Public Interest Transit Forum -

Guest Editorial

Why the RTA Plan Jeopardizes One of the Nation's Best Bus Systems

by James W. MacIssac, P.E.

Jim MacIsaac has been involved in transportation planning for the Puget Sound region since 1965, beginning with the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study (PSRTS). He holds a BSCE degree from Seattle University, 1964, and MSCE (Transportation) from Univ of Wash, 1965. After four years with the PSRTS and Puget Sound Governmental Council (a predecessor agency to the current Puget Sound Regional Council), he moved into consulting practice with large transportation engineering firms. From 1975 to 1995 he served as CEO of The Transpo Group which he co-founded. Since 1995 he has entered into a private consulting practice focusing upon regional planning and land development projects. In 1996 he was honored by the Washington State Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers with its Outstanding Career Achievement award.

Rail transit to many seems to be a silver bullet to public transit success. One hears comment upon comment that buses are "band-aid" treatments, and public transit is for the poor and undesirables. Somehow since this rail transit bug has hit the Seattle metropolitan area again, our city planners and transit operators seem to have abandoned their bragging rights to one of the finest rubber-tired transit systems in the U.S. -- if you are among the 25% of people that work, shop or recreate in downtown Seattle on a daily basis. By 2000, every freeway leading to the downtown will have exclusive HOV lanes, controlled by auto occupancy so as to maintain 45-50 mph operating speeds (i.e., when transit plus 2+ occupant vehicles exceed 75% of lane capacity, the lane restriction will increase to 3+ HOVs).

For the past 20 years, the three urban county transit providers have been reaching toward a goal of a high-speed, high-frequency regional express bus system, operating on controlled freeway lanes, and interconnecting a system of urban and suburban transit centers and park-ride lots. Seattle built a transit tunnel under downtown that looks as good or better than any other subway system in the US; and Metro purchased a large fleet of dual-mode articulated (70-passenger) buses that use the tunnel in electric mode. The next step would be to electrify the freeway transit lanes to further reduce the amount of diesel engine use. We have constructed over 60,000 park-ride lot spaces throughout the suburbs, that are overflowing, and thousands more are in the planning.

Today from every point of entry into the freeways leading to central Seattle, buses provide express non-stop trips to the downtown during commuter periods. Already today, certainly by 2000, suburban park-riders to downtown Seattle will find transit faster than private auto -- IF we can avoid a stop-and-go light rail transit substitute.

Our region-wide public transit ridership per capita is higher than all but eight other cities in this country; and those are all considerably larger in regional population. Downtown Seattle is as bustling and vibrant in business, as well as sports and cultural activities, as any other central city of comparable size in the country. Over 50% of all downtown Seattle employees commute by bus or carpool. The last thing we need is for rail buffs to convince us that rail is better than our state-of-the-art rubber-tired transit system that has one of the lowest transfer rates in the country.

The $4 billion LRT and commuter rail systems going to a vote in Seattle and other central Puget Sound cities on November 5 would replace express buses with low-speed light-rail transit (LRT) delayed by numerous station stops between trip origins and destinations. Transit travel time between Tacoma and Seattle would be increased by over 50%. Travel time between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport would be increased by 50% or more as a result of an out-of-direction rail ride with 10 station stops.

The highly touted MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) line in Portland is a great example of LRT. It promised 35 mph average speeds between Gresham and downtown Portland (15-mile line) -- last year it was averaging 18 mph with two station stops per mile (however, 11 of the 30 stops are in downtown Portland).

MAX bragged about its 18,000 riders per day in its first years of operation --almost all transferred from parallel competing bus service that was purposely eliminated. Over its 10 years of operation, it has bragged about its 50% increase in ridership (24,000/day in 1994; increase of 6,000). However, the parallel Banfield Freeway increased by 51,000 daily person-trips during the same period. The "Inner-East corridor" transit ridership has actually declined (between I-205 and downtown Portland); it is the "Outer-East corridor" (east of I-205, previously minimally served by transit) that boosted MAX's use -- most of the inner-corridor bus service was transferred to feeder service in the outer corridor. Clark County's (Washington) C-Tran is still operating some competing parallel express bus service from I-205 to downtown Portland. Some Outer-East corridor MAX riders now transfer from the train to the express buses at the I-205 Gateway Station, and gain a faster trip to downtown Portland, including the transfer.

The last place we need to tinker with public transit in the central Puget Sound region is downtown Seattle where 15% of the region's total jobs are already highly transit accessible. It's the 70% of the region's jobs scattered among suburban cities that need public transit alternatives. However, as most everyone knows, public transit has had minimal success in serving these diverse suburb-suburb travel patterns -- under current social/political policy. Call it sprawl, or whatever you want to call it -- but it is a fact of this region's urban development patterns, probably not untypical of most western cities, that cannot be wished away.

The rail system proposed for Seattle is nothing more than a desperate politically correct action to purportedly address our mobility problems, since our suburban freeway system is rapidly beginning to fail. The politicians and planners are completely ignoring their own ridership forecasts that show at optimistic best a 1% shift from auto to transit after we spend $4 billion.Why? because we just can't squeeze much more transit ridership out of central Seattle.

Instead we should spend a couple hundred $million focusing on ways to better utilize existing seat capacity on our transportation systems. Two-thirds of all seats being moved today, in both autos and transit, are unoccupied. Simply building more empty seats gets us nowhere -- UNTIL we have the guts to change social behavior. As many residents confess when asked directly, "a car is far more convenient for my complex linked trip transportation needs."

Unfortunately, over 90% of us in all American cities have the same excuse. Fuel prices in Europe are not significantly higher than here in the US; but 75% or more of their fuel costs are taxes. If we put fuel costs up to $4 per gallon, we would cause some significant change in social behavior relative to travel frequency and travel mode choice. If suburban office tenants were restricted to 3 parking spaces per 1000 square feet of rented floor area, instead of 4 to 5, we would cause some serious social change in travel choices. If autos were licensed for even or odd day operation only, without two or more occupants, we could probably eliminate 25 years of travel growth. We would start demanding the kind of urban development that many would like to see happen.

So, is rail transit a good option for Seattle? Is rail transit a good option for any city west of the Mississippi River? Or any city that does not yet have a rail system? In my opinion -- NO! unless it is planned in conjunction with some MAJOR urban renewal and densification projects. The proposed LRT alignment in Seattle would serve existing areas of density for which the City of Seattle has no plans for major densification. The one area immediately north of downtown Seattle that has been proposed for major renewal and densification has been totally unaddressed and bypassed in the LRT planning.

James W. MacIssac, P.E.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011