Seattle Transit Plays Leapfrog - TransitCenter
Governance Innovation Planning Policy
March 25, 2015
Seattle Transit Plays Leapfrog

Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail through the Rainier Valley Photo Credit: Oran Viriyincy

For decades, the rap on Seattle transit was: big aspirations, but no delivery. In the 1960s and 1970s, voters turned down ambitious heavy rail proposals called “Forward Thrust,” and then watched that generation of transit systems get built in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., and Atlanta.

In the 1980s and 1990s, envious Seattleites watched their neighbors to the south in Portland methodically build one light rail line after another and create a frequent bus network that made the Rose City, not the Emerald City, the transit capital of the Pacific Northwest. Into the twenty-first century, as Salt Lake City and Denver emerged as transit champions in the west, Seattle rode a figurative roller-coaster of successful, unsuccessful and downright bizarre (can you say monorail?) ballot measures which produced more promises than rides. In contrast to the visionary regional planning and multi-jurisdictional harmony that was forged in the regions surrounding Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver, Seattle and its suburbs lacked a shared vision, even though communities like Bellevue, Federal Way and Redmond (like mature Tacoma) became important urban centers, deserving to be linked by true urban transit.

Today the Seattle region is catching up and may soon leapfrog some of its U.S. competitors. A new regionwide transit agency was created in 1996, and dubbed Sound Transit – a name which evokes the natural geography that the whole region shares, rather than a bureaucratic acronym or that screams “boring government transportation agency.”  It won the tentative confidence of voters and survived some teething problems in its infancy, learning to temper some of the big dreaming characteristic of Seattle and meter its ambitions with its resources. By necessity it emulated the Portland-Denver-Salt Lake City method of showing the public what one light rail line could do, gradually increasing the public appetite for more.

Even what seemed like a setback became a blessing in retrospect: in 2007, obedient to the conventional wisdom in the western U.S. that transportation ballot measures have to include highway projects in order to lure the approval of suburban motorists, the regional leadership proposed a ballot measure which included transit expansion along with colossally wasteful road expansions. The voters proved wiser than the pundits and said “no.”  One year later, those same voters approved a transit-only funding package, defying the conventional political wisdom that suburban motorists believe that more roads are the answer.

Seattle is now building on success. Sound Transit’s first light rail line proved popular and will soon be extended to one of the most important destinations in the region, the University of Washington. A line across Lake Washington will soon be under construction. Regional heavy rail and express bus services have also grown. The City of Seattle and King County Metro have recently pooled resources to provide what will be the greatest increase in frequent local bus service in the city’s history.  Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Murray and his invigorated new team at the Seattle Department of Transportation issued their Move Seattle initiative, a document which is remarkable for demonstrating a municipality’s recognition of the fundamentals that are most important to transit riders: reliability, speed, frequency and connectivity. They pledged to make the city’s streets work better for all users, including cyclists and the rapidly growing number of transit riders. How refreshing to see municipal leadership responsive to residents’ desires for multi-modality, rather than just being smitten with flashy proposals – Murray seems to understand transportation is about people, not just projects.

Seattle knows it’s in an increasingly competitive field. Denver keeps building, and showing the results with strong economic development. Los Angeles is improving bus service and has five high-capacity transit lines under construction. Fast-growing cities like Nashville and Raleigh aspire to transfer conceptual lines on a map into reality. San Francisco and its rivals in the East Bay like Oakland and Berkeley recently passed measures to improve their public transit. Each case is different, but all of them could learn some old-fashioned lessons from the high tech Seattle of today:

One, leadership matters. When Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl made the tough decision to shorten the agency’s first light rail line to put Sound Transit on better financial footing or Mayor Ed Murray issued his Move Seattle plan, they set their organizations on a path to greater accomplishments. When Murray partnered with King County Executive Dow Constantine to enable the city to assist the county in providing more transit within the city limits, they made service to the public more important than silly jurisdictional borders. Leaders like Earl, Murray and Constantine bridge the inter-agency and interdisciplinary boundaries that often make transportation policy in this country so perverse.

Two, metrics matter. When Seattle DOT says it is willing to be judged by how frequent the bus service is – not just lines on a map – and set targets for how many residents can easily reach a transit stop on foot, they’re putting people first in a way that few government transportation agencies have.  And miracle of miracles, even the state DOT – in most states a misnomer for what is really the state highway division – is now evaluating corridors in terms of public mobility by all modes, not just in terms of the cars on the state highways.

Three, regions matter: Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma and Lynnwood are now all on board for Sound Transit, and will share the benefits and costs of regional services. Yet at the same time, a progressive jurisdiction like Seattle can step up to buy above-average service levels from their transit provider.

Readers of our blog will recognize that these topics – local leadership, performance measurement, regionalism – rank among our favorite hobby horses.  We have to confess being pleasantly surprised to be discussing them in the context of Seattle, which lagged the field for so long.  But this story proves the dynamics can shift when places start to get it right. If the unexpected breakthrough transit tales of the 1970s were about MARTA and BART, the 1980s were about Portland, and the 1990s and 2000s were about Denver and Salt Lake City, maybe it’s time for Seattle’s decade.

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