Proposition 1 on November’s ballot — also known as Sound Transit 3 — is a $54 billion plan that promises 62 more miles of light rail, expanded Sounder train service, more park-and-ride lots and bus rapid transit for Highway 522 and Interstate 405.
It would authorize Sound Transit to levy a 0.5 percent sales tax, a property tax of $0.25 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, a 0.8 percent motor-vehicle excise tax and use existing taxes.
By Michael Brune
Special to The Times
THE need for a more robust transit system should be obvious to any Puget Sound resident who has tried to get around during rush hour. Seattle’s economic boom has put tens of thousands more drivers on the road, making traffic gridlock a daily routine.
With the region expected to add more than a million people in the next 25 years, and with very little room for additional road capacity, a reliable mass-transit system is the only realistic solution to Puget Sound’s transportation woes.
Sound Transit 3, which shows up as Proposition 1 on your ballot, is a bold, ambitious transit package — the kind of civic investment our children will thank us for when they’re raising families. It would add 62 miles of light rail, connecting Ballard and West Seattle to downtown and extending service north to Everett, south to Tacoma and east to Redmond and Issaquah. Regular, reliable bus service would connect cities within the Interstate 405 corridor, from Renton to Lynnwood. At a stroke, it would put the region on track to provide 84 percent of residents and 93 percent of workers with high-quality bus and light-rail transit. Alongside Measure M in Los Angeles, it would be one of the most significant transit investments in the nation.
Quick, reliable mass transit has a way of opening up public transportation to people who may have previously avoided it. When the Expo Line opened in Los Angeles this year, its ridership surged past expectations — and about 40 percent of its new riders came out of their cars.
But easing the daily misery of traffic congestion is not the only reason to invest in a modern rapid-transit future. This is a chance for a region that has been leading the way on transitioning to clean, renewable-energy sources to take a crucial next step — using that clean energy to provide clean transportation. This year, the transportation sector, which is overwhelmingly powered by burning oil, has for the first time surpassed power plants as the largest source of climate-threatening greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. That’s true in Washington state as well.
That transportation has earned the dubious distinction of being our biggest climate problem is partly the result of real progress in cleaning up our energy grid and transitioning away from dirty fossil fuels.
The Pacific Northwest has been a national leader on this front, retiring polluting coal plants, resisting coal and oil exports and promoting energy efficiency in public and private buildings. But it’s also a reflection of how much our transportation sector relies on oil and gasoline. Building more light-rail capacity is one of our most effective options for changing that.
Sound Transit estimates that if Proposition 1 passes, the entire Sound Transit system by 2040 would reduce an estimated 793,000 tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually and cut vehicle miles traveled by nearly 300 million to 400 million miles as people switch from sitting in traffic to riding on transit. If Washington state is going to do its part to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to the levels called for in the recently ratified Paris climate agreement, it needs an ambitious investment in rapid-transit like Sound Transit 3.
Part of building a sustainable future is ensuring that the Puget Sound area has a green economy that works for everyone. Proposition 1 succeeds on this front, providing 78,000 family-wage jobs to design, build and operate the new transit investments, as well as 144,000 indirect jobs. It would also improve the quality of life of current workers, replacing hours of time wasted in traffic with a stress-free commute.
Equally important, though, is what Proposition 1 would mean for low-income workers and communities of color. Studies have shown that access to reliable transit service is associated with upward economic mobility. That’s especially key in a region that is seeing explosive job growth in its urban core and increasing poverty in its suburbs.
Proposition 1 would also add affordable housing in a region that is seeing rapidly rising housing prices; the measure includes a requirement that 80 percent of surplus land around light-rail stations be dedicated to affordable housing. That would help keep Puget Sound accessible to everyone for decades to come.
Sierra Club members have been instrumental in convincing the Sound Transit board to make Proposition 1 a model of responsible, sustainable rapid transit. That includes adding more urban rail service, providing more support for transit-oriented development and ensuring ease of nonmotorized station access. Their work ensures that this is a gold-standard plan that the Puget Sound region’s citizens will be able to pride for many decades to come.
If, despite all that, Proposition 1 should fail at the ballot box, the problems it would address would not go away — and future solutions would certainly be impoverished by comparison. We could expect less environmentally sound approaches that include less grade separation to reduce congestion, less light-rail service in dense urban areas where it’s most efficient and fewer transit-oriented development opportunities.
Approving Proposition 1 on the November ballot is one of the boldest, most important and immediate steps we can take to tackle the climate crisis, keep fossil fuels in the ground and move the Puget Sound region beyond oil. It represents an opportunity to vote not just for transit, but also for the future.
If we miss this train, as has happened so many times before, it could be decades before Puget Sound gets another opportunity to build modern, efficient rapid transit.
Michael Brune, of Alameda, Calif., is executive director of the Sierra Club.
By Chuck Collins
Special to The Times
FIFTY-FOUR billion dollars. Really? The sheer size of Sound Transit 3 staggers the imagination. A Google search yields nothing remotely comparable ever asked of local voters … anywhere.
But put aside the sticker shock: Does this extraordinarily expensive proposal have transportation merit? The simple answer is no. ST3 fails three critical tests:
- Sound Transit 3 would not reduce traffic congestion:
The massive $2.5 million pro-ST3 campaign (with most of the money coming from major employers as well as firms and individuals who have a direct financial benefit) will claim reduced traffic congestion. But that is not correct. Buried in Sound Transit’s original environmental-impact statement is a different story. The agency’s own analysis indicated that there would be no difference in future congestion whether the rail system is built or not.
Why is that? Congestion is reduced by “new riders” — drivers who leave their cars and take transit instead. Converting bus riders to rail riders does not reduce congestion. When rail lines are built along productive bus lines and then those bus lines are terminated or diverted as King County is currently doing with multiple routes, trains are filled with former bus riders. Actually, some would likely return to driving, because the local bus that formerly went directly downtown would have been diverted to a distant train station, requiring a transfer, adding time and complexity to the trip.
Sound Transit’s staff admits that 91 percent of ST3’s projected train riders would be former bus riders. Again, only new riders leaving their cars reduce congestion. To reduce King County commute congestion by 5 percent in 2040, when ST3 is scheduled to be finished, and assuming traffic increases by 1 percent per year, Sound Transit would have to attract 288,000 new commuter riders per day. Sound Transit’s new-rider projections suggest only 64,000 new commute riders. Congestion reduction has never been a Sound Transit goal. They are laser-focused on a train project independent of congestion results.
- Different strategies will reduce congestion:
Reducing traffic congestion is not impossible. More than a decade ago, two former Washington governors, John Spellman and Booth Gardner, and a group of prominent business men and women and I submitted a proposal to Sound Transit we called Ride Free Express. It was based on two aspects of transit ridership that are ignored by agencies committed to building rail projects: Transit fares matter — as with almost anything, pricing matters a lot; commute patterns, which in 1960 looked like a spider web with Seattle at the center, had by 2000 the look of pick-up sticks.
The Auburn-Kent Valley, Overlake, Bellevue, Factoria, Bothell, Redmond, Federal Way, Kirkland and others had become important employment centers. Employment had been so decentralized that the new centers could not be adequately served by rail lines and bus routes fundamentally centered on downtown Seattle.
Ride Free Express proposed to eliminate all transit and van pool fares, increase commute-time bus service and fund 4,000 additional van pools to serve the new employment centers. All analysis was firmly grounded in actual experience Metro had acquired in the 1970s: Large ridership increases resulting from employer-provided free bus passes and marketing analysis indicate a demand for 9,500 additional van pools at full fare.
The total 20-year cost in today’s dollars for Ride Free Express was less than $4.5 billion. It would have attracted a minimum of 193,000 new daily riders — roughly three times the estimates of ST3’s new commute riders and at a fraction of the cost of ST3’s $54 billion. Obviously, Ride Free Express was not supported by any of those with a stake in rail construction. In the end, the Sound Transit board was simply incapable of thinking outside the rail box. That remains the case today.
- ST3 would be obsolete before it is completely built:
To even the most casual observer, it is obvious that we are at the threshold of the most fundamental transportation revolution since the internal-combustion engine. The relentless technological innovation, at which all of us marvel, has invaded transportation with self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles. Opinions vary on when self-driving vehicles will arrive in large numbers on American streets — some say in as little as five years, some say as many as 15 years; no one says 2040, the year ST3 is complete. Today, you can drive from Seattle to Portland in a Tesla and never touch the steering wheel. Google cars have driven 2 million miles in California traffic with only a single fender bender. Ford has announced that it will have self-driving cars in dealer showrooms by 2021.
Uber already operates Uberpool, which could easily evolve into self-driving van pools and become the dominate mode of commute travel. Self-driving vehicles will have many impacts — one of them can be large-scale congestion reduction.
What public policies and investments will be required to take advantage of self-driving technology? New lanes? Publicly owned fleets? Contracted services with Google, Ford, Uber and other fleet providers? But whatever makes sense, it is clear that approval of the ST3 system would commandeer all reasonably available local transportation funds for a generation and preclude any chance to advance new technology.
In the coming weeks, ST3 advocates will produce a blizzard of mailers, robocalls and TV ads, which can’t hide an irreversible waste of $54 billion.
Chuck Collins, of Mercer Island, was the director of King County Metro Transit for four years in the late 1970s when it was the fastest growing transit agency in the country.