Q: What is the relevance of the November 2007 election to transportation in the Puget Sound area?
A: The voters in the urbanized areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties will be asked to approve or reject tax increases to help pay for transit and road construction projects.
Q: What will the cost of this measure?
A: Nobody really knows. The publicly stated figure was previously about $16.5 billion, consisting of $9.8 billion for transit and $6.7 billion for roads. This is even more than the $14.6 billion spent on Boston's notorious Big Dig project. However, these figures do not include cost overruns (which are common on large public works projects), financing charges and inflation. Most recently, Sound Transit has said the cost for its transit projects would be $30.8 billion if interest and inflation are included. Some estimates place the total monetary cost for both transit and roads at in excess of $50 billion.
Q: What are the tax increases that will be requested?
A: The tax increase for transit will be in the form of a one half percent increase in the general sales tax. For roads the tax would be in the form of an increase in vehicle licensing fees.
Q: Would there be other costs in addition to this estimated $50 billion?
A:Yes. There would be substantial additional costs. They would accrue in the form of environmental damage and adverse public health effects from the massive freeway construction program. These costs are much more difficult to quantify than the direct monetary costs, but they are not necessarily less important.
Q: What will all this money be used for?
A: The transit funds will be used mainly for extensions to the light rail line currently under construction by Sound Transit in Seattle. These extensions will be both to the north and the south as well as the proposed East Link line across the I-90 floating bridge to Bellevue. Improvements have also been promised for Sound Transit express bus service. The road funds will be used mainly for freeways, including further widening of the I-405 freeway on the Eastside.
Q: Is the transportation measure scheduled for the November 2007 election a good idea?
A: Many voters feel that taxes are already too high and that previous tax increases have not resulted in the promised benefits. For example, traffic congestion has continued to increase despite massive spending for road construction, and Sound Transit has failed to keep its promises regarding light rail completion dates. Also, the massive amount of funds being requested on the November ballot measure would mean higher taxes for decades and could thus preclude other, more worthy projects. Some people are also asking what assurances that promises would be kept this time after the failure to do so in the past.
Q: What is wrong with the planned road expenditures?
A: A large part of the road expenditure would be for further widening the I-405 freeway. However, such widening would likely do little to reduce traffic congestion and would certainly add to the growing air pollution in the region, as is typically the case with freeway widenings. Also, this widening does not do anything to address the mounting concern about climate change and ever-increasing dependence on unstable foreign energy sources. For more about this freeway, please see The Great I-405 Boondoggle.
Q: What is wrong with the planned transit expenditures?
A: There is much concern as to whether Sound Transit really wants to develop the most cost-effective projects, or is even capable of it. For example, its light rail line currently under construction in Seattle is costing about $170 million a mile (or much more if the cost of the downtown tunnel is added in), which is by far the most expensive of any light rail line that has ever been built and is comparable to the cost for constructing a heavy rail subway line. Also, critics say that there could have been a big savings on its Sounder commuter rail service if it had chosen to use DMUs (diesel multiple units) instead of locomotive-hauled trains and had made smaller payments to Burlington Northern for use of its tracks.
In addition, a tremendous amount of money could be saved by giving priority to starting rail transit on the Eastside railroad rather than constructing an entirely new infrastructure that includes replacing the two center lanes on the I-90 floating bridge with tracks. There are serious questions about whether this $3.9 billion project would add to overall capacity in the corridor, or even reduce it, as some critics claim.
Although the Eastside railroad parallels I-405, which is the most congested freeway in the entire Northwest, some government officials are pushinga a bizarre plan to remove the existing tracks and replace them with a bicycle trail at a cost of at least $66 million to the taxpayers. This railroad could be given a complete upgrading of track and other infrastructure for $200 to $300 million, which is about what Sound Transit spends on a mile or so of its light rail construction.
Q: Does this mean that the existing railroad on the Eastside is being torn out for a bicycle trail and a new one is being built at a cost of $3.9 billion?
Yes, but it is even worse than that. This is because utilizing the existing railroad at a relatively modest cost would boost the passenger capacity in the most congested corridor in the entire Northwest, but building the new railroad (in the form of light rail) at a vastly greater cost would do little if anything to increase capacity in a less congested corridor.
Q: What are the chances for passage of the transportation measures in November?
A: It is difficult to predict, as there are strong feelings both pro and con. On the one hand, people are really frustrated with the growing congestion and pollution in the region and want some improvement. On the other hand, there is a widespread lack of trust in the government agencies in charge of planning and the feeling that billions have already been squandered in ultra-expensive and ineffective projects. People in Seattle are likely to favor the transit expenditures and oppose the roads expenditures, while people outside of Seattle are likely to favor the roads expenditures and oppose the transit expenditures.
Q: What could be done to improve the chances of passage?
Basically, planners would have to go back to the drawing board and come up with proposals that are less costly and more effective. At the same time, steps should be taken increase the accountability of government agencies.
Q: Why are people on the Eastside opposed to rail transit?
They are not. In fact, there is a strong sentiment in favor of rail transit on the Eastside, according to informal polls. Rather, the problem is Sound Transit's plan.
Q: What is wrong with Sound Transit's plan for light rail to the Eastside?
A number of things. Reasons that it has generated so much opposition include the facts that it (1) will be extremely expensive (at least $3.9 billion in current dollars and perhaps much more with cost overruns, etc.), (2) will not be completed until at least the year 2027, (3) will likely not reach downtown Redmond by that time, (4) will devastate long-established residential neighborhoods south of downtown Bellevue, (5) could actually reduce capacity on the I-90 floating bridge, (6) will not provide that much of an improvement in speed over express busses, especially considering its huge cost, and (7) will not serve the corridor that is most in need of rail transit on the Eastside.
Q: Is there anything that can be said in favor of Sound Transit's proposed East Link light rail line to Bellevue?
It would reduce trip times and increase capacity between the Overlake corridor and downtown Bellevue, and eventually between downtown Redmond and downtown Bellevue. However, this would not be until the year 2027 for the former and still later for the latter, according to Sound Transit's construction schedule. There are other ways that such benefits could be obtained at a much lower cost and far more quickly.
Q: But wouldn't Eastside residents feel cheated if East Link were not included in the ballot measure?
A: Rail transit for the Eastside could be started up at a cost only a small fraction of that for Sound Transit's current East Link light rail proposal. This could be done by spending just a few hundred million dollars to upgrade the Eastside railroad. This corridor is the better choice, according to independent analysis, as the I-405 freeway is already the most congested freeway in the state and will continue to get worse. Rail transit could be started on that railroad within 18 to 24 months, and a pilot service could be launched much sooner. This contrasts with a projected startup date of service on East Link of the year 2027.
Q: Would there be some additional benefits to using the Eastside railroad for transit instead of constructing an entirely new line over the I-90 floating bridge?
Yes, as it could provide an attractive alternative to the increasingly congested I-405 freeway, it could reduce the need to spend billions to widen that freeway. In fact, this would make it possible to reduce the size of the road tax ballot measure. Another important benefit of using this railroad for transit and slowing down the pace of freeway widening would be a slower increase in the output of automobile exhaust gasses, which result air pollution and may contribute to global warming. Among the other advantages is that there would be no demolition of houses or other disruption of residential neighborhoods in Bellevue.
Q: Would defeat of the November ballot measure have a negative effect on the most important transportation projects in the region?
No, not at all. In fact, the opposite could be the case. This is because one of the projects that could have the greatest benefits and lowest costs is starting a transit service on the Eastside railroad. Defeat of the ballot measure could force the politicians to pay more attention to projects such of this rather than to ultra-expensive projects with relatively small benefits.
Q: Could the plan to dismantle the Eastside railroad affect the election.
A: Yes, it could. More and more people are beginning to learn that something very inappropriate is going on regarding some public officials and the railroad, and it is making them even more suspicious about the entire transportation decision making process in the region.
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This page created March 3, 2007. Last updated July 17, 2007.
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