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On Thursday, December 20, the Sound Transit Board unanimously adopted a policy to focus and increase Sound Transit’s involvement in Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Policy guidance on TOD was a key topic of a Sound Transit Board retreat earlier this year. The new policy clarifies what Sound Transit can and will do to promote new development around transit facilities. TOD is a key source of potential ridership for Sound Transit, and the Board decided that the agency was ready to take a more proactive role in advancing it.

As a transit agency with no land use responsibilities or authority, Sound Transit’s mission is to create transit opportunities for the region. The agency has concentrated its efforts over the last decade and a half on constructing and operating light rail and commuter rail systems and creating and operating a network of regional buses. While the agency has been involved in projects that will deliver riders to the system, such as building parking and partnering with other entities that can use Sound Transit surplus properties to develop housing, there has not been a systematic approach to integrating these opportunities with the delivery of transit services. At its spring retreat, the Board decided that new comprehensive TOD policies should be developed. This recognizes that Sound Transit has matured as an agency, proving its ability to deliver on its core mission of providing transit services, and is ready to take the next steps in ensuring that these transit services are well-integrated with regional plans in a comprehensive manner.

Sound Transit’s services are already designed to complement and coordinate with regional and local growth management objectives and land use plans. Sound Transit builds and develops services that connect Urban Centers and other core areas that are intended to be the locus of future population and employment growth.  The new policy creates a bridge that more firmly connects Sound Transit’s work to creating great places around stations in cooperation with local governments.

The Transit-Oriented Development Policy defines two categories of Sound Transit involvement:  “Agency TOD”, a policy for supporting TOD projects on Sound Transit property, and “Community TOD”, ways in which Sound Transit can foster and support projects in the area around stations.

The new focus developed out of the experience of constructing the first light rail line. While much of the line serves existing developed areas such as downtown Seattle, the hope was that new stations and services in areas like the Rainier Valley would lead to development around the stations that would provide employment and housing for residents and bring riders to Sound Transit. This has turned out to be a greater challenge than had been expected. The experience has shown that greater involvement and coordination is necessary to ensure that transit provides the most successful community service. With three new lines under construction or in planning (north to Northgate and then Lynnwood, east to Bellevue and Redmond, and south through the City of SeaTac), and with many opportunities to develop TOD on the horizon, the Sound Transit Board is committed to learning from experience and finding ways to ensure that TOD is implemented as smoothly and effectively as possible.

Specifically, the Board has mandated that evaluation of future TOD opportunities will play an increased role in siting and designing facilities, and in how the agency buys, uses and disposes of property. The Board will work with other government entities and the private sector to develop regional and local policies and as well as financial, land use and other strategies and tools to encourage and implement TOD, in coordination with stakeholder involvement.

Washington’s fragmented system of local governments, which is a product of the populist era, makes it difficult to implement the comprehensive planning mandated under the Growth Management Act. The kind of strategic approach embodied in this new TOD policy is a significant step towards resolving that.