Finance Infrastructure Light Rail Seattle

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.

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.

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
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).

Seattle Streetcar

Does Seattle offer the path forward for the national streetcar movement?

» The city will begin studying dedicated lanes for its streetcar. Will it be the first among many to do so?

During its first four years of operation, Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar—the nation’s second modern streetcar (after Portland’s)—recorded rapidly growing ridership. Annual passenger counts on the 1.3-mile line increased from 413,000 in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012 (about 3,000 riders on a peak summer day). The figures reflected the blossoming of the South Lake Union neighborhood into an extension of the downtown business district, as well as the region’s growth as a whole (Seattle is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities) and the strong performance of transit there. The share of people taking public transportation to work in Seattle increased from 17.6 percent in 2000 to 19.3 percent in 2013—a remarkable growth spurt brought on in part by the opening of the streetcar and the Central Link light rail line.

Yet in 2013, ridership on the streetcar plateaued, barely growing at all. And last year, it declined by seven percent, below 2011 numbers, putting rider revenues below expectations, even as light rail and bus trips across the region continued to increase. What gives?

The problem may have something to do with the way the streetcar runs: In the street, sharing lanes with cars. The results have been slow vehicles—the line’s scheduled service averages less than eight miles per hour—often held back by traffic and a lack of reliability. This can produce horror stories of streetcars getting stuck for half an hour or more behind other vehicles and, combined with infrequent service, it certainly reinforces the sense that streetcars are too slow and unreliable to provide any serious transportation benefit.

This is a problem shared by every existing and planned modern streetcar line in the country,* suggesting that the streetcar designed to run in the street with cars may, over the long term, simply fail to attract riders who grow increasingly frustrated with the quality of service provided.

Seattle may offer a solution, however. CityLab‘s Nate Berg reported last year that the city is planning a new streetcar line—the 1.1-mile Center City Connector that in 2018 would run along dedicated downtown lanes as it links the South Lake Union line with another service, the 2.5-mile First Hill line, which is currently under construction. That’s great news, but even more interesting is the fact that the city is considering giving dedicated lanes to the existing South Lake Union line.

As far as I know, this would be the first time in the U.S. that a modern streetcar line has been converted to dedicated lanes, and it could significantly improve the line’s speed and reliability. Can other cities follow in its example?

As part of the contract for the Center City Connector, the Seattle Department of Transportation asked a consultant to study designated lanes for streetcars and buses as well as right-turn restrictions along Westlake Avenue, the primary right-of-way for the South Lake Union line. The lanes, which the city refers to endearingly as “Business Access and Transit” (BAT) lanes, are being analyzed to determine if they would improve reliability and service for the system. The lanes could also be used by the RapidRide C line, a bus rapid transit route that could continue north into the South Lake Union neighborhood via Westlake. The lane would have to handle up to 20 trains or BRT vehicles per hour per direction, far too many for transit service operating in a shared right-of-way.

The study, which could be completed this summer, aligns with Mayor Ed Murray and Transportation Director Scott Kubly’s Move Seattle proposal, which, if approved by voters in November, would add $900 million in transportation investment across the city to respond to its rapid growth in both population and employment.** Move Seattle specifically includes investment in seven new BRT corridors throughout the city, including a new Roosevelt to Downtown “complete street” that would include higher-capacity service along Westlake.

Dedicated lanes for the South Lake Union streetcar would undoubtedly improve the reliability of the service and could result in faster trip times. These lanes would likely encourage increased ridership over time, and relieve one of the major problems with too many American streetcar systems, demonstrating that it is possible to transform a route with disappointing features into one that can legitimately serve as useful transit.

Of course, Seattle’s experiment in providing streetcars dedicated lanes along the street right-of-way is hardly revolutionary for transit in general—though it has become standard to assume that new streetcar projects will be built without dedicated lanes. Seattle, like many cities, already has dedicated bus lanes, such as along Aurora Avenue. And back in 2010, previous Mayor Mike McGinn advocated for the use of dedicated lanes for fast streetcars connecting neighborhoods at a far lower cost than full-feature light rail.

It’s worth noting that streetcar service often fails to offer adequate reliability and speed for reasons other than dedicated lanes—and these problems are shared with many light rail and bus rapid transit lines too. Indeed, too many of the new transit lines put into service in the U.S. recently lack adequate frequencies, particularly off-peak. A wait of fifteen minutes for the next streetcar on a 1.3-mile line could last longer than a brisk walk along the entire route. Many of the streetcar systems as designed have too many stops—the short South Lake Union line has seven stops, each of which require the vehicle to slow down, dwell as passengers alight and board, and accelerate. Meanwhile, traffic signal priority—an essential feature for transit lines that run with traffic—is too often avoided, even for light rail.

Providing exclusive lanes won’t fix any of those problems, which isn’t to say that they’re not important, just that they’re one piece of an overall equation for better transit service.

Another question is whether Westlake Avenue can be reconfigured with any ease to offer space for the streetcars. Since the tracks are currently slotted in a lane between a line of parking to the right and a traffic lane to the left, how would the city be able to successfully keep cars off the tracks, even if the lane were painted another color, for example? Cities like New York that have invested in painted lanes for buses have seen those lanes frequently intruded by parked or turning cars, reducing service speed.

If the streetcar had been designed from the beginning to be adapted for dedicated lanes, it likely would be running either in the median or along the curb. In either case, cars could be easily excluded from the lane with a cheap-to-install buffer. But it’s difficult to see how such a buffer could be added given the location of the existing tracks. In this case as in virtually every transit investment, planning ahead for a time when higher-capacity or more reliable vehicles might be needed would have likely saved money in the long term.

Nonetheless, if Seattle is able to provide its South Lake Union line dedicated lanes, it will be demonstrating that one of the fundamental problems with today’s modern streetcar movement can, in fact, be addressed, albeit a few years late. If it shows that those dedicated lanes can reduce disruptions and speed up service, it hopefully won’t be long until we see them in cities across the country, from Atlanta to Portland.

* Save Salt Lake City’s S-Line, which operates in its own right-of-way.

** Move Seattle specifies a laudable goal of bringing more than 70 percent of the city’s population within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute all-day transit service. That’s something few cities are able to offer.

Image at top: From Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).

Light Rail Seattle

Agreement on Downtown Tunneling for Seattle Region’s East Link Light Rail

» City of Bellevue will get its desired underground segment through downtown thanks to an agreement from Sound Transit.

At a cost of $2.5 billion, Seattle’s planned East Link light rail extension project is one of the nation’s largest and most expensive transit expansion programs, which makes it remarkable in itself. A new connection across Lake Washington and into the cities of Bellevue and Redmond will significantly decrease transit times for intercity trips in the region and attract about 50,000 riders a day once it is completed in 2023.

The real achievement of the project, though, is its response to local demands in the form of the construction of a tunnel through Downtown Bellevue, agreed upon by the transit agency Sound Transit last week.

The passage in 2008 by Seattle region voters of the Sound Transit 2 package of bond releases guaranteed that local funding would be available to construct new lines extending the original Seattle light rail line from downtown to Sea-Tac Airport, which opened in 2009. East Link is the largest funded segment, though additional lines running north and south are also planned.

Once it became clear that light rail would be running through Bellevue, the city council made apparent its interest in tunneling the section of the line through the business district. From a point of regional equity, that might have made sense (since Seattle had its own downtown tunnel), but according to initial studies it would cost up to $1 billion more than a surface-level line. With broad streets and thus plenty of potential right-of-way, there would be little reason to spend so much.

But further engineering studies suggested that the tunnel would cost only about $320 million over the surface line, and the city agreed to chip in half of the extra costs, making it feasible to include the underground segment in the project. After Sound Transit’s agreement, the city has until November 14 to sign the accord, settling the matter once and for all. Though opposition from Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman — who has been fighting light rail expansion into the city for a decade — remains an issue, the path forward seems to be construction beginning in 2015 or 2016, including a tunnel.

What is intriguing here is that Sound Transit, which has the legal right to build the project as it wishes, is choosing to develop a project that costs more because it is interested in acquiring the support of Bellevue’s local government. The $160 million it has agreed to further contribute to the project’s costs to satisfy local demands could have been spent on another project.

And there may be an argument for putting the line underground. At the Rail~Volution conference in Washington earlier this month, Arlington County Board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman argued that the long-term benefits of digging tunnels for rail projects more than make up for their higher costs. The theory goes that development is more likely to follow when the noise and visual intrusion of trains are out of sight and mind, even as stations themselves are easily accessible.

I am not particularly convinced of the necessity of a downtown tunnel through Bellevue considering that there is plenty of space on the street — nor is it clear to me that it will bring economic development to the area that would not have been possible were the line on the surface. While the Washington Metro, with its very long trains, huge ridership demands, and third-rail propulsion, cannot be installed on the street (and thus can only be placed in a reserved corridor either above or under ground), Seattle’s Link light rail is designed specifically to be able to act as a tramway on surface streets. While the question in D.C. is whether to put metro extensions underground or along a highway right-of-way, the question in Seattle is whether to place light rail underground or along far more pedestrian-accessible surface streets. So the lessons of the nation’s capital region may not apply to the Pacific Northwest.

But the broader point here is the use of democracy in the decision-making process; regional agencies like Sound Transit have a responsibility to be responsive both to metropolitan and local priorities. In this situation, while the choice of an underground route for East Link in Downtown Bellevue may not be ideal from a policy or fiscal perspective, it is a respond to local demands expressed through the city council. It would be difficult to envision how the project could be pursued if it were designed in opposition to local interests.

Of course, the decision of the City of Bellevue to contribute to the costs of the tunneling has played a significant role in making this possible. Negotiating with local interests — and responding to their demands — is always simpler when they are willing to help pay for the things they desire. The question is how to negotiate with groups or municipalities that cannot afford to do so.

Image above: Conceptual image of East Link light rail crossing Lake Washington, from Sound Transit

Seattle Streetcar

The Appeal of Modern Streetcars Continues to Mount, But There Are Obstacles to It Bringing Mobility Gains

» Streetcar projects are advancing seriously in cities across the nation, but their quick rise to the top of municipal transportation priority lists may not be matched by sound thinking in terms of project design.

If the Obama Administration’s push to construct high-speed rail lines has suffered numerous delays as a result of Congressional inaction and state-level criticism, its decision to allow numerous streetcar projects to move forward through the federal funding pipeline has produced a veritable explosion of project proposals across the country. Yet the manner in which cities are pushing these schemes smacks of poor policy making and suggests that a better use of limited transportation dollars is possible.

The recent promotion of streetcars in the United States is something of an aberration — at least in terms of recent history. Generally ignoring the successes of the locally funded vintage 2001 Portland Streetcar, the Bush Administration repeatedly informed municipalities across the country that their transportation policies should emphasize bus improvements over road-running rail lines. Though the SAFETEA-LU transportation authorization bill passed in 2005 specifically included a provision for limited-cost projects such as streetcars (called Small Starts), the Department of Transportation under Bush refused to fund them either in 2006 or 2007 (fiscal years 2007 and 2008), picking BRT projects instead — despite significant local demand for rail.

In early 2008, though, the Bush Administration seemed to relent, agreeing to recommend the funding of the Portland Streetcar Loop — and then beginning in 2009, the Department of Transportation under President Obama pressed forward with TIGER and Urban Circulator grants, encouraging cities from Dallas to Seattle to apply for federal funds and more recently allowing project development to move towards construction in cities such as AtlantaCharlotte, and Tucson.

Over the past few months, the interest of cities in streetcars has seemingly exploded even further. Providence has proposed a two-mile route for $126 million; San Antonio wants a line that will spur real estate development; Milwaukee envisions a $64 million corridor through downtown; Kansas City plans $101 million worth of tracks between City Market and Union Station; and Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Northern Virginia are moving forward with a streetcar down the Columbia Pike. Each plan’s proponents will apply for — and expect to win — federal funds to cover most costs.

These are not isolated examples of cities suddenly interested in a new transit mode. Rather, the relatively sudden availability of dollars from Washington, D.C. has encouraged new thinking about what kinds of transit are possible. The fact that streetcars can be built with lower per-mile costs than other forms of rail transit, their ability to attract denser development in some cases, and the possibility of farming off most of their costs to another government entity has made them incredibly appealing. Washington, seeking transit projects that are visible and reinforce dense communities, has been a willing partner in this effort.

For the most part, this has been beneficial policy, since it has encouraged more cities to think seriously about how to invest in high-quality transit. In addition, it has spread rail transit beyond the nation’s biggest metropolitan regions, a trend that arguably will be helpful in encouraging choice riders onto transit systems and simultaneously improve the daily commutes of regular riders.

But the difficult side of the story is that many of the projects are planned to be constructed in a manner that provides an inferior quality of service than the bus lines they replace. In one city, the transit agency proposed building a line with only one track, making it impossible to increase the frequency of service (the situation was fortunately resolved in a second grant); in others, the streetcar lane would be located in a section of the street vulnerable to considerable delays from backed-up and turning cars — because streetcars, unlike buses, are not able to navigate around sources of delay. Vehicles proposed for services have universally been of limited capacity, meaning they offer little improvement in terms of passenger space over articulated buses.

Most importantly, almost every one of the major streetcar projects proposed has refused to separate trains from automobile traffic for the majority of the routes, despite the fact that doing so usually requires little more than different types of paint, camera enforcement, and a few barriers, all of which can be installed at minimal cost.

This means that streetcars will be stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, making speed improvements impossible. The lack of dedicated street right-of-way for streetcars likely stems from a sense that it would be politically difficult to promote removing lanes from automobilists and providing them to transit users. Yet the vast majority of traffic lanes, after all, are off-limits to trains; why is it so crazy to imagine a few dedicated to streetcars?

These should not be considered nit-picky complaints, since the cities promoting streetcars are investing millions of public dollars in their lines — often at an expense of $50 million per mile and up. At those costs, an effective quality of service should be standard.

Fortunately, at least one city seems to have seen the light. Seattle’s recently released Transportation Master Plan recognizes the fundamental difference between what it calls local and rapid streetcars, noting that most of such projects in the U.S. so far (including Seattle’s own South Lake Union Streetcar) have skewed towards the former type, which I have described above.

The Plan notes two major possible rapid streetcar lines for Seattle, extending from the downtown core to the Ballard and University Districts that would “Achieve faster operating speed and greater reliability through longer spacing between stops and more extensive use of exclusive right of way.” Trains would be either larger or coupled “to accommodate high passenger loads.” Though significant sections of these rapid lines as currently planned would remain in shared lanes with automobiles, these proposals are the closest U.S. transit agencies have yet come to the ideal of developing cheaper light rail by effectively running it in street rights-of-way (like a European tramway), which is what the rapid streetcar concept is advocating.

Simply suggesting moving streetcars into their own dedicated lanes, however, is not always a universally appealing solution: Cities like Sacramento and Buffalo, for instance, have chosen to study reintegration of formerly transit-only streets into their downtown automobile circulation networks because they were concerned that restricting rights-of-way to trains was limiting business activity. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the effect of these transit malls, they were perceived as negative enough to the community that attempting to replicate their forms today cannot always be the right answer. Every city must decide for itself the best way to integrate new train systems into their streetscapes.

And yet the Bush Administration’s bias against streetcars was logical from the standpoint of encouraging pure mobility; for the same cost, rapid buses provide faster and more reliable service in dedicated lanes. In order to justify the continued enthusiasm of municipalities for streetcars, we should push for guidelines that ensure that services must be designed to operate as quickly and efficiently as possible. Streetcars may be less expensive than comparative types of light rail, but at the cost we are spending for them we should expect more out of them.

Image above: A simulation of a streetcar line in Atlanta, from Georgia Transit Connector

Atlanta Finance Seattle

In Atlanta and Seattle, Hope for Better Transit Through Referendums

» Recognizing the limitations of federal  aid, local leaders in Atlanta and Seattle propose tax increases or additional fees to improve the quality of their transit networks.

Despite the skepticism about the importance of government spending now enthralling Washington on both sides of the aisle, the perceived value of investing local resources in public facilities such as new transit lines seems only to be ramping up.

Take Atlanta and Seattle, sitting at the helm of the nation’s 9th and 15th-largest metropolitan areas, respectively. In the first, a regional initiative supported by political and business leaders across a ten-county area will advance a 1% sales tax to the ballot next November. Over half of the billions in locally raised funds is proposed to be transferred to transit capital and operational programs. In the second, an enthusiastic mayor is articulating a grand, citywide strategy to bring high-quality transit to his city as quickly as possible. If approved by voters, a significant increase in the vehicle registration fee could mean rapid streetcars and more bus rapid transit.

If this is the face of the future of transit funding, then supporters of improved public transportation offerings may have reasons for optimism. In contrast to Washington, municipal and regional groups, convinced that today’s infrastructure is underperforming, are pushing forward — alone.

Atlanta’s referendum, if passed by voters in the 4.1 million-person, 10-county region covered by the Atlanta Regional Commission, would represent the most significant expansion of the area’s transit system since the creation of MARTA in 1971. After state legislation was passed last year to allow the region to ask its voters whether they wanted to increase their own taxes, a “Regional Roundtable” comprised of elected officials was established to determine how exactly to spend the estimated $6.1 billion that will be raised by a 1% sales tax over the course of ten years. Though the final list has yet to be completed (that will not happen until October), 54% of the funds noted in the preliminary list would go to transit (the rest mostly directed towards highway expansion).

The projects suggested for funding range from general support for suburban bus operations in Clayton and Gwinnett Counties to $600 million for state of good repair upgrades for existing MARTA lines to significant expansions of the heavy rail network. Of those, several are particularly exciting: $658 million of the $1.55 billion in total costs for the Beltline light rail corridor; $700 million for a link along the Clifton Corridor between Lindbergh Station and Emory University, expected to cost $1.11 billion; and $879 million of $1.23 billion for a light rail line from Midtown’s Arts Center to Cumberland Mall in northwest Atlanta. In general, these are good projects: Unlike several others proposed by exurban counties in the region, they are aimed towards upgrading transit links in the urban core, where rail investments will be most cost effective.

Not everyone will be completely satisfied, however long the list: DeKalb County politicians have argued that they will actively fight against the tax’s passage if their preferred rail line, an extension of MARTA five miles south from the existing Indian Creek terminus on the east side of the system to Wesley Chapel Road and I-20, if not included in the plan. That threat is likely to be heeded in order to maintain the regional collaboration that appears necessary to support this referendum (it can only pass with a majority of votes across the metropolitan area, not in one municipality at a time). Supported projects must reach as much of the taxed zone as possible. Otherwise, this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the transit system could be lost.

Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn has taken a wholly different approach, focusing on his municipality alone. Unlike his predecessor Greg Nickels, who championed regional thinking and the successful passage of a 2008 ballot question that increased funding for a regional light rail system, Mr. McGinn has determined that the needs of his city may be best met through its own initiative.

Just a few months after Seattle increased its vehicle licensing fee by $20 and a week after King County (which includes Seattle) added its own $20 charge to prevent cutbacks in the county’s Metro bus network, Mr. McGinn challenged the city to increase the tab by $80 more in order to “be bold” an fund a citywide network of rapid streetcar corridors. In theory, voters would be asked to approve the increase this November.

Displaying genuine entrepreneurship in his approach, the mayor suggested that the city could invest in five high-capacity rapid transit corridors, four of which qualify for rail. Instead of relying on slow-moving Sound Transit, which is building the Seattle region’s light rail network, Seattle could be more successful by playing alone and avoiding having to deal with the delicate matter of regional cooperation, Mr. McGinn argues.

The city council must approve the proposal — other members have suggested raising the fee by $40 or $60 instead — but Mr. McGinn’s initiative speaks for itself: Here is a leader who recognizes the value of public investment and is willing to put his face forward in order to support what is effectively a significant increase in the cost of driving a car in the city. That’s courageous.

Of the $27 million the fee is expected to generate annually, about half would fund transit, and those dollars would go towards investing in city corridors based on recommendations from the city’s Transit Master Plan, currently under development. Mr. McGinn’s approach would spread good transit throughout the city and put corridors within easy access of most of its citizens. The most important links not already in Sound Transit light rail plans would connect Ballard, Fremont, and the University of Washington each to downtown in conjunction with the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines, the first of which is in service and the latter of which is funded. (These and other potential corridors have been meticulously described by Seattle Transit Blog: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.)

To save costs, Mr. McGinn has been pushing European-style rapid streetcars — some might refer to them as tramways — that run mostly in road rights-of-way but that have fewer stops and reserved travel lanes and therefore travel more quickly than most American streetcars. This could allow Seattle to build significantly more rail than other American cities investing in more traditional light rail.*

Though the annual sums that could be collected by the license fee are modest, one approach being considered would involve asking the U.S. government to finance low-interest bonds that the city could pay back with expected future revenues; this would allow faster construction.**

One wonders how many of these projects will be able to advance, though, since most major transit commitments in the United States have relied on significant support from the federal government. With a Congress in continued cost-cutting mode, the likelihood that the proposals in Seattle and Atlanta — amongst those in many other deserving cities — will see full support may be shrinking by the day. If the federal government removes funding for day-to-day capital expenses, like the purchase of new trains or buses or the upkeep of rights-of-way, the new income resulting from these tax and fee increases will have to be redirected back to expenses that were supposed to be supported by other sources. This will disappoint voters, who hate to be misled or have promises pulled out from under them.

In addition, there is no guarantee that either of these referendums — or the others like them being proposed in other U.S. cities — will receive citizen approval. Though it is true that voters in municipalities as varied as Charlotte, Miami, and Phoenix have expanded funding for transit by taxing themselves in recent years, other cities have been less successful, such as Kansas City, where voters rejected a sales tax increase for a light rail line in 2008.

report from the Mineta Transportation Institute last week provided some insight into the success factors that account for the passage of similar measures. By examining eight case studies, the study’s authors pointed to the importance of consensus among business, elected, and environmental interest groups and suggested that campaign leaders must be able to orchestrate a savvy, well-funded media message. What appears to be less important — especially as compared to the 2001 study that this report updates — is producing a multimodal plan that distributes gains evenly across the area whose population is asked to fund it. The reputation of the existing transit agency may or may not be important.

While Atlanta appears at least so far to have sufficient business and political support for engaging a positive dialogue in favor of higher taxes or fees for investments, Seattle’s Mayor McGinn may have more work to do. On the other hand, Seattle’s city-only referendum may by its very nature be easier to pass than Atlanta’s region-wide ballot question, which must convince typically transit-hostile exurban voters. Other cities hoping to fund similar improvements should examine these experience to see what lessons can be learned.

Update, 17 August 2011: The final list of projects approved for funding has been agreed upon.

* It is ironic that Mayor McGinn has become such a fervent supporter of light rail investment; his pre-election persona was in favor of bus rapid transit rather than rail because of what he described as its lower costs and equivalent performance.

** This closely mirrors Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s America Fast Forward proposal, which he hopes to encourage cities across the country to emulate.

Image above: Seattle Streetcar, from Flickr user sillygwailo (cc)