» 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.
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?
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.
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 $4.6 billion in 2014 dollars, more than any of the other major capital projects the agency plans. But it would also attract many more riders—about 130,000 per day—assuming estimates are correct. That’s many more than any of the other projects on the ST3 list, as the following table shows.
|Project||Location||Length (mi)||Daily riders||30-yr operating cost (2014$m)||Construction cost (2014$m)||Completion|
|Ballard to Downtown LRT||Seattle||7.1||129,500||1,140||4,606||2038|
|Tacoma Link to College Streetcar||Suburbs||4.4||15,000||390||463||2041|
|West Seattle to Downtown LRT||Seattle||4.7||33,500||660||1,952||2033|
|Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way LRT||Suburbs||5.3||18,500||420||1,117||2028|
|145th and SR 522 BRT||Suburbs||8||8,500||450||387||2024|
|Federal Way to Tacoma Dome LRT||Suburbs||9.7||33,500||930||2,510||2033|
|Lynnwood to Everett LRT||Suburbs||15.4||39,000||1,590||4,183||2036/2041|
|Redmond Extension LRT||Suburbs||3.7||8,000||330||1,075||2028|
|Bellevue to Issaquah LRT||Suburbs||9||13,000||900||1,650||2041|
|Sounder to Dupont CR||Suburbs||7.8||1,250||90||304||2036|
|Graham St Station||Seattle||2,000||30||73.5||2036|
|Boeing Access Rd Station||Suburbs||1,750||30||128.5||2036|
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 $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.
Incomprehensibly, the two other projects that also perform well on this metric also wouldn’t open anytime soon: A Tacoma streetcar extension would have to wait until 2041 and a West Seattle light rail line would wait until 2033.
|Project||Total 30-yr costs (2014$m)||Construction cost (2014$)/daily rider||Construction cost (2014$)/population and jobs served||30-yr revenues (2014$m)||Subsidized cost (2014$)/30 years of daily riders|
|Ballard to Downtown||5,746||35,568||15,619||2,409||2.77|
|Tacoma Link to Community College||853||30,833||16,637||279||4.11|
|West Seattle to Downtown||2,612||58,269||43,474||623||6.38|
|Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way||1,537||60,351||102,431||516||5.93|
|145th and SR 522||837||45,529||12,286||237||7.59|
|Federal Way to Tacoma Dome||3,440||74,925||188,722||935||8.04|
|Lynnwood to Everett||5,773||107,244||92,126||1,088||12.92|
|Bellevue to Issaquah||2,550||126,923||82,500||363||18.09|
|Sounder to Dupont||394||242,800||131,957||35||30.85|
|Boeing Access Road||159||73,429||38,939||49||6.74|
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.
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.
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).