Should Seattle go it alone on light rail?

Home » Should Seattle go it alone on light rail?

I was invited earlier this year to participate in ThinkTank, a new feature on Publicola where dueling editorials on a pressing topic are published once a week and a cast of twenty-five get to add their perspectives to the debate.

This week’s topic features Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Councilmember Julia Patterson weighing on whether Seattle should go it alone on funding and building in-city light rail or whether our efforts ought to be part of a larger, regionally funded transit system. 

The more I thought about it, the more I wrote. I’m constrained by space on Publicola and had to truncate my response on the website yesterday, so I’ve included the entirety of my thoughts here on my own blog.

I have serious transit envy. Every time I’m in Portland I ride MAX, take the street car to the Pearl District, and marvel at “The Weave” down their 5th Avenue where MAX, street cars, buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians co-exist safely. Portland was smart. They voted YES to transit when they had a chance.

In this regard I agree with Mayor McGinn. Portland has made progress that I wish we had made, but Portlanders have done it, in part because they have a regional three county planning and operating agency (TriMet) and they’ve steadily made advances with local, state, and federal funding. They have voted YES to smart regional transportation options.

Like Portland, we have had chances to create fast and dedicated mass transit which would have transformed our city and region. Unlike Portland, we have voted NO at critical points, and we have tended to listen to those who loudly promote a single interest, rather that considering the regional benefits of a functioning system.

Our very own Link Light Rail

A few cases in point: In 1968 we had federal funds in hand to build a 47 mile light rail line into and around Seattle. It failed twice. Twenty five years later we finally got the nerve to put light rail to the voters again, and our first tri-county regional transit effort was defeated in 1995. We tried again the next year, and with some federal money committed, voters agreed in 1996 to pay for a lesser line from the University District beyond the airport, later shortened to 14 miles for lack of funds. And think of our flirtation with our Monorail from Ballard to Downtown to West Seattle. A majority of us wanted the Green Line and voted yes in 1997, 2000, and 2002. After years of planning, right of way purchases and millions of dollars spent, we killed it in 2005. In 2007 then-activist Mike McGinn and others decided that our Regional Transit Investment District proposal –which would have paid for expanded light rail and HOV lanes in three counties– was too heavily focused on moving people outside Seattle on roads. I supported RTID because I am willing to support people who need to drive their cars and trucks, in exchange for them supporting Seattle’s expanded system of light rail, streetcars and buses.

Ok, I admit, that’s a rant.

Voters did approve extending light rail the following year. As a personal aside, I would like to thank former Mayor Greg Nickels who spent six months cajoling the Sound Transit Board into returning the light rail vote to the ballot in 2008. His patient work resulted in the ST2 plan being funded by our regional voters.

There is nothing I would like more than to fully fund a connected light rail, Rapid Ride, and street car system throughout our region. The problem is that a project that cost $1.3 billion for a 47 mile system in 1968 now costs something around $150 million per mile. But we can’t turn back the clock nor go back to the voters asking for more transportation planning money until we can show that our plans for a city-wide and regional system are beginning to work. How will we know? Here’s what I would do:

Metro's new Rapid Ride

First, give Metro a chance to show what the upcoming Rapid Ride will do on Aurora and in West Seattle. Yes, I know, this isn’t real Bus Rapid Transit because the lanes are not fully dedicated to speedy buses and other elements of true BRT are missing. But it’s a rational first step and we can see whether Rapid Ride succeeds by the number of people who will ride the newer, sleeker buses, leaving their cars at home. If it works, we should add more Rapid Ride lines, and reserve the lanes entirely for BRT. Second, let Metro fully implement its recommended routes based on “productivity, social equity, and geographic value” county wide. King County has been hit severely by budget cuts, and Dow Constantine is responding to audit recommendations. Give Metro’s proposed restructured bus system some time to work. Third, when transit money becomes available, and thanks to a temporary legislative fix, some money will be available next year, add more bus service to the routes where the people are and where they want to go. Is it pretty? Nope. Are buses as popular as light rail? Nope. But it is a financially prudent approach that we should try first.

BRT in Latin America

Speaking of trials, we’ve tried the Lone Ranger approach to the planning process already (Consider our aborted Monorail from Ballard to Downtown to West Seattle effort).  We know how that turned out and how much time and money we spent trying. We also know that the City’s bonding capacity is nearing its ceiling and we simply can’t afford to go it alone.

BRT in Curitiba Brazil

If we are to create an integrated transportation system that works for our city, we must look to our partners–particularly Metro, Sound Transit, the Puget Sound Regional Council and in some cases the private sector– and consider the needs of others in our region who want to get into, through, and around Seattle. We can’t ask Seattle voters to pay for transit by themselves. We must insist on a system that works and is designed and paid for region-wide. I agree with Councilmember Julia Patterson’s comment that “Regional planning makes the most sense for everyone, including Seattle because…there’s a world beyond Seattle.”