Sound Transit 3 Benefits Questioned

Return on investment in light rail is a continuing concern.

Sound Transit 3 Blemishes Spotlighted
Expansion of light rail in the envisioned Sound Transit 3 ballot measure would provide less benefit than more Bus Rapid Transit, critics say. Photo: VeloBusDriver.

Sound Transit 3 envisions light rail as the agency’s primary transportation mode in the Puget Sound region by 2050. Some policy experts and business leaders opposed to the measure argue the return of investment isn’t worth it for the average Puget Sound resident who won’t use them.

Estimates provided to Lens by Sound Transit now project at most 682,000 daily rides per day on all its modes by 2040 – light rail, express buses and commuter rail. Of that, light rail is estimated to make up 85 percent of all daily rides on their vehicles. All Sound Transit buses would make up around 10 percent.

These new projections also assume a large shift in ridership from express buses once the additional 58 miles of light rail line and 39 new stations are added if voters this approve the ST3 funding proposal this fall. In February express buses carried around 53 percent of the 118,000 daily boardings on Sound Transit. Light rail made up around 36 percent, and commuter rail most of the rest.

Yet some question whether this is both practical and realistic. A total of $8 billion has been spent so far on the Sound Move and ST2 projects. The price tag for those two phases will reach an estimated $24 billion, and ST3 would add another $27 billion from taxpayers and more in debt and federal grants. Yet so far transit’s share of all daily trips in the region have remained flat at around four percent since 2006, according to a 2015 PSRC study.

Return On Investment A Continuing Concern

During a Sound Transit public meeting last week in Redmond several attendees expressed their concern that it would cost billions but only be used by a small percentage of the population.

In particular, one audience member said “we’re not getting our value for our money” from the light rail projects.

It’s a view shared by Kemper Freeman, who believes ST3 is “applying the wrong answer to the problem.”

Freeman is the CEO of Kemper Development Company that operates Bellevue Square in downtown Bellevue. A third-generation Bellevue native, Freeman has been a long-time opponent of light rail.

The problem with light rail is that “it’s extremely expensive and doesn’t do much” for the tens of thousands of people who might visit places like Bellevue Square on a daily basis but could be deterred by bad traffic congestion that light rail won’t fix, he added.

While Sound Transit’s emphasis has been on providing alternative modes for commuters, work trips will be only about one-sixth of total daily trips made in the region, or 3.2 million out of 19 million, according to data from the PSRC’s “Transportation 2040 – Preferred Alternative” scenario.

Relief For All, Not Just Commuters

Any transportation solution needs to provide relief for all, not just commuters, said Freeman.

During the Wednesday meeting Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff attempted to allay concerns over light rail by touting the recently opened Capitol Hill-Husky Stadium light rail extension which has exceeded their ridership expectations.

But this works because Capitol Hill is so densely populated whereas other areas don’t come close to providing the needed density, said Freeman. Rogoff argued during the Wednesday meeting that by the time the ST3 light rail lines open between 2030-2040, the region will have added density needed to make it cost-effective.

Light rail lines for ST3 would reach Everett by about 2040, Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood by 2038 and West Seattle in 2033. Currently in ST2, the already-operating Sea-Tac Airport to University District light rail rail line is being extended north to Lynnwood, south to Des Moines, and a new branch built east to Bellevue.

The current and future Sound Transit project map shows not only those light rail extensions under ST3 but also a light rail line from Bellevue to Issaquah and a bus rapid transit (BRT) route that would run from Burien north on I-405 to Woodinville and Bothell, then southwest from there to Lynnwood.

ST3’s draft plan calls for coordinated planning with Puget Sound cities and counties to place affordable housing near transit centers.

Tail Wagging Dog

This is doing it backwards, says Bob Pishue, director of the Coles Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center.

“They’re planning the light rail and saying ‘Now we need to get people here,’” he said.

What people want is congestion relief, not paying taxes for an alternative option in the long-term future or being told where to live, he said.

Better ROI From BRT

Freeman sees more bus rapid transit being a more cost-effective alternative transportation option for commuters.

One of the ST3 projects is a nine mile light rail line from Bellevue to Issaquah. It would cost $1.6-1.7 billion to build, with the most generous estimate at 15,000 daily rides.

In contrast the proposed 37 mile BRT line on I-405 from Burien to Lynwood would cost less than half of the light rail line and draw roughly the same daily ridership. It would also start operating around 2024, whereas the light rail line would open around 2041.

And while Sound Transit says the new light rail projects will provide alternatives for drivers who don’t want to slug it out in congestion, Pishue fears their projects may just end up shifting around existing transit riders.

The 14-mile light rail extension from downtown Seattle to Bellevue as part of ST2 is expected to open in 2023. With an estimated cost of $3.7 billion, it is projected to attract 50,000 daily rides by 2030. Yet only 10,000 riders will be new to transit, according to Pishue.

Then there’s ST3’s estimated cost of $50 billion. Of that, $27 billion will be paid for through a combination of a sales tax increase, motor vehicle excise tax increase and property tax increase. The other $23 billion will come from federal grants, bonds and already-approved tax revenues.

However, in November voters won’t be voting on a fixed amount, but rather a set tax rate Sound Transit expects will cost the typical adult $200 per year. Some like Pishue say this creates a perpetual tax, while Rogoff claimed Wednesday they would lower the tax rate once the projects were completed to just cover maintenance spending.

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