Public Interest Transit Forum -

Have We Made a Big Mistake?

by James MacIsaac

Yes -- the Seattle RTA $3.9 billion mostly-rail-to-central Seattle proposition did win approval from the voters on November 5, 1996. It was an act of desperation, highly promoted by a well-funded, corporation-sponsored campaign (approximately $850,000) and generally ignored by a passive, uncritical press. The RTA estimates that it will convert 66,000 more riders per day by 2010 from auto to transit, compared to the alternative of No Action (continue to expand the four existing transit systems and their express-bus-on-HOV lanes with existing better-than-inflation funding sources). The predicted 66,000 additional riders compare to 10.5 million auto trips per day by 2010 -- about 0.6% reduction in auto travel. Total daily transit ridership was predicted by the RTA to increase from 3.8% of all person trips in 1990 to 4.0% by 2010 (about double those ratios during the traditional commuter peak periods).

The transit tax that was passed by voters is equivalent to a 30-year 15 cent/gallon local gas tax increase (within the tax area), including debt service on the $1 billion of bonds and the added $110 million/year of O&M costs. This compares to the current 23 cent/gallon state gas tax which supports most of state and local road building in the Puget Sound region. With the RTA tax approval, the three-county RTA service area has raised its total tax commitment to transit from 33% of all transportation tax dollars to 50%. Had the voters been informed that the Sales and Motor Vehicle Excise tax increases were of this magnitude relative to gas taxes, it would have been interesting to see if the same result would have occurred. The vast majority of those who approved the RTA proposal admit that "they have special reasons why they must continue to drive -- but certainly the added rail transit system will remove others from the highways".

Rail proponents have argued that if a metro area does not have rail transit, it does not have "mass transit". One wonders just what their definition is of "mass transit"? Is rubber-tired transit on priority highway lanes not considered mass transit? Is a fixed rail system with massive rubber-tired bus transit feeder systems and transfers considered mass transit, whereas expressing the rubber-tired vehicles direct to destination is not? This is a genuinely serious question-- just what distinguishes mass transit from non-mass transit; and what is the difference relative to overall transit ridership in an urban region? If one compares transit ridership ratios amongst metro areas with rail transit to metro areas with rubber-tired systems only, the only statistically significant correlation is with metro area size.

One wonders just how closely any of the proponents of the RTA transit plan have really evaluated the potential effectiveness of the expensive rail component that gained funding? In posing this question, I do not restrict my argument to the LRT "Phase 1" only; but to a future with further LRT extensions north and south. (I do believe that "Phase 1" alone may in fact result in a loss of overall transit ridership, excluding the "look-i-loos", if all current Seattle CBD express bus service is truncated, and force-fed into the new LRT line terminals.) The north leg has been proposed with a major dog-leg under Seattle's inner-city Capitol Hill -- involving an $800 million, very deep tunnel, that could result in a tremendous cost overrun (with two stations in 300-foot underground caverns). The City of Seattle has no plans to increase density on Capitol Hill; and both residents and merchants on Capitol will vehemently oppose further densification.

By routing the line under Capitol Hill, the LRT will totally circumvent the only major area of urban densification planned by the City of Seattle -- the so-called "Seattle Commons" proposed redevelopment area, located immediately north of the Seattle CBD. Half a billion dollars could be saved with the more sensible routing -- and this region's growth management goals could be better addressed. But Seattle has been adamant about the Capitol Hill tunnel to serve EXISTING development, with no policy for urban densification along that portion (or any portion) of the LRT, or its future northerly extensions.

The direct route between the Seattle CBD and Sea-Tac Airport would be along the Duwamish River corridor serving Seattle's historic industrial area, which includes the Port of Seattle and the Boeing Company Seattle plants (among many other major employers). Yet the RTA plan diverts the LRT line easterly through the Rainier Valley (residential) area of Seattle. There is no regional travel relationship between the north and south legs of the LRT as currently proposed. There is no Seattle policy to densify the Rainier Valley LRT corridor. Seattle CBD - SeaTac Airport trip makers will suffer out-of-direction travel plus 10 station stops, compared to current non-stop express transit service.

The politicized RTA transit plan defies any logic whatsoever to gain any new ridership, develop urban density, or offer any new mode choice alternative compared to existing public transit services. None of the major employers of the region -- Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhauser, PacCar, Intel -- all with suburban locations (or bypassed urban locations) will gain any significant new "transit alternative" for access. They were all coerced to support the RTA proposal in order to ease future transportation harassment for approvals of expansion plans. The future impacts of their suburban location expansions will now go unmitigated. By offering these political concessions, there were no major employers left to contribute to opposition to the RTA proposal. Consequently, the news media carried only one very false message to the voters: "Support the RTA proposal; there is no other alternative to transportation gridlock".

So congratulations Seattle. We have now sent the message to the nation and the world that we face transportation gridlock without rail transit. The unpublished message was that the rail system will only reduce auto use by 0.5% if it is built as planned.. Or multiply the forecasted effect by a factor of 10 -- a 5% reduction of the predicted 50% increase in auto use by 2010. We have now potentially dedicated all of our new transportation tax dollars to a non-solution of the transportation gridlock we have published to the world.

It totally defies any informed logic how proponents can support inaugurating a form of transportation that will become extinct in the 21st century, as the horse an buggy was in the 20th. Are we totally ignoring overall urban transportation mode choice characteristics? Despite public transit investments over the past 30 years, overall transit ridership has continued to decline (in proportional terms, if not absolute terms). Why do we continue to wish and dream for a comeback of a bygone solution for urban transportation?

Why can we not focus on the two-thirds of all empty seats currently being moved on our highway AND transit systems and say "what can we do to make our existing transportation systems more productive?". Why must we build more empty seats, rather than to focus on those empty seats we already have in abundance? Do proponents realize that increasing average auto occupancy from 1.30 to 1.31 persons per auto would produce a greater auto reduction in Seattle (and likely in any city west of the Mississippi) than all proposed investment in more public transit? If we could pass one simple metro-wide regulation that no employer could provide more than 3 parking spaces per 1000sf of building rental floor area (compared to 4-5 allowed by most suburban codes), and enforced the ordinance, we could extend our existing transportation system capacity to 2020 or beyond -- at almost no public tax expense! For suburban areas, the next best choice would be carpooling -- not transit.

I am NOT a proponent of building highway capacity to accommodate our late 20th century love of the single-occupant vehicle. Nor, obviously, am I a proponent of building more earlier 20th century public transit systems with a wasted hope and dream that we can move forward to the past. What we NEED to focus upon is a major social change as to how we plan and depend upon transporting ourselves, including a major focus upon the need to travel at all. We can either stick our heads in the sand, or we can redirect our attention to what must be done in this country in the 21st century to achieve improved mobility. That will be as radical as the change that occurred at the last turn of century; and the major ingredient will be social change -- not more transit.

I am frankly ashamed that Seattle, host of the leaders of the world in computer and transportation technology, cannot come up with anything better than an archaic transportation proposal. While we have directly expended well over $55 million to devise an archaic transit plan, we have expended almost nothing comparatively to explore what needs to be done to cause the social behavior that causes us to consume so many resources to meet our mobility needs. In my estimation, "electronic mobility" has already caused as much reduction in the growth of auto use as the whole transit industry carries; but there is no way to actually measure it. I truly believe that if we could divert the money being invested in our obsession with building rail transit to filling the existing seats carried by our current highway and transit systems, we could easily meet long-range mobility needs -- not just pacify an empty wish for a flashy train.

Jim MacIsaac is a consulting engineer with 30 years of experience in transportation planning for the Puget Sound region, and a resident of the Eastside of King County.

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Last modified: December 11, 1996