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The case for more rail transit

Crosscut Focus: Transportation.

On a February day 40 years ago, just over 50 percent of metro-Seattle voters approved of Proposition 1. That was a plan to build 47 miles of electric rapid transit, with fast trains as often as every four minutes connecting every major hub in our region. Thanks to U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., a two-thirds federal contribution was secured and the region would only have paid $385 million, about $2.4 billion in 2008 dollars. The system would have opened in 1985 and been paid off last year.

At the time, though, a bond issue required 60 percent of the vote, so even with a majority, nothing could be built. The money earmarked for Seattle went instead to Atlanta. The long wait for rail began, and the case against it continues to be urged, more strongly than ever.

The anti-rail camp has all along used fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Detractors in 1968 called rail “inflexible” and labeled San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) plan “controversial.” State Sen. Sam Guess, R-Spokane, promised a transit study committee for a bus alternative, but since a bus alternative would have meant giving up already full highway lanes, the bus plan floundered. With federal incentives spurring explosive suburban growth, the new American dream was in full swing, and those lanes were for Fords and Chevys.

The flexibility argument — that buses could follow shifting concentrations of passengers, unlike fixed rail — was always a straw man. (In practice, flexibility turns out to mean politically alterable, resulting mostly in slow, winding bus routes.) But nobody really thought our urban centers would pack up and move, requiring bus routes to follow them. Seattle’s 1989 CAP initiative, limiting the height of Seattle office towers, did push some new construction to Bellevue. But even the iconic Smith Tower, completed in 1914 and long dwarfed by its Seattle neighbors, still has more stories than any of Bellevue’s office towers. As highway money has dried up and oil prices have skyrocketed, development has shifted back to the city core.

Cities follow transportation. The ability to trade, in goods and ideas, is the primary driver of human development. Paris and London sit on rivers, Chicago on a lakeshore, Seattle alongside a storm-protected harbor. Fundamentally, cities develop to take in raw materials of every kind, then to add value by combining them into more specialized goods. Originally this meant iron ore, coal, and wood shaped into products and buildings. Now it also means software, genetic sequences, and circuitry.

These businesses and ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. These ideas are brewed by discussions with the friend you run into at the coffee stand down the street. Every urban area’s success is reliant upon its ability to foment face-to-face crossings between inventors and implementers, and these crossings happen proportionally to how dense and walkable our urban centers are.

Federal highway investment and other factors have long worked to shift these businesses from accessible but expensive downtown office buildings to widely spaced office parks. The diversity of experience in life and work was put in jeopardy and with it the United States’ dominant role in innovation. Our urban vitality has been choked out by a lack of concentration.

We need to reverse this trend.

One key answer is rail transit. Forty years later, BART isn’t so “controversial” after all, nor is Portland’s MAX. Even here at home, our fledgling Sounder commuter rail will pull in well over 2 million passenger boardings in 2008. Rail isn’t subject to the unreliability of highway congestion. People use it and people who want it demand new space to live and work near stations. Sound Transit’s Link light rail is spurring thousands of new condos atop retail for the Rainier Valley, replacing vacant lots with dense development that offers a sure commute. The Sounder, with only commuter service during rush hours, is spurring development in Kent, where local government embraced it. Bellevue is already gearing up to develop near light rail a decade from now.

Buses have a key role as feeder services and in linking many smaller nodes. But they don’t have the same concentrating effects, and so they alone cannot help us out of the pit we’ve dug with years of dispersed growth. We’ve proven that right here. While bus advocates won their battle in 1968, Seattle has created a system that may have saved some money but suffers from the unreliability of sharing lanes with traffic. We’ve had 40 years of trying to build a reliable bus-only transit system, only to bump into the political realities that prevent transit-only lanes or downtown roadways reserved for buses. Our transit system has fallen far behind our peers.

Crosscut recently ran three closely argued articles (1, 2, 3) by Doug MacDonald, the state’s former transportation chief, making the case for only a modest component of rail, instead shifting much of the proposed money to bus rapid transit. Let me counter by pointing to two fundamental problems with his analysis.

MacDonald claims bus service can create density the same way rails can. This is technologically possible, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way in the real world. Density comes from reliability that businesses and builders can take into account, but when all it takes is a bit of paint to turn a bus lane into a car lane, the permanence needed to build them into a business model is absent. We build rail in its own right-of-way — this is apparent with Link — so there’s no pressure to turn it into highway. The cost to build buses at that service level (on dedicated right of way) is exactly the same, so bus advocates get their cost savings by dispensing with that exclusive right of way.

Take away the dedicated lanes and buses are at the mercy of traffic congestion. They bunch up and fall behind schedule. It’s difficult to add buses to the routes, even when the demand grows. Some run overloaded, while others are empty. Passengers get frustrated, and some stop using the bus.

The other problem with a bus-heavy system is capacity. Buses can’t scale up to meet the high service levels that core density demands. The costs to operate a single bus and a single light rail vehicle are similar, but the cost to add another car to that train is much lower than paying another driver to operate another bus. A single four-car Link train can carry more than 800 passengers, which is the equivalent of eight articulated buses. With doors along the entire length of such a train, it also takes the same amount of time to board and unload as a single bus, allowing much higher throughput. Running light rail trains a few minutes apart gives you capacities upwards of 20,000 people per hour per direction, far more than buses can provide.

Making our transportation reliable again is paramount to our success as a region. We’ve given the bus advocates 40 years to make their case, and the result has been increasingly congested roads and ever-slowing commutes. It’s long past time to take the reins back and do things right.

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