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.
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.
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.
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.
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.