Heads up riders, 550 & 554 likely running late this weekend due to I-90 work. Expect heavy traffic. No stops missed. http://t.co/ZpoVAaYE7l
— Sound Transit (@SoundTransit) April 17, 2015
I come with priors into this discussion. For years detractors said we didn’t need light rail, that theoretical arrangements of bus service could do the job. If only WSDOT demand managed road capacity on I-5 properly, rapid buses would serve the UW-downtown market much more cheaply than U-Link. And with open BRT those buses could fan out to destinations all over Seattle and the Eastside without forcing a transfer.
Without actually running the numbers, I suspect that argument is broadly true; and yet I feel absolutely sure that if our strategy was to “pressure” WSDOT to do the right thing this transit trip would be just as aggravating in 2016 as it is today.
As the region discusses Sound Transit 3, local decisionmakers are showing a clear preference for light rail over freeway-based BRT solutions, along the I-5 corridor and elsewhere. This is presumably in response to input from constituents. And once again, skeptics are making completely valid technical points about what buses could accomplish.
Freeways are a form of grade separation, making them seductive for rapid transit. However, freeway expresses rely on our brittle highway system, which does not truly insulate transit operations from meltdowns of various kinds. In practice they are not run for rapid transit, resulting in suboptimal operations:
- WSDOT doesn’t manage High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to ensure free-flowing traffic, partly due to resistance from existing carpoolers.
- In some cases, HOT lanes will inject more traffic into HOV lanes. More generally, tolling instituted for demand management (as opposed to revenue to pay off projects) hasn’t materialized at all. When the system is most under stress, the optimal toll will likely exceed an arbitrary peak toll set by the legislature for PR reasons, resulting in congestion.
- WSDOT doesn’t go out of its way to ensure HOV and transit priority during construction episodes, again discouraging transit use when the system needs it most.
These problems will only get worse as the region continues to grow, and inadequate upzones in transit-rich areas force people into cars.
In summary, WSDOT simply isn’t responsive to the needs of transit users in the way that other jurisdictions are. It serves a more car-centric population, its central purpose (highway building) is the opposite of urbanism, and it answers to politicians with fundamentally different values. And we’ve had Democratic Governors since 1985; a Republican will eventually win, and his or her WSDOT appointee will be happy to tell us where we can put our transit petitions. For all the ways that Sound Transit, Metro, and SDOT disappoint urbanists, they are fundamentally in the business of providing a decent transit experience and are responsive to rider organizations.
For all these weaknesses, bus investments are absolutely worthwhile. Rail won’t work in every place and in practice we can’t afford to put it everywhere. If the choice is truly between a huge amount of medium-quality BRT and a modest amount of high-quality rail, reasonable transit advocates can disagree. I can certain imagine bus-intensive packages that I would prefer to rail-intensive ones, though really I want to see both. And of course true traffic-separation, such as the Westside Transit Tunnel, invalidates this critique insofar as buses remain in that stretch of guideway.
It wouldn’t be right to say that we should build everything people want, even if we could. Different people will have different thresholds on how much they’re willing to spend on transit. And of course some projects are higher priority than others under any sensible criteria. But it’s healthy to recognize the reasonable sources of people’s preferences and not simply dismiss them as irrational or ignorant.