In a move that earns Mayor McGinn credit for successful inter-agency planning, Sound Transit and City of Seattle are finally working together to start studying high capacity transit through downtown and to Ballard – the first steps toward any new rail.
Ballard to downtown is in both the draft Seattle Transit Master Plan and Sound Transit’s long range plan, and voters funded planning in this corridor in Sound Transit 2 in 2008. Working together here prevents some duplication of work between the city and Sound Transit, and helps them determine which agency should build in the corridor, what kind of rail they want to build, and what corridor it should be built in.
This isn’t just a streetcar study – because the FTA has provided funding, it will study a range of modes. It will likely show a preference for streetcar in the downtown portion, as there would be a cost savings from leveraging the investments we already have in South Lake Union and that we’re making on First Hill, but it will be more open-ended for a Ballard to downtown connection; the FTA requires a full alternatives analysis with more range than the work done in the Transit Master Plan.
That’s actually where we come in. Once the money is committed, lobbying the city to ask that this be higher capacity rather than low can have an impact. The monorail project found that grade separated transit had fantastic ridership potential between Ballard and downtown, and we’ve only grown since then – both in population and in congestion. We should be involved – the city has to consider not just what provides the most bang for the buck today, but what we’ll need in 50 years.
There is some criticism of this plan. Some voiced concerns about the impact of Seattle going to ballot alone, as Sound Transit ballot measures need city voters to make up for majority anti-transit votes in some suburbs. But with Sound Transit unlikely to go back to ballot before 2016 or even later, it’s unlikely that the city and ST would go to ballot close together – and as Sound Transit and the monorail showed, Seattle is more than willing to go to ballot several times to build a comprehensive system. Some also worried that this would leave the city competing with ST for federal funds. But ST, Seattle and King County compete for federal funds regularly, and that’s OK – the feds fund the most effective projects, helping guide our choices of what to invest in, and frankly, giving us more chances as a region to win funding. Having one local agency lose out to another is much better than losing out to another state.
For a subway line, this is a great first step. Any modern data in this corridor is better than no data, and identifying the differences between transit via South Lake Union and Fremont vs Belltown and Lower Queen Anne is important to deciding where Sound Transit puts their investments in ST3. The key is to ask for something that will pass at the ballot – which is all about how excited voters will be for a commute better than what they have today.