2016 State of the County address
King County Executive Dow Constantine
March 28, 2016
Redmond City Hall
Last week, many of you joined me for the biggest celebration our county has seen, at least since the Seahawks won the Super Bowl: the opening of University Link from downtown Seattle to Husky Stadium.
And what has happened since has been nothing short of stunning. Ridership numbers are through the roof and trains are so full that, this very morning, Sound Transit added a third car to many of them. And all this happened while UW was on spring break, Seattle Central was in finals, and Metro hadn't yet changed its service to start feeding those stations.
But here's the real magic—listen to what people are saying:
"Cut my commute in half."
“I live in a real city now.”
Fast, reliable, on-time light rail transforms both commutes and communities. It changes people's lives. It is changing the City of Seattle. And as light rail expands it will play a pivotal role in transforming a county that is already on the move.
Even as I speak, the state of the county is in motion—two million people traveling between home and school, work and shopping, leisure and back home again to their families.
Our 20th century infrastructure is straining to keep up with our 21st century needs. Over the course of this speech—over just the next 25 minutes—I-405 between Bellevue and Bothell will move about 4500 vehicles. Or, depending on traffic, perhaps half that. Or none.
And if you think traffic is bad now, just think about this: over the next 25 years, our region will grow by a million more people, bringing with them exciting new opportunities but also new challenges.
Growth is not a problem. Failing to get out in front of that growth is.
And that is why this speech is less about the state of the county in this moment, and more about the state of the transformation of King County into what we choose for it to become.
* * *
Politics is about choices.
Last year, I chose to use this speech to make the case for Best Starts for Kids. And thanks to the hard work of my colleagues on the Council, and of many other people in this room, this past November, King County voters generously approved the most comprehensive and transformative childhood development initiative in the nation.
I have already transmitted to the Council a plan that would direct the first $19 million of Best Starts for Kids funding to preventing homelessness for children and youth. And our county's commitment to caring for our children doesn't end there. With a coming trip to Snoqualmie Valley, I will have visited every school district in the county—all 19—and I can personally testify to the pride and love that our teachers, principals, and parents hold for their neighborhood schools.
And just last month, voters throughout the county once again demonstrated our enduring support for public education by choosing to approve all 13 local school levies on the ballot—most of them by margins of twenty points or more. But, until the Legislature fulfills its paramount duty, the funding crisis in our local schools can never be fully resolved.
Of course, county government faces a state-created funding crisis of its own: a chronic revenue deficit that is often masked by the innovation and hard work of our 13,000 talented employees.
I am proud that King County is a union county. Nearly 85% of our employees are union members. Sure, we have different roles to play at the bargaining table, but we all share a single goal: our award-winning employee wellness programs, our application of Lean management principles, and our nationally-recognized reduced transit fare program, ORCA Lift, all demonstrate a shared commitment to delivering best-run government.
A shared commitment to serving the people. And not just people. Of all the examples of best-run government, one close to my heart is the transformation that has taken place at Regional Animal Services of King County.
Six years ago, amid poor conditions at our shelters and euthanasia rates as high as 40 percent, we were on the cusp of closing the agency altogether. Instead, I chose to empower our employees to remake Animal Services into a model of best practices. And today, I am heartened to report that nine of 10 cats and dogs that come into our care, now find a safe home. That's one of highest save-rates in the nation.
Dr. Gene Mueller and Foster Care Coordinator Lori Mason, thank you for your hard work and leadership.
As the remarkable transformation at Animal Services demonstrates, running government better is about much more than just running government cheaper—although we have certainly made remarkable progress on that score as well.
We have constrained the rate of growth in the cost of county government operations to only 3.3 percent a year—below even the 3.5 percent rate of inflation-plus-population that I pledged in my first State of the County Address. And yet, due to the state's arbitrary one percent cap on our regular levy, our General Fund tax revenues are growing at only 2.5 percent a year.
And so again, even in the best of times, we are facing a $50 million deficit in our 2017-2018 budget—almost all of it due to the one percent levy cap.
See it's not just dogs and cats we've had to rescue. In approving a series of dedicated levies, voters have managed to rescue veterans' aid, mental health, human services, and more. If not for the parks levy our county parks would now be closed.
But this “rescue budgeting” strategy can only take us so far. The bitter in-fighting in Olympia may garner headlines. But there is no rousing floor speech or clever parliamentary maneuver that can drive a bus, house the homeless, heal the sick, or educate a child.
And so, to those legislators standing in the way of responsible revenue reform, my message is a simple one: Do. Your. Job.
Stop kicking the McCleary can further down the road; suck it up and raise the revenue you know you need to raise; and start meeting your constitutional obligation to amply provide for the education of all our children regardless of race, regardless of income, and regardless of zip code.
And while you're doing your job, give us the tools we need to better do ours—lift that arbitrary one percent cap that is eroding the ability of local governments throughout the state to meet the most basic needs of the people.
* * *
One of the most serious challenges we face is the transportation crisis that accompanies our enviable economic growth. As jobs and job seekers flock to our region, our daily commute grows longer and more frustrating with every passing day.
To be clear: if you've got to have a problem, this is the best kind of problem to have. Better to suffer through growing pains than the ailments of economic decline. Better the challenges we face today, than those of the Boeing Bust. But the best thing about this problem, is that we know exactly how to fix it: we need more transit.
Now, I know there are a lot of people who can't quite picture making their daily commute by bus or train. For many of us, the car will long remain our best or even only option. And, as both our Roads and Bridges Task Force and the Regional Transportation Futures Task Force just concluded, we must secure the authority to invest substantially more in maintaining and enhancing local city and county roads.
But the blunt truth is this: the age of freeway building is over.
Look, I remember growing up in an America where your 16th birthday was the most magical day of your young life. That was the day you got your driver's license. The day you were finally free. Does anybody feel free driving on I-5 these days?
Even if we had the money, we lack the physical space to build enough lanes to build our way us out of this crisis. And even if we could build more freeway lanes, our arterials and side streets could never handle the additional traffic these lanes would deliver.
The case for light rail is simple: at peak capacity, a light rail line can carry 16,000 people an hour—in each direction—absolutely reliably. It's always an eight-minute ride from Westlake Station to Husky Stadium, regardless of traffic or weather or time of day. That's the equivalent of adding 14 new lanes to Interstate 5 through the heart of downtown Seattle. 14 lanes! Try to get that permitted!
There is simply no other option that can add the kind of capacity we need to our transportation system. None.
And those numbers don't even start to tell the story. Light rail is transformative. It transforms an intersection into a place—a job site into a bustling economic hub. It transforms the way people get to work, to school, or to Husky football games.
And even if you never intend to set foot on light rail, it's still in your interest to build it—because every person who chooses to ride the train is one less driver snarling up traffic for you.
No, with a million more people coming our way light rail won't solve all our traffic problems. But if you, we, our children, want the choice to get out of gridlock, we have a once in a generation opportunity to get it right: this November, we must pass Sound Transit 3.
* * *
Sound Transit is an agency on the move. In January, I brought on board our new CEO, Peter Rogoff. In February, President Obama proposed a $1.2 billion federal grant to extend light rail north to Lynnwood. In March we opened University Link, which I never tire of pointing out came in ahead of schedule and under budget. And just last week, the Sound Transit board released our ST3 draft proposal. It is an ambitious plan, befitting an ambitious region—and one that is absolutely necessary if we are to continue to prosper from our growth.
This is where we started. This is transit's version of the Space Needle drawn on the back of a napkin. And like the Space Needle, what started as a just an idea—Sound Transit—is built, operating, and used by thousands of people every day.
Since opening in 2009, light rail's ridership has grown by double-digit percentages every year. It is changing the way people choose to live their lives. Last week, I was at the new KING 5 studios near Safeco Field. A producer, Joseph Suttner, told me that he and his boyfriend just moved to Capitol Hill—like they always wanted—because now he could get from home to work in 13 minutes via light rail. Joseph is not just enjoying a speedy commute, he's also saving thousands of dollars a year by selling his car, going from a two-car household down to one.
U-Link has already transformed the way people get around Seattle, and in September we will extend the line further south, beyond Sea-Tac Airport. The new Angle Lake station will be another game-changer, relieving growing pressure at Tukwila Station by adding a critical park and ride south of the airport. By the way, it too is under budget.
My little daughter is already almost two years old. By the time she's in first grade, we will be opening three more stations: University District, Roosevelt, Northgate. And from that day forward, people living to the North, in cities like Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, once they get to Northgate, they can relax - and enjoy their 14-minute train ride to downtown Seattle.
Then, just two years later, the whole landscape changes when light rail opens to Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood, Mercer Island, Bellevue, Overlake, and to Highline College where Kent meets Des Moines—another 25 miles of light rail added in a single year.
So, that is Sound Move and Sound Transit 2—voter approved, already funded, and thanks in large measure to the leadership of outgoing CEO Joni Earl, all of it is on track to be delivered on schedule and on budget. Yes, even the tunnels. I am so grateful to Joni for building one of the best-run transit agencies in the nation.
But our vision of an interconnected region really starts to come into focus when we look beyond, to Sound Transit 3—knitting together the region from North to South, from East to West.
From Lynnwood we go north to Everett, connecting workers in King County to jobs at Boeing, and to the fast-growing communities along the way. The I-5 corridor between Everett and Seattle is already such a mess that the average commuter spends an extra four hours a week stuck in traffic, at an estimated cost of $3,400 a year in wasted time and fuel. And Everett's population is going to grow another 75 percent by 2040.
Here in Redmond, you have done more to welcome light rail than just about any city in the region—and I'm not just saying this to flatter my hosts. You made light rail a permitted use, saving months—even years—of bureaucratic process. You designed your Town Center around that station. You zoned appropriately. And when that train arrives, the people of Redmond will be ready to instantly take advantage of their new connection to the region. Thank you, Mayor Marchione; other cities are following your lead.
ST3 builds capacity for a prosperous future, and we also need relief now. So ST3 gets more buses moving more quickly, even before we finish ST2. The I-405 corridor is one of the most congested, most miserable stretches of roadway in our region. Bus Rapid Transit will provide desperately needed relief by putting buses on the road now, while we build the in-line stations and dedicated ramps that will give the most people the quickest ride to where they need to be.
I-405 BRT just makes sense, and for all the cities along its route—Lynnwood, Bothell, Kirkland, Bellevue, Newcastle, Renton, Tukwila, SeaTac, and Burien—relief is on the way. We need more high-capacity transit on State Route 522 as well, and this proposal makes immediate investments in BRT, while beginning the planning for future light rail extension from Lake City to Lake Forest Park, Kenmore, and Bothell.
In addition to high-capacity Bus Rapid Transit with a new station serving Kirkland, the Eastside will also get a new rail line. Issaquah, our newest designated urban center, will be connected to Eastgate and Bellevue via light rail.
Federal Way is home to one of the busiest transit centers in the region, with standing-room-only buses every morning—and only light rail can add the capacity the city needs. Like Everett, Tacoma is expecting explosive population growth: 60 percent by 2040.
As a multi-modal hub, Tacoma Dome Station is rivaled only by King Street Station. Both have connections to Amtrak, Sounder Commuter Rail, express buses, and local buses. But what Tacoma does not yet have is a light rail connection to the Airport and the regional system. To quote Executive Pat McCarthy, connectivity is critical to the economic development and vitality of Pierce County.
So that is the North-South spine and the Eastside connection. But that's not all the mobility that ST3 will bring to our region.
A truly regional system must knit together housing and job centers throughout our region. And so we will build light rail to the Junction in West Seattle and to Market Street in Ballard. We'll add stations at Graham Street in the Rainier Valley and at Boeing Access Road. We'll expand streetcars in Tacoma, and extend Sounder service to DuPont.
And finally, we will continue to integrate Sound Transit and Metro service. As new Sound Transit service comes online, Metro buses will be redeployed, providing more and better service to and from these stations, and throughout King County. Light rail in Northgate and in Redmond and in Federal Way means better Metro bus service everywhere. Everybody benefits.
Our vision for ST3 is a complete regional system, with major transit projects delivered every few years—laying down track, opening new stations, adding new buses. Year by year, city by city, over the next two decades, Sound Transit 3 will transform not just our commutes, but all of our communities.
* * *
A generation ago, during the Boeing Bust, voters rejected the rapid transit portion of Forward Thrust. We've been paying the price ever since.
But today, the state of the county is strong—strong enough to give our children the choice to get out of their cars, to get out of traffic, and to get onto a transportation system that serves the needs of this century, not the last. ST3 represents an ambitious vision.
This is the most important decision our generation will be asked to make.
And obviously, it won't come free: $50 billion over 25 years—$27 billion from new taxes. That's $17 a month per typical adult to connect our region with a 108-mile rail system comparable to Washington DC, San Francisco, or Chicago.
Every detail of this proposal is based on need: the need to connect people with their jobs, the need to connect businesses with their customers, the need to connect our growing cities with each other. And above all: the need to connect our present with our future.
Last week, with the opening of U-Link, I caught a glimpse of that future taking shape. And what I saw was more than just a vision of gleaming stations and speeding trains.
I saw a region choosing to free itself from the terrible economic, environmental, and social costs of gridlock.
I saw a region with many centers choosing to be one—a single, vibrant, prosperous community, with opportunity for all.
I saw a region, in the face of great challenges and profound change, choosing to shape its own, better future.
Join me in making that vision a reality.