People felt a variety of emotions after Sound Transit released a draft ST3 package. There was excitement that, finally, we would have an opportunity to make progress on bringing rail to areas that have craved it for decades. There was angst that core elements would take a long time, which forced middle-aged advocates like me to confront our mortality. And finally, there was anger that (a) these were the wrong projects, and/or (b) that the suburbs had somehow hijacked resources that should have gone into the dense core.
Excitement is a reasonable reaction, if tempered by how much lies beyond our remaining professional lives. The projects closely reflect the input of key jurisdictions, and that input reflects the desires of real people who want a true escape from traffic. Many of the region’s densest neighborhoods, in addition to some with practical development potential, will finally connect with the system.
But that connection will not happen for a long time. In the coming weeks, we hope to have much more detailed reporting on what exactly is going to take so long. There is strong momentum to find ways to shorten delivery, so the ST board may make some compromises before finalizing the package. However, a voter that likes the projects, but votes no in the hope that in a later election delivery will somehow speed up, is likely to be disappointed. We shouldn’t condemn another generation to spend its life building what we should build today.
As for anger: as the chart above shows, the share of the rail system inside Seattle, where ridership potential is somewhat higher, is very competitive with peer agencies, far better that the customary comparison to BART and similar to the best postwar system, the DC Metro. Ridership isn’t as high, which is reasonable for a region that (a) is smaller, (b) has worse land use, and (c) has highways running into downtown from five directions. Moreover, although our picture of the subarea math is incomplete, there is no sign that Seattle funds are flowing to the suburbs; indeed, Shoreline and Lake Forest Park funds are coming in to Seattle. There is no “go it alone” approach, even assuming the legislature would allow it, that magically brings more funding and speeds up timelines. The only reason to reject on these grounds is if one is willing to make Seattle rail worse to deny it to the suburbs.
What seasoned observers learned from this package is that the vision of a tunnel from Uptown to the stadiums via South Lake Union is expensive. A year ago I estimated a 15-year package would generate about $5.1 billion (2014 dollars) in North King, including bonds. The current concept costs up to $6.8 billion. Going to 25 years increases the money, but not proportionally: previous financial analysis showed that years 15 through 20 actually yield relatively little revenue as ST hits bonding limits, and inflation increases costs.
There are a few ways out of this. With luck, ST will find a way to save a few years after additional analysis. Value engineering might simplify the project and reduce costs. One of the advantages to a regional package is that Sound Transit can concentrate its cashflow on particular priority projects while others are building up capital — a hierarchy where Seattle currently lies somewhere in the middle. The draft package embodies the collective desires of the region, only slower, but the next two months of tradeoffs will be interesting.