Sooner or later some enterprising journalist is going to write a potentially Pulitzer Prize wining article or a series of articles that could aptly be titled “What Could Have Been”. It would be about what public transit in our area could have been if not for the collaboration between Sound Transit and the WSDOT and their efforts to create a light rail “spine” for commuters to reduce congestion on the major roadways into Seattle.
They first began more than 25 years ago with plans to route light rail trains through the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) in what then appeared to be a reasonable attempt to emulate light rail in Portland and the San Francisco area. They apparently were unaware of limitations the tunnel might impose on light rail operation. An August 2004 Puget Sound Regional Council Technical Workbook, “Central Puget Sound Region “High Capacity Transit Corridor Assessment” should have “clarified” the issue.
It concluded light rail in our area was limited by the DSTT to 8880 riders per hour (RPH) in each direction. They apparently based that assessment on the assumption the tunnel station lengths limited the trains to 4 cars; that light rail trains required 4 minutes between trains for safe operation; and that each 74-seat car could accommodate 148 riders.
While one could argue their light rail cars could accommodate more riders, it should have been clear light rail routed through the DSTT would never have the capacity to accommodate the riders required to reduce I-5 congestion. The combination of the several-hundred-million-cost per mile with the limited capacity meant the Prop 1 light rail extensions in our area failed any reasonable cost/benefit analysis.
Sound Transit and the WSDOT should have recognized the only way they were going to significantly reduce I-5 congestion was to make better use of the existing freeway lanes. Sound Transit could have used Prop 1 funds to add thousands of parking spaces near where residents lived with additional bus routes to near where they worked. The WSDOT could have facilitated the added bus routes by limiting one of the HOV lanes to buses only during peak commute. (+3 HOV use might have been allowed depending on resulting congestion.)
Instead, WSDOT continued to allow transit and non-transit HOV use resulting in 75-minute HOV travel times between Everett and Seattle. The only beneficiary being Sound Transit’s plans for Prop 1 light rail extensions beyond the UW station. BRT service along a limited-access I-5 lane would have ended any plans for extending light rail, particularly one with such limited capacity.
“What could have been” was Sound Transit, rather than spending hundreds of millions towards the more than $2B Northgate extension, could have spent Prop I funds adding thousands of parking spaces each year with access to added bus routes. 4th Ave could have been converted into an elongated two way T/C with dedicated drop-off and pickup spots for egress and access for each route. “What could have been” was reduced travel times for everyone since thousands of additional transit commuters would also have reduced congestion on GP lanes.
Rather than extending light rail to Northgate Sound Transit could have terminated the University Link with a T/C near the UW Stadium station. It would have provided an interface between SR 520 BRT and Central Link light rail. “What could have been” was improved transit for commuters from both sides of the lake. The only loser would have been the WSDOT SR520 toll revenues. (I’ll leave it to others to decide if the loss in toll revenue with BRT on SR-520 “influenced” Sound Transit’s decision not to include BRT there as part of ST3)
The Sound Transit and WSDOT collaboration has been particularly burdensome for east side residents. The two managed to spend years studying all sorts of options on the eastside without ever considering two-way BRT on the I-90 bridge center roadway in their joint 2008 East Link DEIS. They simply ignored the fact that the East Link share of the DSTT capacity would be a fraction of their 2008 DEIS claims it was the equivalent of 10 lanes of freeway that could increase cross-lake transit by 60%.
The two also persuaded a federal judge during the Freeman litigation that 4th lanes added to the I-90 Bridge outer roadways would enable them to accommodate all vehicle traffic. Their success in doing so allowed them to continue with plans to install light rail on the bridge center roadway. Yet the very document they cited, a September 2004 FHWA Record of Decision (ROD) stipulated the two center roadway lanes would still be needed for vehicles.
The two have even “collaborated” to the point where the WSDOT will not require they demonstrate the modified outer roadway can accommodate all the cross-lake vehicles when they close the center roadway next year. The WSDOT “benefits” from the “potential” increased I-90 congestion in two ways. The first is it will boost SR-520 toll revenue from those attempting to avoid the congestion. Second, in 2006 and 2007 they informed Mercer Island officials of their plans to initiate HOT lanes on I-90 Bridge. Revenue from HOT lanes on I-90 Bridge will be especially “lucrative” since the WSDOT will be “required” to raise tolls to whatever it takes to maintain 45 mph.
“What could have been” for east side commuters? The 2004 FHWA study should have convinced the WSDOT, if not Sound Transit, that the east side’s share of the DSTT light rail capacity would never be sufficient to meet cross lake commuting needs. That all the studies about light rail routes aimed at improving cross-lake transit for eastside commuters were a waste of time. That the only way to improve cross-lake commuting for everyone was to add the 4th lanes to the outer bridge roadways for non-transit HOV and initiate two-way BRT on the bridge center roadway.
Sound Transit could have spent the hundreds of millions they wasted on light rail studies and promotions adding thousands of parking spaces and connecting bus routes. The reduced congestion from allowing cross-lake commuters to leave their cars near where they live rather than where they work would have benefited the entire area. And they could have been doing it for ten years by now.
Future east side taxes could be used creating a South Lake Union streetcar system for the Bel-red area. The street level tracks routed through the area with access to the Bellevue T/C would be far more accessible and far less intrusive than four 74-ton light rail trains trundling through the area for 18 hours a day.
Instead, this fall Sound Transit will close the South Bellevue P&R having simply ignored their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Bellevue to find replacement parking and bus connections. As a result many eastside commuters will be unable to use any P&R for access to transit since they will be full well before they get there.
Every cross-lake commuter will fill the effects of Sound Transits closure of the bridge center roadway without every demonstrating outer roadway capacity. Sound Transit will spend the next seven years disrupting those who live or commute along the route into Bellevue ending forever the quiet solitude of the Mercer Slough Park and Bellevue’s persona as “the city in the park”. All to create a light rail system that the majority will rarely if ever use.
In conclusion, “What could have been” is far from what the entire area will get from Sound Transit and WSDOT. Approving Sound Transit 3 gives them the authority to spend ~$2 Billion a year for the next 25 years as they see fit with little if any outside control. Doing so would be “unacceptable” even if they had demonstrated a high level of competence.
Doing so with Sound Transit would be “insane”.