Last Thursday, the Sound Transit Executive Board reviewed a proposed draft project list for the Sound Transit 3 ballot. On May 28, the full Board will consider and perhaps amend this list. After June 4, the public will be asked to comment on the draft project list, and the subsequent comment will guide the Board in further whittling down the list to a feasible proposal for ST3.
Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick explained yesterday that the public outreach will “ask people’s views about the priority level for each project on the draft list, and to identify projects they think should be added or deleted”. The public will not be specifically asked about projects that are not on the draft list. So while the door is not closed to members of the public who may point to their own priorities, the presented options will be the “starting point for the Board and public’s conversation”.
Predictably, the draft project list for Snohomish, Pierce and South King is focused on completing the spine. All of their projects are just alternate alignments for doing so. Snohomish’ goals will be hard to achieve without large revenue transfers from elsewhere. The draft list includes costly projects such as alignments to Everett via Paine Field and a further extension to North Everett.
North King has ten projects to consider; all are light rail and would serve West Seattle or Ballard. Mayor Ed Murray would like to add Madison BRT to the list. The quality of the eventual outcomes in North King will depend on how these goals are balanced.
East King has just three options on the draft list. These are (i) the Eastlink extension to Redmond, (ii) I-405 BRT from Lynnwood to Seatac, and (iii) a light rail line from Totem Lake to Issaquah via the ERC and I-90.
The first two are highly likely to be in the final plan, and I endorsed their inclusion along with the BRISK BRT network last week. The last cannot, because even the maximum revenue authority sought by Sound Transit won’t support all three. The high-end cost estimate for Totem Lake to Issaquah rail is $2.67B (vs. about $900M each for East Link and I-405 BRT). With Eastside revenues well under $4B, Sound Transit could build to either Totem Lake OR Issaquah, but not both. Depending on the size of the final revenue authorization and competing demands from Everett, they may not build either end.
Rail lines to either Totem Lake or Issaquah are obviously over-sized solutions for travel demand. Either line, rather than a BRT network connecting much of the Eastside, would explicitly reject an ‘abundant access’ approach to transit planning. Sound Transit’s own corridor studies showed both Totem Lake and Issaquah could be served by BRT with no loss of ridership, and for much lower cost.
We do not know why the less expensive BRT options for Totem Lake/Issaquah are not on the list. Neither do we know why BRT options on SR 520 are not on the list. Much Eastside transit demand is cross-lake. While cost estimates for rail on SR 520 were quite high, BRT service that would leverage existing HOV-3 lanes is inexpensive and would improve the transit experience for many riders.
The corridor study revealed a rail line to Issaquah would be hobbled by poor connections. Responding to concerns about interference with East Link operations and environmental impacts to Mercer Slough, the proposed LRT options did not interline with East Link, but instead followed alignments to the east. This meant the only connection to East Link could be at Hospital Station. Riders to both Bellevue and Seattle would make transfers involving out-of-direction travel, ludicrously so for Seattle travel. While some have suggested better alignments may be possible, there’s no indication that Sound Transit staff have figured out how to solve this challenge, and it would probably be more expensive. If unresolved, rail to Issaquah wouldn’t even serve Issaquah riders well.
Rail to Kirkland is inferior to BRT in at least two ways, other than the unnecessary cost. One is the last-mile challenge in downtown. While there are necessary compromises in getting buses to serve downtown well, rail cannot do so at all except with expensive tunneling. A second challenge is that rail could only serve travel to Bellevue. The more popular Kirkland-Seattle transit market would continue to be served by buses on surface streets, or riders would be forced to transfer from rail to bus at South Kirkland. BRT on the corridor could serve both travel markets.
The Executive Board is appropriately concerned that the draft list not be filled up with more expensive options. They are, after all, trying to get to a shorter and more affordable list. But BRT is the affordable option for transit to more places on the Eastside, developing transit corridors that could be served by rail in the future when demand warrants. Last week, I wrote at length about one potential network (here, here, and here). The BRISK network would include five BRT lines covering the Eastside, in addition to I-405 BRT and an Eastlink extension to Redmond. The entire package, by Sound Transit’s own numbers, fits comfortably within the requested revenue authority. The Board needs to ask why a single rail line, serving much less of the Eastside with compromised station locations, is the option that deserves to advance to the next level.