At yesterday’s ST board meeting the most interesting presentation was a staff discussion of an imminent conceptual study that will help inform board decisions in an ST3 package. It’s the first document that scopes projects based on overall package sizes.
The stated purpose is not to create a project list, but instead to evaluate certain package sizes as required by statute. There are four levels of spending, from an almost negligible amount of rail, to using the whole $15 billion revenue request (which amounts to about $25 billion of projects in year of expenditure dollars). The higher spending plans allow variable amounts of emphasis on completing the light rail “spine” (Everett/Redmond/Tacoma) vs. additional corridors in Seattle and on the Eastside.
Staff will evaluate the representative packages for each funding level and spine emphasis according to the following criteria:
- Completing the Link Light Rail Spine
- Connecting the Region’s Designated Centers with HCT
- Socio-Economic Equity
- Integration with other transit operators/transportation systems
- Multi-modal access
- Promoting transit-supportive land use and TOD
- Advancing “logical next steps” projects beyond the spine; within financial capacity
Both the slides themselves and the ST press release are emphatic that this is focused on high-level tradeoffs, and “the scenarios are not draft system plans and do not encompass all of the projects that will be considered for a ballot measure.” And that’s a good thing, because there are possibly fatal problems with all of them:
- They explicitly ignore questions of subarea accounting and cost everything out of a single revenue pool. The Board hasn’t resolved any issues related to subarea accounting, so it seems shortsighted to not consider those effects at all. Spokesman Geoff Patrick says “the financing conversation will come after we’ve developed conceptual cost estimates for each of the candidate projects.” In essence, a decision to focus strongly on the spine is a decision for taxes in North King and East King County to mostly pay for projects elsewhere.
- Not one of the nine alternatives involves a grade-separated solution for Ballard, perhaps the neighborhood in the region most in need of one. Some of the alternatives involve “rapid streetcar” and others Option C, an MLK-like treatment. An important distinction is that Option C would interface with a second downtown tunnel going onward to West Seattle, making key aspects pretty flexible. There is a world of difference between a tunnel portal in Interbay (not a big deal) and one near Westlake (catastrophic). The presentation may not have enough resolution to work out these issues, but note that Option C got support from all of 2% of public comments (see p. 69 here).
- Sound Transit has never confirmed the correctness of my subarea math, but it’s questionable that reaching Everett via Paine Field is possible given the size of South Snohomish County’s economy. Most of the alternatives clearly involve a large transfer out of the East King Subarea, and part of the reason the most expensive options run at-grade through dense parts of Seattle is that funds are going north. Regionalism is a fine virtue, but it’s not clear that voters have the regionwide ethic to tax themselves heavily to benefit people far away. At least, no one seemed to think so when the spine projects were in Seattle and other subareas didn’t chip in. More importantly, transferring funds from places where bus statistics indicate strong transit demand, to places where such demand is at best unproven, is a not a good way to maximize the benefits of this investment.
- No alternative contains the Ballard/UW corridor, the lowest cost per rider of any Seattle project ST studied. Cost per rider isn’t everything — ridership in absolute terms, and passenger-miles, also matter — but the omission is striking.
I imagine most STB readers will be deeply disappointed with the shape of these concepts. So as the headline asks, should you be worried? The explanatory text is emphatic that this is not a rejection of some higher-quality concept. On the other hand, the fact that staff shaped a study with these boundaries is an interesting statement about where they want to go, or the board is pressuring them to go, or where they think the board wants to go.
Worrying isn’t a very useful response. The best action is to tell whomever represents you on the Sound Transit board what you expect to see out of a Sound Transit 3 package, and that you’re willing to pay the taxes to get there. On May 7th the Executive Committee will discuss the process for a draft project priority list. At the May 28th meeting, the full board will review the results of this study and formulate that draft list. There will be more public outreach in June and July to add yet more projects, and the final project list comes out in August. Throughout the Fall, the Board will work to shape a package for a 2016 ballot measure.
The low quality of proposals for the Ballard corridor is the biggest weakness of the straw-man concepts presented yesterday. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of board members supposed to be looking out for Ballard — particularly Larry Phillips, Mayor Murray, and Mike O’Brien — to make sure that we get a better plan. If not, it’ll fall to Seattle voters — who traditionally provide the supermajorities that ensure ST’s success — to hold out for a better deal.
In another suddenly less-interesting development, the Board approved the preferred alternative for Lynnwood Link as the final alignment. The only concession to advocates for stations at N. 130th St. and SW 220th St. was to make sure that the line will be constructed so that adding the stations at a later date would have minimal fiscal and operational impact.