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
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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

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.

Regular people in big numbers suddenly are realizing they actually need transit - a very powerful idea when it takes root outside the hothouse environment of transit's familiar supporters.

Catching the news hook of the first annual National Train Day, Sound Transit's own surging ridership was touted in a breathless press release.

The new statistics — Sound Transit's and others' — are trustworthy tallies of who transit's new riders will be, where they will be going, and what they will need in services.

They speak on behalf of regular busy people almost never heard at Sound Transit's meetings.

They make the case for a dramatic change in the pace, direction, and goals of transit's program for our region. They certainly should unsettle Sound Transit.

But before turning to these real-world polling results, let's set the context. That involves the entire picture of transit in the region, not just Sound Transit, the newest kid on the block.

The size and growth of transit ridership in the region

The Seattle metropolitan area is a pretty strong transit market, as these things go late in the golden age of the gasoline-powered private car. People here take transit for a higher proportion of journey-to-work trips than in any but just a handful of other metropolitan areas in the country — New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh:

  • King County Metro serves more than 150 transit routes in Seattle and the suburbs, including many high-density arterial commuter routes. Metro now logs about 380,000 daily boardings.
  • Pierce Transit, with about 45 local, inter-city, commuter, and express routes, now stands at about 50,000 daily boardings.
  • Community Transit in Snohomish County has 64 routes, including commuter routes to Seattle's University District, Bellevue, and downtown Seattle, as well as Everett and the Boeing plant there. Community Transit now stands at about 38,000 daily boardings.
  • Sound Transit, the multi-municipality entity serving all three counties, has express bus routes on regional freeways and the HOV network and two rail lines operated on BNSF Railway tracks. In the first quarter of 2008, Sound Transit averaged 50,000 daily boardings.
  • Then there's Everett Transit, with perhaps 9,000 daily boardings, and Washington State Ferries, with about 13,000 daily boardings of foot commuters across Colman Dock in downtown Seattle.

In round numbers, that puts transit boardings across the region at roughly 540,000 every day. Sound Transit accounts for just nine percent of the total. Altogether, the systems have gained about 37,000 new daily boardings compared to a year ago. Sound Transit has produced a little less than a fifth of the overall growth, combining a nice bump on the express buses with another noteworthy chunk from expanding the number of trains on the Sounder south commuter rail runs.

None of this is to mention 20,000 or so daily vanpool passengers, a potent market for transit growth, up 8 percent over the previous year, and thousands of trips on paratransit for disabled or elderly riders. Sound Transit operates no vanpools and no paratransit.

Paying for regional transit and supporting explosive growth

How is all this growing transit use paid for? Partly from fares, although no part of the overall system covers costs from fares. The rest largely comes from discrete, voter-approved slices of the 8-plus percent sales tax everybody pays every day:

  • For King County Metro, 0.9 percent in the sales tax rate, most recently increased by 0.1 percent by voters in 2006. That was to support the "Transit Now" initiative for 15 percent to 20 percent expansion in service spread over 10 years.
  • For Community Transit in Snohomish County, 0.9 percent in the sales tax rate, most recently increased in 2001.
  • For Pierce Transit, 0.6 percent in the sales tax rate, most recently increased in 2003.
  • For Sound Transit, from a taxing district that covers the most populous parts of all three counties, a further slice of sales tax at the rate of 0.4 percent, over and above the slice already going to each county's transit system. This now raises for Sound Transit about $280 million a year. Plus a tax on rental car fees (raising about $2.5 million a year), and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) that hits the average household about $70 a year and raises about $72 million a year for Sound Transit.
The suggested Sound Transit sales tax increase

The debate at Sound Transit is about asking voters to approve another 0.4 percent in the sales tax, doubling the 0.4 percent it already receives. (We will ignore here an even more bullish plan to ask for a 0.5 percent increase!)

If approved, this would amount to a 30 percent increase in funding from the sales tax for the combined purposes of Sound Transit, Metro, and Community Transit in King and Snohomish counties, and a 40 percent increase over the combined level for Sound Transit and Pierce Transit in Pierce County. In areas within King County and Snohomish County that are also in the Sound Transit taxing district, the new sales tax rate for everyone would be 9.3 percent, and for those areas overlapped with the Sound Transit taxing district in Pierce County, it would be 9.2 percent.

Sound Transit's expensive tax increase would be spent almost entirely on the limited routes and services it sponsors, so here's the big question: When could we ever expect more funding for the 90 percent of the system virtually exploding with double-digit ridership increases today that is not part of Sound Transit?

Struggling to digest the big Sound Transit swallow, would public appetite in the era of unaffordable gas prices recover in time to take up the much larger needs of the system as a whole?

The single-vision Sound Transit directors and staff haven't raised this question in their own discussions or in their ongoing "public outreach" publicity blitz.

Riders, potential riders, all elected officials, and taxpayers should care about the big picture, even if Sound Transit apparently doesn't.

Sound Transit's plans for all the new money

What exactly does Sound Transit propose to do with a river of new money from the sales tax — flowing to the board of directors for decades, generating cash and funding years of debt repayment and interest expenses on big new issues of long-term bonds?

The answer is: spend billions of dollars for capital projects for a limited piece of the transit system, save but a few hundred million over the years to support some of future operating costs.

Sound Transit knows exactly what new projects it would build. And when it would hope to complete them.

Don't hold your breath to see new transportation services from these projects anytime soon. Most of the new projects would not go into service until 2020, when today's four-county regional population is expected to have grown by an additional half million people, from today's 3.6 million.

Nevertheless, some of those eventual projects certainly will be big - in dollar cost, anyway!

Sound Transit chooses to guess at the project expenditures as if they were to be made at 2007 construction prices. They won't be, of course. Nobody knows how much inflation will drive up the costs from last year's prices until the projects are built years from now. But if they could be built at 2007 prices, Sound Transit estimates they would cost more than $6 billion.

At the same time, they will - in terms of contributing to regional transit needs — also be very small.

Here's the nutshell summary:

Two-thirds of the $6 billion that will really be much more by the time the serious spending comes would be spent on adding a few new miles of light rail.

Sound Transit has already funded and is now building — or is about to start building — initial light rail sections from the airport to downtown Seattle (in service next year, it hopes) and Husky Stadium (year 2016, it hopes). It wants to extend those sections. South 2.0 miles to South 200th Street (year 2020) and north 4.3 miles to Northgate (also year 2020). Cost of these 6.3 miles of extension at 2007 prices would be about $2 billion, eating up a third of the $6 billion for new capital projects.

What would be the gain in ridership if these extensions were built compared to if they were not? If they were not built, ridership on light rail, according to Sound Transit, would be 42,000 daily boardings by 2020, growing to 120,000 by 2030. Sound Transit does not give a precise breakdown if the extensions were built, but it looks as if the overall gain would be in the area of 50,000 to 60,000, with the first of the extension passengers served not until 2020 and the full gain not achieved until 2030, 22 years from now.

Another huge slug for light rail — about $2.1 billion worth at 2007 prices — would be spent extending light rail about 12 miles from Seattle across the I-90 floating bridge to Mercer Island, downtown Bellevue, and Overlake [PDF]. The cost estimate for this is probably especially shaky, because it rests on the assumption that Bellevue residents and businesses will be content on not insisting that expensive tunnels get the line through town. Anyway, perhaps at some uncertain later date, if even more taxes could be raised, a further extension could be made all the way to downtown Redmond.

If the piece just to Overlake were in place, Sound Transit appears to think that line's ridership might grow from the first new rider in 2020 eventually to daily boardings of 45,000 or so by 2030, 22 years from now.

However, the environmental impact statement for light rail to the Eastside suburbs won't be ready until fall of this year, and details of ridership, costs, and impacts still are being studied. That hasn't slowed down the Sound Transit board's ability to ask the public about the project. And it looks like it might not slow down the Sound Transit board in deciding it's the right way to go. That's an unconventional and questionable course. The principle is that agencies are supposed to put the environmental impact statement in the hands of citizens and decision makers before big decisions are made! That's why we prepare environmental impact statements, not just to justify what government officials have already decided.

Altogether, for spending about $4.1 billion in today's dollars (more because of inflation to the time the projects are actually built), bright ribbons of light rail would serve two corridors in King County only and would eventually accommodate by 2030 a total of perhaps 100,000 daily boardings more than would be the case if none of the proposed light rail extensions in the new plan were made at all.

Reaching that gain in ridership 22 years from now represents the equivalent of growing today's regional transit boardings of almost 540,000 by less than a fifth. That's the equal of growing today's ridership at an annual compound rate of growth of just under 0.8 percent. Of course, if you think about it, even that is a big overstatement, because lots of those so-called new riders are already on the buses to be replaced by the light rail lines, so they really aren't new riders to transit at all!

So much for two-thirds of the $6 billion in project spending.

That leaves about a third for other projects.

Foremost would be for the Sounder commuter rail program. Sound Transit loves its Sounder trains from Tacoma through Puyallup and the Kent Valley to Seattle. Last year it started with eight trains a day and grew the service by 50 percent to 12 trains a day. Buoyed by free parking at the stations and a heavily subsidized fare, ridership responded with a slightly-less-than-commensurate 29 percent year-over-year increase, adding about 1,900 daily boardings.

In the new plan, if it can overcome a pesky caveat ("subject to negotiation with BNSF Railway," which owns the tracks), Sound Transit would add more new trains and make expensive station, parking, and track improvements for a total cost of about $1 billion. (A bit would go for station improvements at Edmonds and Broad Street for the under-performing Sounder north service from Everett.)

The two Sounder lines last quarter registered about 9,300 daily boardings, a 1.7 percent share of overall regional transit ridership.

Without the new investment, Sound Transit says its current Sounder ridership would grow anyway by 2030 to 19,000 daily boardings. If the billion-dollar additional investment were made, the incremental ridership expected by 2030 would be an additional 8,000 daily boardings. That billion-dollar increment would be equal, 22 years from now, to adding about 1.5 percent of today's overall regional transit ridership.

Lastly, the express bus system. The rest of the $6 billion, nearly a billion dollars worth of projects at 2007 prices, would be spent on Sound Transit's regional bus system. Or what would be left of it. Sound Transit bills this as an ST Express System Expansion with the outcome of "boosting service on key corridors by 10-15 percent."

The key word here is "key." Sound Transit doesn't say exactly what should be expected. Don't assume or expect too much!

Some access and park-and-ride improvements would be made in Snohomish County, and $150 million would be earmarked for a new transit center when the Highway 520 replacement bridge across Lake Washington is built. Several other modest projects around the region are suggested, including some improvements for a few miles of arterials on which a couple of routes would operate, and, figuratively speaking, a few dollars are actually designated for buying some new buses.

Without this investment of nearly a billion dollars, Sound Transit tells us that by 2030 its regional express bus routes will board 52,000 passengers a day. That's about what just Pierce Transit alone boards today. With the billion-dollar investment, Sound Transit estimates express bus boardings by 2030 would grow by an additional 6,000.

That's a little more than what just Pierce Transit alone added in new ridership since last year. King County Metro, already reaping new riders from service improvements it began within months of its 0.1 percent sales tax increase through "Transit Now," has added 21,500 daily boardings since last year, more than three times the ridership dividend Sound Transit expects to achieve 22 years from now on its express bus services.

"Time to decide on expanding mass transit," says Sound Transit's "Sound Off on System Expansion" Web page and its ubiquitous advertising campaign.

Maybe there's something else to decide first.

Are Sound Transit's proposals to spend billions of dollars more for a drop in the bucket of new ridership years from now for the region's transit network fairly called a " mass transit" plan at all?

Next: Real riders speak, and Sound Transit's model isn't what they want to buy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.