The Cost of Light Rail Will Be Cheap in the Long Run


Do we know how much a complete metro/subway system like Paris or New York's would cost in todays dollars? If it's less than $54 Billion then we're being ripped off.
@1, that's a weird and arbitrary comparison to make since so many things have changed besides inflation since 1904 when the first NYC lines opened, but currently, the under-construction 2nd Ave subway line in NYC is costing $4.45 billion for 3 stations at 2 miles of underground track.
Dr.Zaius @1, excellent point. while we're at it, let's also debate whether the Louisiana Purchase would still be a good purchase not just in 2016 dollars but today in the year 2016. For that matter, would Seward's Folly still be a folly in 2016?

Me personally? I'm thinking we're getting a raw deal on this $54 billion light rail project unless we're able to do like Stalin did in building the Moscow Metro where he managed to use POW slave labor, or unless we're able to do like Donald Trump did with one of his projects where he sub-contracted with Polish undocumented workers, then stiffed them, then tried to get them deported. It's time we ran government like a business, and not just any business, a Trump business.

Someone who wants to make America great again (unless it involves building anything)
$54 billion floating in the vacuum of space is powerful enough to bend light waves.
This public investment is a no brainer.

We should be having a national discussion about financing these big infrastructure projects.

It is a crime that the Feds are not enabling localities to take maximum advantage of historically low interest rates.
The cost of everything is cheap in the long run.

I think of the NYC Subway. I don't know the total construction costs, but it's probably singlehandedly responsible for creation of.... i dunno, 1,000 Trillion dollars in wealth, over the past 100 years?
Having visited places where light-rail is ubiquitous and usual, I assert, it is great.
We need to replace parking with bikes
Actually, @2 et al, the Second Avenue Subway is a fantastic comparison, both because:

A) you could build the entire thing, East Harlem to Lower Manhattan, 3 times over for what Sound Transit intends to blow on trains that mostly go absofuckinglutely nowhere; and

B) no one has any idea how or when Phases 2 and 3 of that NYC project will get funded, because billions worth of general maintenance backlogs have accrued over the decades, and because there are other infrastructural priorities demanding attention, and because it turns out that, regardless of the math games that the VC-inflected bubble-mavens like to play in defense of their baffling 130-mile foamer maps, money doesn't actually grow on trees and eventually the cumulative costs of financing and maintenance and the unavoidable efficiency-imperfections of (even infinitely less boondoggly) large public transit systems will eventually come due.

When you go to fill out your November ballot, you can either accept the fatuous premise that rail is somehow an inherent good (no matter how poorly planned) and that identity politics demand you to vote uncritically for any zillion-dollar transit levy; or, you can observe the lived experiences of every place in the world that has an actual functioning transit network, with its concomitant triumphs and imperfections and inevitably accrued auxiliary costs, and wonder who the fuck is going to take a train from Fife to some strip mall in West Issaquah, and then consider -- just consider -- the possibility that Sound Transit's ridiculously ambitious ridership estimates don't hold water and that substandard transit design doesn't become "cheap in the long run" simply because a Parsons Brinckerhoff-funded marketing campaign and a desperate-to-live-in-New York hack at The Stranger tell you so.

And then activate your critical faculties, vote no, and send Sound Transit back to drawing board for transit that might actually be useful for getting places! Which is literally the least that you should be demanding for any dollar figure beginning with a "b".
Geeze DP, that's quite mouthful of vitriol.

ST3 is about $4B in new taxes/2016 dollars for Seattle.

For that, we get:
-Ballard/DT (144k/riders/day)
-WS/DT (Or, the great Peninsula bus intercept.)
-Near term capital improvements for the C/D corridors
-Madison BRT
-Graham Street Station
-130th Street Station
-And potentially more with higher federal funding than 11%

It's a good package and voting no would be the definition of letting perfect be the enemy of the necessary.
d.p. @9, I admire the verbosity with which you light rail foes descend upon these threads. And clearly you're smart. And as smart as you are, surely you yourself don't believe what you're trying to get us to believe when you write: And then activate your critical faculties, vote no, and send Sound Transit back to drawing board for transit that might actually be useful for getting places!

You actually expect us to believe that you believe that the same corrupt politicians, the same idiot bureaucrats (all people who are not nearly the man you are) will somehow, with enough tries, come up with a plan that would be worthwhile where this one is not?

It's a shame you have to run such an add smoke-and-mirrors operation, but you know full well that you can't just oppose light rail because you're against light rail. You know that won't work here in Seattle.
Oh, and d.p. darling, I can tell you're really upset, so I'll leave it to you to have the last word. What is it, closing in on midnight out there on the East Coast? I'm sure, with the fantastic life you're making for yourself over there, you have all night to come up with a comprehensive case why you know better than all the rest of us.

But here's the thing that must really burn you. By your own standards, the original Sound Transit Central Link plan was fatally flawed. And yet, despite all its flaws (fatal as they would have been to you), Central Link is a success. People are taking it. The rest of us are clearly not as smart as you are, but we're smart enough to realize that t's not how ineffective ST3 is that's keeping you up late at night out there in a much better place than Seattle. It's how successful you know it will be.
Oh, yeesh.

For the umpteenth time, I endorse(d) and voted enthusiastically for ST1 and (especially) ST2, which, despite serious flaws in implementation, have covered certain bases that even Sound Transit couldn't have screwed up completely. Lake Washington will be crossed, I-5 traffic will be bypassed and its commuter buses intercepted, and (a small but tangible minority of) urban trips will actually get easier.

But ST3 is about 85% diminishing, sprawling returns. The obsession with gigantic from-scratch infrastructure to reach tiny Alaska Junction is asinine, and even the much-needed Ballard line is designed so poorly that it would barely have been useful in my decade of living in the historic epicenter of that neighborhood. That isn't worth $4b or $10b or $26b or $50b (or whichever direction you're choosing to skew the number today depending on whether you're trying to impress with massivity or downplay the decades of opportunity costs and debt).

Secondly, in spite of my favoring ST1 and ST2 in principle -- and I know this will break your brain -- the lines built so far are moderate successes, not the home runs you're constantly trying to convince yourself they are. Fewer than 30,000 daily rides in the U-Link tunnel ("the most important blahdity-blahdity we'll ever build"). 65,000 daily rides total, which in any major transit system would be the worst-performing subway line by far: probably the short stub to the fringe destination; not remotely the "heavy-hitting core of the transit network".

Listen, just because pent-up demand and Sound Transit's first-round routings were sufficient to avoid the disastrous usage failures of a Sacramento or San Jose or suburban Dallas rail boondoggle, do not make the mistake of believing you've got a grand slam on your hands. Tens of thousands live and work in and visit Capitol Hill, and only 3,500 round-trippers are making the (often significant) hike to access the laboriously deep tunnel. More people still use the nearby buses to get downtown. Tokyo you are not.

Yet somehow the marquee ST3 promise is a Ballard Line that doesn't actually go anywhere near most Ballard destinations or residents, that is uselessly out-of-direction for the rest of North Seattle, that spends miles in car-sewer-and-shitty-office-park Interbay, and that won't even manage a centrally located stop in SLU... but is promised a ridership equivalent to one quarter of Seattle's population daily. And somehow that fanciful number grows every time you callow dittoheads cite it!

There is increasing evidence that Sound Transit is now counting existing and future riders from Central Link that they intend to switch to the "new" downtown tunnel, and calling them "new" riders of the "Ballard-Westlake-I.D. segment" for the purpose of fudging the predictions. ST also "guesses" that each and every SLU employee who has even considered public transport will be traveling one stop on the new line, and therefore counting toward the "new" segment.

At this point the cocktail of faulty methodologies layered upon questionable base inputs and incorporating unprecedented walking radii in order to push this line's "estimates" out of the realm of the believable. Because it is the only line that you guys can even try to point to when asked how the tens of billions of ST3 dollars could possibly prove well-spent. (Why even pretend to chase mathematical credibility there when you've completely abdicated it throughout the rest of your plan?)

Anyway, I'm tired of typing upon deaf ears for tonight. You won't be satisfied until you've wasted decades of everybody's time on trains that simply aren't useful for getting around, and which perfectly rational actors will wind up rejecting for most trips, most of the time, no matter how badly they wanted to believe the hype back in 2016.

Would it really be so terrible to ask your Sound Transit / Parsons Brinckerhoff overlords to show their work? Or would your worldview collapse if you discovered that trains running every ten minutes yet garnering only a few thousand users per day don't actually save money (or the planet) in the long run, and eventually prove fiscally unsustainable at the unprecedentedly-distant fringes of your botched plan?

Would your head cave in to discover that chasing cosmopolitan airs by implementing the exact opposite of a best-practice transportation network is not the surest route to basking in awesomeness?
The real question: Is ST3 the best option?

Assume we spend $50B on transportation.

Is light rail expansion the best way to spend it?

Search online for yourself, "mass transportation cost efficiency", or "economic returns on transportation infrastructure investment", or "bus vs rail cost", whatever you want. Read what global transportation experts already know.

Bus service sucks because it's difficult to get the public to adequately fund it. With adequate funding, there's nothing rail can do that wheels can't. Dedicated lanes, underground tunnels, more direct lines, more frequent service; whatever it is you like about rail, busses can do too when adequately funded.

Buses win the cost comparison, and rail limits future flexibility (how will autonomous driving change urban transportation?).

The only real reason I see to support ST3: Bus has a marketing & image problem, making it difficult to get the public to fund it to greatness. ST3 may be our only viable option for getting the public to sign off on a big transportation package, even if it's not an efficient way to invest in Seattle transportation.
The biggest problem with ST3 is not the cost, it's the lack of vision. Yes, $54 billion is a lot of money, and yes, it could be worth it if well spent, but ST3 is a 25 year plan that really thinks no more than 5 years ahead. What's missing is any mention in the plan of the impact of self-driving autonomous vehicle (AV) technology over the coming 25 years.

Light rail to Ballard and West Seattle may indeed be worth more than it costs to build, but what about rails to Tacoma and Everett? According to the ST3 plan those are not due to be ready until 2030 and 2036, respectively. It's reasonable to expect that AV technology will increase the capacity of I-5 so much by 2030 that those rails will be worthless. ST3 documents say that the travel time on Link from either Tacoma or Everett to Seattle will be an hour, twice what it now takes by car on I-5 in typical midday traffic. If AV buses, shuttles, and cars are able to reliably and cheaply make the trip via I-5 in half the time, who is going to ride Link on those routes?

Some supporters of ST3 claim that AV won't work, or won't be effective in reducing congestion. I say to them that theirs is a fool's wager. Look at smartphones. In 2000 there were no smartphones in the US. The first one, the Danger HipTop, (aka T-Mobile Sidekick), entered the market in 2002. You've probably never heard of that one, because smartphones didn't really take off until the iPhone was released in 2007. I think that most everyone would agree that the smartphone has, in just 9 years, changed the way we live. In particular, the smartphone was indispensable in the creation of Car2Go, Lyft, and Uber. If the smartphone can change the transportation landscape that much in nine years, then what kind of fool would bet that AV can't do even more in 25 years? Uber and Ford have self-driving cars running in Pittsburgh right now, and Singapore has AV taxis. Can anyone seriously imagine that AVs won't be common in 25 years?

So that is the flaw in the ST3 plan, myopia. It commits $2 billion per year for 25 years to a plan which builds high-cost routes that will obsolete before they are finished. AV technology will offer alternatives that provide better transport for far, far less than the $800 million per mile that ST3 costs. Unless The Stranger has become a backward-looking paper then I'd suggest that you stop supporting ST3 and start demanding a plan for the future that actually thinks about the future.
Also, have you considered the externalities of AVs? If, as predicted, they result in fewer personally owned cars that need parking space for 90% of its existence then our cities could be dramatically improved. If they produce a "cloud" of on-demand cars then those fleets will likely have fewer SUVs and more electric cars than private owners ever would. And most importantly, if AVs result in as large a reduction in wrecks as is predicted then we'll save many thousands of lives and many billions of dollars every year. Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar says it better than I can:…

Urban trains have been around for over 100 years, and their externalities have not eliminated traffic problems in Boston or NYC. Certainly building tracks beside I-5 to places like Fife, as ST3 proposes to do, will do more to waste land and tax money than to cure our transport ills. For solutions look to the technology of the future, not the past.
d.p. thinks that Fife today and Fife 20 years or 50 years from now, when the train is still paying off, will be essentially the same thing, even with transit. Same with Issaquah.

There was a time when we built 50-year infrastructure by considering the demand for that infrastructure OVER 50 YEARS rather than RIGHT NOW. As if the development and economic landscape over the life of the transit system will be static, rendering the investment "a waste" over the life of the infrastructure. Which, of course, it won't.

The "AVs are just like smartphones" is a silly comparison. The complexity, infrastructure, and stakes are way higher. We still accept dropped calls as a feature of smart phones - the equivalent in an AV is BEST CASE getting abandoned somewhere and WORST CASE fire, carnage, and death. The stakes and requirements are radically different - no comparison. And even if you do believe they will change everything, then they'll do so by assuring that a huge portion of the population doesn't own a car at all. And unless you'd like to shine that crystal ball of yours to such a degree to guarantee that the per-trip cost of AVs will undercut mass transit for all consumers making choices about how to travel, you'll see that there is a place of ST3 far into the future.
nullbull doesn't seem to notice the current AVERAGE case of tens of thousands of traffic deaths every year and constant traffic jams. AV tech is expected by those who know best, including the head of the NHTSA (…), to greatly improve traffic safety. Also, you seem to vastly underestimate the complexity of the cell network. Literally millions of people are streaming movies on their phones right now. I'll wager that you'd have called that impossible back in 2000 when there were no smartphones in the USA. The entire auto industry and the largest tech companies are all betting on AVs, so excuse me if I take them more seriously than I do you.

Trains are not going to replace delivery trucks and semis, and those are going to go AV for economic reasons. Uber is already focussed on becoming an AV taxi company (they have AV Fords on the streets in Pittsburgh at this very minute). AVs are coming to a road near you whether you like it or not. The only question is how much we want to squander on transportation projects that don't in any way leverage that new technology. It's an easy bet that the construction of ST3 rails beside I-5 will be seen and lamented by people zooming past in self-driving vehicles.
nullbull, you should also consider the benefits of fewer people owning cars and of readily available (and possibly subsidized) transportation that goes right to the customer's doorstep rather than to a train station that they can't afford to live near. I face the last-mile problem with Link every day. Building more Link will just give more people that same problem.

In very dense urban areas you are correct that subways, which is what Link is becoming outside of S. Seattle, make perfect sense. As density decreases rail becomes a bad option with a very high price tag. In the next 25 years we will have options that we've never had before, but ST3 would commit our scarce tax money to a plan that does not include or leverage those options.

Cut ST3 down to a sensible size, scope, and cost and I'm all for it. Make it 10 years to Ballard, W. Seattle, and along the 405 corridor, period, and then it's a good investment.
@Charles -- That assumes that our light rail system is designed with forethought and expertise. That our leaders sat down and asked transportation experts "What is the best public transportation system we can build for the money?"

Unfortunately, they haven't done that. I don't think anyone who has looked at a (road, census or employment) map would build what we are building. It really is absurd. Just check out a census map of the area. Look at that area on the east side of downtown (AKA the Central Area). It is by far the biggest contiguous block of density in the state. Guess what they get? Nothing. To be clear, Link did manage to add one stop in Capitol Hill. While the station is great for pedestrians in the area, it is (as everyone expected) terrible from a bus interaction standpoint. Yet Sound Transit will provide nothing for the area, because it has other priorities. These priorities include:

Light rail to Issaquah. Go ahead and find Issaquah on that census map. Not very impressive. If you look at the road map, you will notice that the train goes ride by the road. If you have ever driven by the area, you might also have noticed that a very high percentage of the people in the sprawling suburb live up in the hills (known as the Issaquah Highlands) which will not be served by rail. To get to downtown Seattle, they will take a bus to a (very infrequent) train, then transfer to another train. Folks in the highlands would be much better off with a direct bus to downtown Bellevue, but that will either go away, or ridership on that train will be even smaller than what everyone expects (and they expect ridership to be very tiny).

You would assume that such a silly project would be an anomaly, but it isn't. It is simply the worst example of the same failed mindset. You will find the same dynamic with almost all of them: low density areas, a freeway nearby, lack of destinations and a lack of proximity. Those are all disasters from a train standpoint, yet they permeate the list. Light rail lines from Lynnwood to Everett, Tacoma to Federal Way, West Seattle to SoDo all have the same dynamic, to various degrees.

It is hard to fathom how Sound Transit screwed up so badly until you see that building high quality transit is not their priority. You will find nothing in the various documents about the overall effectiveness of the system. They even ignored a very common metric -- one that is still used a lot, but has fallen out of favor because it tends to favor suburban systems. Despite the fact that they are proposing a very suburban oriented system, they failed to measure time saved per trip multiplied by the number of trips divided by the cost. Here is what they prioritized instead:

1) The Spine. Every project was graded on whether it actually completed the spine or not. You can look through the documents and find it with every one. Along with measures that are pretty basic and ubiquitous for any set of public transportation proposals (ridership, cost, risk, etc.) there was this pointless criteria. There was never any analysis as to whether it actually makes sense to build a spine -- only that we should built it.

2) A bus tunnel connecting Ballard to West Seattle was never considered. This meant, of course, that the West Seattle freeway and the throughway that is 15th/Elliot were never leveraged. This makes it one of the least cost effective improvements to transit possible. It also means that riders from very popular bus lines will have to either transfer to a train or they will simply ignore the billion dollar investment in the area. Also consider that most of the day, the freeway runs smoothly, while the buses run largely in their own lane. In other words, imagine it is rush hour, and you are at SoDo, headed to High Point (the most densely populated area in West Seattle). Now imagine you have the choice of the train or a bus headed there (currently the 21). You would be a fool to take the train. What is true at rush hour towards West Seattle is true at rush hour the other direction as well. It is only the morning commute (towards the city from West Seattle) that gets bogged down (although a bus still runs faster than most buses that time of day). A light rail line to West Seattle does not benefit all of West Seattle, but only a handful or people who live close to the junction. Everyone else will have to make a transfer and get nothing out of it.

So High Point doesn't get much out of this, despite being the most densely populated part of West Seattle. The Central Area doesn't get anything out of this, despite being one of the most densely populated areas of the state (and way more populous than 90% of what ST3 would spend its money on). Renton doesn't get anything out of this, despite being closer to the city than Issaquah (and much closer to the existing rail line). What else do these areas have in common? Hmmmm.

There was some great graffiti I read years ago. I don't even know if I have it right (I'm probably not doing it justice):

New trains for the suburbs, new grates for the homeless

I think that is the problem, Charles. You have been in the big cities too much. You assume that this will be like most subways: Designed to handle the urban masses while benefiting those who can't afford to live in the city, but are forced to live in working class suburbs (e. g. Renton). That isn't what is being proposed. This is, at best, designed to fulfill silly, arbitrary criteria (the spine, West Seattle rail, etc.). At worst it is a give away to suburban leaders who want simply to increase money spent (and sprawl) in their area.
Frankly I appreciate rail transit since I come from the Chicago-land area that was served fairly well by Metra and other services. However, the key thing to remember is that the system in Chicago (and others like NYC) had entry points absolutely everywhere.

On the other hand, the current state of rail transit here (and yes, ST is almost totally about rail)and the future plans being brought up in ST3 are just too inconsequential to the issues at hand--for an absurd cost. The ROI is extremely poor - even after 25 years.

Instead, if ST told me something like:
"The [ST] goal is to engineer/design/implement a transit plan for that covers 95% of the contributing [taxed] public in a single decade for N billions of dollars--and here's how we're going to do it step by step"

But that's not what they've done. The plan isn't engineered at all and benefits almost no one in comparison to the need or who will be made to pay for it.