Sound Transit 3 is far from a perfect package. For the technically-minded advocate, election seasons must be maddening in their necessary binary framing, with nowhere for the pro-transit ST3 skeptic to turn. Such purists repeatedly cite particulars as a reason to reject the whole, seeing ‘undeserved’ rail lines outweighing the value of the indispensable ones, or waging modal wars in corridors for which Bus Rapid Transit could be superior if everything broke just our way.
Those of us who share these technical instincts but nonetheless support ST3 are not blind to its shortcomings. Instead, we value its strengths and have made our positive assessment in the context of what we judge as plausible political outcomes.
What would a technically perfect package look like? I could offer a dozen or so principles to which most Seattle urbanists would agree:
- Maximize ridership with urban stop spacing
- Maximize reliability with 100% grade separation
- Maximize capacity with low headways
- Maximize passenger turnover and balance loads by building many “short & fat” lines rather than a few “long & thin” ones
- Respond to present demand rather attempt to induce it
- Allow differential subarea taxation to match demand with revenue
- Adopt minimum station-area density requirements
- Charge market rates for (a very limited amount of) parking
- Expand the use of Categorical Exclusions to reduce delay related to environmental review
- Allow transit agencies to develop for-profit housing as a revenue stream (like Hong Kong)
Getting a package with all of those principles intact would mean building new transit and land use governance from scratch, a luxury available in a political version of SIM City but in reality an impossibly high bar. Public agencies do not appear from thin air, but are the product of the minimum mutual viability of competing concerns. Our agencies and their tax authority are set by a state that will not have urban instincts within our lifetimes, and whose legislation is itself the product of endless compromise and favor-trading. Once formed, the agencies must then equitably represent the interests of their taxpayers, all of whom reasonably expect direct value for their money.
To vote “no” on ST3 expecting to remove these constraints is misguided. Human nature will dictate continued compromise, and legislation will continue to come burdened with compensatory goodies that dilute the purity of a package. Any alternative plan would rely on aggressively wresting highway capacity away from cars, a monumental (and likely futile) political task. Though we may wish to speed projects with reduced environmental review or neighborhood input, we have a way of valuing these things when push comes to shove. Some may fantasize about convincing a Tacoman to yield their Spine Destiny to pay for Seattle subways, but I can guarantee you would be shown the door with nothing for your efforts.
So within this pessimistic framing, let’s consider what a Yes vote buys us. Unlike almost any other American city, we will be getting new high quality transit, 100% grade separated, fast, and reliable. It will be built by an agency that, after much tribulation, has learned how to budget and build and keep its word. For roughly $4-5B (in current dollars) of new taxes, spread out over 25 years, Seattle will get a second subway, and will finally unite Queen Anne and South Lake Union as part of one Greater Downtown. After 3 tries, Northwest Seattle will finally have a reliable way of getting around. The masses of money being spent on downtown-oriented bus service will be systematically redeployed to feed Link and provide the crosstown bus service we’ve always wanted but rarely had. With the majority of transit riders arriving underground, our surface streets can have the breathing room for the urban placemaking we need: traffic calming, street narrowing, protected bike lanes, street cafes, and a plausible shot at achieving Vision Zero.
And when it comes to the suburban Link projects, we may wish they were more like commuter rail, or Paris RER, but its their money and I think it’d be wise to be bullish about their development prospects. From climate refugees in our temperate city to the continued boom of the knowledge economy, Seattle’s long-term future is very bright. Critically, however, there is zero indication that housing production in Seattle will keep pace with this growth.
For all their many merits, HALA and Seattle 2035 still treat housing as an impact to be mitigated rather than a social good to be welcomed at every turn. Outside of the UDistrict, our proposed upzones are anemic, bureaucratic red tape is only rising, and half the city is set to be ossified indefinitely as a Craftsman set piece. We’re doing far better than San Francisco when it comes to housing, but it’s still not nearly enough. In this context, radial commuting is here to stay, suburban housing production will necessarily boom and densify, and inter-suburb connectivity will matter ever more. If Seattle won’t welcome all who wish to work here, we need to support reliable, all-day, high capacity, bi-directional transit as a matter of justice.
In this context, ST3’s excesses are forgivable and its virtues are many. We can afford it, there are no other options on the table, and we likely wouldn’t like the options that would emerge if we roll the dice with a “No”. It isn’t perfect, but it’s good, and it deserves your vote.