Since we’ve had a sudden infusion of new readers, I thought it might be a good time to produce a primer on what it is that we do here, and what we believe.

This blog has many purposes: general news & information about transit in the Puget Sound; debates on the merits of various small transit projects like RapidRide, the Seattle Streetcar, and Eastside Commuter rail; and stuff we think, as transit fans, is simply “neat.” In the current context, however, our most interesting role is policy advocacy.

Our blog authors are private citizens that live in Kent and Seattle, and work both in Seattle and various places on the Eastside. Although we have many disagreements over the priorities of various smaller projects, the authors share three core convictions that come across in the blog, and they all lead to our endorsement of Sound Transit 2.

1) Transit investment is generally better than highway investment. All modes of transportation receive government subsidy, and the question is where those resources are best used. Although light rail is often attacked for being expensive or not cost-effective, in fact the cost per rider compares quite favorably with most projects that improve highway capacity. Furthermore, transit has significant benefits in terms of pollution, global warming, sprawl reduction, public health, and social equality.

2) The regional transit backbone should be rail, not “bus rapid transit”. There are a multitude of reasons for our conviction on this point, but this post is a pretty good summary of some of the most important arguments. If you search our archives, you can find many, many other posts about BRT that marshal some additional points. Throughout those comment threads, you can read some of the arguments and counter-arguments that have arisen between our authors and various factions of the readership.

3) For all practical purposes, Sound Transit is the only game in town. There are as many rail plans as there are rail advocates. However, the Sound Transit plans are a mix of sophisticated technical analysis and recognition of the political realities necessary to win a public vote. Although I’m sure your rail plan — whatever it might be — has its own merits, as a practical matter going back to the drawing board is a recipe for delay. Given the spiraling cost of construction over time, the reduced quality of life as we wait for program completion, and the quality of the plan on the table, the additional benefits of some other plan are likely to be overwhelmed. In particular, I’d like to refer to Ben’s excellent piece on why light rail has to cross I-90 instead of SR 520.

Additionally, Sound Transit has emerged from an initial period of organizational disarray to become a well-managed organization that meets its objectives, plans conservatively, and passes audits with flying colors. Attempts to reorganize or replace it with something else risks the depletion of valuable staff experience, renewed organizational chaos, and more decades of delay.

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I hope you decide to visit frequently, or subscribe to our RSS feed. Even if you hate rail, I think there’s pretty useful discussion of local bus route planning, news of events, and healthy debate between advocates of various plans.

Although this principle is typically honored in the breach, I ask that commenters refrain from personal attacks and impugning motives of others. Our comment thread is, at best, a very educational exchange of facts, and I hope that we can expand that professional tone.

33 Replies to “A Re-introduction”

  1. ‘I ask that commenters refrain from personal attacks and impugning motives of others.’

    Yeah, coming from someone who attacks others in nearly every single post you write, Martin, it’s a little hollow.

    Ditto Ben’s latest “Ron Sims is a liar” rants. He IS the mayor. If you want to be taken seriously, then debate the issue. Don’t call names.

    1. Brad, us bloggers should be held to higher standards than everyone else. Would I call Ron Sims a liar? No. You’re right, we need to discuss why we believe Sims’ numbers to be wrong, misleading, or manipulative rather than just throw names his direction.

      However, most of the problems you have from Martin stem from his political beliefs regarding density not his occasional slip-ups. Listen, everyone here has taken time to listen to you. Let’s cut out the bashing on Martin and take him at face value when he says that vicious attacks don’t belong on this blog or in the comments — from us, or our readers.

      1. I think we have discussed why Sims is wrong and misleading. Starting with that post on BRT Martin linked to.

        His financials are crazy. You can’t add numbers in different years’ dollars together, and it’s misleading to talk about the capital cost and then quote a number that includes operating expenses and bond repayments for fifteen years. A lot of those things are simply projections – we don’t know what our bond issue rates are going to be. We don’t know how much the FTA is going to offer us. You can’t add together a bunch of numbers to make something look big and then not say anything about where those numbers came from.

    2. Brad,

      Link to one — really, just one — example of me launching a personal attack, rather than a criticism of their arguments and policy prescriptions.

      You’ll probably find one — I’m not perfect — but once you go through some, I think you’ll find out how off base your comment is.

  2. Does anyone know if there are any public transit systems around the world in large(er) urban areas that use BRT as the backbone of their transit systems instead of rail? My guess would be “no,” but I would be interested to find out.

    I definitely understand and advocate the number of benefits for rail over BRT as a backbone of any system, but curious to know if other dense regions make it work without the use of rail.

    1. Transit opponents often cite Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Columbia as cities which have used BRT for the spine and feeder routes.

      One thing to keep in mind when you hear that a developing world’s transit system could work here: car ownership in these countries is something like one-in-nine. So the entire concept of “getting people out of their cars” does not apply.

      Also, these cities are blessed with massive, European-style boulevards, which lend well to long lines of long buses. We have no such “grand avenues” to convert to bus-only in this region. In fact, we’re lucky if a single lane on any street is ever fully converted to bus-only. Operating costs are also a fraction of what they cost here – a real disadvantage inherent to diesel powered buses.

      And finally: the government structure in these developing countries was a necessary aspect to converting major roadways over to bus lanes. In short, they don’t take public input.
      What ever government happens to be in power just does what it wants to do. Everybody has their own vision of what a “benign dictator” would do for us here in Seattle, but even thinking about such a pipe dream is a waste of time.

      Some BRT advocates are well-meaning. Many are transit opponents, especially in this city. Would you take spiritual advice from an athiest?

      1. This ridiculously belittles the success of Curitiba in urban planning – the important lesson of Curitiba is not BRT as such but a close integration of land use and transportation. Even a democratically elected government could accomplish this with or without rail (see Vancouver, BC or Copenhagen, Denmark).

      2. Curitiba has been pretty successful in planning public space, but I don’t credit them as being particularly special. They didn’t have large amounts of highway investment to create sprawl, and they have a top-down urban planning model. You don’t have public meetings and design review when determining what to do with space there. A planner here given the same political tools would do just as well.

      3. Oops, “light/intraurban” got dropped from the last “rail” while I was editing. Copenhagen had commuter rail only until less than a decade ago and Vancouver and its suburbs were already dense by North American standards before the construction, extension and expansion of SkyTrain – but in both cases rail is allowing for an intensification of density.

      4. What the devil are you talking about? Highway investment is huge in Brazil as a percentage of income and Curitiba is a middle income city (Bogota is even more well off) where car ownership is not out of the reach of the ordinary family. And planners with similar or even more extensive tools in top-down planning environments have failed in spectacular ways so I do not understand the belittling of one of the great urban planning success stories of the last century. Compare it to spectacular failures like Pyongyang or Brasilia or merely the unwieldy like Canberra or Quezon City or the monotony of industry oriented Wolfsburg, Nowa Huta or Belo Horizonte and it comes out looking pretty special to me.

        Except that the enemies of transit want to use it as a cudgel so you need to tear it down instead of turning their arguments back at them.

      5. “As a percentage of income” is pretty different than use “as a percentage of daily miles traveled”. You’re basically saying that because concrete is expensive, they’re building a lot of highways. They’re really not. Look at Curitiba on google maps! Their one highway through the city is two lanes each way. A lot of the snaking concrete you’re seeing is their BRT system.

        I’m not belittling them. Their system worked. It just can’t work here, because we aren’t top-down, and that is a requirement for their planning methods.

      6. Don’t forget the cheaper labor costs those cities have in common. Labor, bus drivers, is one of the biggest costs of BRT.

      7. yes, cheaper labor costs, but that is also proportionate to smaller government budgets. lower wages (labor costs) = less tax revenue (income/sales/property) = smaller government budget for things like transit. so no, that is not a great point.

      8. I’ve heard these places are thinking of putting in light rail since they have had so much success with BRT. Probably need more capacity.

        Mexico city is another good example. Though it has a huge metro system, they also have BRT lines. They are also starting to (re)build light rail systems. See here.

        Also, these systems are actually BRT, not some washed down version of it. They have dedicated ROW. I believe these systems were put in place by removing general purpose ROW…which, I would wholeheartedly back, but would not happen here, ever. So, to accomplish such, new ROW would need to be acquired for said BRT, meaning the costs are similar to a light rail system anyhow. Seeing as how light rail can hold more capacity than any bus system, including BRT, then we might as well build light rail.

        Here is where our priorities should be set:
        removing general purpose ROW and giving it to buses (then we can call it BRT!); and
        building new ROW for light rail.
        Go transit!

  3. Some other cities are turning to BRT, building bus lines that try to expand their transit systems: Toronto and Brisbane to name a couple. Their BRT systems try to mimic rail as much as possible. Houston, however, has recently (and surprisingly) rejected years of planning for BRT and turned exclusively to LRT. Even Toronto’s new BRT lines are planned to eventually be converted to LRT.

    1. I want to point out that Toronto and Brisbane also already have mature, complete core rail transit systems.

    2. Houston did not reject years of BRT planning for LRT. The people of Houston voted FOR light rail in 2003. Yet Tom Delay and John Culbertson told them they would only get them money for BRT so they changed. But when they modeled the Network of 5 LRT lines instead of the BRT they were forced to plan (which was going to be rail ready BRT with rails in the ground for a quick conversion), they got the needed ridership that would allow them to get a match from the FTA for LRT. Just before that, Tom Delay lost his re-election because of skulduggery and Culbertson lost effectiveness when the democrats came into congress. No one ever wanted BRT there, it was forced on them by Republican ideologues.

      Toronto is also planning for 5 new spine light rail lines. It’s also one of the few cities that did not get rid of its streetcar networks, and look, its a place that people often list as most livable.

      As to all the BRT points, Curitiba is quite a remarkable place. They, like the Orange Line in LA, are at capacity. Why not just do it right and with electricity the first time? Why waste people’s time and money.

  4. Ken Schram gave the Schrammie to Mayor Nickels for his piece. I admit it was snarky on the Mayor’s part, but Ken (as always) regurgitates and reiterates the assertion that there’s not enough bus service.

    Can he help us find the mystery bus service Metro is implementing?

  5. I was just curious as to wether anyone here participates in any sort of activisim on behalf transit? I am very interested. Please someone get back to me.

    Thanks.

  6. The best reason to not vote for the light rail initiative has to do with the real need if we want to effect a positive impact on climate change. Lack of light rail results in more difficult commutes, and anything that motivates people to either work at jobs closer to home (move closer to work) or replace physical commuting with virtual commuting (telecommuting) is a positive for us all.

    On the other hand, asking taxpayers to fund very expensive projects with projected completion dates over a decade away is extremely unlikely to get support. We all have seen that the initial projections are always overrun on cost and completion, and that the usual result is more expensive, delivered late, and without all the promised features. The result is that we taxpayers have lost any confidence in the local governments’ (any of them) ability to deliver on their promises, and promises made for things 10 years out are fantasy at best.

    1. Consumers will still have to use roads to head to entertainment centers, shopping, groceries, family functions and such. Reducing options is willfully creating dependence on automobiles and environmentally unsound.

      Also, do you realize what sort of costs are associated with getting started with Telecommuting? Ongoing costs are lower than the costs associated with in-office employment, but the starting and capital costs are high enough that you create a situation similar to the one you’re proposing will happen with light rail– lack of support due to delayed results.

      Now, with your mention of projects running up against overruns and being late, have you noticed that a lot of recent rail projects have come in under the wire and a lot of recent bus projects have incurred heavy overruns? My key example is Valley Metro, Phoenix, Arizona’s light rail system. They faced several problems like cracked steel but are still on time and on budget.

      Don’t forget that Metro is currently charging 0.9% sales tax and their Transit Now! Initiative is taking FIFTEEN YEARS to be completed with a ridership increase of only 40-50k.

  7. Been following with interest the last several months. I would vote for a rail system for mostly ideological reasons, but it will probably come down to money for most voters. How do you convince people to put money in for something 10-15 yrs in the future, especially in difficult financial times? If sound transit puts this on the ballot in November, where do advertising dollars come from? How much have they spent in the past? Is Sound Transit completely publicly funded? Why not open the project up to bidders? Lots of other questions, but I’ll save those for later.

    1. Sound Transit doesn’t spend on advertising – the campaign is totally separate, and you’ll be hearing from them soon.

      Sound Transit does open their projects up to bidders. That’s how contractors win contracts for the various parts of our transit system!

      And this package includes big increases in bus service in the near term as well as light rail for the long term.

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