NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled Sound Transit 3 is Not the Way Forward. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.
If you had listened closely, you might have heard a collective gasp as Sound Transit unveiled the draft ST3 plan on March 24, 2016.
While the public may have been expecting a higher tax bill in order to provide the agency some financial wiggle room, especially as it tackles Seattle’s notorious congestion, few seemed prepared for the three-way collision that is borne out of enormous capital costs being paid down by a limited number of taxpayers through funds that are restricted by borrowing stipulations long ago codified into law. The reaction was immediate and shocked.
The consequence of this collision, it was discovered, are wildly extended project delivery timeframes for most of the major proposals. To the great many who were blindsided by the figures, these 25-year delivery estimations, which are vulnerable to further delay due to political whims and a reliance on generous federal funding, are simply unacceptable. Indeed, for a region clamoring for solutions now, they are certainly unacceptable.
Worse, a more in-depth review of the component plans for any potential ST3 package reveals that, for the necessary purposes of relieving congestion and expanding mass transit coverage for its constituents, Sound Transit is treading the entirely wrong path and is no longer advancing toward a particularly useful transportation system for the masses.
Many of the criticisms that are being levelled against the individual plans or overall scheme have been made before, notably on my very blog (here). They include:
1) The promotion of wasteful spending due to the funding structure of Sound Transit that mandates sub-area funding equity, despite the great inequities in worthiness between more cost-effective Seattle projects and less cost-effective suburban projects.
2) A political aversion to the most sensible corridors for investment with rail transit, based on census population and employment data, or other fine information sources;
3) A cannibalization of existing, parallel services by new light rail infrastructure, and a failure to consider alternatives that could provide similar, or even far better, transit services at a lower cost;
4) A strong emphasis on suburban commuting and single-occupancy vehicle parking at the expense of quality urban growth, and;
5) The failure to perform cost & benefits analyses to properly determine the worthiness of infrastructure projects before being put out to a vote, let alone whether they are remotely cost-effective, amongst others criticisms.
That the rail proposals of ST3 often lengthen commute times and force transfers onto riders who previously enjoyed speedier, direct bus journeys, is only now coming into stark relief as the details of the light rail program become more refined.
After considering the high-costs and elongated delivery schedules, many are asking why they should bear the burden of higher taxation for what may prove to be a significant degradation in the typical transit commute. Additionally, many doubt that a single, slower (albeit more reliable) rail corridor parallel to Interstate 5 could do anything to combat congestion for the grand majority of commuters. This is a legitimate skepticism that is worthy of a detailed response by public officials and other proponents.
Presumably, Sound Transit would argue that its objective is not to solve the congestion issue that generates so much ire here, but rather provide alternatives to single-occupancy commuting in the auto-oriented Puget Sound. To some extent, Link light rail would accomplish that goal, sure. However, this singular focus on the massive expansion of the light rail program siphons valuable political capital away from far more cost-effective and deliverable infrastructure investments that would benefit both the popular ST Express bus and Sounder commuter rail services. These are services that presently move tens of thousands of commuters each day, and which would be negatively impacted by the expansion of light rail, one-way-or-another. To ignore these services and expand Link light rail instead would be a mistake.
Critics of this perspective are well reasoned when they declare that the winds of momentum appear to be lifting the sails of light rail, and that now is better than tomorrow when deciding to act. These are fair, if not entirely sensible, points.
But Seattle will not wilt should light rail never be extended to the Tacoma Dome, much as it has not wilted without light rail to areas within its very urban core, most notably Belltown, Uptown, First Hill and South Lake Union. Indeed, Manhattan Island has done just fine for the last eighty years without the Second Avenue subway plying that busy corridor, though it may likely be the most anticipated, fundamental rapid transit project in the world (despite even its reprehensible cost to New Yorkers).
Seattle should never build transit for transit’s sake, let alone bad transit of limited usefulness. Simply because it runs on rails or carries more people than a car does not render massive new spending worthwhile. Indeed, huge investments that generate zero meaningful change, or do little to alter the commute mode-share in favor of transit may, in fact, poison the well that supports future infrastructure investment. Why support an agency that, after spending billions in public funds, has to continually ask for more to repeatedly address the very same problems? Eventually, there would be a revolt.
What, then, is the alternative?
First, let us never rush into poor investments that will have to be paid off over decades. We know better.
Second, we should acknowledge and better understand the mutually-exclusive transportation needs that reflect the suburban and urban divide of the Puget Sound region.
Central Seattle needs reliable transit coverage through its urban core that extends well into the neighborhoods, the most densely populated of which could be served by some form of rail transit with urbane station spacing (especially if costs are kept in check). Otherwise, bus rapid-transit and local bus services should provide the desired coverage across the city’s difficult terrain.
Conversely, the suburbs require express services that have far greater station spacing, if not point-to-point services, that take full advantage of the inherent flexibility of bus rapid-transit and the speeds and reliablility of trunk-line commuter rail service. This provides suburbanites who have been pushed to the fringes in search of affordable housing direct and convenient access to the job centers of the region. Not only is the cost-effectiveness of bus rapid-transit in complex suburban areas without parallel, there exist strong social justice arguments in their favor due to their relative affordability, their increase in transit area coverage, and their far more executable infrastructure investments that exploit existing roadway systems. Commuter rail fills in the gaps between the region’s most prominent suburban communities and our main centers of commerce and culture.
Unfortunately, bus rapid-transit has not had the faddish, thirty year, multi-billion dollar backing that light rail has enjoyed in the Puget Sound. That does not mean cost-effective bus transit proposals warrant dismissal, especially when they are a slam dunk for a particular corridor (as they would be on Interstate 5, or to West Seattle from Downtown). And while specific investments in bus infrastructure are yet to be determined as a consequence of this improper focus on rail to everywhere, we nonetheless can see during our daily commute what is needed and where. That is, lane exclusivity for transit; new on and off-ramps reserved solely for transit; increased headways with buses of greater capacity; meaningful upgrades to bus facilities, in particular level boarding platforms and on-site ticketing machines; the establishment of key travel corridors, and; reliability improvements where necessary to move the hundreds of thousands of daily bus riders, even to the detriment of single-occupancy motorists.
And if it truly is an impossibility to reserve just a single lane in each direction for transit exclusivity, alongside the many others, maybe the problem of congestion is not overly problematic at all, and certainly it must mean it is not critical enough to require massive expenditures into new railroad lines.
Finally, before we even begin to build new lines for slow, commuter light rail services, we must begin the effort to secure the BNSF right-of-way between Tukwila and Tacoma Dome Station. The process of improving this corridor for world-class passenger service will be lengthy and pricey, but it promises to be far more valuable than the parasitic light rail program a few miles west, and overall more affordable relative to its impact on mobility within the South Sound.
Sounder services and infrastructure could be upgraded in meaningful phases as funding becomes available. Each new upgrade would deliver a dramatically enhanced service to a rail line that has enormous potential to bridge our region in unique and profound ways. It is entirely technically feasible as has been documented on this blog (here and here); the investment takes full advantage of existing rail resources and eliminates redundancy in our heavy-rail infrastructure into Seattle; the practice of sharing trackage and joint dispatching between BNSF and UPRR is well developed and even employed on this very corridor, and; the benefits of ownership are transformational, especially when combined with an urbanization of our land use patterns in Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila, and perhaps Georgetown.
So, yes, credible alternatives do exist and are waiting to be evaluated and refined. The politics of both may be fraught with hurdles, but given the thirty year gestation period that has been afforded to light rail, not to mention the money, they are certainly achievable. The Puget Sound just needs to ensure that our civic institutions have the proper political structure to begin to identify and plan for them. Arguably, this is the greatest failing of Sound Transit in 2016.
Ultimately, the enormous capital and operational costs of a new light railroad are not justifiable when commuter rail alternatives presently exist and, also, bus rapid-transit opportunities are similarly unexplored. This is especially true for areas that have long been averse to new rail infrastructure, or have failed to fund their skeletal local bus transit systems. Furthermore, we should reject the funding structure of an agency that has delivered a set of projects with a genesis in wasteful spending.
We can do better—we must do better—and it starts by rejecting ST3.