I thought the June 23rd Seattle Times Special to the Times Opinions response to the question “Is light rail investment worth it?” was rather ironic since that was the day for my “Candidate Evaluation” interview with their editorial board. While they listened to my ~ 2 minute presentation (previous post) on my opposition to light rail, they didn’t seem particularly interested and didn’t ask any follow-up questions.
While the “Con” response provided some rationale arguments in opposition, my response would have been more direct. For example Sound Transit has spent years and nearly a billion dollars on an East Link light rail system that will devastate the route into Bellevue, reduce rather than increase cross-lake transit capacity, and gridlock vehicular traffic on I-90 Bridge. (That’s assuming they’ll finally be able to come up with a bridge design that’s compatible with light rail train operation.)
Fifteen years ago they could have moved non-transit HOV to 4th lanes on the I-90 Bridge outer roadways and initiated two-way bus only lanes on center roadway. The cost would have been minimal, the capacity 20 times light rail, and commuters could have had access to direct bus routes into Seattle from every P&R lot on the east side.
Their Central Link extensions are equally ill conceived. For example they could have over-ruled UW objections to a T/C at the U/W station near the stadium. It would have provided an interface between 520 BRT service and light rail into Seattle that would have attracted thousands of riders from both sides of the lake.
Instead they’re spending billions on light rail extensions to Northgate and beyond that will have absolutely no effect on I-5 congestion. They could provide 10 times light rail capacity by simply limiting one of the two HOV lanes to buses, and they could do it in a month. (Part of that capacity could be used for +3 HOV until ST adds additional parking and bus service.)
Rather than Central Link extensions to Federal Way and across I-90, ST could route light rail to West Seattle. It could supplement transit service on the West Seattle Bridge rather than replace it as they’re doing with East Link.
What’s worse, after spending billions they don’t have, on light rail extensions that will do nothing to ease congestion, they’ll end up with a light rail system too expensive to operate. The problem is using even the limited capacity of Prop 1 extensions (and ST3 extensions) requires they route riders to and from the light rail stations on buses. It’s unlikely those riders will be required to pay two fares for the commute. Thus light rail net fare box revenue will be minimal for the extensions.
Light rail cars cost more than twice as much as buses to operate (~$25 per mile per car vs. ~$10 for buses). Thus forcing riders to transfer at light rail stations not only dissuades commuters from using transit, it adds to operating costs. (While the proposed UW T/C would do the same thing, it would have twice the capacity of East Link and attract thousands of additional cross-lake commuters from both sides of the lake adding to transit revenue)
In conclusion, the answer to the question “Is light rail worth it?” is a resounding "NO". A "NO" not only for the likely ST3 extensions but for the ST2 Prop 1 extensions ST has already spent years and billions on. The sooner they recognize that the better.