I’ve talked here a few times about building the West Seattle – Ballard corridor. There are a lot of routing and design options that I’m sure will be explored in a future post, but what I’d like to explore here is how much money is available, and what would need to happen right away.

Currently, the planning for these corridors is fairly old. The Seattle Monorail Project did some study in this corridor, but to the best of my understanding, these documents are sealed. Prior to that, in 2001, Seattle’s Intermediate Capacity Transit study projected 2020 ridership (PDF) in some potential corridors. There were some interesting numbers in that study that shine some light on what we might build – a West Seattle-Downtown streetcar was only projected at some 12,000 daily riders, for example, but an elevated alternative would achieve more than 25,000.

Sound Transit has studies for these corridors planned to be executed in 2015. As McGinn has made it clear he would work with Sound Transit on these projects, it seems that the first course of action would be to fund them immediately, as they’ll take at least a year, likely 18-24 months,to produce useful data. This is something that should get traction from other local leaders as well – last year, Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips penned an op-ed touting Proposition 1 as the next step in getting rail to West Seattle and Ballard, so I’d imagine they’ll be supportive. If planning were under way immediately next year, a vote could happen in 2011.

Currently, there are several funding options available (with voter approval):

  • A $100 vehicle license fee, which could generate up to $45 $20 million a year.
  • Sales tax of 0.2%, which would probably generate closer to $30 million a year (although that’s a back-of-the-napkin calculation).
  • Local improvement districts, very possible for station areas.
  • Tolls on city arterials – mentioned in Lindblom’s piece, but unlikely.

None of these produce that much revenue alone, so we’ll be largely dependent on federal grants. I want to point out that sales tax revenue in Seattle hasn’t really dropped (PDF, page 27, “North King” at the top), so a project based on that revenue should have stable funding – but that’s less than half of the local revenue used to build Link, so multiple sources would likely be necessary.

Depending on the money available and the results of the public outreach process, the time to wait before issuing bonds can vary a lot. It sounds like McGinn is interested in a Portland or Rainier Valley-like alignment, running mostly at-grade, so some money could be saved through providing city right of way (similar to how Bellevue can raise money for a tunnel). Given McGinn’s campaign so far, I’d imagine there would be significant neighborhood involvement, and that is also likely to drive up costs.

It’s all speculation right now – I’m waiting until the planners look at the corridor before I’d venture any guess of cost or completion year – but if McGinn is elected, his next steps seem clear.

75 Replies to “McGinn’s Rail Options: How Much, and How Soon?”

  1. Sorry, but I’m not really sure McGinn is actually pro-LR or even pro-SC. All he has really proposed so far is a vote on LR in two years. What he hasn’t yet done is come out strongly saying that he is an advocate for LR/SC and intends to work diligently to see that it is expanded.

    The two are completely different things: Asking for a vote is just kicking the can further down the street, being an active advocate is what we had in Nickels (and have now lost).

    Per the funding issues, you are right, there just isn’t that much there to cover what this project is sure to cost. We could cheap out and cut design corners to reduce total cost, but I think in the end Seattle would need substantial Federal involvement, and it’s hard to see that coming together in only 2 years time.

    1. I mean, the reality is you can’t build anything without a vote because you need to get new revenues. I think the clear implication is that if he’s for a vote, he’s going to be for his own plan.

    2. Lazarus, let’s say he’s against it. Why wouldn’t we hold his feet to the fire and just claim he supports it anyway? It’s up to him if he wanted to change his mind later. There’s no benefit to going “but he’s not really for it!”

    3. Light rail opponents don’t push for ballot measures that radically accelerate the delivery of new service. If only that’s what our opponents were pushing for!

    4. Seriously lazarus, this post makes clear what the next step is: fund the study and put a plan together. McGinn has promised to take that next step. He is fighting to put the measure before the people long before anyone else has been willing to. What more do you want? McGinn is not like Nickels. He is a populist. If the people don’t want light rail, then he won’t fight for it, but he obviously thinks they do want light rail or he wouldn’t waste everybody’s time making a campaign issue out of it.

  2. I don’t think you call for a vote to expand light rail, sooner than anyone else currently plans, if you aren’t for it!

    Ben, you shouldn’t forget the city’s other taxing authorities. From property taxes to parking taxes, business taxes to development fees, there are lots of other options that could get you to a $2-3 billion in bonded capacity pretty fast if the voters want light rail. And the voters really want light rail.

    1. Don’t forget rental car fees! Why not incentivize people who are visiting to ride Link?

      There’s the hotel/motel tax also.

      1. How can rental car fees be collected for a city initiative when the main rental car facility is outside of the city?

      2. There are many rental car facilities in town–when visiting a place and need a car, my SOP is to get into town first since there are usually airport fees. Unfortunately the current state law also covers Zipcars.

      3. This is exactly why the SMP didn’t use this tax source. Most cars are rented out at the airport, and not inside the City limits.

    2. Actually, you often call for a vote precisely because you are against something.

      For example, McGinn has also called for a vote on the deep bore tunnel which we all know is vehemently opposed to.

      1. Maybe you call for a vote because what’s happening now isn’t what people want? In both cases, that lines up with these positions.

      2. Are you really that disconnected from reality lazarus? McGinn has been overwhelmingly clear that he believes that the citizens WANT light rail and DON’T WANT the deep bore tunnel. However, the status quo is no light rail, yes tunnel.

        That is precisely why he has called for a vote on both of them: to reverse the status quo. It is impossible to know anything about the McGinn campaign and believe that he is secretly against light rail on the west side of the city.

      3. Just to play devil’s advocate, let’s say McGinn is only looking at polling numbers on various issues to set his policies. In that case it makes a lot of sense to be against the bored tunnel and for light rail.

    3. LIDs are property taxes, but parking taxes are already going to ped/bicycle improvements under McGinn, I’d imagine.

      1. I seem to recall having a conversation back then about whether or not one could create a LID that actually covers the entire City. As I further recall, the answer was that it would probably be legal to do, but perhaps a tough sell PR-wise. Anyone have knowledge on this issue?

  3. “A $100 vehicle license fee, which could generate up to $20 million a year.”

    Is this necessarily a flat fee under the current state law authorizing local option license fees, or could it be a percentage-of-value-based MVET? If you choose to roll expensive new wheels, you can and should pay more.

    And, is there such a creature as a local option gas tax? Would be great to incentivize cars with better mileage.

    Full disclosure: I have a fully depreciated car that gets 40+ mpg – a ’96 Metro. It’s great.

    1. State law says all gas taxes must be used for roads. Which explains our current freeway-filled cities.

      1. Ah Matt, you’re thinking like an engineer and not like an economist. :-) Money is fungible. The city currently spends hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax revenues on maintenance for local roads and arterials. The city could easily assess a gas tax to fund all road maintenance and then take the hundreds of millions of dollars they are currently spending on local roads and put it toward this project. Economically, this plan would be identical to using gas tax to fund transit, but legally it’s completely different.

      2. if you have to use it for roads couldnt you use it then for complete streets and scaling back freeway-like traffic sewers to traffic calmed reasonable streets?

    2. Oh, and my father in law talks frequently about how his next car will be one of the old 3-cylinder Metros. He’ll start looking for one once his 250k mile car finally breaks down.

  4. I don’t think at-grade is likely to be good enough. Downtown streets are short, so you wouldn’t be able to get capacity beyond two cars, similar to Portland’s system. However, Seattle’s twice as dense as Portland, and thus any given station can expect twice as many riders. So you’d really need four cars (or twice as many trains).

    1. I’d be ok with twice as many trains. Yes, that’s more maintenance cost, but it does make for a very convenient system.

      1. It would be more than twice as many trains – if you had traffic lights, average speed would be lower, so the same level of service takes more trains.

    2. Downtown blocks vary from 300 to 400 feet long in the north-south direction.

      I think that Paris’ Tramlines demonstrate that huge numbers of people can easily be moved with single car trains. The Citadis 402 that the T3 uses are 40m long and carry up to 300 people. The line right now carries 100,000 people per day and is forecast to carry 250,000 people per day after the extension is done. Will a Ballard-West Seattle line ever see that level of ridership? Probably not until there is a wholesale rezoning of all the single-family neighborhoods along the route.

      1. Skytrains are also short, but they get by with very frequent trains (headways under 2 min at peak). That frequency requires grade separation.

        The T3 is able to move so many people with small cars because its line is so short, just 5 miles, so none of the trips are long.

      2. “The T3 is able to move so many people with small cars because its line is so short, just 5 miles, so none of the trips are long.”

        Which happens to be the distance from Ballard to downtown Seattle.

      3. There’s a difference, however. The T3 isn’t meant as a shuttle from one place to another (Ballard Downtown), it’s a people mover for all locations on the line. You’re not going to get a lot of people travelling from LQA to Interlake like you get on the T3

      4. Seattle’s downtown has two block lengths. The cross over is Union St. North of Union, they are about 320 feet, but south of Union they are 240 ft. I don’t know how long link trains are, but I’m pretty sure a four car train is longer than 240 ft.

    3. Ah, but a place where blocks might not be an issue is the waterfront… and I think McGinn just might have an opinion about getting rid of the viaduct or something.

      1. But the waterfront really isn’t where commuters from Ballard and West Seattle are going.

      2. A waterfront route also means a four block hike up one of the steepest hills in the city to make a transfer (or to get to your downtown destination). That inconvenience cannot be underestimated. Mode choice is dependent on the relative cost of each potential mode, with cost being a generalized utility function including: money, time, comfort, convenience, safety and social approval. The user adds up all of those factors for transit and for driving and chooses the one that has the lower generalized cost. Adding the inconvenience of that hill climb drives up the user cost and that pushes people away from transit and toward driving.

  5. Why the F%$ does the title say “McGinn’s Rail Options”? The options are the same even if we have a monkey as a mayor. Seriously, I’m sick and tired of hearing McGinn this and McGinn that. We get it Ben–you really, really, really like him.

    1. Didn’t McGinn just announce that he wants to put something like this to a vote? I think that’s the headline’s origin.

    2. I don’t know where you get that. Ben’s part of the board that endorsed Nickels. Then he spent a bunch of time slamming McGinn on the Streetcar.

      Now he’s done something we like, so we’re talking a lot about his plan. Ben’s work is in the context of the parameters McGinn is setting down.

      1. Well, help me out here. You say you’re talking “about his plan” but what I’ve seen so far is a lot of speculation about rail between W Seattle and Ballard. Nobody’s discussing a specific route or costs, from which I infer that maybe nobody knows what they might be.

        I especially liked this, from Mike Lindblom’s article– “McGinn offered few details, saying those would emerge from future public discussions.”

        And again- “He mentioned Portland’s newest light-rail segment, the Green Line, which opened last weekend, as a good model. Eight new miles of new corridor were built for $576 million, in the east suburbs and near Portland State University downtown.” But the Green Line was built in a graded and grade-separated ROW that was reserved over 20 years ago for transit use! Hard to take this guy as some kind of new-age transit guru.

        If the ‘plan’ is for McGinn to win election promising to put a plan before the voters in two years, I see a lot to talk about, such as, how do plans go before the voters, possible costs and funding mechanisms, role of the city council and ST and the Seattle DOT, how are applications made to the feds, etc etc. Cannot say I see a lot of this kind of talk happening.

        Am I missing some deep undercurrent because I’m blinded by the glare off the surface of the water?

      2. If you mean “why hasn’t STB written all these articles yet,” give us some time. We’ve known about this proposal as long as you have.

        If you mean shy McGinn hasn’t, he has no idea what’s feasible because no one has done a professional study except the monorail people. Why would he commit to something with unknown costs?

    3. Gotta agree with this. If you raise the fact that there is no ‘plan’, McGinn supporters will tell you it will all be worked out later by experts, very deep stuff, etc etc.

      This is all especially preposterous when we remember (if we can!) that just two weeks ago McGinn’s total transit plan was to spend every dollar- including streetcar dollars- on diesel buses. This is a deathbed conversion, but it ain’t healing the sick and raising the dead.

      What would be interesting is a discussion of how the idea of more light rail might play out, or why it hasn’t played out already. And I don’t think some people have realized that if McGinn is defeated, that might be taken as a ‘thumbs down’ on transit.

      But mainly, the McGinn O’Mania has just gotten incredibly silly.

      1. Yeah! We don’t need engineers to do a study to determine where it is feasible to build light rail or what it will cost! We should just have politicians pulling numbers out of thin air!

        Sound Transit was going to do this study in 2015 or so in preparation for an ST3 vote. McGinn is saying we should do it now and put together a plan to have Seattle pay for it instead of waiting a decade until ST has taxing capacity to do it. This is a good idea. If McGinn was out there proposing a specific alignment or financing plan, *that* would be preposterous.

    4. Tim, Catowner – you both liked Nickels. I get that. But when that means you *don’t* like McGinn, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Mallahan’s your only other choice, and he’s not going to build you any rail. And frankly, if I’ve been in the tank for McGinn, why exactly have I been writing critically about his positions on the first avenue streetcar?

      1. Mallahan has taken a decidedly anti-transit stance. Anyone who says we should divert voter-approved money away from the voter-approved project it was reserved for is obviously not a big fan of rail.

        And being the staunch fiscal conservative he is, it’s not hard for him to duck behind charts and numbers to kill a project.

      2. Mallahan’s practice is anti-Link. He attacked McGinn’s plan by saying he’d “work with Sound Transit to speed up planning” – but that’s exactly what McGinn is doing.

      3. Yeah, just like we don’t know that Barack Obama would fight for national health care or that John McCain wouldn’t. McGinn and Mallahan have staked out opposite positions on the single biggest issue facing Seattle’s future. If your extreme cynicism has distorted your thinking to the point that you can’t tell a difference between these two candidates on this issue, then there’s really nothing I can do to convince you otherwise.

      4. Not sayin’ you’re in the tank for McGinn, I just feel like the anvil salesman in The Music Man. Everyone talks on and on about the plan, and when you point out there is no plan, they say “Of course there is no plan- that’s the best part of the plan!”

        Oh well, it’s all good clean fun.

      5. Then gosh, why do we have money for these studies in ST2 if we don’t have a plan currently? I feel like we’re being cheated.

      6. Well, if you ask a McGinn supporter, they will tell you you have to have the studies before you can have a plan.

        Face it, we’re definitely through the looking glass and into the hall of mirrors on this one.

      7. Make what you will of the politic of the proposal, but the studies before the plan is simply reasonable project management and planning. Without this you massive cost overruns and designs that dodn’t meet needs. This type of method is how to the monorail fiasco could have been avoided.

      8. Right now, he does have a plan. The plan is to hold a vote on light rail to Ballard and West Seattle in the next two years. Once studies are completed, that plan will get a pricetag on it and we’ll see where it will go. In the meantime, it’s not true that he has no plan; his plan is just general at the moment because there’s really no way for it to be more specific.

  6. “None of these produce that much revenue alone, so we’ll be largely dependent on federal grants.”

    What federal grants? All available federal grants for LRT expansion over the next 15 years will be secured by ST as they extend Link north south and east. Doncha think they might have tought about that when putting ST2 together? There won’t BE any other federal money on a scale needed for this type of investment. So don’t go counting chickens.

    1. If a new transportation bill doesn’t pass this year they will try to get it passed at the beginning of 2011. The Congressmen leading the charge for this new bill have suggested it will include, among other things, $50 billion for HSR and $99 billion for transit. If we have a $4 billion plan and we get $2 billion of that from local taxes and sources, we have a very large chance of getting a federal grant to cover the other half.

    2. uh huh:

      There’s a lot of federal money to go around, on a competitive basis. It’s not regional – if we stack up near where ST does, we’ll take money from a less viable project at the bottom of the list somewhere else in the country, not ST.

  7. Some of us from back in the SMP days may have some of the paperwork around, or certainly know who to ask for it, even if we couldn’t get access to the files. OTOH, I assume there’s a difference between a public request for information to the archives, and a government agency making the request. After all, the City technically owns much of the information as it was gathered with city taxpayer money under the former PDA that produced the plan.

    1. Yeah, I think I’ve found some of it, actually. There’s a big report from URS, I’m told, and I’d like to read that before I post more.

  8. Sorry but you are wrong. There is several billion dollars available for Light Rail and isn’t just for 1 project or agency. Portland received 500+ million, Seattle received 800+ million, Dallas received 700+ million.

    There is a lot of new projects that will receive a lot of funding that pays for nearly half of the projects going out.

    Do some research before typing, it saves everyone more making these kind of corrections.


    1. OK. You go on ahead and ask Patty Murray to write a check for a hundred mil to the city of Seattle on top of the $100M coming to ST each year. I’m right behind you.

  9. lets just hope this line would be fast. hopefully it would tie into the DSTT since I assume there wouldnt be money for another downtown subway.

    just for wild unlikely speculation… what would it cost if a subway tunnel was built from the DSTT at 3rd & Pine north through Belltown, Queen Anne, under Queen Anne Hill and emerging from the tunnel by the Ship Canal in Fremont and running on the surface from Fremont to Ballard in reserved or median lanes or sharing the Burke Gilman trail RoW? stations? ridership?

    1. It can’t go into the DSTT because there’s no space for it. After ST2 there will be trains up to every 2.5 min at peak times in the tunnel which is the limit.
      A tunnel from Westlake to Fremont would be about 3.25 miles. At the same price as University Link, $600m per mile, that would be about $2b and would take about 9 minutes. I would want it to have stations at Westlake, Belltown, Seattle Center, Uptown, Queen Anne, and Fremont. Just completely guessing, ridership could be about 25-30,000. From there to Ballard is another 2.5 miles, and at $100m per mile that would be $250m and would probably add 10,000 riders or so to that, although it would take a while if it were on the surface. The problem is that it might end up getting less riders than that if it ends at Westlake. It would be better to extend it down through downtown.
      However for now it would probably be better to have the route go on the surface through Interbay because having it go under Queen Anne to Fremont would cost so much more and wouldn’t get that much higher ridership.

    1. Sound Transit is an RTA, not a city – those sales tax authorities come from different parts of state law.

  10. Wait– did you really just say that sales tax revenues have not actually fallen? Yikes– tell that to Metro. Not sure if your 2009 first quarter numbers are good to go by. Minor point in the theme of your post, but a bold statment so I thought I would address it. Check out the Sales Tax Shortfall pdf from the power point slide (2nd main listing):

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