Huge commitment to light rail is premature

High gasoline prices met up with concern over global warming this year to create a rare moment in our region, one that’s potentially transforming. Thousands of commuters have left their cars at home, and most of them have decided that taking a bus is a workable, and in many ways a pleasant, alternative.

With so many people voting with their feet to get on the bus today, the region should be figuring out how to get many more buses on the road, quickly, and to provide more roadway for them in coming years. We think Sound Transit’s Proposition 1, a $17.9 billion proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot, does far too little to address the region’s pressing short-term needs, and would seriously hinder future opportunities to raise revenue for needed transit projects. We recommend voters reject it.

(Some voters in the greater Maltby area will see two transit measures on their ballot labeled Proposition 1. The other is a Community Transit annexation measure to increase bus service in that area. Our opposition is only to the Sound Transit proposal.)

Roughly two-thirds of the money raised by this measure would go to light rail, which wouldn’t arrive in Lynnwood until 2023 at the earliest. Less than 2 percent goes to increased bus service.

Sound Transit proposes more than doubling its share of the sales tax inside its district — the most urbanized areas of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. In Snohomish County, that includes Everett and points south.

Sound Transit currently collects a 0.4 percent sales tax; this measure would raise it to 0.9 percent. In Everett, the total sales tax would rise to 9.1 percent; in the rest of the county’s Sound Transit area, it would be 9.4 percent.

Current economic conditions make this a lousy time to raise taxes, especially one as regressive as the sales tax. But our larger objection to Proposition 1 is that it’s being rushed to the ballot because Sound Transit board members smell an opportunity: a large turnout of younger, liberal-leaning voters they believe are likely to support it. We favored waiting until 2010, when changing ridership trends could be better understood and light rail between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport would be up and running, providing a needed reality check.

This year’s dramatic increase in bus ridership suggests taking a brief time out and reassessing Sound Transit’s basic long-range plan, which was developed two decades ago. Maybe a T-shaped light rail line still makes sense, but it could also be that more resources for flexible bus service with dedicated lanes would make even more.

That’s the kind of question that should be analyzed before making a long-term commitment to substantial new taxes.

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