Voters aside, Seattle is full speed ahead on rail

While the city's residents just rejected a tax that included $18 million for streetcar planning, Seattle's Transit Master Plan envisions devoting most of a 20-year effort to streetcar lines.

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Cute to go at South Lake Union

While the city's residents just rejected a tax that included $18 million for streetcar planning, Seattle's Transit Master Plan envisions devoting most of a 20-year effort to streetcar lines.

Seattle’s decision-makers will soon be considering a $1 billion proposal to improve the city’s transit service. Due to be delivered to the City Council next March, the 20-year Transit Master Plan (TMP) reflects Mayor Mike McGinn’s vision of extending rail transit to city neighborhoods.

For a better part of a year the Seattle Department of Transportation, with the help of its consultant Nelson-Nygaard, has been developing the TMP.  A first draft, presented to a City Council committee on Sept. 27, is available for public review until the end of the year when a revised plan will be prepared.

A serious effort was made to get citizen input through community forums, focus groups, interviews, and online surveys. But the resulting TMP takes a problematic approach to improving transit in the city.

By embracing rail as the chief answer to our mobility and accessibility problems, and by allocating the lion’s share of the budget — $750 million — to rail, the TMP either glosses over or misses entirely some important options and issues.  The current draft:

  • Makes no attempt to analyze, test, and compare with rail, less costly alternatives such as measures that manage travel demand.
  • Ignores the city’s large backlog of transportation and other capital projects.
  • Lacks a realistic assessment of available funding, whether local, state, or federal.
  • Doesn’t acknowledge changes in personal vehicle technology that are already occurring and will grow considerably in the next two decades.
  • Assumes, incorrectly, that the performance of new transit can be predicted with certainty.

The plan proposes development of two new rail transit (rapid streetcar) corridors. One rail line would start in North Ballard and pass through Fremont on its way to Downtown. It would initially use the Fremont Bridge, but at some later time a new high-level bridge crossing the Ship Canal may be needed to avoid delays from bridge openings. Planning and design of the 7-mile line would begin in 2013, and construction would commence in 2017.

Construction of a second 6-mile rail line would follow in 2024, connecting the Roosevelt and University Districts to Downtown. Both lines would essentially be designed to fill a niche between the South Lake Union Streetcar and Link Light Rail in terms of speed and passenger capacity.

The phasing schedule for the plan suggests an early order of business is completion of a center city streetcar network that would connect the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars (being developed by Sound Transit) and link Downtown with adjacent neighborhoods, including construction of a 2-mile branch to Lower Queen Anne starting in 2015. But defeat of Proposition 1, the car-tab measure, may push back that date since it contained $18 million for planning and design of the connector.

Sixteen corridors have been identified for enhanced (priority) bus service. Frequency and capacity would be increased, and rider information and bus stop access would be improved. One corridor would have bus rapid transit (BRT) service, which has the operating characteristics of the rapid streetcar but is rubber-tired. The BRT line would originate on Capital Hill and run 2 miles down Madison Street to Coleman Dock on the waterfront. It was chosen since the steep grade effectively precludes rail.

The TMP includes measures that would enhance both the existing city’s bus-trolley system operated by Metro and service provided by other transit operators in the city: Community Transit, Pierce Transit, and Sound Transit.

A number of incentive and regulatory methods are mentioned that could be employed to encourage more transit usage and less auto usage. These incentives, that have proven to be effective in other cities, fall into the general category of Transportation Demand Management (TDM). Examples include employer-assisted measures: bus pass and vanpool subsidies, private shuttles, a guaranteed ride home for people working late hours, and parking cash-out. Cash-out involves a payment equivalent to the cost of employer-subsidized parking. The money can be used by the employee for transit and other non-SOV modes.

The TMP is embellished with great pictures and descriptions of rail transit systems in other U.S. and foreign cities that we could emulate. And it is skillfully written and organized to impress most citizens that it is the authoritative way to organize a modern municipal transit system. Just its shear size is intimidating — running to 100 pages plus a 400-page briefing book that explains the analytical tools used in developing the TMP, examines the conditions for transit in Seattle, and makes peer-city comparisons. Expect to spend a full day and more digesting all of it.

There are useful strategies in the TMP, such as the transit corridors that have been identified for upgrades and the expansion of Metro’s electric trolley fleet. But these improvements don’t make up for the basic flaw: rail transit will soak up most of whatever funding becomes available.

In essence, the TMP puts the cart before the horse, to use the more polite idiom. The logical approach would be to ask: what is the problem we are trying to fix and how can we do so in the most cost-effective way. If the problem is congestion on high travel corridors in peak (commute) periods and attendant greenhouse gas emissions, and this is likely to grow as the city grows, then there are less expensive solutions.

A comprehensive suite of TDM measures could be developed, applied across a range of employers, and the number of new bus transit riders it actually produces could be compared with ridership estimates for a rail alternative. If done prior to rail construction, TDM might prove to be the most cost-effective alternative and not simply a complement to rail.

Then there is the funding conundrum. The city has, as was pointed out by opponents of the just-defeated Proposition 1 car-tabs measure, a huge unfunded street maintenance and pavement replacement problem. Add significant unmet bridge replacement and repairs. Then add to that the need for sidewalks in neighborhoods at the city’s north and south extremities. Not to be forgotten is the Elliott Bay Seawall. If summed, the costs easily exceed $1 billion.

The TMP essentially assumes that past state and federal funding sources will continue and new sources will be developed to replace declining local sales tax revenues. Serious questions are unanswered: What was the message from voters who rejected Proposition 1? Were they expressing their displeasure with the tax? What is the likely impact of congressional deficit and debt reduction efforts on future federal transportation dollars? And can the state, if it asks voters for new revenue to fund education and safety net services and to make up shrinking gas tax revenue needed for state highways, be expected to also ask for transportation revenues that assist local governments in meeting their transportation needs?

Transit planners have a way of ignoring the major changes occurring in personal vehicles. Under 2007 federal legislation, CAFE standards are being ramped up beginning with the 2011 models and are expected to meet a combined car and light truck fleet fuel economy of 35 mpg by 2020. Is this the new limit for fuel economy? Hybrids have already topped 50 mpg and all-electrics that reach an equivalent 100 mpg are on the way. And that's not to mention the vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, which, given that fuel's abundance and low price, could also take a large share of the future passenger vehicle market. Vehicles will be cheaper to operate and will emit much less carbon.

Although planners hesitate to admit it, transportation planning is more art than science, since personal travel patterns are very complex. Several individual trips by personal vehicle are often combined into linked trips. Most trips are taken for purposes other than work (the TMP says these comprise 83 percent of all trips that originate from home). And even commute trips involve stops that divert from travel corridors, allowing people to shop and conduct personal business. The result is that predictions of new transit riders based on computer models are often proven to be incorrect — usually on the high side.

The city’s transportation planners don’t need to start over. There is much in the TMP that can be used to design the best — the most affordable and effective —  transit future for Seattle. But they do need to revisit the idea that rail is the solution. And they need to make sure that ever scarcer resources are invested wisely.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Nelson

Dick Nelson is a former Washington State legislator. He currently contributes to the public debate on state and local fiscal issues through research and commentary. As when he was in the legislature, he prefers the Democratic Party.