Using the data embedded in the Transit Explorer database, I calculated key statistics on how transit investment has changed over time in the United States and a number of other countries. These data point to some intriguing trends, notably a decline in investment stateside combined with significant expansion in countries like Canada, Egypt, France, Israel, and Turkiye (I have not yet assembled data for countries in south and east Asia, where transit expansion is proceeding even more quickly).
Over the past century, transit construction in the US waxed and waned. Overall, the number of kilometers of rail transit systems added reached its apex (at least since the 1920s) in the 1990s, when about 1,000 kilometers of new commuter rail lines were opened. During the first decade of the 2000s, the country added the most heavy rail (subway/metro) and light rail lines, generating more than 500 new kilometers over ten years, a record.
Since 2010, however, rail transit construction has lost steam in the US. The number of kilometers opened declined by about 30 percent between the 2000s and 2010s, and the first few years of the 2020s suggest further decline by 2030. At the current rate, less than 500 new kilometers of rail transit will open by then—the lowest figure since the 1970s.
Nevertheless, among the countries in the Transit Explorer database (meaning, excluding Australia, plus south and east Asian countries), the US now has the most kilometers of metro rail (heavy rail or light metro). As of 2023, it has about 1,350 kilometers in operation, of which about a third are in the New York region.
But the growth rate of active metro lines in the US has been slower than in other countries since 2000, increasing by only about 10 percent in route length (the US population grew by 18 percent over the same period). The length of metro systems more than doubled in Brazil and increased by 45 percent in Spain, by contrast.
And there are about 1,700 kilometers of metro in operation in the European Union’s seven most populous countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands), whose collective population is almost identical to that of the United States. Their metro route length has increased by 30 percent overall since 2000—three times as fast as the US. (Those countries’ populations collectively grew by only about 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2021.) It is worth noting that Russia’s urban metro rail systems have also expanded tremendously since 2000, outpacing Spain as of 2022.
We can see similar trends when examining the number of light rail, tramway, or streetcar stations in operation across the countries in the database. Since 1980, US cities have invested heavily in light rail, adding about 1,370 stations nationwide. That’s a lot, but it is less than in those seven EU countries combined (2,100 stations), and even just in France (1,450 stations).
And some countries, like Italy, are planning very large investments in new tramways in the coming year.
Transit expansion plans, of course, vary by metropolitan area. Among regions in the US and Canada, New York has by far the largest number of line kilometers of light or heavy rail, followed by the Bay Area, Mexico City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Toronto.
But New York actually has fewer active heavy rail lines in service than it did in 1950. And neither it nor Chicago has added much light rail or subway service since the turn of the millennium. Neither has any major expansion plans actually funded for completion over the next five years, either.
Los Angeles, Montreal, Seattle, and Toronto, on the other hand, stand out as having the largest transit expansion plans in terms of new route kilometers that are currently under construction or planned, meaning projects are funded and almost ready for construction.
And when controlling for urban area population, New York is arguably an under-performer when it comes to overall transit route length. The New York urban area currently has fewer light or heavy rail kilometers per capita than the Baltimore, Bay Area, Denver, Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis, and Washington, DC regions. It goes to show that having the maximum amount of transit route length isn’t necessarily directly correlated with having the most transit ridership; the New York area carries more people on transit than all those regions combined.
But New York, as noted, also stands out for having no light rail or subway projects that are either under construction or funded. This situation contrasts strongly with the Minneapolis and Seattle urban areas, whose rail transit expansion plans are the largest in the US on a per-capita basis.
New York’s limited transit expansion prospects are particularly remarkable when compared to the plans of many other world regions. Cairo, Istanbul, Paris, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Toronto each have many light rail or metro lines under construction today—and many more kilometers planned (Paris is likely to soon overtake London and New York in terms of total kilometers of such routes). London, on the other hand, has none.
Different regions are investing in different ways. Among routes that are currently under construction, Casablanca, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Seattle, Tel Aviv, and Toronto have focused heavily on light rail projects. Cairo, Istanbul, Lagos, Montreal, Paris, and Riyadh are building at least 50 kilometers of metro rail each. And Bogota, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro are building many kilometers of bus rapid transit.
The result of all this expansion is that New York’s once-dominant position as having the world’s longest metro network—a position it claimed from London in the 1910s—has eroded. New York pulled down many of its elevated lines and didn’t do much to expand its Subway network. Meanwhile, London took on the mantle in the 1980s through its expansion with the Docklands Light Railway, and, through systematic, relentless expansion, Moscow took the crown from London in the 2010s. Systems in East Asia are even larger. At the same time, Paris, Cairo, and Istanbul have massive expansion plans with many new lines opening over the next five years.
These conditions overall tell a story of declining US commitment to transit expansion in the context of large growth in other countries around the world. There are some exceptions—Seattle, in particular, has a big investment in new lines planned. But while the world is building out ever more accessible transit systems, the US appears to be falling behind.
Last year, three lines Americans have been waiting on for decades—the Green Line extension in Boston, the Crenshaw Line in Los Angeles, and the Silver Line to Dulles Airport outside Washington—finally opened. Though they took years to be completed, they were greetedenthusiastically by riders and political officials content to bring better service to more people.
Similar reception greeted new rail and bus lines opening in Athens, Cairo, Guadalajara, Helsinki, Paris, and dozens of other cities around the world. And much more is planned for 2023: Finally, Long Island Rail Road service will reach the sub-sub-sub-basement of Grand Central Terminal. Toronto’s Eglinton light rail line will connect the city crosstown. And Honolulu, Gebze, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Thessaloniki will get their first metro services.
This year, I leveraged data assembled in the Transit Explorer database to identify which projects opened in 2022, which are planned for opening in 2023, and which will be under construction this year—for a later opening date.
The Transit Explorer database now includes all fixed–guideway urban transit systems (meaning rail and bus rapid transit) across North America, South America, Africa, and nine Western European countries, plus metro systems throughout Europe and in parts of the Middle East. Transit Explorernow includes about 29,200 urban transit stations and about 6,700 urban transit lines (covering 78,000 kilometers). (It also includes some intercity rail systems.) These are the geographies for which I provide details about transit line openings below.
Overall, 517 kilometers of new fixed-guideway urban transit services opened in 2022 across the countries covered by the Transit Explorer database. Of these, the countries with the largest increases in kilometers were the United States (196 kilometers); Egypt (77 kilometers); Mexico (60 kilometers); France (39 kilometers); and the United Kingdom (34 kilometers).
Baku: 2 km Purple Line metro extension from Avtovagzal to Khojasan
Montreal: Creation of 11 km SRB Pie-IX bus rapid transit route through the east side of the city
Almost 1,100 kilometers of fixed-guideway urban transit is planned to open in 2023 in the parts of the world covered by Transit Explorer. Of these, about half will be in the form of metro rail services. The countries with the largest expansions planned for opening are the United States (242 kilometers); Saudi Arabia (169 kilometers); Turkiye (127 kilometers); Mexico (98 kilometers); and Canada (78 kilometers). That said, all investments aren’t equal: 57 percent of new US route kilometers will be bus rapid transit or arterial rapid transit. In many other countries, new kilometers are much more likely to be metro rail or light rail services: Saudi Arabia (100 percent); Turkiye (83 percent); and Canada (93 percent).
Rio de Janeiro: TransBrasil, 32 km bus rapid transit route
Edmonton: First phase of Valley Line, 13 km light rail route
Among the countries in the Transit Explorer database, there will be roughly 1,900 kilometers of new fixed–guideway urban transit projects under construction in 2023, but planned to be opened after 2023. About 43 percent of those kilometers will be in the form of metro services. 554 kilometers will be under construction in the United States, 305 kilometers in France, and 172 kilometers in Canada.
» The city’s mayor has announced a multi-billion-dollar plan that would bring new light rail and bus rapid transit routes to the city’s core, but critics are suggesting it won’t work. It depends on the design.
Nashville is booming. The region that encompasses it is growing by an average of 100 people a day, and the rhythm has held up for several years now. The combined city-county Nashville-Davidson has added more than 60,000 residents since 2010 alone.
Developers are catching up, constructing thousands of new residential units, office buildings, and other projects; much of the development is happening downtown.
Yet the city’s transportation system isn’t made for the growth. The highway system is bottleneck-after-bottleneck, and the transit system is underfunded and underused.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s hope is to offer an alternative through a massive new transit program that she announced in October. It would rely on voter-supported tax increases.
But the proposal could face the same problems previous Nashville transit efforts have—namely inadequate public support and vocal opposition. These opponents, as I describe below, are relying on inadequate and deceptive claims to critique investment in transit, but they’re right that the system won’t automatically be effective in attracting riders. Nashville needs better transit, but it’s got to design its system appropriately if it’s going to work.
Fixed-guideway transit for Nashville
Mayor Barry’s plan is to have the city’s voters approve a significant increase in four local taxes in a May 1 referendum. The proposal would increase the sales tax incrementally and add surcharges on existing hotel, rental car, and business taxes. Funds would raise enough to fund $5.4 billion in capital investments, plus a billion more in operations costs over the next 14 years, when construction will be completed. That’s not as large as Los Angeles’ or Seattle’s 2016 referenda, but it’s a big investment in a much smaller metropolitan area.
Indeed, Nashville’s plan would be enough to provide the city’s almost 700,000 inhabitants a large new transit network, encompassing 26 miles of light rail, 25 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT), and significant improvements to the existing bus service and Music City Star commuter rail line.
Lines would largely extend out from downtown, where a $936-million, 1.8-mile transit tunnel would separate trains and BRT services from street traffic. It would make Nashville the fifth U.S. city to invest in a modern light-rail downtown tunnel, after Buffalo, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Dallas* (like Seattle, it will include both trains and buses).
As the map below indicates, light rail lines would extend northeast along Gallatin Pike, west along Charlotte Avenue, northwest along a former rail line, and southeast along Murfreesboro and Nolensville Pikes, all major arterial routes. Four BRT corridors would fill in the gaps. The result would be an urban core generally well served by fixed-guideway transit services.
As currently described, the network would feature relatively high-performance light rail corridors, “traveling in their own lanes,” with transit signal priority and frequent weekday service. The trains would begin running 2026, with full completion by 2032.
The rapid bus corridors, which would be implemented more rapidly, would be electric, have limited stops, also feature transit signal priority, and, “where feasible and supported by the community,” include dedicated lanes and off-board payment.
In sum, the network is projected to attract significantly more riders than the existing regional network, which carries about 33,000 daily bus riders and 1,200 commuter rail users. The city estimates that the rapid bus corridors would see between 9,600 and 11,600 boardings a day and the rail corridors between 61,100 and 71,400. If these projections are realized, the city’s system will carry more riders per mile than those in Charlotte, Dallas, and Denver, and it would more than double existing use of the system.
Over the 2018 to 2032 construction period, about $900 million, or about 10 percent of the total, would go to operations and maintenance costs, with the rest paying for the massive expenditures related to the new rail and bus lines.
That’s a very capital-heavy allocation of resources, and it has its limitations. Light rail service on weekends, for example, would only be scheduled for every 30 minutes. And some local buses would continue to provide service only every 30 minutes, at best. But a new Frequent Transit Network would offer service every 15 minutes or faster on the 10 busiest bus routes, which would have significantly longer hours and an expanded fleet.
Assuming these outcomes play out as planned, should the voters endorse Nashville’s proposal? Would the city be getting its money’s worth?
For critics of the project, massive investment in transit simply doesn’t make much sense. Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Economic Malcolm Getz epitomizes the opposition, and he has produced a lengthy critique that’s been used by local media as evidence for the proposal’s failings. A few years ago, Getz was a key opponent of Nashville’s proposed Amp BRT line, which ultimately failed in the face of state legislative and local business opposition.
Getz’s arguments are similar to those used by most opponents of transit investment in cities across the U.S.: For one, he argues, transit does not reduce congestion and in fact may make matters worse if trains or buses take space away from cars on the street. Two, transit is slow because it requires transfers and thus will not increase ridership. Three, the benefits would go to just few people (since most people don’t use transit), and transit would accelerate gentrification. And four, the availability of new types of car services, combined with tolled express lanes, actually would be more beneficial.
These claims—like many of the popular criticisms of transit—mislead, simplify, and contradict.
It is true, as Getz notes, that the fundamental law of road congestion means roads will fill up to their capacity, so more transit is unlikely to reduce congestion in itself. But evidence does, in fact, show that transit plays an important role in reducing overall automobile traffic, even in places like Nashville where it accounts for a small share of commuters. As such, improving transit service can be an essential mechanism to move more people around a city without having to build more highways.
Of course, transit can only be effective if it’s carrying people, and that’s a shortcoming that Getz relies upon throughout his criticism. He suggests, to summarize, that there’s virtually nothing that can be done to attract people onto the region’s trains and buses because they are slow and require transfers, and thus that those vehicles will be empty no matter what.
But there are ways to make transit effective—it’s just that Getz isn’t much interested in them. As noted above, he’s opposed to dedicated lanes, but those are essential for speeding up transit and actually making them competitive with cars. Nashville’s transit system is quite low-ridership today, but one reason for that is that the service it provides is slow and infrequent, exactly the deficiencies this transit plan is designed to address.
Getz’s claim that Nashville’s transit system simply won’t be well used, and thus does not deserve significant investment, is simply a reflection of existing conditions and an unwillingness to believe that cities have the capacity to change.
Moreover, he is willing to use an argument that contradicts his other claims—that transit will induce gentrification by increasing property values near transit stations. Why, though, would transit improvements increase values if no one is using the system? There is significant evidence that transit investments increase surrounding property values, and the reason for that is that transit improves accessibility. In other words, you can’t both argue that transit won’t be used and that it will increase gentrification.
Getz’s proposed solutions include increasingly relying on ride-hailing services and putting buses in tolled express lanes on Nashville’s highways. Yet encouraging people to take Uber or Lyft into downtown wouldn’t do much at all to solve congestion—in fact, it might make it worse if people are subsidized to take those vehicles instead of the bus. Moreover, given that such services are hardly self-supporting today, and far from inexpensive, it’s hard to see this approach as effective in the long term.
While tolling expressways might be effective in cutting down on traffic, putting the buses there instead of on arterial surface streets would essentially remove transit from the places where it can actually thrive: In walkable, relatively dense neighborhoods, and relegate it to an automobile-dominated corridor.
Plus, Nashville’s massive growth requires new transportation capacity. Simply tolling some highway lanes won’t actually increase the ability of the region to handle more people. That’s why it’s so important that transit investments be offered as an alternative.
What future for the city?
Despite the limitations of Getz’s arguments, they are getting play in the local press. One reason for that is that there are reasons to be skeptical of the potential for Nashville transit improvements.
As such the city should be focusing intensely to construct larger projects along the routes and downtown to ensure that the transit investment is worth it. The existing land use code also has high parking requirements—at least one space per unit for residential uses, and one space per every 200 to 300 square feet for office uses—that should be eliminated to support a transit-focused city.
This plan is better than the previous one, focusing more on improving transit in the center, where it is likely to work best. Whereas the previous proposal would have extended light rail 30 miles from downtown, this one goes, at most, about seven miles from there. While the city extends roughly 15 miles from downtown, the underdeveloped, exurban parts are not to be served by this plan. That means that it’s designed to encourage development in the core by capitalizing redevelopment of existing built-up areas. That’s the right approach.
The inclusion of a transit tunnel downtown is a radical, expensive approach, but it’s ultimately a good idea from the perspective of making the system as effective as possible. By separating trains and BRT services from traffic, the system will avoid the pitfalls of places like Portland, where light rail vehicles crawl through downtown, and make it far more feasible for people to travel from one side of the city to another.
Moreover, the plan’s opponents are missing the larger issue: This transit plan isn’t really about responding to Nashville’s current travel patterns, for better or worse. It’s about creating a framework for the future development of the city around a reliable transit system.
If the proposal is successfully implemented, it will make it possible to have a transit-oriented life in a city where living without a car is now virtually impossible. It will create the groundwork for an alternative mode of development than the parking-heavy construction that currently dominates.
Despite the vocal opposition, Nashville’s citizenry may, in fact, be willing to go along with Mayor Barry’s transit proposal. It’s a big ask, and it will hit people in their pocketbooks, but the city’s residents are hardly arch-conservative; they voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite her winning only 35 percent of the statewide vote.
Even if they vote for the referendum, though, the way the transit projects that are funded by it are ultimately designed will play an essential role in determining their effectiveness. The fact that the city is proposing to include dedicated lanes only where “supported by the community” suggests that the city’s leaders are already anticipating opposition from neighbors in places such as along the West End corridor, which connects downtown to Vanderbilt University, and where the Amp project met its demise a few years back. But the transit services will only be useful for people in the city if they’re designed to be as rapid as possible.
Better transit for Nashville, then, means more than just passing new funding for the city’s system. It means making sure that the projects built are designed to work and to actually attract riders. That’s the really difficult part.
* Several cities, including Boston, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, built light rail tunnels many decades ago and have kept them operating. Tunnels in Dallas and Los Angeles are planned or now under construction.
Image at top: Downtown Nashville, from Flickr user Jason Mrachina (cc). Map of proposed Nashville fixed-guideway transit routes, from City of Nashville. Updated Jan. 31, 2018 to clarify changes to local bus service.
» Boston’s Green Line extension, bloated after years of planning, gets slimmed down. A lesson for other cities.
Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.
Yet anyone who has ever ridden the Subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the Subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.
Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.
Initial plans for the MBTA’s Green Line extension, which would extend light rail service from Cambridge into Somerville and Medford—all three are close-in suburbs of Boston—featured none of the extravagances of downtown Manhattan’s new transit terminal. Yet it too was designed with unnecessary features that, while nice, did little to actually solve the travel needs of its future users. Its projected construction costs exploded such that officials announced last year the proposal could be cancelled. Now, after several months of review, the MBTA and the state government have voted to proceed with design changes meant to significantly bring down costs—but without compromising the quality of transit service to be offered to riders.
Agencies with pricey projects around the country should look for similar opportunities to minimize costs.
A rail line for one of the nation’s most transit-friendly communities
The project would vastly improve connections of Somerville and Medford residents to jobs hubs in Cambridge and Boston and is expected to attract 45,000 daily riders by 2030. That would make it one of the most effective projects in the nation from the perspective of riders per mile operated.
The project has been in planning for decades. A 1990 lawsuit required that the line be completed by 2011 as a sort of trade-off in exchange for the completion of the Big Dig. But faced with limited funding, mounting MBTA debt, and a lack of adequate state political support, the project failed to gain traction and the state kept pushing it off. Finally, initial construction activity began in 2013 and the federal government agreed to provide a significant New Starts grant to the project in 2015.
Yet even as the project advanced, its estimated construction costs mounted ominously. Federal reports show total costs rising from $1.1 billion in 2013 to $1.7 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in early 2015. By late last year, the project’s budget had reached $3 billion, and the state announced that it was not only cancelling certain contracts related to its completion but also that, in the context of a transit agency stretched beyond anything it could handle, it was considering cancelling it altogether.*
Redesign by necessity
But the MBTA submitted the Green Line extension to a review by a project management team, and that group released its report on how to save the project yesterday. The document details how the project’s price tag could be substantially reduced, returning it to a (still-expensive but) doable $2.3 billion cost.
The changes are reasonable because, rather than cutting the quality of service provided to riders in terms of transit service, they focus on aesthetic elements that, even if they improve the general atmosphere of the system, likely do little to actually get people onto trains. The essentials, like the frequency of trains, their speed, and their capacity, are maintained.
What the team does recommend is vastly simplifying proposed station designs. As the below chart from the report indicates, the stations would be slimmed down. 15 elevators would be replaced by six (while maintaining wheelchair accessibility throughout); escalators and fare gates would be eliminated entirely; and full-length station canopies would be cut down to shelters. In total, these changes would slash almost $300 million from the project budget, with virtually no impact on ridership experience.
The changes will make the MBTA’s built footprint less visible; there will be no Calatrava extravagances here. As the below images show, Ball Square station in Medford was initially designed to feature a plaza, a headhouse (a multi-story building featuring elevators and escalators), a concourse, and a fully covered platform. What would be built in its place is an open-air and very simple train stop, with more room for future transit-oriented development.
Customers may suffer through the cold for a few more minutes, but trains will come frequently enough that shouldn’t be a major concern. Meanwhile, MBTA will save itself millions of dollars of future maintenance costs not upkeeping expensive and unreliable machinery and not keeping thousands of square feet of interior space clean. These savings aren’t even accounted for in the capital costs of the project but they’ll pay off in a lower operating budget for years to come.
The management team also proposes a reduction in the size of the proposed vehicle maintenance facility and affiliated transportation building, which together will save more than $100 million and not affect the MBTA’s ability to keep trains moving. An expensive parking deck will be replaced with a parking lot. Bridges that the initial plan suggested needed to be completely replaced will be simply renovated.
If the choices about what to eliminate seem obvious, consider the alternative: The Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C. also underwent a considerable cost-cutting process earlier this year. Yet the changes there will reduce passenger quality of service by increasing headways between trains, reducing train capacity, and lengthening the walking distance between the line and a Metro station in Silver Spring. While these efficiencies aren’t dramatic enough to imperil the overall value of the line, they will hurt the passenger experience in the long term, while those on the Green Line will not.
The changes in Boston must be approved by the Federal Transit Administration, which has final say over whether the redesigned project meets the initial project goals. And local governments need to scrounge up an additional $73 million to meet the gap in project costs that remains—without this funding, the project could still be on the chopping block. Yet these are surmountable obstacles and the project now seems likely to move forward.
Nuance by design
Boston’s example is no panacea; the quality of the transit environment does matter. While nice materials, enclosed stations, escalators, and overhead canopies may do little to expand ridership, they improve peoples’ daily experience, and that’s important. The nicer we can make the public sphere, the better our cities will be to live in.
But it’s refreshing to see a transit agency propose a cost-cutting approach that does nothing to negatively impact the level of service being proposed. Rather than take out a constricted budgetary environment on riders by reducing service, the MBTA is proposing to stick to the essentials, and that’s the right move.
Were construction costs in Boston lower, the MBTA could afford to give riders both good service and a comfortable environment. But like transit agencies around the country, the MBTA has been unable to lower costs to international standards. In this environment, it serves as a model for other agencies looking to invest in transit on a limited budget.
* There is some question as to whether the state actually can ever cancel the project, given that it was mandated through the legal process.
» 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 networkrevealed 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 $4.6 billion in 2014 dollars, more than any of the other major capital projects the agency plans. But it would also attract many more riders—about 130,000 per day—assuming estimates are correct. That’s many more than any of the other projects on the ST3 list, as the following table shows.
30-yr operating cost (2014$m)
Construction cost (2014$m)
Ballard to Downtown LRT
Tacoma Link to College Streetcar
West Seattle to Downtown LRT
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way LRT
145th and SR 522 BRT
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome LRT
Lynnwood to Everett LRT
Redmond Extension LRT
Bellevue to Issaquah LRT
Sounder to Dupont CR
Graham St Station
Boeing Access Rd Station
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 $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.
Incomprehensibly, the two other projects that also perform well on this metric also wouldn’t open anytime soon: A Tacoma streetcar extension would have to wait until 2041 and a West Seattle light rail line would wait until 2033.
Total 30-yr costs (2014$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
Tacoma Link to Community College
West Seattle to Downtown
Kent/Des Moines to Federal Way
145th and SR 522
Federal Way to Tacoma Dome
Lynnwood to Everett
Bellevue to Issaquah
Sounder to Dupont
Boeing Access Road
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.