Photo by Oran
Photo by Oran

Sound Transit is updating its Long Range Plan later this year, and they have released their Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for for public comment through July 28. Please take the survey here!

Though it may seem a distant exercise for the average transit rider and advocate, this is a critically important process because it determines the range of outcomes that are possible a decade down the road. This is the visionary, big picture stuff. If you want West Seattle-Downtown-Ballard rail, or eastside BRT, or a range of other options, this is your official chance to make sure the Board adopts them as options for the next round of development.

If you’re confused about the multitude of scoping studies, corridor studies, environmental impact statements, etc, you’re in good company. I mean, haven’t we been talking for months about Downtown-Ballard? Isn’t that already long-range planning? Yes, and it’s complex, but here’s an analogy.

Think of Sound Transit as a restaurant. Though it may be tempting to think of the long-range plan as the restaurant menu, it’s more like the wholesaler sheet. It’s the unconstrained list of all the things the restaurant could choose to order to make its food. Right now Sound Transit has had the same list of options since 2005, has bought a few of the items  for its customers (U-Link, East Link, North Link etc…) and has passed on others temporarily (Federal Way Link). The current update will decide what if anything should be added to this master list. Because Sound Transit is owned by its customers, they are asking you to help them choose what to buy.

But Sound Transit isn’t just any restaurant, it’s a co-op. The restaurant takes out a bond for the approved amount, and co-op owners (taxpayers) pay an agreed rate (sales tax and fares) spread over a number of years. Because of this, Sound Transit knows roughly how much money they are going to get over the next decade or so. They also know that the co-op owners are usually hungry when they order and like to ask for more than is feasible, so the restaurant uses this master list to whittle down its choice to ones it thinks it can afford.  But once the Long Range Plan is finalized, the Sound Transit Board will develop system plan, and that’s more like the restaurant menu. They develop a series of menu offerings from the Long Range Plan based on their projected income and the peculiar legal requirement to spend equally on all to make sure that each of the 5 separate co-op associations (named the Pierce, Snohomish, East King, South King, and North King ‘subareas’) pay for only their own meals. Once they have their system plan, they present it to their Board to predict if 50.1% of the co-op owners will approve the plan. It may tell the North King co-op delegation that “We can serve you both the Ballard Link Souffle and the Downtown-Burien Custard, but you’ll have to agree to let the Pierce association have the 6th Avenue steak, the Fife cookies, and the Tacoma-Dupont truffles you so dislike. Oh, and they’ll want free refills to continue on Tacoma Link and they want larger Sounder portions.”  And so it goes until the 5 subarea representatives and their constituents agree on what each other should eat, and ensure that all their meals cost the same the money raised by the subarea groups stays with them.

As you work through the survey, you’ll notice several previously unmentioned, somewhat bizarre proposed corridors. Corridor 21, in which a West Seattle to Ballard line is routed through both the Central District and Queen Anne, is a bit like a customer telling Sound Transit that yes, they really do want them to offer ketchup on their ice cream. STB asked Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick if they consider all of these to be viable corridors or if they just aggregated public comment, and they said, “The latter. We studied corridors identified in comments during the scoping process last fall.” So if you’re a Tacoma advocate who’s been trying to get high capacity transit on Pacific, or Portland, or 6th Avenue, don’t be worried when you’re asked to review Tacoma to Ruston as a corridor instead. ST is asking  you about it because someone asked them to ask you about it. Next time make sure you’re the one asking.

Once the restaurant decides what to offer its customers in its system plan, the co-op association (all of us!) votes on it. We’ve done this twice, and we ceremonially named these votes Sound Move and ST2. The next one will be ST3!  If we approve an ST3, then Sound Transit will spend a couple years asking its angel investors (the federal government) and its hundreds of chefs (representatives from cities and counties) to give them recipes for just how each item should look and taste. These chefs negotiate about which menu items should go where, how much they should cost, which to debut first, how they should be salted and spiced, and even how to spend the 1% set aside for garnishes and presentation. It gets complicated when, yes, there are occasionally too many cooks in the kitchen. Tsk.

When it’s all said and done, the menu reflects the items least objectionable to the greatest number of co-op owners. The patron who really likes it spicy might find it a bit bland, the purist connoisseur will notice every cut corner, and the simple meat-and-potatoes diner might think the whole menu to be overthought and wonder what all the damn fuss is about. But the restaurant is looking for something both that it can afford and that 50.1% of its co-op owners will find tasty enough to give a thumbs up.

And that’s how you cook a train.  Please comment by July 28, and tell them what you want to be able to order. Of course we’re pretty fond of Corridors F (Downtown-Ballard) and G (Ballard-UW), so we’d love votes for those.

48 Replies to “Sound Transit’s Long Range Plan: Or How to Cook a Train”

  1. Great post. Really livened up a rather hard to digest topic.

    I checked with ST about the absence of a Tacoma Link extension in the DEIS map and in the project list. Public information staff told me that although the 2005 LRP had an extension to TCC in it, ST2 only had nebulous expansion language and contribution funds. So after the series of Board actions that selected the Hilltop extension, the extension to TCC was no longer really in the plan. It wasn’t a proposed amendment either in the DEIS, so it has to be added back in.

    It’s okay though. 6th Ave ‘Steak’ in Tacoma should be back on the menu after the Tacoma Council gets a chance to review and provide more comment.

  2. Excellent post. One small correction: we voted three times. The first vote failed (back in 1995) even though it passed in Seattle (similar to the way that the Metro funding proposal just failed).

    That brings up an important question. Does every subarea need to pass the proposal, or does it simply need a majority of the overall voters? To use your analogy, do the patrons at each table vote on the meal (with each table having veto power) or does the entire restaurant vote?

    1. An important question, especially when nearly half the restaurant patrons don’t like the food here. It’s questions like this that make me wonder why we have to dine in the same restaurant as people who dislike the food? I’m not opposed to them being able to order food if they want it, but shouldn’t the Wallingford table be able to get what they want and the Redmond people get what they want?

      Since Sound Transit is all about the money from each subarea going to its own subarea, why does Seattle need Issaquah’s permission to spend their money own? I understand that lumping us together means that the burbs are getting transit improvements despite tepid support. But if they made the vote just about each Subarea’s desires, wouldn’t we get more spending in the subareas that really want transit?

      I’m not against ST running the whole thing. They’ve demonstrated their ability to make realistic budgets, run construction projects on budget and on time, and mostly make good plans. I’m just saying, if there was an ST vote for just Seattle, a more aggressive transit spending plan could pass. Making the vote area-wide means that the overall plan has to be scaled back, so as not to scare off too many transit agnostics.

    2. I should say, why are we doing a group order for the whole restaurant when some of the patrons always eat at McDonalds?

    3. colin: that shows the absurdities of the particular subarea equity formula. There are four possible ways to go: (1) More Seattle lines with Seattle money, (2) More Seattle lines with regional money, (3) each subarea chooses its own projects and tax rate, (4) each subarea chooses its own projects but have to agree on a common tax rate across all subareas. Bizarrely, only #4 is legal in Washington, even though #3 seems closer to the principle of local control and democracy. #2 is what the most successful foreign transit networks are. #1 would be local-control for Seattle but the legislature will not allow a high-enough tax rate for it.

    4. Nice comments, but no one answered the question. It isn’t rhetorical. I am honestly confused. I though that each area (county?) had to pass the proposal before it all became official. But reading some more, it appears that wasn’t the case. It was more like the Metro proposal (it is simply a majority of the voters). In other words, let’s say King County passes ST3 by 99%, but it fails in Pierce County 49-51. The overall vote is for approval, but does this become law?

      1. ST has 5 subareas (3 in King, 1 in Pierce, 1 in Snohomish). A vote doesn’t have to pass in each subarea or county in order to pass overall. For example, in 2008 Pierce voted 51-49 against ST2.

      2. Thanks Drew, for some reason I thought it was different (I’m not sure where I got that idea). Anyway, I appreciate the information.

  3. Fun analogy, Zach!

    I was quite disappointed to see that, among the odd menu of corridors offered by the survey, we didn’t have what I think is the single most important one ST hasn’t studied: a true HCT replacement for RR E/Metro Route 5 that would also stop in SLU. That line could serve tens of thousands of people and several critical urban centers from day one, and I honestly think it’s a much better use of Seattle subarea money than West Seattle or anything else other than Ballard and an assist with Madison BRT. I’ve hammered on this corridor in every ST survey I’ve taken, so it’s not that no one has suggested it.

    1. I agree, although I would also consider a light rail line replacing the Metro 8. Tough call between the two, though. A lot depends on what is build to serve Ballard. I could go either way, but I see a lot of the Central Area with lots and lots of people, a major university (Seattle U) and no fast way to get anywhere. Personally I would go with either two of those (Metro 5 + SLU or Metro 8) before anything else (other than Ballard, which is in the works).

  4. Nice post. One quibble.

    When you talk about subarea equity, you say things like “and ensure that all their meals cost the same.” That seems to imply (at least to me) that the same amount of money will end up getting spent in each subarea. That isn’t quite how subarea equity works; rather, an a share of total revenue proportionate to each subarea’s tax contribution must be spent in that subarea.

    Subarea equity basically says that each of the five diners decides how much they are willing to spend, and agrees only to eat what they pay for. [What you write sounds more like what happens when one goes to dinner with 4 frineds, and at the end of the night everyone throws in 1/5 of the total bill]. I think that sub area equity ise reflective of a larger problem. It reflects a lack of trust between the various diners that the other diners aren’t going to eat more than their fair share (and to a certain extent a lack of agreement on what that even means). This prevents the agency from serving as a genuinely regional agency that rationaly priorizes the needs of the entire region. This problem is compounded by uniform taxation, which requires that the five diners agree on a common percentage of their “income [i.e. tax base]” to spend.

  5. Future of Sound Transit, like a lot else including the survival or our country will depend on three things:

    1. How much more of the current politically-maintained Depression our people will tolerate.

    2. How long it will take the American people to lose their present loathing for the order of public projects that ended the last one.

    3. How fast the people who both operate and manage every transit vehicle in the region will see regional transit as something of their own and join forces to build it.

    Would really like some comment on 3. from both labor and management. Past is past, but next sixteen years of transit have a lot to learn from the last thirty.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I’ve been thinking more about inequality and how it seems to be the origin of so many of our national ills. So then I wonder what would happen if inequality gets worse and more persistent and intergenerational and oligarchical? But we don’t have to guess, we have live examples of it in Russia and Brazil and Mexico.

      1. For one thing, murdering the existing oligarchs becomes one of the more effective ways of rising in the society — perhaps the only effective one. Private armies become incredibly useful.

        Not nice.

  6. Wow, there were some selections in there that I’d never heard anyone discuss but I’m glad at least made it to the survey. Bagging on the routing notwithstanding, some attention to HCT in the Central District is awesome, especially if the 8 to elsewhere goes away and the 48 to elsewhere gets truncated north of the congestion point.

    I do wonder why regional express bus planning is being looked at for the NE 145th St corridor. That seems like something that Metro could easily do. A 10-minute loop between NE 145th/IH-5 and NE 145th/LCW would be great once there’s a light rail stop there. (A loop between the LCW Fred Meyer going up to NE 145th, turning left, continuing to IH-5, then coming back would serve every route that goes through Lake City except for the 75.)

    1. Yeah — I don’t think it’s that strange to suggest HCT in the Central District. The 8 is just about the most-ridden-slowest route, and the 48 is also very well used.

    2. Re 145th: I assume that would be a reroute of the 522 rather than a shuttle, to connect to 145th station. Although it should continue to Aurora if it does that. And of course it would worsen Lake City’s transit situation. Although if Lake City had a Link line by then… but then Bothell would have a Link line and the 522 wouldn’t exist, and I think 145th would longer be a candidate for HCT. So this seems like more of an interim solution.

      1. Routing the 522 to a NE 145th station would be a tough sell. It is usually well-used by the time it makes it to NE 125th/LCW. I could see simply extending the 65 over there or pulling the 65 out to LCW (go past the library, right on NE 127th, left on LCW, left on NE 145th). The big problem with that is that 35th Ave NE is uphill from LCW.

        Another option, since the 41 will stop going to downtown once Link opens, would be to make it that loop. NE 145th/I5 east to LCW, south on LCW to the LCW Fred Meyer, continue as usual to Northgate TC via Northgate Mall, then back out to 5th Ave NE, north on 5th Ave NE to NE 145th, lather, rinse, repeat. That assumes that riders are willing to ride loops instead of bidirectional routes, which is something that I don’t know.

      2. It also assumes no station at 130th. If we get a station at 130th, then that opens up a lot of possibilities.

  7. With all the avenues of interactive social media, and interactive project development, they still present everything as if it were 1955 and we all have to come to a town meeting, and stand in front of Springfield’s elders while they nod their heads and ignore us.

    1. I seem to recall that, just minutes ago, I filled out a well-designed and informative survey to give my opinion. I was also invited to send electronic feedback through a variety of channels. This works well for me, someone who is computer-literate, has a computer, and who subscribes to Internet service. This doesn’t work well for someone who doesn’t have those characteristics, so in-person meetings and communications on paper should still be available.

      1. Checking it on mobile, it’s not terrible (like metro’s customer comment form, which has a virtually unusable date field), but also doesn’t take easy wins like reducing paragraph width to fit smaller screens [IANAUXD].

        I mean, someone’s gotta be taking this survey while sitting on a bus, right?

    2. What other methods did you have in mind? An interactive comment-map would be a lot of work for modest benefit, and outside ST’s primary mission. Facebook and Twitter comments would be dependent on an uninterested third-party company, and lower quality than filling out a form with a range of questions. A custom smartphone app for this would be silly, although that hasn’t stopped other companies from making limited-worth apps. What else do you want? The existing choices are a web form, paper form, and email. That seems to cover enough bases.

      And “standing in front of Springfield’s elders while they not and ignore us” is just in your imagination. Did you see the part about light rail or BRT from Rainier Beach to Kent and Puyallup? (The “DP Heart Attack Line”.) Or expanding the ST service area to Black Diamond? Or a Kent – KDM express route? I had to wonder if those were your suggestions.

      (I did suggest Rainier Beach – Auburn BRT, and Kent – KDM BRT. And a Sand Point – Kirkland crossing, which they rejected.)

      1. You don’t need a smartphone app, just survey formatting that is responsive to screens of various sizes. (and hopefully, is well-formatted for screen readers).

        I could also imagine a twitter-based poll by asking people to retweet a tweet with a hashtag (#ST3UWBallard). It’s a new medium, may be noisy / botty, would need sentiment analysis (“interns”) to distinguish between support and criticism, but could be tried. There’s some evidence that Twitter users are demographically distinct from Facebook users, which is helpful for hearing all voices.

      2. A survey is just an electronic version of the Comments Box.

        There is zero responsibility to acknowledge input.

        There is no chance for other citizens to see each other’s results and link up and say “hey, we think the same, let’s coalesce”.

        There’s no chance to converse and reflect ideas.

        There’s no history or thread of ideas so people don’t chime in an repeat things or ask questions that have already been answered.

        There’s no accountability that ideas have been heard, acted on or rejected and why.

        Yes, Seattle Transit Blog is closer to what I consider a real debate/discussion on the issues, but it’s not part of government. This shows the great disconnect between the richness of social media discussion and the paucity of input, in a public realm, to government.

      3. Comments on suggestions makes a lot of sense, and like/dislike buttons for that matter.

        But then this gets into the regulations on “official comments”. ST has to publish all official comments with the EIS, if not publicly then to officials to show it fulfilled its public input duty and considered the suggestions. How would it do it in this scenario? Publish the entire comment trees? It would also lose the integrity of each person’s total comments in a single consolidated article showing which suggestions are primary to the writer and which are secondary. Is it OK to lose this? Would the regulations allow it? Should the regulations be changed, and if so how?

  8. I like your perspective on this! It does seem to be like a restaurant menu – many standard favorites from the past with a few new dishes and twists. I would add that reflects the mindset that this is a “wish list” tapas menu rather than one that one from an actual operating restaurant. The orientation of ST as a builder rather than an operator permeates the survey.

    Of course, I would like to see DMU and driverless APM choices. Each could be applicable in some of these corridors as a cost-effective way to provide expanded transit service.

    1. In an era where we’re way behind in the HCT lines for our-sized region, ST is necessarily a builder.

      1. I rather doubt that new ST3 rail lines will bring anywhere close to the number of new riders that we’ll have attracted when we add U-Link, Northgate Link, Lynnwood Link, East Link and a south Link extension to the light rail system. We’ve already funded a system for over 100,000 weekday riders. For rail, a funding-limited ST3 should be focusing a major part of this plan at augmenting productivity out of its existing tracks where possible (like infill stations, upgraded station access, branch line strategies) rather than merely looking at where to build new track.

      2. The issue is not whether ST3 lines have as high ridership as ST2 (you can’t top downtown – U-District) but whether the widest cross-section of residents/visitors can get around easily without a car. You can’t just leave out the entire west half of the city, especially when Ballard and Fremont have become two of the largest urban villages. The lack of rapid transit is crippling them from reaching their potential.

  9. While I understand your analogy and why they do it this way, it was a bit frustrating not being able to provide feedback about what to fiddle with or what else to include. I wanted a “yes, but” option with a text box so that I could pontificate at length. But I guess that’s what STB is for.

    1. The post is agnostic as to the merits of this process vs others, and more just trying to explain how the process we’ve got works.

  10. While there is a “replace Sounder with LRT” option I note there isn’t a “convert Sounder to EMU” option. The idea would be to run Sounder trains at LRT frequencies less slots for the Cascade trains.

    I tend to prefer the latter as it will help Cascades service and because there are additional sources of funds to tap into (Federal and state HSR funding; Federal, State, Port of Seattle, Port of Tacoma, and local freight mobility funding).

    1. For EMUs, you would need BNSF’s buyoff. That might be practical if there were a 3rd MT between Tacoma and King Street, but BNSF might still want to be able to run the occasional double stack on that track so you’d have clearance issues for the catenary.

      1. The idea would be to upgrade the UP line to handle all of the through freight the current BNSF line does. I’m pretty sure BNSF will play ball as long as the end result for them is more freight capacity between Seattle and Tacoma.

        I don’t think the catenary issue is insurmountable. Running DMU is also an option.

    2. The big problem with BNSF is the price they are charging for operating additional Sounder trains. In places like Los Angeles the local operating authority has wound up purchasing the main line outright. That may be what it takes in the Seattle area in the end.

      1. Effectively that is what I’m advocating. Either build a 3rd main track or upgrade the UP corridor. Some of the freight mobility studies and the Cascades long-range plan talk about both options. There are some nice synergies here if ST can make them happen.

        BNSF only cares about how much freight capacity they have between Seattle and Tacoma, if you increase that they should be pretty easy to buy off.

  11. I’d like them to see ST use the term “autonomous vehicle”…just for practice…sound out the syllables first and say it a bit faster so it sound natural. Because it will be/could be a major part of transport thinking over the rest of this century. So get used to the term now. Don’t have to think about it. Just try out the phrase: “autonomous vehicle”.

    1. Since the topic here is trains, I’m not sure I want each car within the train to be autonomous. Driverless trains, with no shared ROW with any other mode, like in Vancouver’s sky train, would be wonderful!

  12. Thanks for the link. I did everything I could to discourage ST from pursuing projects outside of Seattle city limits, where they’ve been overdue for 40 years.

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