Sound Transit’s latest flyer asking “Where will Sound Transit Take You Tomorrow?” is just the beginning of a presumably multi-million dollar effort to convince the public to give them another $15B for ST3. The answer to their question, at least beyond where they promised to take you in 2008 with their $18B ST2 Prop 1 extensions, is “Not Very Far”. ST2 supposedly funded Prop 1 extensions to Overlake T/C, Federal Way, and Mill Creek. When it was approved Sound Transit officials called it a “Gift to our Grand Children”. The ST3 extensions could hardly justify another very expensive “gift” of an additional $15B.
Wherever the Sound Transit’s ST3 light rail extensions end up “taking you”, the billions they’ll spend, like the billions they plan to spend on ST2 Prop 1 extensions, will do absolutely nothing to ease the area’s fourth worst congestion in the country. The problem is, according to a May 8th Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) presentation to the Eastside Transportation Partnership, “Stuck in Traffic: 2015 Report”, nearly 75% of commuters chose to drive alone (SOV) to destinations. The solution is to get more people to use public transit.
Unfortunately, neither the ST2 Prop 1 nor the likely ST3 light rail extensions will ever have the needed capacity. An August 2004 PSRC report, “Central Puget Sound Region High Capacity Corridor Assessment” evaluated several alternate HCT options and concluded the following regarding light rail.
Light Rail capacities were calculated to be at a maximum of 8,880 pphpd (passengers per hour per direction)
Sound Transit referenced this document in the 2008 DEIS as their basis for “connecting the urban centers of Seattle, Bellevue, Overlake and Redmond”. The PSRC concluded light rail in Seattle would be limited to one 4-car train every 4 minutes. They assumed each car had the capacity for 148 riders giving the 8880 pphpd through the Seattle tunnel, with half to Bellevue and half towards Federal Way. (Sound Transit’s proposed East Link schedule confirms the one 4-car-train-every-8-minute operation.)
An Oct 21st, 2014 Seattle Times article “Region’s commute times worsen” concluded “the ‘reliable’ travel time for the Everett-to-Seattle drive, for solo drivers to be sure of reaching work on time 19 out of 20 days, has increased from 62 minutes to 80 minutes”. It also included information that 33,900 commuters already used the two HOV lanes during the 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. peaks with 14 million annual transit riders keeping buses at 79% of capacity in the I-5 corridor.
More recent data show even HOV lane users are feeling the effects of congestion. The May 8th PSRC presentation included charts showing I-5 HOV travel times between Everett and Seattle in 2014 were ~75 minutes into and ~68 minutes out of Seattle, essentially eliminating travel time advantages. Thus, there is very little incentive to go through the hassle of finding a rider or going to a P&R and finding space for a standing-room-only bus ride into Seattle.
The HOV lane delays for buses could be eliminated by simply restricting one of the two HOV lanes to buses. Doing so would provide lane capacity for more than 1000 buses per hour with ten times light rail capacity. They could do it in a month, although +3 HOV could share the lane until ST added the needed parking and bus service. The reduced travel times would undoubtedly attract additional potential riders, reducing congestion for everyone. ST could use the ST2 funds for more P&R lots and bus service instead of spending billions and 6 years for light rail to reach Northgate, 8 to reach Lynnwood, and likely additional billions and years for ST3 to Everett.
When the Northgate extension is completed in 2021, the 8880 pphpd capacity will have a minuscule effect on congestion. While those with access will be able to ride light rail into Seattle, travel times would likely be longer than what bus-only lanes would provide.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of commuters will see no benefit. ST could potentially divert 100 buses per hour to Northgate. However, that reduction in HOV lane traffic will have a minuscule effect on congestion into Seattle. Also, the hassle of being forced to transfer to and from buses may dissuade many from even using transit. Extensions from Northgate to Lynnwood and beyond add to the construction and operating cost but do nothing to reduce HOV or regular lane congestion.
It’s even more difficult for ST to justify spending billions on the ST2 and ST3 Central Link extensions to Federal Way and Tacoma, and East Link extensions to Overlake and Redmond. The resulting 4440 pphpd capacity hardly qualifies as HCT. It could easily be obtained with an additional 50 buses per hour that would have a minimal affect on congestion.
While those with access to this limited capacity could benefit from having a reliable commute into Seattle, the vast majority of commuters will continue to encounter ever-increasing congestion. On a recent 9 a.m. commute from SeaTac to Bellevue I noticed "predicted" 52-minute SOV travel times from Tukwila to Seattle. The May 8th PSRC presentation reported even HOV travel time from Federal Way to Seattle increased by almost 20 minutes to ~55 minutes between 2010 and 2014.
The only way to reduce both SOV and HOV commuter travel times is to convince more of both to switch to buses. Buses would be more attractive if HOV-lane travel times were reduced by limiting car pools to +3 HOV during peak commute (as currently planned for I-405 HOV lanes). As with North I-5, ST needs to spend the light rail money on additional P&R lots and more buses.
The billions spent on East Link for its 4440 pphpd capacity is particularly absurd since ST confiscation of the I-90 Bridge center roadway precludes using two-way bus only lanes there. Again, the 1000 bus-per-hour capacity could be twenty times East Link, could be available in 6 months for a few million, and attract thousands of additional transit riders with direct bus routes from existing and new P&R lots into Seattle, reducing traffic throughout east side. Like I-5, the way to reduce I-90 corridor congestion is to spend the East Link money on additional P&R lots and more bus service throughout area.
As bad as ST2 and ST3 are for the areas congestion, they’re even worse for the area’s transportation funding. Just the initial phase of the Prop 1 light rail extensions has forced ST to borrow $1.3B. Paying it off will require annual payments of $50M for 44 years. Their 2015 budget has a deficit of $280M with only $16M expected from light rail fare box revenue. Unless ST can come up with an additional revenue source billions more will have to be borrowed to pay for the Prop 1 extensions, adding to the annual amortization costs. (That’s a “likely reason” they’re asking for ST3 funds next year, more than 6 years before they would even start ST3 light rail extension construction.)
Providing the bus riders needed for even the very limited ST2 light rail capacity has two ramifications. The first is additional P&R facilities will be needed to accommodate transit growth. The second is it’s unlikely those transferring from buses will be forced to pay a second toll. (As stated early, the need to transfer rather than a direct commute into Seattle may also dissuade many transit riders.) Thus light rail operation will provide very little additional fare box revenue. The longer ST3 routes exacerbate the operating cost deficit.
The bottom line is light rail in Seattle will never have the capacity to justify the billions spent to construct and subsequently operate the ST2 or ST3 extensions. The only way to ease congestion is to use the light rail money to dramatically increase both the P&R facilities throughout the area and the number of buses serving the added parking. (ST belatedly recognizes the benefits of improved bus service with the ST3 plans for BRT along I-405. It's something they could have done on I-90 more than 15 years ago.)
Instead of extending light rail to Northgate (and beyond) they should limit one HOV lane to buses only. Instead of light rail to Federal Way and beyond they should require +3 HOV during peak commute. Instead of cross-lake light rail they should move non-transit HOV to fourth lanes on the I-90 Bridge outer roadway and initiate 2 way bus only service on center roadway. The likely ST ST3 extensions simply exacerbate the ST2 problems.
I’m convinced sooner or later everyone will recognize these realities. Obviously the sooner the better.