The region’s economy has logged strong growth since the end of the Great Recession with 26% more jobs than in 2010. That growth has been led by King County, which has contributed 74% of the increase in employment in the four-county Puget Sound area in 2008-2019. Regional leaders are planning to force a redistribution of employment growth with less job growth in King County, and more jobs closer to communities in Pierce and Snohomish County that have seen fast housing growth.
The concentration of employment growth in Seattle and Bellevue has been a mostly positive feature of the recent boom. With more jobs have come more housing in the heart of the region, and growth in Seattle’s urban housing stock has outpaced the growth in suburban subdivisions. The more sustainable urban development has many obvious advantages. But housing growth hasn’t quite kept pace with jobs growth, bidding up rents and home prices. The frontier of affordable housing has been pushed into burgeoning bedroom communities in Pierce and south Snohomish counties. Politicians in those counties have blamed Seattle for not building enough housing, though more of the fault rests with King County suburban cities which have restricted new housing and grown more slowly.
The increased centralization of employment has been good for transit ridership. People who work in densely developed places are more likely to use transit to get there even if their homes are in the suburbs. 48% of downtown Seattle employees arrive by transit and downtown drive-alone counts have fallen even as employment has grown. Transit ridership has grown consistently even as it has fallen in every other major US city in recent years.
Politicians on the PSRC board, particularly those from Pierce and Snohomish counties, perceive this as a jobs/housing imbalance. Their residents face long commutes to distant Seattle and Bellevue. If they could shift more employment to their own county, their residents would find jobs and a shorter commute in their own geographic area. For this reason, the draft preferred alternative includes “a policy-driven shift of 5% of the region’s forecasted employment growth from King County to the other three counties”. Over the life of the plan, 60,000 fewer jobs would be created in King County, and would instead be shared among the other three counties.
The King County share of new jobs has been 74% in the past decade, and PSRC models anticipate it would average 64% through 2050 given the various other policy steps and housing trends in the Vision 2050 program. The PSRC Board has directed an additional 5% be carved from the King County plan, reducing King County’s share to 59% in all of the plan alternatives. These jobs would be redistributed to Pierce (+2%), Snohomish (+2%) and Kitsap (+1%) counties.
The differences in the EIS alternatives are only on the distribution of jobs within counties. So the transit-focused growth alternative places growth closer to transit in each county than the current development pattern, but simultaneously directs employment growth out of higher transit-share King County to other lower-transit share counties.
Balancing the number of jobs with housing is an uncertain path to shortening commute distances. The jobs may not match the local workforce who might end up commuting long distances in many directions rather than just to Seattle. The nation’s most conspicuous experiment in distributing employment across many centers is in southern California. Their commutes remain long and congestion high.
The implications for regional transit ridership are not likely to be good. Shifting employment from centers with high transit shares to those with lower transit shares is likely to reduce total ridership. In doing so, it may increase auto congestion even if more Snohomish and Pierce county workers can commute to jobs in their own counties. It will fail more dramatically if Pierce and Snohomish are not more successful at directing growth into Tacoma and Everett than today. Both counties have seen relatively slow development in their primary city and far more on the suburban edge.
One might ask if it matters that regional politicians set targets to shift jobs away from King County? After all, the recent past doesn’t much resemble the current plan. The plan didn’t compel Russell Investments to abandon Tacoma, Weyerhaeuser to leave Federal Way, or REI to leave Kent. Seattle and Bellevue are simply more attractive places to hire workers and are likely to welcome new or relocating businesses even if it doesn’t fit a regional plan. The PSRC plan will impact transportation investments some, but it’s not clear the regional planning toolbox is equipped to dissuade businesses from locating where the economics make more sense.