ST3: a Capitol Hill view of what’s next for Sound Transit

Capitol Hill Station opens in March (Image: CHS)

Capitol Hill Station opens in March, part of the great Seattle transit spring of 2016 (Image: CHS)

ST3's "candidate projects"

ST3’s “candidate projects”

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 7.53.11 AMFresh 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.

(Image: Sound Transit)

(Image: Sound Transit)

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.

In eight years, Link light rail to the Eastside digs in (Image: Sound Transit)

In eight years, Link light rail to the Eastside digs in (Image: Sound Transit)

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.”

UW Station (Image: Sound Transit)

UW Station (Image: Sound Transit)

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.

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9 thoughts on “ST3: a Capitol Hill view of what’s next for Sound Transit

  1. Capitol Hill residents might take away from this article the fact that even with all of the “puzzle pieces” filled into our long-range transportation plan, the actual coverage area of Sound Transit on Capitol Hill is not likely to increase at all after Capitol Hill station opens.

    A route 8 subway might offer a lower Capitol Hill station on its way from South Lake Union but the I-5 under crossing makes that far from a certainty.

    Another light rail stop along the Westlake-UW corridor is not likely considering the depth of the train between UW and CHS and the curvature of the track between CHS and Westlake. It’s not an engineering impossibility but politically Sound Transit is not likely to throw its support behind the idea due to the suburbanization of its board.

    Our bus network will be our only option for providing reliable, frequent transit across all of Capitol Hill. In March, the most frequent connections in the neighborhood will still remain Downtown-Broadway. We can do better.

    Our next chance will likely be any changes that coincide with the Bus Rapid Transit on Madison. It’s time to get it right!

  2. Long term and interconnected planning is definitely the way to go. The Seattle Subway as a whole, and the “Metro 8 Subway” line in particular, would provide the kind of reliable urban mass transit that Seattle residents need if they want to forgo a car, and it would be highly used. Connecting the Central District to the light rail system would also provide access to a dense population that is likely to use mass transit, but may not be as well connected to online polls or surveys on which Sound Transit bases much of its priorities.

  3. Intra-city connectivity by underground rail – in other words, a subway – to West Seattle, to Ballard, to the Central District, and other locations within Seattle is far more important and likely to generate far better ridership than these extensions out to the far suburbs. There’s a whole lot of money going to be pissed away extending a relatively slow moving light rail train to Everett.

    • You are absolutely right. Unfortunately, the charter of Sound Transit is to build intracity transit, not Seattle urban subways, so they will be building light rail way past where it is useful.

      • Well, fortunately, at the urging of Seattle Subway and many other groups, the Sound Transit board is seriously considering the “go big” option which will allow enough capital revenue to be collected over a longer period of time to make these “petty” squabbles about whose light rail is more important, rather irrelevant. It will also provide the impetus for every corner of the region to have skin in the game and vote for ST3.

        https://youtu.be/AVaNjbfaR_I

  4. Although we won’t know for sure until Sound Transit unveils its draft in March, a careful reading of early proposals suggests we are going to be stuck with a system and a plan where the dense urban neighborhoods of Seattle, like Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Belltown, and the Central District, will subsidize outlying areas and the suburbs.

    Most of the light rail lines outside of Seattle’s urban core have high costs per rider and low ridership projections, particularly the extension from Lynnwood to Everett and the proposed east side line to Issaquah. Furthermore, as some suburban commentators are making clear, these outlying rail lines will only be used if they are accompanied by expensive parking facilities, which the suburbanites expect should be free or heavily subsidized.

    Even within Seattle, the density of neighborhoods in West Seattle does not justify the more expensive light rail alternatives, which are the ones with the shortest commute times and the highest potential riderships. It remains to be seen whether residents of West Seattle will agree to higher densities and zoning changes that would make such connectivity cost effective.

    The best case for mass transit investment is the dense urban neighborhoods of central Seattle, where residents already use buses and trains, and many eschew the automobile. Yet ST3 is likely to be skewed towards investments in suburban districts where support for mass transit is questionable and returns on Sound Transit projects will be poor.

  5. intra-city is the way to go, unless you are going to provide more low wage workers and their families in-city housing. Since that’s not happening, but you still need people to wait on you, clean and fix your homes and things, building out makes sense. CH has buses, trolleys, PRONTO bike lanes and pretty good walkability. Don’t be such wuss.

  6. Doug Trumm’s recent proposal in The Urbanist (blog) deserves attention. To summarize, he suggests that rather than build a Ballard to Downtown line first, with an expensive crossing of the ship canal, Sound Transit should instead build two cross-town links first, both of them densely packed with stations serving neighborhoods that are are already transit-friendly.

    The first cross-town link would connect Ballard to the U-District north of the ship canal, with intermediate stations to serve Fremont and Wallingford. (Perhaps this line could continue east to University Village, where it would emerge aboveground, then continue further east as an elevated line to Children’s Hospital, an important employment center.)

    The second cross-town link would be the “Metro-8” subway route, connecting Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, and South Lake Union with Capitol Hill and the Central District along 23rd.

    The importance of Ballard to Downtown through Interbay is downgraded in Trumm’s proposal. Too much of the capital cost of connecting Ballard to Downtown is in crossing the ship canal. The Interbay corridor itself lacks population density to justify constructing light rail stations, and Interbay employers are simply too dispersed.

    Doug Trumm’s proposal serves neighborhoods and employment centers in central and north Seattle that can benefit the most by light rail connectivity. Best of all, it doesn’t require another costly transit tunnel through downtown Seattle.