Often times transit opponents will demand that transit “pay for itself.” This demand is rarely made of other forms of transportation, and therefore hard to take in good faith.  Writing on his promising new blog, The Works, Stephen Smith lays out Hong Kong’s model, which solves the funding problem by having the transit agency act as real estate developer.  By developing the land around the station, Hong Kong’s MTR is able to finance new station development.

The economics of the Hong Kong model are difficult to export to the US, for the reasons Smith cites in his piece. Our per-mile construction costs are higher and our city governments aren’t sitting on a ton of prime real estate that they can just open to development. I imagine that the same people arguing for self-funding transit would be up in arms if the local government seized a dozen city blocks from private ownership and handed it over to Sound Transit.

To me the most interesting aspect of the Hong Kong model is the way it ties transit-oriented development explicitly to station development. A park-and-ride station next to a freeway would simply never get built because there would be no way to pay for it.  Fortunately, Sound Transit adopted an explicit TOD policy a year ago.  That’s too late to influence ST2, but in plenty of time to affect ST3.

98 Replies to “What it Means to Have Transit that “Pays for Itself””

  1. The other model to look to is SkyTrain. Automation makes a difference, both in cost/subsidy as well as off-peak service levels. If you can get to the point when it’s like waiting for an elevator at all times of day, transit is a qualitatively different experience – and last I checked (a few years ago) self-supporting.

    1. Ya, but it isn’t so simple. The SkyTrain model is substantially more expensive upfront, cheaper to operate. In general it tends to result in less total coverage and coverage only in areas with higher ridership potential.

      Plus, the higher upfront price erodes support from spineless politicians (oh..we don’t have any of those in the US) and makes it harder to pass at the ballot box when the citizenry is tax adverse (oh…we don’t have any citizens like that in the US). It’s not an accident that SkyTrain has not been copied anywhere in North America even though it is one of the older “Light Rail” systems in North America.

      And it is instructive that there is a debate in VanBC about whether any potential extension to UBC should be SkyTrain or Light Rail. If the system was so good, you wouldn’t see that question being raised.

      1. Don’t forget about JFK’s AirTrain — I believe it uses the same technology as the SkyTrain. Of course its purpose is simply to shuttle people from the airport to the subway.

      2. Umm… The entire Canada Line — two branches, 16 stations, 12 miles mostly underground, urban stop spacing, designed for ease of access — cost exactly the same amount to build as our 3-mile U-Link tunnel with kneecapped minimum headways and only two stations (one terribly located).

        So no, the capital cost of doing things well is not inherently higher.

      3. Dude. You are totally wrong. Me thinks you confuse the concepts of capital costs and funding. Most anything is possible with adequate funding — which of course we don’t have because of spineless politicians and myopically tax adverse citizenry.

      4. Canada Line: $2.05 billion (Canadian)
        U-Link: $1.9 billion (U.S.)

        The claim that Skytrain technology is inherently more expensive and “results in less total coverage” is flatly false. It’s all about spending wisely, rather than wasting money on bad architecture and gigantic holes in the ground.

      5. If Sky train is more expensive up-front, why is Vancouver able to build their lines so much cheaper?

      6. Dude Laz: Your dismissal of a very valid point destroys any future credibility on other issues. Skytrain operates much cheaper than Link, and cost much less per mile, per station, per rider, per any other metric of your choosing.
        Dig before you leap.

      7. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-26/u-s-taxpayers-are-gouged-on-mass-transit-costs.html

        Key takeaways:
        – Build for user needs, not for civic emblems or for ill-defined economic or political ends.
        – Do everything in you power to keep the process from dragging out, and to contract only for proven quality and reliability.
        – For the love of god, stop hiring the same firms to scope your work as to build it. Is it any wonder that they always think you need the 5-level cavernous station box?

      8. Sorry, totally grade separated, fully automatic systems will always cost more upfront — no way around it. Of course coverage can always be recovered just by throwing money at the problem and paying for more coverage with more taxes, but that isn’t a very popular answer around here (much as I would prefer it).

        And Canada has done some things to offset the increased costs — shorter trains, shorter stations, abandonment of their LIM technology which they used on the first line, and a public private partnership. But none of that offsets the fundamentals.

        There is nothing for free in this country (or in Canada), so as much as you guys seem to think otherwise, there still is this thing out there called “reality”.

      9. Lazarus, I don’t think you are making a ton of sense. If you can build a system with smaller stations, shorter trains, etc., move more people and still come in cheaper, then I think that’s what the fundamentals are.

      10. What Andrew said. Despite the Canada Line’s occasional “coziness”, it is already carrying roughly as many people as ST expects ever to carry on the Link trunk line. Today. In 2013. For a fraction of the final cost of the shorter, scanter, and significantly less useful U+North Link.

      11. Sure the Canada Line was less expensive that tunneling to the UW, but it’s tough to do the cheaper cut and cover tunnel when you’re going under the Montlake Cut.

      12. Considering that the Canada Line also required bored tunnels, in addition to miles of cut-and-cover, miles of elevated, multiple waterway crossings, and sixteen stations including fairly deep ones on either side of False Creek, that’s clearly not the reason for the cost discrepancy.

      13. Theming I find interesting is that the decision only to put stations in high rider-generating locations is seen as a DISadvantage. To me it’s a primary design principle. That’s where the high capital cost of exclusive rights of way are justified.

      14. The Canada Line was built for about $115m per km and it includes bored tunnels, cut and cover tunnels, a bridge and elevated portions. The bored tunnels are about 2.2 km long and run under False Creek. The bridge, a cable-stayed-extradosed design built in soft soil, is about 600m long and crosses the north arm of the Fraser River. This is far cheaper than the Link system, and with the lower operating costs, it is actually even cheaper on a total cost basis. Apparently the system is actually more than covers its operating costs, but that is obscured a bit by the public private partnership accounting.

        To acheive the low cost there was cost cutting all through the design and this resulted in compromises like short platforms and awkward stations. But thankfully the important things like grade separation and automation were not compromised and the system is quite usable and is well used. This is probably the third morst important transit corridor in Vancouver yet it still has 130,000 weekday boardings.

        Automation has been a godsend for Vancouver by keeping operating costs reasonable and allowing for high frequency.
        Even on the low frequency part of the system, trains are still coming every 6 minutes and that lasts well into the evening. The high frequency parts of the system have trains every two minutes. Automation is probably the biggest thing that has turned me off LRT.

        The lack of adoption of the linear induction motors that are used on some of Vancouver’s lines is a red herring. There are different technology providers for automated metros just like there are different manufacturers are cars. Not everyone drives a Subaru, but that does not mean that no one drives cars.

      15. Rob,

        Walkably-scaled station spacing is the difference between providing penetrating coverage to a large swath of the city or providing symbolic but frequently unhelpful transit.

        If you are able to justify the cost of fully grade-separated transit in the first place, it is because you are passing through a built-up swath of city, which means that you are passing beneath a corridor that, by definition, contains destinations and points of origin and perpendicular connections to other places. By scaling back your urban stations to a half-dozen exalted nodes, you exponentially reduce access and the likelihood of an origin-destination pair being facilitated by your line. Lots of potential trips are pushed back onto inferior bus routes (or more likely back into cars).

        Believe it or not, most people would rather not wait for an unreliable feeder bus just to access the subway line that passes right beneath them but doesn’t stop.

        You wouldn’t be able to justify such thorough coverage out in the sprawl, which is why the form transit takes once it exits the fully-built area is by necessity quite different. On the other hand, when you get to the point of only being able to justify stations many miles apart and surrounded by seas of parking, you should probably ask yourself whether urban-style rapid transit on expensive purpose-built structures is the right form of transit at all.

        To me it’s a primary design principle.

        At the risk of being rude, you are wrong. And the entire established worldwide cornucopia of urban transit systems, in which 2/3-mile to 1-mile spacing is the proven range of effectiveness, knows that you’re wrong.

        If your stations are so damned expensive that you find yourself slashing your system to an only-A++-nodal mentality, then you need to figure out how to build your stations more cheaply. Because spending billions on a limited-use system (as we are doing) is a deeply stupid alternative.



        The only thing awkward about the Canada Line stations is the lack of a direct transfer at Vancouver City Centre. Otherwise, the line’s compact and simple stations are all feature, no bug. Getting in and out is fast and intuitive, and the small footprints mean no gigantic surface plazas anywhere in the system. Maybe someday it will be worth the cost to extend all the platforms for 3-car service. But already the user experience is infinitely better than what we’re getting from Sound Transit’s “intentional access penalty” approach to design.

      16. dp, I don’t disagree with one-mile spacing in urban areas. I grew up in Boston and could get virtually anywhere with only four lines making one transfer. I also think you can achieve the design principle I’m thinking of given a one-mile spacing standard.

        I’m caught up in our own system architecture that has passed by critically important station locations to save money or get to the suburbs (or the U District) faster. We missed First Hill, have only one stop in Capitol Hill and stop 3/4 of a mile on either side of where people want to get to at UW. Outside the urbanized area most of our system will have a far longer spacing locating stations at freeway interchanges where its hardest to arrive by feeder bus and least pleasant to be a pedestrian. I’m not in favor of building for coverage given that context – I’d rather have a rail network limited to the urbanized area than an expensive line to distant suburbs. That’s what I was thinking about.

      17. Rob,

        Totally agree with your second post. I grew up in Brookline, and I’m not the only Bostonian on here working hard to beat some sense into the “subways are for intercity express travel, mixed-traffic streetcars are for cities” and the “oversized architecture is awesome” crowds.

        I love it when an STB personality visits Boston for the first time, and realizes that he can drop down into shallow Arlington station, make a 20-second one-staircase transfer at Park Street, and be in Cambridge faster than someone in Seattle can find the damn platform at one of our overbuilt stations (if they can bet to one at all).

        Sorry if I seemed testy in my first reply. The insistence of Seattle types on doing things in a way that leads to proven failure — yes, BART’s wide-spaced nodal system is a failure, the most expensive commuter-only rail ever built — makes me testy. But you clearly didn’t mean to endorse the distant-node obsession as the “primary design principle”.

        I frequently cite Vancouver’s Canada Line as proof that excellent urban transit design need not be relegated to the early 20th century. Our nearest neighbor, a city in many ways similar to our own, got it right just this past decade.

      18. …Though it’s worth noting that full-mile really is the upper end of comfortable stop spacing, and should be the exception rather than the rule in an urban environment. The Red Line has 1-mile gaps between Kendal, Central, and Harvard — it was consciously defined as an express train by 1912 standards — and the result is that some very dense parts of that very compact city have wound up quite a long walk from transit access.

        Gaps of greater than one mile are indefensible.

      19. Again, I think that depends on the land use being traversed. The red line seems about right to me (that may because I love walking Mass Ave., but the #1 bus does very well too despite its bad reliability). I don’t think it’s bad to have buses for local circulation on the same route as a rail line if it makes most sense. But as dense and close to downtown as Capitol Hill is, I’ve always thought it was nutty not to have a second stop there. ST was designed politically by politicians from Everett and Tacoma, so their emphasis has always been to get out of town as fast as possible, into the kinds of places where 5 mile spacing on commuter rail are more appropriate.

      20. Not to beat a dead horse, but to give a glimpse of why the horse can run is as follows:
        I remember meeting with Ruth Fisher, in her Oly Office, as Chair of the Trans Cmmte (D-Tacoma) in ~1990, when the RTA was being formed. We talked about light rail, speed, station spacing and the like. I came away convinced she was seeing a Bart type system, fully grade separated (OK), with frequent trains (few stops) to both Everett and Tacoma. When we chatted about 3/4 mile spacing she dismissed that as being too slow.
        This is what she wanted, this is what she would pass, and this is what we are building.
        Frankly, I think both ends of the line are getting screwed out of a system that works well for one, but not both.

      21. d.p.

        By awkward I mean that the stations require multiple escalator or elevator rides to get to the platform. Not all are bad, and Broadway is good, but Yaletown requires three escalator rides to the platform, and the escalators are not all aligned, so it is a bit of a trek to the platform. And many of the stations do not have centre platforms which means an escalator ride down and then up to get to the other side.

        Apparently the station boxes are big enough to have three car trains, but the current cars are two end cars joined together so there would have to be something new for the centre car and I don’t know how big that would be. The system currently operates at 8,000 people per direction per hour, but with three car trains and maximum frequency it can run at 15,000 ppdph. More than that requires seat removal or digging.


        The Canada Line, which d.p. was just defending, has two of those indefensible one mile plus gaps not including the bridge, so obviously even d.p. will make allowances.

      22. I totally agree. Seattle and the eastside don’t get the network they need, instead they get commuter rail that makes some in-city stops. But Tacoma and Everett don’t get what they need either! Connecting those cities was supposed to bring some of the passenger traffic their way, but Tacoma’s shaping up to be a huge park and ride at the end of a line to Seattle, not the other way around; same for commuter rail. If trains ever reach Everett it will be the same story. Both would be better served by smaller-scale but Tacoma and Everett-focused light rail lines focused entirely on those cities’ travel needs.

        A network is a game changer for urban transportation. Imagine a second line on the eastside, for example, connecting Kirkland, Bellevue, Factoria, Eastgate and Issaquah (eventually Bothell too). That line, plus Link East, would touch just about every pedestrian destination on the eastside and connect them all with a maximum of one transfer. If you compare that to the east link line alone, the result is night and day: one serves Seattle commuters (and some coming the other way), while the other serves all-day commute and non-commute trips throughout the eastside. Which of those gets closer to achieving anyone’s rail ambitions?

        The other thing lost is the downtown Seattle tunnel. If we didn’t need to reserve capacity in the tunnel for the peak 10 minute rush from Everett, we could accommodate the westside line (Ballard, SPU, Fremont, SLU to West Seattle) in the tunnel along with central Link. Transfers could all occur in the same stations. A billion dollars could be saved that stands in the way of ever achieving a Seattle rail network. We don’t put the long distance buses down there now, but somehow we slavishly hold to the need to accommodate them in the future. It just bugs me, and always has.

      23. I’ve used the Yaletown station only once, YVR, but I don’t remember anything awkward about the egress at all. You can tell it’s a deep station by the standards of the system, but requires only minimal mid-descent lateral walking and, crucially, it opens right to the street corner. The escalator switchbacks take no time at all. Honestly, if this is what strikes you as inconvenient, then you really need to come down and give our Westlake, Mount Baker, and Tukwila stations a whirl. You have no idea how bad it can get!

        Also, there are only two gaps of over a mile in Vancouver proper, and each is over by only a hair’s breadth. But even though those gaps contain no significant cross-transit or major destinations that directly abut Cambie, the planners still recognized that such wide gaps within the built city are problematic. That’s why provisions were made to allow the easy installation of two infill stations, which you will likely see installed in the next ten-to-twenty years.

        By contrast, Sound Transit has permanently negated a First Hill station, and permanently capped the number of subway stops in the busiest third of Seattle at about six. In the Rainier Valley, no provisions were made to allow a Graham Street infill station, even though the line is on the surface and reasonable foresight could have been executed for no cost at all.

        Mic is correct: ST was chartered to be anti-urban, and it has bent over backward to guarantee that it can never be tweaked for better urban access.


        Rob, I must admit that I’m really confused to find you parroting Really Bad Seattle Ideas™, often in the sentence that immediate follows a rush of sensible exposition derived from your East Coast upbringing.

        First, let’s start with Cambridge. The Red Line is a truly great subway line, designed for speed and capacity and ease of access from street level all at once. But the problem of wide stop spacing on the Cambridge segment arises not when you’re standing on Mass Ave (in which case you’re never more than 10 minutes from a station), but when your destination is on Hampshire or Cambridge or Beacon Street, and also laterally half-way between Mass Ave stations. Cambridge is full of dense housing and busy commercial intersections that are more than 20 minutes’ walk from the Red Line. Much of the city would have subway access twice as close (or better) if the train had stops every 1/2-2/3 mile.

        As I’m constantly reminding STBers, you need to think less like an intrepid urban explorer or a transit fan, and more like someone whose choice to use transit involves having to make that walk every single day, at ridiculous hours of the morning or night, in rain or sleet.

        When the Cambridge Subway was built by a private company, it was both competing with and somewhat symbiotic with the streetcars, which ran at incredible frequencies on every street in the area, not just on Mass Ave. Thus the temptation to position it as the express alternative. But make no mistake: having to wait for a whole additional “local circulator” to go the last 1/2 or 3/4 mile of your (parallel, not perpendicular) trip is a bug rather than a feature, especially when the rise of car ownership has made surface transit unreliable and slow, and has reduced the demand to the point where only one or two surface lines are even a fraction as frequent as they were in 1912. As useful and successful as the Red Line is today, if it had just two extra stations it would be even better.

        Meanwhile, you are correct to admonish Tacoma and Everett for obsessing about long, winding “rapid sprawl transit” to Seattle — which has no parallel anywhere in the world, which has no worthwhile intermediate demand generators, and which would be a boondoggle and a failure. You are also correct that these places would be wise to improve the quantity and interconnected quality of transit in their immediate vicinities, while working with Sound Transit and WADOT to achieve reliable, convenient, right-sized intercity service on South Sounder and on buses in improved HOV lanes. Unfortunately, neither city has the population, the density, or the layout to justify the high-capacity rapid transit you envision; each would do well to find and support using the correct tools in the small-city toolbox to make their transit futures efficient and viable.

        Also unfortunately, your Eastside line would never work out, for the same reasons: the development forms are not hospitable enough in aggregate. Two lines intersecting in Bellevue would be nothing like two lines intersecting in downtown Boston; it would be like building a subway from Braintree to the Norwood Automile, or like the San Jose or Dallas light rail experiences: you still won’t be able to get “theah” from “heah”.

        Which is why you’re absolutely correct to fault ST for throwing away DSTT capacity where it could still do lots of conceivable good. Not only does the Capitol Hill tunnel stretch for miles without stations; the final ventilation design ensures that only one train at a time can be in that very long tunnel. That their engineers are simultaneously being directed to plan for a line to Ballard that crawls across Belltown at 10mph, begetting another permanent mobility downgrade like the First Hill omission, is beyond infuriating.

      24. d.p., obviously we agree on more than we disagree. But I think we will need to disagree about the red line. If I’m in Inman Square, I take a bus – that’s true all over Boston. You can’t overcome the fact that rapid transit lines are sparse, and it’s not necessary to define transit accessibility based on rail access alone. Running the red line like a local bus, with half mile spacing, would cause too much delay for the bulk of its riders, who appreciate how quickly they can traverse the city (just like standard diversion analysis). On eastside rail, I think you haven’t thought enough about this. It wouldn’t be like Boston, no doubt, but it’s getting harder to use the road network to get around over there, and a one-transfer rail network between all eastside activity centers would offer a very competitive travel time.

      25. I’m not saying the Red Line is in drastic need of infill stations. From Alewife to Ashmont, there are no gaps even one inch over one mile, which as I’ve already said should be considered the upper extreme for urban usage, and those gaps are the widest gaps on any lines in the urbanized area.

        But the Inman Conundrum is anything but as you describe it. Inman (especially west of the square, about 7/8 mile from the Central T stop) was always the perfect example of a place just far enough from the T to make the walk a pain, but too close to be worth waiting for the infrequent buses that pass through it on their way to Central or Lechmere. Parking was also terrible, so all of your options were mediocre. As a result, people were far more loathe to make a casual trip to Inman than to, say, direct-access Davis Square.

        The numbers reflect this. Boston has the unparalleled density to allow most trips to be rail-only: Red/Blue/Orange/Green ridership is about double bus ridership. Until the introduction of the CharlieCard, there wasn’t even a unified fare structure between the two. A 15-minute walk to a train, while you might wish it were closer, is usually preferable to a 15-minute wait for the bus, and so feeder-busing from places like Inman or North Allston is incredibly uncommon; bus use is mostly the domain of crosstown trips and underserved areas like central Dorchester or Watertown.

        Obviously Boston’s incredible compactness cannot be replicated: even similarly old cities like Montreal and Philadelphia can’t provide so much coverage with only four subways. But why would you want to artificially limit grade-separated coverage by bucking the spacing standard that has served cities big and small, from Boston to New York to Hamburg to Tokyo, so well?

        You say it’s about speed. But speed is about more than spacing. In fact, the Red Line was the first subway purpose-built for short dwell times, with wide doors and plenty of room for interior circulation (that’s why an extra two stops would barely affect its run time). The excellent pick-up and breaking system help as well. Meanwhile, Link’s dwell time is artificially long, and our train slows to a crawl at our tunnel portal.

        As Andrew and I were saying to Lazarus: there are ways to improve efficiency that have no downsides (small-footprint stations, short dwell times) before you find reasons to deprive potential riders of the stations that might have served them best.

        RE: The Eastside: I honestly just don’t think the inevitable proposal for more grade-separated suburban spurs with no urban anchor is going to pencil out well enough to get funded, and even if it does, I think it will be a letdown. The Eastside has gridlock not because it is space-constrained, but because sprawling boulevards as SOV funnels is a universally failed approach. Unlike space-constrained cities where you can reach a significant portion of destinations with grade-separated transit, sprawl is not a problem that rail can fix.

        In fact, I can’t think of a single problem that an Issaquah Link would remedy: traffic isn’t even bad on the highway segment that connects Issaquah to East Link; and for cross-transit to work, you’d need to hand over some SOV-boulevard lanes to buses, whether or not your trunk route is a train. When people speak of Eastside spurs, all I picture is billions and billions of dollars to wind up with this. And that makes no sense at all.

      26. To be fair I really can’t think of a post-WWII US urban rail system that gets it right. The closest is probably WMATA but it still suffers from monumental architecture, wide stop spacing in reasonably dense areas of DC, lines along highways, and stations in the middle of parking lots.
        BART is sadly the model followed by most recent US rail transit.

      27. Agreed, Chris. Though while DC Metro’s architecture is oversized and overbearing, the urban stop spacing is better than you claim. Average spacing hovers in the 2/3-mile range across a large swath of the central District, as well as in Arlington. Throughout the rest of the District, standard spacing is about 7/8 mile. There are just a handful of very wide gaps, which are most notable as the exceptions that prove the rule: the prevailing attention to reasonable spacing is why 40 stations exist to serve the District proper.

        The DC Metro is discussed often in these pages for good reason: it, along with equally young Canadian examples, provides such a whopping contrast to the political and intellectual failures that have done so little measurable good in Dallas, Miami, Denver, and the Bay Area. DC hit a home run, as measured in both ridership and cultural impact; other American metropoles bunted and struck out. And we’re standing at the plate with a croquet mallet.


        Rob, sorry for the lack of clarity in some of my last late-night reply. Re: the MBTA and buses: My invoking the Inman Connundrum and the MBTA’s low bus modeshare was not about rail bias — see any debate about our slow-and-out-of-the-way streetcar plan to find out what I think of “rail bias” as a talking point — but about explaining why it is crucial to consider coverage geometry before you build a billion-dollar subway.

        A last-2/3-mile feeder will never have the critical mass to constitute a good connection, so a trunk geometry that relies on one is guaranteed to leave customers with a sense of mediocre-bordering-on-laborious access. This is, among other reasons, why the FHSC is about to be a huge embarrassment for Seattle.

      28. d.p.

        Yes that is what I call inconvenient! I wish that it were an elevator access station with elevators constantly going up and down. Four elevators would provide good frequency and the ticketing would be on the surface. With the smaller footprint, I almost think it would be cheaper.

        I’ve been meaning to visit Sunny Tukwila, but the comments on this blog are not exactly selling it.

      29. ” stop 3/4 of a mile on either side of where people want to get to at UW.”

        You’re forgetting about the vast transit market on University Way. People work in those businesses, patronize those businesses, live in those apartments, and transfer to the 44, 48, and 30. U-District station is right where it should be. At most it should be moved one block east.

        UW station is worse, but ST wanted to put it at the HUB and the UW overruled it.

      30. “their engineers are simultaneously being directed to plan for a line to Ballard that crawls across Belltown at 10mph”

        You’re the only one who’s taking a worst-case scenario and calling it The Plan. No decision has been made yet, and this scenario contradicts ST’s definition of light rail. This alignment is most likely for the streetcar or as a throwaway alternative to say they considered all options.

      31. Mike,

        Nothing I said was inaccurate. ST directed engineers to chart to the route for that particular cost-cut, to settle on a cost prediction, to play it off of other cost-cutting possibilities. It wound up in 2/8 first-round options, and I don’t doubt we’ll have to fight against it again in round two.

        The FHSC violates every promise of service frequency, speed, and quality for ST’s urban service area as well, but we’re still getting that. I wouldn’t start counting my Ballard chickens.



        Again, if that’s what you call “inconvenient”, then Westlake and Mt. Baker will drop your jaw. Tukwila and the future UW and Downtown Bellevue stations will make your head explode.

      32. I give Westlake a free pass just like a give the Vancouver Centre and Granville stations a free pass. Right downtown it can be hard to work around all the foundations and other underground services. And Westlake has the benefit of multiple entrances. As for a direct connection between the Canada Line and Expo Line downtown, Pacific Centre, Granville Centre and The Bay already occupy a lot of the space under the street, so a direct connection would have to go under that, and that starts to get very expensive. Actually, going through Pacific Centre and The Bay underground is about as direct as you are ever going to get because the station boxes are a full block apart.

        The UW station location seems odd to me, but I’ve only been to UW once for a meeting and a bit of a tour of a building. It was a sunny warm day, and my impression of the place was “This is nice” without much of an understanding of how the population moves around the place and where they are coming from. I thought at the beginning of the endeavour UW was making noises about vibration, and I thought that might be a reason not to have a station at what seemed to me to be the centre of the campus.

        My head has already exploded over the Downtown Bellevue station. Just absurd. And isn’t McGinn on the ST board that voted for that mess? Surprised that he doesn’t get more flak for that on this blog. (For that matter, surprised he doesn’t get more flak for the FHSC which looks like a whole lot of money for a few tidbits of bad transit.)

        But where we might differ is the utility of a freeway station on a rapid transit line. I think that such things could be very useful if they connected well with buses networks that use the freeways. What appeals to me about a tunnel that went right from downtown Seattle, under Madison and then Lake Washington to downtown Bellevue is a station right in downtown Bellevue and then another station over the freeway interchange between 6th and 8th. Buses would be able to leave the freeway right up to the transit centre above which would allow good transfers to the train. And the train would be so much faster than having buses take the bridges that the riders would welcome the transfer. Buildings could be built over the interchange loops to continue the pedestrian street grid right over the freeway, and those buildings would have excellent transit access. I don’t think that this would fit your archetype of urban stations with good walksheds, but such a station would attract transit riders and make life a lot more convenient for those riders.

      33. Well, what you’re suggesting would likely have been a $10 billion endeavor. With less of that figure than usual attributable to bad U.S. design/contracting practices, because Lake Washington truly is very wide and very deep.

        It certainly would have been faster, but the ridership would only have been marginally better, because it would still have reached so few honest-to-god places. Please recall that the ridership projections on the bridge-based line are still too paltry to win the project federal funding. One can dream of 6-mile shuttle tunnels, but that just isn’t a good use of resources when actual places are being bypassed elsewhere.

        I with you, though, that a sprawling city like Seattle needs to think multi-modally, always planning the most convenient and widest-reaching perpendicular connections — the very approach that makes Skytrain so potent.

      34. Has anyone done a real costing of this? Can’t understand why this would be $10b. It just isn’t that long. Realize that this is getting into serious [ot] bait, but I will repeat what I wrote in an earlier post:

        There might be other geotechnical problems, but the lake is not too deep to tunnel under. The water depth is about 200′ at the deepest point and the silt depth is about 375′ at the deepest point. Beneath the silt is material that has been compressed by glaciation. Even if the deepest silt is not stable enough for tunneling and the deepest area of silt is close to the western shore, the grade would only be around 6% to the deepest part from a station at Madison and 23rd. (400′ tunnel depth, less 50′ depth of Madison and 23rd station for a total 350′ grade change in about 5800′ from station to low point close to western shore.) A 6% grade is too steep for regular trains, but subways have no difficulty with a 6% grade, and the grade up the eastern slope would be less. This would be a deep tunnel, but not unusually so – the Seikan Tunnel is far deeper. The Deep Bore tunnel is around 200′ deep, and part of University Link has around 310′ of cover.

        The big advantage of a tunnel would be the huge operational advantages:

        – Travel time between downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue of around 13 minutes.

        – Diversion of buses from the 520 and I-90 to the train which would save time, decrease bus traffic in downtown Seattle and decrease operational costs.

        – Direst connection from downtown Seattle to Broadway and Madison which would be vastly superior to the First Hill Streetcar.

        – Totally separated right of way would allow for automatic operations and 2 minute headways.

        – Better station locations in Bellevue.

        It is true that there might be other geotechnical problems with a tunnel, but this is something that ought to be subject to a full geotechnical and financial evaluation.

      35. Oh, I don’t doubt the feasibility. Remember that I’m from Boston; we made the sub-harbor East Boston Tunnel happen 109 years ago.

        I really don’t have a clue how to estimate the cost of what you suggest. I was surprised that Wikipedia pegs BART’s Transbay Tube at less than $200 million in 1970 dollars. I’m incredulous about that number, given that $5 billion is the figure that tends to be batted around when discussing doubling BART’s transbay capacity. And that’s for a tunnel that barely touches built areas on either end.

        What I do know is that when BART surfaces east of the Bay, it hits a prominent pre-automobile city of 400,000 and an urbanized corridor with 1.5 million at a density that puts Seattle or Vancouver proper to shame. (This is the part of the East Bay that justifies BART’s existence in the slightest. It was even better served by the former Key System.)

        By contrast, your Lake Washington tunnel would emerge in an automobile-scaled city of 130,000 amidst a further suburban sprawl that is very hard to serve well with any kind of trunk transit, no matter how much you spent on the crossing. Thus the failure to earn federal moneys for East Link. Thus the indefensibility of a much more expensive crossing to accomplish the same.

        Again, your proposal would have been lovely, and would have provided the added bonus of a central Seattle segment of genuine value, including real First Hill and Central District transit that will never happen otherwise. But when you add up the total cost and consider the lackluster ultimate endpoint, the justification simply isn’t there.

    2. What we need is for advances in technology to allow existing human-driven transit lines to be retrofitted with a driverless system (over vehement objections of the bus drivers’ union).

      1. You would think that the tech used in Google’s self-driving car would be easily and probably better adapted to use in a fixed guideway system like LR. After all, a lot of the variables are eliminated and the required functionality is simpler.

      2. The tech in Google’s self driving car would open challenges to the existing transit network. It would allow car ownership to be pooled and utilization per vehicle to be much higher. With such a possibility I would be willing to not be so clingy of my local route that by Bruce Nourish standards should be axed. Because I could use such a vehicle to get to the train pretty much on my own schedule and never have to worry about parking.

      3. On the other hand… a driverless 522 would not have run the Pike St onramp metering light at 50 mph like my 522 driver did a couple of nights ago. Hair-raising, that one… the light is there because drivers on the ramp can’t see buses coming out of CPS, and it was only luck that prevented a horrible accident. I submitted my first complaint in a long time about that one.

        Even though I’m a former driver I’m enthusiastic about driverless transit in the long run.

    3. Re: ST and Ballard/Belltown
      In the comments I’ve provided ST I’ve said I’ll actively campaign against expansion if the line to Ballard isn’t grade separated all the way from Downtown to at least Market. I’m a little more optimistic that having the city plan for a streetcar at the same time won’t result in only a streetcar to Ballard. (if ST expands it HAS to spend money in Seattle/Shoreline)
      However if ST proposes only a surface line for serving Ballard then count me in the “Oh Hell no!” crowd.

      Re: Link expansion on the Eastside
      I agree Issaquah really isn’t a good case for rail. I think extending to downtown Redmond and a N/S line between Totem Lake and Factoria via downtown Kirkland and Bellevue might have the ridership to justify them.

      1. The surface Belltown option contradicts ST’s definition of light rail. It’s clearly either for the streetcar or a throwaway option that they don’t expect to get traction but they have to show they considered everything. We don’t have to get stressed about it until ST actually makes a concrete proposal. If it does choose this worst-case option, you, me, and DP will all oppose it. If at that point ST says it can’t afford a grade-separated option, then we’ll have to decide whether to build nothing.

  2. Though it’s been lost to memory, it was very common in the United States for streetcar companies and real estate developers to be the same people. Good example: Cleveland’s Shaker Heights line.

    It was also common for a streetcar line to have an amusement park at the end of it. I seem to remember that Elitch Gardens in Denver had a car line attached- though I was five at the time. May be coincidental that current Elitch Gardens has bus and light rail stop.

    Better recent example is joined-at-the-hip relation of people like Kemper Freeman and the Federal highway program. Though I really don’t think that the military engineers who helped Dwight Eisenhower pull those chain-drive trucks through four thousand miles of mud in the early twenties really envisioned a one way escape route from cities to suburbs.

    I think new generation of developers has given Bellevue the word that their shareholders expect rail and related land-use will make their fortunes as the Interstates did for Kemper. Just back from a month in Sweden, where streetcar lines serve enormous shopping malls.

    In Gothenburg, streetcars parade by the front door of Norland at the Brunnsparken stop- which would take up about ten square blocks of Downtown Seattle. And you could drop Southcenter, Belleveue Square, and Northgate into Frolundatorget and lose them. Streetcar stop in the basement, huge express bus center in the parking lot.

    Land use we now endure developed when car travel meant freedom and fun. Now that driving sucks and everybody’s stuck, commerce will be very glad there’s a tried alternative.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Woodland Park Zoo and Phinney Ridge were developed following that model. The streetcar ran from Fremont to the zoo and spurred real estate development along the route and, eventually, extensions of the streetcar line. A clear example of late 19th century suburban sprawl!

      1. Nearly all of the Seattle streetcars and cable cars were built as leverage to sell real estate.

        Unfortunately, many of these houses were built without places to put a car, so when they ripped out the lines in favor of cars, the excess road space was turned into street parking.

    2. Mark,

      Just like in Singapore, at many MRT stops–even outside the main city–there is a shopping mall that has nearly everything a person could want as they go from work to home. They get off the MRT, go into the mall to buy food, then take a bus that drops them off within two or three blocks of home.

      I love going to Singapore and riding the MRT. It is relatively cheap and goes nearly everywhere I want to go. And bus connections are very easy AND there are info boards everywhere telling you what the wait time is for the trains and buses.

  3. There are other ways to address funding problems. Sound Transit should learn from Amazon’s proposal to improve and contribute to the SLU Streetcar’s operation. http://tinyurl.com/8kx4gg5 Overlake Transit Station will exist entirely to serve Microsoft. How much did MS contribute to get this billion dollar gift plopped down at their front door?

    1. I’ve raised this before, but there is a very real prospect that Microsoft has reached a zenith and may begin shrinking. Unless another large employer starts taking up that space, that could be a problem for these transit investments.

      1. Maybe we should have just left them with that private shuttle fleet? (They still plug up bicycle lanes every morning up in Greenwood/Phinney, btw)

      2. Amazon is currently growing pretty fast. Some big changes would have to happen for MS to shrink faster than Amazon grows.

      3. Lack, the issue is not general transit demand in the Seattle area, but specific demand to Overlake Transit Center. There’s no question that OTC is dominated by Microsoft, and that if Microsoft were to disappear from the fact of the earth, the traffic from Seattle to OTC in the morning (and back in the afternoon) would drop to nearly 0. Amazon’s presence in SLU doesn’t really make a difference there; neither does Google’s presence in Fremont/Kirkland, or Facebook’s presence at Metropolitan Park West.

        However, it’s highly unlikely that Microsoft will decline as far or as fast as Charles is worried about. In terms of headcount, Microsoft is still growing, and they still have buckets of revenue. A lot of things would have to go wrong for Microsoft’s headcount to drop to the point where you’d notice lighter loads on the 545.

      4. Aleks, MS shrinkage might hit the Overlake area hard at first, but I think, long term, some of the more obsolete MS-area offices there could be redeveloped into housing. The current mix of land-use on that side of Redmond is heavy in commercial office space and light in residential space. And it shows in the local apartment prices.

        Redmond’s zoning for the area shows they are trying very hard to encourage the area to develop with more of a residential slant, either pure residential or residential-heavy mixed use. Redmond’s zoning doesn’t prescribe a use like Seattle’s does, but sets different requirements for the various uses – Commercial office in Overlake is allowed only 0.5 FAR with all bonuses, while Residential on the same site is allowed 4.0 FAR.

    2. (Being upfront: I work for Microsoft and ride transit to/from Overlake on a company-issued ORCA card.)

      Oddly enough, just five years ago East Link wasn’t even going to go to Microsoft:


      Something must have happened, and it appears that MSFT kicked in some money and political will. According to a letter to the Redmond City Council[1], Microsoft is funding an OTC Ped-Bike Bridge, park and ride garage enhancements (including office space and retail), “capacity for new technology,” increased canopy coverage, and the changes needed for its Connect and Connector service. Admittedly, most of these also benefit Microsoft but I think that’s expected.

      Paying for improvements in that area and transit in general isn’t without precedent. Microsoft paid for half of the NE 36th St overpass, gave land and some money for Overlake Transit Center (I believe that MS building 47 on that property is officially leased from Sound Transit), pays for bus passes for any badge holder who wants one, contributed heavily to Sound Transit 1 (and contributed a bit to ST2), and kicks in for Redmond’s Go-RTrip.

      1 – http://www.redmond.gov/common/pages/UserFile.aspx?fileId=91592

      1. Where was East Link going to terminate short of Microsoft? At Overlake Village? In any case, I think it’s entirely proper to extend Link if a major employer is willing to contribute to an overpass and transit center and things. As long as it doesn’t take the line out of the way or force it to bypass a neighborhood center.

  4. We should and must reject absolutely the idea that transit should pay for itself. People who oppose transit do not hold that position because transit is subsidized – it’s the cover for their deeper and irrational hostility to buses and trains. We know this because those same people oppose transit when it does pay for itself.

    Chasing the idea that transit should pay for itself is not only going to fail to persuade opponents, but it produces bad outcomes and reduces our ability to attract as many riders as possible to transit. For environmental, climate, and economic reasons we need to be getting as many people as possible onto transit. That will require building a lot more rail lines and adding new bus lines. Initially, they may have crappy ridership numbers. But the goal is to build a system that gives as many people as possible an alternative to driving, so we’ll have to build and operate those routes anyway. We will also have to subsidize low fares to attract riders as we build out the system.

    We subsidize freeways in this country because we believed they were essential to economic growth. Those subsidies have deep and wide popular support. We now live in an era where those subsidies hurt more than they help, an era in which transit is key to economic growth and helping achieve economic justice. So subsidizing transit, which is a popular position outside the political right, is necessary for the future economic development of this country. That includes lower fares.

    Transit advocates need to abandon any concern about farebox recovery rates and operating subsidies. It is a fight you will never, ever win with the opposition but you will also alienate potential supporters by the steps you take to try and win over the opponents.

    1. You fell for Frank’s Straw Man. He set up a mythical movement to make a point. There is no demand by “transit opponents” that transit pay for itself. A couple of opinions here and there does not a movement make. But out of all the forms of transportation, car drivers pay their fare share the most. Lowest down on the scale is bike commuters.

      1. I’m a bike commuter. And bus commuter. And car commuter. Where do I fit in? Should I feel guilty when I ride my bike or take the bus? What about when I walk? There is no tax on shoes that goes to sidewalk construction.

        As a cyclist, I’d have no problem paying a licensing fee, as long as it is to scale with how much weight & wear and tear I put on the road (3500lb car versus 30lb bicycle – sounds like a few bucks). Once we start talking cycle tracks everywhere, I wouldn’t even mind paying for those. But at that point I’d give up my car, so the Sams of the world would have to pay more for road maintenance.

      2. But out of all the forms of transportation, car drivers pay their fare share the most.

        [citation needed]

        The gas tax doesn’t fund city or county roads a significant amount. Most of the miles in my commute are on roads paid for with city/county sales and property tax, not with any kind of automobile user fee.

        Bicyclists definitely pay their fare share of sales and property taxes. SDOT posted stats a long time ago showing that, in relation to number of users, bike infrastructure still is underfunded in Seattle (something like 2% of the users getting 1% of the funding, don’t remember the exact numbers but no time to dig through google).

    2. We should and must reject absolutely the idea that transit should pay for itself.

      Agreed, 100 percent.

      Transit advocates need to abandon any concern about farebox recovery rates and operating subsidies.

      I can’t agree with this at all. Farebox recovery shouldn’t have to be 100% on core service, but it is a valid metric if used sensibly and in conjunction with other metrics. If your farebox recovery is 5%, you have a problem. If it’s 33% or 50%, you’re likely doing OK. If it’s 100% in a given place, you probably need to expand service there. And in any real-world budgeting exercise, the amount of operating subsidies a transit network gets is going to fluctuate, and isn’t going to be raised dramatically under most circumstances. So trying to improve the efficiency of service is the most important way to achieve more service. There is no political alchemy, just hard work.

      1. And highway, bridge, and mountain pass tolling must be installed to assure that the true impact of construction and maintenance costs are born more by the users than the taxpayers in general.

      2. The only part about this that makes sense is a comment from the article:

        Jon Geeting • 6 days ago
        What about just taxing the land value within a half-mile radius of train stations to pay for operations?

        I responded:

        John Bailo Jon Geeting • a few seconds ago

        That would be the obvious and best way to do it, as those landowners by far receive the most benefits from transit and stations.

        However, they will all do a dance to deny this, and foist the costs off to people who receive little or no benefit from it at all!

      3. John – to some degree this happens. Land values near train stations will rise (usually they rise once the station location is announced). Also, density increases in these areas (at least it is supposed to, not as much in Seattle). This results in greater tax revenue on those properties.

      4. Why do you have a problem if farebox recovery is 5%? It’s only a problem if you rank farebox recovery as a more important metric than others. You could have a farebox recovery rate of 5% on a route and the highest ridership in the system. You could have a farebox recovery rate of 5% and the largest reduction in carbon emissions in the system. You could have a farebox recovery rate of 5% and contribute the most to household savings, or low-income economic stability, or taking cars off the road, or fueling new density. And so on. Interstate 5 through downtown Seattle has a farebox recovery rate of 0%. Yet it is carrying the most traffic in the state. Nobody would judge Interstate 5 by its farebox recovery rate. (I’d rather we judge it by its carbon emissions.) So why judge transit by that standard?

      5. Will, with fares such as those Metro and ST currently have, a high-ridership route will never have 5% fare recovery, even if it’s long and expensive to run. 5% fare recovery would be an extremely low number and a sign of poor usage. Even on routes with somewhat low overall ridership but many low-income and disabled riders — the routes that people like to call “social justice” routes, as though serving huge numbers of people weren’t its own form of social justice — the numbers don’t get that low.

        I-5 does have a farebox recovery rate — it’s just almost impossible to calculate. Think of the portion of the gas tax that goes to WSDOT as a user fee. The part of that gas tax that comes from gas used by cars driving along I-5 through Seattle is in effect “farebox recovery” for I-5. I have no doubt that that number would be very low, and I’m also in favor of tolling I-5 for SOVs through central Seattle to improve it.

        While we shouldn’t expect transportation investments to make up their entire cost from users, user fees play an important role in the economics of those investments nevertheless. People will overuse anything that’s free, and it’s important for transit and highways alike to ensure that investments are responding to real demand for transportation rather than demand for a free lunch.

      6. David, you’re forgetting that Will Douglas is the same person who said he didn’t want to ever cut a bus route anywhere and wanted to find a way to run buses from everywhere to everywhere. He is on the record as essentially saying financial considerations should not matter. He is essentially a conservative caricature of a liberal come to life, treating government as though its ability to tax gives it unlimited power. In that context, what’s been missing in your response is *why* he should care about farebox recovery or any financial considerations whatsoever.

      7. @Brett who says This results in greater tax revenue on those properties.

        Washington State has a cap on property tax rises. (Albeit, wIthin that range of increase property tax can be shifted around.) Should these properties be allowed to be very dense, and expand greatly around transit, they will impose their population pressure on neighborhoods and their services without bearing a proportional tax burden, or adding significantly to transit funding while at the same time reaping the benefits of being near a train station.

        At the same time they will reduce the values of surrounding properties not only by decreasing quality of life but by drawing customers away from evenly divided bus lines into one central trunk rail line which they will find increasingly difficult to get to and use.

      8. I’m with John; the limit on property tax rates is bad for a whole slew of reasons. Property taxes (especially land taxes) are an especially good way to pay for public services that tend to increase land values, such as transit, because they’re essentially “self-financing”; the cost of the tax is directly related to the benefits to the landowners.

    3. What they mean is, since transit is a “government agency” (as though state Departments of Moving Automobiles aren’t), it is by definition evil unless it’s as much like a private enterprise as possible. Transit especially invites this comparison because of the presence of fares (never mind that no one holds toll roads to this standard, although I think Tim Eyman actually tried to do that a few years back!). I don’t think it’s hatred of the cities, I think it’s ignorance of them combined with “herp guv’ment derp evil kill it kill it kill it (unless it affects me or has to do with defense of course)”.

      The same people who want transit to pay for itself would oppose the scheme Frank proposes as “social engineering” but also because they have this vision of transit as something that should be run like a business, a business that’s in the business of transit only. That the streetcar builders of old were in the development business as well is lost on them, because today’s transit agencies are in the business of transit only. Even Sound Transit these days is only in the business of developing “plans” for TOD as opposed to actually being a developer itself. It’s doing something that would be very difficult to do as a purely private company.

    1. It also means there is always, always something to do and/or buy at every station on the line. It makes riding the train for fun on the weekends something people actually do, which helps keep the trains fuller than they would otherwise be on the weekends.

  5. High construction costs are a really big deal, and I don’t think people pay enough attention to just how expensive these things are.

    Even places like Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Vancouver (!!!!) have costs that are 5-10 times cheaper than Seattle (for comparison, U-Link is over $812 million/km)


    If our costs were $100~$200 million per km like they are in Stockholm. Vancouver and Helsinki, we could have built the entire Seattle subway map for the cost of Central, U, and North link and had some spare change left over.

    1. I think at one of the meetups, someone asked the question to Joni Earl and also the WSDOT head of why the capital costs were so much lower up in Vancouver where there is a similar population, geography, etc.

      Not only was there no definitive answer given, it seemed like they were unaware that there were places that could construct lines for less money for what they cost here and in the rest of the US.

      My theory is that there an entrenched acceptance of high costs and not a lot of questioning of why the costs are so high to begin with or how they evolved over time to be that way. This starts from the top and goes down all the way to the wages and benefits given to the workers building it. Adding to this is the differing legal systems between countries; the propensity of anyone and anybody in the USA willing to sue to either stop, stall, or significantly change projects during the design and building process; threats of losing funding due to political initiatives; more stringent environmental documentation needed; and also way too many overlapping agencies at different levels of government to deal with all requiring their own sets of permits, documents, etc.

      1. My theory is that there an entrenched acceptance of high costs and not a lot of questioning of why the costs are so high to begin with or how they evolved over time to be that way.

        I think this is a lot of it.

        Adding to this is the differing legal systems between countries; the propensity of anyone and anybody in the USA willing to sue to either stop, stall, or significantly change projects during the design and building process;

        I think this is true, but it’s not as much as people think. If you look at the ST budgets for LRT, the vast majority of expenses go to construction, design and real estate

      2. I know we have all sorts of “buy America” requirements that artificially inflate our costs. How much, I don’t know. Of course, if the project is receiving federal money and the contractors and employees are paying income tax to the IRS, the “buy America” requirements could result in a net cost to the federal government that would be less than it might at first appear.

      3. Buy America affects more than just costs. Hardly any US manufacturers sell trolleybuses, streetcars, or light rail cars because the market is so small. So we have zero or one vendor to choose from, and they can charge whatever they want. When United Streetcar (Portland) started up, it licensed an old-generation design from Europe. This means we’re not getting the international state of the art, but the previous generation.

    2. I’m not sure this matters as much as we think it does. Because most commenters here are engineers, planners, or geeks by trade or preference they don’t understand how the political process works. Their background makes it easy to assume that “well, we have X amount of money, and if only our costs were lower, we could build more!”

      In reality, if the costs were lower, we wouldn’t be able to build more. We’d just build the same stuff for less money but not be granted any more money to build anything else.

      Remember what I said above. Transit opponents don’t actually care about project costs. They don’t want transit projects, period. Costs are just something they grab onto in order to try and persuade wavering voters. So lower costs won’t change their mind about whether a project is worth funding or not.

      We fund specific transit projects, not “transit projects” as a broad category. Projects get funding not because there’s a set amount available for transit but because there is political support to build light rail across I-90 to Bellevue and Redmond (for example). If the cost of East Link were cut in half, that money wouldn’t necessarily go to another rail line. Instead it might get cannibalized for something completely different. The legislature would see “wow! ST costs are dropping like a rock! That means more money for ferries, for highways, for whatever transportation pet project I have!”

      It is hard to accept this, but it is true: costs simply don’t matter when it comes to building infrastructure in the United States. It just doesn’t. And it’s not worth worrying about. You get more transit projects built by building political support for transit. That support comes not because a project is cheap but because it brings benefits that people want. Focus on those benefits, because focusing on costs is utterly pointless.

      1. I’m not sure this matters as much as we think it does. Because most commenters here are engineers, planners, or geeks by trade or preference they don’t understand how the political process works. Their background makes it easy to assume that “well, we have X amount of money, and if only our costs were lower, we could build more!”

        In reality, if the costs were lower, we wouldn’t be able to build more. We’d just build the same stuff for less money but not be granted any more money to build anything else.

        I think this is wrong for two reasons.
        1st. Public goods have positive elasticities of demand, according to all literature. If a good’s price goes down, people want more of it. If it’s price goes up, people want less. If Link cost ten times as much, we’d get less (or more likely no) link. If it were 1/10th the price, we’d get more.

        2nd, as tax payers we’re spending money on this we could spend on something else, either no taxes, or other services.

      2. 3rd, you’re assuming we’d get exactly as much money as we need to build X project and no more, because “transit opponents don’t want transit projects, period”. I don’t think that’s how politics work; you’re underestimating the role the share of the budget each project takes up plays in politics. If we could build a $5 billion project for $1 billion, we might not get $5 billion, but I bet we’d get more than $1 billion, otherwise we wouldn’t be getting anything at all to start with.

      3. You’ve got a point here but you overstate it. There are a lot of people who’ll be voting on STIII in a few years who fit don’t fit either the “transit supporter” or “transit opponent” categories; the amount ST can (credibly) do with the resources they’re asking for will matter those people, and that’s not at all unreasonable. Cost may matter closer to the margins than the transit wonks realize, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter at all.

      4. Political will…that’s why I-405 has been altered numerous times in the last 20 years but I-5 thru north Seattle hasn’t. That’s why it is difficult to build quality transit systems here because the political will(statewide) has been ROADS and MORE ROADS. When the interchange of I-405 and I-90 can be rebuilt two or three times, and the interchange of I-405 and 520 can be rebuilt two or three times, all in the last 20 years but basically nothing in Seattle, that’s political will talking there.

      5. Cinesea, the I-90/I-5 interchange has been rebuilt two or three times. The I-5/SR-520 interchange will be rebuilt in the medium term (but it will still be horrible),

      6. And the proposed rebuild is going to do very little good and, possibly make things worse. The only significant difference between today and WSDOT’s long-term plans are for the new HOV lane they want to build to connect with the I-5 express lanes. Sounds good, except that:
        1) Most of the time, the express lanes will be useless to drivers because they will be running the wrong direction.
        2) The connection would create a new merge point in the express lanes, which would probably cause traffic to become backed in the express lanes, especially during the morning commute.
        3) For transit, the primary benefit of the express lanes is the direct connection to the downtown bus tunnel. Once the tunnel becomes Link-only, this will no longer be a benefit. (And, with a properly designed system, all of these downtown buses would truncated at Montlake with a transfer to Link anyway).
        4) During the morning commute, the Stewart St. exit ramp (which nearly all the buses have to use) is already, at times, horribly backed up. Adding 520 traffic to the mix will only make things worse.

        It’s a classic case of WSDOT spending money because they have money to spend, without giving thought about prioritization or how much actual benefit will result. Similar with the overbuilt lids and bus stops along 520 they are currently building, which almost nobody uses (the few people that use the Evergeen Point bus stop are almost always transferring buses and will never see the top of the lid. Yarrow Point doesn’t even get enough usage to meet Sound Transit’s standards for having a bus stop there in the first place, yet it somehow gets all this special treatment (and magically has people there waiting for the bus in WSDOT’s pictures that are not there in real life).

        With a grain of sense, the money WSDOT is spending to rebuild the Yarrow Point bus stop could have been far better spent towards Link, or even just buying service hours to keep more buses on the road.

    3. Just a quick correction–University Link is actually roughly $375 million/km, not 812 ($1,900,000,000/5.07km) so it’s not as bad as you suggest, especially considering that U-Link is completely deep-bore tunnel, not cut-and-cover like Vancouver’s Canada Line. Nevertheless, there is still quite some room to improve on construction costs, and I fully agree with your point that nobody seems to be paying attention to how expensive things are in comparison to the rest of the world.

    4. WSDOT has just released a report Mega Project Assessment that looks at the problems associated with managing mega projects like the new 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. A big challenge with any mega project is that it tends to be unique and full of unknown risks that have to be studied and engineered to death in order to avoid the dreaded cost overruns that local newspapers and the 11 O’Clock News love to cover in detail. Also, it’s important to document and share the lessons learned with the building of any mega-project.

  6. The Hong Kong model has been done in the USA. Specifically, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, and subsequent laws passed by Congress and signed by the president, funded railroad line construction through government bonds and land grants to railroad companies that were created by these acts (and subsequently became private entities, eventually being granted personhood by the US Supreme Court).

    It got the lines built, but there was a price to pay in terms of putting these lines and the surrounding land in private hands, as we’ve seen with BN&SF raking ST over the coals to allow Sounder to share the freight lines. The unfortunate side effect of the railroads litigating to create personhood for corporations has had far-reaching impacts on the nature of society.

  7. “Japan has had a model like this since its railways were privatized”

    JR Group (Japan Railways Group) is the only railway company in Japan that was privatized. It used to be the Japanese National Railway company and was/is the ONLY company that run trains from the Hokkaido Island in the North to Kyushu Island in the south.

    Each region in Japan has several railway companies that have been private since day 1.
    One of them, the Hankyu Corporation,located in Kansai (Osaka region), started in 1906 by building a rail line in an area with relatively few people than developing residential areas along the line, between Takarazuka (on the other side of a mountain range from the city of Kobe), and the railway terminal in Osaka. A store, then a department store was built by the Osaka terminal.
    It is said that it was the first department store in the world owned by a railway company and located by a rail station.
    Hankyu Corp. is now Hankyu Hanshin Holdings, Inc. (Hanshin was another private rail company linking Kobe to Osaka and other places). It owns a number of businesses involved in transportation, retailing, real estate, entertainment and media.

    The following railways service the Kansai:
    JR West, Hankyu, Hanshin, Kintetsu, Nankai, Keihan.
    i am not familiar with Kintetsu and Keihan, but all the other ones definitely have department stores by their major stations (some stations are in the basement of department stores).
    The fares are reasonable and aren’t raised often as there are so many people in the area that take trains.

    Osaka has 8 subway lines, 1 monorail, 1 Automated Light Rail Transit and 2 old fashioned tram lines.
    Both Kobe and Kyoto–suburbs of Osaka, as it where, each have 2 subway lines.

    JR Kyoto station: http://www.japan-guide.com/g2/3922_01.jpg

    In the past 10 years major rail companies IN Western Europe have renovated their main stations by adding numerous shops, restaurants etc.

  8. This is a great topic. I have always wished that there was full transparency on how both the automobile as well as bus transportation are funded, more so the former, because there are too many people with the misguided idea that gas taxes alone fund automobile uses, while our government leaders needlessly let this misconception flourish.

    I’m going to rant here a bit, sounding like singing to the choir. We know that gas tax revenues are declining: people, especially younger folks, are driving less. Dramatically less. Vehicles are more fuel efficient, and they’re getting more so, with the raise in CAFE standards (finally). Yet, road maintenance costs aren’t declining, thus other sources are tapped. Further, parking garages are expensive: I heard that the one in Mountlake Terrace cost $20 million. For about 900 spaces. I’m told that planners use $30,000/space. Somebody pays for these costs, and it includes the (last I heard) 7% who don’t own a car. In other words, taxes from non car owners are subsidizing car owners, too.

    Now, certainly, it’s valid criticism to state that some non-car owners are that way by choice, but the vast majority are there due to the high cost of ownership. For some to say that we could just jack up bus fares, which would be about by 5x to fully cover costs, is ignorant of reality (affordability for many, pushing people who have one available into cars). Plus, that thinking misses the other benefits of bus service, e.g. taking land to build more freeway lanes (cost, environmental issues, more pollution the end result).

    On the transit side, there’s not a whole lot of transparency, either. I’ve never seen a cost assigned to making a street (for instance) “transit-ready.” For instance, I cringe at how much it will take to fix NE 145th for the light rail station that’s virtually certain to go there (at I-5). Another example is ORCA. The agencies tell us how well they “cooperate.” What they don’t tell us is how much that “cooperation” costs. In general terms, that involves a lot of transportation to a lot of meetings of high-level (cost) participants. My guess is the cost is millions. If this was instead in a single agency, or even if just fare-setting was centralized, these costs would be sharply reduced. As for each agency, the level of transparency varies. Some have streaming video and online staff reports, others you’re lucky to see an agenda – and only that – on the day of the meeting. Meanwhile, the state allows all(?) to operate more like private businesses, where they (for instance) set their salaries, at some agencies (except Metro and ST I think) none are publicly disclosed, and they aren’t proportional to size of the operation, else Metro’s, size-wise about 10x any other in WA, would have the highest. It’s the “trust us” and “hands off” policy by lawmakers. Conversely, if all transit agency employees were state employees, this issue might be moot. Lastly, at least some of the issues of the Stanton commission could be addressed, even if it’s just centralizing some of the duplicative functions (e.g., fares, grants, equipment purchasing), recognizing that it will be tough to rein in what’s been largely left alone to date. These measures would stymie some of the “transit pays for itself” crowd.

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