How Ambitious Will Seattle Get With Its Transit Expansion Plan?

The nonprofit Seattle Subway wants to expand on the current concept for rail and bus expansion proposed by Sound Transit (left), with a more substantial network of light rail lines (right). Maps via Seattle Subway

Next November, voters in the Seattle region will be asked to approve a new tax to fund a major expansion of the region’s light rail system.

The $15 billion plan to expand transit, known as ST3, would be funded by a mix of sales taxes, property taxes, and car registration fees collected for 15 years. The big question is which projects will get built.

Sound Transit has proposed a smorgasbord of “candidate projects,” including light rail through downtown, commuter rail to the south and east suburbs, and a pair of north-south bus rapid transit routes. But area leaders haven’t yet decided exactly what to include in the final ballot measure.

Meanwhile, transit advocates have stepped up with some ideas of their own. The most talked about comes from the nonprofit Seattle Subway, which proposes a much more expansive menu. Their plan, which they call STcomplete, would use the same funding mix but extend the collection period from 15 years to 30 years.

Rumors are swirling that the Sound Transit board is taking Seattle Subway’s expanded proposal seriously. Doug Trumm of The Urbanist said he hopes that’s true, for a couple of reasons.

The ST3 plan sounds “really ambitious, and it is compared to some cities,” he said, “but it’s actually less ambitious than the last one.” That was ST2 — an $18 billion light rail expansion package approved by voters in 2008.

In addition, the expansion projects will be set up according to formula called “sub-area equity,” in which the money spent in different parts of the region is commensurate with the money each area contributes. With 15 years of funding, the city of Seattle itself may not get much added transit capacity, but with 30 years worth, it’s a different story.

At the same time, it’s important to put together a package that can succeed at the ballot box. “It’s a delicate balance,” Trumm said.

Transit campaigners are concerned about the STcomplete proposal’s chances to withstand the anti-tax vote. Shefali Ranganathan, director of the coalition that successfully pushed for ST2, told the Stranger that she expects the Sound Transit board to opt for a middle ground with 20 years of funding.

Meanwhile, at Seattle Transit Blog, Frank Chiachiere proposes what he calls the “Peanut Butter Plan.” Instead of building light rail to West Seattle, Chiachiere’s expansion plan calls for a denser network of frequent bus lines running in dedicated lanes:

The result is a rapid transit expansion that brings serious speed and reliability improvements to just about every neighborhood in Seattle, while opening up a new East-West connection for non-downtown trips. Riders of express buses from places like Broadview, Phinney, and Alki would see their commutes shortened thanks to the new bus tunnel and a one-seat ride into downtown.

Against the positive of creating high-quality service for more residents, Chiachiere weighs the political negatives: The difficulty of appealing to voters with bus improvements instead of light rail, and the uncertainty that the needed street space could be secured for bus lanes.

30 thoughts on How Ambitious Will Seattle Get With Its Transit Expansion Plan?

  1. That’s a beautiful map–especially the one on the right.

    Wonder if an LA-style 30/10 (“30 years’ worth of transit built in 10”) measure would be politically viable in the region.

  2. Regarding subarea equity, the Sound Transit CFO recently clarified that subarea equity doesn’t really mean what most people thought it meant.

    It only requires the the ballot measure “…identifies the degree to which revenues generated within each county will benefit the residents of that county…”

    Seattle Met has a good article summing up how the concept of subarea equity is in a major state of flux:

  3. As a Seattle resident I’m so excited that my 2 year old will have a transit system in 2040 that will meet the needs of Seattle in 1990 and to also know that she will have the additional privilege of paying off all the debt for a largely inadequate system.

    It’s times like these where it would be nice to live under a Chinese style authoritarian government that could get large infrastructure project built to meet the needs of future generations not past generations. Instead it takes us decades of talking and studies to build things that are already obsolete by the time they are approved, let alone built.

    Yet this is a victory…

  4. I was recently thinking about this, too.

    There was a story recently in Chicago, about a Chinese developer living in Kenwood on the Southside (His wife is a professor at the University of Chicago).

    He stumbled upon a beautiful former temple (or, some place of worship) that had the potential to be turned into residences and he took on the project.

    Long story short, he is close to finishing the project but said that, in the time it took to renovate a single, unused building in Chicago, he could’ve had the development plans to build an entire city in China.

    Obviously, there’s pros/cons to each side, but the capability of China to complete massive infrastructure projects is something to behold.

  5. If LA couldn’t get Congress to front the money, I don’t know if Seattle could. But maybe if the two worked together? Think a lot of us would agree that the concept makes logical sense, but as we all know, logic/economics isn’t nearly enough for some congress people of a certain political party.

  6. After visiting Asia for 10 days and seeing countries which are technically poorer than the US, I have come to believe Seattle’s plan for transit is small time and will suck. They should elevated the whole thing or put it underground. Surface rail is a cheap out that they will regret later. I spent 3 days on Singapore’s transit and realized Sound Tramsit’s half assed approach will only be a bandaid instead of a first class large scale rail system. The US needs to really and I mean really be serious about RAIL. Not light rail.

  7. How many American cities have a sizable heavy rail network? Chicago and New York come to mind. Boston and Philadelphia also have pretty strong transit systems, but a fair amount of their rail is light rail, as you’ve said.

  8. Remember, light rail need not be run at grade. That said, there are some places where at-grade running makes sense, and many places where it most certainly does not.

  9. Population density is much lower in the US than in Asia. You should check out some European cities, they demonstrate very effective light rail solutions. LRT which usually mixes at grade with separated grade, and usually entirely within its own ROW is a very cost effective option. Many places in the US simply don’t have the density to support a full metro, and have the land space to fit in LRT at surface level. Yes, elevated or subway sounds shiny and nice, but in many places its a waste of money.

  10. I don’t think he said that, but if you’re unwilling to recognize the situations in which our own system works poorly, compared with others, how will we ever improve ourselves.

  11. I wouldn’t exactly call riding with Uber luxurious (unless you pay extra for the the higher tiers of Uber service), just a bit cleaner and less crowded. And uberHOP also wouldn’t really do much to speed up one’s commute in the short term.

    That said, once it’s more firmly established, it could have the potential to convince someone to adopt a car-light lifestyle, which is a plus.

  12. True – though most Uber rides are still nicer than most transit buses/trains I’ve used.

    Uber’s proto-bus is cool, but I think their recently unveiled UberCommute option has much more potential. With that program, non-Uber drivers can pick up passengers along the same route. I believe they’d be capped at IRS per mile rates of $0.575, which also means that income is not taxable. Been waiting for someone to introduce a service like that – Carma has it, but no one uses Carma so it was irrelevant.

    One setup I think is likely is the flightcar model applied to commuters – instead of parking your car at the office for $300 a month, you turn your car over to a valet at your office, who drives it around all day as his Uber car; you get some per mile stipend as well as free ‘parking’ in return. Or for bargoers – free ‘parking’ and valeting you home after your Dionysian dalliances.

    There are lots of profitable ways to do more with the cars we already have, without even chanting ‘driverless cars’ over and over.

    Since gas is so cheap on a per mile basis, what really makes or breaks the competitiveness of all these carsharing/ridesharing alternatives is the cost of parking. At $300 a month, these programs are pretty compelling. If your parking is free, and you already own a car, Uber’s HOP/COMMUTE don’t offer much savings, except the time freed up from being a passenger instead of a driver.

  13. and the city that everyone overlooks with a large subway and lightrail system is LA. the car capital of the world is also a transit center.

  14. Uber and the other car share programs are not comparible to transit or taxi.s they don’t have to follow the same non discrimination rules (or try not to) and they don’t have the same levels of insurance, buses, and light rail get inspected daily, when was that uber cars last inspection, what about insurance. certainly not the 100 million+ that transit carries.

  15. Uber offers UberPOOL in my city, which sounds a lot like the UberCommute system you describe. I’ve used UberPOOL a couple times and think it has some definite potential, especially in situations where I’m not in a crazy rush to get from A to B (e.g. returning home as opposed to going to work, etc.).

  16. Yeah, Uber and other ridehailing services are no substitute for regularly scheduled transit service. And while they perform some functions of taxis, I view them as complementary rather than replacements for taxi service.

    On a related note, I’ve found that taxi-hailing services like Curb and FlyWheel offer a pleasant middle ground by allowing users to hail cabs and pay in a similar fashion to Uber while utilizing the existing taxi base.

  17. Yes, I’ve used Uberpool frequently as well.

    The advantage of a program like UberCommute is that it’s potentially cheaper, because the driver is not an uber driver but someone who was going that way already. And then they’re paying the driver for the milder inconvenience of picking up a stranger instead of the act of chauffeuring. Carma has a similar program paying drivers fifteen cents a mile per passenger, and the passenger pays twenty cents a mile, but few people use it.

  18. Privately owned vehicles don’t face the same level of scrutiny either.

    Driving your car alone to work and elsewhere is the dominant way of getting around in America. If you want that to change, you have to be careful not to drive up the cost too much of services competing with solo driving.

    Personally, I think Uber cars and the like should get a level of scrutiny in between privately owned cars and transit, with an eye to using low cost methods – there are various software apps that measure how safe driving is – requiring Ubers to install them and monitor their results is one cheap way to increase safety without increasing cost.

    To date, nearly every Uber/Lyft I’ve taken has been at least as safe as driving would have been.

  19. You seem to be misinformed. Seattle’s plan is almost entirely elevated or underground. It is not a traditional light rail system – instead it will have many subway stations (including two tunnels beneath Downtown Seattle with dozens of stations) and the vast majority of the rest of the stations will be elevated. Almost all of ST2 (currently under construction) is also underground or elevated.

  20. I think you are misinformed. Seattle’s plan is almost entirely elevated or underground. It is not a traditional light rail system – instead it will have many subway stations (including two tunnels beneath Downtown Seattle with dozens of stations) and the vast majority of the rest of the stations will be elevated. Almost all of ST2 (currently under construction) is also underground or elevated.

  21. You might be misinformed. Seattle’s plan is almost entirely elevated or underground. It is not a traditional light rail system – instead it will have many subway stations (including two tunnels beneath Downtown Seattle with dozens of stations) and the vast majority of the rest of the stations will be elevated. Almost all of ST2 (currently under construction) is also underground or elevated.

  22. You are misinformed. Seattle’s plan is almost entirely elevated or underground. It is not a traditional light rail system – instead it will have many subway stations (including two tunnels beneath Downtown Seattle with dozens of stations) and the vast majority of the rest of the stations will be elevated. Almost all of ST2 (currently under construction) is also underground or elevated.

  23. Why doesn’t this article mention that ST3 would include a second tunnel under Downtown Seattle and that the rest would be almost entirely elevated? Also, the currently-under-construction ST2 is nearly entirely underground or elevated and will add several subway stations in dense parts of the city. This is not your typical light rail system. It’s more like a metro.

    Yes, a portion of ST1 (aka Sound Move) went at-grade through the Rainier Valley, but that is the only part of the system that is really like that. And by the time the build-out is finished it will be a very small part of the full almost entirely grade-separated system.

  24. Yeah, the last time we ignored environmental issues and social justice
    issues we got the interstate highway system and managed to destroy a
    number of communities, completely change land use patterns, and now we
    are trying to counteract the repercussions of the car centric
    environment. So yes, there should be reforms to speed up the process
    such as changing aspects of NEPA, dedicating funding to specific
    projects verses spreading projects throughout a region, or having
    different funding models but those who don’t see how in-depth studies
    and the ability of the public to comment and bring suit have forgotten a
    lot of the issues of the past. Also have you seen the pollution in China thats what happens when you have an authoritarian government without the people having an input about their quality of life.

  25. I’m not misinformed, I’m speaking generally. I’ve ridden Seattle’s LRT. But there are LRT systems going in all over the country which are not elevated or subway. And eventually, it will probably make sense that some of Seattle’s route runs at ground level in the more suburban areas. Also, be aware, that running at ground level doesn’t mean mixing with traffic. The city live in is planning 19km of LRT, all at ground level, most of it adjacent to or in the middle of roads, and none of it is mixed with traffic.

  26. That’s probably because in china the government is hilariously corrupt and there are zero, ZERO, regulation enforcement. If you got the cash, nobody there will ask questions.

    For every subway they build, they get factories that dump smog into the air. It certainly is something to behold, but there’s a reason why the US moved on from this. The only thing worse than car-centered “cities” is a city that physically kills it’s citizens via pollution.

    While the current urban planning process in the US is a mess, remember that it’s at least Democratic. Which is absolutely a virtue.

  27. The national GOP are more open to compromise than you think. Many House Republicans objected to the $50 billion FHA “bailout”, and want to let states privatize/toll it’s freeways. Utah is now setting aside money for sidewalks that become “second amendment rights zones” (ie, areas people can carry guns freely in). Both these things, while seemingly benign, would do a lot for urban planning reform. Amtrak also exists because it disproportionately effects rural, mostly GOP districts.

    Modern Republicans are stupid but there’s ways to get at them. They like guns and they like giving realtors and bankers more options (view this in the context of zoning law reform). Problem is, the Democrats currently lack the vision to find it.

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