Sound Transit was in the good news business last week. They passed amendments to improve Sound Transit 3, the 62-mile light rail expansion package that would connect Ballard and West Seattle to downtown, among other major transit improvements. By announcing multi-year construction timeline reductions, reliability improvements on the Ballard line, and financial certainty for the 130th Street Station, the agency did its best to respond to input about the draft plan from Seattle Subway and other members of the public. These are major wins, yet Sound Transit could do it all even faster if it had the full cooperation of the city of Seattle.
Building more light rail, as fast as possible, is extremely important. Why? People love it here. As a result, our city has the fourth highest population growth in the country, and a million more people are headed to the region by 2040. Our region wasn’t prepared for this growth because we missed the opportunity to build a big-city transit system in the last century. Already, Seattleites lose hours every week stuck in the fourth worst traffic in the nation—time better spent doing just about anything else. Without acting aggressively, our transportation emergency will have an increasingly negative effect on the quality of life in our otherwise incredible city.
Sound Transit 3, which will be on the ballot in November, is a huge step in the right direction, but people still need these projects delivered faster. The good news is that there is something Seattle leaders can do to speed up the process today.
Mayor Ed Murray and the city council can cut significant time—perhaps years—from both the Ballard and West Seattle schedules by changing the way the city handles permitting for light rail construction. How? The council could vote to expedite city permitting by making light rail an approved use in the city of Seattle instead of an exception that requires project-by-project review. This would mean that, according to Sound Transit planners, light rail lines could be completed to West Seattle and Ballard years earlier than the agency has planned. For a city that welcomes light rail, this should seem like a no-brainer.
It’s such a no-brainer that Redmond and Issaquah already did this years ago. Now our Snohomish County neighbors are even taking up the effort. Council members—who all agree we need more light rail, and we need it now—should implement these changes today, so Sound Transit can do what they do best: build world-class mass transit for Seattle and the Puget Sound.
Mayor Murray has said that Seattle will not delay light rail projects and has indicated an interest in exploring permitting reform, which is a good start. Here’s the next step: in July, the city and Sound Transit will begin negotiating an agreement to determine how new light rail construction will proceed in the city. The “approved use” issue will be one of the key items to be discussed as part of that agreement. They will also discuss the number of possible alignments that will be studied in depth for the Ballard and West Seattle lines, which could also save a substantial amount of time during environmental impact studies.
We all know about the “Seattle process.” While careful deliberation can be a good thing, we should not let excessive process become an excuse for inaction. It would be backwards for the most urban and transit-dependent of all Puget Sound cities to fall behind our suburban neighbors in support for expedited transit planning and construction.
Seattle Subway urges elected leaders at city hall to designate light rail as an “approved use” and limit excessive review of alignment alternatives.
Seattle Subway members—and we believe the vast majority of Seattleites—want to see our Ballard and West Seattle light rail lines operating as soon as possible. As the city grows, we need this additional transit capacity more than ever. Let’s cut red tape and excessive process so we are poised to build great transit in the shortest amount of time we can. These times demand nothing less.
Seattle Subway advocates for expanding light rail in Seattle and the Puget Sound region on the fastest possible timeline.