RTID & ST2: Prisoner’s Dilemma

When the legislature began the process of addressing the growing infrastructure gaps in Washington, it was always envisioned a regional funding mechanism would be born at the same time. This is as it should be, since Puget Sound has needs orders of magnitude greater than the rest of the state, and to ask those in Pasco or Omak to share them uniformly through the gas tax would be quite inequitable.

However, this noble intention has been fraught with problems. The legislature looked to the success of megaprojects combining roads and transit elsewhere, and decided to forcibly tie the newborn RTID’s fate to that of an undeveloped proposal from a formerly troubled transit agency, Sound Transit.

This was based on traditional assumptions about voting patterns: the suburbs love roads and hate transit, and urban centers have never met a road project they would vote for. While urban regions are still hostile to highway projects, (see Vancouver’s Gateway Project) the suburban regions of Puget Sound seem to have begun to warm to transit. Should we decouple these initiatives?

In 1996, the original Sound Move transit plan passed with 58.8 percent of the vote in King County, 54.4 percent in Snohomish County and 50.1 percent in Pierce County. 56.6% in King County recently supported the Transit Now! Metro expansion. It seems to me to be reasonable to assume King County will continue to support transit expansion by a healthy margin. This is especially true since the traditionally transit-averse Eastside will get the bulk of the benefit from ST2.

With the ongoing success and expansion of Sounder’s southern service and Tacoma’s streetcar, it seems likely Pierce County will prove more favorable to further expansion of the system. That puts Sound Transit in an excellent position to win at the ballot box and finish what Forward Thrust tried to start in 1968.

Unless RTID goes down to defeat, that is…

RTID is an unholy marriage of megaprojects needed to replace aging infrastructure and sprawl inducing highway widening projects. It also has the misfortune of being a referendum for regional voters on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a project that will enrage a portion of the electorate no matter which option is selected.

The $7.4 billion plan breaks down like this:

Snohomish County: $1.2 billion
King County: $4.5 billion
Pierce County: $1.5 billion

King County has the megaprojects:

-Alaskan Way Viaduct, $3-5 billion, of which $2.4 is currently available. The original plan called for $800 million from RTID.

-SR 520, $4.5 billion, of which $1.25 is currently available. The orginial RTID plan called for $800 million, but the Legislature has mandated full funding for this project, so that must increase.

The projects likely to take a hit:

167, which was to get $420 million for widening
405, which was to get $1.3 billion for widening
509, which was to get $870 million to complete along with I-5 widening

These are only the King County portions of the plan. Pierce and Snohomish have their own project lists, and needless to say, they are heavily tilted towards facilitating sprawl.

Will supporters of transit and environmentally responsible development hold their noses and vote for such a mishmash of asphalt projects to ensure light rail’s success? Or will both go down to defeat? It would be truly tragic if RTID killed our latest chance to achieve a regional rapid transit system.

I say we need to uncouple these measures.

It would have made sense to combine, say, widening 405 and adding light rail to 405 in a ballot measure. The current proposals have little synergy, and should stand or fail on their own.

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One response to “RTID & ST2: Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. Transportation issues must be addressed as a system. Transit is part of that system. Decoupling the two makes little sense, especially when light rail lines would run down the center of highways.

    I think voters are smart enough to understand why the two should be part of the same package. What they don’t like is to have to vote on too many separate initiatives.

    Make a plan and tell us the cost and get on with it.

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