The ‘no’ campaign likes to assert that we should spend a lot more money on buses, because we need a solution now, and not on light rail. What’s behind this logic, and why is it bad? With 30-40% ridership increases becoming common this year, wouldn’t it be great to just add a lot of buses?

No, and there’s a really simple reason. Our perfect example is Metro.

Metro collects .9% local sales tax right now, and I think most who read this blog are aware that they’re in seriously bad shape due to rising fuel costs. They’re capped out. They can’t raise fares that much at once, and the state legislature doesn’t allow them to collect any more sales tax than they already do. They’re between a rock and a hard place.

Let’s say Sound Transit were to do the same thing – put all their money into expansion of bus service, right away, and put their capital funds into some more HOV lanes. Let’s examine what this solves – and what this doesn’t solve.

First, despite massive exaggeration in the media of the amount of money Sound Transit works with, they really couldn’t afford to do something like replace the ship canal bridge, or widen I-5 in Seattle. While it seems like digging a tunnel would cost more than that, it’s likely cheaper simply because you don’t have to reroute a bunch of traffic to do it, or pay to tear down hundreds of buildings. So through our core, there would be no improvement in quality of service, except that buses would run more often. As we see in Seattle already, the congestion these buses encounter means additional runs, lower headways, just result in buses bunching up. You get one wheelchair user or an altercation with a driver, and the bus behind you can catch up.

Second, and this is the killer… what happens when those buses are filled up? You wouldn’t have spent your money on permanent right of way, so you’d just have to collect more tax money. Sound Transit 2’s operating costs drop dramatically (and the taxes are rolled back to a lower level) as soon as construction is complete. Sure, we might authorize another expansion, but that’s a choice we’ll get to make then. With Metro, we don’t get a choice.

So in the short term, sure, 15-20% more bus service isn’t all we’ll need, but if we were to spend entirely on buses, we would never have the long term solution. Each of our light rail projects will not only serve people, but they’ll free up bus resources for Metro that we can’t get any more money for without going to the legislature. That’s something we should fix too, but this can only help.

16 Replies to “A Simple Question, A Simple Answer”

  1. That’s silly. If/when ST2 is complete a couple of decades from now, buses will still be the mainstay of local transit, and the primary way to access the regional rail services. You are determined to set things up as a modal competition, but both are needed – and you can’t afford to write off the challenge of improving bus service whether ST2 is built or not.

    Most of us in Seattle and the central Eastside will be using buses for a long time to come, and I don’t appreciate your attitude suggesting that nothing can be improved unless we’ll have a $200M/mile light rail line running through our neighborhood. You can support rail without throwing around that sort of anti-bus rhetoric.

    1. When this is all complete, we’ll be serving more passenger miles on rail services from ST than on all the bus services in the sound. That doesn’t mean buses are bad, but you can’t say buses will be the mainstay. Rail will be the mainstay, and those trend lines will continue to diverge.

      I think this is a basic hole in most people’s assumptions, that buses will be the ‘mainstay’. Our highest ridership bus routes are being replaced with rail, and a fair number of our bus routes are going to become feeders to stations.

      1. The ST literature discusses the portion of trips that will include a rail component. It does not say that the majority of trips would be rail, since many rail trips will also include a bus access trip at one end or both.

        And yes, we are designing a rail system to carry predominantly long trips. But why are passenger miles a good indicator? Why do we want to measure longer trips as more valuable as short trips?

        You keep answering questions as if your perception of facts settles whatever question you are answering. It’s not the case. Look, I’m not arguing against rail here, I just don’t think it’s productive to suggest that bus service is a lost cause and we shouldn’t bother trying to improve it. This is not a competition between modes – but there are more effective uses of each mode that I think is worth debate.

      2. Why do we want to measure longer trips as more valuable as short trips?

        Long trips switching to rail = more CO2 displaced for clean hydro power.

      3. Trip length means fuel, time, and operations cost. Two 5 mile trips are functionally identical to one ten mile trip, in terms of trip replacement.
        Bus service will be improved by building rail. If we spend all of our money improving bus service alone, we’ll hit a wall and not be able to scale up.

    2. I live in Central Seattle and buses aren’t my primary mode of getting around. Far from it. I walk everywhere.

      If I wanna go far in the future, I’ll take the train. Faster and better.

  2. Where will we store all the buses that ST2 opponents claim would be better than light rail? A bus base consumes a lot of acreage, and is a costly use of urban land with a significant impact on the environment. Buses especially “green” ones, cost a lot of money, too. Plus each bus needs an operator. Operation costs are higher for buses than light rail. Check out the APTA web site.

    In order to continue to use get the most effective use out of our bus fleet & facilities, we need to build light rail to provide the regional transit spine, thereby allowing bus hours to be spent connecting neighborhoods to the regional system and reducing the amount of bus hours spent on regional express trips.

    I don’t read Seattle Tranist Blog as anti-bus nor is it setting up a “modal competition,” rather stating that the best future role for buses is to connect to the regional HCT. Unless you build true BRT (exclusive ROW for buses) buses can’t competitively provide the same level of service as light rail. And, if you are going to go to the expense and trouble of building true BRT, why not just build LRT which carries more passengers, faster and more cost effectively?

  3. Taxes won’t drop when constructions stops, Ben. Only after the financing of construction is complete AND they decide not to build anymore. Please keep your story consistent.

    1. I covered this, and I think you already know this is a false talking point, but it frustrates me to have people underinformed, so I’ll address it again. Sound Transit doesn’t decide to build more. We do. If we don’t decide to build any more after ST2, the tax is rolled back.

      You can see here, on that nice little graph, that the taxes are rolled back between 2036 and 2038. Note that the upward trend on the overall collection is due to population increase and inflation. The tax rate isn’t changing.

  4. That chip on Rob Fellows’ shoulder is the size of a bloody bowling ball.

    Rail helps make buses work better and more efficiently. STB bloggers consistently point that out.

    Fellows come from a school of worry – that superior rail service will eclipse buses, which – we were to believe – could match rail ounce for ounce. Who cares what logo is on the side of the transit vehicle??????!!!!!!!!!!

    This tiny transit ego thing has got to stop. We ended up with a lousy monorail proposal based on the attitude Fellows exhibits here (where is eddiew? multimodalman made his appearance). Underdog attitudes get us nowhere.

    Time to ditch the grudges, logo wars, and “I can design a better transit system than you”, bus company guys; and quit shooting yerselves in the foot.

    You cads have bad aim, and you keep hitting the feet of the rest of the transit supporter out here.

  5. James asked for an appearance.

    the initial Ben post is OK, but it sets up a straw man and takes it down. that is not too tough. there are stronger points he could have made:
    there is no feasible bus-based solution between Northgate and downtown; I-5 cannot accomodate reliable bus movement in the reverse peak direction; the north Link LRT alignment will be incredibly efficient as it will penetrate and connect several dense pedestrian oriented centers with strong two-way all-day demand for transit, and where bus transit is slow and unreliable.

    The Fellows attitude had nothing to do with the demise of the Seattle Monorail Project. The basic error was fiscal. Their finance guy relied on the MVET tables they received from ST and did not factor that many of the registered vehicles were from outside the city and its taxing district. they estimated their tax rate of 1.4 percent on an inflated base. for example, zip codes 98133, 98155, and 98177 straddle the city limits. Once the SMP recognized the mistake made by their predecessor board, the Elevated Transportion Company, they attempted to build their finances on it any way with something like junk bonds; it had the strength of cotton candy. Most of the SMP wounds were self-inflicted. The Seattle elected officials then moved to kill it and the voters went along.

    On the other hand, the ST finances since 2001 have been very conservative. Whether the board is chosing to build the optimal mix of projects is another matter. We voters have an all-or-nothing choice.

    1. Those tables were from the state, not ST.

      I alluded to the northgate to downtown issue in mentioning the ship canal bridge, but I think people here know that anyway. There’s no way to fix Stewart, for instance, either. My point is just that the rail operations costs will increase with inflation overall, not fuel inflation, and that there will be wiggle room in the budget once construction is complete.

  6. The report mentions a range of 5-30% reduction of VMT. Most of that reduction is not from drivers switching to transit; it is people taking shorter trips; ie walking within dense urban centers that **could** develop if zoning changes and incentives are provided near light rail stations. That is why the range.
    Fellows questions why the focus on long range trips. It was pointed out that converting those trips to transit can reduce GHG emissions. Correct. But trip length, mode split, and land use are endogenous variables. As stated earlier, the greatest reduction comes from providing places where people can make shorter trips, rather than try to prop up living arrangements that require 50-60 mile trips every day. If the greatest reduction in VMT comes from converting long trips to short trips, rather than long trips to transit trips, shouldn’t we focus our most costly transit investments on shorter trip making? Light rail’s substantial capacity strung from Everett to Seattle would mean that significant parts of the routing are underutilized, either in lower utilization of the tracks or less full rail cars. On the other hand, the portion with Seattle proper will likely see good utilization both directions all day. If only it had a few more stations and lines within Seattle (as Ben will point out, it will once ST3 passes after my grandkids retire).
    I think we need to make significant investments in rail transit; I’m merely not a rail religionist who will stop at nothing for rail to anywhere. Rail is not the only measure that impacts VMT and certainly not the only strategy that can influence land use patterns. Ballard is growing despite the demise of the monorail. The community supported upzoning. And the builders are building and they see no tracks coming down 15th Avenue NW.
    The freeway infrastructure essentially facilitated sprawl by reducing travel times from farther distances and establishing a land use pattern dependent on the car for nearly all travel. Providing commuter rail stations with large parking facilities in areas served by freeways means we’re basically duplicating the automobile/freeway mode with a partial transit version (since the final leg of the trip is still SOV). A three-county light rail system with long stop spacing and a line within the freeway system is simply triplicating this investment.

    1. In that case it’s really up to Lynnwood etc to fix their zoning and create walkable urban areas. Northgate is doing this conversion from parking lot to urban center right now. Ballard and the U-District were originally commuter suburbs too–along the rail and trolley lines, though they were built walkable.

  7. We can’t use the long time it will take to install light rail, and the few places it will actually touch, as a constant excuse not to make land use pedestrian and transit friendly. That’s what i think is going on now.

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