Over a thousand residents of King County met Monday night for the first Countywide Community Forum. Sponsored by the founder of Dick’s, these forums provide a way for the King County auditor to hear directly from resident of King County on matters of pressing importance. The first forum topic? Why, of course, transportation in this region.

I attended a session on Capitol Hill, where I met Dave and Kristen. Dave, early 30s, works for a non-profit that educates kids about climate change and Kristen, mid-20’s, is a property manager. I biked to the co-op where the meeting was being hosted, so you can guess the politics of the three of us.

First, we watched a ten minute video that actually discussed the major transportation issues of the day in an intelligent yet expansive view — nearly all viewpoints were represented. Those who spoke during the video were Ron Sims, King County Executive; Tim Gould, of the local Sierra Club; Julia Patterson, Sound Transit board member and King County Councilmember; Bruce Agnew, of the Discovery Institute; and Kemper Freeman, Jr., the owner Bellevue Square. The only one who said that we shouldn’t increase funding for transit was Freeman.

Not very strongly addressed in the video but mentioned in accompanying letters is the debate between bus rapid transit and light rail. Ron Sims, who came across as very pro-transit in the video, wrote:

For us in our region, investments in bus rapid transit, or BRT, will do far more to alleviate congestion across the SR-520 and I-90 bridges than light rail. […] Plus, according to King County’s carbon modeling, light rail across our bridges would actually create more congestion problems than it solves, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and adding more gridlock.

To which Joni Earl, CEO of Sound Transit, responded to in her letter (while Earl’s letter was distributed with all of those who appeared in the video, she was the only one who wasn’t in the video itself):

The only way to operate buses with speeds, frequencies, and reliability approaching rail is through (1) capital investments in dedicated bus right-of-ways that rival the cost of rail and/or (2) restrictions of general purpose traffic on both freeways and surface streets. And buses entail higher operations costs: it takes 10 bus drivers to carry the capacity of one light rail train. In our estimation, while rail by itself cannot do the whole job, buses by themselves are not efficient or cost-effective in the long term as a sole solution for the future.

But I realized something when talking to Dave and Kristen: these shots across the bow went unnoticed to these citizens who aren’t transit geeks. Indeed, neither knew that there is a raging BRT versus light rail debate. Both seemed to accept at face value that I said light rail was better for major corridors — which may show that a political discussion on Capitol Hill will probably never come down to taxes. The debate to them was about whether we should invest more in transit, in general, or more in roads, in general.

Kristen admitted that she had come mostly to learn about the issue, but described herself as someone who drives everywhere. She has a perception that current buses are slow, unsafe (especially for young women), and are simply impractical for many of her travels to places such as Renton. And is she wrong? Many of us put up with buses because the economics work in our favor or because the alternative is worse, but Kristen didn’t feel the need yet to put up with anything. Like many of our society, living without a car just isn’t an option. And, furthermore, the bus is to be avoided at all costs.

Keep in mind, Kristen isn’t “bad” or on the wrong side of the fence at all; she just happens to live in a metropolitan area built around the personal automobile. Like most of King County, she’s all for funding public transit without ever planning on using it. She believes that most of our county doesn’t expect a short-term solution to congestion and the reliability of transit — she believes that people are eager to invest because they understand that investment is the only way to begin to address these problems.

Dave was really nice, and spent a lot of the time agreeing with each of us! He spoke about land-use that encourages dense, walkable communities.

In an unexpected twist, I heard the first pro-BRT argument that resonated with me in a long time. Bruce Agnew mentioned in the video that light rail is along Sound Transit’s identified corridors is likely the best solution for those areas, but in the suburbs east of I-405, BRT could be effective, yet cheap. I say this as someone who is very pro-rail: I think it’s a good idea to connect suburb cores with BRT. I hate that “BRT” can mean a dozen different things to the same amount of people, but many people in suburbs are dying for frequency, not right-of-way (yet).

After discussing transportation for a half-hour, Dave, Kristen, and I each filled out a survey. Some of my favorite questions:

  • What should be the most important priority for the allocation of additional transit services? They should be allocated:
    1. To the routes that require the least subsidy.
    2. By a formula that builds ridership in the suburbs like the current 40:40:20 formula.
    3. To meet the needs of transit-dependent people who have no other mobility options.
    4. Based on the total population and proximity to employment centers.
    5. Other
  • What source would you like to see used to raise the majority of local funds for [projects like the SR-520 bridge replacement, the Viaduct replacement, widening I-405 or SR-167, expanding light rail, and/or creating a bus rapid transit system]?
    1. Gas taxes (can only be used for roads due to the state constitution)
    2. Car tab taxes
    3. Sales taxes
    4. Tolls on new or upgraded freeways or highways
    5. Tolls on existing freeways during the most congested times
  • Which one transportation-related improvement do you think would most improve the transportation system in King County?
    1. Adding more capacity or routes to public transit (bus and rail)
    2. Adding more general purpose freeway or highway lanes
    3. Changing land use codes to encourage higher population densities and alternatives to traveling by car
    4. Taxing congestion with variable tolls
    5. Other

After the surveys were completed, we said goodbye. It was good to be able to be a transit geek in public. However it was quite ironic that for the vast majority of our time, we spoke about density, transit, and offering alternatives to driving — but each of us owns a personal automobile.

8 Replies to “Talking Transportation for King County”

  1. Might I suggest adjusting your new design so links are visually differentiated from plain bold text?

    1. Thanks for mentioning that. Andrew’s in Europe now, and he’s the one doing all the work on the site, so I’ve written it down and will point it out when he gets back (if he doesn’t see this).

    2. I agree — it makes this post kind of hard to read. I’m sure Andrew will update the stylesheet once he gets back from Europe.

  2. I think that once light rail begins full operation in Seattle, many “regular” folks will understand the differences between light rail and BRT, hopefully understanding that light rail is much better than a bus.

    As for BRT, I have always felt BRT is much more cost-effective in the suburbs than it is in urban areas (obviously). To me, BRT is meant to serve the lease dense areas where people commute to work or something. Light rail is meant to serve denser areas, such as communities/neighborhoods in Seattle.

    I’m just wondering if bloggers here agree with me. From what I have read, some people just flatly want light rail everywhere, and absolutely no BRT. Could someone please clarify or something?

  3. [max] Here’s my perfect world:
    *High-speed heavy rail between major cities (Seattle-Portland).
    *High-capacity light rail between minor cities (Kirkland-Seattle).
    *Lower capacity light rail or traffic/grade seperated streetcars within major cities (Ballard-Downtown).
    *Streetcars within minor cities.
    *Busses between towns or suburbs and light rail lines or cities.
    *Busses within corridors that don’t have enough ridership to justify rail.
    *Busses within lower density areas in cities.
    *Busses within towns.
    *Small shuttle busses anywhere for disabled/elderly.

    Of course, I see this as an end goal. There is a lot of room for busses until we get there, and busses should never be removed from the picture completely.

  4. For me, buses are useful as a short-term patch to light rail, or as a long-term feeder system to light rail. Even in the suburbs, it will often be better to build light rail and plan for eventual density around the stations than to use buses because the density isn’t there.

    I mostly agree with what Matt’s rail priorities, but I really can’t think of any local corridors that would be best served long-term by BRT. I suppose in corridors such as 520 where the engineering challenges to adding rail are huge, BRT is acceptable, but otherwise the ideal system I envision uses bus only as feeder routes to rail lines.


    *High-speed heavy rail from Vancouver, BC to Portland.
    *Commuter rail supplementing the high-speed rail from Everett to Olympia, with much more frequent service (including mid-day and weekends).
    *Grade-separated light rail connecting employment and residential centers across the region, closely integrated with high-speed and commuter rail, including:
    **North-south service from Everett to Lakewood, with a eastern spur from Lynnwood to Tukwila via Bellevue and a western spur from Northgate to the airport via Ballard, downtown and West Seattle.
    **East-west service from Seattle including at least one cross-lake route to Bellevue and Redmond
    **Tacoma light rail up 6th Ave to TCC (possibly lower-capacity)
    *Low-capacity light rail or streetcars:
    **Bothell to Northgate along Bothell Way/Lake City Way
    **Ballard to Montlake
    **SR 99 downtown to Northgate
    **Issaquah to Bellevue
    **First Hill (+Madison alternate)
    **Tacoma–Union/S. Tacoma Way (will mall spur, and connecting to Lakewood commuter rail and light rail station)
    **Tacoma–Ruston Way/northern waterfront
    **Tacoma–Pacific Ave. S.
    *Buses for local connections to rail stations.

    That doesn’t leave much for BRT to do. Maybe serve highway 9? I dunno, anything I can think of just seems to encourage sprawl where we already have too much of it.

    1. BRT: Tacoma to Bremerton
      Tacoma to Port Orchard

      For commuter rail, it should be extended north to Stanwood and Arlington with a stop in Marysville. Why stop in Olympia? Couldn’t some commuter rail be extended to Aberdeen?

      Lastly, I think something from Lynnwood to Seattle via the old interurban right of way. This provides some east-west connection.

      Why wouldn’t high-speed intercity rail go to Eugene? What about cross state to Spokane? Bus connections could be made to county seats of counties that did not have rail.

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