Light rail brings real economic benefits. But how should we evaluate the big, slow and arguably badly prioritized ST3?

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Is Sound Transit 3, the new plan to connect much of the region with light rail over the next 25 years a good deal?

That will be a big point of debate in the coming months. The economics seem straightforward: $50 billion worth of projects funded by $27 billion in new taxes, federal grants, etc. Sounds big and ambitious.

But how big is big? Denver’s Fastracks, approved by voters in 2004, was supposed to cost $4.7 billion. Cost overruns have occurred but it’s still in the ballpark. It is paying for 122 miles of new light rail, commuter rail  and express buses across the metro area.

So, yes, ST3 is big. To be sure, most of Denver is on the plains and right-of-way has been much easier to engineer and acquire. The ST3 time horizon is also longer. It would extend the total light-rail system to 108 miles.

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Denver’s new rail routes are coming on line much sooner than here (five of six are scheduled to open this year). Time is money. The timetable here seems excruciatingly long

The benefits from major public transit projects are usually big, too, ranging from investment in transit-oriented development to more subtle advantages that, scholars estimate, could reach $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion a year, depending on the metro area. Mobility is a huge economic benefit, as anyone who has taken the new U-Link line can attest. Businesses like multiple modes of transportation. And tying more areas to employment centers with fast, convenient transit expands housing affordability.

But would suburban riders embrace light rail as has happened in the city? That was certainly the case in Dallas, which now has the most extensive light-rail system in the nation. Yes, this road warrior metro also loves light rail.

Of course, ST3 is also a political creation. Large swaths of the region must be roped in to ensure adequate funding (in such a prosperous place, finding the money is still politically difficult). It doesn’t help that federal “austerity” is holding back infrastructure investments that could add jobs and speed mobility, more than repaying the initial cost.

As a result, West Seattle and Ballard won’t get light rail until 2033 and 2038, respectively — even though these are areas rich with riders and could really make a dent in central city congestion. Seattle, not the ‘burbs, is leading regional growth.

Still, roads and freeways alone won’t be enough to handle transportation needs and make a dent in greenhouse gases (even with driverless cars, about which I am skeptical). The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good — it never has been in expensive, disruptive freeway projects. Doing nothing can be very costly (see the subway, mostly funded by the feds, that we passed up).

So the economic benefits of investing in more rail transit faster are undeniable. Am I sold on ST3? Not quite yet.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

The tree destroyer

No, not the dude up the pine

The clear-cutting toffs