Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Proposition 1: Imagine a reliable commute

Proposition 1, which Puget Sound voters will decide the fate of tomorrow, would fund dozens of rapid transit and road improvement projects throughout Puget Sound, attacking congestion and providing new choices to commuters.

How do we as a region benefit from Proposition 1 (the Roads & Transit package)?

A greener commute
  • More transit, more choices
  • Builds new Sounder stations
  • Builds new park and ride lots
  • Adds more HOV lanes and ramps
  • Adds more buses and vanpools
  • Improved sidewalks and pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists
A safer commute
  • Fixes dangerous choke points
  • Replaces/retrofits vulnerable bridges
  • Provides earthquake protection
  • Adds medians and turning lanes
  • New lighting, signage, traffic signals
  • Helps first responders reach those in need of emergency assistance
A robust commute
  • Better roadways
  • Funds interchange improvements
  • Enhances movement of freight
  • Helps you get to your job more swiftly
  • Completes unfinished highways
  • Eliminates weaving traffic, extends shoulders, upgrades ramps
A reliable commute
The heart of Proposition 1 is an expansion of Sound Transit's Link light rail system, an essential ingredient in a multimodal transportation network.

Commonly asked questions and answers about Sound Transit's light rail program

What is light rail?
Light rail is a type of rapid transit system larger than a streetcar but not as big as heavy passenger rail (think Amtrak or Sounder). Light rail is:
  • reliable: runs in its own right of way and doesn't get stuck in traffic
  • convenient: runs so frequently you don't need a schedule to ride it
  • clean: powered by electricity, so it doesn't produce emissions
  • quick: operates at high speeds with fast station stops
  • flexible: can be built at grade, above ground on aerial trackway, or below ground in tunnels
Isn't Sound Transit already building light rail?
Yes. Sound Transit is two years away from opening its first light rail line, Central Link, which connects downtown Seattle to SeaTac International Airport. Ground will soon be broken on an extension of this line, University Link, which runs north from Westlake Plaza to the University of Washington. Central and University Link are being built with funding approved by voters in 1996 (the Sound Move plan).

Where would light rail go if Proposition 1 (Roads & Transit) passes?
Proposition 1 funds three expansions of the system: an East Link line from Seattle to Redmond, a South Link line to Tacoma, and a North Link line to Lynnwood. These lines would be built in transportation corridors that are often heavily congested today. If you travel across Lake Washington on a floating bridge, or use Interstate 5 to get between Seattle and Tacoma or Lynnwood, you will benefit from Link, even if you don't plan to regularly ride it.

Why do we need light rail? Why not expand the bus system instead?
A good transit system needs a strong rail backbone to attract ridership and connect major cities. Buses are an important part of a useful network, but they're no substitute for rail. Just as it doesn't make sense to build a house with only one type of room in it, it doesn't make sense to have a transit system that relies solely on buses. Buses are slower, dirtier, and move less people than light rail. Unless they run in dedicated bus lanes they can (and do!) get stuck in traffic, and their routes aren't as predictable or easy to understand. Light rail doesn't have these drawbacks. Additionally, King County voters have already expanded Metro bus service with the passage of Transit Now in 2006.

How is light rail a viable option for people who don't live next to train stations?
While it's true that light rail can't go everywhere, it is designed and planned to be an accessible system. Riders who live too far away to walk up can board a public bus or a streetcar closer to their home, bike there, take a private shuttle, or park and ride.... then transfer to light rail upon reaching the station hub. Link is intended to be the backbone of our transit system - not all of the bones!

Why did Sound Transit choose light rail over other systems like monorail or mag-lev?
The agency picked light rail because it is a dependable rapid transit solution that has been successfully deployed all over the world - and because it is what the public has told Sound Transit it wants in countless workshops, forums, and public hearings. Other technologies may be more fascinating, but they cost more, can be visually intrusive, and are more complicated to put together and operate. Most riders don't care about the idea of traveling in vehicles suspended above the ground - they just want a comfortable seat on a clean train that arrives and leaves the station on time. That's what light rail does well: ensure a reliable commute.

How can I be sure Sound Transit will build what it promises? I seem to remember we were supposed to get more light rail in 1996 than what they're building.
After years of experience dealing with engineering, contracting, designing, and financial problems, Sound Transit has transformed itself from a stumbling bureaucracy to a responsive, accountable transportation agency.

Earlier this decade, following the aftermath of the disclosure that it could not afford to build what it originally promised in 1996, Sound Transit's board officially adopted a policy of under-promising and over-delivering.

Using this policy the agency makes predictions or forecasts that rely on restraint and caution, so that the actual projects it builds come in on time/on budget at worst, and early/under budget at best.

Sound Transit is now so well managed that it recently received an upgraded bond rating from Moody's and Standard & Poor's - which lowers the agency's cost of borrowing money. We can trust Sound Transit to wisely invest our dollars. It would be a waste to discard the valuable lessons learned earlier in Sound Transit's history and abolish the agency in favor of giving revenues to a new entity.

Myths about light rail, transit, and Proposition 1

MYTH: Light rail is an expensive boondoggle that will cost an enormous amounts of money to build but will provide no real benefit to commuters.

TRUTH: Light rail is a wise, sensible investment that is comparable to expanding highways in terms of cost, but moves more people when it is completed. Light rail will give commuters a choice, connecting neighborhoods, increasing property values, and spurring redevelopment. Light rail benefits everyone, even those of us who don't become riders, because it gets cars off the highways.

MYTH: Transit carries only a small percentage of total trips [for example, one percent, or five percent, or a a similar number] and is therefore not worth spending money on.

TRUTH: The "total trips" statistic, frequently used by those opposed to rail transit, is a misleading, deceiving figure which poorly measures the effectiveness of public transit. Rail systems, in particular, are constructed in key corridors and can't be fairly or accurately compared against all of the roadways in a region. The crippling congestion that Puget Sound faces today doesn't occur on the roads that run past our occurs on our arterials, interstates, and highways, where currently our only option is to drive to get where we want to go - or get on a bus that will be stuck in the same traffic.

Asking what percentage transit carries of the trips for which it can compete yields a different number, a much more accurate number, one that demonstrates the importance of transit. Transit cannot be competitive unless three criteria are met: it must be available, the service must be high quality, and the purpose of the trip must be one for which transit can compete. Proposition 1's 50 miles of light rail broaden the availability of high quality light rail for a reliable commute.

MYTH: The real way to solve congestion is to just widen our existing highways and build new ones.

TRUTH: It has been proven time and time again that this approach does not work. Building or widening highways is counterintuitive. It may seem practical, but in reality, it just encourages commuters to drive more and live further away from where they work, creating a vicious cycle of congestion that never ends. It's like trying to lose weight by loosening your belt.

Does that sound like a good dieting plan?

Whenever new general lanes are added they instantly fill up with more single occupant drivers in their automobiles. Other regions such as the Los Angeles metropolitan area have studied their crippling congestion problems and concluded that even double decking their highways would have almost no effect on their traffic jams. The best L.A.'s Southern California Governments Association could recommend was that people live closer to where they work...but that's exactly what highway building mitigates against!

MYTH: Proposition 1 is bad for the environment.

TRUTH: The Roads & Transit package is one of the greenest transportation proposals in state history, with billions of dollars for transit investment. The local chapter of the Sierra Club has used pictures of polar bears to argue the opposite, condemning several of the road projects in the RTID component of the package and urging voters to reject the whole thing. While it is true that a small number of long-planned road widening projects won't reduce emissions and won't ease congestion, the majority of the RTID projects are helpful and beneficial, and actually supplement the transit investments. The net effect of Roads & Transit is significantly positive for the environment, with fifty miles of new light rail, expanded Sounder service, more buses, the new First Hill streetcar, and improved access for pedestrians and bicyclists. That's why the regional environmental community is behind the package:

"This is a groundbreaking expansion of transit - the largest ever in the state. It is a once in a generation opportunity to change the way we move people and goods."

- Jessyn Farrell, Executive Director, Transportation Choices Coalition

"Fifty new miles of light rail paired with strategic road investments will transform the way our region grows, helping us build livable communities and thriving urban areas."

- Aisling Kerins, Associate Director, Futurewise

"This commitment to regional transit, combined with the focus on safety and maintenance of roads is good for the environment. We know that voters care about the environment and also want transportation solutions, so this package makes sense for the future of our state."

- Kurt Fritts, Executive Director, Washington Conservation Voters

"We must give people better alternatives to driving if we have any chance of combating climate change."

- Bill LaBorde of Environment Washington

"This is a positive package for the future of our region. We're excited that such a strong commitment is being made to transit. And the majority of the roads projects are ones that can help increase safety and improve mobility for people and goods."

- Joan Crooks, Executive Director, Washington Environmental Council

MYTH: Light rail has been tried in many other cities and it is a failure...the transit industry is in decline.

TRUTH: These assertions are false. Light rail has been successfully built and implemented in city after city across America, with great results, even in the western United States, from Portland to Dallas to Salt Lake City to Denver. The transit industry is actually growing with the construction of many new lines, and as a result, total transit ridership is higher today than it was 1980, and higher than at any point going back to 1959.

MYTH: Light rail, when built, just siphons bus ridership and doesn't get more people out of their cars.

TRUTH: This isn't the case. Buses and light rail are different types of transit. Buses generally provide mobility to people who can't drive, do not wish to drive, or can't afford to own a car. Rail transit, however, appeals to people who own automobiles and already use them to get to work - people who would never ride a bus but will consider riding rail if it is available.

By providing commuters with a reliable choice, light rail eases congestion and unclogs highways without destroying entire swaths of nearby homes and businesses to make way for even bigger urban canyons of asphalt and concrete.

Again, evidence bears these facts out. When Seattle temporarily replaced its waterfront streetcar service with buses, ridership predictably dropped to one-fifteenth of what it had been on the trolleys. In a 1993 study done in St. Louis after that city's light rail opened, surveys found that 70% of bus riders said they used the bus because they did not drive or had no car available.

For train riders, the figure was only 17%.


Anonymous RHS'er said...

Andrew - Great post. Unfortunately I think RTID Prop 1 will narrowly fail tomorrow. We were so close!

My prediction: 52 - 48

November 5, 2007 9:22 PM  
Anonymous Transport realist said...

It didn't "narrowly fail" and it wasn't particularly close.

Until we fix roads bridges and the viaduct which we MUST fix to survive economically, nobody is going to have the money to extend the non cost-efficient Light Rail. Even a former Sound Transit director said the segment to Tacoma was dumb.

We need to split out the issues...fix the roads viaduct and bridges which we MUST fix, then see if anyone still wants to poney up for the choo-choo trains and other transit-lover hobby toys....

November 7, 2007 3:36 PM  

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