Home / General / Incompetence or Malevolence? (Washington State Republican Party edition)

Incompetence or Malevolence? (Washington State Republican Party edition)


The Seattle Subway collective has a good headline, but I wonder whether incompetence is the most likely explanation.


1. As part of legislative horse-trading last year, Republicans provided votes to pass a law to authorize Sound Transit to take to the voters a new package to extend the current light rail system and various other mass transit projects, and taxes to pay for them. The agency’s legislative ask included a mix of income sources other than the highly unpopular motor vehicle exise tax, or MVET–a type of tax that was the subject of a devastating and successful tax rebellion almost 20 years ago the state budgets have still not fully recovered from. Republican legislators make them use the MVET.

2. Sound Transit uses the legislative authority to put together a sizeable package, funded in party by the authorized MVET. It passes easily, despite the unpopular tax.

3. The depreciation schedule used to determine the MVET (and currently in use for a smaller MVET from the first ST package) differs from blue book value, exaggerating the value of late-model cars while underestimating the value of older cars. 2-10 year old cars are taxed at a value anywhere from 20-50% greater than Kelly Blue Book. Again, this is what the legislation authorized, and how the existing MVET has been collected for a decade.

4. With a major assist from the consistently anti-transit Seattle Times, Republican opponents of public transit attempt to whip up a tax rebellion about the MVET, claiming Sound Transit misled voters about the nature of the taxes. (ST’s website, throughout the campaign, featured an ST III tax calculator, which accurately included the MVET at the legislatively approved depreciation schedule. To carry the charade forward, phony show-trial “hearings” will now be held about how Sound Transit misled voters. This accompanies legislation that looks likely to pass that would “fix” the MVET without replacing the lost funds, putting post-2002 ST’s exemplary record of finishing projects on time at risk. (Democrats control the House, but several Democrats from parts of the ST taxing region that didn’t support the package* are freaked out by the tax rebellion, and are willing to play the compromise role between “full-on assault on Sound Transit” and “respect the clear will of the voters.”)

Forcing ST to use an unpopular tax provides two strategic benefits to the anti-transit Republicans: it makes the package less popular to the voters, but if that doesn’t work, it’s still there to launch a cynical attack on the government agency with (and they know they’ll have the full support of the region’s major newspaper for this project.)

* Also Bob Hasegawa, who represents a transit-reliant, strongly STIII-supporting district in South Seattle. Bob Hasegawa is running for Mayor of Seattle. There are now a number of promising candidates for Mayor. Please don’t vote for Bob Hasegawa.

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  • DJW, now that Bertha has allegedly finished its boring route, could I request a follow up article on the whole project? how late was it, how over budget, did the new tunnel fix any transit issues, how does the bertha project’s outcome influence other planned transit measures etc? How did the lawsuits shake out?

    • djw

      yes you can. It’ll be a week or two, though.

      • Murc

        I too would look forward to a post on this.

  • tsam

    How can anyone who lives in Seattle be against upgrading transit? That place is a constant nightmare for commuters.

    • Lot_49

      They love their cars more than they love their time at home, or clean air. Seems true everywhere, except maybe Manhattan.

      • LeeEsq

        Portland has a pretty awesome transit system for the United States but Wikipedia states show that it seems very underused. People like driving.

        • djw

          “Awesome” is a bit of an overstatement. The choice to put your light rail on surface streets with shared lanes and what sure seems like minimal to non-existent signal priority all through the city center was very penny-wise, pound-foolish, and it hasn’t served them well at all.

          • erick

            Yeah, Portland is above average by US standards but far from awesome.

            Max still has pretty limited coverage, basically useless for NE or SE, it is good for going to the airport though, without traffic driving is faster, but any traffic at all and Max is better, since it is dedicated off grid tracks from just past Lloyd Center all the way to the airport the time is consistent.

            And even though I live a block from a street car stop unless I’m going nearly the entire length of it I really only use it if it is raining really really hard because you can usually beat it by walking, us Northwesterners can walk just fine in anything less than a monsoon and we don’t get really hot and humid except for a week or two in August usually.

            • Dennis Orphen

              Agree on walking (or biking) speed/vs riding the streetcar. But when I moved from NW Lovejoy to SW 11th and Clay I used the streetcar for most of my smaller stuff and it was easier than using a car,just took more trips. It was even free; the fareless square still existed. Yes, I probably cheated a little on the NW end, but I might have walked into it to be legal, or just used some of those streetcar only tickets Northrup Station handed out like cheap halloween candy to paying guests.

          • JustRuss

            Yeah, I rode Max from west side of downtown to the airport once, took about an hour. By car that’s about 20 minutes if traffic’s light.

            • Dennis Orphen

              I’ve ridden my bike to the max stop (not one of my better ones for reasons to be apparent) ridden out to the airport on the max (commenting here working the whole way) , locked my bike up at those racks there where the max meets the terminal, got on a plane, came back weeks, once three months later, unlocked the bike, got on the max, and made it back to NW in time for happy hour with the people who I didn’t have to ask for any rides to or from the airport. You have to save that political capital for more important things, like buying softdrinks in deep southeast.

            • erick

              The stretch through downtown is really slow with all the stop lights.

              I’m mostly doing business trips where the company would pay for airport parking, so not assuming a ride that drops me right at the terminal.

              I catch the street car at 9th and LoveJoy, then switch to Max at Hollayday so only a couple stops on Max before it goes dedicated tracks. Takes about 45 minutes. The drive is realistically 30 minutes in light traffic. But then you gotta park in the long term garage and walk to the terminal, so about a wash. Or I’ll walk a little further and catch the Green Line at the train station and then just get off anywhere on the east side and switch to the Red Line, less train time but more walking time, just depends on how well the street car schedule syncs with Max at the time I need to go.

      • ColBatGuano

        They love their cars more than they love their time at home

        Commuting by bus in Seattle (the light rail isn’t functional for anyone living more than 3 miles north of downtown) takes 2-3 times longer than driving in rush hour traffic.

    • Wapiti

      Ya, I don’t get this myself. My Dad is adamantly against any improvement or subsidization of mass transit, though it might make his commute better.

      Otoh, he bitches about the expansions of bike lanes, too, which I have to agree with in some cases. Jury-rigging a bike lane onto a two lane road can mess with sight distances and turning radii from cross streets.

      • My stepdaughter was complaining about the bike lines in downtown Columbus OH. I said: “Do you think your commute would be better if each of those cyclists was driving a car?”

        (She lives a mile and a half from work. She could walk there if she wanted to)

        • Dennis Orphen


        • liberal

          Positive externalities: how do they work?

      • Linnaeus

        I like the bike lanes for a few reasons, but one that is significant for me as a car driver is that it makes it easier to share the road with bikes. They help me see bikers, keep the proper distance, etc.

      • erick

        What people don’t seem to get is even if you drive and never use mass transit every person that does is 1 less car tying up the roads you are using.

    • Linnaeus

      I’m not a transit policy expert, but from my perch in the Emerald City, I think there’s a few things going on:

      1. The Seattle Times and the local aristocracy that owns it simply doesn’t like taxation.

      2. Seattle has certain geographical challenges. As you know, it’s mostly a long, narrow isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, with a fair number of hills (Denny Regrades notwithstanding). Going north-south is easier than going east-west. Case in point: The distance from my apartment to Sea-Tac airport (to the south of me) is about 21 miles. In normal traffic, it takes me about half an hour to get there. The distance from my apartment to my employer’s former office (in Magnolia, to the west of me) is about 10 miles, but takes me the same amount of time to drive there. And that’s in my car. It would take me over an hour to get to Magnolia by bus. Point being that even with a reasonably good local transit system such as King County’s (and which has gotten better since I arrived here 17 years ago), having a car really does help a lot. I went carless in Seattle for a few years and while it was more doable than it is in so many other American cities, I still found myself reliant on people I knew who had cars. So measures that make car ownership more expensive are more difficult politically to enact, particularly in a state like Washington that relies on disproportionately regressive sources of revenue.

      3. The rising cost of housing in Seattle doesn’t help this. We’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to maintain decent transit through a number of tax increases, but I don’t know how long this is sustainable as long as housing prices and rents continue to go up.

      ETA: 4. The long lead times in building functional transit infrastructure also make the benefits of building transit harder to see while people are paying the taxes to build it.

      • tsam

        #2 is a pretty common theme among people I know who live over there.

        I end up in Seattle about 4 times a year for business, Mariners games and other vacation type junk. I’m more or less accustomed to the super heavy traffic, but I’m always glad to get back to Spokane where our traffic issues would make you guys laugh at how cute they are.

      • Captain_Subtext

        What Linnaeus said. You wonder why liberal Washington doesn’t have an income tax and does have a sales tax…

        Oregon seems to have gotten that one right. Regressive taxes hit the poors the hardest, but rich people don’t like income tax.

        I would argue that Portland has exactly the same problems but has more difficulty enacting taxes to solve them, even though they have invested heavily in public transit. Housing costs drive people out of the city, which necessitates car usage and road development.

        • Aaron Morrow

          You wonder why liberal Washington doesn’t have an income tax and does have a sales tax…

          Republicans control the Washington State Senate with the help of a conservative Democrat.

      • numbers

        All true, but…

        I have lived bike-free in Seattle for going on 5 years now. Light rail is awesome but limited. Buses are not great but okay. Bike lanes are generally great. And car sharing (3 different companies!) makes up the difference. I spend less money on transportation than I did when I owned a car and I don’t really sacrifice any of my time.

        Oh, and traffic is amazingly bad for such a small city. It ranked #4, just behind NY and just ahead of San Jose and well ahead of Miami, DC and Boston.

        • numbers

          Ha! Nice typo. Car-free, not bike-free and I bike ~75% of the time.

        • djw

          I don’t recall where I saw it, but Seattle has had the highest jump of carlessness in the US in the last 4-5 years (from 16-17%, where it’s been stuck for 25 years, to nearly 20%). Obviously, improved transit has a lot to do with it, as has significant housing growth in SLU and other walk-to-downtown neighborhoods where carlessness makes a lot of sense, especially if you work downtown, or just hop on a 545 or connector to get to Microsoft.

          I do think the car2go plays a role as well, and probably uber/lyft too (taxi service really was profoundly inadequate and quite terrible prior to their arrival.) Improved transit probably helps some, but the next couple of link extensions should help more.

    • djw

      Seattle voted about 70-30 for the ST III package, with the Times and talk radio coming out against it. Seattle also has very high transit use, at least for commuting; it’s one of 5 cities in the country where the “drive alone” mode share for commutes is below 50% (and for downtown workers, well below).

      • tsam

        Seattle voted about 70-30 for the ST III package

        Oh, so there’s no real mandate then. I mean 70-30 is just squeaking by…

        I noticed that the linked blog post author is “guest”. Anyone we know?

        • djw

          Seattle Subway is an advocacy group that tends to publish editorial statements without a specific byline. (Seattle Transit Blog is a group blog with a stable of half a dozen or so regular writers, but Seattle Subway seems to have a an open invitation to publish their statements here). I know a few people who lurk here sometimes involved in Seattle Subway but i don’t think they’re crafting the statements.

  • michaelrbn

    “Deprecation” schedule?

    • Vance Maverick

      In Seattle, people start apologizing for their cars quite soon after buying them.

    • djw

      Hey, I spelled right the other time.

  • Incompetence or Malevolence? These are not mutually exclusive.

  • Murc

    Every time djw posts I wish he would post more.

  • Whirrlaway

    I don’t understand the future these people are working towards. Do they WANT poor people clogging up the roadways with their disreputable decade-old beaters? Who will stir the gravy when they’re gone?

    • All Republican victories derive from the exploitation of hostility to foresight.

      • Captain_Subtext

        This is a keeper. Conservatism in a nutshell.

    • Dennis Orphen

      In Seattle it’s not called a beater, it’s called a hooptie.

  • LeeEsq

    Seattle residents are probably kicking themselves for not building the Seattle Subway during the 1960s like they originally intended to.

    • erick

      Yep, but the argument from what passes for “rational conservative” is we blew it then, but it is too expensive now so we have no choice but to stay with cars. The mainstream conservative argument is of course transit is evil socialism and we shouldn’t subsidize it.

    • djw

      It actually got a majority in the key 1968 vote, but fell short of the supermajority requirement. Would have been ~90% federal funding; now we’re fighting for the federal grant equivalent of crumbs. The federal money Went to fund MARTA in Atlanta instead.

      • erick

        MARTA even has a sign in terminals saying “thanks Seattle”

      • rlc

        … which has astoundingly bad traffic these days, anyway. I’ve been visiting Atlanta for 30 years and it’s clear to me that Midtown and N-central Atlanta is going to hit 2x3hr true gridlock before too long. How they put up with that we cannot understand. How do the Captains of Industry in all those nice office towers put up with that? They’re gridlocked too. Note to urban transit planners: perhaps it’s not obvious that when traffic is gridlocked, lane-sharing buses are gridlocked too?

  • Atrios

    What car people (and some transit advocates though perhaps they’re just being dishonest to sell transit) don’t get is that there is no way to make driving in Seattle better. Absent depopulation, it is not going to get better. The most you can do is make some more people less dependent on it. That’s a good thing! But for those wedded to driving, it’s going to suck forever and that’s it.

    • Linnaeus

      Correct. You can’t build more and/or bigger roads when you run out of space to build them in.

      • ColBatGuano

        Maybe Elon Musk’s tunnel roads idea could work in Seattle! /s

  • liberal

    Proper way to fund mass transit is via property taxes, since the government expenditure leads to high land values.

    This is something, however, that very few people, even left-of-center, seem to understand. People like John Stuart Mill understood it much better, and he’s been dead for a long time now. Sad!

    AFAICT, a quick perusal on Google makes it seem like property tax rates in WA are pretty low, but I’m not sure. They’re definitely not very high in “liberal” MA where I live, where the infrastructure sucks ass.

    • djw

      ST III does include a modest property tax, but it’s about 15% of the total tax revenue for the project. (est. 4 Billion through 2041 as compared to 17 billion sales tax and 7 billion MVET).

      Below average property tax + no income tax makes Washington a very lightly taxed environment for the upper middle class, and a brutal for the poor. Dunno if it’s still the most regressive state tax system in the country, but it’s close.

    • erick

      Yeah here is my anecdote for anyone who knows Portland, when they built the east side streetcar extension the original plan was just to go west on Lovejoy then turn south on 11th. They added an extra loop where it turns North on 10th goes West on Northrup then turns South on 11th, so two blocks extra. They paid for it by adding an assessment to the taxes for all properties within a block of the extra loop. That pulled my building in. I think it worked out to a one time $100 charge for each condo unit, not sure about buisnesses. I’m sure in the 3 years since the increased value because I get more $/ square foot on my condo compared to ones that aren’t as close to a street car stop has exceeded that by several orders of magnitude. Granted that is just a small amount for a small extension, but just being close to the streetcar at all was already a huge increase in value and worth quite a bit of higher property taxes.

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