Could Link to Mariner open early?

Near the Ash Way P&R on I-5 (image: SounderBruce)

The draft ST3 plan in March 2016 extended rail beyond Lynnwood in two steps. The first, in 2036, would bring service to North Lynnwood, serving stations at West Alderwood Mall, Ash Way, and Mariner. The second, in 2041, extended around the SW Everett Industrial Center (Paine Field) and north to Everett Station.

When the plan was finalized two months later, the extensions were combined so the Paine Field and Everett stations would open served five years earlier. It was a telling decision that all the extra financial resources of the final plan were put into the northern segment. This looks like an error. While all parts of Everett Link have their value, the immediate rider needs are mostly between Lynnwood and Mariner.

Rearranging the Snohomish subarea resources could still open those stations by about 2030. The trade-off is that accelerating some capital spending generally means delays elsewhere. This may mean a later opening of service to Paine Field and Everett where the need for light rail is less urgent.

Famously, Snohomish County has bad traffic, the worst in the nation by some measures. A significant part of this stems from the booming bedroom communities from which thousands commute daily to Seattle. Almost as many Snohomish residents work in King County (145,000) as in Snohomish (158,000). For those who use transit, Lynnwood Link will deliver faster and more reliable travel times. It could serve these riders even more efficiently with more stations a little further north to intercept buses from across the County.

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Everett & Subarea Equity

Everett Station will be the northern terminus of the Link light rail network in 2036 (Image: SounderBruce)A week ago, the Everett Herald carried an Op-Ed by three Sound Transit Board members from Snohomish County. The authors, Paul Roberts, Dave Earling and Dave Somers, criticize Sound Transit for not completing the light rail spine as quickly as possible. They go on to argue the strict subarea equity policy, where Sound Transit investments go to the subareas that pay for them, should be changed. The end goal, of course, is earlier delivery of rail to Everett at the expense of projects in other areas.

The three board members argue that the transportation needs of the region are not contained within subarea boundaries. They may have particularly in mind the enormous daily flow of Snohomish County residents to jobs in King County. This burden is amplified by expensive housing in Seattle and the Eastside that pushes more households to commute from relatively affordable places in Snohomish and Pierce Counties. Lower income communities also generate less revenues, meaning the areas with the greatest socio-economic needs have the least ability to fund local transit improvements.

The crux of the issue for Snohomish County is that their subarea is small, contributing just 13% of Sound Transit revenues. Their major ST3 investment, a 16.3 mile rail extension from Lynnwood to Everett, is disproportionately expensive at just over $3 billion in 2014 constant dollars. (In actual year-of-expenditure dollars, Snohomish will spend $6.2 billion on light rail capital, including a ridership-based contribution to the downtown tunnel).

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Seattle Booms On

New housing on Seattle’s Dexter Avenue.

Seattle’s growth is still accelerating. Census estimates released yesterday show almost 21 thousand new residents in Seattle in the year ended July 2016. With 704 thousand residents, Seattle is once again the nation’s fastest growing city with 3.1% annual growth.

We’ve become accustomed to fast growth, averaging 15 thousand new residents in Seattle annually between 2010 and 2015. So it’s impressive how Seattle has stepped up its game to add even more residents. As Gene Balk observed yesterday, Seattle is only the second top 50 city to grow more than 3% in one year this decade (the other was Austin in 2012). 3% growth in a mature city is a big deal.

Demand for urban living is strong, as evidenced by high prices for homes in walkable neighborhoods all over the US. But most cities have a hard time delivering those homes. Curbs on urban growth push many involuntarily to the suburbs, and most metropolitan areas are still becoming more suburban. More so than any large American metropolitan area, Seattle has densified as it has grown.

Seattle accounted for a massive 58% of all King County growth in 2016. Seattle’s acceleration was matched by a slowing of growth in many King County suburban cities. Total growth in King County in 2016 was about the same as 2015. A few cities on the central Eastside performed well. Bellevue (+1.3%), Redmond (+3.2%), and Issaquah (+3.6%) all showed healthy growth rates. But the rest of King County had its weakest growth since the recession, and expanded just 0.8%. Continue reading “Seattle Booms On”

Our Improbable Growth Targets

Regional projections indicate a sharp slowing in Seattle and Bellevue, while Tacoma and Everett accelerate.
Regional projections indicate a sharp slowing of growth in Seattle and Bellevue, while Tacoma and Everett accelerate (year 2000 population=100%).

Recent Census data showed another year of strong growth in Seattle and Bellevue. Everett and Tacoma grew more slowly. This raised a familiar question: why are regional plans so out of step with recent experience? Seattle grew 2 1/2 times faster than either Everett or Tacoma in the last five years. Bellevue and other cities on the Central Eastside are also developing quickly. What would cause a reversal of these trends so that Tacoma and Everett can grow into their ambitious 2040 goals?

Regional growth plans are a mix of forecasting and policy-making. The State Office of Financial Management produces state and county forecasts. OFM population forecasts determine targets for housing growth, which are apportioned between cities by PSRC and county planning processes. In each county, the largest ‘Metropolitan’ cities (Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett) are allocated a portion of the anticipated growth. Other cities are allocated lesser shares of expected growth, as are unincorporated areas within the Urban Growth Area (UGA). Few unincorporated urban areas remain within King County, but many fast-growing suburbs in Pierce and Snohomish are unincorporated. Lower targets are set for rural areas outside the urban boundary.

The median housing target sets the floor for zoned capacity. Cities and Counties must zone for sufficient developable capacity. Some cities zone for greater capacity than required; others do the minimum to stay in compliance. Much planned development is within Regional Growth Centers.

Benchmarking recent data against the PSRC’s Land Use Vision puts the forecasts in context.

Pierce and Snohomish Counties have grown faster than King for decades. But King County recovered more quickly from the recession. Maybe it’s premature to conclude the ‘normal’ suburban growth norm won’t reassert itself. But other center cities in the US are also outpacing their suburbs. If the flight to the suburbs is really over, should we expect King to lag its neighbors in the future?

State forecasts are for Pierce and Snohomish County to outpace King, in a reversion to historical trends of faster growth in the suburbs
State forecasts are for Pierce and Snohomish County to outpace King, in a reversion to historical norms of faster growth in the suburbs.

King County, having recently outpaced forecasts with urban-focused growth, is expected to revert to the mean. Some of the reversion is just bureaucratic inertia as complex multi-jurisdictional planning processes play catch-up. The 2040 forecast implies a slowdown across King County with just 0.55% average growth over the next 25 years. That compares unfavorably to the 1.85% average countywide, and 2.4% in Seattle, observed over the last five years. This slow pace would restore the past balance between the counties.

Growth is to slow slightly in Pierce and Snohomish, but will outpace King County. Pierce and Snohomish planners are predicting dramatic changes in how their counties grow.

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Another Year of Rapid Growth

Seattle and Bellevue continue to outpace regional growth targets
Seattle and Bellevue continue to outpace regional growth targets

Last week, the US Census Bureau released 2015 population estimates by city. To nobody’s surprise, Seattle continues to grow rapidly, having added 15,300 more residents in the year ending June 2015. Seattle has grown by 74,000 residents (12.1%) in just five years. Seattle, for the third year in a row, is among the five fastest growing cities in the nation. Seattle, with 684,000 residents last year, is now the 18th largest city, overtaking El Paso and Detroit.

Seattle’s growth was 44% of the 34,800 residents added in King County in 2015, or 41% of the 179,400 added in King County since 2010.

Among cities larger than 50 thousand population, only Bellevue (+2.4%) and Marysville (+2.5%) grew faster than Seattle (+2.3%) last year. None have grown faster than Seattle over five years. (A few smaller exurban communities have posted higher growth rates).

Bellevue added 3,200 residents in 2015, bolstering its role as a major employment center for the Eastside. Tacoma added 3,300. Everett added 1,200. Nine other cities added over 1,000 residents, including Issaquah which saw a 5.8% growth spurt and almost 2,000 new residents.

Renton, growing more slowly, nevertheless saw its population exceed 100,000, becoming the sixth city in the region to reach this milestone.

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