Public Interest Transportation Forum -

It's Time to Rethink
Our Regional Transit Plan

By Dick Nelson, James W. MacIsaac, and Richard Morrill
October, 1999

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Published by the Seattle Times, Sunday, October 31, 1999, page B9 as
a full-page op-ed titled "Unconventional Wisdom"
Posted here because not available at .

PITF Editor's Note: The text below is exactly as submitted to the Seattle Times by the authors. The published version is very close to this. The Seattle Times added two drawings and a map of Seattle with text out takes highlighting five "challenges to the current regional transit plan:" Ship Canal, 520 Bridge, Bus tunnel, I-5 corridor, and Downtown Seattle, all of which are covered in the article text below. PITF has added a few hot links to the text.

When, in 1996, citizens of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties agreed to tax themselves to fund a new regional transit system, they were provided with a sketchy concept and an extravagant promise. The conceptual plan, embodied in a 250-word voter's pamphlet statement, supplied the bare outlines of a rail and express bus system to be implemented over ten years at a cost of $3.9 billion. One-third of the costs were expected to be paid by the federal government.

The plan's centerpiece was electric light rail that would serve employment, retail, and residential centers from Sea-Tac and Tukwila to the University District and (pending additional federal funding) Northgate. Most of the line would fall within Seattle's boundaries. The promise, contained in the proponent's campaign messages, implied benefits in the form of less traffic congestion and reduced air pollution. It went so far as to say "our economic future and quality of life are at stake."

Three years later we know much more about the realities of the concept and the promise.

We know that the actual cost of light rail is much greater than predicted or acknowledged.

Fitting light rail into Seattle's unique topography is a very difficult and expensive proposition, requiring a much-reduced system to stay within its original $1.7 billion budget. Example: crossing the Ship Canal not only requires a very deep tunnel but also results in stations 200 feet or more underground, the deepest in the nation. Stations, served by elevators, will be fewer and will less convenient for potential riders.

Converting the Downtown Seattle bus tunnel for trains requires major reconstruction, including the replacement of existing rails and the abandonment of the Convention Place station. The work will take two years and cost $150 million, but the planned rail service will have no greater capacity than buses could provide.

Contrary to earlier assurances, buses and trains cannot jointly use the bus tunnel; several hundred peak hour buses will have to be accommodated on often congested downtown streets.

Citizens and businesses in several communities along the proposed rail route have serious concerns about the adverse impacts on their quality of life and livelihood and are willing to take action, including legal means, to seek redress and modifications--changes that will add to the cost.

And we now have official confirmation that the promise of reduced roadway traffic will not be obtained. Modeling studies by the Puget Sound Regional Council indicate that congestion will actually increase by a factor of two hundred percent on freeways and major arterials with the proposed system in operation. The reason is that most light rail riders will be drawn from existing bus riders, not single-occupant vehicle drivers.

We now know much more about the likelihood of federal funding. The highly optimistic assumption that the Federal Government would fund a large share of the cost is fading day by day as more cities line up to tap the same funding source and the plan's problems grow.

In April, the U.S. General Accounting Office, in a report to Congress that scrutinized the "new starts" transit projects funded by the Federal Transit Administration, identified 14 projects under construction, and 42 other projects, including Seattle's, already either in final design or preliminary engineering stages. The GAO estimated that the $8.2 billion Congress authorized in 1998 for new transit projects will fall $7.6 billion short of the federal money needed to construct these projects. In addition, the GAO said the FTA expects that over $40 billion more in federal dollars will be requested to help fund another 100 projects currently in the early planning stage.

We also know much more about the transportation dilemma that is common to most major metro areas, the ineffectiveness of light rail, and the broader range of available solutions.

The Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, a once every five-year look at American's travel patterns, found that 4 of 5 trips are now for purposes other than travel to and from work: to eat out, to shop, and for a myriad of leisure and other personal activities. The Puget Sound Regional Council has established that nonwork travel here is even greater--85% of all trips in our region are for reasons other than going to work, and nonwork is the major trip category even in peak periods. The private vehicle is overwhelmingly the preferred mode for nonwork travel; for example, public transit is used for just one of every 100 shopping trips. Transit must be very flexible to compete with the auto for a greater share of these trips, which are to highly dispersed destinations and are often linked with work trips.

We now have revealing information from Portland which has been a laboratory for light rail transit. Researchers at Portland State University carefully analyzed the results of the first ten years of operation of Portland's Max light rail system and found no appreciable effect on growing weekday traffic on a freeway that parallels the rail route. At a June forum in Colorado on light rail convened by the Center for the New West, the principal author of the study, Professor Ken Dueker, reported that "what we're observing is that the peak period for highway traffic is widening, and that non-peak and weekend travel on light rail is where the growth in transit riders is occurring... Light rail in suburban service has problems. When you get 15 miles out, you're almost an hour by light rail to downtown, because it has to stop at every stop. I think that express bus service could do a better job for the suburban commute."

A recently completed national study of light rail systems built in the past twenty years, conducted by a researcher at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, found that with rare exception, the costs greatly exceeded benefits. The few exceptions were systems that had very low construction costs, which can be the case when there is a preexisting rail right-of-way.

The federal government has begun looking at more cost-effective mass transit technologies, perhaps in response to the high demands for federal matching funds and to the failure of light rail to live up to its promises. In June, the Federal Transit Administration selected ten cities to participate in a new Bus Rapid Transit demonstration program. According to FTA Administrator Gordon J. Linton, the program is designed "to show how combining planning and technological devices will allow buses to operate with the speed, reliability and efficiency of light rail vehicles at a fraction of the cost." He cited Orlando, Florida, and Ottawa, Canada, as examples of cities with currently successful BRT systems. Linton described the BRT approach--providing high quality transit service essential to achieving the highest speed, air quality attainment and separation from traffic--as a "world class subway on tires."

And we also have valuable new insights on available solutions and costs for some of Seattle's other pressing transportation problems.

Last October the Seattle City Council adopted the Transportation Strategic Plan, a document that offers a wide selection of actions that can be taken to address the city's mounting transportation needs. The plan outlines strategies that range from parking policies to intracity "higher capacity transit services" on selected routes as proposed by Mayor Schell, and it suggests ways to improve the city's pedestrian and bicycle environment. However, a cover letter from the mayor to Seattle citizens cautions that the money to implement the plan is not available. "The truth is that we do not have adequate resources to maintain our existing system, much less make the necessary mobility investments to protect our environment and economy."

Metro's new six-year (1996-2001) plan discloses that the existing transit system "has a significant amount of underutilized capacity." Less than 3 percent of currently scheduled bus trips run more than 90 percent full, and even during the afternoon peak period (3:00 to 6:00 p.m.), only 56 percent of the seats on buses leaving downtown Seattle are filled. Utilization is even lower on buses leaving the University District. The plan suggests numerous ways this capacity can be put to work.

The Trans-Lake Washington Study Committee has completed its report and delivered it to the State Transportation Commission and the governor. Minimum cost for an improved SR 520 cross-lake corridor: $500 million, not including the cost of noise and other environmental mitigation for damage done to neighboring communities when the current bridge was built. Governor Locke immediately made it clear that there is no prospect that state funds at that level would be available for the foreseeable future.

All of this information, which has been developed since voter's approved Sound Transit's conceptual plan, is compelling evidence that it is time to rethink the light rail component.

And there is time. Our schedule need not and should not be dictated by one round of the federal funding cycle. The federal funding pipeline will continue to deliver a share of dollars for viable projects long into the future. Our time frame should instead be set by a determination that we have designed a system and supporting strategies that will deliver real benefits. And it should be one that can stand the test of time and the difficulty of predicting complex future activity and transportation patterns. Federal funding criteria may even switch in our favor should we select a plan that can deliver greater benefits, perhaps along the lines of the new Bus Rapid Transit initiative.

Some of Seattle's political leaders apparently think the 1996 vote binds them to a light rail concept regardless of high costs and limited benefits. We are inclined to believe that the public was and still is more interested in a solution to their daily traffic woes. The 1997 vote to authorize consideration of a monorail reflects the fact that the same Seattle voters who supported the Sound Transit plan want leaders to consider other feasible alternatives. Some politicians who have invested large amounts of their political capital in the Sound Transit plan may be tied to a light rail solution. Most citizens are clearly not.

We think citizens want their limited transit funds--that will be in even shorter supply should Initiative 695 pass--used in the most cost-effective way. Citizens want their money's worth in improved mobility and environmental quality. A $1.7 billion investment has to last for a long time and needs to be the right solution.

And we think that if given a choice today, the voters of this city and region would overwhelmingly express their interest in a real answer to congestion, not an "alternative" that few will use. Perhaps an independent entity could conduct a survey to confirm this prediction.

It appears that Mayor Schell and County Executive Sims, in looking for ways to improve the plan, have been motivated by some of these new realities. Given that whatever system is selected will be a predominately Seattle system, Seattle's officials should take the lead in finding more effective answers. But leaders from other parts of the region should understand that a "starter" system need not be a rail line in Seattle. Whatever is built needs to work for their constituents. They should be involved in efforts to design a superior plan, not just fine-tune a poor one.

It will not be easy to rethink the rail paradigm. There are powerful interests who gain from huge public investments like rail systems, who will fight to keep the project on track, regardless of where the track goes, its costs, or whether it offers real public benefits. Maybe there are a few brave public officials, perhaps among the crop of current candidates, who are not afraid to challenge these interests, to think beyond the conventional wisdom, to entertain new information, and to help lead us to better transportation solutions. We hope so.

Dick Nelson, a Seattle resident and former state representative, cosponsored legislation establishing the Regional Transit Authority. He is a technical consultant working in metropolitan transportation and land use planning, and a research associate of the International Institute for Surface Transportation Policy Studies at San Jose State University.

Jim MacIsaac, a professional engineer, has been involved in the planning of transportation systems in the Puget Sound region since 1965, including assignments as senior engineer with the predecessor to the Puget Sound Regional Council and with local and national transportation consulting firms.

Richard Morrill is semi-retired professor of Geography at the University of Washington, specializing in population and demography, social inequality, and regional planning and regional governance.

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