Now that voters have approved ST3 Sound Transit has one last chance to atone for past failures to understand how to implement a public transit system that can reduce the area's congestion. They need to recognize their light-rail-spine concept has two problems. The first is that, as the PSRC concluded in 2004, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) limits light rail to one 4-car train every 4 minutes.
One can reasonably argue as to whether they could “safely” run the trains more frequently or how many riders each 74-seat car can accommodate. Whatever the “conclusion,” light rail through the DSTT will never have the capacity to accommodate the numbers of riders needed to reduce congestion or to justify the hundreds of millions required for each mile of extension to Everett, Tacoma, and Redmond.
The lack of capacity means Sound Transit’s light rail ridership projections are sheer fantasy. The 2015 planning document claimed annual ridership would increase from 24 million in 2020 to 84.1 million in 2030. Their ST3 claims the Everett extension would add 37,000-45,000 riders to the 63,000-74,000 riders they project for the Lynnwood extension. Yet, the combined 100,000 to 120,000-ridership projections from Everett and Lynnwood will likely require nearly twice the DSTT light rail capacity during peak commutes. Even with half that ridership those living nearer Seattle or on Capital Hill will frequently loose access to light rail because trains will be full before they ever get to their station.
The extensions to Tacoma and Redmond, having to share the DSTT capacity, will have even less effect on congestion. East Link, which was promised to be the equivalent of 10 lanes of freeway will, according to the Sound Transit extension website video, be limited to one 4-car train every 8 minutes. The fact it confiscates the I-90 bridge center roadway likely leading to frequent gridlock on bridge outer roadways makes it especially egregious.
Even more absurd, they only intend to add 8560 additional parking stalls between 2024 and 2041; not likely to provide the access needed to attract the 84 million riders by 2030. ST3 only adds 532 stalls to the “chronically full” Lynnwood T/C to increase access for the 100,000 to 120,000 riders projected for the Lynnwood/Everett extension. They apparently “assume” a huge increase in the number of commuters living within walking distance of light rail stations. Their plans to use light rail to replace bus routes into Seattle will do nothing to increase the number of transit riders needed to reduce congestion.
The second problem is once they’ve spent the billions on the light rail spine, they face a huge increase in operating costs. Per 2016 budget, a light rail car costs $24.36 per mile to operate vs. $10.35 for buses. Every mile Sound Transit extends light rail beyond the UW station adds about $200 to the round trip operating costs for a 4-car train. Even accounting for the somewhat higher light rail car capacity (148 per PSRC vs. 119 sitting and standing in a 70-ft articulated bus) the billions spent extending light rail will essentially double transit operating costs.
The obvious solution is not to spend ST3 funds on a 29-mile UW-to-Everett extension, spend it on the proposed 5.4-mile extension to Ballard and 4.7-mile extension to West Seattle. The two combined would cost about $4B and add roughly 80,000 to 100,000 riders. The numbers of residents within walking distance of light rail stations would likely provide the ridership without the need to spend hundreds of millions increasing parking. The light-rail construction costs per rider are a fraction of those for the spine. The relatively short light rail extension lengths minimize the higher operating costs.
The bottom line is Seattleites surely deserve the extensions. There would be no ST3 if they hadn’t voted 70% to approve it. Rather than making them wait for 15 to 20 years Sound Transit should, over the next 5 years, spend half of the $2B funds they plan to spend each year adding the Ballard and West Seattle extensions.
Obviously, the money spent on the Ballard and West Seattle extensions will do little to relieve congestion on the area's major roadways. That requires spending the remaining $1B each year attracting more of those commuters to transit. As other posts have opined, by adding parking, implementing BRT routes, along restricted roadway lanes if necessary, to T/Cs along 4th Ave and in Bellevue and Overtake. Parking fees would replace fare-box revenue to cover operating costs so those able to walk to P&R could ride free. The advantage of funding added parking and bus service is it could continue for as long as necessary to ease congestion, something light rail routed through the DSTT can’t. And it could be done with a fraction of ST3's $54 billion and 25 years
Sound Transit has a last chance to do so.