Fresh from passing the $930 million dollar Move Seattle transportation levy, Seattle voters will vote on another major transportation investment next November: Sound Transit 3, or ST3, the ballot measure that will finance and guide the expansion of our region’s light rail transit system. The final package of specific new light rail projects and a funding timeline has yet to be put together, but the Sound Transit Board is currently weighing a variety of proposals that bring broader, regional transit mobility to District 3 beyond the University District and downtown connections that come with the slated spring opening of the Capitol Hill light rail station on Broadway between John and Denny. Here is what to watch for — and ask for — as the plan comes together from Broadway’s point of view at Capitol Hill Station.
A long route
ST3 has been a long time in the making, and still has a long way to go before going to the Ballot next November. After last year’s bitter legislative session, lawmakers granted Sound Transit the authority to seek approval from voters to raise taxes (to the amount of $15 billion) to extend existing light rail lines created under ST2—the previous Sound Transit expansion package voters approved back in 2008—as well as build new completely lines within Seattle such as the very popular Ballard to West Seattle connection (potentially via a second downtown transit tunnel). To get the ball rolling on ST3, last summer, the Sound Transit board took input from regional residents on their picks for potential projects. After studying the preferred options, Sound Transit rolled out a set of candidate projects, in addition to various funding timelines in early December.
Now, the board will spend the next few months putting together a draft package to be put under the public’s microscope in March, after which extensive public input will be gathered before the final, final, package put before voters in November. For now, public input and advocacy is limited to writing individual board members about what you would like to see in the draft proposal.
For local transit advocates like Abigail Doerr, advocacy director for the pro-light rail Transportation Choices Coalition and a Capitol Hill resident, ST3 is a key opportunity to get it right to go all out and build out the regional mass transit network to its fullest extent. “We would like to see as many of these good candidate projects in the package.”
The Sound Transit board has a lot hash out in formulating the draft ST3 package. In addition to extending the ST2 era-lines further south to the Tacoma Dome from Federal Way, north from Lynnwood to Everett, and east from Bellevue to Redmond and Issaquah, the Seattle area candidate projects include variations of the famed Ballard to downtown Seattle line — sub-options for this project include elevated and at-grade lines, or a mix of both (some also feature a second downtown transit tunnel) — a downtown Seattle to West Seattle connection, a east/west Ballard to University District route, an extension down south to Burien from West Seattle, additional stations along the pre-existing light rail line snaking through the Rainier valley, studying a potential Ballard to Bothell line (via Lake City) and helping fund the Madison Street Bus Rapid Transit line, a project in the heart of Capitol Hill, which is also relying on the Move Seattle levy and, potentially, federal grants.
The “Metro 8 Subway”
The numerous sub-options for the hyped Ballard to Downtown route all have their tradeoffs. For example, the primarily at-grade options cost significantly less than their elevated and tunnel oriented counterparts, but are projected to have slower travel times and daily ridership counts. (Here’s a complete and detailed list of the Seattle area candidate projects and their specs.)
Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick said that the exact routes of all of various proposed light rail lines are not set in stone, seeing as they will subjected to an environmental impact study once a final package is put together and approved by voters.
There are also some non-mass transit oriented investments included in some of the candidate projects, like the thousands of proposed parking garages and stalls at various light rail and Sounder train stations in Southern King County and near Tacoma. ST3 money spent on parking doesn’t sit well with urbanists and transit advocates, but, to the relief of Seattle’s proponents of the not-so-secret war on cars, the proposed parking developments are candidate projects, and won’t necessarily make the final cut.
Some would like to see even more hyper-local candidate projects.
Seattle Subway, a local mass-transit advocacy group, has been pushing for a more intricate regional light rail network, particularly east-west connections within Seattle. Before Sound Transit rolled out its candidate projects and various funding timelines in December, Seattle Subway had promoted their vision for ST3 called “ST Complete,” which included many of the projects that made Sound Transit’s “candidate projects” cut, and more, such as studying building a potential line from South Lake Union to the Mount Baker station via the Central District, a line which Seattle Subway’s Jonathan Hopkins calls the “Metro 8 Subway,” because it would follow a similar route as King County Metro’s number 8 bus. “Lacking anything [Light rail-wise] east of Capitol Hill, that can be improved upon,” Hopkins said.
But while there aren’t any proposed new lines routing to or through Capitol Hill and central Seattle, ST3 lines connecting to downtown and the University District will be accessible from the Hill’s own broadway street station. Ultimately, it’s the regional connectivity that transit advocates underline.
“It’s about network effects—where can you go from here,” said Hopkins.
“The purpose for Sound Transit [light rail] existing is to be able to get anywhere in our region,” said Doerr. “That’s [regional mobility] what a Capitol Hill voter will get out of this. That’s what a Tacoma voter will get out of this and that’s what Kirkland voter will get out of this.”
The last piece of the puzzle
While the proposals swirling in ST3 are ambitious, the time seems ripe for another massive investment in mass transit. While regional voters have increasingly been warming up to the idea of more taxation for light rail and other modes of public transit, we weren’t always this transit-friendly. Back in 1968 and 1970, King County voters shot down two bonding proposals for a regional rail and bus transit network, known as Forward Thrust. “I think we’ve been kicking ourselves for the last few decades for sending that [Forward Thrust] away,” said Doerr.
It wasn’t until the 1996, when voters approved “Sound Move”, or Sound Transit 1—which kicked off the taxation for and construction of a light rail line from University District to Sea-Tac airport—that the possibility of a regional mass transit sputtered back to life. In 2008, voters approved Sound Transit 2 (extending lines south to Federal Way, north to Lynnwood, and East to Bellevue) by a whopping 16 point margin. And then, last November, the Move Seattle levy passed handsomely.
“This is really the last piece of the puzzle.”
So how much could this all cost? In the double digit billions, according to Sound Transit’s estimates. In addition to selecting candidate projects for the draft package, the Sound Transit board will also have to choose a funding scheme and timeline.
Automatically included in any timeline is the $15 billion in new tax revenue authorized by the State legislature, which will come from a combination of sales, property, and motor vehicle excise [MVET] taxes, which will be levied on residents within the Sound Transit [taxing] District, which encompasses the most densely populated cities in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. That $15 billion, which would be raised over 15 years, is estimated to cost $200 annually (or $17 every month) per Sound Transit District resident. Combined with Federal grants, bonds, fare revenue, and existing taxes (such as ST2) Sound Transit, estimates that it could bring in $26 billion over 15 years. That’s just one route. Sound Transit also laid out 20 and 25 year long funding timelines. The 20 year plan would raise the initial $26 billion over 15 years, plus an estimated additional $4 billion, which Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick says would come from bonds and pre-existing taxes from ST2, which could be shifted to ST3 once ST2 projects are completed and the bonds for said projects paid off. The same goes for the 25-year plan, which is estimated to add $22 billion on top of the initial $26 billion.
Seattle Subway is pushing for a long-term funding plan, arguing that bringing in more money (over a longer period of time) to fund more projects comprehensive light rail network will better serve voters and remove the need for additional future transit funding packages (Seattle Subway originally proposed a 30 year stretch during their ST Complete promotion blitz.)
“At the 20 and 25 time frames, a bunch of the ST2 bonds retire [allowing ST2 tax revenues to go towards ST3 projects], but you have to get there,” said Hopkins.
But given the current energy surrounding mass transit, Hopkins isn’t really fretting about what the draft package will look like.
“We think there’s going to be a larger solution than people expected [in terms of the Sound Transit board’s draft package],” he said. “The economy is good, traffic is bad, and we have a great agency who can build this stuff well.”
For now, the Sound Transit board will continue meeting over the course of the next few months to put together a draft package by early spring. Sound Transit won’t be doing much outreach for public input until after the draft package is released, but the Sound Transit board members can all be contacted. Here is a link to all their contact info.
You can learn more at Sound Transit’s information site, soundtransit3.org.