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Utah task force asks: How did Seattle win support for doubling transit taxes?

First Published      Last Updated Jul 17 2017 11:10 am

Transportation » Panel researching ways to improve, fund future projects.

With millions of new residents expected to pack into the Wasatch Front's tight geography in coming decades, Utah officials are studying how to fund better transportation. They heard Thursday how Seattle is facing exactly the same challenge.

Its residents voted two years ago to nearly double transit taxes — raising $1 billion a year — to build more mass transit, especially light rail lines similar to the Utah Transit Authority's TRAX trains.

"We're doing it because we're serious about economic growth," said Josh Brown, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council. "We're serious about adding capacity. And we're serious about doing it in a way that can ensure … that we still have a great quality of life."




He spoke to the Utah Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force, a group created by the Legislature that includes lawmakers, mayors, county commissioners, business representatives and others.

Surrounded by mountains and bodies of water, Seattle figures it must handle the 1 million more residents it expects through 2040 in its existing urban footprint. It has little ability to add or expand freeways and highways. Brown said the area realized it must turn to transit — and wishes it had made that decision earlier.

Brown said that Seattle has boomed in recent decades, much like the Wasatch Front, resulting in congestion and some slow commutes for its 4 million metro area residents.

With that, 61 percent of commuters to downtown Seattle now take mass transit because it's faster and more reliable, and only 16 percent drive there in cars by themselves.

Brown said support for tax hikes came because the need for transportation improvements became critical to residents.

"It's always hard to get folks to make investments before they are really needed," he said. "Transportation is such a critical issue for them in terms of quality of life and businesses being able to survive, I think we hit a tipping point. I think that's what spurred our recent action."

Officials in Seattle also promised to use money to provide service that will offer quick commutes at nearly all hours.

He said the size of its light rail system will quintuple and connect all major areas. It will operate 20 hours a day. Trains will come every six minutes at peak times, and every 10 minutes otherwise.

In Utah, UTA's TRAX trains come every 15 minutes, and do not operate late at night — and have reduced schedules on weekends.

Brown said Seattle officials also decided that future train lines will not operate on city streets — which TRAX often does — finding by experience that is too slow. Instead, it will use subways, elevated tracks or exclusive rights of way, such as in the middle of a freeway.

"The public has finally realized that we can't just keep putting things off and expect the same results," so they voted for tax increases, he said, adding many now wish such decisions were made much earlier because it will take years to build needed projects.

Of note, voters in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties defeated Prop 1 in 2015 to raise transit taxes amid concern over high executive pay and sweetheart deals for developers, but voters approved it in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties.

Among other reports that the task force heard Thursday was a suggestion to better fund highways by replacing current gasoline taxes with a tax on miles driven.

Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a think tank that promotes free markets, said many electric or alternative fuel vehicles now escape gasoline tax. And because cars get better mileage, that tax is not keeping up with inflation.

"Gax tax is a rock star playing its final concert," he said.

He said a mileage-based user fee would solve many of the problems, and it could be designed to reduce congestion by having higher taxes during rush hour or in congested areas (measured by devices keeping track of mileage and general areas).

He noted research on how to operate a mileage-based tax is under way in several states.

 

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