Transit Vote 2016: Seattle’s Huge, Imperfect Transit Expansion

We continue our overview of what’s at stake in the big transit ballot initiatives this November with a look at Seattle. The first installment of this series examined Indianapolis.

The transit expansion plan on the ballot in Seattle this November is a big one.

Seattle's "ST3" plan would add 62 miles of grade-separated light rail. Map: SoundTransit3
Seattle’s “ST3” plan would add 62 miles of grade-separated light rail. Map: SoundTransit3

Known as ST3, the proposal calls for a 62-mile expansion of grade-separated light rail extending across three counties, including about four miles that will run underground in central Seattle. Also included: bus rapid transit routes along two highway corridors, and $20 million to plan transit-oriented development.

The total package comes to $54 billion, which will be paid for by a mix of property taxes, sales taxes, and excise taxes. And it will take more than 20 years to complete.

Sound Transit estimates that under this plan, ridership will nearly double by 2040 to 800,000 daily trips, and that 361 million miles of driving will be averted each year [PDF].

There are some downsides to the plan, which has drawn criticism for devoting too much to park-and-ride transit in car-centric areas. While expanding the transit network could create new walkable communities across the region, different suburbs have shown varying levels of commitment to transit-oriented development.

ST3 calls for spending $661 million on parking at suburban stations, which works out to $80,000 per space. And much of the suburban light rail will run along highway rights-of-way, which is a bad fit for walkable development.

Because ST3 is a regional measure that can’t be enacted without suburban support, some compromises were unavoidable, said Zach Shaner, staff reporter at Seattle Transit Blog. And with the price of housing rising in Seattle, he said, “We have a moral imperative to be providing fast reliable transit for people who live outside of the city.”

“This is the best package that we can expect given the political realities and the players involved,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s good. And it’s long past time we constructed grade-separated transit in the city.”

Ridership on Seattle’s bus system has grown considerably in the last decade, making it a national success story in reducing solo car commuting. But with the region expected to grow by 800,000 residents in the next 20 years, the need to build transit that can’t get bogged down in car traffic is increasingly urgent.

The highest-ridership segment will be a new light rail connection from downtown to Ballard, which is projected to draw 144,000 daily trips and triple the speed of the current “rapid ride” buses. Shaner says the investment promises to “grow our downtown northward in a really positive way.”

By running high-capacity transit underground, Shaner added, street space will be freed up for purposes like protected bike lanes.

These city-focused projects won’t be complete for some time, however. A light rail extension to West Seattle isn’t scheduled to open until 2030, and the Ballard line won’t open until five years after that.

Large employers including Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon all support the ST3 measure. The opposition does not seem strong in comparison, though the Seattle Times is not a fan.

It’s important to understand, said Shaner, that a lot of ST3 revenue will come from extending taxes implemented for the last round of light rail investments — known as ST2. The additional annual pricetag on top of those existing taxes won’t be that large. The transit advocacy group Seattle Subway made this graphic to put it in perspective:

Image: Seattle Subway via The Sranger
Image: Seattle Subway

11 thoughts on Transit Vote 2016: Seattle’s Huge, Imperfect Transit Expansion

  1. Bikes?!? We don’t need no stinking bikes!

    Ironically if you choose to drive to a ST park and ride facility it is free. If you choose to bike to a ST station and want protected parking you will pay a non-refundable registration fee (that has to be mailed in!) and a monthly access fee.

    Where do you think the priorities of this organization are?

  2. Sounds really odd to me to use light rail for all these things, especially for long-distance commuter lines to remote suburbs. It’s very slow and light rail cars aren’t designed for long trip times, it’s mostly standing room. They’re really more like a glorified streetcar or tramway, just good for short trips hop on and off.

  3. You’re right about light rail in most places. And Seattle could go that route and cut the budget by tens of billions.

    But the light rail that Seattle is actually proposing to build is more akin to the Chicago L train or the New York subway. It’s grade-separated light rail that is light-years better than the stuck-at-lights light rail that most cities are pumping out. And that sort of high-quality infrastructure unfortunately isn’t cheap.

  4. What I’d expect for this is something more like Chicago’s Metra trains, seeing as how it’s primarily a regional commuter system. The L is terrifying enough over short distances, it would be unbearable on a 80 minute ride from the suburbs like what’s proposed here.

    Seattle already built their light rail route that very nearly reaches the airport (stops short a half mile from the terminal), and it takes longer than the express bus routes that it replaced. It averages about 25 mph.

  5. Seattle would have been better off with heavy rail, but they went with light rail to make use of the downtown bus tunnel so they’re stuck with light rail now. Most of it will not interact with street traffic so it’s more akin to heavy rail in terms of operation.

  6. Yes but it’s also more akin to light rail in that the cars are small and aren’t equipped with the accommodations passengers expect for hour-long trips, and the performance (top speed/acceleration) isn’t great either. Remember they need to make it more attractive than what is already there, and who’s going to want to ride in from all the way out in Everett on this thing? It would take over an hour to Seattle, almost 2 hours if you’re going to the airport. Most people would be standing assuming it gets decent ridership. It’s not going to work.

  7. Hang on. Seattle already has a heavy rail solution (Sounder) which is pushing the capacity of the rail corridor to the limit. ST3 does expand Sounder service, by the way. But commuter rail doesn’t solve all of the same problems that light rail/subway does. Regarding commute times, 60 minutes from Everett to Seattle every time beats daily peak transit times of 90 minutes on busses or worse in single occupancy vehicles. BRT isn’t less expensive or more efficient when you factor in total cost of ownership. The region is crippled and has nowhere else to go but to plug into the existing transit network and right-of-ways.

  8. How about a whole new tunnel for heavy rail? There is this proposal (below), though in this example the new tunnel shown is *still* light rail and the old tunnel is ‘downgraded’ to being for bus and streetcar.

    I agree light rail is being used for things that are “way out of scope” for it. Los Angeles is a great example. It’s going to end up with the world’s longest light rail lines and is probably going to encounter major logistical and operational issues with these.

  9. The social costs of driving in Canada paid out by got is $200 Billion/yr
    For the USA it must be much more
    Drivers and auto corporations should have been paying for all these costs since the beginning

  10. I hate the Seattle Subway’s misleading comparison of “apples” to “oranges.”

    1. The Seattle Times is generally the same price throughout the region, a bit more for outlying areas. What is shown above is what ST calls a median price, and most of Seattle, the Eastside, and South Snohomish County will pay substantially more than that. For instance, how many own a house appraised at $360,658? A vehicle worth $5,333? Go to to see what your total taxes will be, without accounting for inflation or buying habits over the next 25 years, which are impossible to predict. Unfortunately, Sound Transit took over 2 months after its advisory panel recommended having a calculator to put one up, but they passed on the recommendations to: (a) provide the total ST taxes; and (b) the taxes for the duration.
    2. One can opt in or opt out of a Seattle Times subscription. In contrast, ST-3 is mandatory: folks who aren’t getting much – if anything – out of ST-3 (like those in 101,500 population Renton) get to pay for it anyway, and some of the taxes go on forever, and there’s no more vote of the people.
    3. One can get different levels of a Seattle Times subscription, such as weekends, Sunday only, etc. For ST-3, you’re paying for a program that mostly is for – and benefits – those living and working in Seattle. In contrast, one’s stuck with ST-3 light rail’s projects. For those living in Everett and commuting to Seattle or Bellevue, they get to wait an extra 5-7 years due to the politicians’ desire to appease their contributors at Paine Field. Then, they get to spend the equivalent of 2 weeks/year on a train due to the dogleg. Oh, and higher fares due the longer distances.
    4. A single Seattle TImes subscription can be shared with many others. ST-3, with the resultant tripling of car tabs and 10%+ sales taxes, can’t be. You’re stuck.

    My life won’t be easier in the future with ST-3. Most likely, I will have expired by the time their light rail reaches me, maybe retired, certainly not able to afford to live in an increasingly-expensive area (which this light rail plan encourages: sprawl), for there’s nothing in it for today’s commuters. Further, light rail projected for my area doesn’t duplicate local bus service, so no new bus service, either. We’ll still have 11 bus routes, 7 on weekends, many on hourly frequencies during 8-6 spans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Before You Get Too Excited About Seattle’s Big Transit Expansion…

Read Doug Trumm’s post at the Urbanist about Sound Transit’s $50 billion, 25-year expansion plan, known as ST3, which the agency revealed yesterday. It’s ambitious in scope, but will the new lines meet the region’s most pressing transit needs? Piecing together the project list has been an exercise in regional politics, since voters will decide this November whether […]

How Ambitious Will Seattle Get With Its Transit Expansion Plan?

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 […]

The Upside of Seattle’s Transit Expansion: High Capacity

The Seattle region’s 62-mile transit expansion plan has some serious flaws. Namely, the city of Seattle, where the ridership needs are greatest, gets short shrift compared to suburban areas. Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog argues that ST3, as the plan is called, also gets a lot right. Instead of running on defunct freight tracks or operating at-grade […]

Transit Vote 2016: Raleigh’s Chance to Grow Smarter

We continue our overview of what’s at stake in the big transit ballot initiatives this November with a look at Wake County, North Carolina. Previous installments in this series examined Indianapolis, Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta. Ask Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson how Raleigh’s transit system is currently functioning, and he doesn’t sugarcoat it. “I just really don’t think we’ve got […]