As the Sound Transit Board prepares this week to ask lawmakers for a third round of taxing authority, let’s all keep an eye on the big picture.
When Sound Transit was created in the 1990s, its mission was to create a mass transit system that knits together all of the major cities of the Puget Sound megalopolis: Seattle and Bellevue, yes — but also Everett, Tacoma, Lakewood and everything in between. The core of the system was to be a “spine” of high-capacity light rail trains that would zip past jammed Interstate 5 and other regional highways.
Nothing in that vision is obsolete. The region’s population has grown relentlessly since voters approved the first phase of transit construction in 1996. The highways are more congested. More people are commuting long distances to jobs and finding it increasingly hard to get there at predictable times. No one has invented teleportation.
Sound Transit’s job is less than half done. Seattle and Bellevue are getting their light rail service. Commuters in Tacoma and Federal Way can hop on Sound Transit express buses to Sea-Tac Airport and into Seattle. From Tacoma and Lakewood, they can reach Seattle on Sounder trains that run on freight rails through the Kent Valley.
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But the big population centers on the perimeter of the transit district, including Tacoma and Everett, have been waiting a very long time for the train to come. They’ve been paying transit taxes since 1997, yet still remain outside the reach of Sound Transit’s most important service, light rail.
There’s no substitute for light rail or a technology of comparable speed and capacity running through the I-5 corridor. Sounder doesn’t serve Federal Way or connect to Sea-Tac Airport. Buses get caught on highways in rush hour traffic. So-called “bus rapid transit,” which is occasionally touted as a way to connect Tacoma on the cheap, doesn’t count as “rapid” unless it has its own right-of-way — which would likely be as expensive as a train corridor.
So light rail to Tacoma and Everett must be included on the third — perhaps the final — build-out of the region’s mass transit system. The Sound Transit Board presumably understands that. Lawmakers must understand it, too.
For the sake of regionalism, Seattle’s leaders should also get behind the final stages of light rail. Some in central King County have gone wobbly on extending it further, now that they’re assured of their own train service. Pierce, South King and Snohomish counties need Seattle on board for the political battles ahead.
Every city wins with a built-out system. The value of trains rises exponentially as their lines expand and connect.
Tacoma’s Link light rail line, for example, currently provides an efficient jaunt from the Dome to the theater district, which is useful as far as it goes. Connected to King County’s light rail, though, it would open a universe of destinations — Sea-Tac, downtown Seattle, the Mariners and Seahawks stadiums, the University of Washington Seattle, Bellevue, etc.
People elsewhere would get reciprocal benefits: commuting to work or college in Pierce County, catching concerts in the Dome, etc.
The creation of rapid transit is not for the shortsighted. It’s now been 18 years since the system’s first phase was approved, and final construction wouldn’t be completed for decades yet. While the destination is distant, it would be foolish to stop in mid-journey.