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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.

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Sound Transit rebrands network for future expansions, braces for an uncertain future

When trav­el­ers even­tu­al­ly return to ride Sound Tran­sit’s grow­ing region­al tran­sit sys­tem, at least on the sur­face, things will look a lit­tle different.

By 2021, Cen­tral Link won’t be called what we’ve known it for the past decade. Nei­ther will Sounder North, or South. And the red and blue col­or scheme that Sound Tran­sit said it was going to roll out? That’s total­ly kaput.

Re-imag­ing a long time coming

The first steps to change what we call light rail in our region hap­pened in 2012. Then, the Sound Tran­sit Board of Direc­tors adopt­ed a res­o­lu­tion chang­ing what was then known as Cen­tral Link to the “Red Line” and the even­tu­al Lyn­nwood-Seat­tle-Red­mond light rail the “Blue Line”.

It made sense. As the agency neared com­ple­tion of more light rail expan­sion projects and become the coher­ent region­al trans­porta­tion net­work it was intend­ed to be, their ser­vices will need to fit on a region­al map.

Col­or-based lines were seen as the solu­tion, pro­vid­ing clear nav­i­ga­tion­al guid­ance to locals and tourists alike. How­ev­er, the nam­ing scheme was panned on release last Sep­tem­ber. Com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers expressed seri­ous con­cerns with the “Red Line” moniker, because it sparked painful mem­o­ries of redlin­ing, the his­tor­i­cal prac­tice by hous­ing lenders of deny­ing home financ­ing for minori­ties in cer­tain neighborhoods.

The des­ig­na­tion was par­tic­u­lar­ly upset­ting to the South Seat­tle com­mu­ni­ties, his­tor­i­cal­ly hurt by redlin­ing, that the Red Line ran through.

(If you want to learn more about redlin­ing in Seat­tle, the City of Seat­tle and UW’s Civ­il Rights and Labor His­to­ry Project have infor­ma­tive online resources for you.)

Thus, last Novem­ber, Sound Tran­sit announced they would drop the Red Line des­ig­na­tion and re-think the nam­ing process.

New alphanu­mer­ic scheme more inclu­sive, long-term

Mov­ing away from line names that are just col­ors, Sound Tran­sit is going to move for­ward with an alphanu­mer­ic col­or-cod­ed system.

The agency released a help­ful video visu­al­iz­ing the changes.While com­pli­cat­ed, the scheme has a few clear advan­tages. From the Sound Tran­sit blog:

We want our sys­tem to be intu­itive and easy to use, espe­cial­ly for rid­ers who do not speak or read Eng­lish, who have col­or vision defi­cien­cies, and/or are rid­ing for the first time.

Sound Transit line names and shields

The new Sound Tran­sit line names and shields, to be rolled out from 2021 (Image: Sound Transit)

The scheme clear­ly fol­lows the guide­lines the agency set out.

The sim­i­lar col­ors in the scheme do not inter­sect. While both orange, the T Line is in Taco­ma while Stride bus­es are on the East­side. The pink Line 3 will run from West Seat­tle to Everett; pur­ple Line 4 from Kirk­land to Issaquah.

The col­or red is also absent from future line designations.

It was not nec­es­sary, so the agency did without.

ST Express bus routes are not impact­ed by the re-brand­ing, though the future Stride bus rapid tran­sit routes along the I‑405 cor­ri­dor will each have their own shield: S1 (Burien-Belle­vue), S2 (Lyn­nwood-Belle­vue), and S3 (Both­ell-Shore­line).

While the agency has designed the shields for each line, rid­ers will only see four shields soon. Sounder’s N Line and S Lines, as well as Link’s Line 1 (North­gate-Angle Lake) and T Line (Taco­ma) will be brand­ed as such.

In four to five years, how­ev­er, that fig­ure will be dou­bled to eight shields.

The new Line 2 (pre­vi­ous­ly known as the Blue Line, and before that East Link) will stretch from Red­mond to Lyn­nwood. And the three Stride routes will be up and running.

In the South Sound, Line 1 will run far­ther north to Lyn­nwood and south to Fed­er­al Way. The T Line will extend to serve Taco­ma’s Hill­top neighborhood.

We won’t see Line 3 until 2030, when it will run a shut­tle ser­vice between West Seat­tle and down­town. When the Bal­lard Link exten­sion opens (it’s still in the plan­ning stage now), Line 1 will take over and run between Bal­lard and Taco­ma, while Line 3 will replace Line 1’s ser­vice north, end­ing in Everett by 2036.

And by ST3’s com­ple­tion in 2041, Line 4 will open between Kirk­land and Issaquah.

The new line names do make change feel real, don’t they?

Inter­gov­ern­men­tal coop­er­a­tion key to tran­sit’s success

Sound Tran­sit’s new alphanu­mer­ic label­ing scheme under­lines how com­plex our region­al mass tran­sit will become. Look­ing sole­ly at King, Pierce, and Sno­homish coun­ties, the array of options is astounding.

Sound Tran­sit alone will be respon­si­ble for four modes of trans­porta­tion: ST Express bus, Link light rail, Sounder com­muter trains, and Stride bus rapid transit.

King Coun­ty Metro, Pierce Tran­sit, and Com­mu­ni­ty Tran­sit all then have their own bus rapid tran­sit net­works. In the long run, Metro’s RapidRide even antic­i­pates hav­ing twen­ty-six lines — one des­ig­nat­ed by each let­ter of the alphabet.

And of course we have the Seat­tle Cen­ter Mono­rail (which, at long last, inte­grates with ORCA) plus sev­er­al water taxi and ten state fer­ry routes.

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing these options to the pub­lic will not be easy. Analy­ses demon­strate the impor­tance of clear brand­ing to induce ridership.

The log­ic is sim­ple: if it’s too com­pli­cat­ed to ride tran­sit, peo­ple won’t do it.

The oth­er major hur­dle that must be cleared for these new tran­sit projects is the cur­rent pub­lic health emergency.

Local gov­ern­ments nation­wide are scram­bling to under­stand what falling tax rev­enues mean for their futures. Sound Tran­sit is no excep­tion… more than half of its rev­enue comes from a region­al sales tax.

The agency report­ed late last March that in the event of a mild reces­sion, debt capac­i­ty will be exceed­ed in 2032. A severe reces­sion would see agency debt blow past the lim­it in 2029.

We don’t know how bad the eco­nom­ic fall­out from the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is going to get, but the agen­cy’s debt lim­it is hard and statu­to­ry. Absent assis­tance, project delays are the only way to avoid exceed­ing the cap.

For­tu­nate­ly, ST2 projects won’t be impact­ed seri­ous­ly. In most sce­nar­ios, Link will be able to get to Lyn­nwood, Red­mond, and Fed­er­al Way with­out incident.

But the accel­er­at­ed timetable for the NE 130th St infill sta­tion we high­light­ed ear­li­er in the year? The Sound Tran­sit board might not vote for accel­er­at­ed short-term spend­ing even if it only has min­i­mal impacts on debt capacity.

Con­struc­tion for crit­i­cal ST3 projects like West Seat­tle Link?

Might have to be fund­ed by oth­er means. This uncer­tain­ty is unten­able, espe­cial­ly with the West Seat­tle Bridge closed, maybe permanently.

And this is all just what has ensued from the coro­n­avirus pandemic.

We do not yet know if and how I‑976 will hurt Sound Tran­sit. The ini­tia­tive is on ice at present, but right wing trou­ble­mak­ers like Steve O’Ban are press­ing for it to be adopt­ed any­way, which would make a bad sit­u­a­tion much worse.

Our region can­not afford to delay our invest­ments in tran­sit any longer. Local gov­ern­ments are ham­strung because they can’t give them­selves new rev­enue author­i­ty, so solu­tions will have to come from the state and fed­er­al levels.

Puget Sound and met­ro­pol­i­tan Seat­tle have lagged behind both Van­cou­ver and Port­land areas in high capac­i­ty tran­sit devel­op­ment for too long.

We haven’t had any­where near the infra­struc­ture to show­case with slick maps that show how our region is con­nect­ed by tran­sit… at least, not until now.

That our region­al tran­sit net­work is ready for such a dras­tic facelift is incred­i­bly excit­ing news. Our region has been sore­ly yearn­ing for a strong tran­sit back­bone, and we are get­ting clos­er to hav­ing one. But much work remains to be done.

The past six months have brought almost noth­ing but bad news for mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion projects around these parts, with the lone bright spot the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s award of funds for Fed­er­al Way Link. Effec­tive and coura­geous lead­er­ship will be need­ed to defend and advance Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ free­dom of mobil­i­ty dur­ing this piv­otal pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year.

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