Sound Transit’s decision about the Federal Way alignment is not what we would hope. In fifty years no one will care at all what the construction impacts were along 99, but will care at least a bit about the noise generated by all the train’s unnecessary turns. They’ll marvel at the train’s torturous routing south of Rainier Beach, and perhaps (incorrectly) blame lamentably long travel times on it. Most importantly, they will probably care a lot about the difficulty of finding housing close to high-quality transit, and would have liked the extra few hundred such units we might have had in Federal Way. But any process with a lot of democracy in it (and Sound Transit’s process certainly does) will shortchange future voters for present ones, absent extraordinary vision from the people in charge.
It’s natural to have a negative emotional reaction to a decision so contrary to well-understood transit planning principles. It’s very frustrating for studies to agree with experts in indicating the right course of action, and have leaders ignore it for largely petty and shortsighted reasons. However, a few observations are in order.
1. This is about Sound Transit 2, not ST3. There are three stops. Highline CC is funded and scheduled to open in 2023. S. 272nd St is in the ST2 plan but unfunded, and regardless of any ST3 vote the agency will probably find the money somewhere. Federal Way Transit Center (FWTC) would be ST3, but as it’s between SR99 and I-5 the direction of approach isn’t of much consequence. So aside from slightly reduced demand generators for points further South, and a somewhat harder argument for Link to follow SR99 to Tacoma, this has no impact on ST3 at all.
2. It’s mostly about one station. With the amendments, the Highline station moves perhaps 1/8 of a mile further from the college, and in the thick of Kent’s planned upzone. Approaching FWTC from the East instead of West has few obvious consequences. It’s serving the park-and-ride at S. 272nd and I-5, hemmed in by a wetland and the freeway, that punts signficant development potential. This is regrettable, but perhaps not grounds to declare the whole program a failure.
On the other hand, an I-5 routing also forgoes the possibility of additional infill stations as the area develops.
3. This is consistent with past dynamics. No one really wants elevated sections near their property, especially if it doesn’t come with direct station access. And in fact virtually all of ST’s planned or built elevated track to date has been shunted next to freeways, airports, or industrial wastelands, for better or worse. You may recall the gyrations trying to get the ill-fated Seattle Monorail through Belltown. So this isn’t just a quirk at Des Moines City Hall.
4. Interest groups drive service priorities. Zach already pointed this out, but it’s worth elaborating.
It’s no accident that Ballard and West Seattle are on everyone’s lips. For various reasons West Seattle has a distinct political identity, at least one focused pressure group arguing for investment, and various West Seattle-based leaders naturally sympathetic to its peculiar transportation problems. For all the sincere interest Seattle Subway has in regionwide goals, it’s clear that much of its membership is focused on decent service to Ballard. Meanwhile, there is no “Denny Subway Association” pushing for a line there, despite its merits, and it shows.
Down in South King County, local political leaders will be spearheading the message to vote yes on ST3, and managing the permitting process that often tortures Sound Transit. From both a campaign and a project management perspective, their buy-in is crucial. If the price is moving Highline Station 1/8 mile, sacrificing TOD at 272nd, and meanwhile saving a few hundred million bucks, I’m not surprised that the ST board made that trade.
If the South King electorate was dominated by STB readers and Jarrett Walker acolytes, I’d be worried about the political fallout. If it were, these city halls would anyway have had a different position. As it is, I think the electorate is getting what it wants.
5. Project Savings. Many analysts would say that any alignment to Federal Way is at best of middling merit. $300m diverted elsewhere in South King could do a lot of good. Most obviously, South Sounder is very successful and could use more investment. My personal favorite is Burien/Renton BRT – basically, fixing the F Line through some road projects. But there will be pressure to instead use the funds for the even less meritorious extension to Tacoma, which in effect shifts resources to do stuff beyond the Tacoma Dome. It’ll be an interesting battle for South King cities.