(I submitted the following as a “Special to the Times” for their opinion page. I posted it since they will likely ignore it.)
The “Stupidity” of the “Spine”
The “Stupidity” of the “Spine”
Sound Transit is reportedly in the process of finalizing the projects they intend to ask voters to support this fall with their ST3 proposal. Sound Transit Executive Director, Ric Ilgenfritz’s Feb 8th presentation to the Bellevue City Council indicated ST3 will include funding for a light rail “spine” connecting Everett through Seattle to Tacoma. Part of the funds will be used to extend Central Link to Everett along with a second tunnel under Seattle and a second set of tracks to Everett (or maybe Paine Field).
According to an Oct 2014 Seattle Times article more than 33,000 riders used transit during the 3-hour peak morning and afternoon commutes. As Central Link extensions are completed Sound Transit will likely route their buses to the light rail stations along I-5 for riders to complete the commute into Seattle. Doing so is how most transit riders will have access to light rail. The ST3 funding for the second set of tracks to complete the “spine” doubles Everett-to-Seattle transit capacity.
Those commuters are surely in need of some help. For example the WSDOT traffic web site showed travel times at 8:06 AM today (March 7th) on the general-purpose lane were 88 minutes, 90 minutes on the express lane, and 70 minutes on HOV lanes. The first stupidity of the light rail “spine” is Sound Transit’s failure to recognize that the congestion along I-5 is not due to too many buses.
The Central Link extension will replace some 100-120 buses an hour on the route into Seattle. A single highway lane can accommodate nearly 5000 vehicles an hour. There are four or five highway lanes including one or two HOV lanes along most of I-5 into Seattle. Using Central Link to replace the buses will have at best a miniscule effect on I-5 congestion.
The second Sound Transit stupidity is sort of a corollary of their first stupidity, their failure to recognize they could achieve the same increased capacity by adding buses rather then spending billions on light rail tracks. Sound Transit could provide an additional 100-120 buses an hour along the route with the same capacity as the second set of light rail tracks.
Again, the added “vehicles” would have a miniscule effect on congestion. Bus travel times for current routes and for the added buses could be reduced by requiring +3HOV during peak commute hours on one of the HOV lanes. Some of the routes could provide direct connections between P&R lots and Seattle avoiding the time-consuming delays of all the light rail stops along the route.
Sound Transit’s third stupidity is there failure to recognize the need to provide commuters with access to the “spine”. It’s “unlikely” many of the added 30,000 commuters will live within “walking” distance of light rail stations. Thus Sound Transit is going to have to provide P&R lots with connecting bus routes to the light rail stations. Yet none of their planning documents makes any mention of that need. (They “may” have failed to do so because the obvious question would have been “Why not simply route the buses into Seattle and not some light rail station?”.)
The fourth Sound Transit stupidity is their failure to recognize the “economics” of light rail operation. A light rail car costs $24.31 per mile to operate, nearly 2 ½ times the $10.41 cost of a bus (per 2016 budget). A 4-car train that can reasonably accommodate ~600 riders will cost ~$100.00 a mile to operate or 16.7 cents per mile per rider. A 70-ft articulated bus can accommodate 119 sitting and standing riders or 8.7 cents per mile, slightly more than half the cost of light rail. Not only will the “spine” require Sound Transit spend billions creating the light rail spine, the added parking, and connecting bus routes, the light rail operating costs for the I-5 portion of the commute will be nearly twice that of buses. (And that doesn’t include the fact that the buses likely cost about a fifth of light rail cars.)
Of course the biggest “stupidity” of all is Sound Transit’s failure to recognize the above realities a long time ago. Rather than spending hundreds of millions on a tunnel extending light rail to Northgate they could have terminated the University Link at a T/C near the UW Stadium light rail station. Doing so would have provided thousands of commuters from both sides of the lake with a SR 520 bridge/University Link commute when they both begin operation this spring.
The Northgate extension funds could have provided $200 million a year towards adding 5000 parking spaces and connecting bus routes. Sound Transit could still begin adding the P&R lots next year, adding 20,000 parking spaces by 2021, reducing congestion for all the commuters. They could do so with less than half of the funds they intend to spend on Northgate. As it is, in 2021 the Northgate extension will have at best, a miniscule effect on congestion.
That truly is the ultimate “stupidity” of the spine.