The initial response to Sound Transit's draft plan for this year's $50 billion light rail package, Sound Transit 3, was a mix of thrill and angst. For the advocates who pay attention to these kinds of things, the agency's decision to go for a long tax package—25 years instead of 15—was great news. But the timelines that come with a 25 year plan are jarring. Light rail won't reach West Seattle for another 17 years or Ballard for 22. There are also concerns about parking, bike and pedestrian projects near stations, and one particular unfunded station.
As Sound Transit gathers public feedback on the package, here are five of the key issues transit advocates are talking about:
Build it faster.
No one is happy about the timelines in the package. Along with Seattle's complaints, leaders in Snohomish County are "fuming" that light rail to Everett won't come online for 25 years. Basically everyone is asking Sound Transit to speed up the timelines in the package before they put it to voters, but no one has a very good answer for how Sound Transit should do that.
The agency blames the timelines on lengthy environmental review and planning processes, plus funding complications. Cooperation from local governments can help speed up the planning process, but not by more than a couple years. The state legislature could increase Sound Transit's bonding authority to make more cash available, but that's unlikely to happen until after the package is passed. Abigail Doerr, advocacy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC), says her agency is still coming up with specifics but "we'd like to see Sound transit think creatively" about how to speed up the timelines. Others say Sound Transit is too conservative in its estimates. In a recent post on Seattle Transit Blog, the advocacy group Seattle Subway wrote that "the estimates used to determine these project schedules need to be realistic, rather than so pessimistic that they can’t be missed."
For now, improving the timeline for one project will mean delaying another. Seattle Subway has stopped short of saying this explicitly, but the group looks poised to push for building the Ballard line before West Seattle. Sound Transit says it plans to build the line to West Seattle first because its simpler. But measurements like ridership projections look a lot better for the Ballard line. (Expected daily ridership: up to 133,000 for Ballard and 50,000 for West Seattle.) TCC's Doerr says her group won't endorse a switch here for fear of pitting Seattle neighborhoods against each other, but Seattle Subway says, "Ballard is the single best project in the package, by every possible metric."
Another project advocates want to see sooner: a new Graham Street station, slated to open on the existing light rail line in 20 years. According to transit advocates, that station would serve an area that is 81 percent people of color. Doerr says TCC will push Sound Transit to build it sooner, possibly by delaying construction of some parking near light rail stations.
Fund more bike and pedestrian infrastructure near stations.
ST3 currently includes about
$375 $350 million in "multimodel" (bike, pedestrian, or transit) projects near rail stations, compared to at least* $470 million in parking. TCC wants $500 million for bike and pedestrian projects.
"The more proportional we can get [parking and bike/ped investments]," Doerr says, "the better."
Charge for parking.
The ST3 package doesn't include quite as many parking lots and garages as some had worried—about half a billion dollars total, according to Publicola's math—but most of the parking it does include will be free. Sound Transit officials say they may consider charging for parking in the future, but they have been largely noncommittal on this.
Suburban voters like parking lots near light rail; groups like the Sierra Club don't. Environmentalists warn that unpriced parking can increase the number of people who drive to light rail and reduce the potential for dense development near light rail stations. TCC agrees and wants parking revenues to fund bike and pedestrian projects.
Find a way to fund the 130th Street Station.
So far, Debora Juarez is the only Seattle City Council member to express serious concerns about the ST3 package. She's upset it doesn't include a station at 130th Street. Sound Transit says adding that project now could endanger federal funds for the light rail line through North Seattle. The plan lists the station as a "provisional" project, meaning it would be funded if money is left over.
Juarez, who campaigned in part on bringing this station to her district in the north end, says that's not good enough. If the board doesn't find a way to reconcile this, they could risk Juarez opposing the plan. In an already tough vote, having a Seattle City Council member—and potentially a good chunk of North Seattle voters—in opposition wouldn't be a good look.
Beef up the studies of lines that aren't funded in ST3.
This is a big one for Seattle Subway, which pushed for a line between the University of Washington and Ballard. That line won't be funded in ST3, but the package includes a "future investment study" for that line. Similarly, the project funds an investment study for a line between West Seattle and Burien, which would serve a significantly more diverse set of riders than ending rail in the commercial center of West Seattle.
Instead of "future investment studies," Seattle Subway wants ST3 to fund environmental studies for those projects. Those would cost more, but would get the projects closer to being ready to build once new funding is approved in the future.
(It's unclear how much extra this would cost. I have a request in to Sound Transit.) According to Sound Transit, environmental studies cost about $18 to $20 million each, compared to about $3 to $5 million for future investment studies.
Got other ideas? Tell me in the comments.