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Seattle is getting serious about transit

Better buses today, 62 miles of light rail to come.

The folks at Streetfilms have a new video that celebrates Seattle’s recent progress on transit. (You should also check out their film on Vancouver, which I wrote about recently.)

The video focuses on buses, particularly downtown and bus rapid transit (BRT) routes, which have improved markedly and now carry many more people than they used to.

But even the video undersells Seattle’s newfound transit-friendliness.

For years, Seattle has been a transit laggard and something of a comedy of errors, going all the way back to voters famously and fatefully rejecting a rail system in 1970.

A monorail system was approved by voters in 1997, but never funded. Another monorail initiative was approved in 2000, allowing further study on how a plan could be funded. The resulting plan was approved by voters in 2002. An initiative to reverse that initiative was rejected by voters in 2004. Funding didn’t come together, though, and in 2005, Seattle voters approved a ballot measure to scrap it.

If you’re counting, that’s eight years, four votes, twenty gazillion hours of debate, and zero monorail. Oh, Seattle.

(In 2014, a third go at the monorail was rejected by voters, who were sick of this shit.)

seattle monorail
Seattle’s actual monorail, opened in 1962.

Around 2014, however, things started changing. That year, Seattle voters approved a ballot measure called “Plan C,” which saved the city’s bus service by raising property taxes, producing $30 million a year. In 2015, voters approved Move Seattle, a nine-year, $930 million levy to fund transportation.

And then last year, voters approved the biggie: Sound Transit 3 (ST3), a $54 billion package of light-rail and other transportation investments that extend all the way out through 2039. (For more, see the excellent coverage on the Seattle Transit Blog, starting here.)

ST3 is going to lay 62 miles of new, grade-separated light rail and build 37 new stations, expanding the city’s current system to five times its current size, for a total of 116 miles of track. It will connect busy Seattle neighborhoods to each other, the airport, and about 10 surrounding communities.

In addition, it will expand bus rapid transit (BRT) service and regional Sounder train service, improve transit stations and bus routes, and make other miscellaneous improvements (including many for bicyclists and pedestrians). It will be paid for roughly half by local taxes and half from other sources, including some federal funding (which will hopefully survive in the Trump Era).

Here’s the full map:

ST3 map (ST3)

And here’s an overview video:

All of this has been controversial, of course. There were the usual dumb objections from the Seattle Times editorial board about cost and excessive speed. (For some people in Seattle, everything is always moving too fast.) There were daft arguments about expanding bus service instead, or waiting for autonomous city pod vehicles to save us.

But urbanists had legitimate criticisms too. ST3 devotes too much land and money to parking around stations and does too little upzoning to allow dense development around them. Too many of the lines run along highways, which badly inhibits their ability to spur dense new development.

And many voters are irritated that the system is going to take so long to build, though the schedule was bumped up a bit from the original plan. The 145th Street station, near my house, will be done in 2023, by which time I will be a million years old. Poor Ballard won’t get its station until 2035. (Zach Shaner has a good piece on the timeline.)

Any project of this scope is going to contain lots of compromises. ST3 isn’t perfect, but it’s really good.

Seattle has done some boneheaded things on transportation, most recently voting to replace its crumbling elevated waterfront freeway not with surface streets and transit improvements, but with a giant freeway tunnel. That project has been an over-budget fiasco. And it is ongoing.

But big-picture wise, Seattleites finally seem ready for a real, grown-up transit system. Now if we could just do something about our exclusionary zoning

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