This guest post is by Mike McGinn, mayor of Seattle.
At last month’s groundbreaking for Sound Transit’s Northgate Link light rail line, you could see the excitement on everyone’s faces. Families, commuters, and business owners came out to celebrate the coming of rail to the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. It’s no surprise that Seattle loves rail: We vote for it in droves. The question for our region is no longer if we are going to expand rail our rail system, but when we can get a rail line to your neighborhood.
That’s why my 2013 proposed budget will dedicate $6 million of new funding for the expansion of transit in Seattle, including $5 million for high-priority corridors where rail makes the most sense. That funding will support planning work for these corridors, allowing us to determine the best alignment and mode. And we already know that rail is the leading candidate, which I cover below. This is what my budget proposal, which I present to the Seattle City Council on September 24, would fund:
· $2 million for a corridor analysis of a high-capacity transit line from downtown to University District, via Eastlake. If approved by the council, this work would begin next year.
· $1 million for a corridor analysis of a bus rapid transit line on Madison Street, from downtown to Madison Park.
· $500,000 for a study of a pedestrian, bike, and transit crossing of the ship canal. A north/south crossing of the ship canal, which runs from Ballard to Montlake, would allow transit to flow more freely past this obstacle without getting stuck in traffic.
· A $2.5 million reserve fund to help pay for the the next phase of design work on this top corridor, starting in 2014.
Why did we pick these corridors, and why do we think rail is the best mode of transportation for them?
Earlier this year, we updated the city’s Transit Master Plan (TMP) to identify corridors with the greatest need for more transit. Here's what we found: Although Sound Transit is doing a great job connecting regional centers, like cities and suburbs, to each other, our greatest need is connecting Seattle neighborhoods to one another, and to our growing regional system.
The TMP identified several high-capacity transit corridors and the best mode of transit to serve them: A rail line from downtown to Ballard, via Fremont, has the greatest ridership potential. Other top priorities include: a rail line linking the South Lake Union streetcar with the First Hill streetcar, a rail line connecting downtown to the University District, and a bus rapid transit line down Madison Street. The great news is that the Seattle City Council unanimously approved the TMP in spring.
Since then, we’ve been getting to work:
· We reached an agreement with Sound Transit to accelerate planning on the Ballard line by three years. The city’s joint planning effort with them is expected to begin later this year with selection of a consultant to lead the corridor analysis work, which will be complete in late 2014.
· We have already selected a consultant to lead the corridor analysis on the Center City Connector. Public meetings will start later this fall and the analysis will be complete late next year.
· Meanwhile, we started construction of the First Hill streetcar, with extensions down to Pioneer Square and to the north on Broadway.
That means we already have significant work prioritized by the TMP underway.
Here's the deal: Building rail or bus rapid transit requires a series of defined steps. Each line has to go through a detailed corridor analysis, which then informs specific route and transit technology selection. There is a spectrum of rail options. For instance, the study could find that a streetcar would serve the most riders or a light-right line would be more effective. Once the route and technology are locked in, then comes design and environmental analysis. This all takes time and there are no shortcuts. But, this is what sets up the city to get construction funding.
So how long does it take? With the First Hill streetcar, it will have taken five years to go from a concept (2009) to opening for service (2014). And that’s fast compared with other similar projects. But with the work we've done already, we're moving steadily towards the finish line for these projects. Not that we won't face challenges—but doing the planning and groundwork is how you create the momentum to reach the finish line.
And what will we get once we reach the finish line? We will finally have a transportation system connecting many of our most vibrant neighborhoods with efficient and high quality transit service. It will be able to move a lot more people around our city:
· Ballard to downtown via Fremont has the greatest ridership potential. The TMP estimated that rail will increase ridership by 12,500 people per day in that corridor. Rail is the only mode that produced those gains. Use would be high overall with 26,000 people riding a Ballard rail line each day.
· The Center City connector is expected to carry up to 12,600 riders per day;
· the Eastlake rail line would carry up to 25,000 per day, 10,700 of which would be new
· and, the Madison bus rapid transit line would carry up to 14,000 per day.
The farther along you get in the planning process, the easier it is to identify and secure federal grant funding. If past success is any guide, these projects will be very competitive. We will also continue to leverage local partnerships, and look to our own budget resources to keep the momentum on these projects going.
But we have momentum now. That matters. For projects like these, getting going is often the hardest part. As I have learned, once a major capital project gets up a head of steam, it can be hard to slow down. That’s not to say it will be easy. There will be tough choices on alignments, technology, and funding. But there are also solutions. And we are heading down the right track.