July | August 2017







States Weigh Public Transit Investments

By Sean Slone, CSG director of transportation & infrastructure policy
The Seattle area’s Sound Transit system is moving forward to upgrade its light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit offerings after the Washington state Legislature allowed the three-county regional transit authority to go to the voters last year with an ambitious 25-year, $53 billion expansion plan requiring increases in the region’s sales, property and motor vehicle excise taxes. It was the third such voter-approved transit expansion in 20 years for the Puget Sound region.
“Our (state government’s) role here has been providing that legislative authority to allow us to go to the voters and ask for the dollars to build these projects,” said Sound Transit’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer Mike Harbour at the CSG West Annual Meeting in Tacoma, Washington, in August. “One of the interesting things about Sound Transit that I had never seen in my career is we only build what is approved by the voters. … If we have something else that comes up and we want to do something other than that, we have to go back to the voters and get approval to change that. … It kind of puts some discipline on us. We’re committed to the voters to deliver the package that they voted for and funded. That’s our priority.”
According to Harbour, the Puget Sound region is expected to add between 800,000 and 1 million people over the course of the 25-year transit expansion, and Sound Transit projects annual ridership to jump from 42 million last year to 200 million in 2040.
“One of the defining factors of the region these days is congestion,” he said. “Growth in this area is really taxing our road system. (It’s a) very challenging area to build transit or roads in. We have a lot of water. We have a lot of topographical changes coming out of downtown Seattle going in almost any direction. … It makes it very challenging and expensive to build and provide new services.”
Even before the passage of the November 2016 ballot measure, the Seattle area was already spending more per capita on new transit projects than any other major city in the country.
The Seattle area is not the only West Coast metropolitan area with ambitious transit plans. More than 71 percent of voters in notoriously car-centric Los Angeles last November approved a sales tax to fund a $120 billion transit expansion there over the next 40 years.
Elsewhere around the country:
Despite these examples of state activities, there is a growing number of ominous signs for the future of public transit. Among them:
Such impacts may complicate things for policymakers who may be considering whether to invest in transit in their own states and communities. Indeed, some transit opponents have begun to suggest that the popularity of ride-hailing services and the promise of autonomous vehicles on the horizon may bring into question the wisdom of making such investments at all right now.
Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute—a conservative D.C. think tank—wrote a recent op-ed for The Washington Post arguing against going forward with Maryland’s Purple Line project. “It makes no sense for Maryland or anyone else to build new light-rail lines. Construction of the Purple Line would barely be completed before most of its potential customers are taken away by shared driverless cars.”
Others argue however that significant benefits to the environment, to the vibrancy of communities and to overall mobility of Americans may be lost if public transit is allowed to succumb to new competition and simply wither on the vine.
“You’re never going to get the efficiency of high-capacity transit in an automated car because it’s still a car and it’s taking up more space,” said Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley at the CSG West meeting.
According to Farley, who prior to his legislative service led a grassroots effort to get a streetcar project funded in Tucson, people want to be together in social environments where they can talk and connect.
“I think ultimately the last-mile issue is what’s going to help this type of transit if people can be in the far-flung suburbs of a car-based, suburban town and get in their rideshare or automated car or whatever to get to where the streetcar goes.”
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