2 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
Letâ€™s Complete Our Regional Light Rail Network and Get Out of Congestion Your YES vote on Prop 1 means: 116 miles of light rail to connect our entire region. New Bus Rapid Transit on I-405 and SR522. Investments in additional Sounder service and capacity. Connect people from across the region with major job centers. Complete a mass transit system that can move 1 million people every day. BROAD SUPPORT FOR MASS TRANSIT NOW ELECTED LEADERS Governor Jay Inslee Attorney General Bob Ferguson King County Executive Dow Constantine Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy
ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS Climate Solutions Futurewise Sierra Club Washington Conservation Voters Washington Environmental Council
LABOR UNIONS Aerospace Machinists Lodge 751 Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Pierce County Labor Council WA State Labor Council AFL-CIO WA State Bldg. & Construction Trades Council
COMMUNITY GROUPS Fair Housing Center of Washington Housing Development Consortium of Seattle/King County Low Income Housing Institute OneAmerica Votes Puget Sound Sage Rainbow Center
YES! on Sound Transit Prop 1 1701226
TRANSPORTATION ADVOCATES Cascade Bicycle Club Tacoma: Downtown on the Go Transportation Choices Coalition Transit Riders Union BUSINESS ASSOCIATIONS Bellevue Downtown Association Downtown Seattle Association Economic Alliance of Snohomish County Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County Greater Seattle Business Association Issaquah Chamber of Commerce OneRedmond Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce
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The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 3
At a crossroads
Is ST3 the $54-billion answer to our congestion?
t’s that dreaded red line. You know the one. You’re running late for work, or you’re heading home, maybe with the hopes that you can cook dinner at a reasonable hour. Before you pull onto the highway — I-5, I-90, I-405, SR 520, SR 99 — you glance at the map on your phone and there, on the path between you and your destination, you don’t see green, you don’t even see much orange. You see red. It’s not a new problem: Traffic congestion on the inconveniently hourglassshaped land mass that is home to Seattle has been a part of the local conversation for a very long time. It is getting worse, though. Between 2010 and 2015, in fact, congestion has increased by 95 percent, according to the Washington Department of Transportation. And according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, we are losing 63 hours a year sitting in traffic — which, if you’ve actually experienced it, feels like a lowball estimate. It’s easy for Seattleites to see why it’s gotten so bad. You need only look at the city’s skyline, where innumerable cranes twist methodically as they answer the demands of our booming tech economy, building more places to work and new places to live for the new Seattleites who are arriving every day. The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that 800,000 new residents will flock to the region by 2040. Many of those people will no doubt live on the outskirts of the city or beyond, where the housing is more affordable and public transit is largely absent. You are likely to see them at your favorite neighborhood bar, in your PTA meetings, and stuck alongside you in soul-crushing traffic. Other new arrivals will be lucky (or wealthy) enough to live in the urban core where public transit has seemingly begun to bloom. Most notably, in the last year, we have witnessed the opening of light rail stations in Capitol Hill and the University District. Supply met demand as riders flooded
the trains at those stations, overcrowding them in many cases while creating at least the perception of a populace craving transit. The opening of the stations marked a major milestone for Sound Transit. The completion of the U-Link, which extends all the way down to South 200th Street, fulfilled the promise made when the regional transit authority was approved by the public in 1996. The fact that it was completed 10 years later and at almost double the budget set out in those early days likewise fueled transit skeptics who view light rail as an expensive, inflexible boondoggle and point to increased bus service as a more effective and cheaper means to relieve congestion. Sound Transit, for its part, is eager to direct attention to its second measure, passed in 2008, that is so far running under budget and mostly on time, adding 30 more miles to the network over the next seven years. We Seattleites have largely ignored the critics and have so far embraced much of the vision put forth by Sound Transit, even as other communities in the three-county region that is taxed and served by the transit authority have said “Slow down.” Now comes Sound Transit 3, which will show up on your November 8 ballot as Proposition 1. The proposal is big — most notably it will grow Link Light Rail into a 116-mile system, extending the spine as far north as Everett and as far south as DuPont with spurs that will connect West Seattle and Ballard and push further into the Eastside. The ask is big as well. The $54 billion package demands $28 billion in new taxes that will come in the form of a half-percent sales tax, a car-tab fee increase of .8 percent and an increase in property taxes of 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. Is it worth it? That is the question that we’re hoping the information and analysis in this section will help you answer. — MARK BAUMGARTEN Editor-in-Chief, Seattle Weekly
INSIDE Peter Rogoff Q&A . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yays and nays . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Solving for X . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Taxed & spent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Page 4 Page 5 Page 7 Page 8
Those new dates . . . . . . . . . . . . . Seattle perspective . . . . . . . . . . . Bus Rapid Transit primer . . . . . . . History of light rail. . . . . . . . . . . .
Page 12 Page 14 Page 17 Page 18
BELLEVUE SEATTLE Issaquah
Des Moines Federal Way
TACOMA Sumner Puyallup
Bonney Lake Orting
KEY PROPOSED ST3 PROJECTS Link Light Rail Bus Rapid Transit Sounder Rail Proposed shoulder running buses / speed and reliability improvements SOURCE: SOUND TRANSIT
CURRENT AND PLANNED SERVICE Link Light Rail Sounder Rail ST Express Bus Major Rail Transfer
SHARON ADJIRI / SEATTLE WEEKLY
4 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
On ST3 Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff
By MARK BAUMGARTEN Seattle Weekly
rom his office in the Sound Transit office in Union Station, Peter Rogoff sits at the hub of the regional transit authority he has overseen since taking the helm as Chief Executive Officer in January. Before arriving here, he served as the Undersecretary of Transportation for Policy in the U.S. Department of Transportation, where he oversaw a study that estimates an explosive growth in the population of 11 American cities. Now he is charged with doing something about that growth — building the transit capacity to ably serve the 800,000 new residents expected in the Puget Sound region over the next 25 years. The key to accomplishing that feat, he says, is Sound Transit 3, the $54 billion package that voters will be asked to approve on Election Day. It’s a massive project with lofty goals and a big pricetag. We asked him why it’s worth it.
What is the most frustrating thing about the ST3 debate right now? I don’t know if frustrating is the right word, but what I sometimes find lacking in the debate is an appreciation for the fact that we are not proposing this system based on conditions today. A lot of people want to evaluate the merits or deficiencies on any particular investment with a mind toward what they’re experiencing in that corridor today. I think that is just human nature, but the reality is that we will be rolling out these investments over the next 25 years and things are going to change quite dramatically in that time. There will be an estimated 800,000 additional residents in the Puget Sound region. A great many of them are going to be locating in areas where housing might still be able to be built or where it will be more affordable and as such we need to make sure that there are viable transit connections for those communities. Soon after ST2 passed, the subprime mortgage crisis happened and it really changed the landscape. What if something unforeseeable happens again? Obviously the biggest recession since
the Great Depression did happen during the pendency of ST2, and what it really meant was not that projects were permanently canceled, but that they were going to have to be delayed long into the future because of the dramatic drop in revenue. One of course hopes that a recession of that size will not happen again anytime in the near future, but the financial plan that we put out to the public does assume a reasonable cycle of recessions and recoveries over the 25-year period. It would be irresponsible to model revenues any other way.
Can you, in the simplest terms possible, explain how the number $15 billion, which was being tossed around when the Legislature granted the taxing authority to Sound Transit, became $54 billion? That $15 billion, if you will, as a revenue increase, is comparable to about $27 billion of the $54 billion — the rest comes from existing taxes, bonding and federal money. The reason why the revenue increase is a higher number is that it is the same level of taxes allowed by the legislature put out over a greater number of years. The legislature was assuming a 15-year package, and what we put together is a 25-year package.
Late last month, the Angle Lake light rail station opened. That station came in $40 million under budget. In comparison, the U-Link project connecting the University District in Seattle to SeaTac was 86 percent over budget. Is there something in the approach to that Angle Lake project that you can apply to ST3 projects? Well, we are. First, a very voluminous series of audits and oversight that we not only impose on ourselves. We will continue to be subject to that oversight, and we will have voluminous audits throughout the ST3 project and we welcome that. In the case of Angle Lake, we were able to bring some creativity to bear over the fact that during a downturn in the economy where construction bidding was coming in at very competitive rates, we were able to fill the funding hole with a federal grant, and we were able to get that project launched earlier than originally thought, which meant that we were not just $40
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff (center) takes a ride on light rail from the new Angle Lake Station in SeaTac, with King County Executive Dow Constantine (left), Sept. 21. IAN TERRY / THE HERALD
million under budget, but we are four years earlier than we thought we would be. Whenever you can accelerate a project and make it happen sooner, you save money.
The Seattle Times reported that the amount spent on the Angle Lake opening ceremony was a third of the amount it was originally budgeted for, and that this was in reaction to the blowback of the amount of money spent when U-Link opened. Was that a political decision in an election year, or is this a shift in priorities of spending for Sound Transit? We certainly took note of and were cognizant of the fact that we probably went too far with the U-Link opening. But let’s talk about what the U-Link opening was about. It was about the historic opening of two stations that extended high-capacity rail to two of the densest neighborhoods in the entire state. While the $800,000 spent on the U-Link opening gets a lot of attention, I don’t think that a lot of people understand that a large chunk of that funding was devoted to things like porta-potties and line minders and security. We had tens of thousands of people show up for opening day. There are certain things that we certainly dialed back as a part of the Angle Lake opening, but we were fortunate to be able to secure a corporate sponsor for some of the activities and Alaska Airlines for the Angle Lake opening. And the City of SeaTac was willing to include a celebration as part of this with their resources.
Some critics say that our taxing priorities should be toward education first and transportation second. What’s your response to that critique?
The calculations that I have been informed of basically estimate that the property-tax adjustment that would come with the ST3 ballot measure, depending on where you live, would come in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 percent. The issues of solving education and state funding for elementary and secondary education has been vexing this state for a few decades, and I don’t think that anyone credibly believes that a 1.5 or 2.5 percent uptick ensures or dooms a solution to the significant issue of elementary and secondary education. It’s also probably worth noting that there is in our ballot measure a unique animal that actually, should it pass, generates $518 million for education services in the three-county region. Those who believe that education and transportation have to vie against one another would have you believe that we are competing for the same authorized tax envelope, and we’re not.
What does Sound Transit do if ST3 fails? The next step is to complete light rail to Kent/Des Moines, Lynnwood, and Bellevue and Overlake and toward Redmond. And that will be the end of our capital program. It’s ironic. Some have criticized the agency with this banner of being Seattle-centric. There is an argument to be made that if our light rail network stops at the end of the ST2 program, at least the light rail network will be Seattle-centric. If it fails, we finish building the system we’ve been authorized to build. There is no secret plan B sitting in a file drawer here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. MARK BAUMGARTEN: 206-467-4374; email@example.com
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 5
Two sides of the debate “Crossed Pinkies” by Seattle artist Ellen Forney, at the Capitol Hill Link light rail staion in Seattle.
It’s a massive plan, so there is a lot to love – and not love. Meet the constituencies that have come out for and against the mass transit plan IAN TERRY / THE HERALD
YAY WHO: Major Democratic politicians SUCH AS: King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Governor Jay Inslee, former governor Chris Gregoire, and city and county councilmembers from across the region. THE ARGUMENT: In short: Traffic. Gridlock threatens to choke our economy, our atmosphere, our lives. ST3 is the best way to prevent the Puget Sound region from coming to a complete standstill, as it provides a real alternative to driving. “Free yourself — and all your friends — from gridlock,” Executive Constantine told a packed crowd at the Seattle launch party for the Yes on ST3 campaign. He lauded the launch of two new light rail stations in Seattle, arguing that “for tens of thousands of people now, their lives are transformed. … They have more time to do the things they want to do, and a lot less time wasted sitting in traffic.”
WHO: Cost-conscious citizens and WHO: Labor groups SUCH AS: The Washington State BuildSUCH AS: Kirkland Democrats Frank ing and Construction Trades Council, Dennis and David Greschler, Pierce County Building former Metro Transit direcand Construction Trades, By SARA BERNARD tor Chuck Collins, transporand the Martin Luther King Seattle Weekly tation consultant John Niles, County Labor Council and engineer Mark Ahlers. (MLKCLC). THE ARGUMENT: ST3 is THE ARGUMENT: Jobs. ST3 far too expensive for far too little of a will create tens of thousands of familyreturn. It won’t help traffic. ST3 will only wage, unionized jobs in the region, and displace a tiny fraction of the 19 milcould account for nearly 10 percent of lion transit trips we’re expecting people all construction jobs here by 2029. From across the region to take in 2040. It could the workers who will be driving the trains cost the average Puget Sound homeownand buses to the electricians wiring the er some $25,000 over 25 years for projects system, ST3 creates “the right kinds of that do very little; according to Sound jobs in the right places at the right time,” Transit’s data, ST3 is expected to create says Nicole Grant, Secretary-Treasurer of only 32,000 new riders and less than 1 the MLKCLC. These are jobs that could percent of the new trips in 2040 — all that allow people to buy a home and raise a for $54 billion, or some half-a-million family, yet are “accessible to people from dollars per rider. different education levels.” It also puts
WHO: Pro-transit, anti-light rail advocates SUCH AS: Former King County Councilmember and Edmonds resident Maggie Fimia, Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon, Capitol Hill resident and transportation blogger Troy Serad. THE ARGUMENT: ST3 invests heavily in light rail, and light rail is not the answer. A bigger investment in what we already have, and especially in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), would be a better, quicker solution. Also, with ST3, we’re locking ourselves into an old technology that could be superseded by a better one long before we’ve even broken ground on the light rail promised. “While technology rapidly marches ahead,” writes Kirkland Views editor Rob Butcher, “Sound Transit will plod along building trains to the Cascade foothills, that can’t be justified economically and that won’t even run until 2040.”
6 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
YAY those jobs in places that need them the most: high-paying construction jobs, for instance, will exist well outside Seattle city limits. WHO: Environmental activists SUCH AS: The Washington Environmental Council (WEC), the Sierra Club, and the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. THE ARGUMENT: Climate change. The only way the region and the state can meet its climate goals is to invest heavily in electric light rail, not in any other form of transport. Light rail has a far lighter carbon footprint and results in less environmental contamination than do buses or cars, and anything we can do to get people to drive less is a very good thing. “The biggest source of our climate emissions here in Washington state is transportation,” says the WEC in a Pro-ST3 statement. WHO: Community and social justice groups SUCH AS: OneAmerica, GotGreen, Transportation Choices Coalition, and Puget Sound Sage. THE ARGUMENT: Equity. Many lowincome people have been priced out of
urban areas, and therefore spend hours commuting on slow buses or in cars because there is no other option. ST3 will improve their lives dramatically. It also explicitly creates opportunities for affordable housing along new transit lines. “The second any land is surplussed, the right of first refusal goes to nonprofit and affordable housing developers — it’s revolutionary,” says OneAmerica advocacy manager Endicott Dandy. WHO: Tax relativists SUCH AS: King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and state representative Joe Fitzgibbon; also urbanists and fiscallyliberal community activists. THE ARGUMENT: Yes, $54 billion sounds like a lot. Yes, this is a tax increase. But it’s not as horrific as it’s made out to be, and the alternative to light rail (prioritizing buses and building new HOV lanes) could cost almost as much. “With Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), there’s nothing magic about the ‘R,’ ” says Balducci. “It’s not rapid, unless you put the buses in a separated right of way,” and “if you have to build that extra road space, then the costs are just about the same as building light rail.”
NAY WHO: Public officials outside Seattle SUCH AS: Pierce County AssessorTreasurer Mike Lonergan, Sammamish Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama, former Snohomish County Councilmember Gary Nelson, and Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace; also the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce. THE ARGUMENT: ST3 favors Seattle. It’s supposedly an investment in the whole region, but many taxpayers from cities like Everett, Renton, Kirkland, or Sammamish will be paying the price for years without seeing much in return. “In 25 years, we’re going to be basically the only city without light rail,” Renton city councilmember Ruth Pérez testified during a Sound Transit board meeting in June. “I call it taxation without transportation,” Sammamish Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama told KIRO 7. WHO: Prominent Democrats SUCH AS: Senator Reuven Carlyle, State Treasurer Jim McIntire, and State Superintendent Randy Dorn. THE ARGUMENT: ST3 spends too many tax dollars on a project that could threaten the state’s ability to fund other crucial public services, like education. If ST3 takes up part of the state cap on property taxes,
for instance, that could damage a potential source of revenue for public schools. “I am unsettled that the package consumes the oxygen in the room on taxes for virtually all other public services at all levels of government for years to come,” wrote Senator Carlyle. State Superintendent Randy Dorn also has his misgivings. “Roads before kids is, I guess, what’s going on right now,” Dorn told KING 5. WHO: Sound Transit critics SUCH AS: The Seattle Times editorial board, KIRO’s Jason Rantz, conservative blogs such as ShiftWA, and Maggie Fimia. THE ARGUMENT: Sound Transit shouldn’t get a blank check. Voting in ST3 means the plan is locked in for decades, without continual voter oversight to make sure the promised infrastructure is getting built within budget and on time. “Unlike ST1 and ST2, this measure creates a new property tax and permanent taxing authority for Sound Transit,” writes the Seattle Times editorial board. “If ST3 is approved as written, Sound Transit wouldn’t have to periodically ask voters for more support for decades.” — SARA BERNARD: 206-467-4370; firstname.lastname@example.org
A Tacoma Link streetcar on Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma on Sept. 24. IAN TERRY / THE HERALD
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 7
Solving for X Who does Sound Transit need to vote for their new plan, and how are they getting those votes?
By JERRY CORNFIELD The Daily Herald
et’s be honest. Voters in Snohomish and Pierce counties are important to the fate of Sound Transit 3. But it will be those living in King County, specifically the city of Seattle, who will determine the outcome Nov. 8. ST3 will pass, or fail, with a simple majority of votes among those cast in the areas of the three counties served by the regional agency. Yet, since roughly 60 percent of transit district voters reside in Seattle and King County, it is their decision on the $54 billion proposal that will hold the most sway. Historically, in Washington, voters living in larger cities and urban areas tend to be politically and fiscally more progressive and their turnout soars in presidential years like this one. It proved a winning formula for Sound Transit in 1996 and 2008. Backers of ST3 are counting on it working again in 2016. Still, ST3 isn’t like its predecessors. It adds more miles of track and builds more stations. It also costs more money and requires more taxes. Supporters are working to convince voters of the worthiness of easing congestion at this price and in this manner while opponents counter that those dollars will not deliver the promised benefits. It’s a completely different campaign than Sound Transit’s prior efforts. “If in 2008 we were selling the vision, in 2016 we’re selling the reality,” said Christian Sinderman, the Seattle political consultant who managed the ST2 campaign and is in the same role for ST3. Eight years ago people could see some elevated tracks and construction, but light-rail service had not begun. Since then stations have opened from the airport to the University District in Seattle. “Then it was much more aspirational,” Sinderman added. “Now we can say we’ve got rail, trains are running, there are more stations on the way so let’s keep the momentum going.” It’s an easy sell in Seattle, so long as the many Millennial and Generation X riders remember there’s more on the ballot than
Protesters at the opening of the Angle Lake Transit Station in September. IAN TERRY / THE HERALD
just the race for president. Sound Transit is utilizing a variety of means, including social media, to make sure those voters don’t forget to weigh in on Proposition 1, the Sound Transit measure, which will appear near the end of the ballot, Sinderman said. It’s going to be a harder sell to people in a place such as Everett. Those voters can’t easily discern the benefits of 20 years of taxation, and they now are getting asked to pay even higher taxes knowing it could be another couple decades before they see a light-rail train pull into Everett station. “The fundamental calculation (for voters) is ‘Is what I’m getting out of this package worth what I am being asked to contribute?’ ” said Rick Desimone, a political consultant and former aide to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray who worked on the 2008 transit campaign, but is not involved in this year’s ballot measure. “How you win is making sure the different constituencies in each service area feel like they’re getting something for their money,” he said. With Sound Transit 3 that begins in Seattle. With success hinging on an overwhelming yes vote in the urban center, adding service to Ballard and West Seattle
is intended to shore up votes. And agreeing to a route that takes trains through the Paine Field industrial area in Everett, and near the Boeing Co. plant, is aimed at bolstering support in Snohomish County, where the agency so far has not spent as much money as it has soaked up in taxes. From 1995 to 2015, the regional transit agency took in nearly $1 billion from the Snohomish County portion of the transit district while reinvesting only $870 million, according to agency figures. That’s the lowest sum of investment in any of Sound Transit’s five sub-areas. East King County, which includes Bellevue, is the only other sub area with an imbalance. It generated $1.9 billion in taxes during the 20-year period while receiving $1.6 billion in projects and service, according to Sound Transit figures. ST3 will reset the balance sheet, Sinderman said. The campaign must make Snohomish County voters know “there’s a lot in it” for the community, including light rail and expanded bus rapid transit. This will be the fifth time the question of financing Sound Transit projects will appear on ballots. Thus far the regional transit
agency is batting .500 with voters. They rejected Sound Move in 1995, then approved a retooled version in 1996, coincidentally a presidential election year. In 2007, voters in all three counties turned down the Roads and Transit proposal. The following year — again a presidential year — Sound Transit 2 reached the ballot and passed, in the process revealing the imbalance of political power. Pierce County voters rejected the measure by a slim margin. But it won with a large majority (60.5 percent) in King County and a comfortable one (54.2 percent) in Snohomish County. One could clearly see the influence wielded by King County in the final tally. Of the nearly 1.2 million votes cast on ST2, 63 percent came from precincts in King County. Pierce County accounted for 22 percent and Snohomish County 15 percent. Drilling down further, the measure passed by roughly 155,000 votes in King County alone. For perspective, in Snohomish County, the total number of votes cast on ST3 that year — for and against combined — was 174,767.
No magic bullet Opponents of ST3 are conducting a barebones campaign fueled with confidence. No Sound Transit 3 had raised only $10,636 by the end of September, while Mass Transit Now, the ST3 campaign operation, had amassed $2.4 million. A lack of money means those fighting the measure must be nimble and tireless, said Maggie Fimia of Edmonds, a founder of Smarter Transit and leader of the opposition. She also is a former member of the King County Council. “The strategy is and has been to get the truth out to as many people as possible as soon as possible,” she said. “We won’t have anywhere near $3 million. We have to have a scaled down, targeted strategic plan.” They are putting up yard signs, talking with friends and being “present and accounted for” at City Council meetings when resolutions of support or opposition for ST3 are on the agenda, she said. The opposition’s message is that ST3 will
8 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition not ease congestion as claimed and may be passé when completed, supplanted by a “transportation revolution” that will be steering travelers to rideshare and automated cars, not light rail. And Puget Sound residents like their buses. The region enjoys one of the highest bus rider per capita rates in the nation, she said. “We need more transit now,” she said. “Rail is not a magic bullet for a region like ours.” Tim Eyman of Mukilteo, promoter of anti-tax initiatives, also opposes ST3 and is a co-author of dissenting statements in the voter’s pamphlet in all three counties. Fimia isn’t happy about that. Eyman is disliked in many areas of King County, and she said his involvement in the opposition could be enough to get some voters to back ST3 when they might not otherwise. While Eyman stirs up strong feelings among King County voters, he does have a knack for getting them to reject new and higher taxes. And if there’s one issue Sinderman and supporters don’t want to dwell on too long, it is taxation. Doing so tends to make voters think hard about the potential impact on their wallets. Paul Berendt, an Olympia-based political strategist and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the strong economy
in the three counties should help. “The stress of the pocketbook issues is less pronounced when your income is rising,” he said. “There’s so much need and so much growth going on that people will support anything that reduces their commute times.” Eyman and former Snohomish County councilman Gary Nelson focused on the cost issue in their voter’s pamphlet statement in Snohomish County. “Just say No to new property taxes. Just say No to 55 percent increase in sales taxes. Just say No to tripling car tab taxes,” they wrote. “Nothing requires them to deliver what’s promised — projects, costs, and timelines are not binding. Only thing certain are its massive permanent tax increases.” In an interview in late September, Eyman didn’t forecast ST3’s defeat, noting that having it on the ballot in a presidential year is by design. “I’ve always had this thought that it is going to be a wave. Voters either repudiate by a huge margin or there is going to be this massive wave of support in Seattle,” he said. “Sound Transit picked a presidential year for that reason. They wanted the crazies in Seattle to turn out.” — JERRY CORNFIELD: 360-352-8623; email@example.com
TAXED & SPENT
EVERETT 1 EDMONDS
Total money raised through taxes and grants in each Sound Transit sub-region and how much each got back. SNOHOMISH
$1.04B $870M NORTH KING
$3.28B $4.14B EAST KING
$1.58B $1.55B SOURCE: SOUND TRANSIT
LYNNWOOD, ON TRACK FOR LIGHT RAIL
Link Light Rail arriving at Lynnwood City Center in 2023 1699978
(425) 670-5249 www.LynnwoodWA.gov 1699136
JOSE TRUJILLO / SEATTLE WEEKLY
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 9
Does ST3 Take Too Long, Cost Too Much? WE CAN DO BETTER.
The story is familiar in our region—politicians promise to reduce trafﬁc congestion, if we just give them more taxes. Then the promises crumble under the weight of bad planning, missed deadlines and over-spending, until they come back with a new set of promises, asking for even higher taxes. This year voter trust will be tested—again—by Sound Transit. For the ﬁfth time in 21 years, light rail is on the ballot, with Regional Proposition 1 (or ST3 as it’s called). And just like in 1995, 1996, 2007, and 2008, big promises are being made to justify the billions they want to spend. Yes, Sound Transit is back, even though as the Seattle Times wrote in August, the ﬁrst phase that voters approved 20 years ago is not ﬁnished, and won’t be ﬁnished until 2021, and is 86% over-budget!
“Sound Transit’s cost overruns for ﬁrst phase hit about 86 percent.” —Seattle Times, 8/20/16
CONSIDER THESE FACTS ABOUT ST3: • The projects in this year’s plan will take 25 years to ﬁnish. Tax increases will start next year for trains that won’t be running until 2041—if everything goes according to plan. • ST3 will create “permanent” taxes according to the Seattle Times— including a ﬁrst-ever property tax for transit—continuing even after the projects are completed. • Even Sound Transit leaders admit this plan will not actually reduce trafﬁc congestion. Voters have faced this choice before — in both 1995 and 2007, the voters said “No”. Then, after changes were made, in both 1996 and 2008, they said “Yes”. On November 8, we’ll know if the people of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have decided Sound Transit has earned their trust—and more of their tax dollars.
SERVING 2X THE PEOPLE AT HALF THE COST Compare ST3 and Mobility Now $16.00
MOBILITY NOW Highway
MOBILITY NOW Ped/Bike
$7.45 Population Served
$0.00 ST3 Transit
$ = Cost per trip
There are other solutions, visit Mobility21Now.com to learn more. Sponsored by Eastside Transportation Association, P.O. Box 50621 Bellevue, WA 98015
10 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
Connecting Our Communities
Keeping the Lights ON! Keeping Our Families Safe International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers & National Electrical Contractors Association
Photo Courtesy of Buff Black
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 11
12 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
Waiting for the train Back in March, Sound Transit said that some light rail lines wouldn’t be completed until 2041. Then after some complaints, they turned around and, poof, the dates were moved up. What happened? By Casey Jaywork
aster. That’s the number-one thing Sound Transit heard from critics after releasing a draft version of its ST3 expansion plan in March. If passed, the then-$50 billion project would have upgraded our transit network with lots more light rail and commuter trains, among other things, but many of the target dates were too far-flung. The Ballard line wouldn’t be done until 2038, for instance, and Everett wouldn’t see a train until 2038. So when the regional transit agency announced in June that it had moved up the timelines on eight different projects — speeding them up by five years in some cases — there was much rejoicing in Seattle’s urbanist enclaves and transit-hungry suburbs alike. But cork the champagne for a second and put on your thinking cap. How did they move the timelines up? We put the question to Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick. The answer: Finance. Yes, usury! That dark and arcane art that gave us the housing-market bubble and the credit-card economy — this is the magic that will deliver fast transit to the Puget Sound region, faster. “Working closely with a financial team that included outside consultants, we were able to leverage bonding to borrow about $4 billion in addition to what we’d assumed,” says Patrick. “By increasing the funding by that $4 billion, we were able to move up the timelines.” As a result, the overall ST3 budget rose from $50 billion to $53.8 billion. In other words, some hired-gun economists put their heads together and found a way to materialize $4 billion out of thin air by borrowing it via bonds (that is, loans from regular citizens to the government).
JEREMY DWYER-LINDGREN / SEATTLE WEEKLY
Riders gather to board the light rail at the Capitol Hill Station in Seattle during the station’s first day of operation.
In the long run, of course, taxpayers have to pay back those bonds with interest, but in the relatively short term — in this case, a quarter-century — this economic magic trick frees enough cash flow to allow Sound Transit to break ground on eight of its projects years earlier than planned. Cash flow: That’s the keyword here. The whole dilemma of finance, after all, is balancing the value of getting money you can invest in transit now (which will pay dividends to individuals and the economy as the Puget Sound area gets more and more crowded) against the price of borrowing (that is, interest). Functional governments can usually borrow money on the cheap because it’s a safe investment: It’s hard for a debtor to skip town when the debtor is a town. On the other hand, there’s a limit to how much even a municipality can borrow before it has so much debt — and so much associated risk of default — that its credit score gets downgraded and borrowing money via bonds becomes more expensive. This is what famously happened to our country’s credit score during the 2011
debt crisis. In this case, Patrick says, the eggheads of fortune concluded that borrowing an extra $4 billion wouldn’t trigger a credit-score downgrade. So while it’s not free money — taxpayers have to pay it back eventually — it is cheap money. Patrick explains how that cheap $4 billion can speed up eight different ST3 capital projects by 30 years cumulatively. “There’s two main factors in how long it takes to build a project,” he says. “First, let’s say money’s no object, it’s just how long it will take to build something. You have to go through several steps.” In some cases, project timelines — without accounting for any kind of legal delays — can take up to 15 years, he says. “[You] go through all the steps of alternatives analysis and environmental review, and then preliminary engineering takes you up to 30 percent design completion, then you go to final design — that’s 100 percent — and then you have to build it and open it,” says Patrick. “So it’s a significant time period with any major mass-transit project.
“Factor two is you also have to take into account your cash flow,” he says. That means making sure the right amount of money is available at the right time to pay for pencils, asphalt, and whatever else the builder gnomes of the regional transit district need to complete their transit mission. “Part of the challenge that we had with the draft measure is the cash flow was such that some projects were occurring later in the timeline than we wanted to, just by virtue of cash flow,” says Patrick. “In other words, [projects were delayed] not by how long it would take to build them, but by revenues.” So you want to borrow revenues to speed them up. But doesn’t that add risk? One of the main talking points against ST3 — as articulated by the reliably anti-transit Seattle Times editorial board — is that it has too big a budget and too little oversight. On the other hand, the Times and the No on ST3 campaign website (which entirely relies on that Times editorial as its supporting “research”) are mostly upset about ST3 increasing taxes on property and cars. Patrick says bonding is not particularly risky. “The Sound Transit 3 plan is built using direct funding for about 70 percent of the project cost and borrowing for about 30 percent of the project cost. In the greater scheme of things nationally, that kind of balance is very strong. There’s not an overextension, as far as the amount that’s appropriate to borrow. We’re able to do it with the assumption of maintaining our — outstanding, frankly — credit ratings.” So are these new dates real? Can ST3 deliver Everett light rail five years sooner? Well, we who inhabit the region all know how unreliable infrastructure projects are. Sometimes they finish on time, but sometimes they really don’t. Patrick says that ST3’s updated dates were always deliverable in terms of construction timelines. The problem was cash flow and timing. Now that those eggheads figured out how to squeeze another $4 billion out of thin air, there’s no built-in reason why ST3 shouldn’t be able to keep the dates that it promises. — CASEY JAYWORK: 206-467-4332; firstname.lastname@example.org
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 13
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14 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
Is ‘Yes’ the only answer?
Link Light Rail passengers consider their options during the opening of the U-Link in March. Ridership has been robust since the long-awaited line opened. JEREMY DWYER-LINDGREN / SEATTLE WEEKLY
The city has a lot to gain from ST3, if it’s willing to wait for it By Daniel Person Seattle Weekly
In 2008, voters in the 36th legislative district — covering Interbay, Ballard, and Magnolia — approved Sound Transit’s 15-year, $18 billion spending package by a 40-point margin. A rout by any political standard, the big spread is all the more impressive given that ST2, the 2008 ballot measure from the regional transit agency, really didn’t deliver much to that slice of Seattle. Rather, the bulk of that $18 billion was earmarked for light rail expansion to the Eastside, Lynnwood, and Des Moines.
In the intervening years, Ballard has experienced explosive growth. In the four years from 2010 to 2014, the neighborhood’s population grew by 24 percent, according to census figures. And that could be but a sneak preview of what’s to come. The city of Seattle has plans to rezone Ballard to allow for far denser housing, meaning thousands more people will be moving to the neighborhood. In response, Sound Transit this time around is proposing devoting significant resources toward Ballard in ST3 with plans to build a light-rail line that would connect the former fishing village to the spine of the system, which currently runs from the University District
to Angle Lake. One part of what would be, in the end, a 116-mile system, the line is projected to carry as many as 145,000 riders a day by 2045. Given Seattle residents’ reputation as a people who have never met a tax they wouldn’t approve, it seems almost impossible that voters in the 36th — who would see a total of six light rail stops built in their neighborhoods under the ST3 plan — will reject Proposition 1 this fall. But John Niles argues they should do just that. Niles is no cranky Eastsider angry at the whole idea of transit. He lives in Interbay, not far from where the Ballard line would stop on its way to South Lake Union and
downtown. If he is cranky, he didn’t come off as such over the phone. And he made a living consulting municipalities about transit. Niles’ argument against ST3 comes down to three central points: The plan is too dependent on rail, even in population-dense Seattle; it takes too long to complete for a city growing as quickly as Seattle is; and voters simply shouldn’t trust Sound Transit to get it right, even under the present extended timeline and eye-opening pricetag ($54 billion over the next 25 years). Niles’ viewpoint cuts hard against the conventional wisdom in Seattle, which holds that Sound Transit — and the light
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 15 rail it is building — is already proving to be a transformative force in the city with its 18-mile rail system running between the University of Washington and Angle Lake south of SeaTac. Following the opening of new stations on Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium in March — on a line called the U-Link — ridership has boomed as people avail themselves of the once unfathomable seven-minute trip from Montlake to Downtown. Sound Transit officials certainly weren’t shy when talking about the significance of the line’s expansion. “Today, we celebrate an historic achievement — delivering new high-capacity light rail that will transform transportation in our region for the next century,” Dow Constantine said in prepared remarks at the opening of U-Link. Writing in Seattle Met, Kathryn Robinson says she started to cry when she first made her commute from North Seattle on rail, going from Husky Stadium to downtown in the time it used to take her bus to go a few stops. Rail cars have been quickly filling to “crush capacity” as riders flock to the line, and Sound Transit officials have expressed surprise at the degree to which ridership spiked following the opening of U-Link. But Niles argues that this seemingly unanimous celebration should be looked at skeptically. In particular, he says Sound Transit had originally promised far greater ridership for the rail line when first selling it back in 1996, making any argument that the line is exceeding expectations baseless. Niles also argues that the packed rail cars that riders are experiencing on Link Light Rail is actually further proof of Sound Transit mismanagement, saying they raise questions of whether the agency will be able to actually deliver a built-out system that doesn’t leave people standing on the platform, unable to get on the train. “All I’m saying is, I’m not impressed with how it’s all starting off,” he says. “I think there’s uncertainty, more than anything else.” To which Jonathan Hopkins says hogwash. Hopkins is part of the transit activist group Seattle Subway, which has spent the better part of the last two years pressing Sound Transit to include as much light rail as possible in its package and is now pushing voters to approve the plan. Looking at Seattle’s history of supporting transit measures, Hopkins sounds fairly confident that Seattle will get behind this measure as well. A precinct-level analysis of the 2008 transit vote shows a majority of precincts within Seattle city limits voted in favor of ST2 by a margin of 65 percent or more. But he doesn’t just think Seattle voters will approve ST3. He thinks they should vote for it.
Sound Transit mascot “Zap Gridlock” welcomes riders aboard Link Light Rail during the opening of the Capitol Hill Station. JEREMY DWYER-LINDGREN / SEATTLE WEEKLY
No one can deny that Sound Transit got off to a bad start after voters first approved the original light rail plan from SeaTac to University of Washington in 1996. That plan was supposed to cost $3.9 billion and take 10 years. Instead, Sound Transit just opened the final installment of the line, which ended up costing 80 percent more than projected. However, Hopkins argues Sound Transit has earned the region’s trust over the past 16 years. “Sound Transit is one of the best agencies in the country at what they do,” he says. “All 12 of their tunnels have been completed on time, all their light rail projects since 2001 have been on time and on budget, and they have 22 straight clean audits.” His group also cites studies showing that traffic delays are growing worse by 25 percent a year, a statistic it says proves that roadways — and the buses that use them — will never solve the region’s transportation needs. Instead, he says, Seattle needs light rail. But voters who concede that point alone won’t automatically love what ST3 offers. Specifically, the timeline of the projects are clearly seen as a political liability to those who want to see them pass. The West Seattle line would not be operational until 2030, Sound Transit projects. The Ballard line won’t be ready until 2035. Seattle Subway itself was among a group of transit activists arguing that Sound Transit was being too conservative with its timelines and that it could honestly project quicker construction schedules without driving up the cost. The group was partially successful with that argument, and in June the agency bumped up its light rail timelines (before the adjustment, light rail had been scheduled to arrive in Ballard in
2038). Still, if anything leads Seattle to reject a plan that promises salvation from our current traffic nightmares, it will be frustration over how long salvation will take. Hopkins argues that’s self-defeating logic: Voting against ST3 now will only delay the projects further, he says. “Voting ‘No’ guarantees just one thing inside Seattle: Slower construction of a smaller system that goes fewer places,” he says. History would seem to back him up on that. Sound Transit has successfully passed two bonding measures before, in 1996 and 2008. However, both of those victories came after the defeat of more ambitious plans. Hopkins argues that the defeat of ST3 would likely cause Sound Transit to come back to voters with a more modest plan. Furthermore, for political reasons, it may not put that plan in front of voters until 2020, since the previous two ballot victories came on presidential election years when voter turnout is at its highest. In other words, longer wait, less to offer. Niles doesn’t think waiting is such a bad thing. He notes that Sound Transit still has a long way to go on its ST2 projects, meaning the region will continue to see many miles of light rail built out even if ST3 doesn’t get approved. “My argument for Seattle voters is, ‘Listen, you are fully funded through Lynnwood [via ST2]. Let’s see how it works,’ ” he says. Meanwhile, he argues, big improvements could be made to the Metro transit system to make it work better for riders — an immediate and relatively cheap solution compared to light rail. “A strong focus on Metro, which is a very good agency, could make buses work much better. Give [Metro] some time, and let’s see
how this ST2 is working out, to make things better,” he says. But would someone sitting on the Rapid Ride D line from Ballard — stuck in traffic, say — agree that buses are the way to go? “Buses inevitably are going to mix with traffic some. They’re not as good as trains for that,” Niles acknowledges. “But it’s a problem you can chip away at and make better all the time.” A third option has been floated, if only in hypothetical talk in transit circles: Seattle going it alone to build out its own rail system, without the bother of trying to win over Eastside, Snohomish, and Pierce County voters. Hopkins acknowledges that the idea has come up among Seattle Subway members, but he says it’s not a good option. Under this scenario, Seattle would resurrect the taxing authority the state legislature granted the city to build the monorail to Ballard and West Seattle — which of course was never built. Such a scenario would need the help of the legislature, since the monorail authority is currently barred by state law from building light rail. But either way, Hopkins says, that plan’s a stinker. “Standing up a city entity to do the same work as Sound Transit risks the same challenges faced by the monorail in the 1990s,” he says. “It wouldn’t do anything faster. Just worse.” Seattle has a long history of tried and failed ambitious rail projects. In 1970, voters rejected a county-wide rail plan that would have been mostly paid for by the federal government. It would have cost local taxpayers $440 million to build 49 miles of rail (the $900 million in federal matching money went to Atlanta instead, which now has an extensive rail system). The Monorail was the next attempt at a rail system. That plan would have spent $11 billion on the 14-mile line from Crown Hill to West Seattle — scheduled to be completed in 2009. As opposed to the 1970 plan, Seattle voters did approve the Monorail plan in 2002, but just barely. With only narrow support from the beginning, the plan crumbled as financing trouble eroded its slim majority of support in the city; facing anger over voters smelling a boondoggle (a scent Monorail backers argued was overblown), City Hall scrapped the plan in 2008. Whether either of these plans would have proved worth the money is, of course, a matter of speculation. But one thing is for sure: As Seattle has delayed committing to a full-fledged rail system, the desire for such a system has never gone away among a significant portion of voters; what has changed is the time and money it’ll take to get it. Can Seattle afford to put rail off any longer? Voters will decide. — DANIEL PERSON: 206-467-4381 email@example.com
16 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition
Why should you vote against Sound Transit 3? It Doesn’t Reduce Congestion.
Sound Transit admits that its $54 billion plan will not reduce traffic congestion. Even in a best-case scenario, Sound Transit 3 projects won’t be completed for another 25 years - until 2041 and then over 90% of the projected trips will be taken by existing bus riders. Dozens of bus routes have and will be cancelled or rerouted to feed the trains.
$54 Billion in Harmful Tax Increases.
Sound Transit 3 would be the largest tax increase in state history - a $54 billion blank check that creates a “forever tax” and does not have to come back to voters. Sound Transit 3 will cost the average family of four more than $700 per year in new sales, property, and vehicle taxes. These new taxes will jeopardize education funding and limit the ability of cities and counties to make necessary infrastructure investments. Our State Superintendent of schools is opposed to ST3.
For more information, please visit: NoST3.org Paid for by No on Sound Transit 3. 11410 NE 124th St #734, Kirkland, WA 98034. TOP 5 Contributors: Charles Collins, Bruce Hand, Kevin Wallace, and Save Our Trail.
A Seattle Times investigation found Sound Transit’s overruns were already 86% over what voters approved in 1996. Just last year, Sound Transit spent $1 million taxpayer dollars on a fancy party to “celebrate” the opening of a station nearly 10 years behind schedule. Sound Transit’s unelected and unaccountable Board cannot be trusted with an additional $54 billion of our money - especially for a proposal that won’t be completed until 2041.
Special Interest Conflicts.
The Sound Transit 3 campaign is powered by millions of dollars from special interests - such as the large engineering and construction firms which stand to benefit from another 25 years worth of work paid for by property, vehicle, and sales tax hikes. The motivation behind Sound Transit 3 isn’t improving our transportation system - it’s about making money for the special interests. $95 million dollars is in ST3 for ST4 planning!
Vote NO on ST3 - Regional Prop. 1 1699973
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 17
BUS RAPID TRANSIT
The BRT route
A RapidRide B-Line bus at the Bellevue Transit Center on Sept. 23.
IAN TERRY / THE HERALD
Buses are oft-cited as a cheaper, easier option to expanding light rail: Here’s what ST3 offers By Daniel Person Seattle Weekly
In Seattle Weekly’s “Best of Seattle” reader poll this year, readers voted the D Line, which runs from downtown to Crown Heights, Seattle’s best bus route. D Line driver Steve Ford wasn’t surprised. With far fewer stops than a conventional bus route and a ticketing system that allows people to board in the front or the back, he says riders appreciate the quicker rides through town. “You see how long it can take to get people on and off the bus. This eliminates a lot of that.” The D Line is part of King County Metro’s
RapidRide system, which is a form of what’s known as Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, and the rider experience on the D Line could be a harbinger of things to come. While building out the region’s light rail network is clearly the centerpiece of ST3, two vital corridors in the region would receive “Bus Rapid Transit” service under the plan, and the RapidRide system will get an infusion of funds to improve existing lines. King County’s RapidRide system is considered “BRT-lite,” since it doesn’t feature many of the amenities more robust systems do. The buses have no dedicated lanes, meaning they are still subject to traffic congestion. Still, the lines, which began to roll out in
2010, do have traffic-signal priority — that is, lights turn green to get them through intersections — and a few special lanes they can use to bypass traffic. While some commuters continue to grumble that the rides are hardly rapid, the Weekly’s reader poll isn’t the only vote of confidence the buses have received. The three busiest RapidRide lines have about 50 percent more ridership than the lines they replaced. Proponents of BRT argue that ST3 spends way too much on rail where it could just deploy buses. Done right, they say, most of the benefits of rail transit can be achieved for a fraction of the cost and with far more flexibility, since buses can be
deployed elsewhere if ridership demand shifts. “Gold standard” BRT — a rarity in the United States but common in South America — features grade-separated lanes for buses as long as Link Light Rail trains. Though still not up to Gold Standard, the new BRT lines planned for in ST3 are more robust than RapidRide, and the overall plan shows some of the advantages of BRT over light rail. First, there’s the speed of building out the systems. The BRT lines in the plan will run along I-405/SR 518 and SR 522 — all Eastside highways that are notorious for their choked traffic and in need of quick relief. While many places promised light
18 October 2016 The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition rail in ST3 will be waiting decades for the service to actually get built, the BRT lines are scheduled to be deployed by 2024. Also, the cost-per-rider on the BRT lines is expected to be lower than with other Eastside projects. The I-405 BRT, running from Lynnwood to Burien, is estimated to cost between $687 million and $735 million to build (in 2014 dollars), and is expected to carry 11,000 to 13,000 riders per day by 2040. By comparison, the light rail between downtown Redmond and the Microsoft campus — a distance of 3.7 miles — is expected to cost between $1 billion and $1.1 billion and carry between 7,000 and 9,000 people. However, those savings may come at the expense of reliability. Sound Transit would not be building a dedicated lane for buses along I-405 (though it would build a dedicated lane on SR 518 between Tukwila and Burien). In general, the buses will use general-purpose lanes, including the new Express Toll Lanes on I-405, which use a sliding rate to manage traffic volume. That may strike some as worrisome, since the Express Toll Lanes are already filling up and traffic is expected to get worse in coming years. While the Washington Department of Transportation says the express toll has achieved its goal of keeping traffic moving at 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time, the toll is already routinely maxing out at $10, leading to questions of how long it will be until even $10 draws more drivers than the lane can handle. A few cities along I-405 were also miffed that ST3 moved away from features entertained early in the planning process. This includes so-called “in-line stops” throughout the line that would allow riders to pick up the bus directly from the side of the freeway, rather than forcing the bus to get off and back onto the highway. The current plan includes two in-line stations — one in Kirkland and another in Renton — but Eastsiders wanted more, since in-line stops allow the line to serve more people with very little impact on travel time (a letter signed by the mayors of Bellevue, Bothell and several other cities questioned if the line even deserved to be called “BRT” at all, given what they perceived as a lack of investment in the line). As far as what the actual service will look like, the I-405 BRT would run every 10 minutes during rush hours, and every 15 minutes for the rest of the day. There would be just 11 stops on the line, and it would take 87 minutes to get from Lynnwood to Burien. On the SR 522 end, there would be nine stops between UW Bothell and NE 145th in Seattle. Service frequency would be the same as I-405. Last but not least: parking. The BRT projects would include construction of five new garages, creating 2,200 new parking spaces across the two lines.
Not a smooth ride A brief history of light rail in the Puget Sound area By DANIEL PERSON Seattle Weekly
hen voters say “yes” or “no” this fall to Proposition 1, they in essence will be saying “yes” or “no” to light rail. Elsewhere in this package you have read arguments for and against ST3, and nearly every one of those arguments will come down to whether or not the light rail system now in its infancy in Seattle should be expanded region-wide, from Tacoma to Everett, from Redmond to West Seattle. Central to arguments both for and against will be the region’s history so far with light rail, with proponents arguing that it has fundamentally changed the way people get around Seattle — and that that shift is necessary for the entire region — and opponents saying it has been too slow in coming on line, too expensive to build, and not as impactful as others make it out to be. Voters first said yes to light rail back in 1996, with the $3.9 billion Sound Move initiative, which also created Sound Transit as a regional authority. Like ST3, the package offered a mix of light rail, bus and commuter rail services. But the big-ticket item was a $1.7 billion light rail system running from the University of Washington to SeaTac Airport, expected to be completed within 10 years. Creating an entirely new transportation system in Seattle promised both big risks and rewards. It delivered both. Early on in the construction of Link Light Rail, it appeared Sound Transit may collapse completely, and the light rail plan
SOURCE: SOUND TRANSIT
along with it. The cost of the project quickly began to balloon — the Associated Press reported in 2001 that the project was already $1 billion over budget, and no rail had even been laid down. The cost overruns led federal officials to withhold large grants, further imperiling the plan’s finances. A series of executives resigned from the agency, and in 2001 new CEO Joni Earl announced that the light rail line would only go 2/3s of the promised length — stopping at Westlake rather than UW; would cost more; and would take longer to complete. Not a good way to introduce taxpayers to a new, multibillion-dollar agency. And yet, with all that, voters within the designated Sound Transit taxing district continued to respond to the idea of a light rail system in the region. In 2008, before the initial expanse of light rail had even been completed, voters approved ST2, which included 36 miles of new light rail track. That vote marked the beginning of brighter days for Sound Transit, and in particular its light rail system. In 2009, the light rail from Westlake to SeaTac finally opened; also, in the mid-aughts, the federal government restored the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding it had previously withheld, allowing Sound Transit to move forward with its plan to bring light rail to Capitol Hill and UW under the auspices of the 1996 Sound Move measure. While critics long groused that light rail ridership has not lived up to what was promised, with the UW-SeaTac line finally complete, ridership has exploded — up 77 percent in summer 2016 compared to summer 2015 — and is far exceeding forecasts.
It’s not hard to understand why the public has responded to the new line. People have attested to literally crying as they commuted from the U District to downtown in eight minutes after years of seeing trips to the city center become more and more impossible due to surface streettraffic snarls. Light rail advocates hope that Everett, Eastside, and Tacoma commuters will imagine the same joyous escape from the freeway in their own lives and approve a plan that would connect them to the system (though, to be clear, trips from out of Seattle promise to be longer than eight minutes; the Tacoma Dome-to-downtown Seattle trip is pegged at 70 minutes). There’s also evidence that Sound Transit is becoming better at predicting how expensive light rail will be to build, and how long it will take to build it. Mike Lindblom at The Seattle Times recently calculated the total cost overruns of the 1996 ballot measure, and arrived at about 86 percent. Not good. However, in applying for federal grants to finish the Westlake to UW line, the agency was required to complete a new budget and timeline; it beat both. And yet the early history of light rail will provide critics with a ready — and legitimate — argument against the system: its ability to lock the region into wildly expensive transit systems. Once you start laying track, it’s very difficult to scrap the plan altogether. Still, if you’re one of those people crying on your commute to downtown, you probably don’t care. — DANIEL PERSON: 206-467-4381; firstname.lastname@example.org
JOE TRUJILLO / SEATTLE WEEKLY
The Transit Question: A Sound Publishing Special Edition October 2016 19
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