The case for rail transit is hard to make politically, but here it is

The way some argue rail transit's case lays it open to economic rebuttal. The more-honest arguments for it are hard to quantify and tricky to say in public.
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A light-rail train is towed through the downtown Seattle tunnel. (Sound Transit)

The way some argue rail transit's case lays it open to economic rebuttal. The more-honest arguments for it are hard to quantify and tricky to say in public.

There must be something in the water that makes Seattleites love to debate transit issues, and you can read a rich sampling of vigorous pushing and shoving in the comments to Dick Morrill's Crosscut article of Wednesday, June 20, attacking the Sound Transit 2 plan. Morrill, an urban geographer, keeps alive a deep, if marginal, tradition of econometric attacks on the cost-benefits of transit, which goes all the way back to the critiques of the Forward Thrust proposals for heavy rail in 1968. In my view, Morrill is both right, in the sense that rail transit does very little to relieve congestion and probably costs more than improving bus systems, and wrong, in the larger social calculations. He also tends to overlook the political realities. The case for transit is not an easy one to make for the voters. Costs are very high, and only a few of the voters live near enough to the lines to get much direct benefit. The trickle-down case is difficult to make, especially since expensive transit systems usually force cutbacks in bus service to pay for the rails. So it's not surprising that the case is invariably oversold. One of the worst ways it is oversold is to urge people to imagine that these first baby steps, or "starter lines," will someday grow into a full system, as in larger, older cities. Ain't gonna happen. The general rule is that only cities with densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile pass the threshold for extensive use of public transportation systems. That qualifies only New York and Chicago, which account for a large percentage of all public transportation in America. Seattle's density, for its urbanized area, is about 3,000 people per square mile. Moreover, public transportation becomes dominant only in the downtown business districts of these cities. A second dubious claim is that rail is a step forward over buses. In fact, the history of American cities, including Seattle, is that streetcar lines were converted into much less expensive, more flexible, and more extensive bus lines. As bus systems decay, due to cuts in public subsidies and other ailments of large government bureaucracies, they come to seem dated and worn out, whereupon the pendulum of wishful thinking swings back to rail. That said, there is a real case to be made for rail transit. The real benefits of rail are not to be found by doing passenger counts and narrow economic calculations of cost per mile. Let me list three, all of which are harder to quantify and two of which are politically awkward to tout. One benefit is that rail, being thought socially superior to buses, attracts riders from affluent areas who would not ride buses but will shift (in small numbers) from cars to rail. It's an awkwardly elitist argument. A further problem with it is that rail is normally put first in lower-income areas where it is thought to stimulate investment and to remedy social injustices. In running Sound Transit's first line down Rainier Valley, Seattle is following this normal pattern. Ridership will be somewhat disappointing, but the second phase, northward and to the Eastside, will attract new riders, and not just former bus riders. The second benefit, a little less awkward to proclaim, is that rail lines trigger economic investment and real estate plays. A story in the June 20 Wall Street Journal, "A Streecar Named Aspire: Lines Aim to Revive Cities" [$], notes how streetcars, like the one in Portland that stimulated a boom in the Pearl District (a claimed $2.7 billion in new investment) and the new one abuilding in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, are catnip to developers. The cuter the streetcars, the better for iconic purposes (even if they are so slow and of such small capacity that the federal government is loath to fund them). They may be even better stimulants to development than stadiums, convention centers, and aquariums (granted, a pretty easy standard to beat). Once again, the politics of this claim is tricky, since enriching the portfolios of real estate developers through public subsidies is not the sure path to the City Council. The third benefit is urban planning: Rail stations tend to concentrate growth and can create walkable, compact, fairly self-sufficient nodes of residential and office buildings. Theoretically, that is. In reality, the stations often go in existing urban nodes (like downtown Bellevue or the University District). Where they create stations in areas that are not dense, often the political price of that location is that you cannot upzone, build big parking lots for park-and-ride, or otherwise put a sleepy neighborhood on a crash course to high density. Sound Transit, as well as the dead Seattle Monorail Project, have both been very reluctant to talk about upzoning around their stations, for fear of touching off political rebellions. But still, over time, by being very fixed and therefore a predictable node for long-term real estate speculation, rail stations do create new concentrations to focus growth a little better. So there are cost-benefit cases to be made for investing in rail, even if hard to quantify, tricky to state publicly, and very slow to pay off. Whether the Seattle proposals, to be voted on this November, really do add up to wise investments when you count the broader, more amorphous benefits, is not easy to say. I'd bet they do. Meanwhile, the politics of transit is also shifting. Roused by global climate change imperatives, environmentalists are losing confidence that a few short rail lines will do much to curtail auto use, as long pretended, and so are looking at more powerful medicine, such as taking away highway lanes and imposing lots of tolls. This shift, in turn, jeopardizes the political juggernaut that has long driven the quest for rail. Unions like the billions of dollars for construction jobs, downtown interests like the additional shoppers and workers and tourists rail can facilitate, and greens naturally like something that challenges the automobile. If you put together a coalition of unions, greens, and downtown power brokers, you have the classic formula for a winner in Seattle politics. A counter approach, such as Morrill advocates, with more buses and more tolls, or one with bus rapid transit (a deft compromise with many rail-like advantages), might make economic sense. But it makes little political sense, at least so far, since it offers few construction jobs and makes the downtown types very worried that the tolls will discourage driving to downtown jobs and stores. Add this up and you have a classic Seattle political stalemate. The case for transit will get weaker but won't go away because of all the political benefits. And the case for a smarter, cheaper, more effective alternative has too few powerful interests behind it to get very far down the tracks. We can go on arguing indefinitely, as we love to do!


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