Regional leaders are nearing agreement on Vision 2050, a growth plan for the Puget Sound area through 2050. On Thursday, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is likely to approve the release of a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS). The new plan significantly shifts the distribution of regional growth to concentrate around high-capacity transit centers.
Once adopted by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the plan’s requirements will cascade down through county and city plans to growth targets and zoning changes for every city in the region.
The Vision 2050 plan will ramp up expectations for future housing and employment needs, reflecting how the rapid growth of recent years has blown through the targets set in the Vision 2040 plan in 2008. The Vision 2040 FEIS foresaw a population just shy of 5 million by 2040. More current forecasts anticipate the region will hit 5.33 million by then, and 5.82 million by 2050. There’s a lot of growth to be accommodated just to catch up with the deficit in the last plan. The pessimistic regional view in 2008 perhaps contributed to today’s housing shortage by setting growth targets too low to accommodate the boom of the 2010s.
The middle option, “Stay the Course”, would continue the policies in the current Vision 2040 plan. That generally has the highest growth rates in the largest ‘metropolitan’ cities, with progressively lower growth rates in larger suburbs, smaller suburbs, and rural areas. A less concentrated growth alternative “Reset Urban Growth” would alter targets to more closely fit actual growth patterns. As we’ll see, some parts of the region have experienced a growth profile very different from the plan, and the “Reset Urban Growth” would arguably recognize those trends.
The more concentrated growth alternative offered was “Transit Focused Growth”. This alternative recognizes the massive investments in regional transit since the last plan was adopted in 2008, and pushes more growth into the vicinity of light rail and BRT stations.
Comments from King County were overwhelmingly in favor of the “Transit Focused Growth” alternative, and other counties were more skeptical. The preferred alternative anticipated this week as a preferred option will stay reasonably close to the transit-focused growth targets. Targets for more dispersed growth have been negotiated with Snohomish and Pierce County. There are also adjustments in Kitsap County where several ferry terminals are designated as high-capacity transit areas.
The greatest challenge of the regional growth strategy is its uneven success to date. Take a look at the chart to the right which shows where population has grown. (Click to enlarge).
King County has hewed close to the plan. The two Metropolitan cities, Seattle and Bellevue, have taken slightly more of the county’s growth than planned since 2000. Indeed, their share has accelerated since 2010. The largest King County suburbs have lagged somewhat, but overall the chart shows a fairly close adherence to recent plans.
In Pierce and Snohomish Counties, there is a dramatic divergence. Both counties plan for higher growth rates in their Metro cities (Tacoma and Everett), but continue to see most growth materialize haphazardly in unincorporated suburbia.
Employment growth shows similar patterns, with Seattle and Bellevue dominating in King County, even more than planned. In Pierce and Snohomish, the growth has been much more dispersed. (Click here for the employment graph).
These disparities have driven the debate among the counties and cities since the draft SEIS was published in the Spring. King County seeks to expand on their successes in compact growth patterns. Other counties share the aspirations for urban growth, but see much unplanned growth that is not supported by transportation investments. Those resources have gone to where the growth was *planned* to be, not where it has been.
The bigger question for regional growth may not turn out to be whether Snohomish and Pierce negotiate a few percentage points of planned growth away from the core. It is whether these plans will translate to realized growth in the places we wish to see it. Tools to redirect growth are scarce, particularly if one believes the dispersed growth pattern in suburban counties reflects a consumer preference for low density housing. Housing on large tracts in unincorporated Snohomish and Pierce enjoys a persistent cost advantage over urban redevelopment.
Will the adoption of a “transit focused growth” model have a large impact on transit ridership? Less than one might suppose. In any scenario, transit ridership in 2050 is about two and one half times higher than today. But the differences between the alternatives are comparatively small, ranging from 476 million trips on transit in the “Stay the Course” alternative, to 502 million with “Transit Focused Growth”. Many suburban places with planned high-capacity transit are still very sprawly. In both Snohomish and Pierce, the plan directs some growth away from Tacoma and Everett toward rail stations in less urban places. This muddles the transit advantages. In King County, at least, the outcomes are less ambiguous. The “Transit Focused Growth” alternative has more growth in the Metropolitan cities of Seattle and Bellevue and more around suburban transit centers.