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Sunday, October 6, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Looking At The New Transit Proposal -- Next Month, Voters In Parts Of King, Snohomish And Pierce Counties Will Vote - Again - On Whether To Tax Themselves To Pay For A New Regional Transportation System. Today, The Seattle Times Answers Questions About The New Plan And Explains How It Differs From The Plan Rejected In 1995.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Same problem. Different solution. The question next month: Is it different enough?

Voters in the Puget Sound region might be forgiven if they feel like they already have cast ballots on a multibillion-dollar transit plan in the November general election.

As recently as March 1995, voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties rejected, with a 53 percent no vote, a $6.7 billion transit plan.

After that defeat, members of the Regional Transit Authority, an agency made up of local elected officials from the three counties, polled their fans and foes and crafted a second measure that trimmed the amount of rail service, added fast bus routes and cut the estimated time to complete the system from 16 to 10 years.

They left in place the taxes necessary to pay the local cost of the plan.

But like last year, the debate is still over the jammed freeways which, according to several measurements, are among the worst in the nation - and whether the new proposal would do anything about them.

Without a major investment in transportation, say supporters, this region could reach a gridlock that could hamstring the economy.

But, reply the foes, this plan will do little to relieve freeway congestion.

"We can't do much about congestion," concedes Greg Nickels, a King County Council member and RTA supporter, "but we can do something about gridlock."

Nickels argues that the RTA's bus routes, commuter-rail and light-rail trains would give commuters a way around traffic congestion.

Last year's plan was favored overwhelmingly in the city of Seattle and won slim majorities in Shoreline and Mercer Island. But it was dragged down by heavy no votes on the Eastside and in Pierce and Snohomish counties. The city of Everett voted nearly 80 percent against it.

At least some of that dynamic is expected to change this time. Snohomish County's cities, for example, are on board.

"We are united on this, this time," said Edmonds City Council member Dave Earling, an RTA board member. "We can't keep on doing this."

"Our buses are full," said Joyce Olson, executive director of Snohomish County's Community Transit. "Every time we put a bus out there, it fills up. People want regional service."

But changes in the plan were not enough to overcome opposition from the Bellevue business interests and some political leaders on the Eastside, where more roads are a bigger priority than rail lines.

"We have spent 30 years trying to solve this problem with a public-transit solution," said Kemper Freeman Jr., the most-entrenched RTA opponent. "It is patently impossible to do it."

Over the next month before the Nov. 5 general election, both sides will vie for the public's attention.

Today, the Times takes a look at the basic issues behind the RTA proposal:

Q. What will we be voting on?

A. Voters will be asked to approve a mass-transit plan for the Puget Sound area. It is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $3.9 billion and take 10 years to complete. Included are railroad trains that would use existing tracks connecting Everett, Seattle and Tacoma; electric light-rail trains between the Sea-Tac Airport area, downtown Seattle, and the University District; and new express-bus routes.

Q. How was the March 1995 plan different?

A. In addition to its higher price tag ($6.7 billion), the 1995 plan called for much more light rail but fewer suburban bus routes, and would have taken 16 years to complete. It wasn't the first transit measure rejected at the polls. A generation ago, in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected Forward Thrust bonds that would have built a rail system in Seattle.

Q. Who gets to vote? What is the RTA area?

A. The RTA boundary includes the urban parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties but excludes Snohomish County north of Everett and the rural eastern areas of all three counties. Towns not included in the RTA district include Snohomish, Marysville, Monroe and Lake Stevens in Snohomish County and in King County, Enumclaw, North Bend and Black Diamond.

Q. What would it take to pass?

A. A simple majority in the three-county area.

Q. How much will the new plan really cost?

A. The $3.9 billion is an estimate of the cost, in 1995 dollars, to build the system and operate it through 2007. The real cost will include inflationary increases, plus the cost of borrowed money.

Q. How will it be paid for?

A. Voters are being asked to authorize an increase in the sales tax and auto-license fees within the RTA areas. The sales tax would go up 0.4 cents on a dollar, and car-license fees would increase by 0.3 percent. The sales-tax increase translates to $40 on taxable purchases of $10,000. The vehicle-license increase raises the annual excise tax from 2.22 percent of the value of a car to 2.25 percent. That's $30 more to license a $10,000 car. Estimates are that households with two cars would pay about $100 to $125 more a year in taxes if the RTA proposal passes.

Q. Who'd pay?

A. The tax increases would apply only within the RTA district boundaries. So, only cars and trucks licensed in the district would be subject to the higher rate; taxable purchases inside the district would have a higher sales tax, regardless of who bought them. For example, a Marysville resident who shopped at the Everett Mall would pay the higher sales-tax rate, but not the higher vehicle-license rate, because Marysville is outside the transit district.

Q. Will sales taxes and auto licenses pay for the whole thing?

A. No. Those taxes would raise an estimated $2 billion over 10 years. Some of the rest of the cost would be paid by borrowing the money and repaying it over 30 years. The plan also assumes the federal government will contribute some money. No state contribution is assumed, but if there were a future increase in the state gas tax, the RTA would seek a state contribution.

Q. I thought the federal government was reducing its role in local transit systems. A. The federal government has cut the amount it contributes to local transit operations. However, there is still a program for building rail systems, and the RTA recently received a $3 million grant under that program for engineering studies. The RTA is estimating the federal share at about 19 percent.

Q. How do I know whether this plan will help me? Where will it go?

A. Commuter-rail trains will run along existing track connecting, in the north end, Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle, and in the south, Lakewood, Tacoma, Puyallup, the Kent Valley and Seattle. The terminus would be King Street Station. The light-rail trains would run between downtown Seattle and the University District, via a tunnel under Capitol Hill. In the south, trains would run from downtown through Rainier Valley on elevated tracks, then on surface streets between Boeing Field and the Sea-Tac area. (The light rail could be at the surface, rather than on elevated tracks, if the communities involved prefer it.) The light rail would include the airport, then reconnect with Interstate 5 at about South 200th Street. In Tacoma, a light-rail line would run between downtown and the Tacoma Dome on surface streets.

Q. What's the difference between commuter rail and light rail?

A. Commuter rail uses regular railroad tracks and diesel locomotives. Light rail is powered by electricity from overhead lines. New light-rail lines would be built.

Q. Are new freeway lanes included?

A. There would be no new lanes, but the plan includes new ramps enabling buses to get in and out of the car-pool lanes without weaving through traffic.

Q. Will this mass-transit plan reduce congestion?

A. Traffic in the Puget Sound area is expected to get worse as suburban areas continue to grow and as people continue to increase their use of cars. The RTA doesn't claim it will solve congestion problems but that it might slow the increase. Portland's light-rail system didn't stop freeway congestion but helped get cars off neighborhood and arterial streets, for example. The RTA does say that the plan will offer a reasonable alternative to commuters who don't like sitting in traffic.

Opponents say the incremental impact of the RTA would be about one half of 1 percent of the cars when it is built; proponents respond that the system would provide up to 40 percent of the commute trips in the most-crowded corridors at rush hour.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) estimates that the average freeway speed during the afternoon rush hour was 26.2 mph in 1990 and will slow to 19.9 mph by the year 2020 if little is done about transit capacity. The average speed on the freeways would be slightly higher if a system like the RTA's is built, according to the computer models.

Transportation planners at the PSRC say transit investments like the RTA plan should be accompanied by other transportation improvements, including stepped-up highway maintenance, more arterial road construction and other transit investments.

Q. Who's for it and who's against it? Who's financing the campaigns?

A. Proponents include most of the business community and political leaders in the area. Major campaign donations have come from Boeing ($50,000), Puget Power ($15,000), Nordstrom ($10,000), Alaska Airlines ($25,000), Weyerhaeuser ($15,000) and major banks. The proposal has been endorsed by most of the cities and towns in the region.

Most opposition has come from the Eastside. Among those groups officially opposed are the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce and the Bellevue Downtown Association. The opposition group, Citizens Opposed to Sitting in Traffic, or COST, includes Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman Jr., a number of Eastside politicians and the Washington Trucking Association. Financial support is coming from PACCAR and Eastside developers Skip Rowley, David Schooler and Freeman.

Q. What don't they like?

A. The opposition campaign will be focused on three elements: that the RTA plan wouldn't reduce congestion, requires the same taxes as last year's vote (although for a shorter period of time), and soaks up money that could be spent on buses instead of rail. Steve Excell, spokesman for the group, said rail lines just aren't as good as bus systems.

Rob McKenna, a County Council member and RTA board member who has led the opposition this year, objects to the amount of money being spent in Seattle on light rail and says the commuter-rail segment will never carry many riders.

Eastside opponents also object to the fact that the plan does not build more roads on the congested Eastside or do anything to improve Highway 520 between Seattle and the Bellevue-Redmond area.

At a forum last week in Snohomish County, RTA foe Freeman said he doesn't think public transit can ever be a solution to transportation problems.

Q. If it passes, what's next? What gets built first and when?

A. The express-bus routes and commuter rail would come on line in three to four years. The time is necessary to order buses and build the new freeway ramps and to improve the railroad track and signals at crossings. The major construction would involve the light rail, however. Construction staging would begin simultaneously near Tukwila and in Tacoma, with the Tacoma segment completed first. The RTA estimates its Tacoma line would be operational in 2001 and the first trains in Seattle in 2004. New sections would begin service as they were completed.

Q. Will the taxes end after 10 years?

A. Probably not. Some level of taxation would be required to operate the system, so the RTA might ask for taxes at a somewhat lower level than those being voted on Nov. 5. What is more likely is that there will be a proposal to extend the system in a second phase. If it is successful, there may be pressure to build the light-rail line north to Northgate and Snohomish County, or south into Federal Way and Tacoma. If the commuter rail is successful, operators might want to expand the service to more of the day than just rush hours.

Q. What happens if it fails? Is it over for another 30 years?

A. The state law authorizing the RTA allowed for two region-wide votes, of which this would be the second. Since there is no guarantee of continued funding, the RTA likely would go out of business as a three-county agency if the plan fails to win approval on Nov. 5. After that, the individual counties could try to put forth transit or transportation improvements on their own.

Q. How can I get more information? A. -- The RTA has sent an informational brochure to the households of all registered voters in the RTA areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The RTA can be reached at 821 Second Ave., Mail Stop 151, Seattle, WA. 98104. The phone is 1-800-201-4900 or 684-6776 (voice) or 684-1395 (TDD.) The e-mail address is rta@scn.org. The Internet site is http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/CPSRTA/

-- The RTA campaign, Regional Express, is at 2328 Sixth Ave., Seattle, 98121. Phone: 728-6051.

-- The opposition campaign, Citizens Opposed to Sitting in Traffic (COST) is at 924 Bellevue Way, Bellevue, 98004. Phone: 452-8932.

Upcoming campaign forums and debates are scheduled at these times:

Tomorrow and Oct. 14, 9:30 a.m., King County Council chambers, King County Courthouse.

Wednesday, 7 p.m., Shoreline Community Center.

Oct. 15, 5:30 p.m., Bellevue City Council Chambers.

Oct. 17, 7 p.m., Mercer Island Community Center.

Oct. 21, noon, (Business Owners Management Association,) Crown Plaza Hotel, Seattle.

Oct. 23, noon, Seattle Rotary Club.

Oct. 24, 7 p.m. Woodridge Elementary School, 12619 S.E. 20th Pl., Bellevue.

------------------------------------------------------------------ Plan components 1996 plan 1995 plan . ------------------------------------------------------------------

. Cost $3.9 billion $6.7 billion . Time to .

completion 10 years 16 years . ------------------------------------------------------------------ Light rail 25 miles 68 miles . ------------------------------------------------------------------

(U. Dist to Sea-Tac, (Lynnwood to Tacoma.

Tacoma dome to Tacoma) and Seattle to .

Redmond) . Cost: $1.8 million $4.6 million . ------------------------------------------------------------------ Commuter rail 81 miles 81 miles . ------------------------------------------------------------------

(Everett to Lakewood) Same .

Rush-hour only All day . Cost $669 million $895 million . ------------------------------------------------------------------ Express buses 20 routes 8 routes . ------------------------------------------------------------------ Cost $361 million $275 million . Taxes 0.4 cents sales tax Same .

0.3 per auto license fee Same . ------------------------------------------------------------------ Average cost per household . ------------------------------------------------------------------

$100-$125 a year Same . ------------------------------------------------------------------

------------------------------------------------------------------

The regional transit proposal to be voted on in November calls for 20 express-bus routes to operate between suburban areas and between the suburbs and Seattle. The buses would run on car-pool lanes, and the RTA plan includes construction of exclusive ramps to get them in and out of the freeway traffic without weaving between lanes.

Routes are:

-- Everett to Aurora Village.

-- Everett to Mountlake Terrace to Seattle.

-- Everett to Bothell to Bellevue.

-- Lynnwood to Bothell to Bellevue.

-- Woodinville to Northgate.

-- Issaquah to Bellevue to Northgate.

-- Redmond to Bellevue to Seattle.

-- Redmond to the University District.

-- Bellevue to Renton to SeaTac.

-- Federal Way to Auburn to Renton to Bellevue.

-- Puyallup to Auburn to Renton to Bellevue.

-- SeaTac to West Seattle to downtown Seattle.

-- Tacoma to Federal Way to SeaTac.

-- Tacoma to Seattle express.

-- Tacoma to Auburn.

-- South Hill (Puyallup) to DuPont.

-- Lakewood to Tacoma.

-- Mid-Pierce County (Parkland) to Tacoma.

-- Lakewood to Puyallup.

-- DuPont to Lakewood to Seattle. ------------------------------------------------------------------

------------------------ We want to hear from you ------------------------

Have you lived or worked in a city - at home or abroad - with a mass-transit system? What could Seattle learn from your experience?

As this region prepares to vote on the latest Regional Transit Authority plan, your experiences and thoughts about mass transit in other cities could help voters here weigh the pros and cons of the proposal. Did you use the system regularly or occasionally? Was it efficient? Did you consider it valuable, or a waste of time and money? Are there things you would have changed in that system that Seattle should consider now?

In 50 words or less, please share your experiences with us. We'll publish some of the responses. Leave a voice mail at 464-8473; fax us at 464-2261; e-mail us at transit@seatimes.com; or write us at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include your name and daytime phone number. Send your responses, c/o RTA Editor, by Oct. 13.

------------------------------------------------------------------

Here are estimated times it would take you to get to and from various locations on the proposed light rail or commuter rail. The estimates include idle time at stations.

.

. ------------------------------------------------------------------ Central light-rail line times for 1996 . ------------------------------------------------------------------

.

Miles Minutes .

. 45th to Pacific 0.6 1.7 . Pacific to Broadway 2.2 3.1 . Broadway to First Hill 0.6 1.6 . First Hill to Convention Place 0.4 1.3 . Convention Place to I.D. # 1.4 5.4 . I.D. to I-90 1.6 2.8 . I-90 to McClellan 1.0 2.1 . McClellan to Columbia City 1.4 2.6 . Columbia City to Othello 1.8 3.5 . Othello to Henderson 0.8 1.9 . Henderson to Boeing Access 1.6 3.0 . Boeing Access to Tukwila 1.9 3.1 . Tukwila to SR-518 1.7 2.7 . SR-518 to Airport 1.3 2.5 . Airport to SeaTac 1.0 2.1 .

.

# International District (Includes other downtown-tunnel stops)

. ------------------------------------------------------------------ Commuter rail line times for 1996 . ------------------------------------------------------------------

.

Miles Minutes .

. E. Everett to W. Everett 1.2 3.8 . W. Everett to Mukilteo 4.4 7.8 . Mukilteo to Edmonds 10.9 17.9 . Edmonds to Seattle 18.0 28.9 . extra well at Seattle 0.0 5.0 . Seattle to Boeing Access 7.1 11.3 . Boeing Access to Tukwila 4.0 6.0 . Tukwila to Kent 5.4 6.7 . Kent to Auburn 5.5 8.7 . Auburn to Sumner 7.4 8.4 . Sumner to Puyallup 0.7 2.6 . Puyallup to Tacoma 9.7 12.8 . Tacoma to S. 56th St. 4.4 5.9 . S. 56th St. to Lakewood 2.7 4.6 . ------------------------------------------------------------------

Published Correction Date: 10/09/96 - The Vehicle-License Excise Tax Would Go From 2.2 Percent To 2.5 Percent Of The Value Of The Car, If The $3.9 Billion Regional Transit Authority Proposal Is Approved Nov. 5. This Article Listed Slightly Different Tax Rates.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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