You’ve got $50 billion for transit. Now how should you spend it?

New light rail station in Seattle

» Metropolitan Seattle plans to offer its voters the chance to fund a large new transit expansion program. But are the projects chosen for initial funding the right ones?

Building a regional fixed-guideway transit network is no quick or easy feat, at least in the United States in our era of high costs and relatively slow construction timelines. Seattle’s first light rail line was funded by voters in 1996 but didn’t open its first section for thirteen years; the full extent of the initial line just opened last month, a full twenty years later.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]ST3 may be the most ambitious transit expansion package in the entire country, but is it more important to provide access to far suburbs or to focus on corridors where transit can do best?[/pullquote]

Despite the slow pace, residents of big cities across the country are hungry for more, hoping to spread the benefits of rapid transit to other parts of their respective metropolitan areas. That impulse motivated Seattle residents to approve the $18 billion Sound Transit 2 package (named after the regional transit agency) in 2008, which will extend “Link” light rail north, south, and east, creating a 50-mile light rail network by 2023.

It has also encouraged Sound Transit to propose a third package of projects, expected to be submitted for voter approval this November. Sound Transit 3 (ST3) would support $50 billion in investments, to be completed by 2041.

Excitement about adding light rail—and the region does apparently want it, given the massive ridership produced by the opening of new stations last month—has nevertheless been countered by skepticism about the value of the draft ST3 plan put forward by the transit agency’s planners and leaders.

Their questions are relevant to any region that’s considering major new transit expansion projects: If the projects the plan includes aren’t ideal, are they worth paying for? If the projects are built in the wrong order, are the links scheduled for the back of the line worth waiting for?

Sound Transit 3 and the goal of regional transit

Like many of the regions that have funded major transit expansion packages over the past few decades, one of the basic principles underpinning the projects proposed for funding is that neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area—from central Seattle to suburban Issaquah—should benefit from improved transit. To a large degree, this makes logical sense, since people living everywhere in the region are contributing to the revenues needed to fund the lines, and they deserve better public transportation, too.

Light rail here, there, and everywhere in new plans for Seattle. Source: Sound Transit.

Light rail here, there, and everywhere in new plans for Seattle. Source: Sound Transit.

ST3 adheres to the concept of providing transit access to communities everywhere. The network revealed in late March proposes dozens of light rail lines running south to Tacoma, north to Everett, and east to Redmond and Issaquah, as well as a south suburban commuter rail extension and new bus rapid transit routes on the east and north sides of the region (these BRT routes would be completed first). It would also include two new light rail lines within the city of Seattle itself, including a new downtown tunnel, and several infill stations along existing routes.

In total, the light rail route network would extend 108 miles by 2041, making it longer than today’s Chicago L system. The new lines and stations could carry about 300,000 new riders a day. Funding would be derived from a half-cent increase in the local sales tax, an increase in the motor vehicle excise tax, and a property tax. Bonding would be used to fund several of the lines, with back payments continuing for 25 to 30 years after the construction completion.

At an expected cost of roughly $390 per metropolitan area household per year, ST3 may be the most ambitious transit expansion package in the entire country, at least from a fiscal perspective.

The plan is currently under public review; the Sound Transit board is expected to approve a final plan (which could be quite different than the one I’m describing here!) in June. Given Sound Transit’s ability to complete projects on time and under budget, and given the instant success of the light rail connection to the University of Washington that, in a matter of days, increased overall light rail ridership by 63 percent, there are positive feelings in the Seattle region about the local transit authority. It is reasonable to expect that a funding proposal put forward to voters this fall will generate significant support.

Is excellent transit possible in a regional funding scheme?

One of the primary goals of the ST3 package, which was developed after months of consultation and review by agency planners, is explicitly to create a “regional transit spine” that, in Seattle parlance, means light rail basically here, there, and everywhere in the region.

More specifically, the regional transit spine would be a light rail line linking Seattle north to Everett and south to Tacoma. It’s a nice idea informed by the importance of providing transit service everywhere, but it is questionable whether the spine should be a priority over other investments.

The spine would be really, really long. The distance between downtown Seattle and Everett is 29 miles; the other direction from downtown to Tacoma is 33 miles. Light rail along those corridors would likely be the longest downtown-to suburb rapid transit in the country: Los Angeles’ Blue Line runs 25 miles to Long Beach; Dallas’ Red Line to Plano is about 20 miles; Chicago’s Purple Line to Wilmette is just 16 miles. The longest one-seat ride on the New York City Subway (on the A) is just 32 miles from end to end, including sections on both ends of the Manhattan business districts.

The problem with such a long light rail corridor is that, unlike commuter rail service, rapid transit is just not that fast. Because it is serving areas without major jobs centers or walkable neighborhoods, the long light rail corridor is inherently oriented toward suburb-to-downtown commuters. But at an average speed of just 30 mph, for example, ST3’s proposed connection between Lynnwood and Everett is just not fast enough to compete effectively with car trips on freeways. Projects that focus on urban corridors in dense neighborhoods, on the other hand, are competing with car trips on much slower city streets and providing new options to replace already-used bus corridors.

The lengthy protrusions of ST3’s light rail network are essentially privileging running as far out into the suburbs as possible over better serving the urban core. This is the fundamental question for Sound Transit: Is it more important to provide access to far suburbs or to focus on corridors where transit can do best?

The phasing plan offered by Sound Transit for ST3 suggests that the agency has essentially chosen suburban transit over better urban transit, specifically when it comes to the projects that would be completed first. The light rail projects programmed for completion in the 2020s are extensions in the south and eastern suburbs.

The individual project local transit advocates have been pushing hardest for—a light rail tunnel from downtown to Ballard, a dense Seattle neighborhood northwest of downtown—would have to wait until 2038 for completion. If you weren’t counting, that’s 23 years from now. Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise readers to learn that this news has left many upset.

Indeed, the news has put in question whether Sound Transit’s choices of projects to prioritize make sense. Fortunately, the agency has provided excellent, in-depth information about each of the proposed projects and allowed the public to weigh in based on details.

That Ballard-to-downtown light rail line would be quite expensive, costing about $4.6 billion in 2014 dollars, more than any of the other major capital projects the agency plans. But it would also attract many more riders—about 130,000 per day—assuming estimates are correct. That’s many more than any of the other projects on the ST3 list, as the following table shows.

ProjectLocationLength (mi)Daily riders30-yr operating cost (2014$m)Construction cost (2014$m)Completion
Ballard to Downtown LRTSeattle7.1129,5001,1404,6062038
Tacoma Link to College StreetcarSuburbs4.415,0003904632041
West Seattle to Downtown LRTSeattle4.733,5006601,9522033
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way LRTSuburbs5.318,5004201,1172028
145th and SR 522 BRTSuburbs88,5004503872024
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome LRTSuburbs9.733,5009302,5102033
I-405 BRTSuburbs3712,0008107112024
Lynnwood to Everett LRTSuburbs15.439,0001,5904,1832036/2041
Redmond Extension LRTSuburbs3.78,0003301,0752028
Bellevue to Issaquah LRTSuburbs913,0009001,6502041
Sounder to Dupont CRSuburbs7.81,250903042036
Graham St StationSeattle2,0003073.52036
Boeing Access Rd StationSuburbs1,75030128.52036

Data above from Sound Transit. Costs are average of low and high cost estimates; ridership is average of low and high estimates.

When analyzed from a comparative perspective, as shown in the following chart, the benefits of a Ballard-to-downtown line shine through. The project’s construction costs per daily rider and per population and jobs served in the surrounding areas are the second-lowest in the entire system, and much less costly than most of the suburban extensions the agency is prioritizing.

That’s even more relevant when incorporating the operating costs of and the revenues generated by the lines. The total subsidized cost over 30 years per rider—in other words, how many public funds must be expended for each rider after fare revenues to cover the cost of construction and operations—is a good indicator of project performance.

There, the Ballard-to-Downtown line excels, costing the public just $2.77 per rider, the least of all projects being considered. That’s compared to $5.93 for the Kent/Des Moines extension and $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.

Incomprehensibly, the two other projects that also perform well on this metric also wouldn’t open anytime soon: A Tacoma streetcar extension would have to wait until 2041 and a West Seattle light rail line would wait until 2033.

ProjectTotal 30-yr costs (2014$m)Construction cost (2014$)/daily riderConstruction cost (2014$)/population and jobs served30-yr revenues (2014$m)Subsidized cost (2014$)/30 years of daily riders
Ballard to Downtown5,74635,56815,6192,4092.77
Tacoma Link to Community College85330,83316,6372794.11
West Seattle to Downtown2,61258,26943,4746236.38
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way1,53760,351102,4315165.93
145th and SR 52283745,52912,2862377.59
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome3,44074,925188,7229358.04
I-4051,52159,2507,05433510.63
Lynnwood to Everett5,773107,24492,1261,08812.92
Redmond Extension1,405134,31361,75322315.88
Bellevue to Issaquah2,550126,92382,50036318.09
Sounder to Dupont394242,800131,9573530.85
Graham St10436,7507,350373.56
Boeing Access Road15973,42938,939496.74

Data above based on data from Sound Transit. Revenues calculated based on the average rider paying $2 per ride (for Seattle and Tacoma projects) and $3 per ride (for other projects) and 310 weekday-equivalents of revenue annually. (Longer trips cost more on Link light rail.)

Given these attributes, it is hard to understand why Seattleites must wait 23 years for their Ballard line. On the pure metric of the ridership-to-cost ratio, the phasing plan of ST3 should be revised.

Politically, this question of which transit projects to fund first may answer itself. Since the mid-1990s, Seattle transit advocates have reluctantly accepted a concept referred to as “subarea equity,” which essentially states that transit spending be distributed around the region in a manner commensurate with tax revenues from five sub-areas. Though the concept is open to interpretation—some suggest that the idea of geographical equity isn’t a mandate, but instead a guidance tool—the agency has clearly chosen to respect it, at least to a large degree.

It is also true that pushing forward a project like the downtown-to-Ballard light rail line would have negative consequences: It would likely mean more bonding to handle that project’s high costs, and it would by definition mean other projects on the system would have to wait for completion. A new downtown tunnel for this light rail line, which agency representatives say is required for its operation, will be difficult to engineer and complicated to build.

But Seattleites have the grounds to challenge the way Sound Transit is prioritizing projects. Assuming the project list is relatively final, at minimum the Seattle light rail lines and the Tacoma streetcar extension, which perform better than all the others, should be advanced. They’re the best deal for the taxpayer.

More broadly, residents of Seattle—and people living in any central city in a region contemplating a regional transit investment plan—should make the argument that transportation equity not only means serving many parts of the region, but also maximizing return on investment for taxpayers and picking projects that will attract the most number of transit riders.

As the following chart shows, Seattle accounts for less than 20 percent of the region’s population and just over 30 percent of its jobs. While of the ST3 major capital projects, 35 percent of total construction costs would be expended in Seattle, seemingly more than its share, just 27 percent of subsidized costs, when adjusted for revenues and operating expenses, would be spent in Seattle.* And most importantly, the Seattle projects would account for more than 52 percent of total new riders—far exceeding those projects’ share of the costs. In other words, they’re better value.

Seattle share of project costs

Data from U.S. Census ACS (2014), On The Map (LEHD), and Sound Transit. The Sound Transit region is made up of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.

Reform is possible

I’m of course hardly the first person to point out the flaws of ST3. Indeed, local transit advocates have identified several potential changes to the plans, including expediting the construction of light rail in Seattle itself, eliminating unnecessarily complicated routes on the north side of the region, and encouraging more grade separation for the most-used sections of the network.

It’s worth noting that Seattle, unlike many American cities, is playing with a favorable transit environment. As the following chart shows, the share of commuters in the city using transit to get to work reached 19.6 percent in 2014, the latest Census estimates. That’s the latest in a quarter-century of upward trends and higher than even the rates recorded in 1980.

Seattle transit use over time

Both the city of Seattle and the region that surrounds it are growing very quickly, buoyed by a strong tech sector and a local regulatory environment that has allowed significant new construction. Much of the growth is occurring in transit-friendly, walkable neighborhoods.

With trends like these, the Seattle region really has an opportunity to continue encouraging a less car-oriented culture. Making the right choices about which projects are built, and when, will make a big contribution to this positive trajectory.

* To be clear, the city of Seattle is not a sub-area according to Sound Transit’s rules. But I identified its needs separately as illustrative for this comparison.

Photo at top from Flickr user Atomic Taco (cc).

38 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Aubrey

    Probably on back maintenance and recapitalization if this were a rational world.

  • Daniel

    I just wish Atlanta had this kind of money and spent it on transit, not roads. Come to think of it, 20 years ago Seattle voters rejected a proposal to build a subway. That is why Atlanta has MARTA now.

  • TrumpPalin2016

    While the theory of public transit might sound good, the reality is spending the money on more road lanes would eliminate traffic. Privatizing all buses and trains would get rid of unions which keeps transit agencies inefficient. If routes are cut, it’s simple economics and people need to move.

    Also, sprawl helps create more jobs than density. And we should really support the troops who fight to ensure the supply of oil, not stick our heads in the sands of electric cars.

    Thank you.

      • TrumpPalin2016

        You’re cherry picking as liberals usually do and are taking Mr Trumps comments out of context. Donald Trump has never ever said that government needs to spend more money on transportation. The free market is the best decision maker, which you did not mention.

        By privatizing Amtrak and all public transit agencies, jobs will be created for MANY people, not just uniozed government paper pushers. That’s another point you failed to quote.

        This website has it’s heart in the right place, unfortunately some of it’s commentators do not.

        Smear won’t work. Principles will.

        • Tim

          @TrumpPalin2016

          False. Induced demand is a fact.
          Look at Los Angeles. They continually pushed a car-diet from circa 1950 to circa 1983. When LA County residents saw the results, they hated it. The commutes were just as long as by Pacific Electric streetcar or other form of rail. Their traffic problems were so bad, it took at least 45 minutes to travel the length of the 105 during rush hour. Just imagine if it had been directly connected to the 5. It would be worse than now. And don’t get me started on the 405 or the 110.
          And with all these freeways, southern Orange County, southwestern San Bernardino County, northwestern Riverside County, and Ventura County continued to sprawl outwards. Finally, in the mid-1980’s, LA County passed a measure to fund new transit, and thereby created Metro. So now Los Angeles and its wider basin, after 30+ years of unending sprawl, are pushing to multi-modalize, the transportation system they have. And in more recent years, they passed Measure R, which approved a half-cent sales tax increase for the purpose of transit expansion. So there you go. Los Angeles, the city famed for famous stars and infamous freeways, is shifting its focus on transportation policy. Houston, which is still sprawling out, and is the 4th biggest city in the US, will for sure hit freeway end-game (when sprawl can no longer be achieved without utterly destroying inner areas for more freeways, which Los Angeles hit in the ’80s) in the next 20 years, even if the policy and status quo for transportation infrastructure investment does not change before then.

          Which means denying induced demand gets you nowhere. It’ll mean future generations will be stuck trying to solve and close the Pandora’s box we opened 70 years ago. And will THAT mean prosperity for our future generations?

          No. Absolutely not.

      • Nathanael

        So, you’re going to privatize the government-subsidized money-hog roads too?

        Just checking to see whether you’re a libertarian or a mere train-hater.

        • Aubrey

          As soon as people stop buy groceries that came on trucks we’ll talk.

        • TrumpPalin2016

          We don’t hate trains unless they are government run. Roads cost less per passenger mile than trains. Roads and airports are paid for with gas taxes and user fees. Any road that isn’t should be privatized and tolled. Any rural airport that is subsidized should be closed.

          Freedom to drive on roads is a privilege not a right.

    • Eric

      I can’t figure out if you’re a troll or not. But assuming you’re serious:

      Adding road lanes in a city does almost nothing to reduce congestion, because of induced demand. If a road is wider than more people choose to take it, congesting it again, until the travel times are almost as slow as they were before the widening. Meanwhile, all connecting roads become more congested due to the spilloff from the widened road.
      See for example:
      http://cityobservatory.org/reducing-congestion-katy-didnt/

      • TrumpPalin2016

        The entire premise of “induced demand” is simply the liberal logic used to science away something more spiritual – the fact that demand has always been there. People have the desire to drive. They do not want to take public transport if given the option. So why not simply meet the demand and make everybody happy? Because liberals are in the business of making people miserable, not happy. Their gravy train would end if there was no itch to create or a cream to sell.

        If KATY got clogged immediately, it’s because it was never built big enough. The traffic engineers were using data clouded by liberal “consultants” who actively sabotage facts, data, etc, by cherry picking specifics and not showing the whole.

        By creating biased “studies” the engineers read in publications, the density and planning myths proceed in the psyche as normal. This has been studied for decades.

        • Mike B

          Induced demand is an economic principal that too has been studied for decades and happens to apply to transportation as well. If the private sector were in charge of a facility like the KATY, they’d move the supply/demand curve by tolling the finite capacity of a roadway rather than widening it. Unfortunately, the government isn’t allowed to make money for some silly reason, so they cannot manipulate supply/demand like the private sector can to ensure free-flowing highways.

          The irony is you’re supporting big government, higher taxes, and more government social engineering over people by encouraging construction of bigger highways. Rather than giving people a choice between driving, biking, bus, or train, you’d like government policy force people to drive everywhere; as they’re the ones who plan, design, and build highways.

          • TrumpPalin2016

            Absolutely untrue. Donald Trump does not stand for that. Privatization would let road builders build KATY to the true proportional needs of the public, who would then pay additional funds to compensate. It’s very simple.

        • Eric

          “If KATY got clogged immediately, it’s because it was never built big enough.”

          So 23 lanes wide isn’t big enough? Maybe if it were 50 or 100 lanes wide it wouldn’t be congested. But then, to do that, you’d also have to make all the roads that connect to it 10 lanes wide, to handle all the cars coming off KATY. Beyond the expense of building and maintaining all this infrastructure, imagine the thousands of houses that would have to be destroyed to make room for the roads. Not gonna happen.

          A single subway line (a 2 track line, not a 4 track line like in NYC) has higher capacity than KATY. Let’s go through the numbers – a subway train carries ~1000 passengers and handles ~30 trains per hour, so 60k passengers total per hour. KATY has 23 lanes, traffic engineers assume up to 2000 cars per hour per lane on a freeway, so 46k cars. There are about 1.1 people per car in rush hour, so ~50k car passengers.

          Bottom line, in a highly populated area, transit is more effective than cars, simply because it uses less land per passenger. When you build your freeway up to 23 lanes and it’s still congested, you know it’s time to think about transit.

        • Tim

          @TrumpPalin2016

          If induced demand had no premise, we wouldn’t be arguing about it now. And it’s not just, say, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that claims it. More and more studies have been conducted and are only corroborating what’s already been said. Even if Conservative-governed cities don’t change their transportation policies, induced demand will show its ugly face, and politicians and citizens alike will see what has happened because of their decisions. We all learn from mistakes. This mistake can be made, but it will embarrass the politicians who were in office when the pivot point occurred for years following. Trust me. When our cities are gridlocked and the economy and GDP output slow down, Congress, the President (if Trump is in office, like you say, then he’ll shed a sweat of concern, at the very least), and States are going to want to know what happened. And when they *cough* “finally discover” *cough* induced demand, and see that evidence of it has been around for decades, then they’ll see the viability behind it, and when the mass media interviews them, then they must tell the truth. And the electorate won’t reelect that politician again, and will be shamed for not realizing the truth. Politicians may point the blame elsewhere, but the electorate is who votes candidates into office. Without Change, there is no future. Without a future, there is no reason to strive to do anything. This is a basic, fundamental, yet critical core aspect to the human civilization. How do you think we left the Paleolithic Age? Change. How do you think we got simple machines? Change. How do you think we stopped looking at other people across the planet with a negative mindset? Change. And how will we solve our transportation problems?

          That’s right. Change.

      • Like Houston Katy Freeway drivers, LA drivers discovered the same thing less than 2 years after spending $1.1B to expand 405 Freeway. Wider freeways do not relive congestion, http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2015/11/12/study-405-freeway-expansion-not-easing-congestion/

        More recently, LA Metro announced a wish list to build rapid rail transit tunnel & 2 toll lanes through the 405 corridor.
        http://www.scpr.org/news/2016/03/18/58698/sepulveda-pass-toll-lanes-tunnel-on-metro-s-120b-p/

        As a LA County taxpayer, I support Heavy Rail through the 405 corridor to LAX, while connecting with Westside Heavy Rail & Light Rail. I don’t trust any plan to build more tollways. I’ve never seen the latter reduce congestion in LA, Orange or Riverside Counties.

  • Matt

    So you are ignoring the fact that Ballard already has around 5 buses an hour into downtown Seattle? That a drive from Ballard into downtown takes about 15 minutes and that walking takes about an hour and change? That we have the 5th worst freeway traffic in the country?

    You must never spend time on i5 during rush hour. It takes at least an hour in the best traffic from Everett, it’s usually 1.5 hours and I’ve had it take over 6 hours. You believe that Everett, who has been paying for this since 1996, that has already been pushed back once before, should be pushed back even longer than our currently estimated 2041? We should have to pay for around 50 or more years for a system so Ballard can cut 2-3 minutes from there commute?

    • Everett

      I don’t think you need to say Everett shouldn’t get service…but cutting the Paine Field diversion would save 2B, make trips from Everett to Seattle faster and not impact ridership because that diversion is speculative at best. That would allow service to begin in Everett sooner, and create more available money for other parts of the system.

      • BG

        The Paine Field detour (instead of running it up 99) adds exactly one mile to the project. In doing so it picks up an airport and the region’s largest employer. The diversion costs Everett to Seattle riders an extra two minutes on an already absurdly long ride and I suppose it inconveniences the thousands of people planning to take light rail to Klein Honda or Hobby Lobby. Honestly I would expect the Boeing stop to be the most popular on that entire extension. There is literally nothing else up that way with that level of density. The Everett plant employs something like 35000 people. I’m not sure any LINK stop outside of downtown and maybe the U district can match that.

    • Having gotten stuck in I-5 traffic while driving between Everett and Seattle, I can vouch for how bad it is. Seattle should not have to trade between the much-needed Ballard and Everett projects.

      In the last 30 years metro areas & states have been funding 67-90% of too many Rapid Transit projects, which has slowed down construction. We need Federal Transit funding 50% of vetted Rapid Transit projects according to total projected transit usage and construction cost per mile.

      Congress limiting Surface Transportation funding for Highway repair, Rapid Transit, and HSR is the elephant in the room.

  • Rico

    I assume you are just posting that comment to fire up conversation? If not I will ask where has spending more money on more lanes of traffic worked to eliminate traffic? You may also want to look into per capita GDP for dense cities versus less dense cities, seems dense generates more wealth per person than sprawl.

  • Eric

    What would the value of infill stops (for example, Interbay and Ballard) and electrification on the Sounder route be? The Sounder serves these areas already, not as well as the proposed light rail of course, but at a much cheaper cost. The SLUT could be given separate lanes and stops lengthened, and possibly a branch built west on Mercer St, in place of the underground LRT subway stops that Sounder can’t replace.

  • Let’s think about it this way: not counting the older and cheaper Expo Line, Vancouver’s SkyTrain extensions (Millennium, Canada, and projected Evergreen) have cost somewhat less than C$20,000 per weekday rider. Call it US$16,000, in PPP terms. This means a $19 billion expansion plan in today’s money would get 1.2 million weekday riders, which with projected population growth would be perhaps 60 annual rides per capita (Vancouver: 50, New York: 90, London: 200). The actual projection is a bit more than 300,000, one quarter that amount.

    Seattle needs to not build this much rail, especially the marginal suburban extensions. Instead, it needs to figure out how to get more ridership per dollar. As you note, the Ballard line performs much better than the rest. But it also has a very high projected construction cost per km, $400 million. U-Link is also very high, around $360 million per km, and at least right now the extra ridership looks like 20,000 per weekday, or 4,000 per route-km, which is pitiful for a subway. In New York, the systemwide subway average is about 15,000, the projection for SAS Phase 1 is 70,000, and the top two buses, the M14 and M86, are about 8,000 each. Ballard looks a lot better, around 11,000. SkyTrain only averages around 6,000, but nearly all of it is above ground, and the one fully underground extension under discussion, Broadway, is projected at 25,000 (and also has lower construction costs than Ballard and U-Link).

    For this cost, it’s cheaper to just buy out the opposition to single-family zoning abolition. Sawant is an ideologue, which means she may be easier to buy using a package like increased spending on schools or some other kind of social spending. (Like all American cities, Seattle has way bigger problems to spend money on than infrastructure.) “May,” because she’s also a nihilist who’s hard to negotiate with. I still read her as easier to appease than actual NIMBYs, who extract full rent from the political process.

    The cost of public housing is even higher than that of this expansion plan – you can build a unit for $250,000, or 4 light rail trips at Seattle’s costs, but usually public housing doesn’t generate two transit commuters per unit, since working-class Americans average a lot less than 2 income earners per family. But it’s possible that public housing near stations is cheaper than the marginal suburban extensions, even without taking into account that the city would be creating voters who don’t give a crap about preserving single-family zoning. To say nothing of using public housing as leverage in an upzoning plan, at least to get support from the Sawants and the Cruickshanks.

    • I have to partially disagree. Some projects have lower Patrons Per Construction Cost Mile, but Seattle metro area needs all the rapid transit extensions (Ballard, Evereltt, West Seattle, Issaquah, Tacoma) in ST3 Plan by 2035 to meet the larger goals of:

      • Congestion reduction
      • GHG and smog reduction
      • Better transit service for higher productivity
      • Transit Oriented Development & more livable communities
      • Rapid Transit Equity
      • Unified political commitment to transit

      The only reason this is an issue for Seattle and other large metro areas, is a temporary Congressional majority blocking $20B/year FTA allocation requested numerous times.

  • John Thacker

    It’s worth noting that the last time Sound Transit tried a compromise plan, the Roads and Transit plan in 2007, it was rejected by voters who found it lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, and spat it out. Sound Transit came back in 2008 with ST2 and that was approved. (Different electorates may well have played a role.) So Seattle’s history does not suggest that there’s only one chance to vote on a plan. Especially with a long amount of time until the first ST3 project starts, there’s probably room to get this right. I agree with Alon Levy that while it’s quite good that Sound Transit tends to be right on or under budget and schedule, the actual budget and schedule is pretty high by world standards.

    I’m interested to see what long-term effects, if any, the move to districts from city wide council slots makes. The NIMBYs (somewhat surprisingly) all lost in the first district elections, as Seattle seems to have a working alliance of market urbanists willing to accept denser growth and upzoning. (You can already see quite a lot of buildings going up near the upcoming Roosevelt stop, downtown has eliminated parking requirements for buildings, etc.)

    • Nathanael

      John, without living there, everything I’ve seen about the politics of Puget Sound says to me that you have the political analysis exactly right. The story of “Roads and Transit” and the fact that all the NIMBYs lost in the district-based city council elections *which were designed to elect NIMBYs* are very indicative of the trend.

  • Catherine Weatbrook

    Nice article – thank you.

    Regarding Eric’s question about infill Sounder stops, not an option. First – Sounder is unreliable due to frequent slides over the lines. Secondly, contractually the line is limited forever to 5 runs a day, and limited hours because of freight priorities on the lines. Third, the lines don’t actually go close enough to the Ballard residential density, nor to the Interbay pocket, to work well. There are more reasons, but I’m going to stop there for now.

    Regarding the ST3 plan – the highest ridership route in the plan ( note that I personally think the estimated numbers are significantly low based on a planned doubling/tripling of density for Ballard and Crown Hill just 30 blocks north of there) – the highest ridership route has the worst, slowest, and least reliable implementation options of the entire system. A draw bridge and at grade sections through one of the busiest corridors (55,000 vehicle trips a day), in Seattle. It’s transportation insanity.

    Ballard hasn’t seen the strong city council voice and leadership on this issue that CM Sally Bagshaw is providing for Magnolia, Queen Anne, Interbay, and SLU. It’s too bad. This plan, beyond being too slow, is wrong. I’d rather have right and slow, than fundamentally flawed.

  • transit rider

    Great article in that you lined up the various light rail articles side-by-side. It’s apparent that the policy makers have not done similarly, otherwise they would be wondering why diverting to Paine Field en route to/from Everett makes sense (answer: political. not practical). For the same approximate capital costs, they can build the Ballard to downtown segment that has a tunnel, yet lower operating and maintenance costs than the sidetrack to Everett, and nets triple the ridership. I agree with Catherine re: running at grade, which has permanently hampered C-Link since it was opened.

    Capital and operating and maintenance costs should be more accurate than ridership, as the latter relies on consumer behavior, which is less predictable. I’m delighted to see someone besides me using capital/daily rider as a measure! While ridership in isolation is the most variable of all, provided the same methodology is used, it is a good measure in comparing one to the other.

    While I doubt that policymakers will change their plan despite what seem to be overwhelming odds, for it’s other people’s money their spending, I would be happy to be wrong should they read articles like this and think through the points that it makes.

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  • brads

    “Given Sound Transit’s ability to complete projects on time and under budget…”Are you serious? That’s a Sound Transit talking point not supported by the facts. Sound Transit still has not completed the components in its initial phase, “Sound Move”, the ten-year plan passed by voters in 1996. The agency has been trumpeting that the extension to the University District with the opening of two new stations in the northbound direction from downtown was completed early and some $150-200 million under budget. Neither is true. Light rail service to the University District still has not reached the original north terminus at NE 45th Street, the actual U-District, as promised to voters back in 1996. The project is a decade overdue and billions of dollars over budget, despite the agency’s claims to the contrary. (Also, one must keep in mind that this project was slated for completion long before the Great Recession of 2008-09.)

  • Seattle does not needs a rebuilt of its rail system, especially the upper suburban extensions. Instead, it needs to analyse how to get revenue streams from ridership and bring money to the city from transportation as a whole. Long distance movers should contribute more by paying more for road usage. Some areas are better exploited than others, like the Ballard line performs much better than the rest.

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