NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

YES on Sound Transit 3: Now is the time to make a bold investment in regional mobility

Editor’s Note: Today at Union Station, I spoke in favor of Sound Transit’s ST3 plan, and urged the Sound Transit Board of Directors to place it on the ballot. The following is the text of my prepared testimony. I delivered an abbreviated version of these remarks before the Board during its public comment period.

Good afternoon Chair Constantine and Members of the Sound Transit Board:

For the record, my name is Andrew Villeneuve. I am the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a strategy center working to raise our region’s quality of life through innovative research and imaginative advocacy.

Since February of 2002, NPI’s Permanent Defense has been a tireless supporter of this agency, working to educate the public about the incredibly valuable work that Sound Transit does. We believe that it is vitally important that our region develop a rail spine to provide an alternative to driving in our highly congested travel corridors. We strongly support the draft ST3 plan, and we ask the Board to place it on the ballot for the voters to consider this November today.

As longtime transit advocates, we reject the buses versus trains dichotomy that opponents of this plan seem locked into.

The truth is, we need both buses and trains. They complement each other. What critics of this plan refuse to acknowledge that people who own cars have a choice as to how they get to work. If we want to get people out of their cars, then we have to provide transit service that they WANT to use.

The research shows that there are a lot of car owners out there who will ride a train, but not a bus. Consider the experience of St. Louis, a city I’ll be visiting in just a couple of weeks for Netroots Nation 2016. After they opened their first rail line in 1993, they did a survey of transit riders, and they found the following:

  • Among bus riders, 70% said they used the bus because they did not drive or had no car available. For train riders, the figure was 17%.
  • 84% of train riders rated service as excellent or good, compared to 57% of bus riders.
  • 40% of bus riders owned no car, and 28% had two or more cars. Only 8% of train riders had no car, and 68% had two or more cars.
  • 57% of bus riders had annual household incomes of less than $20,000, compared to 21% of train riders.

This data illustrates that car owners who are averse to buses are willing to ride trains. It’s very important, because it shows us that the way to get people out of their cars is to offer a multimodal transit system that offers high quality transit service. Again, we need both a robust bus network and a rail spine. These are things that go together — and Sound Transit’s hardworking staff understands this.

There is no magic remedy that will cure or solve traffic congestion.

The notion that self-driving cars will vanish away traffic jams is a fantasy.

The notion that a transit system should consist of buses alone ignores the experience of cities like St. Louis, which have improved mobility by constructing rail lines that provide a reliable way to get to school, and major events.

The critics say that instead of expanding Link, we should invest in “massive” bus rapid transit. What they won’t admit is that for bus rapid transit to work properly on a “massive” scale, we would need to construct a system in which the buses can operate in their own dedicated right of way so they can’t get stuck in traffic.

How is Sound Transit supposed to obtain this right of way? Any attempt to convert general highway lanes, express toll lanes, or HOV lanes to be bus-only lanes would be a political nonstarter. We would have to widen our already wide highways to add new lanes for buses — at a cost of billions of dollars.

Since full-bore bus rapid transit would not be cheaper than expanding Link, and since buses lack the appeal of trains to the auto-owning public, we can dismiss the argument that we should be building “massive BRT” instead of light rail.

Light rail is a proven technology and a proven transit mode. It excels at moving large numbers of people through highly congested corridors, which is where most of our gridlock is. And that is how this plan envisions that it will be deployed.

For far too long, we’ve had buses moonlighting as trains because we neglected to invest in a rail spine for our region when we had the chance decades ago.

We can’t repeat that mistake again. We need to build on the success of Sound Move and ST2 by giving voters a chance to pass ST3.

If the system envisioned in ST3 existed now, I would have been able to take a train from my hometown right to Union Station to deliver this testimony. Instead, I had to take a bus. I rode a 545 Express to get here not an hour ago, and that bus moved very slowly through downtown Seattle’s surface streets because it had to stop repeatedly for vehicles turning right and for construction work.

I’ll be taking Link light rail to the University District as the first part of my journey home, so I’m not on a vehicle that’s crawling through the streets of downtown Seattle at rush hour. I’ll have to transfer to a bus for the rest of the journey home, because ST3 doesn’t exist yet. I am very much looking forward to the day when I can take a train all the way into downtown Seattle to attend Sound Transit board meetings, go to Mariners games, and shop at Pike Place Market.

Grade-separated rail works. It is a worthy investment.

This plan will bring grade separated rail to many more neighborhoods throughout our region. In addition to NPI’s hometown of downtown Redmond, ST3 will bring Link to Ballard, West Seattle, Federal Way, Everett, Issaquah, and Tacoma.  It will also expand Sounder commuter rail and Express bus service.

ST3 is a carefully developed plan based on years of public outreach. We’re excited to see it go to the ballot. Thank you to all the staff for your years of work putting this together. Now begins the campaign to pass it. Let’s go out and win!

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