September 23, 2008
Obama Converts & Sound Transit

To the thrill of many in the Sound Politics readership (or, uh, not), Sound Transit is on the ballot again this year. Backers claim the Messiah will cure all:

The fortunes of Sound Transit's Proposition 1, a multibillion-dollar plan to stretch light rail into the Seattle suburbs, may ride on a politician who doesn't live here:

Barack Obama.

Supporters are counting on a wave of young, energized Democratic voters in the liberal Puget Sound area to put the measure over the top, in a high-turnout presidential year.

Now, long-time readers know this blogger supports increased availability of mass transit options along the Puget Sound area's major transportation corridors. But there is a glaring hole in the theory promulgated by Sound Transit boosters: down ballot drop-off.

Voters who participate by in large only in Presidential election years are famous for not finishing their ballots. Tally the number of votes cast in a county in Washington State this year - especially in more populous counties - and you'll see a notable decrease in the total number of votes cast in each race/measure as you assess results in the order of the ballot itself.

How big an issue is it? Some political pros recommend that Republicans running for legislative seats run for Position 2 rather than Position 1 if plausible, because several hundred fewer lazy voters (who tend to lean Democratic) in each Legislative District will participate in the latter race but not the former in Presidential cycles.

Now, take a look at this sample ballot [pdf] from Snohomish County to give you an idea of the order of the ballot. It goes:

President
Congress
Statewide Offices (all nine of them)
Legislature
Judicial
Statewide Measures
Local Issues

Sound Transit's ballot measure will only appear somewhere in those local measures (and will vary in exact location based on variety in other local measures in various jurisdictions within the Sound Transit district).

Will a Presidential election year improve Sound Transit's chances? Probably. But will a significant number of Obama converts (and other voters) not actually vote their whole ballot, thus leaving the Sound Transit measure blank? Yes.

I'll have more on the broader topic of Sound Transit's measure this year at a later date. My thoughts are probably not what many readers expect.

Posted by Eric Earling at September 23, 2008 07:03 AM | Email This
Comments
1. OR are they going to treat mass Transit as they did the stadium ballots in decades past. We have to vote this measure to ensure it fails. WE have to watch our elected officials and their appointed people even more. Elected officials can be held accountable it is the unelected that I worry more about. Vote VOte VOte and leave nothing blank. Espicially about this measure. It will be a black hole that will continue to be paid by our grand kids. Can we afford this type of project and pickpocket with a downturn in the economy.

Posted by: David Anfinrud on September 23, 2008 07:18 AM
2. "Voters who participate by in large only in Presidential election years are famous for not finishing their ballots. "

...No worries, that's why we have King county elections people to fill in the rest as they see fit, right?

Posted by: Rick D. on September 23, 2008 08:27 AM
3. Expensive trains are like housing loan handouts. Great if money grows on trees, but not a long term workable solution for this area. We should be thinking outside the box to use telecommuting, incentives to relocate, bus rapid transit, etc.

There no conceivable way to fund a mass deployment of trains. Especially when one considers our geography of hills and water.

And we can look to other major metropolitan areas for clues. Atlanta, SF Bay Area, etc. And here we are stuck on light rail which moves a relatively small number of people at relatively low speeds. Light rails trains will never be a viable way for a large population of commuters to go from say, Tacoma, to Seattle. They will recognize that often, it will be faster to hop in their cars, or take a bus, then to wait for all of the stops and short trains.

And the real problem is that there is no definable commute. People go every which way, from the far reaches of the the urban boundaries, but through narrow corridors with choke-point connections, and capacity that has never been built. Corridor Trains won't fix that problem.

And what about Dino Rossi? If Obama is a phenom at the national level, it's very conceivable that Dino's charisma and latent 2004 support at the State level, helps defeat ST again.

Posted by: Jeff B. on September 23, 2008 08:57 AM
4.
The only support for Democrats comes from urban areas.

The trend long term is to the suburbs for all ethic groups where there is cleaner air, bigger houses.

The Democrats want to keep their power base enslaved and add more slaves by using budget busting projects like Brightwater and Light Rail.

Even if we oust Liboire, we'll still have years to dismantle the Light Rail fiasco.

Posted by: John Bailo on September 23, 2008 09:01 AM
5. Ron Sims was against ST's ballot measure last time, and he was correct to oppose it. He's against this one as well, and he is just as correct this time around.

Paying for commuter trains with a sales tax is immoral.

ST's cost estimates are a joke, there would be no spending limits or cost controls if this measure is approved, and even the proponents can't argue it makes sense in terms of delivering economic bang-for-the-buck.

The only reason it is on the ballot is as a sop to the unions and contractors who can pressure Nickels.

There are far better ways to benefit the economy through transporation infrastructure upgrades, and no way should sales taxes be increased for decades to pay for this particular boondoggle.

Even if you like light rail in principle, no other region ever has been asked to pay anything like what ST is calling for in terms of increased local regressive taxing, and the particular system ST is proposing is tiny. Plus, it won't be as useful as any other region's light rail system, as it won't have anywhere near the number of stations or park and ride lots. It is poorly conceived on virtually all levels.

Voters should reject this unbalanced (all trains/no roads) spending measure funded by massive sales tax increases.

As I recall, Eric supported Roads and Transit last year, and voters rejected it overwhelmingly. I suspect if he likes this one as well he won't be able to give any good reasons for it, and he'll fall back on the exact same talking points Nickels uses: "we have to do something" and "it will cost more later." Those aren't really arguments of course, they are emotional appeals.

The fact that Nickels rushed this measure forward to ride Obama's coattails (that's Nickels' espoused rationale, not mine) shows how cynical Nickels is. He knows it can't stand on its merits, and he's just banking on young, basically ignorant voters to counter the block voting against it who have good reasons to oppose it.

Eric makes a good point though - Make sure to vote on that particular down-ballot measure!

Posted by: Knarr on September 23, 2008 09:14 AM
6. The only possible source of additional federal funding for ST will be earmarks the diminish Federal highway funds from gas taxes. Obama will not be able to produce this earmark whether he is president-elect or just the junior senator from Illinois. The idea has been floated to induce some of the useful idiots to vote for the ST expansion.
It is just more crap from Mayor Big-butt Nickels.

Posted by: Paddy on September 23, 2008 10:30 AM
7. How is transportation choice slavery? Seems to me that light rail gives people a chance to chose how they get around as opposed to being slaves to the oil and automobile companies.

Quite frankly, driving and the dependance on oil that it causes is wreaking the US economy. Even Iran, with all its oil, is building rail in all its large cities.

Posted by: Richard on September 23, 2008 12:29 PM
8. It's transportation "slavery" when WE are forced to pay for YOUR choices.

You think loot rail, one of the biggest, most worthless boondoggles and wastes of public money is all that?

Then YOU pay for it.

Get it now?

Posted by: Hinton on September 23, 2008 12:38 PM
9. @7: Rail service is not a "choice" that can be used by 99% of the people who would be taxed by it. You are looking at rail service as if it were a "free good," you are ignoring the tens of billions of dollars of sales taxes that would be taken out of our communities to pay for the thing.

Not only that, but rail is not a "choice" that people who CAN use WILL use. If you recall, I-5 was closed in August 2007 for several weeks. During that period train commuter ridership increased. After I-5 reopened, ridership dropped down to pre-closure levels. So even for that miniscule population that CAN use rail, many will choose NOT to use it. Given the staggering costs, there is no reason to launch into building it here.

Make sense?

Posted by: Dave on September 23, 2008 12:41 PM
10. The Democrats' idea of a 'cost/benefit' analysis is YOU pay billions of dollars for MY benefit. That's light rail.

Posted by: Palouse on September 23, 2008 01:45 PM
11. Sound Transit is pushing their luck if they want/expect a national Presidential candidate to comment/endorse a local ballot measure.

Sen. Obama has yet to comment on California's Proposition 8 which seems to me a much more influential and wide reaching measure.

Posted by: Cato on September 23, 2008 02:34 PM
12. Looks like I erred...both Presidential candidates have publicly stated their opposition to California's Proposition 8.

Posted by: Cato on September 23, 2008 02:37 PM
13. John McCain is for Prop 8, my bad again. Sorry.

Posted by: Cato on September 23, 2008 02:39 PM
14. Sound Transit are a ship of fools, by and large, taking decades to figure out that only one segment of one of the three counties they keep trying to float their authority on really gives a hoot about something other than higher capacity roads and bigger parking lots. Seattle needs more high-volume, high-speed dedicated rail transit. Seattle, not the entire eastern Puget Sound. Rail and bus do move people effectively, and anyone who denies that lives under a rock on the moon. Eventually the roadways will become so clogged... eventually gas prices will... save a polar bear.... blah blah whatever your personal cause blah; it doesn't matter what the benefit is. More than half the electorate will shoot this straight down no matter what. ST keeps doing this idiotic song-n-dance to impress Everett and Tacoma and a half million nearby denizens who couldn't care less. Why? There is no logic to it. They think they're going to deliver a tri-county plan to people who don't want it when they can't show success in a single city where it is actually wanted? Why they pin the future of my transit options on whether or not a voter in Mill Creek thinks Overlake should get light rail is beyond me. This should be financed with 100 year LIDs. The outlying areas could get more relief from ST giving away free satellite radio receivers to combat fatigue and ennui than they will through watching another grandiose ST plan shipwreck on the shores of suburbia. Obama or the next great market crash or five dollar gas ain't gonna change that. And the stupid thing? Next year they'll be back at the ballot and it will be more expensive courtesy of the US Treasury inflation machine.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. - Einstein

Posted by: Acid Brain on September 23, 2008 06:33 PM
15. Hills and topography limit freeways just as much as rail.

Rail use on the line between Tacoma and Seattle exceeds today the ridership during the I-5 closure.

Taxing anyone to pay for someone else's transportation solution...if it "immoral" for transit, it is immoral for roads.

Choice? There are only two ways across Lake Washington - who limited everyone's choice to just these two options?

I'd build NOTHING at all for transportation - let free choice and the market place solve the problem of people choosing work and housing based on the government taxing everyone and providing them with low cost roads and freeways.

No conservative opinions are being expressed here.

Posted by: BA on September 23, 2008 09:22 PM
16. Taxing anyone to pay for someone else's transportation solution...if it "immoral" for transit, it is immoral for roads.

WRONG. State highways are funded 100% by users of roads. Rail is subsidized by 97% of people who don't use it. If rail users entirely funded their mode of transportation, which we know will never happen, then that argument is justified.

Posted by: Palouse on September 24, 2008 08:13 AM
17. This is where this State's Transportation budgetr is headed if we don't drive a stake through the heart of the light rail once and for all.

Big Dig's red ink engulfs state
Cost spirals to $22b; crushing debt sidetracks other work, pushes agency toward insolvency
By Sean P. Murphy, Globe Staff | July 17, 2008

Massachusetts residents got a shock when state officials, at the peak of construction on the Big Dig project, disclosed that the price tag had ballooned to nearly $15 billion. But that, it turns out, was just the beginning.

Now, three years after the official dedication of the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel, the state is reeling under a legacy of debt left by the massive project. In all, the project will cost an additional $7 billion in interest, bringing the total to a staggering $22 billion, according to a Globe review of hundreds of pages of state documents. It will not be paid off until 2038.

Contrary to the popular belief that this was a project heavily subsidized by the federal government, 73 percent of construction costs were paid by Massachusetts drivers and taxpayers. To meet that obligation, the state's annual payments will be nearly as much over the next several years, $600 million or more, as they were in the heaviest construction period.

Big Dig payments have already sucked maintenance and repair money away from deteriorating roads and bridges across the state, forcing the state to float more highway bonds and to go even deeper into the hole.

Among other signs of financial trouble: The state is paying almost 80 percent of its highway workers with borrowed money; the crushing costs of debt have pushed the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which manages the Big Dig, to the brink of insolvency; and Massachusetts spends a higher percentage of its highway budget on debt than any other state.

The scope of the debt has not previously been calculated, much less publicly disclosed, by the state's political leaders, including Governor Deval Patrick and his senior transportation officials. The Globe confirmed its calculations in interviews with the state's financial analysts.

"The Big Dig saddled us with costs we can't afford," said Bernard Cohen, secretary of transportation. "We are grappling with that legacy now. There are no easy answers."

The debt is a big part of why Massachusetts had the highest tax-supported debt per capita in the United States last year. Most of the Big Dig borrowing occurred when cost overruns on the tunnel network skyrocketed in the late 1990s and state officials scrambled to keep the partially completed project afloat.

The impact of the debt can be seen in some frustrating and alarming ways.

During the last three years, Massachusetts spent the most of any state, by far, 38 percent of its highway budget, on debt payments, according to Globe analysis of federal data. The median is less than 6 percent nationally.

The state has also been forced to meet payroll demands for 1,400 Massachusetts Highway Department workers with borrowed money because it does not have enough cash to pay them. That means that painters and clerical workers paid around $18 an hour cost the state $28.80 an hour. The 80 percent of the workforce being paid with borrowed money compares to 14 percent before the Big Dig work began.

Across the state, commuters are suffering daily for the massive shortfalls that have led to closings and stalled projects.

In Boston, Red Line trains on the Longfellow Bridge are forced to a crawl, trucks are prohibited, and the volume of passenger cars is restricted. On the South Shore, the Fore River Bridge between Quincy and Weymouth is awaiting replacement while motorists squeeze over a temporary span. And in Southeastern Massachusetts, Fall River motorists are frustrated with the pace of work on replacing the Brightman Street Bridge.

"It's a mess," said Fall River resident Muriel Pomprowicz.

Other such signs of neglect include a fleet of rusty trucks, some of them 12 years old, that are still on the road.

From the start, the Big Dig was supposed to be paid for jointly by the federal and state governments. When the project was unveiled in the early 1980s, Massachusetts residents were told by transportation officials that the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the cost. Based on cost and borrowing estimates made at that time, state residents were expected to spend around $345 million, interest payments on debt included.

But the federal government ruled that the project was not eligible for that level of federal support. As costs mounted over the next two decades, it was the state's responsibility to make up the difference. Ultimately, the federal government paid just 27 percent of the construction costs, or about $4 billion.

As a result, the Globe analysis of state and federal data shows, state taxpayers and toll-payers are responsible for a staggering $18 billion of the total $22 billion in construction and debt costs.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which was brought in to oversee the Big Dig construction in 1996 as part of a financial rescue plan, borrowed $1.8 billion, but will have to pay back almost $5 billion, including interest. Its borrowing was so expensive because it was financed over 40 years, twice as long as the vast majority of government debt, with no principal due for the first 10 years.

It is now unable to keep up with its share of the state's debt payments and is in desperate need of a bailout. Alan LeBovidge, the turnpike's new executive director, estimates a yawning deficit next year in the authority's operating budget, $70 to $100 million.

"There is a funding gap," said LeBovidge. "It's a large number, and I don't have a magic wand."

The authority's annual payments on its Big Dig debt are $115 million now. Those payments will level off at $145 million annually by 2020 and continue for another 18 years. The capital budget for construction, paving, and inspection for the Big Dig and the 137-mile Massachusetts Turnpike, meanwhile, has been slashed to $22 million, about 19 percent of the debt expense.

The Turnpike Authority raised tolls last year, but will need to raise them again and again to stay afloat. It may even add tolls on the approaches to its downtown tunnels to alleviate the load on commuters from the western suburbs.

"It's outrageous that toll-payers wind up footing the bill when others get a free ride," said Mary Z. Connaughton, a Turnpike Authority board member.

Quantifying the amount of money that was diverted to the Big Dig from statewide road and bridge repair and construction programs is difficult. A Globe analysis of data maintained by the Federal Highway Administration shows spending for state roads and bridges lagged behind other states. If Massachusetts had kept pace, it would have spent an additional $851 million.

"The Big Dig drained funding away," Cohen said. "I can't tell you exactly how much, but it's been in the billions of dollars."

There are two sources of state highway funds: state borrowing and reimbursement to the state on federal gasoline taxes collected in Massachusetts. The Big Dig, which makes up 7.5 miles of an 11,000-mile system, gobbled up about 40 percent of those funds during the last 17 years, data show.

Since planning for the Big Dig began, the state gas tax was raised only once, in 1991, to help pay for the Big Dig. That two-cent-per-gallon increase contributed a modest amount to the project.

"The state didn't want to pay the cost as we went along, so now it is time to pay the piper," said Alan Altshuler, former state transportation secretary. "It's quite a bind, and there is no obvious way out. It's something the politicians have to figure out."

So far, the answer adopted by Governor Deval Patrick and his administration is a familiar one: Borrow more money to meet current transportation needs. The administration has gained legislative approval for $5 billion in new borrowing for transportation projects and is asking for $4 billion more in a plan to get the state's 3,000 bridges into top condition over the next eight years.

Asked why the state doesn't raise taxes to help pay for its burgeoning costs, Cohen said no such course was necessary.

"We can afford these borrowings within the income stream we have today," Cohen said. "Raising taxes is not on the table."

Since taking office, Patrick has proposed merging the Turnpike Authority with other transportation agencies to increase efficiency and save money. He also has begun to reduce the number of workers being paid with borrowed money.

There have been high-level discussions about adding tolls on Interstate 93, as well, though Cohen insists only as a last resort.

"What is on the table is reform and reorganization to show people we are serious about sound policy," he said. "We need to turn things around before we ask people to dig in deeper in pocket."

Cohen said eliminating consulting contracts, reducing senior staff, and curtailing overtime at the turnpike have contributed to $14 million in savings in the last year.

But more is needed, said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. It simply avoids the nasty reality by borrowing deeper and longer into future, he said.

"They are not addressing the situation, they are just shifting billions of dollars of debt to future generations," Widmer said.

"Nobody wants to be the one to increase taxes," he said. "But without taxes, it means the next generation will face a deep hole."

Sean Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

Posted by: JDH on September 24, 2008 02:15 PM
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