By now you will have heard that Sound Transit 3 (ST3), the 25-year, $54 billion transit expansion plan, is headed to your November ballot. The Sound Transit Board unanimously approved the System Plan yesterday afternoon, without a whiff of the controversy surrounding the ST2 vote, when last-minute antics and 2 ‘nay’ votes ruffled feathers and raised temperatures. No, the only thing missing from yesterday’s exercise in contentment and mutual congratulation was a round of hand-holding and Kumbaya.
Which is stunning, because ST3 is simply without precedent in North America. ST3 will ask you this November whether or not you want 58 more miles of 100% grade-separated rail. Nothing of this scale has ever been proposed in North America. That is not necessarily a compliment, but merely a statement of fact.
Consider our peers. As I wrote two weeks ago, there are many boxes in which U.S. transit expansions fit. There are the mature systems with high-quality rail that expand slowly if at all, and struggle to maintain themselves (New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington DC). There are those who build high-quality lines at low frequencies, and seem ever more eager to extend them rather than invest in the city (looking at you, BART). There are all the second-generation systems that build low-quality at-grade rail in the heart of their cities, often dependent on cheap legacy freight corridors (Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, etc). There are bait-and-switch agencies that passed big capital measures but then spent all their money without actually building their lines (cough, Miami). Even our closest peer, Los Angeles, is hinging its $100B Measure R2 plan on tens of billions in highway tunnels. We’re the only high quality, all-transit game in town.
ST3 is different in many respects. On the good side, it cuts no corners and offers 100% grade-separated rail. It forgoes the surface-running operations so tempting to other agencies. It builds a second subway in a town of less than a million people (though not for long). And it will run with longer trains and at higher frequencies than any light rail peer. We already carry 80% more riders per mile than Portland, for instance, and that disparity will only grow with ST3s buildout.
On the questionable side, ST3 is also a grand experiment in linear, suburban rail. Building high capacity, high frequency interurban rail to Tacoma and/or Everett is similar to building DC Metro all the way to Baltimore, or building DART from Dallas to Forth Worth, something neither agency would ever propose. The length of the spine is enormous, and presented sufficient operational challenges that Sound Transit chose to split it in two, with Tacoma trains headed to Ballard and West Seattle transit headed to Everett. There is both principled opposition to such a scheme (as in the BRT optimization crowd), and disingenuous opposition (as in the Smarter Transit astroturf group now forming, or the John Niles-esque criticisms that ST can’t be trusted because of rounding errors in ridership forecasts two decades ago).
But though the quality of the Seattle projects is undisputed, what are we to make of the suburban rail? Though much has been made of the longer travel times between, say, Tacoma and Seattle (around 75 minutes), it’s worth noting that most quality rail systems don’t even attempt to be competitive with motor vehicles. The Piccadilly Line in London takes 90 minutes to go the ~35 miles from Cockfosters to Heathrow. Chicago’s Blue Line takes 75 minutes to travel the 27 miles from Forest Park to O’Hare. New York’s A-Line takes 2 hours between Inwood and Far Rockaway. So competitiveness with theoretical express buses or SOV travel times isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for highly successful rapid transit lines.
But you know what is? Sufficient density to maximize turnover at all points in the system, spread out crush loads, and maximize ridership and operational efficiency. Personally, my assessment of ST3 largely depends on three things: the quality of its urban projects, the prospects for ‘second-city’ revivals for Everett and Tacoma, and density in intermediate suburbs. I am far more confident in the first than I am the other two. Given our far-flung but historically urban cities (Everett and Tacoma) and their decidedly low-density suburban intermediaries, it is clear that ST3 is a grand experiment in inducing this kind of density rather than responding to it. Some suburban cities are doing very well in this regard, especially Lynnwood, while others (such as some South King County cities) have preferred to spare the odd McDonalds on SR 99 rather than build the train where it’d be most useful. While Seattle is building a decent amount of housing, we’re still falling behind, with 1 unit being built for every 3.5 people who move here. Therefore, rapid transit to the suburbs will become increasingly essential for the daily functions of the city.
So we’ve got 5 months to think and argue before we give our assent or dissent. But let’s not forget the sheer ambition and breadth of this package, a package that will gauge the American appetite for a fundamental reset of regional travel patterns. Even if you don’t think it builds the right places, you have to grant its quality and scope. And though there may be many principled objections, I think that “What’s your alternative?” is a pretty high bar to clear. What is there about waiting, or not building, that would tangibly make things better? If your argument is that the suburbs get something too nice for their own money, you’re unlikely to get much of a hearing. If your argument lies on the basis of fundamental governmental changes or capture of suburban money for urban projects, don’t expect to be taken seriously. With daily examples of BRT dilution, you’re unlikely to win a technical argument for BRT superiority, even if you have the theoretical facts on your side. For this region in this time under these governmental structures, this is what ‘going big’ looks like. We’ll either make a huge splash with a “Yes’ vote, or face plant with a 4th failure at the ballot box. I certainly prefer the former, but it’s up to you.