Seattle Subway: the danger of tunnel vision

For the next ten weeks, Link riders will have to contend with infrequent trains, a forced transfer in Pioneer Square, and weekend closures to prepare for Northgate and East Link Expansions. These delays and closures could have been avoided by building for future expansion originally rather than planning and authorizing the system piecemeal. This time, the costs and impacts of the rework are relatively minor, but the consequences of this approach will be severe for future expansions unless the course is corrected.

Before Link opened in July of 2009, Sound Transit closed the tunnel to install tracks, power, and systems in preparation for bus/train operations. Plans were considered for expansions to Northgate and east to Bellevue, but the ballot measure to authorize that expansion, ST2, didn’t pass until November of 2008. Not enough time to plan and execute changes to future-proof the tunnel for expansion.

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Seattle Subway: Build the Aurora Line

Aurora Line conceptual rendering (source: Seattle Subway)

Aurora represents an incredible opportunity for transit expansion.  The four urban villages north of the ship canal carry a massive capacity for recently upzoned density. The huge lots of big box stores that dot the landscape are a prime target for Transit Oriented Development. Grade separated transit will allow the street to feature wider sidewalks and fewer lanes.  The Aurora that can be is a place the Aurora that is wouldn’t even recognize.  

Transit on the Aurora corridor is already a huge success. Aurora carries over 32,500 daily riders in packed buses, including the E line, the busiest bus in the state.  It’s clear that even more people will choose transit when we add the speed, reliability, and comfort of Link to the equation.

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Sizing ST4: future rail expansions will be smaller

The northern terminus of the planned Issaquah-South Kirkland line in 2041, and one candidate for a future extension in ST4 (Image by author)

Although we are early in the ST3 program, some observers are already looking forward to extending Link light rail lines into the suburbs and adding more lines in Seattle. The ST3 plan funds several studies of suburban extensions. Current taxes do not support further expansions at the pace of ST3, however. Unless Sound Transit secures another large tax increase, capital spending beyond ST3 will be mostly squeezed out by the costs of managing what has already been built and financing the bonds accumulated in ST3.

The budget for future projects is constrained by Sound Transit’s tax authority. Sound Transit levies nearly all the taxes currently permitted by the Legislature; the only unused authority is a small rental car tax. Any prospect of further authority is hard to forecast. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine today’s Legislature granting more tax authority. Many legislators were unhappy about how the ST3 program far outran the smaller 15-year program they anticipated in 2015, and high car tabs remain unpopular. On the other hand, fifteen years is a long time in politics, and a new generation of legislators in the 2030s may take a sunnier view.

But let’s suppose we are limited by current law, or equivalently that voters resist new taxes. In that scenario, Sound Transit might ask voters in the waning years of the ST3 program to authorize more projects with an extension of current taxes. How much could Sound Transit build with voter approval if they just roll the current law taxes forward indefinitely? Less than you might expect. It turns out that a capital program extended to 2060 would have a run rate perhaps only a third as large as the 2016-2041 program.

Why is this? ST4 will face several constraints that were not present in ST3. Continue reading “Sizing ST4: future rail expansions will be smaller”