Sunday’s open thread had a video about a new light rail line in Toronto, and people took the opportunity to have a little fun with Sound Transit’s expansion plans. The Toronto line is straight, compact, and has dense station spacing, and the Everett-Tacoma-Redmond spine is none of those things. Seattle doesn’t have Toronto’s transit potential in any case, but the complaints have some validity.
There is no objectively optimum way to build a rail line; any claimed optimum has some subjective values embedded in it. But given our community values, I propose the following aspects of the very best light rail lines:
- Moves people faster and more reliably than a plausible bus operations plan serving the same areas. This is generally in paths without freeways, and/or where congestion dominates and taking right-of-way for buses is unrealistic.
- Allows operating savings by aggregating passengers from many buses. This implies fairly high ridership demand.
- Is useful not only for commutes to work and school, but also other incidental trips of a person’s week.
If a line doesn’t meet some or all of these tests, that doesn’t mean it’s not “worth it.” It means it’s not the best. Parts of the emerging Link system meet the tests quite well (the stretch from the U-District to Westlake stands out); others, not so much, mostly because they were built to serve a totally different set of values.
It’s fine to vent in a comment thread. But the implication that the ST Board and/or staff are incompetent is an inquisitive dead end, and in my view, wrong. A more constructive inquiry is to ask what institutional or personal forces are leading ST in its current direction. Is there some other set of politicians on the bench, or some other achievable institutional design, that would create more favorable outcomes? And how many decades will such a reconfiguration take?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. My suspicion is that ST is delivering a combination of what the electorate and the most vocal interest groups want. That’s a natural consequence of an enabling law that creates a large transit district, requires public votes, and a local culture of public process.
And that leads me to sometimes defend the agency against people with which I agree.* While I don’t think the spine plus some additional lines is the best possible yield for the dollars we’re going to spend, it’s probably the best this set of institutions and electorate can possibly do. And that’s OK! My lived experience with Central Link has exposed all of its flaws and compromises. And it’s still great — absolutely transformative, in a good way, to the possibilities in the neighborhoods it serves.
In the longer term, one answer is probably public persuasion and education, which is one of STB’s missions. Another important project is urbanizing the electorate, in which the obstacle is bad zoning and the people who defend it. We have a lot of work to do.
* and at the very least, seeking to explain its decisions rather than chalking it up to ignorance.