Editor's Preface: The Summer 2000 issue of Open Spaces Quarterly includes an article by Emory Bundy titled "Why Rail? Why Do We Support Systems that Almost Never Work?" Emory Bundy is the Seattle environmental advocate, policy analyst, and retired foundation executive who co-founded Citizens for Mobility. The article attracted considerable attention as reported by the Tacoma News-Tribune. Bundy's article prompted a widely-circulated e-mail response from Paul Bay, (formerly) Director of Link Light Rail for Sound Transit, the regional public agency charged with constructing and operating a new regional light rail system in Seattle and Tacoma. Bay's e-mail comment is presented below, with further responding commentary from Bundy interspersed. Emory Bundy asked us to disseminate this document, so that you can form your own conclusions.
August 24, 2000
From Emory Bundy to the readers of Paul Bay, Director, Link Light Rail, Sound Transit:
The Regional Transit Authority/Sound Transit spent a decade and scores of millions of dollars to persuade the citizens and voters of the Puget Sound region to tax themselves heavily for a menu of transportation projects. The largest expenditure is for Link light rail, from Seattle-Tacoma Airport to the University District. The rationale for Link was misrepresented, as were its costs and benefits. As people are progressively realizing the gap between fact and fantasy, Sound Transit is hurrying to sign a full funding grant agreement" with the federal government. That will oblige the region to complete the project, without regard to its burgeoning costs, diminishing benefits, or the fiscal capacity of current taxing authority. This is a precarious moment in the history of Seattle and the region.
Citizens with no vested interest in cashing in on all that money and influence, of whom I am one, are trying to provide an accurate view of what is transpiring, and its consequences. An article, "Why Rail?", was placed in a high-quality regional magazine, Open Spaces. Link light rails director, Paul Bay, has written and distributed a commentary on it. His commentary is not flattering; he says Im confused and manipulate information. Ive prepared this defense, so the reader can judge. If youve not read the article Mr. Bay targets, I hope youll acquire the summer edition of Open Spaces magazine, so youll know what the fuss is about. The magazine also solicited an article from Sound Transit, which will appear in the next issue.
To give a preview of what follows, below, I contend that in his attack Paul Bay implicitly concedes that this metropolitan region is ill-suited for an urban rail system. He also provides a useful platform to expose that Link light rail actually will erode the ability to move people through the central city. The truth is the polar opposite of Sound Transit's representations, which claim that Link will carry as many people as 12 lanes of freeway. My contention is, "Sound Transit's Link light rail project promises to tear up Seattle with years of heavy construction, ruin businesses and relocate hundreds or thousands of residents as collateral damage, pour billions into the ground, divide the Rainier Valley community, and make downtown streets more congested. And, without its rail bridge across Lake Washington, as seems likely-to-certain, the outcome will be to severely diminish transit's capacity to move passengers through the downtown core."
I hope this piques your interest, and that you will read the following exchange and form your own conclusions. Better yet, also review the original article, then await Sound Transit's fuller response in the upcoming issue of the magazine.
Editorial note: In what follows, words of Paul Bay are in blue type.Words of Emory Bundy are in green type.
The reference to "Cheryl" at the beginning of Paul Bays comments is Cheryl Sizov, a City of Seattle employee. Bays comments were also directly emailed to her and dozens of others, and are circulating widely on the Internet.
Comments by Paul Bay, August 17, 2000
Responses by Emory Bundy, August 24, 2000
Cheryl, the press of other business has resulted in my not responding to you about this Emory Bundy article, which I assure you, we at Sound Transit have carefully read and considered. Open Spaces Magazine has asked for a counter article that will appear in the next issue, but that is a long time to wait. Mr. Bundy is a very smart man and an expert at doing research on the web to amass facts that point in a direction he wants to point. I don't know how much he is personally confused about the facts he presents, or is just very good at using them in a way that tells only part of the story. Nevertheless, I think it is important that the rest of the story be put out there, without waiting for the new article, so I have put together a few comments on some of the assertions he has made.
CLAIM: "Seattle isn't dense enough for rail, and density is declining." Bundy says that in 1950, Metropolitan Seattle averaged 5,000 persons per square mile, and now it's down to 3,000 persons per square mile.
FACT: In 1950, "Metropolitan Seattle" consisted of little more than the current Seattle City limits and Shoreline. What Bundy is comparing that with in 2000 is today's SMSA, which runs from Marysville to Auburn to North Bend to Lakewood. Since 1950, population density within the City of Seattle has actually increased to 6,400 persons per square mile, even though average household size has decreased. That is greater than Los Angeles' average urban density at 5,800 persons per square mile. Further, employment density in Seattle during that same period has leapt from 3,700 jobs per square mile to 6,000 jobs per square mile. What's more, the proposed light rail line will serve some of the most densely populated neighborhoods. For example:
Capitol Hill 28,000 persons per square mile
First Hill 19,000 persons per square mile
University 10,900 persons per square mile (not including UW campus)
Columbia City 7,100 persons per square mile
RESPONSE BY EMORY BUNDY: The quote above is Mr. Bay's rewording of what I wrote. Over the past half-century the urban region's population density has declinednot "is declining," which is Paul Bay's addition, and may or may not be true. He does not dispute the accuracy of my comments and conclusions on the issue of population density. Metropolitan Seattle is considerably less dense and more dispersed today than in 1950, and markedly less dense than Los Angeles, where similar rail aspirations have turned into exorbitant, dismal failures. The lack of density and the degree of dispersion bear on the feasibility of transit technology options. Rail is not well-suited to low-density, widely dispersed population centers. That conclusion stands, unchallenged.
The point that Mr. Bay makes is puzzling. He rationalizes Link light rail solely on the basis of the relatively dense character of the core of Seattle. But the organization for which he works is justifying the Link project as a "starter rail" for a region-wide rail system. Indeed, there are maps showing where Sound Transit intends to take us; those destinations find no defense whatsoever in Paul Bays remarks and data. And no wonder: the experience of the Link starter rail will be so expensive, so intrusive to the fabric of our community, and so unpopular, that one phase will be the end of it. Mr. Bay appears to concede the point.
I am advised that Mr. Bay's professional judgment has been well-established and articulated over the years; that light rail is not a good approach to a REGIONAL transit system, but may work in high-volume transit corridors within a center city. That is wise counsel.
To clarify, let me put it to Mr. Bay directly: You justify light rail on the basis of high population densities in the core of Seattle. Do you not, then, suggest that the less dense population of the region as a wholeSnohomish County, North King County, South King County, East King County, and Pierce Countyis ill-suited for urban rail passenger service? If we can agree on that, we're rapidly narrowing our differences.
CLAIM: "Light Rail Technology is Far Too Expensive at $100 million per mile." Bundy says it is hopeless to try and serve the complex multiple destinations of a far-flung region with a technology that costs that much. San Diego light rail was OK with just $11 million per mile.
FACT: Sound Transit is not trying to "serve the complex multiple destinations of a far-flung region with light rail." In fact, we are setting out to serve only SOME of the transportation needs in a narrow corridor adjacent to I-5 between Sea Tac and Northgate with light rail, a corridor that also happens to be the most congested transportation corridor in the state of Washington. Sound Transit has other programs (regional express buses, HOV improvements, and commuter rail) which will supplement the services provided by bus transit providers to "serve the ... far-flung region." Further, while the costs for light rail in San Diego for their first line were $11m/mile (in 1968 $), the 50+ miles they've added since then have averaged closer to $50m/mile (in year 2000 $), and they don't have any tunnels, which topography and density make necessary in Seattle.
RESPONSE BY EMORY BUNDY: Once again, Mr. Bay's comments imply that Sound Transit no longer intends to pursue subsequent phases of its rail development plans beyond the Link starter. Paul Bay concedes that buses can do a better job than trains can beyond the Northgate to Sea-Tac corridor. That's a big step forward. When the facts are fully revealed, perhaps he will concede that buses can do a better job than trains for the entire region, Seattle included. (When I say "trains" I refer to the particular technology Sound Transit promotes. With contemporary technology, we can develop modern mass transit systems that are cost-effective and customer-friendly. That's what Sound Transit should pursue, rather than a technology created in and suited to the 19th century.)
CLAIM: "Introduction of rail transit to an existing urban environment never works, and in fact, it reduces transit market share and greatly increases transit subsidy requirements." Bundy uses Boston as an example, stating that the introduction of light rail and commuter rail there has resulted in an explosion of annual transit subsidies from $30 million in 1970 to $560 million today.
FACT: Boston didn't "just introduce rail," but has had both light rail (the Green Line) and commuter rail for most of the 20th century. The rail system in Boston has been the most stable influence in ridership, market share and transit subsidies over that entire time. While it is true that transit subsidies have gone up, the major driver in those subsidy increases has been the cost of providing bus services to growing, low-density suburban areas. Further, Bundy fails to mention that his numbers for subsidy in 1970 are in 1970 dollars, and his numbers for 2000 are in 2000 dollars!
Between 1991 and 1998, light rail and commuter rail service nationally increased 24%. Light rail revenue vehicle miles increased 59%, from 26.6 million to 42.3 million. According to Bundy, this should have been a disaster for transit ridership and operating subsidies. In fact, fare recovery ratios and ridership both increased. In urban areas of more than 1 million, fare recovery ratios increased from 37.9% to 44%. Annual ridership increased by 400 million trips during this same period. At the same time, cost-effectiveness increased -- ridership increased faster than costs, leading to a decrease in real operating costs per passenger trip. These numbers are available from the national transit data base maintained by the Federal Transit Administration.
RESPONSE BY EMORY BUNDY: There are a variety of important points Paul Bay raises in his second paragraph that deserve authoritative confirmation or refutation. I have forwarded his remarks to experts at the Volpe Research Center, US Department of Transportation, and Harvard University, for their reactions, and will convey their comments upon receipt.
With respect to paragraph one, the quote Mr. Bay attributes to me is close to, but not quite what I wrote, and then he responds to his own, altered version. The actual quote was, "The introduction of urban rail systems in American communities almost never works. In addition to a loss of transit market share, such systems impose a perpetual burden in the form of higher subsidies." The word "almost" is important, as there are a few reasonably useful new US urban rail systems, and I identified some of them in the article. But they are exceptions, and the reasons why they are exceptions strongly suggest that Seattle will not be among them.
Then Mr. Bay says, Boston didn't "just introduce rail." Again, I object to his creating statements and putting them in quotes, implying that they represent my words. He should anchor his responses in what I actually wrote, not his version of it. Certainly he's correct that Boston didn't "just introduce rail." The introduction of rail to Boston, in the late 19th and early-mid 20th century, made eminent sense, given transportation technology in that era, population patterns, and system costs. However, as outlined in an article by Harvard scholar Dr. Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez, "Big-City Transit Ridership, Deficits, and Politics," American Planning Association Journal (Winter 1996), urban rail systems are less viable in the latter half of the 20th century. He reports that the annual deficit of Boston's transit authority went from $21 million in 1965 to $575 million in 1991. Paul Bay is right, the contrasting numbers are not in constant dollars, but what's his point? Gomez-Ibanez says, "even after adjusting for inflation, the MBTA's deficit grew 639 percent in just 26 years." Is that not sufficient to raise a concern, Mr. Bay?
Through higher subsidies and improved service, Boston increased the number of people using transit, but continues to lose market share: "The increases in transit and commuter rail ridership have not been enough to offset the continued growth in auto use, however, so the MBTA's share of the total transportation market has continued to decline steadily . [T]he share of workers commuting by public transport fell from 14.8 percent in 1970 to 11.0 percent in 1990, even though the absolute number of workers commuting by public transport rose from 218 to 228 thousand." This is the record of a long-established transit system in a more densely populated urban area; the predictable outcome for metropolitan Seattle is not favorable.
CLAIM: "The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) can actually carry more people in buses than with light rail in it."
FACT: This repeated assertion of Bundy's is not even close to true. The bus tunnel today serves 23,000 passengers per day. When light rail opens in 2006 to 45th Avenue, that same piece of tunnel will serve 43,000 passengers per day; and that number will grow with the extension to Northgate and growth in system ridership over time. (Those numbers are for actual usage. The same thing is true when you look at "capacity." The DSTT has a far greater theoretical capacity with trains than with buses). Representatives of Sound Transit and representatives of King County Metro have separately provided factual information to correct this false claim asserted by Bundy, but it keeps coming back.
RESPONSE BY EMORY BUNDY: Though in this instance I concur entirely with the claim quoted above, it is once again Paul Bay's revision of what I wrote, with quotes put around it. (Not a single one of his quotes in this entire presentation is accurate. Why this propensity to use quotation marks when there is not in fact a quote?)
Mr. Bay's remarks, above, and those that Sound Transit has made about tunnel capacity during this entire episode, cannot stand even casual scrutiny. Our community needs a respected institution to sponsor a review, perhaps a public hearing with expert testimony and presentations, on the veracity of Sound Transit's claim about rail transit capacity in the downtown tunnel. This is important, because Seattle is on the verge of tearing itself up, spending billions of dollars, and increasing surface congestion on downtown streets, while actually diminishing Seattles capacity to move transit passengers through its urban core.
If Paul Bay believes he can defend what he represents, he should embrace this proposal.
Mr. Bay divides the issue into actual use, and theoretical capacity. Accepting his number of 23,000 daily tunnel passengers today, it is important to acknowledge that METRO Transit, for whatever reasons, has not done a good job using the existing design capacity of the downtown tunnel. So exceeding 23,000 patrons, with buses, is the simplest of ambitions. Sound Transit volunteers that buses could carry as many as 18,000 passengers through the tunnel in a single hour, with everyone seated.
Whether upon its opening, Link light rail will serve 43,000 passengers per day in the downtown tunnel, is problematic. It requires a high quotient of faith to presume so, because Sound Transit is so elusive in its ridership projections. 43,000 passengers in the downtown tunnel by 2006? Who says so? Sound Transit. Has anyone independently verified the numbers? No. This does not inspire confidence. (There was an "expert review panel," but the experts were selected by Sound Transit, and guided by its staff. It was not an independent review.)
Citizens for Mobility sought to obtain the underlying informationthe ridership models and dataso it could commission an independent review by recognized experts. Its requests have been denied. It even filed a Freedom of Information Act request, to no avail. The modeling, according to Sound Transit, is "proprietary," and can't be independently verified. How handy. Meanwhile, a diligent citizen and transit patron of the community, Michael Weidler, has obtained "ground-up" information, to try to verify from whence will come the current bus patrons who are supposed to transfer to Link light rail. They comprise the bulk of Link's future patrons. He carefully laid out spread sheets, covering all the routes serving the University District, Capitol Hill, and Rainier Valley, and, with generous assumptions, couldn't locate the patrons to sustain Sound Transit's claims.
But there is more. While the transportation problems are regional, and there is good transit service and good movement between Capitol Hill, First Hill, and downtown, Link light rail will have a counter-productive impact on the constituencies that use the tunnel. Here's the concern expressed by transportation authority Jim MacIsaac:
"When Mr. Bay says that: The bus tunnel today serves 23,000 passengers per day. When light rail opens in 2006 to 45th Avenue, that same piece of tunnel will serve 43,000 passengers per day, he is really telling us that he has successfully caused a huge proportion of very local transit trips between downtown Seattle and First/Capitol Hills to transfer to the short rail section between downtown Seattle and the First and Capitol Hill stations -- riders already extremely well served by existing dozens of transit routes. This radical change in DSTT rider use will come at extreme penalty to "regional" transit riders -- particularly those to/from the east side of Lake Washington whose buses go back to surface streets through downtown Seattle."
Furthermore, the official metropolitan planning agency, Puget Sound Regional Council, substantially downgraded its estimations for transit ridership growth between now and 2010, as indicated in its May 28, 1998 update, "Progress Report for the 1995 Metropolitan Transportation Plan." But Sound Transit didnt follow suit. The aftermath of Initiative 695 necessitated plans to cut many hundreds of thousands of hours of METRO Transit bus service, and those buses were to be among the "feeder lines" for Link light rail. But did this have any effect on Sound Transit's ridership projections? No. For budgetary reasons, Sound Transit decided to defer or eliminate a significant share of its Seattle light rail stations, Royal Brougham (which was to serve the sports stadiums), Beacon Hill (which could have been the most productive station in the south end, with 4,100 projected daily boardings), and Graham Street. It also eliminated the Convention Center station. One would think that the number and positioning of stations would affect ridershipbut not at all. Imagine the possibilities for cost savings, if Sound Transit can continue to eliminate access and egress to the systemfewer feeder buses and fewer stationswithout affecting ridership.
To all of this Paul Bay says, Trust us. I don't think so. I'd feel a whole lot better, given the stakes, if we had an expert, independent review of the models, the assumptions, and the numbers. Let's get to the truth of the matter.
One thing for sure is that METRO Transit, in spite of its lackluster performance in the tunnel, has more bus transit seats at rush hour there, today9,261, than Link light rail will, in 20066,912, according to its environmental impact statement. So with Sound Transit, two or three billion dollars buys 25 percent fewer transit seats. Because trains have more room for standing, if you have standing passengers on both buses and trains, with the standard 5.1 square feet per person, then a few billion will buy you rail capacity approximately equal that of today's under-performing buses. If we spend enough money, we may be able to get a system almost as good as the one we already have.
Leaving "actual use" for "theoretical capacity," Sound Transit's contentions are so vulnerable that the agency obscures the factual basis for them. Because, to be capacity-competitive using trains, Sound Transit must have a rail line across Lake Washington, which is unpopular with voters, and isn't likely to happen.
A cross-lake train line is a prerequisite, as confirmed by the muted admission of Sound Transit. Are we going to have that train? Well, 35 years ago the people who plan these things responded to public resentment over the plethora of planned freeways16 criss-crossing Seattle, with five bridges across Lake Washingtonby adding lines on the map for two rail crossings. The Puget Sound Regional Planning Council gave way to the Puget Sound Council of Governments, which gave way to the Puget Sound Regional Council, and those old lines are still there on the planners map. But their connection with reality keeps fading.
Where are we going to put the rail bridge that Sound Transit intends to connect to the downtown tunnel? I-90 doesn't look like a good candidate, because rail may not be viable for engineering reasons, and it certainly is not viable for political reasons: drivers, bus patrons, and Mercer Island residents would not stand for it. If it managed to take over existing transit freeway lanes, it would diminish, not increase, the bridge's ability to move people. If a rail line is put across 520, it couldnt connect to the tunnel from the University District to downtown, because in the Evergreen Point corridor the tunnel will be more than 200 feet under the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
A cross-lake rail bridge has been put before the voting public three times, and three times the public rejected it. The last time was in 1994. Sound Transit didn't even bother to try in 1996, because it anticipated a fourth rejection. Today, that chimera looks remote, implausible, and fadingbut the lines are still on the map. If one looks at the cost-trajectory of Sound Transits "starter rail" plan, and tries to fathom a sequence of additional, prodigious capital investments, each followed by escalating operating subsidies, the prospect of a rail bridge withers in the face of reality. The public knows it, even if the planners dont.
So what's Sound Transit's plan? Theres no real plan, it's more of a notion. If, perchance, the agency protests that it really has a tangible plan to build a rail bridge across Lake Washington, let the Sound Transit Board come forth, outline where it proposes to build it, what it's going to cost, how it's going to be financed, where and how it will join with the downtown tunnel, when it's going to be built, and how the trains it carries will so neatly intermesh with those from the Rainier Valley. Then there can be a thoughtful, above-board, civic discussion and decision on whether it's something the people of the region want.
Since the utility of the rail tunnel through the city is premised on a cross-lake rail bridge, why doesn't Sound Transit get this issue resolved, instead of burying it? That document referred to by Paul Bay, above, purporting to prove his point about tunnel capacity, is called "Downtown Seattle Transit Operations," dated October 8, 1999. For all its detail, it fails to mention that its claim for superior train capacity in the downtown tunnel necessitates a cross-lake rail bridge. That seems to be a secret. We only learned because we pressed, complaining that the Link line from Sea-Tac through the Rainier Valley cannot operate with two-minute headways (time between trains), which is the presumption of the tunnel capacity document. Finally our attorney got the truth from Sound Transit Board member Ed Hansen, after he consulted with the current and past Sound Transit Board chairmen Dave Earling and Bob Drewel. Mayor Hansen's response, dated October 25, 1999, confirms that the calculation of train capacity in the tunnel depends on train lines from the south, and from the Eastside.
Why, pray tell, doesn't the "Downtown Seattle Transit Operations" document mention so material a fact? Because there's no political will, and no political mandate, to carry it out! Without that, theres no money. And yet, to sustain the rail capacity numbers through downtown Seattle, first there must be that phantom bridge, then each line from south and east must have four-minute headways, then alternating light rail lines must neatly, precisely intermesh into two-minute headways as they enter the tunnelwhich also is far-fetched, because the timing's too close to be safe. What a reach!
As further evidence of its desperate reaching, Sound Transit's tunnel passenger calculations are based on data arbitrarily rigged to favor trains over buses. If the agency used the same standard for buses and trainspassengers seated in both, or seated and standing in boththe dominance of bus capacity over trains would be even more dramatic. Instead, it skews its numbers by calculating train capacity with standing passengers jammed in, while every bus passenger must ride serenely in his or her own, private seat. Treat the two modes equitably, even with a rail bridge thrown in, and implausibly tight headways, and bus capacity still is competitive.
So there you have it. Sound Transit's Link light rail project plans to tear up Seattle with years of heavy construction, ruin businesses and relocate hundreds or thousands of residents as collateral damage, pour billions into the ground, divide the Rainier Valley community, and make downtown streets more congested. And, without its rail bridge, as seems likely-to-certain, the outcome will be to severely diminish transit's capacity to move passengers through the downtown core.
I can hardly wait for the hearing, proposed above, when Paul Bay and his Board members come forward and, in the light of day, with an opportunity for cross-examination, present and defend their representations to the people of this region, and to the federal government.
CLAIM: Light rail is being pushed by a powerful group of firms who have a vested interest in pork barrel politics, and they have a "corrupting influence" on communities.
FACT: Every poll, vote, and survey undertaken in the region since 1970 has shown a preponderance of people in Seattle and in the corridor want light rail to be built. Every study of corridor transportation -- and there have been at least four separate ones in that time period -- has concluded that we need a rail system in the corridor. Rail is in Sound Transit's program because the people voted for it, not because of some powerful influence! But if we want to talk about powerful interests, let's look at the highway lobby. Compare the amount of money spent every year on automobile advertising alone to nationwide expenditures on transit marketing, both bus and rail. Add in the oil lobby and the road-building lobby, and you can see that transit promotion is not even in the same world, much less the same league.
EMORY BUNDY'S RESPONSE: I am not an apologist for the highway lobby, the automobile or oil industries, so there's no need for straw men here.
Paul Bay asserts that "Every poll, vote, and survey since 1970 has shown a preponderance of people want light rail to be built." Notice the surgical qualifications. He limits his statement to "since 1970," and he limits it to "people in Seattle and in the corridor," thereby selecting a limited subset of voters that may have given a majority vote to rail in 1994, when the people of the region turned it down again, for the third time. Given these particular qualifications recited, I grant his limited statement as true.
But it does not refute the contention that these projects are driven by pork barrel politics, and that "There tends to be a corrupting effect of money when a community gets enmeshed in huge pork barrel projects." If Link proceeds, we will have the same dreary stories here that the same entities and dynamics routinely generate in Los Angeles, Boston, and elsewhere.
But the fundamental corruption is the way the pork barrel aspects of this project have skewed the region's transportation planning establishment. If there was not a big pot of money in Washington DC, driving the agenda toward a misguided rail project, this region would pursue measures better calculated to address our severe congestion problems. The self-interested are pushing hard for a federal full funding grant agreement. But as reality sinks in, public support is waningand will wane at an accelerating rate, the nearer people get to the truth. The question facing the region is, will people learn the consequences in time, and call the members of the Board to account, or will it be too late to avert this civic disaster? As Sound Transit's Denny Fleanor correctly says, Once that federal money comes, "we're pretty much not going to be stopped."
Until we hit bottom. Then the lawyers enter.
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