The future of our region depends on our creating a comprehensive transit system that:

  • Builds out a light rail spine that moves as many people as rapidly and efficiently as possible;
  • Ensures critical transit, bicycle, and pedestrian connections to light rail stations and among our urban centers and villages; and
  • Promotes transit oriented communities that build affordable housing and density so that we can get people away from automobile dependence.
Richard Conlin
Richard Conlin

We cannot do just one of these three things. We have to do them all in order to realize the vision of a truly sustainable region. We’ve succeeded in some of the basics and we’re ready to create the framework for a truly integrated vision. I have the experience and commitment to make sure that the City Council and Sound Transit give priority to all three of these as we make crucial policy decisions.

The spine: With light rail funded from Lynnwood to Federal Way and across Lake Washington to Overlake/Redmond, we are building the core system. But we must not forget how tough it is to actually do this. I remember how close the first Sound Transit vote was in 1995 (when we lost) and in 1996 (finally winning), how difficult it was to face the reality that it was harder and more expensive to build out the first line than we had thought, and ultimately having to take the incredibly tough decision to shorten it but still persist with the vision of a line that makes light rail an engine of community development. I remember being in the front of meetings in Rainier Valley with hundreds of Seattle residents attacking me and the other Councilmembers for moving the light rail program forward.

Tense negotiations seem to come with the territory. The UW demanded extraordinary measures to protect research from vibrations when the route cut under the campus. We faced lawsuits over the use of I-90 and an attempt in Bellevue to derail construction, which was only overcome through a careful and patient negotiation between three Sound Transit Board members (I was one of them) and Bellevue City Councilmembers.

One of the reasons I decided to run for reelection was to finish the job voters tasked us with: building a transit system that connects the region’s urban centers and Seattle’s neighborhoods. Even though rail is popular in Seattle, it requires a lot of dedicated effort to turn that into reality and my skills and experience will help ensure that we don’t someday lose one of these battles and suffer a significant setback. As we imagine what we can do with a 2016 ST3 vote, funding service from downtown to Ballard and/or West Seattle, or maybe Ballard to the UDistrict, let’s keep in mind that even if we get legislative authorization and win the public vote, there is still a tremendous amount of work for ST staff — and the need for Board members who both ardently believe and bring necessary skills and dedication to bear to solve problems.

The network: I’ve learned that there’s a long planning horizon for transit infrastructure. Deciding now to fund planning on a line that might not actually move commuters from their homes to work for several years can be a difficult sell for a Council facing pressing demands for other things like human services. But I’ve been a consistent advocate for making the strategic investments in planning and design so that projects such as streetcar lines are eligible for competitive state and federal grants.

Our bus system is also vitally important, and securing continued funding for the network of bus lines that serve so many people is essential. It is also imperative that we develop and fund an integrated strategy for bringing people to light rail – a strategy that includes good planning for bus connections and bicycle and pedestrian facilities that bring people to the stations without having to depend on cars. Over the last several years, Sound Transit has moved steadily towards a more sophisticated approach to access — integrating bicycle and pedestrian access and moving towards a parking strategy that includes charging for parking spaces. In several Board retreats, I have led the effort to develop this new policy approach, and we are beginning to see it take hold with commitments like the ped/bike bridge at Northgate.

Transit Oriented Development: ST and the region have also begun to fully embrace the reality that the people who live around the station are the most faithful ridership base, and that Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is a great way to reduce dependence on the automobile and give people extra resources to be able to afford housing as their transportation costs are reduced. Seattle, Capitol Hill, and Sound Transit embraced such a vision in the Capitol Hill Station Development Agreement, which adds density in return for affordable housing and community benefits. King County is prepared to convert its Northgate Park and Ride into new housing. The region’s Growing Transit Communities plans offer a next step in this direction, a step that Seattle is leading on with our own new Transit Communities Policies, added to the Comprehensive Plan last year.

I’ve played a pivotal role in bringing about this integration – it’s great to be wearing two complementary hats, as Chair of the Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee and a Sound Transit Board member. Things are moving in the right direction. But we have much work to do to truly realize the integrated vision for great communities served by great transit. I’m looking forward to making that work happen over the next four years, with updating neighborhood plans, implementing new ideas for parking and development like those Alan Durning has outlined in his recent work, and working with our communities to help them get the ‘essential components of livability’ that make density truly work.

In 2005, the Roosevelt neighborhood showed the way towards this new vision when they demanded that light rail not hug the freeway, but travel through the heart of the community – the ‘YIMFY’ movement (Yes, In My Front Yard). While we lost some of that good will with poor management of the Roosevelt zoning update, I’m convinced that we can still win it back with careful and thoughtful work with that community as we move into the next stages of transit community development. You can depend on me to work effectively to implement all of these key components of a great transit system. That means a great core rail system and a systematic access approach that reduces automobile dependence. It also means great neighborhoods that embrace density while reaping the community benefits of affordable housing and the essential accompanying targeted investments in public safety, parks, libraries and community building.

The author is a current Seattle City Councilmember, Chair of the Council Planning and Land Use Committee, and a Sound Transit board member.

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21 Replies to “Transit: The Next Generation”

  1. Excellent. Kshama Sawant, if you’re reading I sincerely hope you’ll submit a similar statement about your vision for public transit in Seattle. My sense is this blog is read by staunch supporters of both candidates and some undecided voters as well.

    Councilman Conlin, I’m delighted to see you mention 3 important projects here for ST3:

    funding service from downtown to Ballard and/or West Seattle, or maybe Ballard to the UDistrict

    I’m curious if you could say more about how you’d prioritize these projects, and how many of them you think it might be reasonable to expect in the ST3 package.

    As to Roosevelt, I understand you’re a politician looking for votes and must tread lightly, but I think you’ll find I’m not the only one here who would prioritize a zoning upgrade near the Roosevelt station over winning back the good will of incumbent residents. Density is needed to make the spine work, and Roosevelt station is too valuable and too expensive a resource to be restricted to the walkshed current zoning levels have for it. I would love to see a city council committed to making sure as many people as possible have access to this important new resource, even if some residents of the Roosevelt neighborhood want to keep it to themselves.

    1. I think outcomes aside, Conlin’s point which I agree with, is the process was bungled in Roosevelt.

      Essentially the city let a neighborhood group manage the initial rezone proposal. The city should have clearly been in the drivers seat of this project managing and guiding the development of the rezone proposal. I’m sure the residents of Roosevelt wanted to be the ones to decide what zoning was ultimately approved but that isn’t their decision to make, it’s the council’s and therefore the city should have lead the effort.

  2. The risk of letting political considerations rule all decision-making is that, at the end of that “long planning horizon”, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up with a grossly hobbled transit system: lines routed so as to be useless for most any non-commute trip you would ever need to make; stations and services poorly integrated with connecting transit; few if any relieved of the need to rely on their cars for 90% of their lives.

    A representative who cared about the quality of future results, rather than their mere existence, would push back hard against cutting corners on urban lines and repeating the well-understood errors of Bay Area or Denver transit. That one of the few designated to represent city interests on the ST Board would endorse worst-practice outcomes for the sake of nebulous going-along-and-getting-along rationales, or the vague promise of “magic TOD”, is deeply worrisome. The pursuit of mediocrity is not to be applauded.

    1. You may want to clarify what exactly is hobbled and poorly integrated, and what’s wrong with the Bay Area and Denver. I know what you mean but to a casual reader or politician they’re just vague statements that could mean a lot of things. E.g., what are the top five things you’d do differently, in a short summary.

  3. I want to believe him, but all I heard was:

    We’re only building light rail in Seattle to the detriment of those “transit oriented communities” in Overlake, and we will continue to foot drag so the only way you can get to a decent paying job in less than 90 minutes is by living in a high rent, high tax area inside my fiefdom.

  4. Councilmember Conlin, I appreciate the work you’ve done to improve transit at the city and ST level, and I hope you’ll be serving us for another term. Your decisions may not always be as pro-walkability/transit/density as some of us would like, but you’ve brought the city significantly forward. I thank the entire Council for its unanimous support of the 2012 Transit Master Plan and the 130th Street Link station.

    I’d like to recommend to you Bellevue’s 2030 transit vision, because it goes beyond Seattle’s TMP in a couple important ways. Both plans outline a preferred 2030 network with more frequent/fast transit between the urban villages. But Seattle’s plan is more of a “We’ll do a few projects this year; we don’t know when we’ll get to the others.” and “We have no comment on how to reorganize the bus routes..” Bellevue’s plan has a three-step implementation guide with reorganization milestones in 2016, 2020, and 2030. It also applies three revenue scenerios to each step: increasing revenue, stable revenue, and decreasing revenue (17% cut). It distinguishes between frequent service vs coverage service, and tries to maintain the major frequent corridors in all funding levels, and it describes which coverage routes would have to be cut at each funding level.

    Seattle needs to start thinking this way, and articulate how to get from here to there: how to reorganize to achieve our frequent corridors, how much money we need and how we’d spend it, and which coverage routes would be cut at which funding levels. Metro won’t talk about this until a year before it has to take an action (2014 cuts, 2016 Link, 2021 Link, 2023 Link). But the city could make a recommendation first. It would undoubtedly draw opposition, but at least we’d get the controversies out of the way, and the public would have more certainty on where we’re going in the next 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years. The city can’t tell Metro what to do, but Metro will listen to the city more than to anybody else. Our own David Lawson has proposed a Frequent Network Plan that builds up the TMP’s frequent corridors in a revenue-neutral way. I like most of this plan, but more importantly I want to see the city and Metro make their own proposals like this so we can move forward more quickly, and have more certainty about the future.

    Bellevue’s vision also has good frequency definitions that Seattle and Metro should consider adopting (page 24). 0-9 minutes = passengers don’t need schedules. 10-14 minutes = frequent service, passengers consult schedules. 15-20 minutes = maximum desirable time to wait if bus/train missed. 21-30 minutes = service unattractive to choice riders. 31-60 minutes = service available during the hour. 61+ minutes = service unattractive to all riders. This raises the ante on “frequent” and “don’t need a schedule” and “acceptable transfer time”.

    The other issues I care most about are: a Ballard-UW subway is vital, and a Ballard-downtown subway is the only acceptable alternative. Ballard is the largest urban village not on ST2 Link, and we must get its travel time down to 10 minutes to downtown and to UW, so that Ballardites will be able to participate more fully in the region, and non-drivers will be more willing to move to Ballard. Streetcars can complement subways but they can’t substitute for them, because streetcars can’t bring down the travel time much. We must also improve transit to the lowest-cost neighborhoods not on Link — Lake City, Broadview, Delridge, and South Park — so that those who can’t afford Capitol Hill or the U-District can have a viable car-free alternative.

    Among other issues, there’s concern that ST’s subarea equity has mostly helped the suburbs in the past but it will help Seattle in the future — it’s the only way to guarantee we’ll get additional city lines alongside the suburban extensions — so we mustn’t abolish it hastily. And there are some grassroots stirrings for a city-only funding source to accelerate the TMP and build the city Link lines. I don’t have any particular recommendation on that, but I’d ask the city to look for opportunities along these lines.

    1. This is really an excellent summary that shows the difference between real leadership on the issue and the kind of word salad used to make sure one is reelected (or elected). A lot of awful transportation options can fit perfectly well within the parameters of what Conlin is saying here. But you did a great job of summarizing what a grown-up approach to Seattle’s transportation needs would look like.

    2. Interesting thought about the role local cities play in shaping Metro services into their local transportation plans. Just look at the staff person at each city.
      While Seattle has a former Metro route planner at the helm, Bellevue has a ‘transit geek’ pushing for change, while similar sized cities such as Kent and Federal Way seem to have ‘none of the above’ advocating for transit that works better.
      Again, I have to agree with d.p. that a poorly functioning transit spine, and crumbling local bus service region wide is not to be congratulated. Local officials charged with spending limited tax dollars wisely MUST be held accountable at the end of the day.
      Mr. Conlins day has come.

  5. Great post! I’m not from the Seattle area but I had the opportunity over the past year to work on a light rail mobile workshop for the Rail~Volution conference. What an amazing experience and how much I learned! I am a huge advocate for light rail and sincerely hope more projects move forward for TOD areas.

  6. “In 2005, the Roosevelt neighborhood showed the way towards this new vision when they demanded that light rail not hug the freeway, but travel through the heart of the community – the ‘YIMFY’ movement (Yes, In My Front Yard). While we lost some of that good will with poor management of the Roosevelt zoning update…”

    Because it turned out YIMFY was always about making sure Roosevelt’s single-family homes had their own little private rail station, and when it was suggested that a rail station maybe should bring some density along with it they became as NIMBY as ever. Since the density they allowed ended up hugging the freeway, we’d probably have been better off from a TOD standpoint if the line *had* hugged the freeway.

    1. Pretty much.

      Conlin’s unwillingness to call this spade a spade — the outcome in Roosevelt was a win for the squeakiest wheels and a loss for taxpayers — is one of the primary reasons I have trouble trusting him.

  7. Council Meyerbeer Conlin was very helpful and effective in promoting the Capitol Hill community’s vision for our future TOD, both to his colleagues on the city council and the Sound Transit board. He embraced our vision, and helped to make the city/Sound Transit development agreement which lays the framework for achieving our goals a reality — thank you!

  8. Richard, I had a year’s full-time driving seniority when I was appointed to the Employee Advisory Committee on the Downtown Seattle Transit Project in 1983.

    Over the succeeding years, I’ve been less aggravated by transit’s mistakes miscalculations than by our governing agencies’ habit of permitting resulting operating problems to persist literally for decades.

    NorthLINK’s delayed construction schedule would have been more tolerable if Seattle had immediately exerted itself to get an all-day southbound I-5 transit lane between Northgate and Convention Place. All within city limits: Seattle could have made this happen. We’ve got Congressmen, Senators, and money.

    And passengers could drop the air-quotes from “Rapid Ride” if SDOT had taken the initiative to give the system real fully-reserved transit lanes with signal pre-empt. Has the South Lake Union Streetcar gotten its signal-priority turned back on yet? If elected Mayor, will you personally throw the switch?

    After thirty years driving and riding transit here, this election I’m going to hang my decision for this office on one question: which candidate will answer questions like the samples above with how they’ll take the action, and which with excuses why they can’t.

    The quality of your opponent is a strong credit to you. If you can win this one, you could handle British House of Commons, let alone anything here in the Colonies. This race is a much-deserved and very refreshing rebuke the three political decades here. My ballot will be last one into the box election night. Make the most of the time.


  9. Completely understand that this candidate is not presently running for Mayor, any more than for British House of Commons. Just pointing out future career possibilities that could result from strong, decisive approach to something vital and visible like transit.


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