[CORRECTION: The original post used an outdated TOD estimate to claim a 60% loss between the alternatives. With the amendments yesterday and updated totals, the true reduction in TOD potential is 29%. I regret the error.]
On Thursday afternoon, the Sound Transit Board voted unanimously to recommend I-5 as the preferred alignment for Link from Angle Lake to Federal Way Transit Center. You can watch the Board discussion beginning at 2:02:05. I-5 will now have preferred status heading into the FEIS, after which the Board will make a final decision sometime in 2016. There were 4 amendments, the first of which chose I-5 itself while the next 3 served particular needs at each of the station areas at Highline, S. 272nd, and Federal Way TC.
Critically, the cities of SeaTac, Des Moines, Kent, and Federal Way were unified both in their opposition to SR-99 and their support of I-5. Board Members McCarthy, Butler, Roberts, and Earling all talked at length about pleasing the local jurisdictions, but mentions of the actual utility of light rail service on I-5 vis-à-vis SR 99 were curiously absent. In defending her vote, McCarthy said she’d “be hard pressed to go against” those communities, and that “all the metrics” support I-5.
But other than political expedience and capital cost – I-5 saves approximately $300m on the $1.5-$1.8B project – what metrics could possibly favor I-5? Sound Transit chose an alignment that serves fewer riders, that contradicts its own TOD policy and has
60% 29% less TOD potential, ignores the preponderance of public comment and the pleas of Highline for direct access, has fewer stations, worsens walksheds, does little for intra-South King mobility, and is no faster than an SR-99 alignment. From an agency in the business of maximizing mobility, this decision is a disappointing failure to learn from the mistakes of Denver, Portland, and our own Lynnwood Link when it comes to freeway rail alignments. Sadly, it also continues to treat South King County as a pass-through community, rather than a destination in its own right.
The 3 subsequent amendments sought to mitigate the difficulties they had created just minutes earlier by choosing I-5. Amendment 2 provided for continued analysis of an immediate deviation away from I-5 to Highline, with analysis of station locations between 30th Avenue and SR 99, including on the west side of SR 99 (requiring a Rube Goldberg-esque 3 crossings of SR 99 between Angle Lake and Highline). Amendment 3 directed Sound Transit to deviate from I-5 to locate the Federal Way station on the east side of the transit center near 23rd Avenue South. Amendment 4 requires Sound Transit to undertake an Access Study of the 272nd/Star Lake Station, a study necessitated by the action the board had just taken to worsen station access by choosing I-5.
Against their own misgivings, O’Brien supported I-5 “out of solidarity” while Chair Constantine conceded that “a majority of the Board has a valid point” despite his own initial preference for SR 99. Mayor Murray was not present to vote.
The doublespeak from South King County boardmembers in particular was disappointing. Long vocal about the ‘promises made’ to get their piece of the rail pie, they also described the ‘devastating impact’ the train would have have if it were located anywhere near anyone. Echoing a McDonalds owner who in public comment decried Link’s potential impact to his drive-through customers, County Councilmember Peter von Reichbauer argued for the preservation of the strip mall sprawl of SR-99 and the low-wage retail jobs that prevail there:
“There is so much passion coming out of Highline…[your advocacy for a station] has had an impact…and these amendments reflect your deep concerns. But we recognize that the demographics of the college have changed, and their needs have changed. But to me there’s no better social program than a job, and the displacement that would occur along 99 if we [build along 99] would affect my district dramatically. We’ve seen large corporations leaving South King County for Seattle, and the displacement that would occur for many small businesses would be devastating for our communities.”
Councilmember Phillips pushed back, even though he too voted yes:
“You start to ask yourself, ‘why don’t we just continue down 99 to Highline?’…When we start to zig-zag to serve interests along the way, we start to lose sight of the overall approach to what we’re trying to do, and riders will ask, why are we zigzagging? There is a system view of this we need to be taking.”
So where does this leave us? There seems to be a clear process lesson for advocates, namely that organizing is far more important than making a better argument, and that absent coordinated efforts to make the case on the ground, anti-urban inertia will continue to rule the day. It becomes difficult not to be cynical about Sound Transit’s corridor studies, which seem to exist to provide a veneer of rigor over what is plainly a political process. To achieve better outcomes, we have to organize and show up.
But as I’ve argued before, Link’s southward march needs a coherent mobility vision that focuses on mobility within the subareas they serve. A political goal of regional connectivity cannot and should not be divorced from the cold math of who can access stations, where they are going, and how long it their trips will take. Whose trips would Link make better, and how? A freeway alignment would be more defensible if it provided faster trips than prevailing alternatives, but Link won’t: both SR 99 and I-5 alignments will be 15-25 minutes slower than existing express buses from Federal Way to downtown, and ~10 minutes slower from Star Lake to downtown (though either option improves trip times from downtown to Highline compared to current Metro service). Sometimes there are unavoidable tradeoffs between providing competitive long-distance trips and maximizing local development and connectivity. But if an I-5 alignment does neither, what problem is the Sound Transit Board trying to solve?