ST3 is a $54 billion empty promise

By Chuck Collins
As first appeared in the Seattle Times Oct. 7, 2016

FIFTY-FOUR billion dollars. Really? The sheer size of Sound Transit 3 staggers the imagination. A Google search yields nothing remotely comparable ever asked of local voters … anywhere. But put aside the sticker shock: Does this extraordinarily expensive proposal have transportation merit?

The simple answer is no. ST3 fails three critical tests:

Sound Transit 3 would not reduce traffic congestion

The massive $2.5 million pro-ST3 campaign (with most of the money coming from major employers as well as firms and individuals who have a direct financial benefit) will claim reduced traffic congestion. But that is not correct. Buried in Sound Transit’s original environmental-impact statement is a different story. The agency’s own analysis indicated that there would be no difference in future congestion whether the rail system is built or not. Why is that? Congestion is reduced by “new riders” — drivers who leave their cars and take transit instead. Converting bus riders to rail riders does not reduce congestion. When rail lines are built along productive bus lines and then those bus lines are terminated or diverted as King County is currently doing with multiple routes, trains are filled with former bus riders. Actually, some would likely return to driving, because the local bus that formerly went directly downtown would have been diverted to a distant train station, requiring a transfer, adding time and complexity to the trip.

Sound Transit’s staff admits that 91 percent of ST3’s projected train riders would be former bus riders. Again, only new riders leaving their cars reduce congestion. To reduce King County commute congestion by 5 percent in 2040, when ST3 is scheduled to be finished, and assuming traffic increases by 1 percent per year, Sound Transit would have to attract 288,000 new commuter riders per day. Sound Transit’s new-rider projections suggest only 64,000 new commute riders. Congestion reduction has never been a Sound Transit goal. They are laser-focused on a train project independent of congestion results.

Different strategies will reduce congestion

Reducing traffic congestion is not impossible. More than a decade ago, two former Washington governors, John Spellman and Booth Gardner, and a group of prominent business men and women and I submitted a proposal to Sound Transit we called Ride Free Express. It was based on two aspects of transit ridership that are ignored by agencies committed to building rail projects: Transit fares matter — as with almost anything, pricing matters a lot; commute patterns, which in 1960 looked like a spider web with Seattle at the center, had by 2000 the look of pick-up sticks.

The Auburn-Kent Valley, Overlake, Bellevue, Factoria, Bothell, Redmond, Federal Way, Kirkland and others had become important employment centers. Employment had been so decentralized that the new centers could not be adequately served by rail lines and bus routes fundamentally centered on downtown Seattle. Ride Free Express proposed to eliminate all transit and vanpool fares, increase commute-time bus service and fund 4,000 additional vanpools to serve the new employment centers. All analysis was firmly grounded in actual experience Metro had acquired in the 1970s: Large ridership increases resulting from employer-provided free bus passes and marketing analysis indicate a demand for 9,500 additional van pools at full fare.

The total 20-year cost in today’s dollars for Ride Free Express was less than $4.5 billion. It would have attracted a minimum of 193,000 new daily riders — roughly three times the estimates of ST3’s new commute riders and at a fraction of the cost of ST3’s $54 billion. Obviously, Ride Free Express was not supported by any of those with a stake in rail construction. In the end, the Sound Transit board was simply incapable of thinking outside the rail box. That remains the case today.

ST3 would be obsolete before it is completely built

To even the most casual observer, it is obvious that we are at the threshold of the most fundamental transportation revolution since the internal-combustion engine. The relentless technological innovation, at which all of us marvel, has invaded transportation with self- driving, or autonomous, vehicles. Opinions vary on when self-driving vehicles will arrive in large numbers on American streets — some say in as little as five years, some say as many as 15 years; no one says 2040, the year ST3 is complete. Today, you can drive from Seattle to Portland in a Tesla and never touch the steering wheel. Google cars have driven 2 million miles in California traffic with only a single fender bender. Ford has announced that it will have self-driving cars in dealer showrooms by 2021. Uber already operates Uberpool, which could easily evolve into self-driving vanpools and become the dominant mode of commute travel. Self-driving vehicles will have many impacts — one of them can be large-scale congestion reduction.

What public policies and investments will be required to take advantage of self-driving technology? New lanes? Publicly owned fleets? Contracted services with Google, Ford, Uber and other fleet providers? But whatever makes sense, it is clear that approval of the ST3 system would commandeer all reasonably available local transportation funds for a generation and preclude any chance to advance new technology. In the coming weeks, ST3 advocates will produce a blizzard of mailers, robocalls and TV ads, which can’t hide an irreversible waste of $54 billion. Chuck Collins, of Mercer Island, was the director of King County Metro Transit for four years in the late 1970s when it was the fastest growing transit agency in the country.

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins, of Mercer Island, was the director of King County Metro Transit for four years in the late 1970s when it was the fastest growing transit agency in the country.