[Editors’ Note: It has come to our attention that people are misrepresenting this post as “STB is opposed to ST3.” As Ross would be the first to say, he is not an STB staff member. and Page 2 functions much like a newspaper op-ed page. Indeed, Seattle Transit Blog wholeheartedly endorses ST3.]
I consider myself a tax and spend, bleeding-heart liberal. I’ve voted yes for almost every bond issue since I turned 18 (a long time ago). I’ve supported all four Sound Transit proposals. This is why I find it strange and uncomfortable to oppose ST3. It sounds like a great proposal, especially because it is similar to the one originally proposed by Sound Transit. However, in the last few years, thanks in good part to this blog and the folks who write or comment on it, I’ve learned a lot about transit and transit issues. I have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t; what is a good value and what isn’t. ST3 is not. It won’t do enough to improve transit to justify the large price.
What Works and What Doesn’t
Building mass transit is no guarantee of success. You can spend a huge amount of money and only help a handful of riders.
Or you can build a system that transforms a region. People still drive, but everyone knows that taking transit is a viable option, no matter where they are going. Within the urban core, where all day demand is high, there are two systems that work. The first covers all of the city with a subway, with overlapping lines connecting various neighborhoods. Most of these were built a long time ago (New York, Chicago and Boston). Washington D. C. stands out as a city that has built this recently. Unfortunately, building a system like that is extremely expensive. Even if we build ST3, we are nowhere near achieving that goal.
The second type of system is much smaller. It doesn’t cover the entire city, just the essential core. More importantly, it integrates really well with buses. Trains travel through the most congested, highest demand areas, allowing the buses to run quickly and frequently as well. A great example of a system like this is right up the road, in Vancouver, B.C. Vancouver is about as similar to Seattle as you can get. Both have challenging terrain full of hills and waterways. Both are fairly new cities that grew with the automobile, not before it. Yet despite having roughly the same number of people, Vancouver BC has a subway that is small compared to ours. While it carries a lot of people (390,000 people a day) it is their overall transit ridership that is impressive: over three times the ridership per capita than Seattle. The model works. Make it fast and easy to get from anywhere to anywhere via a bus or train (or likely, a combination) and people use transit.
These types of subways work really well inside the urban core (where all day, neighborhood to neighborhood demand is high). For the suburbs, building such a system would be prohibitively expensive. You just can’t build a high speed mass transit grid for every suburban neighborhood. What works for the suburban communities is a radial system reaching everywhere, connecting people to the core via a mix of commuter rail or express bus, with service concentrated in the peak but available less frequently the rest of the day.
What doesn’t work well is sending trains to low density or distant areas. Dallas, for example, has the longest light rail line in North America yet it has the lowest transit ridership of any big city. Unfortunately, we are building a system more like Dallas, and less like Vancouver.
Weakness of ST3
- Poor Bus Integration.
Even the best, most productive, most justified additional railway section of ST3 fails from a bus integration standpoint. For example, when the Ballard Station is finally added (in 2035) very few will use it from Phinney Ridge, even thought it is one mile due east. It would require two buses to get there, and for most destinations (downtown, the U-District, Northgate, Bellevue, etc.) it isn’t worth taking the new train. What is true of Phinney Ridge is true of Fremont. These are neighborhoods adjacent to the light rail line, but the ST3 additions are pretty much useless for them. Sound Transit has failed (as they have in the past) to consider our geography and the role that complementary bus service plays in it.
- Cannibalizing bus routes
At the same time, there are clearly areas where buses will feed the stations. Unfortunately, for many of these, the train stations don’t complement the bus service, they cannibalize it — forcing riders into a time consuming transfer. Consider the neighborhood of High Point, the most densely populated part of West Seattle. Right now, if you want to get from High Point to downtown, you can take the Metro 21 directly there. In 2030, when a new bridge is built over the Duwamish and trains run overhead through the Alaska Junction, riders will be forced to get off the bus and wait for the train. What is true of West Seattle is true of Issaquah, where most riders will have to make two transfers to get downtown. It is possible that the buses will continue to run as they do now — but that would mean extremely low ridership followed by extremely low frequency on the trains. Either you eliminate the direct alternative, or put up with a system that performs very poorly and bleeds huge amounts of money.
- Poor intermediate destinations
Trade-offs like this exist in many subways. Folks trying to get from Queens to Manhattan sometimes take an express bus (or a cab). Yet the subway is still extremely popular, because lots of people are going to stops along the way. Unfortunately, most of ST3 lacks this. Very few will take a train from one stop to another in West Seattle. Nor are there a lot of people trying to get from park and ride to park and ride. Mariner to Mountlake Terrace or Federal Way to Fife trips just won’t happen. Despite spending billions, most of the riders would be better off with express buses.
- Superficial Service
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of considering door to door travel time versus “serving” an area. It isn’t enough to simply add a station in an arbitrarily designated city or neighborhood. Tacoma stands as a great example of this. From the Tacoma Dome to downtown Seattle, it will take about an hour and fifteen minutes. Sounder is faster, and the bus is much faster in the middle of the day. But more importantly, very few people live close to the Tacoma Dome. Just about everyone is going to have to spend an extra fifteen minutes just to get to the stop. This means that even if a Tacoma resident works right in downtown Seattle, right next to a station, they will spend three hours a day commuting via Link. There just aren’t that many people willing to do that. This is why it is rare for subway systems to extend out this far. Washington DC, New York, Chicago, London and Paris all have over a hundred miles of track, yet none of them extend out this far. They serve those areas with commuter trains or express buses. We should do the same.
It isn’t just the suburbs that suffer from the myth that simply having a station is sufficient to “serve” an area. The Ballard stop is another example of this problem. The route is largely parallel to the existing route, which means it is useless for a large percentage of Link riders. From the UW, Roosevelt, Northgate and every other stop north of there, it is meaningless. It is faster to take the 44 bus than it is to transfer downtown.
By failing to consider geography, density and the history of transit in the world, Sound Transit has failed to come up with a sensible plan. It emphasizes superficial achievements, such as “serving” areas like Tacoma, Everett, Issaquah, and West Seattle instead of building a cost effective transit network.
The planning process is broken
Of course this is just the armchair analysis of someone who listens to experts and has way too much time on his hands. There are plenty of people who feel the same way, but maybe we are all wrong. Maybe the folks at Sound Transit, who hired real professionals to do the job, have come up with the best available plan.
Unfortunately, the professionals haven’t been given a chance. The Sound Transit process is broken, which explains why we have this mess.
In a typical transit improvement process, you start with a blank slate. You look at the census data, the traffic maps, the existing trips as well as existing (and potential) transit and try to make the most cost effective system available. You measure alternatives by how much rider time you save versus how much you want to spend. This is a commonly used metric, that until recently was required for federal funding. Of course there is bound to be some horse trading at the end of the day, but you at least initially come up with reasonable ideas and debate the merits of all of them. Nothing like that happened here.
- West Seattle
For some bizarre reason, West Seattle — despite having better average transit times and lower density than much of Seattle — was considered a priority, while the Central Area (with the opposite) was not. Making matters worse, Sound Transit never considered a bus tunnel for downtown. Despite a front page article in the largest newspaper in the state and the support of the most fervent subway proponent in town, they didn’t consider it. They studied a couple of “BRT” options, but they failed to include a tunnel, which resulted in slow time estimates. Of course it did. There was no tunnel. Failing to study an obvious option — one that was well known — is not an oversight, it is a sign that the process is broken.
What happened to West Seattle was not unique. The city of Kirkland hired a team of consultants to design a bus based solution that would leverage and enhance the existing bike trail. It was part of a range of improvements for the East Side (a plan nicknamed BRISK). Sound Transit didn’t study it, largely because they favored rail. The end result is a plan that features rail from Issaquah to South Kirkland, which is as misguided a plan as one can imagine. Despite a proposal put forth by a major municipality with the help of hired consultants, it was never seriously considered by Sound Transit.
- The Spine
Then there is “the spine”, a subway from Tacoma to Everett. In every single proposal, projects are graded on this bizarre and arbitrary criteria. Right next to ridership, cost and other obvious measurements, each planning document lists as one of their “Key Attributes” a row entitled
“REGIONAL LIGHT RAIL SPINE. Does this project help complete the light rail spine?“.
The assumption being that the spine is, without question, extremely valuable. That assumption is ridiculous. Very few people are willing to ride a subway for over an hour through miles of suburbia, which is why very few agencies bother to build such things (and those that do have failed miserably at it). Instead of considering and measuring various alternatives on a common and meaningful metric, they judge a project in part on whether or not it helps achieve an arbitrary and dubious goal.
The planning process is broken. An independent, experienced set of planners should be given the resources and freedom to come up with proposals for the area. Each proposal should be measured and openly debated. I don’t think there is any way we would get anything like this plan if that was the process.
Where we go from here
There has been a lot of discussion as to what will happen if ST3 fails. I understand and sympathize with those who feel like a flawed plan is better than nothing. While I can point to many mistakes made with ST2, I would enthusiastically vote for it again. But the amount of money we are talking about requires a better system. We have other needs besides transit. We could spend the money on education, day care, mental health services, homeless relief, police protection (or training), just to name a few. In the meantime, we will be able to muddle along. Seattle is making changes that will improve things considerably, while ST2 will change things dramatically.
It is likely that Sound Transit will come up with another plan. Just about everyone expects the next proposal to be smaller. So, whether proposed by Sound Transit or individual municipalities, it is likely to involve less rail and more bus service. These proposals would not only be more cost efficient, but better overall. In the suburbs, bus service improvements and new busways would enable much faster door to door service for a lot more riders.
Seattle remains one of the few areas in the region where light rail could be cost effective. But building smaller, shorter, more effective rail like a Metro 8 subway or a Ballard to UW subway would upset too many in West Seattle (where the head of Sound Transit lives). What is more likely is to build the WSTT, and make other, relatively cheap improvements. That would serve a much wider area — not only within West Seattle and Ballard, but along the extremely popular Aurora corridor. It would provide much faster door to door travel times for more riders. Like a similar and very successful system in Brisbane, we will be able to convert the busway to a subway eventually. But my guess is like them, we will be happy with the busway and focus our efforts on other parts of the city.
In all these cases, a cheaper plan would actually save more people more time than what ST3 has proposed. But I could be wrong. Show me the numbers. If ST3 fails, I want them to go back to the drawing board, and then show me the cost effectiveness of each proposal. I’m sure that we will end up with something much better.