Weekend Wondering

Seattle Bus by Drawntocities.com

During the week I read this perspective by Brisbane based urban planner Greg Vann on Metro Vancouver’s upcoming Transit and Transportation Referendum. Vann's sentiments resonated with me as they reflected some of my concerns preceding the two referendums held in 2014 regarding the funding of Seattle’s King County Metro Transit services. There are differences with the circumstances concerning Vancouver’s present referendum and Seattle’s 2014 referendums (firstly by King County in April and by the City of Seattle in November). 

In Vancouver’s case, the referendum is focused on funding future transit projects, a component of which would be through a 0.5% increase to the city's retail tax (Hutchinson 2014). For Seattle however, the referendum was focused on preventing impending cuts to routes and the number of service hours due to a $75 million shortfall in budget due to a decline in the county’s retail spending following the recession (Lindblom 2014). 

The current quality and extent of public transportation infrastructure and services is another key difference between the cities. Vann describes Vancouver’s system as “a model held up by other cities around the world about how to get the balance of transport systems right, and how to match that up with land use involving density and high quality neighborhoods” (Vann 2015). Seattle is less recognized for its public transit system. The city’s system has been focused around buses, a mode more vulnerable to unreliability due to traffic conditions compared to rail. 

South Lake Union Streetcar by Drawntocities.com

Although Seattle’s public transit system may be less established and extensive as Vancouver’s, the city has more recently begun to invest and develop light rail and street car routes to complement its bus network. The South Lake Union Streetcar (shown above) was completed in 2007 and the Central Link light rail, connecting downtown to Sea-Tac airport, was completed in 2009. The need to continue to dramatically invest and improve the current system was also recognized by Seattle-area voters in 2008, who supported Proposition 1, a measure to generate $17.9 billion for the expansion of light rail, train and bus services in the coming decades. Voters supported funding proposals to create more express-bus routes, additional trains for the Sounder commuter line to Everett, and extend light rail to Lynnwood, north Federal Way and the Overlake Center, through increasing sales tax by a half-cent for the next few decades (Lindblom 2008). 

In the first referendum in Seattle in 2014, residents of King County (the county encompassing the City of Seattle and surrounding areas) were asked to vote on a proposition in April to fund the budget shortfall through a 10 year measure which included a 0.1% sales tax increase and an increase to the “car tab” (vehicle registration fee) (Lindblom 2014). This revenue would amount to $130 million in 2015 with 60% allocated to transit projects and 40% for city and county roads (Lindblom 2014; Dawid 2014). If not met, the budget shortfall would result in the elimination of 72 bus routes and a reduction in service hours by 550,000 hours (or approximately one sixth of Metro Transit’s operating hours), despite an increase in patronage to “near-record levels of 400,000 per weekday” (Dawid 2014; Lindblom 2014). The motion was unsuccessful, with 55% of voters rejecting the proposition (Dawid 2014).

Like Vann, I was amazed that a community could vote against the funding measures and accept such extensive cuts to bus routes and service hours. In Vancouver’s case, Vann says: 

“I’m amazed that a community that has such a great track record of leading transport and planning thinking and practice could seriously be considering curtailing its transit funding and winding back its levels of service. And yet the upcoming referendum is about just that. If it doesn’t get up, funding won’t be available for a range of much needed additions to the system to cope with a million new residents in the region over the next few decades; and it is likely that existing services will be cut back.” 

The result to the April referendum in Seattle made me extremely concerned about the extent of services which were at risk of being cut or reduced. It struck me that in a day and age when most cities are recognizing the need for enhancements to public transportation, Seattle was going backwards. I understand the importance of transit operators regularly reviewing routes and operational issues, and that sometimes this means that an underutilized service might be redirected or cancelled. One of the primary concerns Vann discusses is the role that Vancouver plays in providing an example to other cities. I felt that while the 2008 vote had set an example for extensive investment in the region’s public transportation, the impeding cuts undermined this commitment. It was fantastic that Seattle was developing infrastructure for the future, however, I strongly felt that this shouldn’t be done at the expense of current service. 

Opponents to the proposition had legitimate concerns. Several commentators suggested that the “no” voters were not necessarily rejecting the funding of metro services, rather the means for seeking this money (Lindblom 2014). Many opponents acknowledged the need for equitable public transportation and the importance of avoiding cuts. However, they often indicated that they would prefer King County Metro Transit to improve its economic efficiency given it is one of the highest-cost bus agencies in the USA (Lindblom 2014). They questioned the fairness in giving this agency more money given their high operational costs. Others opposed the car-tab fees (Lindblom 2014). 

I shared Vann’s perspective of Vancouver that Seattle’s “referendum is not just about how you get around. Transport is an equity issue”. I was rather dismayed that the voters in Seattle could vote against the proposal, but perhaps this didn’t fairly acknowledge the fact that the community is regularly asked directly to decide the fate of their transit system. In Australia, citizens do not vote on public transit service, funding or development issues. It is predominantly our elected politicians within our state and federal parliaments who determine funding and future infrastructure investment. I understand that this is similar to the Canadian system and Vancouver’s referendum is a unique case (Moving in a Livable Region 2015).

I had a preconception that in the Australian system, politicians are able to weigh up different arguments and make a decision which considers community benefits and equity. In the case of Melbourne, in recent years, a proposal to develop a new metro line was introduced by the state government (Victoria) in 2008 by the Labor Party after years of research concerning cost-benefit and alignment. Labor lost the following election in 2010 and the incoming Coalition altered the proposal, despite the metro at its original route, being labelled by Infrastructure Australia (the federal government infrastructure advisory body) as being “ready to proceed” and an important priority infrastructure project (Carey and Dowling 2014; Australian Financial Review 2012). In early 2014, the Coalition realigned the metro to servicing Fishermans Bend, a predominantly industrial area close to the central business district, which they identified as a major urban renewal project and had commenced planning to transform into a residential and business community (Carey and Dowling 2014). 

The Coalition transit agenda also focused on the construction of the East West Link road tunnel. Toward the end of 2014, the Victorian Government under the Coalition leadership signed contracts to commence construction of the East West Link road tunnel. The tunnel was originally proposed in the Investing in Transport East West Link Needs Assessment prepared by Sir Rod Eddington commissioned by the former state government under the Labor leadership (Carey and Dowling 2014). Despite this, when Labor was re-elected at the end of 2014, the Premier ordered all work on the East West Link to be suspended (ABC 2014). 

As a result of this system, transit projects are constantly a political football (an Australian Rules football of course) and the Melbourne community has uncertainty as to what is being planned for our future. By the end of 2014, the Victorian Government under Labor took the Fishermans Bend metro route off the cards and the original Melbourne Metro is back on (Lucas 2014). It seems there are ongoing legal discussions regarding whether the East West Link tunnel is to proceed. 

Although I may not have liked the outcome in the Seattle referendum in April, I respected the importance of directly giving citizens the right to vote on transit proposals and the funding of these. This approach gives the community greater responsibility, control and certainty compared to the power politicians have in the Australian system. It also increases the accountability of the public transit service providers and politicians to get both their approach, priorities and facts right. 

Despite the April proposition, only one-third of the proposed King County Metro cuts were made as sales tax revenues improved (Lindblom 2014b). In November 2014, a redesigned proposal to increase bus services, was put to City of Seattle voters and was successful (Lindblom, 2014b). 

Vancouver’s referendum, being held 16 March to 29 May 2015, will give voters the choice to consider a proposal to increase the sales tax 0.5% in Metro Vancouver for 10 years to raise the one-third of the $7.5 billion required for the transport plan (Hutchinson 2015). As Vann writes, the world will be watching Vancouver in this process. It is reassuring to know that it will be Vancouver’s citizens who determine how they would like to continue shaping their world class system.

References

ABC. 2014. East West Link: Daniel Andrews Suspends All Work on Road Project. 12 December. 

Australian Financial Review. 2012. Infrastructure Australia’s 2012 Priority List. 13 July.  

Carey, Adan and Dowling, Jason. 2014. Shifting Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel West a 'Catastrophe': Doyle. The Age. 19 February. 

Hutchinson, Brian. 2015. Brian Hutchinson: The Transit War Over Vancouver’s Unprecedented Tax-Raise Referendum has Started to Heat Up. National Post. 21 January.

Dawid, Irvin. 2014. Seattle Voters to Be Put to Transit Test in November. Planetizen. 20 July.  

Lindblom, Mike, 2008. Sound Transit Calls Prop. 1 a Gift "to our Grandchildren”. Seattle Times. 5 November. 

Lindblom, Mike. 2014a. Voters Rejecting New Money for Transit; Bus Cuts Coming. Seattle Times. 22 April.

Lindblom, Mike. 2014b. Metro Bus Service to Get Boost with Passage of Prop. 1. Seattle Times. 4 November. 

Lucas, Clay. 2014. Andrews Talks Up Possible Federal Infrastructure Funding, Repeats Pledge to Release East West Link Documents. The Age. 7 December. 

Moving in a livable region. 2015. Metro Vancouver’s Transit and Transportation Referendum.   

Vann, Greg. 2015. Vancouver's Transit Referendum: The World is Watching! Reviewanew. 2 February.