Can Sound Transit speed up light-rail construction?

The Seattle Times posed that question to a panel of transit experts at Traffic Lab’s summer event, put on in partnership with WeWork, on July 10.

The answer is a mixed bag. Experts said, essentially: Yes, but it would require political will and possibly create unintended consequences.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

[RELATED: Could Sound Transit build light rail faster? It wouldn’t be easy.]

Here are five take-aways from the discussion:

  1. Planning, development and design take the most time in delivering light rail.

    Based on Sound Transit’s record, it takes between 11 to 17 years to get a line from conception to service delivery. The biggest chunk of that is spent in planning, development and design, said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. That phase involves identifying locations for transit lines and light-rail stations, reaching out to community members and others to gather opinions, and studying options to select a preferred choice. Engaging communities early to gain agreement can expedite that timeline, Rogoff said. Otherwise, more options than necessary must be studied, adding time. “The biggest bang for the buck in terms of speeding light rail is to be able to get to those decisions faster,” said Claudia Balducci, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council and chair of the Sound Transit Board‘s system expansion committee.

  2. The Puget Sound region’s history with transit provides context — and lessons — for today.

    King County voters in 1968 and 1970 rejected ballot measures that would have built a 47-mile rail system. Local taxpayers would have chipped in $385 million, with the federal government contributing about $800 million. For some transit supporters, those votes have been a thorn in their side ever since. When Sound Transit was created in 1996, some local leaders wanted to make up for lost time, said Stephen Page, an associate professor at the University of Washington. That meant packing in stations proposed long ago that are only now seeing the light of day. Now, the region may not want to build light rail faster because “we might end up overpromising the way we did the first time around,” Page said.

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  4. Sources of transit funding are limited.

    Some transit experts blame Washington state’s tax structure for why light rail takes so long to build. “None of the gas tax that anyone pays at the pump ever touches a transit project,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for Transportation Choices Coalition. The 18th Amendment to Washington’s Constitution restricts the use of gas-tax revenue to highways. Politicians have to look locally for most transit funding, which often means property and sales taxes. Mesher said most of the funding options “are really regressive forms of taxation.” But even the revenue that has been secured is under threat, Mesher said. Initiative 976, which would reduce car-tab fees to $30, would “damage Sound Transit’s ability to keep on schedule and on scope,” she said. The initiative will be on the November ballot.

  5. Good community engagement takes time and resources.

    Effective community engagement takes time, said Jessica Ramirez, director of community engagement for Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit community group. Ramirez pointed to the Somali and Latinx communities as examples. “Multiracial, multilingual communities are not going to show up to one neighborhood community town hall,” she said, adding that authentic community engagement is built on relationships that are cultivated over time.

  6. Buses can provide interim transportation solutions.

    While the region waits for more light rail to open, Balducci said, bus service can be expanded relatively quickly, if adequate funding is in place. However, buses lately have become more unreliable as they get stuck in traffic, she said. One solution, Rogoff said, is to enforce restrictions on HOV and bus-only lanes. “Buses can be super fast, super reliable, and free from congestion, but we need political will and leadership to do that,” Mesher said.

Here are two other things we learned:

  1. Planning is underway to manage the neighborhood impacts from the future Graham Street station.

    Sound Transit 3 promises a light-rail station at Graham Street midway through Rainier Valley, a low-density area where light rail could fuel gentrification. “This is the moment, 2019, to get communities together for them to envision the neighborhood they want to live in,” said Ramirez, holding up a booklet titled “Graham Street: Community Driven Neighborhood Vision.” The station is scheduled to open in 2031.

  2. Sound Transit hasn’t discussed opening south Snohomish County stations at West Alderwood, Ash Way and Mariner sooner than planned.

    Sound Transit plans to open the entire 16-mile line from Lynnwood to Everett in 2036, rather than build the southern portion sooner to serve ridership there. “I think there would be considerable worry that if we only got as far as Mariner we’d never get to Paine Field and Everett,” Rogoff said. “There’s a lot of concern up there within Snohomish County that we’re never really going to get to Everett.” He also cited cash flow in Snohomish County and the challenge of finding a maintenance base as reasons it might take a dozens years to build past Lynnwood. In a subsequent interview, agency spokesman Geoff Patrick said Rogoff’s comments were “speculative,” and that no transit-board member has raised alarms that Sound Transit might build only to Mariner, then abandon Everett. “We are committed to getting to Everett,” Patrick said.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this story.