If friends ever try that to claim you can’t have a successful transit system without rails in the ground, just nod politely and tell them to visit Seattle. The Emerald City didn’t have an inch of modern rail transit until a starter streetcar line opened in 2007 and a light rail line debuted in 2009. As for that short monorail of theirs, it’s mainly a tourist attraction with pretty meager ridership.
Seattle’s transit bread and butter has been its robust network of buses. Thanks to those buses, the city can tout the fact that nearly 18 percent of all commuting trips are by transit. In that category Seattle ranks 14th nationally, ahead of several rail-served cities such as, for example, Oakland. That East Bay city has eight BART stations connecting it to San Francisco.
That’s not to knock rail transit — far from it. The increased capacity rail provides can make it a sound investment in very busy corridors. And that’s where Seattle region is targeting its transit investments.
Some background: While 68% of voters in L.A. County were checking “yes” for Measure R on their ballots in 2008, Seattle voters were deciding on a similar half-cent sales tax increase called Proposition 1 for their own mass transit plan to be implemented by Sound Transit, the regional transit authority. (For the uninitiated, that’s a pun on the Puget Sound, the body of water on which the region fronts.)
That November, the “$17.9 billion measure to expand light rail, commuter train and bus service won easily,” according to the Seattle Times.
With that victory came the burden of expectations.
Seattle’s first light rail line, dubbed the Central Link, opened on time and within its budget the following year, thanks to an earlier ballot measure called “Sound Move.” As a result, it’s possible to travel between downtown Seattle and SeaTac Airport in just 36 minutes, averaging 26 miles per hour. For reference, that’s a hair slower than the Pasadena leg of the Gold Line.
Future extensions of the Link system include a 3.2-mile extension to the University of Washington expected to open in 2016 and to generate 70,000 additional boardings by 2030. Suffice it to say that moving that many people from UW to downtown in six minutes is the strong suit of rail. Two more lines — North Link and East Link — are funded partially by Proposition 1, but are not expected to open for at least another decade.
If only there were a way to speed up that time line…
Sound Transit, like many transit agencies around the country, are facing a tough financial picture: the global recession has brought decreased sales tax revenues. If America Fast Forward were made law, and Seattle had access to federal loands and other financing, unemployed construction workers could be put to work right away, taking advantage of cheaper construction costs and providing better transit service sooner.
We’re not the only ones with AFF on the brain. At least one Seattle-area writer has taken a look at America Fast Forward as a mechanism to speed up transit projects and put Seattleites back to work.
At Crosscut.com, a “public interest” news site, David Brewster writes that the America Fast Forward plan could be a model for how to speed up the timetable on transit projects in Seattle:
Led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city leadership has put together a plan to build 30 years of transit projects in the next 10 years. It will use a new half-cent sales tax, passed in 2008, as collateral to sell long term bonds and secure a low-interest federal loan. It will then take these billions of available funds and accomplish 12 transit projects in 10 years.
Brewster goes on to say that being able to roll out transit projects quickly is a key to garnering local political support for big transit investments. After all, he notes, “politicians like to vote for things that might happen while they are still in office.”
And it goes without saying that taxpayers like to see their tax-supported projects come to fruition. Seattle’s Proposition 1 might be “an act of great generosity to our grandchildren,” as one local elected put it. With AFF, everyone could reap the benefits.
Sound Transit Communications Specialist Bruce Gray said in an interview that the agency is keeping an eye on America Fast Forward as it makes its trek from the drawing board to, hopefully, federal law. But for now, Sound Transit is just thankful for all the federal help it’s getting through the federal New Starts grant program. If AFF comes along, they’ll cross that bridge when they get there. The U.S. House version of the next federal transportation bill includes elements of America Fast Forward but has also been criticized for cutting existing funding for building transit.
If the time comes, Seattle will be in good shape to take advantage of America Fast Forward. And, as we’ve shown in the past, AFF holds promise for cities in all corners of the U.S. See our previous features on Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Minneapolis and Houston.