An honest study on transpo increases reveals a big problem

From time to time, we all need to take a step back and evaluate the picture. That’s true of our personal lives, but it’s just as true of government and its efforts, too. That’s why a new report from former state Transportation secretary Doug MacDonald is so valuable.

MacDonald started with a seemingly simple question: how much does the typical Seattle household pay for transportation and transit, and how is that total divided among different agencies?

You might think this important information is already compiled somewhere, but it wasn’t. Transportation planning exists in silos. MacDonald told Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, “The plans are always pitched from the agency’s point of view — how much money they will bring in, and what projects they hope to do. I wanted to flip it, to look at it from the consumer’s point of view. How much are you paying? Are you getting results?”

How much does a typical Seattle household pay?
By MacDonald’s calculations, a typical Seattle household (one that drives and utilizes transit an average amount and owns a $450,000 home) in 2014 paid $1,975 in transit and transportation sales taxes, property taxes, fees, licenses, street parking charges, and fares.

But he didn’t stop there. MacDonald also totaled up the taxes added by Seattle’s already-passed Metro bus proposition and the statewide transportation package, as well as the Move Seattle levy on the ballot this fall and Sound Transit’s hoped-for ballot package next year. Put those together, and in a few years the typical Seattle household’s contribution to transportation would jump to $2,762, a $787 increase.

MacDonald chart 2

That’s no small jump. Westneat says we’re on “a transportation-spending jag for the ages.” Of the $787 potential increase, the already-passed statewide transportation package accounts for about $102 of that, through a gas tax increase and higher weight fees. For the investments being made, I believe that is money well spent.

No coordination, no big picture
Beyond the specific facts it presents, MacDonald’s report is valuable for highlighting that there is so little overall transportation coordination happening in our region; nobody’s specific job is minding the big picture. The fact that before MacDonald’s report we didn’t have great data on the mix of transportation taxes and how much a typical household pays is just further evidence of the problem.

Of the transportation investments we’re making today, are we appropriating the right mix to highways, streets and roads, and transit? The agency-by-agency, one-package-at-a-time approach makes it difficult to say. Voters aren’t presented with the mix, they’re presented with individual agencies’ tax wishes.

And what of agency performance? Evaluating overall performance is also no one’s specific job. MacDonald notes the need for “performance measures for how new spending from several agencies can be evaluated for what it is intended to achieve as a whole and whether it will do so.”

The lack of an overall transportation vision has real on-the-ground effects. For instance, MacDonald pointed out to Danny Westneat that missing from this whole discussion – what apparently no agency is anxious to talk about – is the need to do something about I-5 through Seattle (a topic I’ve broached as well). “The question of what we should do to make our city’s main arterial [I-5] work better isn’t anybody’s specific problem, so it’s been shoved aside,” MacDonald said.

It’s likely that MacDonald wouldn’t have been allowed to publish this sort of a report back when he was state Transportation secretary. “You can tell reading MacDonald’s study that it wasn’t commissioned or requested by anyone in charge,” Westneat wrote. That MacDonald can now be blunter about the facts is another reason his report is worth its weight in gold.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.
  • Bill

    Clearly not one of the decision-makers approving the Flex Lanes on I-405 debacle live north of SR 520. Do any even live on the Eastside? The economic impact of lost productivity due to horrendous traffic jams will far exceed any revenue gained. For many commuters it now takes twice as long to get to work and to get home. It is clear King County government is too big to effectively take care of all of its citizens.

    • Mark A. Sanders

      Bill, you are so right. But, we could see this coming early on and the stupidity of the plan that has been enacted. Seattle roads are falling farther and farther behind demand.

  • MarkSBvue

    Rob, Thanks for your interest in supporting the Consumer. I think that’s very well founded.

    Two of my own thoughts on this might be also relevant:

    1. Multiple writings (some as recently as this year) by Urban Planner, Wendell Cox asserted a nationwide drive, instigated by Climate groups, has the objective that highway infrastructure be impeded in favor of more rail. This impedance of road improvement was illustrated with much data from multiple U.S. cities. Most importantly, Light Rail was asserted to only be cost effective in very large cities, e.g. NYC, which have very high population density. Seattle was not of sufficient density. As a result, the general public (not the Light Rail fare travelers) often foot 50% to 90% of the costs. Not a very fair set up in my mind.

    2. Now some will challenge the assertions of Mr. Cox. Fine. But that brings me to this 2nd point – – and my interest in your views on this related matter. To be sure the Consumer knows what government is doing with his monies, why can’t we have legislation at all levels of government that requires, for every piece of legislation, an authenticated Cost-Benefit analysis and, say, a 3 page summary incorporated as part of each legislative offering. Both total Cost and total Benefit will be framed in $ quantities, so Citizens can readily gauge the value per unit cost of the undertaking. (I assume most would be unhappy if government pays $10. For every $1 benefit Citizens receive.) Moreover, the full Cost-Benefit analysis would be required to be made public at last 45 days prior to any Legislative vote on every Bill submitted for Legislative approval. Thus Citizens can weigh the validity of the assumptions and analyses.

    Rob, Do we do this now? Sound too complicated? Yet, I believe it a practice of most large , successful private companies to know whether a projected investment in growth is worth the cost. I also think it’s true of many private Citizens, as they shop for homes, autos, clothing, vacations, and even food. However, as you note, Government is not getting any cheaper. Sometimes a little analysis goes a long way in adding value.

  • ducttape2

    What is the role of the PSRC then? I thought they had the charter to ensure there was a regional plan. Is this not a indictment of their total failure? I would love to see some sunlight on all of the dark corners of regional politics in the greater Seattle area. It smells of gross negligence based on failed ideological premises.