Transit train wreck: The case against more light rail

The recent former state secretary of transportation has been riding buses a lot lately and crunching numbers, and he's convinced light rail to the Eastside and more Sounder service has no place in a big new transit plan. He thinks an advanced bus rapid transit system is the best way to serve millions of people and smartly manage urban growth. Part 1 of 3
Click to enlarge. (Sound Transit)

Click to enlarge. (Sound Transit) None

&nbsp;<br />


First of three parts
Part 1 Ridership today and the suggested Sound Transit sales tax increase.
Part 2: Real riders speak, and Sound Transit's model isn't what they want to buy.
Part 3: The must-do agenda for transit and smart growth.

As memories fade of last November's failed and little-lamented Proposition 1, Sound Transit's board of directors now struggles with when to bring a big new transportation funding package - mostly rail, no roads, all Sound Transit — back to a regional ballot.

Which is the better time to let voters slam-dunk a big new sales tax boost for Sound Transit's vision?

Should it be in 2008, when a young and progressive presidential election turnout would vote green for rail transit?

Or in 2010, when taxpayer wallets will be looser with the economy back to full throttle? By then, light rail cars shuttling between downtown Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport could even warm the doubters to the main attraction of Sound Transit's plan: light rail to Bellevue, taking two existing vehicle lanes off the Interstate 90 floating bridge.

Or is there a third choice - the best - now not even being considered at Sound Transit? A different, stronger, broader transit plan, to be acted on as quickly as possible, costing less and doing more, and much sooner, to meet our region's pressing needs?

Sound Transit's staff and board profess great faith in "public outreach" to gauge sentiment and aid a decision. Never mind skeptical reviews of past survey methods and universally cautionary advice from regional writers (plus #, #, #, and #). Now, according to King County Council member and Sound Transit board member Julia Patterson, the agency should hear from people "who don't come to meetings."

I don't go to meetings now, but I used to. As the state's secretary of transportation and a member of the Sound Transit board of directors for six years, I voted with enthusiasm for the light rail segments soon to provide welcome benefits from the airport in and out of Seattle and to Husky Stadium and, perhaps someday, along Interstate 5 to Northgate.

Now I live in Seattle. I can't drive because of poor eyesight. So almost every day I ride the Metro Transit and Sound Transit buses with the rest of the regulars, learning and thinking at first-hand about our transit systems. I've gained new insights about the connected questions of energy scarcity, population growth, fairness to taxpayers, strengthening of neighborhoods, and protection in the Puget Sound area of water quality, the regional landscape, and natural habitat against sprawl and climate change.

I believe that big choices perhaps soon headed for the ballot about the next steps for transit must be examined with a vigorous, evidence-based progressive critique of where we should be going, and why. How does our regional transit system actually work? How can it work better and offer more in the future? With so much at stake, we had better get it right. There will be no cheap do-overs.

The overwhelming case for transit expansion

The public should certainly care. The case for transit system improvements could hardly be stronger. Family budgets are hemorrhaging from relentless gas-price increases. Deep anxiety feeds on the worldwide drumbeat that oil production has about peaked so that, unlike the last oil crisis, new supply won't ease the pressure on prices. Time now for a Prius? The trade-in value of the gas hog in the driveway has sunk like a rock. Federal statistics show that miles driven by vehicles in Washington have dropped 5 percent or more from a year ago, a huge shift over so short a period.

A sea change is at hand for transit and the public it serves. Over the past year, it's become standing-room-only on key buses for ordinary riders. Every transit system is reporting unprecedented ridership increases.

Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!


Posted Mon, Jun 23, 1:10 a.m. Inappropriate

A few notes: I got my hands on some ridership data a month ago and I create a series of graphs to help compare ridership data on metro routes. I also created some graphs that show the relative ridership of LINK, SkyTrain, Rapidride and 89/99 B-Lines.

I wrote a long response however I decided to delete it and wait for the rest of the installments. One thing I want to say though is that within the transit blogging community in Seattle I'm probably one the biggest BRT advocates. As I wrote here if I could control our transit investments I would do something very different than what metro or ST are doing.

ST's vision is to build a single long spine of LRT. I think a better vision is to build a LRT spine where ridership demand is high enough to justify the capital investment, but then invest the saved money in a network of high quality BRT routes that connects all of the cities and neighborhoods that also need better transit service. Transit planning should start from ridership, travel demand, travel time savings, and demand growth, land use patters etc. to technology, not the other way around.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 1:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Can't wait for parts 2 and 3!: When Doug left his position as Secretary of Transportation for the state of Washington, I was mighty curious what he would have to say, unencumbered by political constraints. He is now free to speak his own mind, and what a mind it is. Doug is a brilliant, witty and warm-hearted man who cares deeply about the future of our state. It would be foolish not to read his studied insights with great care and an open mind. Let us resist the temptation to be unfairly hostile to Doug's constructively critical approach (the "allergic reaction" to the challenge of pro-light rail orthodoxy), but let us also resist the temptation to simply pile on Sound Transit for the sake of schadenfreude. Instead, let's hear the man out and discuss the very important merits of one of the largest transportation investments this generation is poised to make.

There are anti-rail zealots, and there are pro-rail zealots. Doug MacDonald is neither. I believe he actually supports the light rail extension to Northgate (as do I) despite the summary headline of this article. I also have come to believe that the Eastside light rail proposal deserves a very close look before we commit to spending perhaps $3 billion on that project. I have long been basically supportive of that project, but I have recently been taking a fresh look at its costs and benefits, and Sound Transit's planning assumptions, and I must admit, it is raising a lot of troubling new questions for me.

We only get one shot at spending those billions, and we have multiple crises on our hands (rampant growth, chronic traffic congestion, peak oil, climate change, to name a few), so it's well worth the time to delve deep into the numbers while thinking about the bigger picture at the same time. I'm looking forward to the next installment!

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

MacDonald is on the mark: I have been an activist on the SR520 rebuild for some time, including meetings with Sound Transit that have frankly left me with more questions than answers particularly when it comes to BRT on 520. It very clear that BRT is not a ST priority despite their rhetoric to the contrary. In fact by truly commiting to a BRT system for 520 or elsewhere it only takes riders away from LRT and makes it more difficult to justify this investment. I wonder if the goal is more to build a light rail system than it is to increase transit use? If this is true, the transit consumers are the ones that will suffer. MacDonald has clearly done his homework on this piece by following the money and asking just what we can expect from our transit investments. I agree with MacDonald's conclusions that the ST do-over package offers a very small incremental increase in transit boardings many years from now and for a price tag that might foreclose investments in BRT when the region will need it the most.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, well. Maybe we should force all the Sound Transit proponents to ride the bus: After helping fight against the stupidity of spending vast amounts of our tax dollars on the silly light rail proposals, it's wonderful to read someone who used to be in a high position in Olympia actually be forced to live in Seattle *and* ride the bus. Maybe we should force all the main proponents of this folly to live here for a year and ride the bus as their primary transit.


Posted Mon, Jun 23, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Just say No to Diminishing Returns.: Did Dougie ride the bus? Did it remind Dougie of those bus rides as a kid? Did Dougie get to ring the bell? Whatever. Given the state of our transportation system, I would like to know what Doug did as Secretary of Transportation, and I mean beyond collecting a fat check and nice benefits and making useful social, political, and economic contacts--all at the tax-payers expense, naturally.

But hey, what do I know. I just a gardener. I do know one thing. While Doug was acting as a cog in the bureaucratic machine, I drove bus for Metro part-time, so I would have medical benefits. For 9 years, I pedaled my bicycle 12 miles into SODO and drove around a rather ungrateful public (I imagine $4 gas has made them somewhat grateful, though; I quit some time ago). I also learned a few things. Here's why your ideas are counter productive:

1. An aging workforce and sedentary jobs, involving repetitive motions make growing healthcare cost unsustainable.

2. Liquid fuels production (that stuff that makes the bus go) stalled in 2005, and evidence is mounting that global production will NOT grow, ever. I would also point out that global demand for distallate's is growing faster than gasoline. Since we don't produce nearly as much as we use, our ability to continue importing the stuff rests on our ability to create I mean money. The cost of making the buses go will continue to grow.

3. The cost of purchasing and maintaining buses accelerates as the fleet grows and the buses become more technical.

These costs will continue to grow as demand for bus service grows. Pay attention to the implosion of the airline industry this summer, because there may very well be a sequel coming to the Puget Sound.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Sound Transit Creates More Problems Than it Solves: Former Transportation Secretary MacDonald provides some excellent perspective and data here regarding the ballot measure ST is considering.

ST has turned into a rogue government. ST's taxing and spending plans now present big problems for the leaders in this state who are trying to deal with big problems outside of ST's narrow focus. The main problem is that ST is not complying with the terms of Resolution 75/Sound Move. That is why we can't line up the resources to pay for the $3 billion in needed repairs on I-5 through Seattle, the $5 billion in work needed on SR 520 between I-5 and I-405 , and why the whole SR 99 "viaduct/tunnel/teardown" along Seattle's waterfront remains in limbo.

At this point ST is not even trying to build transit systems efficiently OR within the terms of the 1996 local law voters approved. When you compare ST's taxing and spending plans both to what we approved in 1996 and what other metro areas are doing it shows how big the ST problem has become.

Right after Prop. 1 was rejected, ST released some new "Phase I" taxing and spending plans. ST's SEC "official statement" from November 2007 shows these construction period (1997-2016) amounts:

Tax Revenues: $6,925,000,000
Federal Grants: $1,821,000,000
Bonds: $2,398,000,000
Fares/Operating Revenues: $431,000,000
Local Grants/Interest Earnings: $567,000,000

Total: $12,143,000,000

Sounder Commuter Rail: $1,268,000,000
ST Express Bus: $785,000,000
Link Light Rail: $4,175,000,000
Transit Operations: $2,712,000,000
System-wide Activities: $533,000,000
Debt Service: $1,218,000,000
Contributions to Reserves: $1,450,000,000

Total: $12,143,000,000

All those ST estimates are expressed in YOE dollars.

Think the voters in 1996 approved taxing and spending those amounts? We did not - those plans exceed ST's lawful authority. Anyone want to discuss what the 1996 measure voters approved actually says? Nobody who likes what ST is up to will want to do that, because ST is violating the terms of that ordinance.

Let's first take a look at the "System-wide Activities" amount shown there of $533 million. What is that all about?

Down in Arizona a regional government is about to complete a 20-mile light rail line. There's a good FAQ sheet at "" with information about the costs. The feds are paying about half of that, and the total cost including interest on the bonds will be $1.4 billion. It'll be up and running this year.

ST's plans to spend $533 million on unspecified "activities" is about the ENTIRE local tax contribution to that new 20-mile light rail line in Arizona. In contrast, ST's construction-period tax collection plans now total $7 billion.

What is ST spending that $533 million "system wide activities" amount on? That massive amount won't be used for capital costs, it won't be used for operations costs, and it won't be needed to service all the debt ST thinks it wants to sell (those all are additional line item expense categories shown above).

And what is this additional $1.4 billion ST wants to tax us for with regressive sales taxes and then just stick in "reserves?" We've got lots of other expensive transportation needs, the King County general budget is going down the tubes, and ST wants to spend over $2 billion on "system wide activities(??)," and to create a massive reserve account. The machine that is Sound Transit is broken, the political appointees now on the board are abusive, and what we'll get out of their efforts will be of marginal utility (at best) to nearly everyone in the region.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Where was Doug?: Too bad Mr. MacDonald did not pipe up when he was Secretary of Transportation and a director of Sound Transit. Instead, the taxpayers have been lead down the lightrail fairy-tale path for years, and a bureaucracy is now set firmly in place to ensure that tens of billions of dollars are wasted on this massive government boondoggle. Let's not forget that for quite awhile, while Mr. MacDonald was in charge of our state's transportation, Sound Transit was spending millions of dollars per month on salaries and administrative costs, without laying one mile of track.

When the people voted for Sound Transit, it was not because we believed that light rail was the best alternative - it was the only one on the ballot. Most folks would have preferred monorail to light rail, but that option was not part of the package. It should be. Monorails could already be up and running throughout the region. But Sound Transit is stuck on light rail and so we have unending projects like the tunnel under the ship canal which is already millions over budget and years away from completion.

I am glad to see that Mr. MacDonald is now "seeing the light," maybe, but his ideas still seem worn and tired. Folks will scrimp on groceries to be able to drive a car instead of a bus. Get real! A soccer-mom with kids, school, errands, ball games, is not going to pile everyone into a smelly bus. Nor is a businessman or construction worker whose time is money. Let's build a transportation system that people will actually want to ride, like a swift-moving modern monorail that can travel above-ground along existing transportation routes that people now use everyday. Sound Transit already has our money. Let's stop the lightrail nightmare and put in a world-class transportation system that people will actually be delighted to use.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Fiscal intelligence required: When outcomes and data points are largely uncertain, flexibility is required.

Rapid Bus Transit (RBT), with dedicated travel lanes, is a perfect precursor to decisions on locating light rail lines. RBT is a fraction of the expense of light rail. The costly portion of the RBT infrastructure, buses, can be easily shifted to other routes and/or streets if you guess wrong on routes and ridership demand (try that with a light rail line!). If RBT demand on a particular route is indeed significant, you now have a validated answer for where to put a light rail spur -- plus you get to reuse the RBT infrastructure (buses) in other areas.

This is the very definition of fiscally intelligent transportation planning, in my view. No waste and you provide immediately needed services while validating your assumptions for the really big spending projects.

I do favor extending the light rail line to Northgate from the UW. I also favor engineering SR-520 with the assumption it might have to carry light rail traffic at some point in the future. Past that, I think we ought to replace all other light rail plans with RBT to make sure the underlying assumptions are correct before sinking all the money into light rail infrastructure.

Our topography and growth patterns are unique. Our approach to rapid transit should be equally unique.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Good Article: The only part of the article I take exception with is MacDonald's statement that he "enthusiastically" voted for Light Rail (LRT) to the SeaTac. When it's completed, it will be slower than the 194 (airport express) and will always be slower than the 194 if WSDOT takes reasonable measures to ensure the HOV lanes become free-flowing at all times (eg raise the bar to HOV3 and/or implement HOT status).

Except for that, who can disagree with him? LRT @ in excess of $300MM a mile is crazy. It's "most bucks for the bang", which is to say, backwards. On on I-90, the centerpiece of a ST2 Do-Over, LRT would REDUCE the capacity of the bridge, as well as likely shorten its life span. Go figure.

There are lots and lots of better ways to spend our transit dollars. My favorite: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on freeway HOT and arterial bus-only lanes.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

LRT is not commuter rail: Someone needs to tell Mr. MacDonald (not to mention most of these commenters) that LRT is not meant to be the same as commuter rail. Light Rail is used to connect neighborhood centers and promote dense development due to its relative permanence. We should be debating BRT in addition to light rail, not instead of it, because they serve entirely different purposes. BRT deserves a look, but I think you folks are ignoring the fact that buses use gasoline and light rail does not. As far as I know, gas is just going to get more and more expensive, while electricity (especially in our region) will not grow in cost nearly as much. Also a light rail train requires only one or two people to operate, whereas a bunch of buses providing equivalent service would take many more people to operate. That means more salaries, benefits, and training. That is a huge strike against BRT and buses in general: sure, they cost less to set up, but then your yearly costs will be way more.


Posted Mon, Jun 23, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

A notable improvement in transit coverage: First, a big thank you for the research that went into this article. Despite the claim by some that stats are too boring to include in newspaper articles, I think writing about transportation without reporting ridership and finance is like writing about a baseball game without mentioning the final score.

Here are a few comments from one who (still) believes light rail has a role to play in solving our transportation problems:

1) What exactly is "rapid" bus transit? I've ridden the bus many times, but I've never experienced anything that could be described as "rapid". Sure, buses may be a cheaper way of moving more riders, but traveling by bus takes a long time. If you monetized all those hours spent sitting in the bus as it crawls through traffic, a bus-only strategy is neither cheap nor effective.

2) I can think of two approaches for weighing the costs/benefits of transportation investments. One is to make predictions based on models, which is how I assume most of the numbers reported here were generated (correct me if I'm wrong). The other is to look at data from cities that have already made these investments. If you look at the costs, ridership, and travel times in cities with light rail already in place, was rail a worthwhile investment? I'm sure case studies have been done - it would be interesting to see them cited here.

Until someone can explain how a bus-only solution can be both rapid and cheap, I think rail is worth the cost. Perhaps you'll touch on that in part 2 or 3 - I look forward to reading them.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 2:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Pay now or Pay Later... but what will cost most 20 years from now?: Light rail or Commuter Rail... It appears that Sounder can move more people at a time with less cost than a BRT could. A staff of a half dozen can move upwards of 700 passengers or more per train. The energy of heavy rail works out to several HUNDRED miles to the gallon, if if electrified, better yet. At a time when finding, training and retaining drivers has left Metro bus runs unreliable on some routes. I know... I have had supervisors tell me there was no bus for lack of a driver when I called in.

The investment is far greater up front, but Sounder does not share the road with thousands of other cars, which a BRT or bus does. I-5 can be a mess, and the Sounder still runs. Yes, there are rail landslides, and accidents, but far fewer issues than our highways face on a daily basis.

That is NOT to say I am thrilled with all things Sound Transit, or even our various transit agencies. BUT investment in a backbone core system of heavy or light rail makes sense to me, if only to provide an alternative. I am frustraited by Sound Transit's insistance to TUNNEL. We have more than 80 tunnels in Seattle, and all are expensive to create, and more costly to maintain. For more than 30 years Seattle Streetcars ran between downtown and the UW without the need of a tunnel. A half billion here, a half billion there... soon it adds up to real money.

Pragmatic rail, on it's OWN grade, NOT shared with anyone else offers the best solution. Sadly, old rail lines often had the best engineered routing. Was there REALLY a need to tunnel UNDER Beacon hill, when the man made cut known as Dearborn was already there? The new interurban REALLY could not turn just a half mile further north? (it could have even circled back via Airport Way and STILL made use of the old Rainier plant) With the money we would have saved, we probably could have run ALL the way to the airport the FIRST time, rather than hold the last mile hostage to more funding.

Is there REALLY a need to build 5 new streetcar lines in Seattle, when we have the Old Benson Waterfront Trolley still in MOTHBALLS . Six trolleys and track are rusting for lack of a maintainence facility... but if you extended the current rusting line south from Jackson just 6 more blocks south, METRO ALREADY REPAIRS Electric Trackess Trolleys on a multi acre site! AND if you extended the line NORTH you could serve Amgin, Interbay offices on Elliot, and the new Cruise Ship Terminal at Pier 90/91... something that the Port and Amgen were even interested in paying for five years ago, but someone somewhere seems to have lost that memo.

Pragmatic. A word we need to hear more of.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 2:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Old White Male Farts Against Light Rail: Ever notice how nearly all the members of the tiny minority of people who devote any energy to fighting off efforts to build a light rail system in the Puget Sound are over 60 (usually way, way over 60)? Are white? Relatively wealthy? Male? Whine just like Andy Rooney? And, while some of them, like Doug McDonald, may use transit from time to time, they don't in any meaningful way rely on it (I'd be willing to bet Doug spends more time getting rides from friends than riding the bus)?

Before you dismiss this as some ad hominem attack, it's not. In fact, it's a telling indication of how out of touch these anti-light rail zealots are from the vast number of Puget Sounders who are simply looking for a reasonably fast, dependable and safe way to get back and forth to work every day. Buses are increasingly failing to meet this demand. And, Bus Rapid Transit has its role, but the kind of BRT these people envision is not the kind that's really all that helpful. How do I know? Because real BRT, the kind with dedicated lanes, is about as expensive and little more flexible than light rail.

It's not about more buses. We need new right of way (and I'm not talking GHG spewing new lane miles). The only way to build new right of way that provides reliable, dependable and safe connections that are attractive and help drive land use investments in a smarter, more climate friendly way is light rail (along with healthy compliments of BRT, commuter rail and express buses- all represented in the proposed ST2.1 package).

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 4:08 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Pay now or Pay Later... but what will cost most 20 years from now?: No, Sound Transit spent months examining the route via the Dearborn cut. Dearborn and Rainier Ave. (north of I-90) have high traffic volumes because they are major access routes to/from I-90. There was no satisfactory way to route trains through that traffic, short of tunneling. ST worked with the local community, and citizens concurred with the chosen reroute via a Beacon Hill tunnel.

The Beacon Hill tunnel also made more sense from a ridership perspective. There are more riders to be gained at the Beacon Hill tunnel station than there were riders lost by not building the station at Rainier & I-90. And as noted elsewhere, the Beacon Hill tunnel alignment allowed construction of the Stadium Station and the SODO Station, neither of which could've been built had the line turned east on Dearborn. And the chosen alignment allowed direct connection to the optimum site for the light rail Operations & Maintenance Facility. No, tracks couldn't "circle back via Airport Way" to serve that site. We would've had to select an alternate site with greater impacts from displaced businesses.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 5:51 p.m. Inappropriate

"Reasonably Fast, Dependable and Safe" and Going Where You Want to Go (BTW): A little over a year ago, the Seattle Office of Housing did an "affordability" study for certain sections of the City. Within that report were 2 maps (based on census tracts) which showed where Seattle residents worked, and where Seattle workers lived. This is the information that should be driving transit planning.

Where do Seattlites work? Outside the City, the big centers are Canyon Park, Overlake, Issaquah/COSTCO, Southcenter and the Kent Valley. Within the City is the Duwammish corridor, Downtown, Pill Hill, Interbay, UW, Children's and Northgate. Nowhere in this list is SEATAC.

Where do Seattle's workers reside? Around half live within the city limits, in such neighborhoods as Northgate, Lake City, Laurelhurst, Windemere, Greenlake, Ballard, Crown Hill, Fremont, Magnolia, Queen Anne, Rainier Valley, Alki, Morgan, High Point and Alaska Junction. Outside of the City you've got Renton, Tukwilla, Kent, Des Moines, White Center and Lynnewood.

The citizens of this region have spent over $4 billion to connect SEATAC and downtown Seattle (via Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill). Will someone please tell me what's wrong with this picture.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 5:58 p.m. Inappropriate

BRT-HOV isn't a realistic plan: For all you Highways-with-BRT-are-awesome folks out there, consider that nobody lives on highways, few people work on highways, and HOV lanes get congested all the time (traffic, accidents, construction, etc.) Houston spent years trying to build a regional transit system running buses in HOV lanes and only got about 8 people (well, maybe 10,000, actually) to ride it, they then built a light-rail line where people actually live and work and already have 40,000 people riding it.

HOV lanes are nice, but they're not a transit system.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 6:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, yet another anti-light rail article at the 'cut: Can't say I'm surprised. And a three-parter no less! Well, Doug, welcome to the bus, even if you're a tourist. I ride the bus because I have to. You, not so much.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 6:09 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: "Reasonably Fast, Dependable and Safe" and Going Where You Want to Go (BTW): What's wrong is the way you're thinking about it.

First, I believe your numbers are off: Light Rail to the airport is costing about 2.4 billion dollars.

Second, and more importantly, your expectations are off: No $2.4 billion system is going to connect everyone everywhere. We already spend over $500 million/year on buses, not counting the damage they inflict on the roads. This is an initial line, connecting places some people live with places some people visit for work or pleasure or whatever. It's going to carry a heckuva lot of people much more cheaply than buses would and free up those buses to serve other needs (like, say, getting from Seattle to Canyon Park). Over time, we can expand it, keeping the per-passenger operating costs low.

Is there something wrong with infrastructure investment to increase efficiency?

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 6:13 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old White Male Farts Against Light Rail: Hi. You are Bill LaBorde, and you are on Sound Transit's Citizen Oversight Panel, correct?

My understanding is that you were appointed by ST's board to that panel. According to the law voters approved in 1996 (Sound Move/Res. 75) this COP is supposed to be making sure ST complies with that ordinance. It limits ST's taxing and spending rights. Am I correct so far?

I have read the several COP reports, and there are a couple of things in them I'd like to ask you about. Would you mind trying to answer a couple of questions?

Since this oversight panel you are on is supposed to be looking out for the rights of citizens, can you explain why ST is not complying with the terms of Appendix B of Sound Move now? It says there that ST must begin a two-stage tax rollback, and ST needs to pay off the outstanding bonds on an accelerated basis. The "ST2" COP report from last year mentions this, and as you know approval of the future phase spending plan was "not forthcoming." So what's the story there, Bill? Why isn't COP complaining about ST's failure to comply with that part of Sound Move? It sure would benefit citizens if ST followed the law in that respect.

You agree that ST only has the right under Sound Move/Res. 75 to spend $1.98 billion of local tax revenues during the Phase I construction phase, correct? That's what Sound Move says in Table 2 (which is part of the "Paying for the System" section of Sound Move). If you disagree, it would be great if you could explain why you think ST does not have to comply with that tax revenue spending limit spelled out in the measure we approved in 1996.

I understand the COP members don't usually respond to any questions from the public, but it would be great if you could make an exception here. Thank you in advance.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 7:46 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: "Reasonably Fast, Dependable and Safe" and Going Where You Want to Go (BTW): Yes, there is "something wrong with infrastructure investment to increase efficiency" when the citizens of the region were told that by passing Sound Move they would be decreasing congestion and make life easier on the roads. That's why people passed Sound Move in the late-90s. They didn't vote for it to "increase efficiency".

While I will correct myself and say that it will cost close to $2.5 billion from downtown to the airport, when Sound Move was passed, the entire line from the airport to Northgate was going to cost less than $2.5 billion. If I recall correctly the figure was somewhere around $2.2 billion.

For the record, I live within walking distance of one of the platforms that is nearly completed in the Rainier Valley. The only time will use LINK light rail is if I am going to the airport, or going downtown to do some random shopping. If the train would have gone to Southcenter, I may be a bit more supportive of the venture, but since the initial alignment was a political decision and not a transportation decision, there is no reason for me to trust the ST Board or any of the citizen oversight/advisory bodies.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 7:49 p.m. Inappropriate

rail is a 100-year investment: it's foolish to try to calculate the cost over such short timelines.

Every developed city on planet earth has some for of rail transit in its transportation portfolio. Sorry dudes, but Seattle is not that special. Rail works well in 99% of the developed cities on Planet Earth, and it will work here, too.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 7:51 p.m. Inappropriate

So, Bill LaBorde is an ageist and a political hack: Why to win friends and influence people there Bill! How many old white males donate to your joke of an organization? If you were not the consumate sycophant for the inbred power structure of this State, you would be just another failed politician looking for a handout. Would you like to pick on Doug for being legally blind too? You missed that one.

In the mean time keep doing that bang-up job you do. I don't know what the citizens of the State would do without you...but we would sure like to find out.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 8:28 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm white and over 60: and I'm for all the light rail we can get, and for taxing people till their eyes bleed to get it.

We need to build additional rights of way, do you people get it? And light rail runs on electricity and not on diesel, do you get that?

I'll vote for every light rail measure that's on the ballot.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Re: I'm white and over 60: Thanks, Ivan. There are, of course, multitudes of white male Puget Sounders over 60 who get that we need to build out a high capacity transit system that will provide a dependable, reliable and safe way to move around while also driving smart land use investments. I was only trying to make the point that all the critical noise about light rail you hear in Crosscut and a few other venues is largely manufactured by a small and very homogeneous group of well-off individuals who don't live with the day-to-day challenges of getting around in an efficient manner. Every year that goes by finds Kemper Freeman, Will Knedlik, Mark Baerwalt and, yes, Doug McDonald, more and more isolated in their anti-light-rail bubble from the masses of Puget Sounders who support rail transit. This is why they are so afraid of ST2 going to voters in 2008, when turn-out may be the highest ever.


Posted Mon, Jun 23, 10:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Please I beg of you do not support "Stupid": I will vote for the person that will best represent my interests and it is of no concern to me what party affiliation that person may be. In my opinion to vote because there is a (D) or an (R) next to the name is simple minded and frankly bizarre. I vote for the person that best plays well with others in the sandbox.

Yet today the discussion and the lack of stewardship demonstrated at Sound Transit and the now true confessions surfacing from a former kool-aide drinker confirms what most of us who pay attention already knew. Sound Transit is and will be the worst financial catastrophe this state will ever experience and as we watch Boeing move to another state (or country) that has their act together we will be thrown back to the early 70's because Boeing, Microsoft and the thousands of other companies will high tail it out of here too.

The modern politician in the State of WA does not prioritize budget items. Instead they literally throw up a proposition (like Prop 1) hope the masses bite and as noted in part one of this article, 47 billion dollars later we would still have congestion. In Snohomish County where I live I will continue to have a two-lane highway going north and south and a two-lane hwy going east and west (SR 9 & Hwy 2). Gas tax 2003 & 2005 still gave us very little.

Meanwhile the Snohomish Chamber was told by Hans Dunshee in my 44th District that it was our fault- all of us- for voting down prop 1 looking us in the eye saying it would have fixed the congestion.

I hope folks really pay attention this year. The "stupid" that is being proposed in Olympia and the stupid that goes on in Sound Transit will cost all of us dearly.

To spend billions for the few and not service the many is simply bizarre and yet watch the same ol' knuckleheads get voted in again.

If you are a serious person, I recommend you visit this link. It will provide data and help you make an informed decision about transportation and by the way I am in no way affiliated but the information provided is very thorough and compelling.

I don't know too many people that are opposed to good transit. But to do this just for the sake of doing it is the best they can do? Really?

Thanks for letting me rant.

Posted Mon, Jun 23, 11:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Not me RE: e: I'm white and over 60: I post a lot, but I don't fit the stereotype Mr Laborde outlines. I'm 44. I work from home. But gosh, I am a white male. So does that mean my opinions don't count? or maybe they only partly count because I only partly fit the stereotype. But golly, maybe I just want cost-effective transportation solutions too. Mr LaBorde, what if I fit that part of your stereotype to a T? But just want fact-based decisions, a customer-driven strategy, which I do not believe is the case currently?

I did not know you were on the COP. What does COP do? Will you please respond to the questions raised above?

Every time I read slams about certain demographic groups, I think "what would happen if another age/gender/skin pigmentation/whatever were used instead. How would that come across?"

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 12:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Re: Old White Male Farts Against Light Rail: To see what prompted my earlier comments about the people who drive the opposition to light rail transit in this area, check out the photo accompanying this article.

It's this small, insular group of wealthy older white males- including Doug McDonald and Kemper Freeman- who generate pretty much all of the organized opposition to Sound Transit. Frankly, they're the same kind of people who organize campaigns against school levies and bond measures because they don't have kids in public schools and are no longer willing to make any sacrifices for the greater good. Just like those people justify their stinginess by talking about school vouchers, McDonald, John Niles and the others bandy about their supposed support of BRT.

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Ron Sims and Maggi Fimia are white and over 60: Bill many people like Ron and Maggi support transit but have come to the conclusion that light rail is a bad investment.

Not one light rail city has a better journey to work mode share than Seattle.

Imagine how much better it would be if we had put the $2+ billion into more bus service that Seattle has put into LR in the last 12 years.

BTW the guys at the Sierra Club and Sightline are white but not nearly 60.

About 90% of transit geeks are white guys.

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 8:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Remove Laborde from any Public boards , Panels or commissions.: What can the people who appointed Bill Laborde to the COP be thinking right now? Someone who resorts to ageism, stereotyping and name calling when confronted with an opinion that does not "match" his own. Can we safely assume that his organization is reflective of it's leaders own apparent bias? Why should anyone take this individual seriously? Remove him NOW from any public boards, panels and commissions, by his own words he lacks the wisdom and maturity to be an effective representative of the people.


Posted Tue, Jun 24, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Free speech should be used constructively in this forum: "Ever notice how nearly all the members of the tiny minority of people who devote any energy to fighting off efforts to build a light rail system in the Puget Sound are over 60 (usually way, way over 60)? Are white? Relatively wealthy? Male?"
.....the above a quote from above "comments" on this issue by R. LaBorde

I found this site yesterday and came across the above person and his comments. He is an example of the problem we have today and that is the lack of civil discourse. If you cannot articulate a position and support it you resort to the above nonsense.

The funny thing about it is he has successfully diverted the conversation away from a serious topic only to make it about him and that speaks volumes and demonstrates why Olympia is impotent. They behave the same way. Each party lines up and shoot arrows back and forth and blow the money into the wind without taking any responsibility.

I find this conversation is always couched in the conventional way. The side that wishes for buses, trains, light rail and so forth are dead set against adding new lanes even though (as in Snohomish County where I live) the result would be transit where it didn't exist before plus improve existing transit where it already exists.

To say you have to have one over the other is a baffling position. Mr LaBorde then turns the conversation into a cartoon and becomes an irrelevant participant on many levels.

So Mr. LaBorde I simply ask you to bring something to the table in a constructive manner or excuse yourself and before you throw up the free speech tripe let me remind you that free speech is a luxury we have fought for and a terrible thing to waste using it to name call. That is old and tiring.

Or, I could resort to....

Ever notice how nearly all the members of the tiny minority of people who devote energy to fighting off efforts to add lanes to our roads in the Puget Sound don't own a home or any property, pay little or no taxes but want everyone else to do so, don't carry much responsibility because they don't want to be "sell outs" and work part time at the pet store?

See what I'm saying here? It's not pretty is it and certainly not constructive.

Thanks and I wish you well.

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Extremely Insulting RE: e: Old White Male Farts Against Light Rail: I can not say how ANGRY this post makes me.

My strong involvement in fighting for schools is a driving factor in my involvement in transportation because I know from personal experience how hard it is to get a tax increase, and how you have to really have your act together or there is no round two for a very long time.

I have sacrificed cash, blood, sweat and tears for the Highline School District bond and levy campaigns. I was co-chair of communications for several campaigns, starting in 2001. We lost that one on Sept 18, a week after Sept 11, by 149 votes. I have been involved in campaigns in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006. Some of these years had two elections. Our next one will probably be next year, or possibly 2010, and I'll be involved in that one too.

It takes 60% yes vote to pass a construction bond. The Highline Schools have had a very hard time over the years in passing bonds. Before our victory in 2002, it had been 16 years since we'd passed a bond, which was the longest gap in King County. We've also had levy failures, though now that it only takes 50% to pass a levy, those are probably not going to happen again.

One of the problems Highline Schools had was that in 1986, they had a bond measure that passed, but then did not come close to doing what the voters had been promised. The pre-construction planning was very poorly done. They had planned on renovating all schools in the district, but when they started rebuilding, they found lots of dry rot and other problems "unanticipated" during the planning.

Voter disgruntlement made it impossible to get anything done.

I see huge similarities between the so-called "planning" of Sound Transit, and the so-called "planning" of the Highline School District in 1986.

The first similarity is: there is / was no sense of how the priorities will be adjusted in event of the unexpected.

Second, the inflation estimates were way off in 1986. With Sound Transit, the same thing: the numbers are a black box, but last fall there was some discussion that they were quite low.

Third: there was no citizen oversight that gave voters confidence their interests were being represented. The school board was simply not up to the task. No one had ever managed a construction project and they didn't know what to ask. And there was no citizen oversight committee. Is this the case with Sound Transit

Well, to repeat the question of above, what exactly does the ST Citizen Oversight Committee do?


Now, what are the consequences if ST messes up again?

For ST, probably none. They will have taxing authority for a very long time, and the debt will last probably beyond my lifetime. In other words, I'm voting on behalf of my children, grandchildren and potentially even my great grandchildren.

Well, the viaduct and 520 are life and death. If ST gets a big tax increase and then blows it, I think it will be harder to solve those corridor issues.

Beyond transportation, these types of fiascos poison the well for schools and other needed items.


For what it is worth, I am a member of the Sierra Club. But no, I do not go to the transportation committee meetings. I salute people like my very good friend Tim Gould, one of the best men in my wedding party in 1998 and a friend from college, for their activism and his positive contribution to dialoguing about transit and transportation. This does not mean that he and I agree on everything, but I greatly appreciate his contributions to thoughtful thinking about long-term solutions. I bring this up because I do value civil discourse.

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 5:46 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Free speech should be used constructively in this forum: My comment was not a generalized statement about older people or even older white males. It was about the sameness -the lack of diversity in terms of gender, race, income, length of time spent in the region and age - of the very small group of people who manufacture nearly all of the dissent about rail transit in this region. My assertion is that their lack of diversity and their insularity has isolated them from the larger community, particularly from the challenges of people who spend an awful lot of effort just trying to get to work each day.

The best proof I can offer for this argument is how deathly afraid these light rail opponents are of a 2008 vote on light rail because that is when we will likely see the largest, most diverse turn-out of voters in a generation. The opponents don't want that because they know that the larger and more diverse a turn-out, the more likely a major transit expansion will be approved.

Although couched within a flippant remark, I made a very substantive response to the first part of the McDonald article: more buses alone won't provide commuters the real choices they need. For this, new right-of-way is necessary. New highway miles are not the right approach for adding new ROW because they don't provide long-term solutions to congestion and exacerbate sprawl and climate change. Bus-rapid-transit may be appropriate in some corridors, but when done right is nearly as expensive as light-rail (with fewer esthetic and land-use benefits). So, it makes sense it to build new ROW with light-rail in many corridors. Oh, and by the way, the ST2 proposal provides a lot more of all three of these transit modes- more buses, something approaching BRT, and more rail transit.

Posted Wed, Jun 25, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old White Male Farts Against Light Rail: Bill, I was hoping you could address those questions. You don't think they are unfair questions, do you?

The Citizens Oversight Panel is charged with ensuring Sound Transit complies with the local law voters approved in 1996. You are on that committee, and from all appearances ST is ignoring some key terms of Sound Move/Res. 75 relating to taxing, and spending tax revenues.

Here's what Sound Move says about ST's voter approved tax spending limit during the Phase I system plan implementation period:

The system plan will be paid for with a combination of voter approved local taxes [$1.98B], federal grants [$727M], farebox revenues and interest revenues [$155M], and borrowed funds (bonds) [$1.052B] (see Table 2).

Please explain in detail why the COP is not making any effort to ensure Sound Transit's Phase I local tax revenue spending remains within that $1.98 billion figure.

If you have any reason to believe ST does not need to keep its tax revenue spending within that voter-approved amount, please explain what the basis of your understanding in that regard is. For example, did some ST lawyer come to a COP meeting and say "ST does not have to stay within that tax revenue spending limit in Sound Move," or anything like that?

And here are the accelerated debt payoff and tax rollback terms from Appendix B of Sound Move:

Should voter approval for a future phase capital program not be forthcoming, the RTA Board will initiate two steps to roll back the rate of sales tax collected by the RTA.

a. First, the RTA will first [sic] initiate an accelerated pay off schedule for any outstanding bonds. Second, the RTA will implement a tax rollback to a level necessary to pay the accelerated schedule for debt service on outstanding bonds, system operations and maintenance, fare integration, capital replacement, and agency cost.

b. Once all debt is retired, the RTA will implement a tax rollback to a level necessary to pay for system operations and maintenance, fare integration, capital replacement and agency administration.

The previous COP reports mentions those citizen protection terms, so I know your committee is aware they exist. Why is ST not complying with those provisions that are in the law approved by voters in 1996 now that the voters rejected the "future phase capital program" last November? Why is COP not raising a red flag in light of how ST is failing to comply with those mandatory provisions?

As a COP committee member you have information not available to the public. Did ST provide you with some kind of legal opinion to the effect that these terms in Sound Move are not anything your COP committee should concern itself with?

As you know, there is no public oversight over this COP committee, even though it is supposed to be looking out for the public's interest. Your posts here raise the concern that the folks ST appointed to the COP may not be thinking critically enough about what ST is up to. We would appreciate any insight into the questions above that you can provide.

Posted Wed, Jun 25, 7:24 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not a case of diesel OR electric.: A very thought-provoking thread. I have 3 comments:
1. There's an assumption here that light rail will run on electricity, while buses will run on diesel. This is a crucial question, given the prognosis for various energies in the coming years. But why assume that the present mode of fuel must be maintained as it is? For example, why not a hydrogen fuel-cell bus?
2. The latest flyers from ST give supposed travel times from Bellevue and Redmond to Seattle downtown and the UW. Some of these running times are so long as be all but impracticable for riders - why would anyone choose this mode of travel? Related point: IF trains are to be used, can the system be engineered so that they run faster?
3. (I live in Bellevue) Looking at ST's proposed system map, we see that the new lines would run along two strips on the edge of the city: the west side and the north side. What about the rest of us, who have minimal public transport?

fiddler crab

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 6:04 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Where was Doug?: I don't know about "spending dollars without laying one mile of track". I think every project needs to do that. But to be clear, and not to belabor the fact, in Europe and Japan, which are different from us but yet very similar, businesspeople, construction workers and others do ride the bus, the train, etc. I am (and was) a "businessperson" who routinely rode the bus from my house on Latona to downtown Seattle, the airport (with one transfer), and Redmond. I want to make the point that I didn't have a problem riding the bus to the airport, it was marginally slower than driving, but if we had a clean bright, safe station at King Street, with easy transfer access from buses like the 16, then the equation becomes how many buses could you run for the 12billion we are spending for light rail to the airport? And what happened to Renton and South Center? Weren't we supposed to pick that up with this leg of light rail?

We have gotten away with a very free ride for a long time. Americans use way more fuel than any other nation. I've heard that our carbon emissions are up 25% since 98, when the Kyoto Protocal was signed into effect (if I have that date right). Now it's time to change our behaviors, like Doug did, and the cost of gas, while hurting folks is changing behavior. There are also way too many poor and low income people in this city, county and country that need good alternatives to paying $4 a gallon for gas, and insurance on a car. Some of them already have it (like I did) with the 16 on Latona. But we could do a lot more with that money. And given the economy, we may all need it sooner than later.

It's worth finishing the piece that's under construction, and then looking at real alternatives to this.

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 6:07 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: LRT is not commuter rail: Electricity will get a whole lot more expensive as we produce a fleet of electric cars. I don't think we've seen anything yet as it relates to electricity costs. And if the powers that be have their way, we will have more nuclear and coal. We will not have more dams. You better believe the costs will be going up if we give in to nuclear.


Posted Thu, Jun 26, 6:14 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Old White Male Farts Against Light Rail: Yeah, I guess all our founding fathers were just a bunch of rich old white farts (like Benjamin Franklin) wining about English taxation without representation. Their whining is just fine with me. Attacking some of the people who want to criticize a system that is bankrupting our ability to create county wide transit to get a few folks to the airport and downtown from the now gentrified south side sounds like a lame excuse for real debate.

And as for right of way, I assume you will be ok when the city comes to take your property that you have invested your hard earned cash and many weekends keeping up for light rail for all the rest of us? Right of way is a nice way of saying "urban renewal" in our new propaganda rich lexicon of marketing.

Posted Mon, Jun 30, 8:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Response to "new right of way is necessary": Coming from a transit scholar and activist like Bill LaBorde, his reaction to MacDonald's pointed analysis is exceedingly, breathtakingly wrong.

To illustrate, Bill writes just above in the comments, "For [commuters to have the real choices they need], new right-of-way is necessary. New highway miles are not the right approach for adding new ROW because they don't provide long-term solutions to congestion and exacerbate sprawl and climate change. Bus-rapid-transit may be appropriate in some corridors, but when done right is nearly as expensive as light-rail (with fewer esthetic and land-use benefits). So, it makes sense it to build new ROW with light-rail in many corridors."

First off, the transit investment choice is not new light rail right-of-way versus new highway right-of-way -- the transit investment needed is buying the portfolio of many infrastructure tweaks and policy changes that would make buses move faster on the existing right-of-way they traverse already. And then agencies need to buy and deploy enough buses that commuters on them have a place to sit down! MacDonald wrote about some of the tweaks in his three part essay, including buses that use radio signals to turn traffic lights green, parking elimination in curb lanes during peak, and more spacing between bus stops. These changes cost billions less than buying and constructing new light rail right of way, and because these simpler things can be geographically widespread, they can attract more new transit riders in more places more quickly.

Anybody who thinks electric trains provide a long-term solution to anything may be forgetting that in the early part of the 1900s, there were more miles of electric train tracks in place across America -- inter-urbans and street railways -- than there are miles of Interstate Highway today. I've posted the map of the pre World War II Seattle Street Railway if you want to see where the tracks went. In case you haven't noticed, all but tiny segments of that RR track here and elsewhere in America went away by mid century in favor of door-to-door mobility provided by road vehicles, which soon in this century (within a decade) are going to be engineered to be zero emission and energy efficient, and that includes buses.

What about bus rapid transit nearly as expensive as light rail? As a Sound Transit insider on the Citizens Oversight Panel, Bill is too modest in this claim. Sound Transit's recent invention to nix express buses on I-90 to the Eastside is called "rail convertible BRT" and it's even more expensive than light rail! This concept was ginned up to make light rail on the I-90 corridor look better than the ST and Metro buses that already provide service about as fast as light rail would. On the rest of the planet, even BRT on exclusive right of way costs less than light rail. But as I wrote above, and as Los Angeles and Vancouver, BC and other places have demonstrated, buses can be made to go faster without building new exclusive right of way.

As for climate change, the burden is on Sound Transit to show that the greenhouse gas (GHG) generated in the construction and operation of trains does not completely overwhelm the GHG saved by future commuters parking their 100 mpg hybrid cars and riding the rails. July 10 is the promised release date for ST's GHG analysis of the Prop 1 Do-Over Plan. So far, the official U.S. Government approved environmental analysis for the subway to Northgate shows that Link light rail construction and operation over the next 45 years will generate more GHG than it will save. Waiting that much time is not a good thing, according to climate change specialists.

Posted Mon, Jan 19, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Assuming the proposed Eastside Link across I90 is completed by the projected date of 2020 the bridge will then be 33 years old. The SR520 bridge is now 46 years old and in disparate need of replacement. A life span of about 15 years after completion surely should sink this idea before it leaves the drawing board yet I haven't seen anybody on either side address this issue. A solution for the next hundred years? More like a problem for the next 50!

When planning was begun on this route I don't believe the deal had been worked out for the old BNSF right of way from Renton to Woodinville. This corridor serves the entire eastside and the rail extending from Woodinville to Monroe is already in place. Rail service that adds capacity to the I405 corridor rather than trades reversible lanes for an irreversible hole in the water could be built for a fraction of the cost. Not only would this route serve far more Park & Ride locations it terminates at the trackage used by the Sounder within a mile of Tukwilla station.

As long as a large percentage of electricity in this country is produced by burning oil the notion that electric trains somehow remove our dependency on fossil fuel is wrong. Electricity does provide a big benefit in eliminating emissions at the point of use but somewhere in the country someone is burning more oil to replace the power taken from the grid. Also, many buses already run on electricity. The area which is electrified could be increased with a much better cost to benefit ratio than what is proposed for the Eastside link. Buses also have the flexibility to be run on natural gas, fuel cells or whatever technology is most cost effective in 2020. The light rail proposal is lock in on drawing more power from the grid during peak hours; unlike battery powered vehicles which have the promise of recharging when demand is low.


Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »