Article from Moving People, Nov., 1996. Index.

Seattle's Surprise Rail Victory


Seattle-area voters surprised nearly everyone on November 5 by approving a 10-year, $3.9 billion mass-transit plan, including light rail, commuter rail, and a regional express-bus network.

[WebMasters note: the map did not work on the web. See the original newsletter for it.]

The plan, prepared by the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and dubbed "Sound Move," attracted a 57% "yes" vote. This was Seattle's fourth try at winning approval for rail transit development. A 1968 heavy-rail proposal for Seattle's King County attracted a 51% "yes" vote, but state law requires a 60% majority for bond issues. A similar plan in 1970 received only 46% in favor. King County voters endorsed rail development in 1988 by 69% in favor, but this advisory referendum had no specific plan or financing proposal. RTA, created in 1993, attempted to secure approval for a regional LRT, commuter rail and express bus plan in March 1995, but this attracted only 47% of the vote. A revised, scaled-down version of this plan was successful.

Commuter-rail service would operate during peak periods on existing BNSF tracks between Everett, Seattle, Tacoma and Lakewood, 81 miles. Plans outline nine Seattle-Lakewood and six Seattle-Everett services during peak periods, some of them "reverse-commute." Commuter trains might reach Tacoma by 1999 and Everett by 2000, with service to Lakewood following track improvements. The completed network would serve 14 stations; more may be built if funding permits. Total capital and operating cost over 10 years: $669 million.

Heavy Duty Light Rail

Two separate LRT segments will be built. The first of these will link a planned commuter-rail and bus center near the Tacoma Dome with downtown Tacoma, 1.6 miles. In Seattle, LRT will extend from NE 45th St in the University District, serving the University of Washington, Capitol Hill, the First Hill medical center, and use the existing transit tunnel through downtown. Trains will continue southward via the Rainier Valley, Boeing Access Road, Tukwila and Sea-Tac Airport to S 200th St in the city of SeaTac. The Seattle LRT line will serve 20 stations, including those in the downtown tunnel. Startup is planned to follow five to seven years of construction, with completion by 2007. Cost: $1.8 billion. If additional funding becomes available, an extension would reach three miles northward from the "U District" to Northgate shopping and transit center. Further expansion would require voter approval of financing for subsequent phases.

RTA will fund construction of 12 access ramps for buses and ride-sharing vehicles to freeway "HOV" (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes. These will be extended and improved by the state Department of Transportation to create a 100-mile "HOV Expressway" network. RTA will also fund a 20-route regional express bus system, connecting major regional centers with two-way, all-day service using the HOV network. Initial service might begin by 1998 if RTA can reach interim agreements with existing transit agencies. RTA-funded HOV access ramps are estimated to cost $377 million, and the express bus network $361 million.

Local transit facilities such as transit centers, park-ride lots, and amenities such as passenger shelters will receive $255 million under RTA's "Community Connections" program. A $280 million "Regional Fund" will provide for regional fare integration, planning, and design work for future phases, including final engineering for the Northgate LRT extension. $171 million would be used for debt service.

The 10-year Sound Move program will be financed by local taxes and federal grants. Within the RTA service district (including parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties), the sales tax will be increased by 0.4%, generating an estimated $1.54 billion over 10 years. The annual motor vehicle excise tax will be increased by 0.3%, generating an estimated $440 million. RTA is expected to impose the former by April and the latter by June. A "typical" four-member family with an annual income of $35,000 will pay an estimated $104 per year, according to the Washington Research Council. RTA anticipates federal grants of $727 million, or 33% of LRT and commuter-rail capital costs, and plans to sell up to $1.052 million in bonds. No state funding is anticipated.

As state law requires, RTA "cost" estimates include cumulative operating costs as well as capital costs, and the financial plan includes estimated fare revenues: $155 million over 10 years.

Slicing Up the Pie

Under RTA's "equity principle" for distribution of tax revenues, expenditures would match taxes raised in each of five "sub-areas." No funds generated in one area would be used to directly benefit taxpayers in a different region. Any cost "overruns" in one area would have to be paid by that particular area, or made up through curtailment of some portion of the "sub-area" plan. Total expenditures planned for each of the sub-areas are: Seattle-North King County, $1.6 billion; South King County, $829 million; Pierce County, $575 million; east King County, $567 million; and Snohomish County, $362 million.

If voters decline to approve financing for subsequent phases, RTA will reduce the local taxes to levels sufficient to pay operating and maintenance costs and debt service.

An Unexpected Victory

Supporters and opponents alike were stunned by the 58% vote in favor of Sound Move. The 1995 plan would have required exactly the same tax increases, although it had a longer time frame (16 years), a higher total cost ($6.7 billion) a larger rail component (69-mi LRT, all-day commuter rail) and fewer express-bus routes (eight). The 1995 plan also was handicapped by its submission at a special election which attracted a low (33%) turnout of registered voters and a high percentage of absentee votes. Although it attracted a 62% "yes" vote in Seattle and a slight majority in King County overall, support from suburban voters was weak. The "yes" vote was no greater than 40% in the most populous suburban cities. Support was particularly weak in King County's "Eastside" and in Pierce and Snohomish counties. In Everett, where the mayor campaigned against the proposal, the "yes" vote was less than 20%. Nearly two-thirds of the 2.4 million RTA district residents live outside of Seattle.

This time, the response from suburban voters was dramatically different, although the victory was shaped in part by a strong turnout of registered voters, Democrats in particular. In Snohomish County, where local officials campaigned for approval, the result was 55% in favor. South King County voted 53% in favor, while Pierce County voted narrowly against. The strongly Republican Eastside suburbs voted 54% in favor, while the plan attracted a 70% "yes" vote in heavily Democratic Seattle.

Following rejection of the 1995 plan, RTA cut its staff by 50% in response to a 70% reduction in its budget. It changed its focus to a "broader mix" of transportation improvements and conducted nearly 400 meetings to seek community input. In an attempt to win support from suburban politicians and business interests, RTA proposed using $160 million to fund completion of the regional HOV lane network. Suburban interests liked the idea but did not support the overall package, while transit supporters and environmentalists cried "foul." The RTA board eventually decided that HOV lane construction is a state responsibility, but did include funds for new access ramps.

Eastside business interests wanted RTA funds for a study of how to increase capacity across the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge ("SR-520"), which has only four lanes. Residents living along the connecting freeways, who have long blocked expansion, turned out to voice strong opposition, and the board turned this idea down.

Business Support Key to Victory

The business community, led by Boeing, the largest regional employer, provided strong support and substantial funding for the campaign for approval, significantly more than in 1995. Boeing, which seldom takes public positions on ballot measures, issued a company position paper in favor. Even more uncommon was public expressions of support by Boeing's top executive. In June, Boeing issued a statement that it "is impossible to run an efficient company when your workers are stuck on the commute to work." However, attempts to forge a unified coalition of business interests failed, due largely to opposition from Eastside interests led by Kemper Freeman, developer of the Bellevue Square shopping mall.

The campaign for approval was organized as "Regional Express". Its slogan, featured in TV ads showing rush-hour freeway jams, was "Regional Express -- It's Time".) The Seattle Chamber of Commerce provided much assistance in organizing the campaign, and a Chamber of Commerce vice-president served as treasurer. Regional Express did not tailor its campaign to the suburbs, but did organize steering committees for the five RTA sub-areas. It managed to win more support from local councils and business groups than before. By late October, the Pierce and Snohomish county councils had endorsed the plan, together with local councils in most cities and towns within the RTA district. Among these were Everett and Renton, which opposed the previous plan.

The RTA board had voted 15-2 in May 1996 to send the plan to voters. The two "no" votes came from King County Council members, who attempted to submit a "no confidence" motion in September. This attempt to "unendorse" the RTA plan was an exercise in partisan politics, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. The council held three sessions, but did not bring the proposal to a vote in response to heavy lobbying from business interests, led by Boeing and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

RTA opponents did not fade away, but organized a group titled "COST" -- Citizens Opposed to Sitting in Traffic. They argued that the plan would not "reduce congestion", that costs would greatly outweigh benefits, that federal funds would not materialize, and that other strategies would increase transit ridership at less cost.

The opposition attempted to discredit RTA's cost and patronage estimates, claimed that rail systems had failed in other cities, and lambasted supporters for claiming that the plan would reduce congestion. Just before the election, opponents filed a complaint with state authorities against Regional Express, charging that its campaign ads contained "deceptive" claims, such as removal of 53,000 cars per day from freeway rush-hour traffic by 2010.

Highway interests and some businesses, who want an increase in the state's fuel tax to offset a large shortfall in state road funds, regarded the RTA plan as competition and worked for its defeat. But Regional Express raised far more money, nearly twice the amount raised in 1995. Supporters contributed nearly $500,000 by mid-October, while COST had raised $200,000. Supporters outspent opponents by about 4-to-1, according to COST, which did not manage to field a significant media campaign. Perhaps more significantly, opponents failed to articulate any real alternative, other than "pie-in-the-sky people movers and other fanciful technology better suited to amusement parks," as a Seattle Times editorial put it. Freeman, on the lecture circuit, advocated construction of more freeways, an idea which few take seriously. As things turned out, Eastside voters ignored local business and political leaders and supported the RTA.

RTA did not conduct a pre-election poll as it had no funding for this. In fact, since the agency's funding was to expire at the end of 1996, all staff were given 60-day advance layoff notices shortly before the election. Regional Express conducted polling which anticipated a 52 to 53% "yes" vote. COST anticipated strong opposition from Pierce and Snohomish county voters, whom it had targeted with a mail campaign. Someone conducted a survey in mid-October, reported by local television news and on the Internet, which found 57% in favor -- a figure which sounded wildly optimistic.

Seattle now joins Atlanta and Los Angeles as the only cities which have won voter approval for rail transit after initial proposals were defeated. Only Los Angeles and Seattle have managed to win approval following successive defeats. This took 12 years in L.A., but 26 years in Seattle. In addition, RTA won against the most substantial opposition ever fielded against a rail-transit ballot measure in the U.S. COST raised far more money than rail opponents have managed elsewhere.

Making Tracks in Seattle

RTA Executive Director Bob White has outlined several goals for the initial 14 months, including adoption of a six-year development plan, negotiations with public agencies and railroads, award of contracts for engineering and architectural work, coordination with existing transit agencies, and adoption of a uniform fare system for public transit in all three counties.

RTA faces a number of challenges regarding its rail development program. In particular, most of the Seattle LRT line is likely to stir controversy as planning advances toward construction. Many local residents are not convinced that tunneling from downtown Seattle beneath Capitol Hill to the U District is a good idea. The south line is planned for construction on elevated structure over the northern part of Rainier Avenue. Farther south, the line would be built on surface-level alignment along Martin Luther King Jr Way as far as Boeing Access Road.

Beyond there, the alignment has not been selected. The Port of Seattle, which owns and operates Sea-Tac Airport, wants the airport station built at least three blocks away from the terminal and parking garage. Even preliminary engineering for the prospective Northgate extension is likely to stir contention over whether or not to build this in tunnel.

RTA must also work hard to secure federal funds. A $300 million authorization from 1992 will have to be renewed, and an additional $427 million secured over the next 10 years.

Bus Tunnel a Quandary

Perhaps the most significant challenge will be conversion of the downtown Seattle transit tunnel for rail operation. Contrary to common impression, much more will be involved than connecting the existing rails to new LRT lines. In fact, the existing rails were installed without cathodic protection, according to Tom Matoff, who served as RTA's first Executive Director. Hence, they will have to be removed and replaced with new rails in a fully-protected design. In addition, major reconstruction of Convention Place station, at the north end of the tunnel, would be needed to permit connection with a new subway crossing under the Interstate-5 freeway and its retaining wall.

Rail planning carried out during the early '90s anticipated conversion of tunnel stations to high platforms. This would require closure during the construction period with buses returning to surface streets. But Matoff and staff chose an alternate strategy, using low-floor vehicles. This would require a slight increase in platform height, from eight to ten inches, and would permit joint rail and bus operation for an interim period. Matoff wrote that "an intelligently conceived bus-to-rail transition program" in the tunnel would permit incremental upgrading of transit services rather than an "agonizing construction period" of a decade or more.

Mixing Modes Underground

Joint use by rail and bus is possible, for buses share the Mt. Washington trolley tunnel in Pittsburgh, and dual-mode vehicles operate through LRT subways in Essen, Germany. During the early '90s, Seattle planners studied joint operation and found it "feasible", but did not develop a detailed operations plan. This is one of the tasks now facing the RTA.

RTA's LRT plans specify a peak-hour "capacity requirement" of 10,000 - 12,000 pass/hr, which implies 6-car trains operating every 3.5 to 5 minutes. It is difficult to imagine how such an intensive service can be scheduled -- reliably -- with continued operation of buses through the tunnel, given the different safety standards for rail and road vehicles. Road vehicles typically operate beyond the "safety limit" (at a given speed, the safe stopping distance is greater than the average spacing between vehicles), facing a greater risk of rear-end collisions.

King County's 236 Italian-built dual-mode buses are now halfway through their 12-year useful life, and their replacement will have to be addressed during RTA's Phase 1 program.

Unfavorable aspects of their service record are not well known outside Seattle. They exceed legal axle-weight limits with just the driver aboard. The rash of mechanical failures experienced during initial years has been reduced, but not eliminated. It is not uncommon to see (or hear) dual-mode buses operating under diesel power in the tunnel.

Less common, but hardly rare, is the sight of conventional diesel buses in the tunnel. This occurs if sufficient dual-mode buses are not available to cover scheduled runs, particularly during the pm peak. Separate statistics on tunnel operating costs have not been published, but dual-mode operating costs are said to be very high.

Monorail Mania

Improbably, Seattle will have another rapid-transit plan on the November 1997 ballot. The Seattle Monorail Initiative proposes expansion of the existing 1.2-mile Alweg monorail line, built for the 1962 World's Fair, to a 40-mile, automated, "X"-shaped network serving 26 stations. This was drafted by a local taxi driver and tour bus operator, Dick Falkenbury, who attempted to gather sufficient signatures prior to the 1995 RTA vote. A second attempt, prior to the most recent election, was successful -- surprisingly, in light of Falkenbury's low-key efforts at signature gathering.

The city council placed the monorail initiative on the November 1997 ballot, as state law requires when sufficient signatures are gathered, but council members expressed skepticism on several counts. Critics point out the plan's lack of technical and financial details, lack of integration with neighborhood and regional planning, and lack of attention to legal details (state law precludes establishment by cities of transit services competing with King County Metro without the county's permission).

No detailed cost analysis or financial plan has been prepared for the monorail initiative: Falkenbury's $850 million estimate was based on a recent Las Vegas monorail project connecting two casinos. The new municipal monorail agency would first seek to raise private funds; if not successful, the city would be required to issue bonds or raise its business and occupation tax. Falkenbury believes that Seattle voters are willing to pay for expanding the monorail. He also believes that RTA "cost overruns" will enhance the appeal of the project, which, he says, will be completed before the RTA has finished planning. However, voter approval appears a long shot at best, given resistance to new taxes and construction of a city-wide elevated network.

home page | about MTS | Cashout | HOV lanes | Bay Bridge | Solution | Allow Pedestrians! | AGT | letters | webmaster