar,” reads one handout from the group Smarter Transit.
Supporters, meanwhile, worry that if ST3 fails, the region from Tacoma to Everett could be paying the price for decades, as the area grows by another million people. They don’t think buses alone will help or even save much money compared with light rail.
“We’re already 30 to 40 years behind,” Somers said.
Since Sound Transit’s inception in the 1990s, getting light rail to Everett has been a sticking point.
A majority of Snohomish County voters cast ballots in favor of the successful Sound Move measure in 1996 and Sound Transit 2 in 2008. They opposed the agency’s failed funding proposals in 1995 and 2007.
On Nov. 8, they’ll be making the biggest funding decision in Sound Transit’s history. The crucial vote comes almost exactly 20 years since the region green-lighted the first round of Sound Transit projects.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff has offered assurances that his agency can deliver the package on time and within budget, if voters give their blessing.
ST3 would knit together the region with new Link light-rail routes to Everett, Tacoma, Ballard, West Seattle, Redmond and Issaquah. The finished system would span 116 miles on four separate lines.
“This proposal is one that would deliver on that vision that has been in place for more than 20 years,” said Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesman.
Under the plan, by 2036 Link light rail trains would run between Everett and Seattle every six minutes, swooping west along the way to reach Paine Field. The trip would take an hour.
Each Link train to Everett would have four cars, with a combined capacity of 800 passengers. Double-decker commuter buses, by comparison, hold about 100 people with standing room.
Rapid transit buses with fully or partially dedicated travel lanes also figure into the ST3 plan. The package includes a new rapid-transit bus line between Lynnwood and Burien, mostly along I-405, and another serving northeast Seattle, Lake Forest Park, Bothell and Woodinville along Highway 522.
Sounder north stations would get more parking and the southern portion of the commuter line would be extended to DuPont.
In the early days of Sound Transit, leaders in Everett were upset that the initial funding package wouldn’t pay for light rail to their city. In 1994, then-Everett Mayor Ed Hansen objected when the agency agreed to make Everett “a first priority” in the next phase of expansion, rather than “the first priority.”
In 1995, a $6.7 billion transit proposal failed at the polls. Fifty-three percent of the region’s voters said no. In Everett, 80 percent did.
The agency, which wasn’t yet known as Sound Transit, returned in November 1996 with a smaller $3.9 billion package to build light rail between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Seattle’s University District. The measure passed, but plans were scaled back in 2001 because of cost overruns.
The Sounder train along waterfront rail tracks was supposed to provide relief in Snohomish County, as commuters awaited light rail. But the northern portion of the commuter line has under-performed.
The Sounder began serving Everett, Edmonds and Seattle in 2003, with a Mukilteo stop added in 2008.
As early as 1997, there were worries about landslides disrupting train service during the rainy season as well as the low number of Sounder riders for the money invested. Those concerns turned out to be well-founded.
Commuters pay $5 for a rail trip from Everett to Seattle. The most recent Sound Transit figures show a cost of $17.23 per boarding on Seattle-to-Everett trains. That number comes from the agency and is disputed by some critics, who believe the true cost is actually higher.
The north line carries only about a tenth of the commuter passengers as the south Sounder line between Tacoma and Seattle but costs nearly twice as much per boarding, according to recent Sound Transit figures. Slide-related cancellations after rainstorms have dampened ridership on the north line, though things did improve last year after a series of slope-stabilization projects near the tracks.
Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling serves on the Sound Transit board now and also was one of the original board members in the 1990s. Though the agency hasn’t delivered everything people envisioned at the outset, Earling backs ST3 as the best path forward.
To understand why traffic solutions are so difficult, he asks people to step back and imagine a map of the Puget Sound area.
“We bulge at the top and the bottom, in Snohomish and Pierce counties,” he said. “That land mass starts to become pretty narrow as you go into Seattle and there’s the same kind of restriction on the east side of Lake Washington.”
Earling isn’t convinced that more buses will help relieve the congestion, especially considering the strain geography puts on local roads, starting with I-5.
“Part of the challenge we’ve dealt with from day one is the hourglass shape of our area,” he said.
Gary Nelson, also of Edmonds, helped write the opposition statement on ST3 for the voter pamphlet. A former Snohomish County councilman and state lawmaker, the Republican used to support Sound Transit. He no longer does, given his past experience with Sounder trains and other aspects of the system.
“I love transit. I think it’s one of the best things for the Puget Sound region,” Nelson said. “I’m also realistic enough to determine how many people are going to use the transit and how much it’s going to cost.”
Buses, in his opinion, are a much better option than light rail.
“The question people have to ask themselves is, ‘Are we getting a good investment on tax dollars over the next 20 to 30 years?’” he said.
Sound Transit collected more than $7.7 billion in taxes and another $2 billion in grants from 1997 through 2015. Its service district includes most of the urban portions of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
Snohomish County, least populous of the three counties, has put in more than $1 billion of the total and has received $870 million back in projects and services, according to figures from the agency.
That doesn’t mean the county is getting short-changed, said Patrick, the Sound Transit spokesman. The transit money spent in Snohomish County should start to even out, as construction begins on projects approved in 2008 as part of Sound Transit 2.
Construction on the light-rail line to Lynnwood from Northgate is expected to break ground in 2018, with service starting in 2023.
“It’s in construction when you start burning dollars in a big way,” Patrick said.
The ST3 plan shows Snohomish County getting back rail, bus and Sounder projects equivalent to all $9.3 billion that it would put in.
ST3 would pay for projects through sales tax, property tax and car-tab fees. The money is collected and spent within five separate subareas that are intended to provide geographical equity throughout the system, but also are viewed by some insiders as an impediment to doing what’s right for the region as a whole.
Sales tax would rise by a half a percent or 50 cents on a $100 purchase. The rate would rise to 9.7 cents per dollar in Everett and to more than 10 cents per dollar in much of south Snohomish County.
Car-tab fees would go up by 0.8 percent, the equivalent of $80 annually on a $10,000 vehicle.
Property tax would go up 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation, or $100 annually for a house valued at $400,000.
That’s on top of what people are paying already for Sound Transit: 0.9 percent in sales tax and 0.3 percent in car-tab fees, also known as motor vehicle excise tax. Tax statements identify those amounts as funding for the “Regional Transit Authority.” Sound Transit also collects a smaller portion of its revenue through a 0.8 percent sales tax on rental cars.
Not everyone’s sold on the plan.
“People need to do some basic research to figure out what they’re being asked to buy,” said Maggie Fimia, a former King County council member who has helped lead opposition to ST3.
Fimia, who now calls Edmonds home, says many of the new light-rail riders Sound Transit forecasts would actually be current transit users switching over from a bus route rather than abandoning their cars or SUVs. She’d rather see tax money spent on bus lines similar to Community Transit’s Swift service along Highway 99.
“Buses are great because you can do things incrementally,” she said. “You don’t have to invest a lot of money to see the results.”
Somers, the Snohomish County executive, counters that ST3 may be the last, best chance to complete a regional transit system before traffic gets worse. Buses won’t cut it, he said, because they would either wind up stuck in gridlock or would require taking away freeway lanes from drivers.
Getting another transit plan to a vote could take years, he said, and is likely to be more expensive than ST3.
“The stakes are that it might never get done,” he said. “We’ll be adding to future costs if we don’t do this now.”
The question is up to voters on Nov. 8.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.
Stories in this special report