Public Interest Transportation Forum -

No Way to Run a Railroad

Reading the Fine Print of the Revised RTA Plan Reveals
an Expensive Project with Too Few Benefits

by Peter Staten

Editors Note: The following article appeared in the Seattle Weekly of October 30, 1996. What appears here is the unedited version, which is substantially identical to the printed article. It should be noted that the Weekly endorsed the RTA proposal.

The current bloom of non-recyclable plastic yard signs is there to tell us that it's time to vote again on the Regional Transit proposal.

This year's $3.9 billion regional transit plan is a big step down from the $6.7 billion plan of last year-- not to mention the $11 billion plan of four years back. There are also some new wrinkles and some significant changes of direction in this year's plan. For one, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) seems to have taken last year's suburban voters seriously; at least their conviction that they were being taxed to buy Seattle many miles of vanity rail lines (in expensive tunnels) centered on Seattle, where most of them didn't want to go anyway.

This time, there is more emphasis on better suburban bus service; and in a gesture intended to reassure the taxes that their money will be spent near home, the Regional Transit district has been divided into five districts-- three in King County, and one each in Pierce and Snohomish. Each district will get regional transit service commensurate with the taxes they pay; and all of them, if they vote for this, will pay an additional 4/10 of a cent in sales tax and another 3/10 of a cent in Motor Vehicle Excise Tax to get it. The Washington Research Council estimates that, based on median incomes in the three counties, a King County family will pay $132 per year, a Snohomish family $126, and a Pierce family $115 to build the RTA plan.

A Joint Review Team of King County government points out that, however low the tax increases may seem, raising the sales tax 0.4% "will bring the total for King County residents living within the RTA boundaries to 8.6% (9.1% at restaurants)." The review team goes on to say that, if these taxes are levied, "King County's sales tax... will rank among the highest of any county in the country." One of the County Court House analysts puts it that, "what the voters many not understand is that this year's plan isn't necessarily 'cheaper,' there's just less of it."

What will fund $3 billion of construction, the RTA tells us, is $2 billion in taxes over the next ten years, together with $727 million in federal grants (many of the analysts doubt the feds will actually give anywhere near this) and finally, $1 billion in bonds.

Here's where reading the fine print is really a waker-upper. One billion dollars in 30-year bonds-- the usual term for public works projects-- grows into well over $2 billion when you add the interest. The RTA expects to spend only $171 million in the next 10 years paying back the bonds, which leaves the taxpayers still owing $2 billion once their proposal is built 10 years from now. Seattle by itself will owe $1 billion of that, because the Seattle piece of the system, being rail, is the most expensive. Following standard practice for government bond requests, this is something governments never mention when they ask for money. (Which is how it happens that, some 20 years after approving a $40 million domed stadium, the public still owes the bond holders $50 million.)

This has its implications; the most important being that 10 years from now the RTA hopes to come back for more money to extend its system. Among other promises, the extension will take the Seattle rail line to Northgate, and add connections to the east side of Lake Washington. When that time comes, our children and grandchildren are likely to be fairly surly about adding more debt when they're still paying off $2 billion of mommy and daddy's.

Now, having read the sticker, we should now look under the hood and see what it is we're buying for our money. The North King County taxing district, which consists mainly of the moneybags city of Seattle, would get a light rail system. This is a largely self-contained north-south rail line running from the city of SeaTac to the University District. Last Spring, the RTA was under a lot of pressure to propose a rail line that ran from the Boeing Access Road to Northgate, which made some sense for a Seattle-only system. The RTA was also under pressure to extend it south to SeaTac instead, which had the advantage that the project might then appeal to voters in two of the three King County taxing districts, not just one. Either extension would mean reducing the suburban bus service that originally had been promised. In the end, the SeaTac extension was what was approved. The suburban bus system was reduced, and the proposed rail line now ends in the University District.

For a relatively modest $50 million, Pierce County would also get a light rail line between the Tacoma Dome and its theater district. In length, it amounts to about a third the length of Seattle's Waterfront Streetcar. Like Seattle's light rail project, this too is billed as a "starter" kit that someday can be added onto.

All five of the taxing districts would get express bus service running on HOV lanes that the state is building today-- in the I-5, I-405 and Valley Freeway corridors from Everett to just south of Tacoma; and from Seattle to Bellevue and Issaquah on I-90,. RTA money will be spent to create exclusive ramps for the express buses to get on and off the HOV lanes.

Then there's the commuter rail line, which is a heavy rail system running on Burlington Northern tracks between Lakewood to Seattle and Seattle and Everett during commuting hours. These are the glitzy trains the RTA ran during the campaign leading up to last year's transit vote-- the ones with all the Cunard furnishings and the lattes. As a result of those promos, they are no doubt what most people think of when they think "regional transit"; although commuter rail will serve by far the fewest riders in the RTA system. Of all the RTA pieces commuter rail is the most expensive in terms of the passengers served; costing $167 to build and $5 a year to operate for each passenger; while Seattle and Tacoma's light rail will cost $55 to build and $1.20 to operate per passenger. The regional buses, if you're interested, you can get for $23 per passenger to install, plus another $2.50 to operate.

The pay-back for building the system, according to the RTA's projection, is that 131,000 more trips per day will be made on transit in the year 2010. Although when you consider that traffic in the regions major corridors is projected to increase by nearly 2 million trips a day in the same period, this seems like a drop in leaky bucket.

Only after all this is approved by the voters-- if it is-- will reality start to break in. Most conspicuously, the RTA plan's biggest problem is where the Seattle rail and suburban bus systems come together. Which is in downtown Seattle. The County Review team points out that for a while the downtown transit tunnel can serve both bus a rail lines together. However, once the rail system's trains begin running less than six minutes apart, as the RTA projects, the tunnel will become a rail tunnel only. Which means that the RTA's regional express buses will be back out on Seattle streets-- just as they were in the 1980s, when voters were persuaded that the only way to cure downtown gridlock was to get the long-line buses off Seattle streets and into a tunnel. If they take the trouble to visualize this, suburban voters are going to have a hard time believing that this is an attractive way to get to-- and through-- downtown Seattle. And Seattle voters, who know their own gridlock best, are going to wonder how this eases their traffic pains.

Again from the suburban point of view, much irritation was expressed across the lake that the RTA proposal include no plans for SR-520 and the Evergreen Point Bridge. Except to show two new express bus lines, one running from Issaquah to Northgate, the other from Redmond to the University District; both of these in existing highway lanes where buses today are chronically stalled in car traffic. Neither express line will run to downtown Seattle-- the thought presumably is that transit users from Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond will get to downtown Seattle either by using the Metro buses they use today, or use the new RTA "express" buses to go the University District and transfer there to Seattle's rail line. If they'd rather not, people expecting to go to downtown Seattle from Redmond, Kirkland and Bellevue will have to continue on the present 520 Metro buses (under the RTA proposal, there will be both an RTA express and a Metro bus system) or travel south to the I-90 bridge crossing.

What's more, whether for rail or express buses, the RTA system will be dependent on park-and-ride lots as well as interchanges between Metro buses, RTA buses and rail. Almost by definition, the park-and-ride cannot be located in urban centers, while transit interchanges within the cities take lots of street and building space. In both cases, siting park-and-ride lots is a historically inflammatory subject that will add to next year's fun.

Inside Seattle, the same old questions re-emerge that were asked about the RTA's earlier proposals. Going south from downtown, the rail system will run on elevated tracks down Rainier to Columbia City, and on the surface from there down to SeaTac. In both cases, the rail line is going to subtract lanes from existing streets; and in the case of overhead lines, is going to mean stations nearly a block long that bridge across the existing streets to get to sidewalks and bus interchanges. As in the earlier RTA schemes, the image projected is similar to that of Fifth Avenue, where the street is in permanent shade and traffic slaloms through columns with barely a look toward the businesses on either side.

Going north, neighborhoods will get a slightly better deal, but at considerably higher cost, because their trains are in a tunnel. Because it has to leave the Ninth and Pine station by going under the freeway, the rail line arrives a First Hill station some thirteen stories below ground; which means the station will be mined, not a cut-and-cover station like those downtown. From there to Broadway, it's possible to change to less expensive cut-and- cover construction, but only at the cost of shutting down the streets for months to do it, which should reawaken memories on Capitol Hill of what downtown was like during the transit tunnel project. North from Broadway, the plan is to tunnel under Portage Bay to the University District, where the head-scratching is still going on as to whether the line should run on the surface or in a tunnel, and whether the line should run on Fifteenth or on University Way.

Since the RTA has not published final plans for any of the rail routes or stations (all that is reserved for later designs and environmental impact statements), there is lots to guess at-- both as to what things will look like and what they will cost. For a brief while last summer, the RTA, in a burst of self-doubt, toyed with the idea of putting its proposal on the ballot with no mention of cost whatever. This was a rare and unusual show of candor, since there are no final plans, and in cases such as the north end train tunnel, there is the some uncertainty over what the soil conditions are (remembering that seams of blue clay and sand caused several collapses and cost overruns during the building of the Seattle Freeway). Ultimately, the RTA decided to go with its $3.9 billion figure, but now refers to it as an "estimate," not a promise.

Finally, if you harbor doubts, there is room to doubt whether the RTA proposal will actually carry the number of travelers the plan projects. Taking the rail system as an example, the RTA's opponents have once again aired the charge that, based on the experience of other cities, most rail systems mainly carry people who rode the bus before they bought a rail line. The RTA's own documents don't do much to counter this assertion. For one thing, the RTA claims (and editorial writers seem to have swallowed) that the rail system will carry 30,000 passengers in the year 2010. Unfortunately, this is predicated on six-car trains running three minutes apart, with every seat filled and some people standing. That's a little hard to imagine. Moreover, compared to buses running on HOV lanes, rail doesn't seem to offer much in the way of carrying capacity: in the RTA's application for federal support, it mentions that its rail system will carry 4,300 passengers each hour, one way. The state highway department, on the other hand, has measured 6,200 riders, each hour, each way, in its present HOV lanes. And although the RTA would like us to believe that, inside Seattle, the rail system will be faster than the present bus system, it fails to mention that ( between the University District and downtown, for example) it would actually be slower than today's Metro's express buses using freeway lanes.

Which gets us back to our worsening dilemma over what to do about the region's growing traffic problems, and the hair-raising prospect that twenty years from now we'll be spending as much time in our cars as we spend in our houses. Regarding this year's RTA proposal, you'd think that the first thing to determine the following things in the following order: first, whether your transit plan will significantly reduce the problem-- next, how much it will cost-- and lastly whether anyone wants to pay for it. And if any of those pieces looks gloomy, start over. Unfortunately for this region and for the blighted hopes of future ballot issues, we've come at this backwards. Given the part of the world we live in, it's probably inevitable that Seattle would fasten on a rail system to solve its problems. Aside from Seattle's penchant for wanting what other cities had before them (and at half the cost), we live in Boeing country after all, and are suckers for technology-- in this case light rail lines. If we can put a man on the moon, then we can surely build a machine that gets us from Seattle to Bellevue in half the time.

But despite our hardware fetish, light rail systems don't pencil out. Depressingly enough, four years ago, when the RTA proposal was three times more expensive, with fewer buses and longer rail lines, the RTA estimated it would carry only four to six percent of the traffic in the year 2020-- and with a subsidy per rider of three times what we now pay people to ride the Metro bus system.

In our hearts we really know what it's going to take to solve our problems: we are going to have to drive less. And if persuasion doesn't work, then we'll have to resort to draconian solutions. Meaning that we'll have to impose hefty fees for parking, even in private lots, and possibly charge tolls for the use of existing roads, and in other painful ways bring home to people the real cost of driving alone in cars; and make sure they pay the cost. Along with this, we'll have to perfect a transit system that actually gets to people where they live and takes them where they want to go. Given the scattered mess we've made of our regional land development, that isn't easy. What it also isn't is a fixed rail system, which by its nature runs where most people can't get to it without a feeder bus system to get them to it-- and once people are on the bus, why not let them stay on the bus, rather than transfer them to rails and back to buses to get where they're going?

In ways that draw scorn from rail advocates, these are arguments that both suburban entrepreneurs like Kemper Freeman and a growing number of environmentalists like the Bullitt Foundation's Emory Bundy have raised this year. In Freeman's case, he points out that families are driving more trips than ever; and that these trips are not entirely frivolous, given the economic demands for two incomes or more per family, and the fact that a growing number many of those trips, especially east of Lake Washington, are headed somewhere other than to city centers. Ergo, the greater practicality of buses and irrelevance of fixed rail lines. (Of course, these are politically unacceptable realities, and he's been called a "freeway booster" by one rail-boosting newspaper for mentioning them.)

The Bundy argument is almost identical to the regional transportation policies of the Puget Sound Regional Conference, our regional inter-governmental planning agency (which has been mysteriously silent during the present RTA campaign). This argument goes that, as a culture, we're going to have to face up to the real costs of building and maintaining roads, and driving cars on them. Ergo, the need for draconian measures like those just mentioned. But in both Freeman's and Bundy's arguments, the message for this year ends up the same: if we thought the light rail driver was the deus ex machina who will cure our traffic woes, it's time to think again.


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Last modified: February 07, 2011