Seattle’s Expensive and Ineffective Rail Tax Proposal

Rail tax advocates are at it again in a number of US metropolitan areas, including Seattle. A recent story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer caught our attention because of claims being made proposed rail expansions that would be financed by a proposed tax increase. Two issues stand out:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: According to the article, the proposed plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the Seattle area by nearly 100,000 metric tons annually. Sounds like a big number. It isn’t. Based upon previously announced Sound Transit spending announcements (an equivalent increase of $1.1 billion annually, including capital and operations costs), the cost of this reduction would be about $11,000 per metric ton. That is 220 times the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change ceiling of from $20 to $50 per ton (the amount of spending per ton is the maximum amount necessary to accomplish deep reversal of GHG concentrations between 2030 and 2050). The Sound Transit plan is not only expensive in general terms, it is profligate in the amount of spending required to reduce GHG emissions. This is illustrated by the fact that at $11,000 per metric ton, it would cost more than double the Gross Domestic Product each year to reduce US GHG emissions by 50 percent --- an often cited goal.

Traffic Reduction: The article also cites a Sound Transit report indicating that the expanded rail system could reduce driving by 30 percent. Never before has there been a forecast of such a reduction in traffic in any urban area in the world and surely it won’t happen in Seattle. Indeed, it would be charitable to call the 30 percent reduction prediction “laughable.” In other rail projections, the expected traffic reduction rarely exceeds 1 percent, and even then is not achieved. Despite having studied transportation investments for decades, never before have we seen such absurdity. If Sound Transit were subject to the same regulations as apply to used car salesmen, heavy fines and even jail terms might be in the offing.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia (St. Louis) and a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley.