Riding the bus at rush hour from downtown to Ballard—or from downtown to West Seattle—currently takes 30 minutes, even longer in heavy traffic. If your trip requires transferring from one bus to another, it's longer still; a journey across the city can easily consume 90 minutes each direction. Metro buses stop every few blocks, they get stuck in traffic, they're infrequent, they're slow—and people avoid using transit that's infrequent and slow.
Seattle is clearly desperate for something better. Nevertheless, at our current rate of progress, building a complete light-rail network could take a century. In spite of the fact that light-rail measures always pass with flying colors on the ballot, even when it requires a sales-tax hike, the Northgate station, which voters approved in 2008, isn't scheduled to open for another nine years, and the planning for light-rail tracks to Ballard and West Seattle hasn't even begun.
We don't have to move at this glacial pace.
A group of transit nerds, working with allies in local government, are developing a way to do it and do it fast. With lines above and below grade (more than half of the New York City subway is aboveground), the Seattle Subway would transport riders from downtown to Ballard in nine minutes, according to estimates for modern subway technology. Travel from downtown to West Seattle would take 10 minutes—no matter the traffic. Trains could arrive every five minutes.
Here's how it would work: Seattle voters would take advantage of the City Transportation Authority, created by the state legislature in 2002, which was intended to fund the monorail. That authority still allows voters to establish a motor vehicle excise tax of up to 2.5 percent for "a transportation system that utilizes train cars running on a guideway." An initial vote as soon as this November or next year could pay for relatively inexpensive analysis and design work for the first line—probably to Ballard and West Seattle. A subsequent vote would pay for constructing the first line. Repeat as necessary until that map you see is complete.
"It's a great concept," says former mayor Greg Nickels, who was integral to building the light-rail lines we have. He agrees the current construction schedule for light rail is "frustratingly slow."
"We need to have a mass transit system, not just one line or two lines—a complete system—and many of us would like to see it completed in our lifetimes," says Nickels. "I don't think there is anything on the local agenda that has received better support and more regular support than mass transit. If you do the due diligence and lay out a project that people will live to see, and have accountability, I think the voters are very supportive of it."
Sound too good to be true?
After all, it seems awfully similar to the failed Seattle Monorail Project, in which activists established a new transit agency that ended in catastrophe when its bloated financing was exposed. This plan is different, Seattle Subway proponent Ben Schiendelman explains. This plan wouldn't create a separate transit agency. The Seattle Subway project would let Seattle provide more funding for Sound Transit—the regional transit authority already building light rail—and accelerate its long-range plans for the city while complementing the light-rail system we're building for the region. Most of those lines you see on this map reflect corridors that Sound Transit or the city already have in mind. Sound Transit just needs the money.
"We certainly have never resisted outside funding sources," says Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray, adding, "We would be the ones to do something like this, if the board and the voters decided to make it happen."
Rather than waiting four more years before even voting on a line to reach Ballard, Seattle could vote in the next 18 months. Rather than wait another eight years to vote on a second line to West Seattle, we could vote—to design, fund, and build it—within a few years. In short, Seattle could start this entire system now and "we could have everything on this map in 30 years," says Schiendelman.
The time to begin is now. Seattle's population grew by 45,000 people in the last decade, more than three times as many new residents as our largest suburb, Bellevue. The neighborhood of Ballard alone grew by 24 percent. And this is just the beginning. The Puget Sound Regional Council forecasts that the population of northwest King County (mostly Seattle) will climb by 89,000 people between 2010 and 2030—all increasing demand for an off-street subway system.
There are a few hurdles. First, a judge may need to rule that the City Transportation Authority could be used for a subway that isn't technically light rail (addressing a semantic issue in the law). Second, Sound Transit must show it has the capacity to engineer the additional lines on an accelerated schedule. Third, the Sound Transit Board would need to approve the new workload. A former board chair, Nickels says getting the board's approval may be easy, provided it "does not jeopardize projects that voters have already approved." However, King County Council member Larry Phillips, who currently sits on the board, says suburban members "could get a little queasy" if they believe that Seattle would lose its appetite to fund regional transit expansion (to suburbs) if we're already funding our own system. Schiendelman, who worked to pass the last Sound Transit expansion in 2008, counters that this project lays the groundwork to pass our next regional package.
Seattle has a strong appetite to build more, soon, and Phillips likes the idea of adding fuel to our transit system: "It makes sense to advance the planning, and if there is a funding mechanism to do it, that would be helpful. There is definitively a drumbeat for getting this done sooner rather than later."