Ballot congestion

Politicians may ask the voters for $20 billion in new taxes.

ONE BALLOT. $20 billion.

That’s the price tag that may face Seattle taxpayers this November, when they could be asked to vote on the biggest package of spending measures in the city’s history.

That number includes $7.7 billion for a statewide gas tax, already approved by the Legislature; between $1 billion and $2 billion for a Ballard-to-West- Seattle monorail; $100 million for the citywide levy for low-income housing; and $11 billion for a three-county regional transportation package, currently being cobbled together by Pierce, Snohomish, and King county executives. The sheer scale of the proposals that voters will be asked to approve—the regional package alone is nearly three times the size of the ballot measure that created Sound Transit in 1996—could, some worry, spell their doom. “There’s a real risk that if you put everything together, there’s a greater tendency for people to pick and choose,” says King County Council member Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue.

But state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, says the money is, if anything, less than the region needs to solve its long-term transportation problems. “I’m in sticker shock right now, but I know there’s no free lunch,” Jacobsen says.

Of all the proposals that could show up on voters’ plates this November, the regional transportation package is both the most necessary and the most endangered. Necessary, because it contains funding for projects, like the Alaskan Way Viaduct and bus-rapid transit, that are inadequately funded or entirely overlooked in the statewide gas-tax plan. And endangered, because the package includes another $1 billion for Sound Transit’s still-controversial light rail, a poison pill that could prompt Eastsiders and regional voters to the north and south to reject the plan. Rushing the measure to a vote in November could also leave voters ill- |informed about the proposal, which—as the largest item on any ballot in recent memory—should also be the most carefully considered.

To support his move for a November vote on the package, King County Executive Ron Sims, D-Seattle, released information about the plan late last week. Sims points to a poll by consultant Peter Hart, which showed that 26 percent of registered voters were “much” or “somewhat more likely” to support the statewide package if a regional package was included on the same ballot and that 51 percent considered it a “bad idea” to bring a regional transportation package to a vote without funding for light rail.

But Bellevue’s McKenna says the results of another poll, by Stuart Elway of Elway Research, show that while each package fared well individually, only 43 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for both. “It might be wiser to let the statewide package go first, along with the monorail and housing levy, and then come back next year with the regional package,” McKenna says.

Whether $1 billion will be enough to extend light rail from the University District to Northgate, and from Tukwila to Sea-Tac Airport, is another open question, as is how light rail will get to the U District in the first place. Right now, according to Sound Transit communications director Ric Ilgenfritz, the agency is relying on another half-billion-dollar federal grant—in addition to one it has not yet received—and another $500 million from unspecified sources to pay to extend light rail from downtown to Northeast 45th Street. “It’s unclear whether we’ll be able to put resources together from our existing sources” to fund light rail’s first northern extension, Ilgenfritz says. Meanwhile, the agency has no estimate of how much it will cost to get to Northgate and Sea-Tac, and won’t before November; the regional package’s $1 billion estimate, Ilgenfritz says, is a “general order of magnitude-type number” suggested to the executives by agency staff.

Whether Sound Transit should dive in on the Northgate extension before it’s even received federal funding or broken ground on its 14-mile initial segment is even more debatable. Even some who support light rail, such as Pierce County Executive (and Sound Transit board member) John Ladenburg, worry that the agency may be spreading its resources too thin. “Im not quite sure Sound Transits ready to take on that additional workload,” Ladenburg says. “The question is whether that will distract them from getting the initial job done.”

Sound Transit may be asking that very question; the agency was pulled onto the regional transportation battlefield at the eleventh hour, when state legislators debating the regional legislation settled a dispute over how much transit should be included in the bill by adding a provision allowing Sound Transit to use some of its remaining taxing authority to extend its line to Northgate. The decision put Sound Transit in an unenviable position: Either put another light-rail tax on the ballot, or let the regional package go to voters with almost no transit component. “The only place to successfully address transit is through Sound Transit’s taxing authority—that’s how they got dragged into this,” says Jim Hammond, adviser to Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel.

Plenty of vexing questions remain. How much money should transit get, and how much should go to roads? What happens if light rail fails to secure federal funding? Can the three counties come up with a package that will satisfy their competing interests? And will other ballot measures—such as monorail and the now-dwarfed housing levy—have to change their ballot dates to avoid being eclipsed by the gargantuan tax proposal? All those questions—and more—will have to be settled by August for the measure to go before voters in November. “I think it’s extremely optimistic to think we’ll get all this work done” in time for a November vote, says Ladenburg, who helped craft the proposal. “I’m not going to throw up my hands and say it can’t be done, but if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s not going to happen.”


The regional transportation package proposed by King, Pierce, and Snohomish county executives would include a 0.5 percent sales tax in King County, a 0.4 percent sales tax in Pierce and Snohomish counties, a $75 annual vehicle licensing fee, and a 0.4 percent motor vehicle excise tax.

Contributions to major projects include:

  • Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct: $1.5 billion
  • Widening I-405: $1 billion
  • Widening the 520 bridge: $800 million
  • Light rail from the U District to North- gate: $740 million
  • Light rail to Sea-Tac Airport: $250 million