We still don’t know much about the light rail plan Mayor McGinn will likely put before the voters that we didn’t know before the election. However, one thing that is for sure is that it won’t be grade-separated from end to end, and that’s enough for some to make blanket statements that anything less than full grade separation is unacceptable, that we should wait to do it “right”, etc.
The Transport Politic makes a strong, Seattle-centric case for at-grade light rail, but here are some other political and financial observations:
- The unspoken assumption of the absolutists is that ST3 will deliver full grade separation if we were to wait for it. In reality, that may be the case if we wait for the Sound Move bonds to get paid off in the 2030s and 2040s. Otherwise, we’ll get whatever additional taxing authority the state gives us. That may be billions more, or it may be less. Dealing with that kind of uncertainty, it makes sense to accomplish whatever we can so that our ambitions can fit in whatever package Olympia gives us. More after the jump.
- There are those who claim that gas prices will soon shoot into the stratosphere, creating unlimited political support for more transit funding. Even assuming that’s correct (and I have my doubts), I’m not sure how to engage with that argument. On the one hand, that’s a case to do nothing until future voters save us; on the other, it means we have to finish as many capital projects as we can as soon as we can to cushion the blow.
- If your objective is a more reasonable one — say, grade-separated through dense areas and at the surface through sparser ones, like Central Link — there’s lots of possibilities for projects that complement an ST3 project, rather than somehow prevent us from doing it “right:”
- Surface light rail to West Seattle with elevated crossings where needed to cross rail lines and water, terminating in Sodo. I suspect Ballard will be a higher priority for ST3, so this would allow us to complete the segment most likely to be dropped if the funding isn’t there, while not committing us to a surface half-measure where more is needed.
- A Second Avenue transit tunnel under downtown, Belltown, and possibly Queen Anne would absorb a major ST3 capital cost, improve RapidRide C and D service in the meantime, and probably cost under $2 billion.*
- The Ballard/Fremont/SLU streetcar extension would connect several neighborhoods by rail without duplicating the obvious rapid transit ROW up 15th Ave. At about $135m it’s also by far the cheapest of the three options.
It’s not at all clear that a McGinn plan will include any of these three things, or that it will even make it to the ballot, but it’s counterproductive to draw red lines that are unlikely to be met either now or when ST3 is ready for a vote.
*The 3rd Avenue DSTT is about $900m in today’s dollars, which as how I came up with my guess, which obviously depends on where exactly the tunnel ends. If you’re new here, you may not know that there will not be room for Ballard/WS trains in the current tunnel.