Debating Our Transit Future

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Sound Transit will face voters once again in November with ST2, its new and improved regional transit package. While the promise of improved bus service, the allure of light rail and the like are undeniably enticing, I'm still not sure where I stand on the issue. Will the new high-speed commuter rails bring about the kind of sustainable, dense, happy and prosperous region that I'd like to see in our future ... or will the new transit plan just fuel an outdated model of many miles separating our workplaces from our doorsteps?

To get a better grip on the facts, I went to a refreshingly social kind of town hall meeting last night: policy wonks mingled with hipsters when Friends of Seattle hosted a Sound Transit Q&A at the ultra-cool McLeod Residence in Belltown. After greeting our neighbors (about 25 residents attended, running the gamut from sustainability professionals to grad students and concerned neighborhood activists) and redeeming our drink tickets, we settled into folding chairs in McLeod's narrow gallery space and welcomed our featured guest. Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit's executive director of policy, planning and public administration, did an admirable job keeping his cool while presenting an overview of public transit beneath a flashing disco lamp.

Picture%208.pngThe new ST2 plan offers considerable improvements over last year's Proposition 1, which was soundly defeated at the polls. According to Ilgenfritz, the new plan does a much better job of addressing the pressing need of our region's rapid population growth (which he described as 34 percent total growth by 2030, or approximately 40,000 people per year) and the resulting pressure on our commuter infrastructure. ST2 is overall leaner, quicker and more focused than Proposition 1, offering a 34-mile extension of the LINK light rail over 12-15 years, expanding incrementally from the urban core (the first segment, connecting downtown's Westlake Center to Sea-Tac airport, will open on July 3, 2009) to the outer ring and eventually reaching north to Northgate, Mountlake and Lynnwood, and east to Bellevue and Overlake. Regional transit with be supplemented with an immediate investment in increased bus and Sounder commuter rail service. The goal, Ilgenfritz said, was to increase bus capacity to a point where riders don't need to rely on schedules; they can count on a bus coming by their stop every 10 minutes when they need it. And yes, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure will also see a bit of funding from the plan. A fuller description of the new transit package can be found on the Sound Transit website.

Last year, voters balked at the enormous price tag of Proposition 1, and also at more personal issues, namely the $16.4 billion addition of 186 miles of new highway lanes and ramps in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. (As our friends at Sightline have pointed out, the addition of new roads only increases traffic over time). The new ST2 doesn't fund highway construction at all (with the exception of shifting the HOV lanes on I-90 from the center to the outer corridor as part of the light rail build-out) and so the Sierra Club, a former major opponent, is now voicing its support.

Sound Transit describes the cost of the new package, said to be 50 percent lower than the cost of last year's proposal, in a press release:

The package’s capital projects cost $13.5 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars that include inflation estimates. Adding operations, maintenance, reserves and debt service through 2023, the cost is $17.9 billion including inflation. Funding would come from a 0.5 percent increase of the local sales tax, or five cents for every $10 purchase.

And they can't resist drawing a smart – and stinging -- comparison:

The approximately $69 annual cost of the increase for each adult is around the cost of a single tank of gas at current pump prices.

The plan is expected to pay off for the regional economy, also. While rider fees will only cover an estimated 45-50 percent of the costs (a high average return for public transit), the savings from increased worker productivity, decreased fuel needs, etc., are expected to outweigh the system's total costs by 2034, ten years after completion.

ST2 is undeniably a stronger proposal than Proposition 1, and there are a lot of reasons why the plan would serve our region, increase transit ridership and take cars off the roads. But I have some reservations that keep me from being wholeheartedly excited about the investment.

Namely: the ST2 plan is clearly focused on commuters, getting people to and from the outlying areas, mainly during rush hour. But the general wisdom from the sustainability camp says that suburbs and sprawl and long commutes should become a thing of the past, and soon. We want to build up our residential urban core, and attract more people to live where they work, etc., and more people around the nation are already moving closer to cities because of gas price pressures. So then, is this the way we should be building our transit infrastructure? Particularly because it sounds like with the very pricey and construction-intensive light rail infrastructure, there's not much option for adding new stations and tunnels once the original structure is built.

What if, instead of building light rail, we put money into infill and development of urban neighborhoods like Sodo and the waterfront … and running bus rapid transit between neighborhoods in Seattle … increasing the draw for city living? Could we reduce greenhouse gas emissions on an equal or even greater scale?

And, if it's so difficult to add to the system once it's built, is the current plan the best version of what we'll need in 2030? Personally, I'd be really excited to be able to hop a train from downtown to Ballard, Greenlake or Alki beach -- it would be great to access the terrific public spaces in these areas without encountering the local congestion that always seems to surround them.

I don't know the answer to that question. There are many reasons why ST2 is good, and there are certainly examples to point to (like Washington D.C.) where private interests and public investment work together to create dense, pleasant hubs around transit stations that are a boon to outlying communities. And you need look only as far as Portland to see why light rail is worth having to move quickly from neighborhood to neighborhood. But when the cooperation and the funding isn't there, we could face a lot of ugly park-and-ride type arrangements (to his credit, Ilgenfritz said that ST will work with communities around the new stations to help integrate structures that please everyone).

The debate is still open. But the pressure is on, given that the price of building materials will only increase over time, and waiting to improve our transit infrastructure seems likely to hobble our quickly growing city sooner rather than later. Personally, I'm still undecided. What do you think would be best for our region? Please share your thoughts.

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