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Lifecycle of a Typical 15-Year Transit Project (Sound Transit graphic)

Here’s an inconvenient truth I’ve been thinking about lately: Sound Transit could build faster, but we don’t really want them to. While we may individually clamor for the end product – trains now! – at every step of the way we also work against speedy delivery. We cherish our own democratic participation, we demand that our appeals for mitigations be heard, and we require that government not be allowed to harm other public interests in pursuit of its mandate.

We could easily imagine alternative scenarios that would build us new urban subways in under a decade. We could:

  • Free ourselves from the conservatism required by private bond markets by levying higher taxes or creating centralized financing through infrastructure banks (see: European Investment Bank).
  • Reform NEPA and SEPA to provide streamlining or categorical exclusions for transit projects.
  • Be more aggressive with eminent domain takings, and drive harder bargains with affected residents and businesses (see: China).
  • Repeal the Buy America Act to import cheaper labor and off-the-shelf materials
  • Enact public-private partnerships (see: Denver or the Canada Line) or cede control of projects to firms through consolidated design/build contracts (see: Bertha).
  • Ruthlessly cut-and-cover our tunnels through the heart of Downtown, providing no guarantees of continued access to nearby streets or buildings (as when Pine Street was closed for two years for the DSTT).
  • Stop caring about noise abatement and work around the clock.
  • Preclude neighborhoods from participation in station construction details, and build what we want when we want it.
  • Require Sound Transit to use public capital for profit, becoming a master developer and creating massive TOD on all of its projects as part of its financial plan (see: Hong Kong).
  • Ignore the advocacy community in favor of faster top-down planning, rendering useless the many oversight committees, advisory boards, our cadre of transportation nonprofits, and uppity blogs like ours.

Though some of those options are worth doing, every Seattleite worth their coconut milk latte hesitates at some or most of them, because we’re not those kind of people. Accordingly, building transit here cannot help but be slow, deliberate, and conservative. We are a participatory culture and our multi-layered governments lack unilateral authority, and we accept torturous process and often subpar outcomes because at the end of the day, we generally like it that way. To this end, statements like this from Sound Transit’s Ric Ilgenfritz in Publicola seem less like the bureaucratic incompetence we’re often tempted to project, and more like the reasoned product of hardened experience:

“We’re not going to say we can do things faster than we think we can. I understand people are not comfortable with these timelines, but we’re telling the truth to the public about what we think this stuff takes. We’re not going to bullshit anybody. This is what we think it takes to do the job and do it well.”

At its root, we face a collective action problem in which our overall best interests (faster construction) are necessarily weighed down by competing and mostly intractable commitments we’ve made to each other through the sum of our legislative efforts. 300 years ago, early light rail spine apologist and philosopher David Hume reflected on the difficulties of collective action:

There is no quality in human nature, which causes more fatal errors in our conduct, than that which leads us to prefer whatever is present to the distant and remote, and makes us desire objects more according to their situation than their intrinsic value. Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of their failing in their part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free themselves of the trouble and expense, and would lay the whole burden on others.

Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their subjects. They need consult no body but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is connected, though not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote. Thus bridges are built; harbours opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equipped; and armies disciplined everywhere, by the care of government, which, though composed of people subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.

So then, there is a fundamental tension between the products of democratic participation (legal mandates) and timely project delivery. So what does this mean for our advocacy between now and November, and for our sense of hope and excitement for ST3?

Complex realities should reset our impatient expectations, narrowing the scope of change we can expect and helping us pick winnable fights. But complexity and process shouldn’t lead us to defeatist resignation. Waiting two decades for major investments to arrive surely means a lot of pain for an entire generation of commuters and residents, but in 2038 no one would thank us for dithering in 2016 on account of our 2020’s-era needs. In the context of a 15-20 year wait for rapid transit, our daily conversations about bus priority, bike lanes, streets for people, building more housing etc, are all now more important, not less. Neither diminishes the other, and we have to fight concurrently for both.

So let’s have our (quite valid) public debates about the relative merits and phasing of projects. But unless you think the June package will be so bad you couldn’t possibly support it, I’d suggest the following: be constructive, don’t play constituencies or subareas against each other, and recognize that we can win microarguments once we’ve given Sound Transit a mandate to build. The silver lining of excessive process is that what we’ll be voting on is a lot squishier than it otherwise seems. There will be grants to win, Alternatives Analyses to conduct, financial policies to modify, local funding to organize, new revenue sources to seek, pitchforks to sharpen, and an economy to grow and sustain in the meantime. But none of it matters if we don’t get 50%+1.

134 Replies to “ST3 is Slow Because It Reflects Our Values”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post Zach, but I simply don’t buy it. Nobody is saying we should just go and start to build everything next year.

    However, it is truly crazy that it will take TWENTY-FIVE years. I’m relatively certain if this had followed the typical 15-year cycle, we would still have a huge amount of time allocated for community involvement. Besides, there is no requirement that public outreach has to be sequential. There can be public discussions about Issquah and Ballard at the same time which can parallelize the processes.

    As far as I can tell the only valid point here is the financing one. Or to put simply, the money just isn’t there to build all of this at once. This fearmongering that if we built it in 15 years insead of 25 that our values would be violated is just false.

    So my point is, lets figure out the financing issue! Does that mean higher taxes? More federal reliance? Cut and cover? I don’t know but would love to see a proposal.

    1. Thanks, the overall point of this post is not to say that it’s not crazy, just that we are complicit in the craziness. I think the most likely avenues to speed things up are financing, environmental streamlining, and jurisdictional permitting. We need a rock solid guarantee from the mayor’s office that Seattle will be an easy permitting partner to work with. A lot of the conservatism built into the plan is based on uncertainties in working with cities, especially after the awful experience in Bellevue.

      1. +1. Sound Transit should at least commit to speeding the plan up (to some definite earlier date) if cities make permitting fast.

      2. That, or say that cities that hamstring the permitting process risk getting moved further back in the queue for project investments.

        Local matching funds should also be rewarded, as should successful efforts by state legislators and Members of Congress to get outside matching funds. Snohomish County: Lobby for federal money and provide local money, and your “spine” may get built faster.

      3. Something I heard mentioned is if the City Council made light rail a permitted use it would speed up some of the steps in the environmental review and final design stages.

      4. Yes that would help. Redmond did that and it’s made things much easier. IIRC, Seattle still requires a Master Use Permit each time LRT is proposed.

    2. Sound Transit could easily move around projects to re-prioritize Seattle first. They promised back in the ST2 days that West Seattle and Ballard were next and then they reneged because they got scared of losing votes in counties that barely qualify as urban. They need to take the risk and realize that building rail that nobody wants while sucking up tax authority for decades, is a worse outcome. So what if they put Seattle first and the measure fails this year? They’ll be back in a couple when people will be even more impatient and more willing to vote, at which point a Seattle first plan would still have it done faster than this one.

      1. Cynical but also plausible, if not for one thing. Olympia would have to sign off on any new governance structures that would allow Seattle to go it alone, and they’re not exactly known for loving to do those things. But the mathematical point is taken, that these timelines are so long that coming back with a vote in 2 years for a 15 year construction plan would still be 5 years faster to Ballard than the ST3 proposal. I think the allure of another vote is deceptive, and that we’d be kicking ourselves for trying it. But if ST3 fails, I’m all ears. :)

      2. I think you missed understood. I’m not saying Seattle go it alone. I’m saying we should have our projects at the top of the list as promised, not the bottom like what was proposed. Why should Everett and Tacoma get their projects before Seattle? The fact that they are getting it at all should be a win for them. ST still hasn’t explained why all of a sudden those projects jumped in front. I’m guessing because it’s pandering.

      3. Could you provide the link to this promise that West Seattle and Ballard would be next?

      4. “They promised back in the ST2 days that West Seattle and Ballard were next”

        That sounds inaccurate. Mayor McGinn implictly promised Ballard and West Seattle as the next projects in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean the next projects in the region. I’m sure the Pierce and Snohomish boardmembers would disagree that they agreed to be behind Ballard and West Seattle. They believe the Spine comes before all else, and that the region agreed to this in ST1. Other projects can come concurrently with the Spine, but not slow it down.

      5. Jon, if you lopped off from the Sound Transit district everything North and South of Seattle and East of Lake Washington, Seattle could not produce these projects any faster because the money doesn’t come in any faster. In some cases, the projects might actually be slower because of subarea borrowing and the immense cost of the downtown tunnel.

        Snohomish and Pierce get SOMETHING first because that’s what they’re paying taxes for. They’ve actually been waiting a very long time to be connected to an important system (Tacoma to the airport, Snohomish to Seattle). There are people in these that really NEED good transit. They should get what they pay for, which means a project early in ST3 and a project late in ST3. Nothing else is sufficiently fair to those voters and taxpayers, and I say that as a Seattle resident.

      6. Jonathan,
        Both Pierce and Snohomish “got something” in Sound Move and in ST2. Up north we have ST Express buses, P&R lots, direct access ramps, and Sounder North. In 2023 Snohomish gets Lynnwood Link.

        While Pierce doesn’t get Link in Sound Move or ST2 they do get South Sounder. The Lakewood Sounder extension, ST Express buses (including the 574 to the airport), P&R lots, and Tacoma Link.

        With sub-area equity, especially as has been followed to date, Pierce and Snohomish got roughly equal value to what they paid in taxes.

    3. Well said Stephen. This takes forever not because of “our values”, but because these projects are so expensive. This is nothing new.

      Consider ST2, and Lynnwood Link. Planning for Northgate Link started immediately, as did planning for East Link. Lynnwood Link lagged behind. There is no planning or construction reason why we shouldn’t be on the same schedule as Northgate Link. Lynnwood Link could take an even more leisurely approach and still be done faster (since construction should be fairly quick — no tunnel to build). You could have Lynnwood Link done within weeks of Northgate Link. The only reason they didn’t do that was money. You can’t spend your money building all of these things at the same time.

      Fair enough. Waiting an extra couple years for Lynnwood Link is not the end of the world.

      But waiting forever to build the one project of merit (downtown to Ballard) is the direct result of spending too much money on projects of dubious value. Simply put, a cheaper, more effective set of projects would be done sooner.

      1. Two years is the shortest wait imaginable. I’ve never thought of Lynnwood Link as deficient because it opens two years after Northgate. North Link got a head start because U-District Station was originally in ST1, and they were anticipating Northgate since… I guess the day after ST1 passed. But Lynnwood was added to ST2 at the last minute: I did not expect it and was stunned when ST added it because ST had been so minimalist before then. I suspect it was the thought of terminating hundreds of express buses at Northgate requiring a much bigger transit center and new exit ramps that triggered the Lynnwood extension. So North Link was already semi-planned when ST2 passed but Lynnwood Link hadn’t really even started, and they didn’t see any reason to hurry when the Ship Canal tunnel was still unbuilt.

      2. I would argue that projects are expensive in good part because of our values (worker safety, democratic participation, environmental protection, livable wages). And some part because of power structures that lead to things happening against our values (non-competitive bidding projects, NIMBYism’s power, overly complex permitting and review processes)

        The question is, does the process reflect our values? Can we change it where it doesn’t?

      3. Yes. The time required to build up funds so that you can actually start on projects is a function of how many projects there are and how expensive they are. We could do a smaller, more targeted (less expensive) set of projects much more quickly, then turn around and do it again. They’re “going big” because they don’t like having votes, and because this is expected to be a big turnout election year.

        Here’s the analysis I’d like to see, but ST hasn’t to my knowledge published: what are the expenditures per year. That would be a good look into how much of this time is waiting to save up money, and how much is the natural process of taking time to iterate on design, pour concrete, attach rails and string wire, etc.

      4. @Rossb, once again displaying knee-jerk inaccuracy. Northgate had a completed EIS and ROD before ST2 was ever voted on. After the 2008 vote, FTA was requiring grantees to conduct formal Alternatives Analyses prior to even starting the EIS, and this applied to the Lynnwood project. It’s a miracle that these two are separated by only two years. There are in fact, real and documented planning reasons why the current schedule is what it is. This has very little to do with cost. Do your homework.

  2. Author Frank Herbert, who wrote the ‘Dune’ series wrote a book, I believe it was ‘Whipping Star’, where one of the minor story elements was that the science community helped revamp the cosmic government to run so efficiently that decision-to-action times were reduced to near-zero. The story continues and points out that such efficiency ends up being a catastrophe of epic proportions and the science community has been trying to undo their efficiencies ever since. It caused me a good chuckle in the 80s and still does now.

    1. “bureau of sabotage” was an actual arm of the galactic government designed to slow down legislative ability to implement laws. The problem being the shear volume of government directives were creating contradictory jurisdictional conflicts, bureaucratic entanglements, unintended consequences. Removing the efficiency of government was the only way to put decision making power back into the hands of those who knew what to do.

  3. Thank you Zach, I deeply appreciate this. The comments from certain corners about ST3 I don’t think is helpful. It’s one thing to pitch compromises to get things done more efficiently or more effectively, but at the end of the day we transit advocates need to support some mode of transit for everyone.

    1. Can we support transit we think will work for everyone? Even if that’s a different mode for different populations? Can we point out where the proposed transit won’t work for the stated purpose?

      Or we do just need to nod our heads to trains always?

      Let us know.

      1. Can we support transit we think will work for everyone? YES

        Even if that’s a different mode for different populations? YES

        Can we point out where the proposed transit won’t work for the stated purpose? YES

        Or we do just need to nod our heads to trains always? NO, trains aren’t for everyone. Trains alone wouldn’t work for most Skagitonians, sadly.

      2. That’s great! :)

        Skagit will get there some day, maybe.

        The opposition to ST3 that I find most compelling isn’t the “I want my train first” variety. It’s the opposition that tries to engage with questions of “what will actually work” and “what problem are we trying to solve for this population” and “is this project based on projections of population growth and human behavior that actually make sense”.

        Take Snohomish County rail, for example. Ridership projections are based on a PSRC demand that Everett increase its population by 50% from 2000 to 2030. We’re halfway through that period, and Everett has increased by about 6%.

        What makes us think that this rail line could support the ridership that’s being projected? What makes us think that taxpayers (and transit planners) would continue to support frequency on this line, instead of adding those service hours to better performing lines? What makes us think that a Paine field diversion would help more than it hurt ridership? What makes us think that the residents of Everett want to sit on a train for more than an hour to get downtown? What makes us think they want to stop in any of the places along the way (ie, are all of these stations origins to downtown trips? Or are they destinations in and of themselves?)

        If we could snap our fingers and have the Everett line magically appear tomorrow, it would still not be a very good line. It’s not the timing that’s the issue. It’s just not a great line. A big investment in frequent BRT down the I5 corridor with feeder lines helping would help far more, wouldn’t it? I get that SnoCo wants money raised in SnoCo to stay in SnoCo. But why don’t they want it spent well?

        I think we can make (and have made) similar arguments for West Seattle. There’s still not that much there, there. But, in order to do this very expensive project, we need to sit on our bank account for awhile. So, good, targeted, effective transit projects sit waiting to be built while we save our pennies for a big, ineffective one. It’s not that WS could never ever be effective. Add another hundred thousand people there and it would get better. It’s that there are crazily effective things we could do much more quickly that would help more people.

  4. We cherish our own democratic participation, we demand that our appeals for mitigations be heard, and we require that government not be allowed to harm other public interests in pursuit of its mandate.

    The tax bill to fund the Westside MAX extension happened in 1990, and construction started in 1993. Trains were running in 1998.

    Same federal process required.
    Same neighborhood protests.
    Same lawsuits filed on behalf of a bunch of dead people claiming that their bones would not be left in peace due to tunneling under their cemetery.

    There is a need for citizen participation and environmental impact examination, but at some point in time you have to start digging.

      1. I’d love to see someone more versed in NEPA help us figure out how to keep the EIS process down from the planned 6 years. I know that narrowing the range of alternatives studied helps a lot, but I’m not sure what the range of outcomes could be. Knock off a year? Cut the process in half?

      2. Yes, I would like to know more about this as well.

        Six years seems like an absolutely insane amount of time. Is that truly the amount of time permitting would take if they had a design ready today? What possible excuse could there be for that?

        Submit a plan, leave a month for public comment, have a couple of hearings, revise the plan based on comments, repeat a couple of times as necessary. That should take no more than a year.

        If/when citizens escalate things to court, it will certainly take a bit longer, but six years? What possible excuse is there for that?

      3. I’ve worked as a project manager on several NEPA projects that have taken longer than 6 years to complete that were far less complex. The belief that you can just submit a plan, hold a couple hearings, repeat and write an environmental document shows a basic misunderstanding of how NEPA is utilized in the Pacific Northwest.

        Once you define the list of alternatives through scoping you have to go out and do numerous studies (e.g., traffic, socio-economic, water resources, utilities) even before you start writing your EIS. That alone could take a couple years.

        That doesn’t even account for the wasted time we spend here, particularly in Seattle making sure everyone has a chance to comment in person, on-line, etc. And, we also are known for extending public comment periods beyond the required amount of time.

        Something that gave me a good laugh was the story of the first EIS developed after NEPA was passed. The entire NEPA process took 1 week. Those days are long, long gone.

        I do think there are some more practical ways to speed up design (e.g., D/B over design-bid-build), but all of those seem to be limited by the amount of financing available. We asked for ST to go big, they can only go as big as there are available dollars to fund design/construction on a year to year basis.

      4. It’s true that the EIS takes too long. It’s also true that voting ‘no’ on the package won’t change that. It will simply delay the EIS for another four years while ST comes up with another proposal.

      5. The belief that you can just submit a plan, hold a couple hearings, repeat and write an environmental document shows a basic misunderstanding of how NEPA is utilized in the Pacific Northwest.

        It’s not that I misunderstand, I’m just mostly ignorant of the requirements since I don’t build infrastructure for a living. If you say it actually does take six years, I’ll believe you. But I am very curious about what, specifically, would have to change to bring the process down to about one year on average. Which legislators do I need to contact? What do I need to ask them to do? I find it very difficult to believe that a six-year process will ever produce significantly better results than a one-year process, and the delay obviously hurts us all.

      6. Doesn’t the length of the NEPA/SEPA process also depend on how much organized opposition is encountered? For example the East Link EIS was a rather long drawn out affair due to objections from the City of Bellevue and organized neighborhood groups. On the other hand some of Sound Transit’s projects seemed like they sailed though environmental review rather quickly.

        Given the complexity of the downtown-Ballard line I expect the environmental review documents taking a long time to prepare. On the other hand I don’t expect the City of Seattle will drag its feet like Bellevue did on East Link. I do worry a bit about the business group in Ballard who is behind the delays in finishing the Burke-Gillman trail. Fortunately Sound Transit has fairly deep pockets when it comes to mitigation so perhaps they can be bought off relatively easily.

      7. It’s true that the EIS takes too long. It’s also true that voting ‘no’ on the package won’t change that.

        I’m not sure that’s true. The EIS is not so expensive that it couldn’t be done without new funding. If ST3 fails in 2016, the smart thing for ST would be to get that portion out of the way, which could bring total delivery time to about 16 years from the next vote.

      8. That might be one reason TriMet is able to appear to do these quickly. I think they wind up having to do a bunch of the traffic studies and related as part of the “what do we build next” corridor study and long range plan process. So, part of the draft EIS is already written when they go tot he ballot box.

        Westside MAX was an interesting one because the original preferred alignment wound up being so different than what was built.

      9. In my experience, which includes about 15 years overseeing the development of NEPA/SEPA documents for major transportation projects in the Seattle area, it is the iterative process of defining and refining alternatives that usually stretches out the schedule. This often comes from elected officials and the staff at local jurisdictions.

        I worked on one project where we got a call from a key elected official telling us none of our alternatives were feasible about the same week we completed the Draft EIS for internal review. Back to the drawing board! I recall that caused at least a year delay. That is probably closer to a ‘worse case’ example (short of pulling the plug on the whole process, which also happens).

        Public comment periods, in the context of the whole process, never really slowed things down in my opinion.

        The range of time it takes to finish NEPA for these projects varies considerably. it doesn’t always take six years. East Link took about five years, and that included a SDEIS. Lynnwood Link took about four years. And at the other extreme, you have projects like the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Project. That one took about six years just to get the DEIS done.

        Once you finish NEPA, you start final design and right of way acquisition. Those processes can have their own time-consuming twists and turns.

      10. What is the shortest NEPA period you’ve seen for a major project? Basically what is the best case we can hope for with Ballard-Downtown and West Seattle-Downtown?

        BTW I suspect the reason the Redmond extension and KDM to Federal Way are scheduled for 2028 openings is they are both “Shovel ready” with environmental review either complete or completing soon.

      11. I think the best case would be about 3 to 4 years to finish NEPA. The Ballard-Downtown project has a higher risk of going longer, given the complexity.

    1. In California, they revised the EIS process for housing to include in the mandatory “no action” alternative the simple fact that the same housing would be built elsewhere, which has significantly helped approval of big housing projects in downtowns.

      In this case, the “no action” and “delay” options need to account for the fact that people will be stuck in cars and buses until it opens.

      1. There is no “delay” option. Just “No action”, the preferred alternative, and other alternatives on the same timeline. In fact, I don’t think the EIS even covers timelines that much; I’ve only seen “what” would be built, not “when” it would be built. Also, “No action” doesn’t really mean no action because it includes improvements that would happen anyway (such as an HOV lane) and low-cost incremental improvements the agency could do (such as more ST Express or RapidRide).

    2. Not sure this is the whole picture. I believe the EIS started for this project in the mid 80s. Which would make it a 13-14 year project, and comparable to ST. It certainly didn’t hurt that they had a Democratic Governor and Republic chairman of the US Senate Appropriations committee who were in complete agreement on the project.

      1. The long range plan started in the mid-1980s. That’s when they developed the first round of plans. This was an all surface route using Jefferson (just like the current route does) and then paralleling highway 26 west, then down to Beaverton then west to 185th.

        The actual DEIS and EIS process started maybe just before the ballot for the funding, because they had a plan and a priority set that said that line had to be the next one due to the traffic congestion on Highway 26 and the limited number of options for doing much of anything with any of the highway routes.

        However, during the process through 1991 and 1992, it became quite clear that the ridership on the line would be much higher if the route were extended to downtown Hillsboro, rather than stopping in the middle of what was then a farmer’s field at 185th.

        I think the conceptual plan had the original route go down Canyon Road and follow the route of today’s 58.

        There was a lot of angst around the idea of doing the 3 mile tunnel. All of the EIS and DEIS stuff using the official methods kept showing that the tunnel had very few advantages over a surface route and quite a lot of additional construction cost. The overall time savings was showing up as something like 2 minutes travel time advantage for the tunnel.

        At one point there was a concept kicking around to have the line run down the Tualatin Valley Highway, but there were many issues with that including there being an obstacle (I think a major high pressure large diameter water interconnect between the Tualatin Valley water district and the City of Portland water system).

        It took maybe two years to kill off the surface alignment through the West Hills concept.

        Then, there was a bunch of angst about building a station at the zoo or not. It showed a huge amount of cost additions for very few riders. However, considering that the regional government Metro (which serves a function sort of like the Puget Sound Regional Council – except that Metro also owns some significant regional facilities such as the Washington Park Zoo) owns the zoo and also does regional transportation planning there was a lot of pressure to include that station. I don’t remember what happened that finally got the mathematics to work on that one.

        Pretty much all of the work that happened prior to 1990 had to be discarded and studied in new light since what was originally proposed and what was built were such different concepts. In fact, I would say that the previous concepts were somewhat of a hinderance because the planning efforts had to focus on the “preferred alternative” when the original “preferred alternative” wound up being something that wasn’t preferred at all.

        The only thing that got the line open in 8 years after the ballot measure was a lot of work. I got to watch a bit of it as I participated in a number of the Citizens Advisory Committee meetings. In those days things happened slowly because none of this could be done by e-mail or ftp sites or web sites. Several times a year I wound up getting several bound volumes of paperwork, engineering drawings, and related material and discussions of new findings, and a list of what would be going at the next Citizens Advisory Committee meeting in order to meet the deadline.

        If you want to take a partial look at what was done and how it all fell together, I wound up donating my copies of the bound volumes to:

        Railroad Research Library
        Pacific Northwest Chapter, National Railway Historical Society
        Room 1 Union Station
        Portland, Oregon.

        I don’t think what I received was a complete set of documents, and it could be that I didn’t manage to save everything before I donated it. However, it will at least give you some idea of what had to happen to get Westside MAX done in 8 years.

  5. I also believe one of the biggest problems in transportation planning are the municipal governments. Not just the permitting process, but the fact that too few grassroots are engaged at that level, really counteracting the general tendency of that level of government to cater to the business community to a point where good policy outcomes are subservient to campaign contributions?

    I mean, let’s face it…. how many commentators here are even members of transit agencies’ citizens advisory committees? My point is this: Step away from the keyboard and engage in the real world. Think regional as in Puget Sound, please act local.

    1. Yes – imagine if Kemper Freeman did not have the same influence he did in the city council elections of 2009, and East Link could have been a very different process. I really hope there isn’t another Bellevue waiting for us in 2025.

    2. The car-primacy revolution took decades to enact, and it put highways, parking lots, and single-family NIMBYs at the center of the cities’ laws and policies. That’s what we’re running up against. In the 1980s residents favoring asphalt, on-street parking everywhere, and sacred single-family zones could plausably claim to be the supermajority of the population. The reality has gotten more fragmented and uncertain, but the assumption lingers on in a lot of places that they’re still the supermajority. When Kemper advocates, “No trains, just lanes!”, it taps into this assumption and leverages it. That’s why it’s so hard to establish an alternative. Part of the assumption is that politicians will be voted out of office it they convert parking lanes to transit or allow development in single-family areas. That’s starting to come under question in Seattle’s council districts, where the vote wasn’t as car-and-NIMBY as expected. I suspect the same thing is starting to happen in Bellevue, and Balducci’s success may be a sign of it. But it will take years to see how solid and stable this shift is, and it will probably take the longest in poor suburbs, outer suburbs, and rural areas.

  6. ” we’re not those kind of people.”

    I’m definitely one of those people, partially because I’m a conservative hailing from Indiana, and partially because I don’t like coconut milk lattes*. I think most of the suggestions Zach makes are good suggestions that I would wholeheartedly support. Zach is right – “we” are complicit in this crazyiness. This is the regulatory-industrial complex** coming home to roost. A hundred different regulations, all of which sounded great in isolation, combining to create a clearly negative outcome.
    *I don’t always drink coffee, but when I do, I prefer vanilla lattes
    **OK I made that term up, but you get the point.

    So, dear readers, please keep this moment in mind next time Seattle tries to pass another regulation to solve some perceived problem.

    My rant aside, I think Zach offers several solid suggestion to enhance the project timelines, specifically,
    – Streamline EIS & permitting processes when possible at the State & local level
    – raise taxes or alternative funding sources, or simply raise ST’s bonding limits
    – Repeal Buy American. At the local level, that means use off-the-shelf as often as possible & don’t over engineer solutions.
    – Have higher tolerances for construction disruption. This means be more willing to close streets, cause noise, etc. There is a reasonableness limit to this, but I think the envelope can be pushed. I think back to the I5 alignment in South King, which was selected to not “disrupt” existing businesses. Eminent domain generally makes me pause, but public transit is one of the clearly proper uses of taking private property for public good. A superior alignment will be a public good for many, many years.
    – Putting public capital to profit. This goes from putting a price on parking to building TOD to the max. This feeds back to higher revenue streams & therefore faster project timelines under a fixed bonding limit.

    1. Some of Zach’s items are things that can be done locally, while others are just wishlist items for national change. Repealing Buy America would require a change in federal law. Expect opposition from rust-belt and southern manufacturing and mining states. But logically, I wish a case can be made that the US has fallen so far behind in train-building and trolleybus technology that we really must import the current state of the art from Europe or facilitate partnerships to get factories with that technology here. And that may dovetail with streamlining regulations, to the extent that technical regulations are hindering it (e.g., DMUs on freight rail tracks).

  7. Private construction in Seattle seems to eschew most of the rules on your list. Why can’t public construction?

    1. Have you heard of “Design Review”? It is a process by which neighborhood associations engage developers at great length to try to put so many impositions on the project that the project becomes barely profitable on paper (as protected by a long history legal rulings) and unprofitable in practice. Seattleites are well-practiced in the art of punching developers in the face (proverbially speaking). The first imposition is usually to house fewer people than the zoning allows.

      The NIMBYs have discovered that if they band together, they can make housing so expensive for newcomers that almost nobody will move into town. Fortunately, there has been a severe reaction to these tactics, and its advocates have probably only one ally left on the city council.

      1. Who would you consider the ally on the council? I was rather amazed at the sea-change this last election brought. Districts didn’t result in the anti-growth majority district advocates seemed to be hoping for.

      2. NIMBYs don’t think expansively enough to have their goal be to price people of town, that’s giving them waaaaaaay too much credit. They just don’t like change. Whatever form it is, they don’t like it and they’ll fight it to the death. Of course they’ll lose, it’s just a matter of when.

        And I laugh at your claim that design review makes projects become barely profitable on paper. You clearly don’t have any experience in the development world. 2008ish was when development was barely profitable. It is definitely VERY profitable today and just looking out your window is proof of that.

        And finally, more development will not reduce housing costs. Maybe if you’ve only taken Econ 101 and point to your supply/demand chart on page 3 in Silberberg’s book, that might make sense to you. Housing is a commodity that is not as easy to just jump around to whatever’s cheapest and landlords know that. More development might slightly stem the rise of housing costs. It either takes government subsidizing low income housing or a recession to actually lower housing costs.

      3. NIMBYs want to keep what they have because they were there first. Pricing newcomers out is not a goal, it’s just an unintended consequence. Nimbys wouldn’t mind newcomers living somewhere as long as it’s not near them, but when you propose any particular location they get solidarity sympathy with the current residents there, or they think the current open space there is as important as their open space.

        “And I laugh at your claim that design review makes projects become barely profitable on paper. You clearly don’t have any experience in the development world. 2008ish was when development was barely profitable. It is definitely VERY profitable today and just looking out your window is proof of that.”

        Design review is a negative factor in development. That doesn’t mean it’s the only factor. Sometimes the pressure for development or the profits to be made are stronger than at other times. This is an especially strong moment for SLU, Capitol Hill, Ballard, and Pioneer Square.

    2. Yeah I think private construction follows most of the rules on this list. As Brent says, there are Design Reviews in cities. As another example, look at the EIS process that the proposed Tacoma Methanol plant is going through. Definitely the same set of rules for privately funded infrastructure, for example any major project work that PSE does.

      And while private funding may not have a fixed bonding limit like Sound Transit, ultimately there is a bondholder or a bank somewhere that is providing liquidity for the project.

      1. Buy America Act: private definitely don’t need to follow that.

        Ruthlessly … providing no guarantees of continued access to nearby streets or buildings: oh you bet they don’t follow that. The brand spanking new 17th Ave Greenway has been closed all week between 56th and Market during rush hour(s). And that’s just one of the many lovely “detours” I get to deal with while biking downtown.

        Preclude neighborhoods from participation in station construction details, and build what we want when we want it: replace station with condos and that’s private development outreach right there.

        Ignore the advocacy community in favor of faster top-down planning, rendering useless the many oversight committees, advisory boards, our cadre of transportation nonprofits, and uppity blogs like ours: can you say private development?

        Most of the other ones just aren’t applicable to private development.

        Look, I’m not against private development. Hell, it’s half of my job. But to say that private development follows the same set of rules as Sound Transit is possibly the most naive thing you could say. And I say this from experiencing both sides of development (work and citizen).

      2. Really, It’s a pile of different things.

        Buy America really isn’t that hard. I think it’s 60% content based on dollar value. It doesn’t take that much assembly in the USA to meet that clause.

        Specifications have developed a whole set of preposterous and expensive to meet requirements that go way beyond Buy America.

        For example, there is now a no foreign flagged vessel requirement on parts imported. So, you now have to go through this long, bizarre and therefore expensive process to prove your freight carrier used an American flagged vessel or that one wasn’t reasonably available, even for things like a $300 fan. That becomes a $2,000 fan after several days of paperwork designed to benefit a domestic ship building industry that doesn’t exist in any significant amount these days.

        SoundTransit is actually one of the better ones out there in this regard, as far as I am concerned. Below a certain dollar value, contractors and equipment manufacturers are allowed to work on equipment designs that meet the need without excess bureaucratic nonsense, when allowed to by congress. Certain other transit agencies are far worse to work with.

      3. Hell, Houston’s light rail expansion got set back many years due to strange ‘Buy America’ rules. The Spanish based car manufacturer had intended to set up a full production/assembly in the US, but the prototype vehicles were assembled in Spain and shipped to Houston. While there were other reasons the expansion got delayed, this was the FTA’s reason for withholding the funds.

  8. Part of the issue is the fixed approach of ST. For example, we have “provisional stations” and not “deferred stations”. ST wants to fix the design early in the process, and not design for what happens if more money becomes available.

    1. Why is there not a placeholder in Mount Baker Station for eventual down escalators?

    2. Why wasn’t MLK designed to eventually drop in the Graham Street Station?

    3. Why wasn’t an offset pair of tunnels built near UW or Convention Place to allow for eventual possible branching?

    Please let’s not let ST finalize a fixed design in a goal to save money to save a few years, and instead get ST to over-design with deferred items that can be added later.

    1. This is actually why the package needs to be voted down.

      In Minneapolis-St. Paul, when they ran up against bizarre federal funding rules, they “removed” a bunch of stations while leaving provisions to put them back if funding allowed. In the end the federal rules changed and they all got built.

      Sound Transit is claiming it can’t do that. They’re fuil of BS. They could, they’re choosing not to.

  9. Zach, under this process, how long do you think a Ballard to UW subway take to open (as opposed to Ballard to downtown, which ST has penciled out as opening in 2038)?

    1. For planning and design, 3-10 years depending on how drawn-out the process is.

      For construction, 4-9 years depending on how aggressive scheduling is. Unfortunately, we’re not very aggressive so longer is more likely.

      1. I might be able to hold my nose and vote for ST 3 if it at least took care the planning and design process for Ballard->UW, so it could be shovel ready as soon as additional funding to build it could be obtained. But if the planning and design process can’t even start until all 25 years of ST 3 is finished, that’s a really long time before it actually gets built. The human lifespan is not long enough to wait that much time.

      2. Regarding @asdf2’s comment on human lifespan… at our best, much of what we do as a society is not for ourselves but for the future. Lived in the SF Bay Area 20 years. Loved BART. I thank the folks who said yes to it who never got to really enjoy it.

      3. asdf2,

        Ballard-UW will not happen any faster by voting down ST3. If anything, it will add at least four more years of waiting.

      4. The biggest issue in planning is how many alternatives the EIS studies. If the cities and stakeholders [1] agree to study just two or three, then it would go faster and be less expensive than if it studies five or ten.

        [1] “stakeholders” meaning those who would sue ST if their favorite alternative isn’t included, and they can argue it’s significant enough that it should be included.

      5. Brent: what’s another four years when ST already wants us to wait a quarter century? We simply can’t make useful predictions about the political or economic climates likely to exist that far into the future.

        If we’re willing to wait 25 years, that means that we don’t actually think the project matters. If we don’t think Ballard-UW matters, then we don’t think crosstown travel matters, and if we don’t think crosstown travel matters then we’re not actually trying to create an alternative to car-dependence. If we’re not trying to create an alternative to car-dependence, why does any of this matter?

    2. A few years faster (maybe 12-15?), given the lower capital cost bending the bonding curve in our favor, fewer stations, and a likelier ability to take entire parcels for staging and construction (as we did with ULink and Northgate Link). By contrast, the new downtown tunnel is an escapably more difficult task, requiring excavating tunnel stations in fully built footprints (e.g. 5th/Madison) while retaining local access throughout and while keeping Link and surface transit running (e.g. keeping Westlake open while building a new station beneath it).

      1. I think Ballard/UW could be done in as fast as 10 years if everything goes well.

        Anything shorter would likely require Design/Build or other non-traditional approaches to get the schedule within private sector norms.

      2. Westside MAX was 18 miles including a 3 mile tunnel and negotiations to terminate freight service on the old Oregon Electric line between Beaverton and Hillsboro. 8 years from Ballot measure to trains running.

        Ballard to UW is 3 miles. Sure, it’s more stations but the tunneling is the slow part.

        It seems to me 8 years should be the goal.

    3. I think it’s important to point out that virtually everyone that proposes Ballard/UW as an alternative to Ballard/Downtown also thinks that a new DSTT for buses is also critical.

      Ballard/UW plus DSTT is a lot more tunneling than the existing ST3 proposal, which is likely to make construction time longer. It’s true that it saves you a bunch of surface and elevated track to West Seattle and through Interbay, but frankly I’m skeptical that that combination saves you much time.

      1. Working under the ST3 framework, DSTT/WSTT is not in the approved ST3 list, so it isn’t going to happen now (nor will the Metro 8 subway). At least Ballard to UW is a possible ST3 study, which might possibly (albeit small chance) of making it into final ST3.

        If you want to use the monorail authority (if/when ST3 bites the dust), then my guess the order of priority/available funds would be WSTT, Ballard to UW, Metro 8– with the understanding that only one project could be paid for.

      2. I’d vote to use the monorail authority to build that series of projects, even if each one took eight years to finish and we had to do them one at a time – we’d still be waiting for 25 years, and we’d still be way behind schedule, but at least we’d be giving the next generation the skeleton of a transit system and not just a spine.

      3. Just build Brennan’s Monorail, with narrow cars, and 4′ 8 1/2″ – on center separation of the ‘mono-rails’.
        Then if the technology doesn’t pan out, it can be re-purposed.

      4. That’s a great idea Jim. Perhaps we could also diversify our development of cycle tracks and begin supporting the Pacific Northwest’s enthusiastic community of railbike riders – surely this underserved constituency deserves a little infrastructure development? I predict that we’ll have millions of railbike riders swarming the area within 10 years, so we should really build them some cycletracks now.

        If my predictions prove to be optimistic, well, I’m sure we can find something else to do with those tracks.

      5. Whoops!
        Messed up, that should be ‘between the inner faces of the rails’, not on-center.

  10. “Free ourselves from the conservatism required by private bond markets by levying higher taxes”

    PAYG with taxes is poorly suited to major capital projects. Taxes would have to be substantially higher, especially considering interest rates are so low currently. Lump sum payments would be impossible without saving tax revenue. Not sure how that would go over with voters – raise taxes, then wait until enough money is amassed? Maybe it would work, but I am skeptical.

    Municipal bond interest is tax free to the holder, which is effectively a federal government subsidy allowing lower interest rates. Might as well take advantage of a federal subsidy. And I’m not so sure conservative financial management is a bad thing. Aggressive financing arrangements can lead to some terrible results for local governments.

    1. Voters are not the biggest issue. The legislature would have to grant permission for higher taxes. It already had a hard enough time approving ST3’s taxes, and that was tied to significant highway expansion. Some of the legislators you’d have to convince represent Clark County and Yakima and Spokane and northwest Washington, places that have had difficulty getting large transit projects or even basic bus service approved in the past.

  11. Sorry, but this is wrong. The only reason they take so long is because they are so expensive. A cheaper set of projects could be done much faster. Even a cheaper set of projects that involved everything you mentioned here would be done much faster. Of course it will take a while — five, ten, maybe 15 years — but not this long.

    The light rail line between Issaquah and Bellevue is supposed to take 25 years. Ballard to downtown will take 22.

    In contrast, Northgate Link will be done 13 years after the ballot measure passed. Lynnwood Link will be done two years after that — or 7 years from now, despite the fact that planning is still early. East Link will also be done in 15 years.

    Freeway projects are similar. Really big freeway projects typically take three years to plan, and a dozen years to build. Smaller ones are done much faster. This can be frustrating — waiting 15 years — and what you wrote fully reflects that.

    But it doesn’t explain 25 years. To explain that, you need to follow the money.

    1. If ST had all $50 billion immediately, this entire plan would be done and running in 15 years, easy. That’s the downside to a 25-year plan without financing, it actually takes 25 years.

      1. Yeah, it’s like a restaurant that can’t keep up with demand. They’ve got 50 seats and 100 people wanting tables. Their two options are to expand the restaurant to give everyone enough tables to get the 7:30 reservation they want, or they can extend their hours to midnight. For a mix of legal and political reasons, we are forced to do the latter, and somebody has to eat dinner at midnight.

      2. Fair enough. Why not announce that projects will be scheduled in order of how popular ST3 is at the ballot in that subarea?

      3. The 25 year plan does have financing, correct? They just can’t, say, borrow $50 billion in the 1st 5 years. My understanding is there is significant borrowing that will occur (in the billions?) but just not in the tens of billions that would be needed to get everything built in 15 years.

        Zach, can you clarify please?

      4. “Why not announce that projects will be scheduled in order of how popular ST3 is at the ballot in that subarea?”

        That may be illegal as favoring some taxpayers over others due to their political attitude. Everyone pays the tax whether they voted for it or not, so they should get equal consideration in the technical factors that lead to the schedule. In other words, density and ridership are legitimate factors in prioritizing the projects, but voting stance is not. Or at least that’s what I assume the lawyers would likely say.

      5. It’s $50 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars, including interest. If we borrowed it all now and spent it all now it would be less in 2017 dollars [1].

        [1] Assuming the one month in 2016 after the election is certified is too short to put it all together.

      6. Eric’s proposal is perfect.

        “Fair enough. Why not announce that projects will be scheduled in order of how popular ST3 is at the ballot in that subarea?”

    2. Part of the problem is that the majority of the money we’ll be voting on this November is renewal of ST 1 and 2 levies. That money doesn’t start to become available until the ST1 and 2 projects are complete and their bonds paid down. Bottom line is that there’s a lot less money in the plan than one might think for the next decade.

      Note that these cash flow issues cause problems for ST accelerating the early work, even in a world where they are more aggressive in their willingness to use debt to leverage taxpayer contributions.

      1. Is it possible to have the ST3 levies be in addition to the ST2 levies immediately? Or is that not what is allowed by the Washington legislature?

      2. Yes, we will have all three levies simultaneously; that was the purpose of the ST3 tax authority. But the ST1 and ST2 levies are committed to ST2 spending through 2023. So the only revenue for ST3 projects between now and 2023 is the ST3 levy, or 1/3 of the total. That’s why expensive projects like DSTT2 and Everett have only a trickle of money the first seven years, which telescopes their construction period by several years. Likewise, nobody believes that Issaquah-Bellevue elevated will take 25 years to build. It’s just that it won’t start for eighteen years because they’re building 405 BRT and the Redmond extension before that. And for those who think Issaquah Link is unjustified or of marginal benefit, they should be glad that it’s last in priority. The same with Paine Field.

    3. I owe you guys a report on this, but the delay in Ballard due to financing is AT MOST 4 years, and that assumes a fully cooperative City of Seattle, which we cannot take for granted.

      1. I’m very curious where the 18 years or so goes. I understand this is a complicated project but I’m still not seeing how it ends up taking so long, especially when compared to other projects of similar scope and complexity in the US much less the rest of the world.

        There are things that can be done such as running construction 24/7, or running as many sub-projects in parallel as possible. (For example we did this with University Link tunneling, Northgate Link not so much). For both Ballard and West Seattle much of the construction would be outside of residential heavy areas meaning there isn’t as much need for noise mitigation and control as say Beacon Hill or Roosevelt.

  12. Of course, when highways get built, a lot of the non-democratic “speed-up” things do happen – or at least, did back in the 1960’s, and by the time the rules tightened, the damage was already done.

    For transit projects, not everything in the list is practical, of course. But some things could be done. For instance, there should be a federally-operated infrastructure bank to loan money for projects like this at the same 1% interest rate that the federal government enjoys on the national debt. The “buy America” rules should also be scrapped. And, while I’m fine with requiring a full environmental statement to build over forest or wetlands, requiring it to build over land that is already paved over is overkill. (e.g. a full environmental impact statement for completing the “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman trail is a ridiculous waste of money; there is literally no natural environment there to be “impacted”).

    But, in the meantime, in the world that we live in, I’m not sold on the notion that the vision of ST 3 proposed is the best we can get. Everett could get its Link extension much sooner if it gave up on Paine Field. And sooner still if they would be willing to throw in the towel on north Sounder and redirect the $32/passenger subsidy elsewhere. A downtown->SLU->Lower Queen Anne tunnel could get built much sooner if we postponed rail to West Seattle (which, ending in SODO for 5 years, would be all but useless anyway). And on the eastside, the Redmond Link extension could be built sooner if ST didn’t have to save its pennies for the Issaquah->Bellevue line.

    Nor am I sold on the idea that the new rail lines to the outlying areas are superior to the ST express buses they would replace. For instance, if Link + Sounder (with, say, 90 minute headways Monday-Friday, plus 2 round trips/day on weekends) were to be passed off as a “replacement” for the 594, it would actually be more difficult to get to Tacoma post-ST 3 than pre-ST 3. Nor am I sold at the massive parking garages proposed at all the existing and new suburban stations, which would shoot the ridership of connecting buses in the foot. Already, ST 2 begs the question of whether Issaquah residents will ride the 554 anymore, once the option exists to drive directly to the train at South Bellevue P&R. If not, it’s bad news for anyone living in Seattle trying to get to Issaquah in the reverse direction. ST 3 makes the massive parking subsidy a lot worse.

    1. The South Bellevue P&R is barely going to be able to handle demand from south bellevue. The only people from Issaquah that will drive & park there will be getting up very early in the morning.

      I was under the impression the Redmond Link was at the front of the “line” already?

      1. Redmond Link is at the front of the line, but the “front of the line” is still 2028, which is 12 years to build 2 miles of track, along a freeway right-of-way, with zero tunneling. By contrast, the amount of stuff that will be built within 12 years of ST 2’s passage (2020) will be orders of magnitude higher. I also believe that some of the planning process has already happened with ST 2 funds.

        No, the only reason why Redmond Link is taking so long is that Sound Transit wants to bank their money for more questionable projects, such as the Issaquah->Bellevue line. A simple line like this should be started in 2020 and finished in 2023, around the same time that Link to Overlake opens.

    2. “(e.g. a full environmental impact statement for completing the “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman trail is a ridiculous waste of money; there is literally no natural environment there to be “impacted”).”

      Environmental impact statements don’t mean just the natural environment, but people and businesses that would be impacted in their livelihood, recreation, views, etc.

      1. Environmental impact statements *should* just mean the natural environment. All the other crud needs to be removed from the law. People and businesses are accomodated by the “compensation for taking of property” rules and don’t need a separate EIS.

  13. “our daily conversations about bus priority, bike lanes, streets for people, building more housing etc, are all now more important”

    Revisiting some of those compromises in the meantime might be worthwhile. But good article overall. Seattle would have had far fewer projects in a 15-year package with little hope of an ST4 to follow. This plan can be improved, but the overall shape of things has been a long time coming. Second tunnel, two stage financing, subarea interests, there’s only so much wiggle room.

    1. There is only so much wiggle room if you accept the ridiculous notion that this — — is better than this:
      It’s not. Not for folks in West Seattle, nor for folks in Issaquah, not for folks in Ballard and certainly not for the region as a whole.

      ST planners are fixated on routes that inappropriate for light rail, while ignoring the few that are. Ballard to UW and a Metro 8 subway are ignored, while a very costly light rail line is built to West Seattle.

      Show anyone from out of town a census map of the region and the last thing they would suggest is a light rail line out to West Seattle. Tell them that it would be very expensive (requiring a huge bridge and a tunnel) and they would start to shake their head. Then mention that there is no major employment or other destination there (the one college in the area isn’t even on the line). The kicker, of course, is that the subway would run by the existing freeway — a freeway that has bus lanes that could be easily leveraged and improved with ramp meters and perhaps a bit of construction. At that point the guy will wonder if you are nuts, and know anything about transit planning. You will answer, of course, that this was not planned by transit experts, but by politicians. Of course, the planner, being sharp, will ask if there are any important politicians living in West Seattle. Lucky guess, you answer.

      But the stupidity is not limited to West Seattle. For Issaquah you can have almost the exact same conversation. Running mostly empty trains every 20 minutes deep into the suburbs is not a good use of funds. It makes much more sense to spend money on infrastructure and service improvements geared around buses. It doesn’t even have to be BRT. Just fix the congestion areas, and run express buses.

      There are some areas that are appropriate for buses, and some that are appropriate for rail. Sound Transit politicians don’t seem to know the difference.

      1. One of the successes of U-Link is that it is giving commuters a way to avoid the largest commuter bottleneck in the state.

        The West Seattle Bridge is also a huge commuter bottleneck. West Seattle will have high transit-share of commuter trips as a result of a train that bypasses the gridlock. The rest of the math is getting West Seattle to agree to build way up around the stations.

      2. @rottenindenmark — Of course it is. If nothing else, ST comes back with a different plan. This probably won’t cost any time (as mentioned many times here — If the projects are smaller (and more effective) like the WSTT, is it quite possible they would be built sooner, even by ST

        It is also possible that the state gives the city or county the right to build more appropriate projects directly. Again, given the financing and construction reality, it is quite possible that those projects will be done first.

      3. RossB,
        Most likely any attempts at a ‘new’ ST3 will just be a watered down version of the current plan.

        Think half the budget in half the time. Lots of bad suburban projects in the mix. West Seattle still gets its spur, Ballard gets a streetcar. The only real bit of sanity will be forcing Snohomish to give up on having Link serve Paine Field.

        BTW I know you aren’t a fan of Link to West Seattle but by the numbers it is one of the less stupid projects proposed for ST3 beaten only by KDM to Federal Way, Tacoma Link to TCC, and Ballard to Downtown,

      4. When Roads and Transit got voted down, Sound Transit came back with an all-transit plan.

        If this turkey, ST3, gets voted down, Sound Transit will come back with a better plan.

        Or if they come back with a worse plan, it will get voted down and they’ll come back with a better plan next time.

        The fact that a self-evidently much, much better plan has already been presented and is quite popular makes the difference here.

  14. OK, so let me get this straight. We are “slow, deliberate, and conservative”.

    But when it comes to building the next big thing — spending $15 billion or $12,500.00 for every man, woman and child in the region — we are supposed to jump right on it. Otherwise, we will have to wait, like forever.

    Nonsense. The project list (and funding requirements of it) actually make the choice pretty easy. Unless there is a fundamental change, it will take a very long time for these projects to be built because they are extremely expensive. From a timeline perspective, there is nothing to be gained by voting yes, unless you believe that this is what we should build.

    We can vote no, regroup, come up with a much more sensible, affordable, effective plans and still have it built well before the best part of ST3 would be done. Not only would we have a better system, but it would be built faster as well.

    1. Nah. We’ll come back in four years with a scaled-down list, at-grade options for West Seattle and Ballard (value engineering!), just BRT on I-405 with no 24/7 transit lanes. And it will lose, badly.

      Acting like crabs in a bucket (the crabs pull each other down as soon as one is close to escaping) only delays EVERYONE’S projects by another four years. In that time, the cost of building will just get more expensive.

      1. Exactly. ST is a regional authority. No matter what, the suburbs are going to be included in its plans. It needs their votes, for one thing, plus that is simply its mandate as an agency. Voting ‘no’ won’t change that.

        Rejecting this plan won’t magically free up more money and expedite the EIS and tunneling processes. It would be great if ST reshuffled some of the timelines to prioritize Seattle, but voting ‘no’ is not going to result in ST coming back with the perfect plan in 4 years. It will come back with another imperfect one, just like this one, only we will have spent four years doing nothing.

        This is exactly the logic that caused people to vote on to a comprehensive subway plan in 1968.

      2. What mdnative said.

        I resent the crabs in the bucket comment, and find it offensive. You are implying that I am selfish, and want only what’s best for me (or my city). That is bullshit and insulting.

        I don’t know how many times I have to repeat this. I’ve lived in Lynnwood. I have three relatives who live in West Seattle (all living in different places) . I know both places well. I want what’s best for everyone. This isn’t it. This is a really shitty deal for Snohomish County as well as West Seattle. In both cases you have people who will have to spend a lot of extra time making transfers, riding very infrequent trains, or otherwise putting up with very crappy, and very expensive rail system.

        When it comes to designing a system, you want to save the most people the most time for the least amount of money. The WSTT and Ballard to UW subway do this (along with lots of other little things — like a 25 million dollar station at NE 130th that ST still doesn’t want to build). The ST3 draft plan does not.

      3. rottenindenmark, people voted YES on the subway plan in 1968.

        There were idiotic supermajority rules in place at the time which meant that a majority wasn’t good enough. There are not any such idiotic rules any more, if I am not mistaken.

  15. There are values not in this process, regarding the quality of the transit that gets built. To save time and capital cost, we are building a bunch of freeway park&ride stations, where there is little opportunity to build the sort of TOD that could be built with off-freeway alignments, and what little opportunity that existed will be used up by commuter car storage, at great expense to the project. It isn’t naturally faster to build along a freeway. It just happens to be a little cheaper, and cuts the NIMBY-shed by at least half. Moreover, those freeway alignments are causing painful contortions that will make them time-non-competitive with driving. Witness all the zig-zagging between Rainier Beach and TIBS that adds at least three minutes to the trip.

    I would wait a few more years to get the spine built along Highway 99, as much as that can happen, given the far superior product that would get built, the straighter and faster line, the far superior utility in terms of building more housing, and the far superior ridership that would result.

    Speaking of building housing, if one of our values is building housing, and we want mandatory affordability, that sounds like a job for a governmental entity that has ownership of land around stations and can pass a universal affordability policy by the action of a single board. That sounds like a good job for Sound Transit. The understanding that ST would get into the housing development business might even help bend the math toward building stations with better walksheds.

  16. Wonderful post. The only thing I’d add is the relationship to costs. Process is extremely expensive. As is the Buy America legislation.

    Link is broadly criticized for its $/mile cost. Yes, a lot of this is due to it’s being more Metro-minus than Streetcar-plus. But it’s hugely expensive compared to even real Metro level subways in most parts of the world. Much of this cost comes from the same items you list above.

    I guess I also disagree with your conclusion. We should first decide if the costs (in $, time, carbon, sprawl) are worth the benefits overall. Yes, this decision has to be based on the political system we have now or are likely to have in the near future. But the positives have to be greater than the negatives whether or not there’s an alternative. I haven’t been convinced of that yet, and I’m strongly supportive of transit.

    1. But the positives have to be greater than the negatives whether or not there’s an alternative. I haven’t been convinced of that yet, and I’m strongly supportive of transit.


  17. Linked by Seattle Subway’s facebook page

    Indeed, the news has put in question whether Sound Transit’s choices of projects to prioritize make sense. Fortunately, the agency has provided excellent, in-depth information about each of the proposed projects and allowed the public to weigh in based on details.

    That Ballard-to-downtown light rail line would be quite expensive, costing about $4.6 billion in 2014 dollars, more than any of the other major capital projects the agency plans. But it would also attract many more riders—about 130,000 per day—assuming estimates are correct. That’s many more than any of the other projects on the ST3 list, as the following table shows.

    When analyzed from a comparative perspective, as shown in the following chart, the benefits of a Ballard-to-downtown line shine through. The project’s construction costs per daily rider and per population and jobs served in the surrounding areas are the second-lowest in the entire system, and much less costly than most of the suburban extensions the agency is prioritizing.

    That’s even more relevant when incorporating the operating costs of and the revenues generated by the lines. The total subsidized cost over 30 years per rider—in other words, how many public funds must be expended for each rider after fare revenues to cover the cost of construction and operations—is a good indicator of project performance.

    There, the Ballard-to-Downtown line excels, costing the public just $2.77 per rider, the least of all projects being considered. That’s compared to $5.93 for the Kent/Des Moines extension and $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.

    Incomprehensibly, the two other projects that also perform well on this metric also wouldn’t open anytime soon: A Tacoma streetcar extension would have to wait until 2041 and a West Seattle light rail line would wait until 2033.

    But Seattleites have the grounds to challenge the way Sound Transit is prioritizing projects. Assuming the project list is relatively final, at minimum the Seattle light rail lines and the Tacoma streetcar extension, which perform better than all the others, should be advanced. They’re the best deal for the taxpayer.

    More broadly, residents of Seattle—and people living in any central city in a region contemplating a regional transit investment plan—should make the argument that transportation equity not only means serving many parts of the region, but also maximizing return on investment for taxpayers and picking projects that will attract the most number of transit riders.

    As the following chart shows, Seattle accounts for less than 20 percent of the region’s population and just over 30 percent of its jobs. While of the ST3 major capital projects, 35 percent of total construction costs would be expended in Seattle, seemingly more than its share, just 27 percent of subsidized costs, when adjusted for revenues and operating expenses, would be spent in Seattle.* And most importantly, the Seattle projects would account for more than 52 percent of total new riders—far exceeding those projects’ share of the costs. In other words, they’re better value.

  18. So really we have two components to “why so slow”?

    The first is financing. I see two ways forward on this, both would have to be structured in such a way as to not count against Sound Transit’s statutory bond limits:
    1. Try to get loans from the Federal Government, something like what LA did.
    2. Public-Private partnership of some sort where the private sector finances the lines. I’m thinking Design/Build/Finance, or Design/Build/Finance/Operate/Maintain though a contract where Sound Transit hires a general contractor with an agreement to pay $x per year for say 22 years might work as well.

    The second is the planning/environmental review/construction timeline. As others have pointed out you can only speed up big complicated infrastructure projects so much. However approaches like Design/Build, Design/Build/Operate/Maintain, and integrated project management have yielded good results in other parts of the country. Given how Sound Transit currently does operations and maintenance Design/Build or integrated project management is probably the most appropriate for ST3 (see above for also including finance as part of the deal).

  19. It sounds like we would be better off killing ST3 and using the political blowback to motivate changes that would streamline the planning process. I’m thinking of Abe Lincoln’s saying – “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four sharpening my ax”. Let’s forget about ST3 and spend the next couple of election cycles working on improvements to the transit development process. If we succeed, ST will end up in 2038 pretty much the same place they’d be if they started now. We’ll have accomplished nothing that actually matters to us, since we’ll all be dead or senile, but our descendants will thank us for unclogging the political logjam and allowing them to get on with the project of building the transit network our parents should have started. And if we fail, well – ST3 is already going to be too little, too late, at too high a price, so what do we have to lose by delaying it another five or ten years?

  20. Thanks for posting this, Zach. Though, I can’t help but wonder what NYC would look like now if city officials at the turn of the 20th century agonized over noise abatement, offending oversight committees, or selling out to public/private partnerships. What’s more, your list of scenarios exposes a collective disfunction felt most acutely in our Northwest bubble. Call it obsessive political correctness. Call it chronic self-righteousness. Regarding building rail, it takes the form of a pained, tip-toed and ultimately futile attempt at consensus when it has never been more urgent to channel our “enlightened despot.” Wouldn’t it be lovely to have our cake and eat it too?! Truth is, nothing affects quality of life more than our inability to move. I have no problem scratching everything from your list. And, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Time to dig.

    1. +1

      I’d love to see more aggressive use of eminent domain, lots of cheap, fast, cut & cover tunnel construction whether it causes traffic problems or not (really, how much worse could it get?), less hand-wringing over environmental impacts (it’s a city, not a nature preserve), and most of all I’d like to see the power of the NIMBY neighborhood groups snuffed out, because they are consistently the biggest, noisiest, most obnoxious obstacles to implementing what would otherwise be fairly straightforward solutions to Seattle’s most pressing problems.

      1. Sadly, the most important things to subject to a hostile taking are already publicly owned: freeway lanes.

  21. The most concise way to put this entire article is:

    ST3 is a regional political document with some transit in it, and what we had hoped for in this blog is that ST3 would be is a regional transit plan with some politics in it.

    1. Or, ST is a political agency with some transit in it. Expecting ST3 would be like what Jarrett Walker would recommend is delusionary dreaming. The real thing to ask for is a transit authority like Vancouver and Germany have, where the agency can just write a plan based on transit best practices and implement it. It helps that the cities and public themselves want the transit authority to do this, more than they want car lanes or parking lots or single-family neighborhoods.

      1. Good point. Also, at least one extremely useful transit system in Europe came about from Marshall Plan money. (LIsbon)

  22. My take on the delayed time frame is that ST considers their hands full building out ST2 until 2023, and they don’t want to undertake any new light rail construction projects until after then.

    We could vote on this plan in 2020, and the timelines wouldn’t change much.

    To move faster, ST needs to be convinced to staff up further and run more projects simultaneously.

  23. Isn’t it about time we start judging each of the “roadblocks” you mentioned in a sort of cost-benefit sort of way? We’re all about heaping on layers of bureaucracy and review boards, etc. etc., acknowledging the benefits they brings, but completely ignoring any of the costs. Those costs include congestion, the time and money lost to it, carbon pollution and climate change (by not realizing green projects faster), and putting the (relative) brakes on future growth. *Our deep public process imposes these costs on projects that are specifically designed to mitigate them.* It’s sort of paradoxical, and therefore somewhat ridiculous that we allow it to happen.

    The plan is the plan. When approved, it should be executed as expeditiously as possible.

    1. That’s worth STB taking a look at: which steps have outlived their usefulness (if they ever had it) and could reasonably be done away with. But getting that implemented requires convincing the board and legislature.

      It does sound like there’s a movement afoot to “expedite” these corridors, because several politicians want this. So they might cut some red tape, and we could help this by strongly promoting things like the city permitting Zach mentioned. He also told me that if the cities agree on just two or three alterrnatives in their EISes rather than several, that would cut down the planning time significantly.

      There’s another thing cities could do with permitting although it’s more of a land use issue than a transit issue. They could predesign blocks in urban villages to the zoning limit, with the desired mix of housing, commercial, amenities, and open space. Then if parcel owners/developers accept the design, they could plug right into it and get a permit immediately. That would lower the cost and delays for everybody, and potentially lead to a more urban and balanced outcome. It would also help in cities that have a lot worse zoning than we do. In some cities the default zoning is single-family everywhere in the city. Every multifamily or mixed-use building requires requires an exception permit (whatever the term is), and thus NIMBYs can argue the exception should not be granted.

  24. Thank you for this. We have, rightly, demanded environmental impact statements, use of in-state contractors, and so many other things which do cause projects to cost more and take longer. But, we do so because we believe it is worth spending more money to ensure that we aren’t overly trashing the environment. We do so because we believe it is worth supporting construction and ship building companies here in Washington because of the knock-on effects of creating jobs and spending money in our local economies. We should recognize that these are reasons why projects cost more here. However, we should also appreciate that we are able to do things the right way rather than going for the lowest common denominator and selling out our principles.

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