Editor’s Note: All Aboard!

An efficient light-rail system makes good sense for a Greater Seattle.

By Leslie Helm March 22, 2016


This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Seattle magazine.

Light rail in Seattle has been a disappointment. The train trip from downtown to the airport, for example, usually takes nearly twice as long as by car. But with two new stations opening up recently in hard-to-reach locations, commuters may finally begin to see value in the system.

Hop on the train at Westlake Center and within three minutes youll be on Capitol Hill. Or eight minutes between Westlake Center and the University of Washington. Thats way faster than driving. This small taste of fast transit should help in November, when Sound Transit asks voters to support plans for a $15 billion extension of the system north to Everett, south to Tacoma and east to Redmond.

The plan wont be an easy sell. Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman argues that rapid-transit buses would serve commuters more cheaply and effectively than light rail. And anyway, he suggests, by the time the proposed system is completed, it will be rendered obsolete by a new generation of self-driving cars with smart sensors that will allow roads to carry twice the traffic.

To be sure, light rail has a mixed record. Los Angeles invested heavily in six rail lines during the past three decades, only to see total transit ridership decline in that time. But Seattle, squeezed between two large bodies of water, is more like San Francisco. There, light-rail ridership has soared by more than 30 percent in the past five years to 420,000 a day. Without light rail, the Bay Area would be paralyzed.

Like San Francisco, Seattle is the commercial center of a large, prosperous region with millions of residents. The Seattle area must do more for the hundreds of thousands of commuters who venture into the city every day only to get stuck in traffic. It helps that nearly 40 percent of commuters now take the bus. (Upgrading the OneBusAway app so it does a better job of predicting bus arrivals would vastly improve that experience.) And with 14,000 new housing units built downtown during the past few years and 20,000 more planned, lots more people will walk or bike to work. But as the high cost of housing forces more people to live farther and farther away in search of affordable housing, our traffic nightmare will only get worse.

Adding rapid-transit buses and self-driving cars to the mix might allow us to make more efficient use of our roads, but those vehicles would still get stuck in the same gridlock on highways and bridges. An effective, predictable rail system is the only sensible alternative.

Justifying the high cost of light rail will require significant change. Link stations must be served by car and bicycle parking, and by convenient bus routes to encourage light-rail usage. Developers must work with planners to build attractive urban centers close to stations where more people can live with easy access to light rail (see page 30).

Its a future that will leave some unsettled. But our only alternative may be total gridlock.

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