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Originally published July 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 23, 2008 at 1:36 PM

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Guest columnist

The wrong investment at the wrong time | Ron Sims

Thursday, the Sound Transit Board may vote to place a 15-year, 0. 5 percent sales-tax increase on November's ballot. The cost of this plan...

Special to The Times

Sound Transit's pitch

A ballot measure the agency is considering would ask voters to raise sales taxes, by a nickel per $10 purchase, for projects in urban King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Highlights of the 15-year, $17.6 billion package:

Light rail: 34 miles of track to reach Lynnwood, Overlake and north Federal Way

Sounder trains: Six more round-trip trains between Pierce County and Seattle, and station expansions

Express buses: New Highway 520 service and more-frequent Snohomish County trips



Vote

Thursday, the Sound Transit Board may vote to place a 15-year, 0.5 percent sales-tax increase on November's ballot. The cost of this plan is $17.8 billion, plus the cost of interest over 30 years.

I am opposed to this approach and remain a strong advocate for a reconfigured plan in 2010. Let me be clear. I support light rail. As board chair earlier in the decade, I worked with Sound Transit to secure federal funding, allowing us to begin construction on the light-rail segment from downtown to the airport, which opens next year.

The current plan, long on future light rail and short on immediate congestion relief, is the wrong investment at the wrong time. Although the plan's projects may come online in 15 years, to finance it, we will continue to pay the increased sales tax until 2039, tying up all of the money this region has to invest in transit until then. We need to get it right. We can do better.

Supporters of this plan say we need "more transit now!" And they're right; more transit now is exactly what we need. As gas prices approach $4.50 per gallon, our buses are bursting at the seams. Unfortunately, the proposed plan is not more transit now; it is mostly light rail later.

Sound Transit's bus capital program is only 2 percent of the total expenditure plan for Sound Transit, Phase 2 (ST2). The estimated $17.8 billion dollars for this plan provides just 60 new buses for the three-county area, half of which will not be in service until after 2015. That adds just an average of 1.3 new buses per year in each of the three counties for the next 15 years.

The proposed light-rail extensions will not open to Bellevue or Northgate until 2020 and to Lynnwood or Des Moines until 2023. Meanwhile, the region's buses operate with standing-room only. People can't wait that long for more transit service. As government, we need to be more responsive. We need relief in 15 months, not 15 years.

The Everett Herald recently urged the Sound Transit Board to "slam on the brakes, take recent ridership growth into account and come up with a plan that addresses today's urgent needs while still planning for the future." That is exactly what we should do. We need more service in the short term while extensions of light rail are under way.

Extending light rail is an important investment for the future, but it doesn't meet our immediate needs. Metro alone has added more than 50,000 new daily riders in the past three years. The region's bus systems are experiencing unprecedented growth, yet their current revenue sources are exhausted.

Rising gas prices already have had a profound effect on increased bus ridership. At the current pace, we will reach $8 per gallon by 2013. The landscape has shifted; we can't wait until 2023. We need more congestion relief and better transportation choices sooner.

Imagine the possibilities if a significant portion of the $17.8 billion were invested in immediate bus service. We could add hundreds of buses to alleviate overcrowding and provide more frequent bus service all over the region.

A plan that addresses our regional transportation needs of today and the future should include Sound Transit as a partner in a number of regional initiatives. Sound Transit could partner with the state and others to offer more transit service as part of the viaduct replacement project. It could partner with other agencies in the region to implement the Urban Partnership grant to establish tolling and improved transit service across Lake Washington. It could greatly build upon the work that King County Metro, Community Transit and Everett Transit are doing to implement bus-rapid-transit routes over the next few years in order to better respond to near-term demand.

Sound Transit has the potential to do all of these things and still extend the light-rail system. But we need the right plan at the right time. This year is not the time to impose a regressive 0.5 percent sales tax. Oil and food prices are up, unemployment is rising and the Dow Jones industrial average is falling. Government has an obligation to give taxpayers a break in hard economic times. This is one of those times.

Buses across our region are full. Now is not the time to ask voters for a big tax increase tying up 30 years of transit investments for little short-term congestion relief. We can do better. Proposing the wrong plan simply because new voters may flock to the November ballot is still wrong.

I believe it is possible for the Sound Transit Board to craft a plan for the 2010 ballot that dramatically increases our short-term transit capacity and invests in future light rail.

King County Executive Ron Sims is a Sound Transit Board member.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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