The most common reaction I’ve seen, here and elsewhere, to Sound Transit’s plans for East Link light rail is:

“Why wouldn’t they go all the way to Microsoft?”

So, for the answer: They can’t right now, and it’s not really a choice for them because of subarea equity.

You may have heard of this, but for those who aren’t entirely clear on it, let me explain. Subarea equity is part of the state law that created Sound Transit. It requires that Sound Transit collect the same level of taxes in each subarea (of which there are five), and spend the money collected in a given subarea in that same subarea.

It’s a very good thing – Pierce and Snohomish portions of the Sound Transit district wouldn’t vote for their packages if they weren’t assured money collected there would be spent there!

The downside, and the reason Sound Transit can’t “just build to Microsoft,” is simple. If they got more money from the East King subarea, as in, collected a higher tax in that subarea to build that project, they would also have to collect a higher tax in every other subarea. We already know where that goes – post-election polling showed that Proposition 1 failed primarily due to its size. Sound Transit is also prohibited by state law from putting an identical measure (I suspect even one too close) to what they last submitted on the ballot, so changing things really is necessary.

So, before we get all riled up about Sound Transit building to the hospital, let’s step back. Do we want the agency to fail at the ballot again? No, so it can’t be so big that people kill it. Do we want light rail to Microsoft, ever? Yes, and it’s trivial to build an extension the next time around. We’re at least ten years out from opening East Link, so we can probably do it in the meantime – but if we don’t have an East Link to extend, what will we get? Nothing at all.

PS: With a new 520 bridge, there will be HOV lanes the whole way from I-5 to Microsoft. 60-minute 545 commutes will be a thing of the past long before East Link would open anyway.

17 Replies to “Clearing Something Up about East Link”

  1. The more I think about the East Link strategy, the more it begins to look like the plan used to build to the airport in the initial phase.

    In the first step, build it close to the intended target, then let the people rally support to take it the final/obvious step.

    This allows the first phase to be less costly, and then few will ever question the value/worth of the connector.

    Anyone recall much debate about the cost of the extension to the airport? For the most part, the reaction was just a collective sigh of relief that it was getting done.

    And Ben makes a very succinct point about the MS rider and the 545 (which I failed to accomplish in a couple of comments). A 545 bus running on a rebuilt, HOV-laned 520 will ALWAYS be a preferable option to a light rail option that routes down I-90 for someone traveling from downtown to the MS campus.

  2. Thanks for explaining subarea equity and how it affects the Redmond end of the rail.

    Glad I found this blog!

  3. Yeah MSFT could be like “red link” and done just a little after east link.

    The odd fact is, even though it wouldn’t be approved at the same time, it could be built at the same time as if it had been approved now, even if it’s approved after.

  4. Definitely, though, anti-Rail folks are going to say “this package doesn’t even get to microsoft, so it clearly sucks!”

  5. i’m not sure subarea equity is a good thing at all

    if you ask me, subarea equity is a way of ensuring that everyone is equally unhappy and underserved by a transportation package.

    it’s the opposite of pragmatism – rather than prioritize and solve the biggest and highest priority problems quickly, we’re forced to figure out how everyone can benefit from a half watered-down (in the area that needs the most help), half-bloated (in the area that needs the least help) proposal.

    it probably all goes back to the strange tax structure in this state (and the ages-old conflict between rural and urban washington state) but it seems we’ve set ourselves up with a system where either nobody’s happy (and nothing gets done), or where problems get solved but only after we’ve “bribed” everyone involved at great (and often unnecessary/politically unpalatable) expense.

    i guess that’s all just a long way of saying it can be awful frustrating thinking about transportation planning in this area because of the strange constraints we’ve put on funding and expenditures.

  6. Andrew,

    We’ll see if you still feel that way when 175th to Columbia City is built out, and sub-area equity is what forces ST to go to Ballard and West Seattle, instead of Issaquah or something.

    I think ST is being conservative — let’s see what Patty Murray can come up with to help get to MSFT.

  7. I’m one of those who is disappointed that East Link won’t go to Microsoft, but I agree with the analysis that this was politically necessary.

    Rail supporters need to gear up for the next light rail package assuming that this package passes. I’m of the opinion that Sound Transit should have an expansion on the ballot every two years until a complete regional system is built.

    Overlake is a good expansion plan for a 2010 package, matching it with a 6th Ave. expansion in Tacoma. The question is what to provide in Snohomish, South King, and North King/Seattle. In the city, building part of the west corridor from Ballard to West Seattle is a good first step. South King would probably want to build south from the airport as far as equity allows. Snohomish is tougher because the North/King line isn’t built out to the subarea boundary yet, but something could be chosen that would match the other areas, even if it’s just better commuter rail.

    This might seem a lot to add just 2 years after another ST package, but remember this will be the year after the Central Line opens and probably exceeds ridership estimates. It’s likely the political terrain will shift in favor of quicker light rail expansion.

  8. Andrew Cencini – changing subarea equity would require a bill in the legislature. That bill would include many other things we would NOT LIKE, because the legislature isn’t very happy with Sound Transit right now (for failing to prop up RTID). You’d also see measures simply fail without subarea equity. Lastly, just watch what happens to North King money in ST3 – our spine would be built out, so we WOULD see crosstown or West Seattle light rail.

    cas, I would personally suggest waiting until 2012, when light rail ridership has started ramping up. We have plenty of time once Northgate and Bellevue are passed at the ballotbox, and I think waiting for a presidential campaign turnout might be worth it. Link ridership will NOT be good for the first few months. Nobody will be used to it yet, and the airport connector will be opening in the middle of winter. Give it a year!

    Patty Murray – and a Democratic president – will show us more money. ST is being very conservative, but I think if they have money they’d use it to make station structures more future-proof, planning for higher ridership and doing less value engineering. I don’t see FTA money getting us farther than Overlake Hospital without a pretty radical budget shift.

  9. Ok, if you live in downtown Seattle and work in Microsoft, you might take the 545. But if you live on Mercer Island, Bellevue or anywhere else Link connects on the eastside, you’ll take the Link to Microsoft. More Microsofties live in the eastside than in downtown Seattle. But I agree that going to overlake first then Microsoft a few years later will be fine too.

    And I salivate at the thought of an ST3 Ballard/W Seattle expansion!!! Just not sure how that’s gonna work with only 1 downtown tunnel though.

  10. jojo, the *current* Microsoft employees who use transit are overwhelmingly using the 545. There are other buses to Microsoft, but none of them have even a quarter of the ridership of that particular route.

    More Microsofties live on the eastside, but the eastside is very spread out – you’ll get a tiny number using transit on Mercer Island and from Bellevue. In Seattle, where you have dense bus accessibility and a central transfer point to the 545 downtown, you will always have vastly higher ridership.

  11. Except, of course, there will be every incentive for more MS employees to locate in places like downtown Bellevue, Bel-Red, Mercer Island, South Seattle, etc. one LINK (and the associated TOD) comes in.

    There’s no law that says that MS employees have to live in Ravenna and Capitol Hill.

  12. Martin, the specific locations where East Link stations will be, other than in downtown Bellevue, will not be conducive to walkable TOD. Mercer Island’s stop is situated in the middle of the freeway, cutting off a lot of potential walkable space. South Bellevue has a hill on one side and a park on the other (depending on where they put it, there are other issues). The 90/Rainier station has a huge amount of freeway right of way separating it from any potential development.

    The rate of increase for East Link will be a lot lower than the rate of increase in Seattle overall, especially North Seattle, where it will likely always make more sense to transfer to the 545. The single seat ride of East Link isn’t as competitive when there’s freeway HOV on 520.

  13. On the 545 vs. East Link: Light rail can be a lot more comfortable than a crowded bus — that’s one of the reasons for light rail — so I could imagine a number of MS commuters (say, those living in Pioneer Square) who would choose a slower light rail ride over a faster bus ride.

    Not that it’s a bad idea to take the phased approach. Just that the second phase (i.e. light rail to Microsoft) is also useful.

  14. I used to be against subarea equity, but I think there’s some wisdom in it: ST will be forced to fund mass transit in North King (aka Seattle) which I think is great.

    But I’m scared of taking about ST3. I think it’ll be 8 years (when the UW and Capitol Hill stops finally open) before we vote on ST3. Which is actually fine by me, because — honestly — how much sales tax can we send to ST?

    If we had income tax, or could tax development around transit, or we get more help from the FTA the entire equation could change. But otherwise, well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    Especially with West Seattle/Ballard… I think it’s much more likely that the next stages will focus on completing the original ST2 plan.

  15. I think we’ll get an ST2.5 before we get an ST3, and I think that ST2.5 will be the end of light rail construction in North King as well as get us to Microsoft.

    In ST3, you’ll see West Seattle or Ballard (or both).

  16. Microsoft HQ is an auto-oriented campus in an auto-oriented postwar neighborhood, far away from the nearest urban center. It was irresponsible sprawl when it was developed, and that’s bad, but MSFT is responding to market demands, reality, etc. and locating a lot of its growth in urban centers like downtown Bellevue and Downtown Seattle, and that’s good. Allowing sprawl to spread all over the Eastside was a disastrous land use consequence of building the bridges over Lake Washington and the Microsoft campus is the jewel of that fools’ crown. We should be focusing transit investments where the people, jobs, services and utilities are concentrated. If you build it, they will come. Even mighty Microsoft.

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