We endorse: Yes on Sound Transit 3 means fairness for Tacoma

From the Editorial Board

Commuters catch Sound Transit's light rail trains in the Capitol Hill station that opened in March this year. Many more Marches will come and go before light rail makes it to Pierce County. But at least Sound Transit 3 offers a real plan to bring it to Tacoma by 2030.
Commuters catch Sound Transit's light rail trains in the Capitol Hill station that opened in March this year. Many more Marches will come and go before light rail makes it to Pierce County. But at least Sound Transit 3 offers a real plan to bring it to Tacoma by 2030. News Tribune file photo

As Pierce County voters decide what to do about the massive Sound Transit 3 package on the Nov. 8 ballot, they might consider the measure’s broad-minded regional goals and high-minded ideals.

ST3 promotes a common good, the culmination of a mass-transit system linking Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. By approving it, voters would leave a softer footprint on the environment while connecting 16 cities with 116 miles of light rail, expanding bus rapid transit and adding Sounder trains.

By agreeing to its unprecedented $54 billion price tag, they would bestow an inheritance in the form of a more efficient transportation network to the next generation, including some 800,000 people projected to arrive in the metropolitan area by 2040. Many voters will never meet these newcomers, and many won’t live long enough to enjoy what they helped pay for.

It’s hard to be more noble than that, right?

And yet for those of us in the 253 area code, the most compelling argument for ST3 can be reduced to brazen self-interest.

It’s our turn, doggone it. And that’s the No. 1 reason why The News Tribune Editorial Board recommends a yes vote.

Seattle has sat at the head of the table for the last two decades, feasting on hundreds of millions of dollars in projects funded by ST1 and ST2. Smart investments in light rail are whisking commuters between the University of Washington, Capitol Hill, Westlake Station and Sea-Tac Airport.

Meanwhile, the Tacoma area has waited for the platter to be passed to the card table where the smaller siblings bide their time. Raise your hands, boys and girls, if the northbound crawl of futility has caused you to miss a flight, a job appointment or the first few innings of a Mariners game?

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland gave voice to a growing restlessness in a recent meeting with our Editorial Board. “They’re getting theirs right now. We need ours,” said Strickland, who’s also vice chairwoman of the Sound Transit board.

Continued patience will be required if voters in the three counties approve ST3. The north-south light-rail “spine” wouldn’t make it to Tacoma until 2030. Sounder commuter train service to DuPont would have to wait until 2036. Rapid bus service on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma would be operational by 2024.

Acquiring right of way, securing permits and laying track takes time. Being hemmed in by saltwater and mountains limits the availability of land and drives up its cost.

It’s a shame that Puget Sound leaders didn’t have the foresight of Western Europe, where electric trams have connected urban areas for 100 years or longer, or even Portland, where MAX light rail has been running for 30 years.

For the sake of posterity, we can’t afford to put off the investment any longer.

Opponents of ST3 don’t offer a very persuasive Plan B. Putting more resources into ridesharing, rapid bus transport and the HOV system are helpful, but they’d still be squeezed into a fixed number of freeway lanes. The same goes for new paradigms of transportation such as Uber shuttles and the driverless cars of the future.

The view of the Tacoma Dome while stranded in traffic on I-5 looks the same from the window of an automobile, a vanpool or a bus.

Only by moving more commuters off roads and onto rails will we have a prayer to break the gridlock. A single light-rail line can move 16,000 people in an hour in both directions, compared with 2,000 people for one lane of freeway traffic, according to the Transportation Choices Coalition.

Some aspects of ST3 cause us to tap the brakes on our enthusiasm. Providing reliable parking near transit stations will be critical to making it work, but Sound Transit has a less-than-stellar record of doing that. We’d like to see more accountability and citizen oversight of the agency.

The $54 billion price tag also doesn’t go down easy, especially the 25-cent-per-$1,000 slice taken from property taxes — a sacred revenue source for local governments.

ST3 asks taxpayers to swallow hard and digest that pill, in addition to a 0.5-percent sales tax and a 0.8-percent motor vehicle excise tax.

But there’s good reason to believe some of that money will be offset by transit-oriented urban development that will emerge near Tacoma Dome Station, Tacoma Community College and other hubs.

Improved freight mobility and rising property values will also put money in people’s pockets. This is why the measure has won the endorsements of the local Economic Development Board and Chamber of Commerce.

It wins our support, too, as another bold piece in a Pierce County transportation resurgence. Already on the horizon: The long-delayed completion of state Route 167 is expected by 2031 and the widening of I-5 near JBLM by 2025.

“It’s our turn now,” Mayor Strickland said.

Pierce County shouldn’t settle for sitting at the card table any longer.