Nearly five years ago, voters across Puget Sound said yes to an ambitious but very necessary plan to expand high capacity transit in the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett metropolitan area. Known as ST3, short for Sound Transit Phase III, the plan authorized extending Link light rail in pretty much every direction — north, south, east, and west — along with expansions to express bus service, commuter rail service, and the creation of a new bus rapid transit system.
Now, as Sound Transit grapples with a funding shortfall caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic plus rising costs for land and materials, NPI finds that voters in Seattle would welcome the opportunity to provide additional financial support to ST3 so that projects could be sped up instead of being delayed.
71% of respondents to our July 2021 survey of the Seattle electorate — all likely 2021 Seattle voters — told us that they would support a new transit funding measure, while 24% said they would be opposed. 5% said they were not sure.
This finding is great news for everyone who cares about making transit accessible to all. It also comes at a critical time for the ST3 system expansion plan.
That’s because this Thursday, Sound Transit’s Board of Directors is scheduled to meet and vote on a proposal that would formally acknowledge the agency’s financial problems and project management challenges and respond to them by sanctioning delays to the ST3 projects, including new light rail lines to Ballard and West Seattle and new infill stations on existing lines.
This “rebalancing” proposal and the process underpinning it are collectively referred to by the agency as realignment.
People and organizations that campaigned for ST3, including NPI, Seattle Subway, the Sierra Club’s Cascade Chapter, The Urbanist, Transit Riders Union, TCC, Disability Rights Washington, and other members of the MASS Coalition have asked Sound Transit to avoid sanctioning delays to ST3 projects and instead find ways to get them built on time or even ahead of schedule.
Climate damage has already become catastrophic, as our recent heatwave showed — hundreds of residents of Cascadia are believed to have died from that event, according to preliminary numbers from Washington, Oregon, and the province of British Columbia. With the climate crisis set to get worse, it’s imperative that Washington invest in clean multimodal transportation infrastructure as fast as it can, including all electric buses and light rail, which are capable of moving large numbers of people with zero emissions.
Since a lack of available funds is the main obstacle Sound Transit faces in delivering our voter-approved ST3 projects, we and our friends at Seattle Subway decided to team up ahead of our survey last month to pose a question to voters in Seattle about their willingness to support a city-level ballot measure to accelerate delivery of the new stations and trackage inside of the city limits.
These projects — like the Second Downtown Transit Tunnel — are among the most expensive elements in the ST3 plan, partly because they would serve dense, already developed neighborhoods and require tunneling or aerial alignments.
As mentioned, we found that voters are extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of a ballot measure to speed up delivery of the projects that they voted for.
Here’s the exact question that we asked and the answers that we received.
Note that the map you see below was shown to respondents without the NPI and Seattle Subway logos, or the map credits. As this version of the map is intended for sharing and public dissemination, it has our logos and a map design credit. Thank you to the incredible Oran Viriyincy for putting this map together for us!
QUESTION: The Sound Transit 3 light rail expansion projects inside Seattle shown on the map below may be delayed from opening to the public for several years past their original project completion dates primarily due to financial shortfalls. Would you support or oppose a new transit funding measure to speed up construction of current ST3 light rail expansion projects in Seattle?
- Support a new transit funding measure: 71%
- Strongly support: 45%
- Somewhat support: 26%
- Oppose a new transit funding measure: 24%
- Somewhat oppose: 8%
- Strongly oppose: 16%
- Not sure: 5%
Our poll of 617 likely August 2021 Seattle voters was in the field through Monday, July 12th, through Thursday, July 15th. All respondents participated online. The poll was conducted by Change Research for the Northwest Progressive Institute, and has a modeled margin of error of 4.3% at the 95% confidence interval.
The project delay dates you see in the map above are all from Sound Transit Board Chair Kent Keel’s June realignment proposal, which you can read about in detail over at The Urbanist. (NPI leadership met with Chair Keel in late June to express our organization’s concerns about sanctioning delays to ST3 projects.)
In total, more than two out of three Seattle voters said they either strongly or somewhat supported a new transit funding measure to speed up construction of current ST3 light rail expansion projects. Those in strong support outnumber the total number of those in opposition by a substantial margin.
The intensity of support didn’t surprise us, given that Seattle has a long history of supporting transit at the ballot. But it was still great to see. (The people of Seattle have wisely and consistently voted in favor of Sound Transit’s system expansion plans and against Tim Eyman initiatives to sabotage them.)
The lesson from this poll finding is that voters in the Emerald City are very, very willing to invest more to get a faster return on the transit expansion that they voted for five years ago in the 2016 presidential election.
This is a time for courageous, imaginative leadership… a time for climate action and for for resourcefulness. We know austerity is disastrous and costly. The reality is that the ST3 projects will never get cheaper to build. The sooner we can build them, the more cost-effective Sound Transit 3 will be.
The Sound Transit Board, the Seattle City Council, and the Washington State Legislature should give Seattle voters the opportunity to speed up the biggest and most complex ST3 projects by authorizing new forms of progressive revenue the city can levy to bolster the transit expansion Seattle sorely needs.
While the Sound Transit Board’s realignment exercise is slated to come to a conclusion this Thursday, the more important opportunity for action will be in the weeks ahead, at the state level as opposed to the metropolitan level.
That’s because Governor Jay Inslee is considering bringing the Washington State Legislature back into session to work on forging a new transportation package.
A special session for that purpose is a great idea, but it’s imperative that the Legislature make climate and multimodal transit infrastructure the focus of any legislation it adopts. We can’t afford another highway-centric package.
We do need to rebuild some of our highway system’s crumbling bridges, like I‑5 across the Columbia River, but we should not be adding new lanes to the system. The focus needs to be on the other modes that typically just get crumbs: ferries, buses, trains, bike paths, and sidewalks + trails for pedestrians and equestrians.
Most of Washington’s transit systems are funded with dollars secured locally or federally. Legislators need to devote more state-level dollars to transit, and also give Seattle the flexibility to enter into a partnership with Sound Transit to get those big in-city ST3 projects more financial support.
There is precedent for this.
A few years ago, Seattle voters were given the chance to fund Metro bus service hours with a city-level vehicle fee. They said yes, and the city began an enormously successful partnership with King County Metro that ensured the city would have more and better service than with county dollars alone.
Now, our polling shows Seattle voters would welcome the chance to keep ST3 on track with a capital transit funding ballot measure.
Since cities only have the revenue authority that the state gives them, it’s up to our state legislators to act. However, Sound Transit boardmembers have a role to play in this: they can and should be lobbying for the requisite legislation to be part of the transportation package that the Legislature adopts.
Climate-aware Democratic majorities control both chambers in the statehouse and the governorship, so this ought to be achievable.
We and Seattle Subway and the MASS coalition will do our part.
Our region and our planet’s future is at stake. We cannot afford to wait until the 2030s and the 2040s to cut the ribbon on the essential projects we authorized in 2016. We need to work together to speed up the timeframe and bring high capacity transit to more neighborhoods as quickly as we can.