Voters grappling with Sound Transit’s request for $50 billion need clear answers from public officials, not cheerleading.

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IN his opening pitch for Sound Transit’s expansion, the agency’s board chairman offered a tantalizing sound bite.

Light-rail trains can carry as many people as 14 additional lanes on Interstate 5 through Seattle, King County Executive Dow Constantine said during a speech last week.

The implication is that voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have no choice but to approve the $50 billion, 25-year program of transit construction on November’s ballot.

But that’s not quite right, on several counts.

Constantine exaggerated, using Sound Transit numbers to present a best-case scenario for rail while grossly undercounting freeway capacity.

That may rally transit supporters, but it doesn’t help the rest of us trying to get our heads around the staggering investment the third phase of Sound Transit could require.

Public officials cannot prematurely dismiss questions about whether there are better ways for the region to spend $50 billion than the slate of trains, buses and stations in Sound Transit 3 (ST3).

Since voters from Everett to Tacoma must now take a crash course on transportation before committing a large share of their future earnings to ST3, let’s start with a quick examination of Constantine’s factoid.

If voters approve a likely November ballot measure, light rail would include 75 stations over a 108-mile network. Among the highlights of the proposal released Thursday: Downtown Redmond would see a Sound Transit 3 extension in 2028, connecting to Marymoor Park and Overlake. West Seattle Junction would get its connection to Sodo and downtown in 2033 — before the Uptown-Ballard line, envisioned for 2038. Bellevue College and Issaquah would get service in 2041. Service to Paine Field and Everett would happen by 2041, winding past Highway 99 instead of tracking along I-5.
If voters approve a likely November ballot measure, light rail would include 75 stations over a 108-mile network. Among the highlights of the proposal released Thursday: Downtown Redmond would see a Sound Transit 3 extension in 2028, connecting to Marymoor Park and Overlake. West Seattle Junction would get its connection to Sodo and downtown in 2033 — before the Uptown-Ballard line, envisioned for 2038. Bellevue College and Issaquah would get service in 2041. Service to Paine Field and Everett would happen by 2041, winding past Highway 99 instead of tracking along I-5.

His assumption is that each freeway lane carries 2,280 people an hour. That’s based on standard estimates that lanes may handle around 1,900 cars per hour and each car carries an average of 1.2 people.

Seattle’s different, though. Through Seattle, I-5 is already heavily used by buses carrying more people. The state estimates I-5 lanes at Northgate average 8,200 people per hour during peak periods if you count carpools and buses.

In other words, the capacity of I-5 is more than three times higher than what Constantine is saying, since lots of people ride buses. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the utility of roads.

Sound Transit light-rail trains with four cars, running with 3-minute gaps between trains, can carry 16,000 people per hour, or 32,000 in both directions.

The point is voters need their representatives to provide clear, objective explanations of ST3’s pros and cons, not cheerleading.”

That’s a lot of people. The reliability of light-rail trains far exceeds freeway travel. Rail service is already under way, increasing options for commuters in a fast growing region. Still, scrutiny is warranted.

In 2014, Constantine pointed voters down the wrong path when he pushed for a levy to “save” Metro from cutting 72 routes. The levy failed, and it turned out the county didn’t need it after all.

The point is voters need their representatives to provide clear, objective explanations of ST3’s pros and cons, not cheerleading.

Costs and benefits of rail versus buses is one of several topics that must be clarified. Other questions include:

• Would suburbs get a fair return on their Sound Transit investment, especially compared to costly tunnels and spurs proposed for Seattle neighborhoods?

• Is the long project timeline reasonable and fair? Is it possible to build faster?

• What effect would at-grade rail and dedicated bus corridors have on roads? Would ST3 increase congestion by further reducing road capacity for cars, which will continue to be used for most travel in the region?

• If $50 billion is committed to ST3, would that limit the region’s bonding capacity to fund other major needs that may arise?

• What would be the cumulative effects of transit funding on living costs, including the effect of ST3’s new property tax on rents and housing costs?

•This is the decision of a lifetime and we need to get it right. Should the vote be deferred until it’s fully vetted?

Former state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonaldhas estimated ST3 would bring the overall transportation taxes and fees paid by the typical Seattle household to nearly $2,800 per year.

On top of that, Seattle area households potentially might face an enormous tax increase in 2017 to help fix the state’s education-funding crisis.

The overarching question, though, is: What’s the best solution to improve mobility in a region expected to grow by 1 million people over the next 25 years?

Wading through this is a lot to ask of voters. So let’s not make it any harder by politicking.