Opinion

Cutting red tape will hasten transit improvements

A Link light rail car heads toward Pacific Avenue from Commerce Street in downtown Tacoma in 2015. Link currently runs a limited route through downtown Tacoma. Eventually, light rail will extend between Tacoma, Seattle, Everett and East King County.
A Link light rail car heads toward Pacific Avenue from Commerce Street in downtown Tacoma in 2015. Link currently runs a limited route through downtown Tacoma. Eventually, light rail will extend between Tacoma, Seattle, Everett and East King County. News Tribune file

In the past week, Sound Transit has detailed plans to speed up the completion of key light rail projects included in the Sound Transit 3 plan that will go before voters this November. That is welcome news; with our region growing rapidly, we need to build out our regional mass transit system as quickly as possible.

The Sound Transit announcement demonstrates that the agency is making good use of resources under its control to shave years off some critical project deadlines. But in a region that needed all of these transit options yesterday, isn’t there more that we can do to speed up project delivery?

The answer is yes. Neighborhoods, cities, Sound Transit and every level of government all have a role to play, and we must work together to make faster transit growth a reality. The central fact here is that our region’s voters want light rail. They understand the difference it will make in improving their quality of life if we expand the system to connect our region along key regional transit corridors.

Once fully implemented, the many projects in Sound Transit 3 will connect 90 percent of the region’s jobs and residents by high-capacity transit. That will be a very welcome way to commute instead of wasting hours in frustrating traffic.

One important way we can speed things up is to educate and engage local government leaders committed to transit and willing to work for the regional good. Having an informed and supportive City Council can make a huge difference.

One cautionary example is East Link, light rail to Bellevue and Redmond. From 2009 to 2013, local jurisdictions extensively debated light rail alignments and as a result, Sound Transit ended up studying a whopping 19 route alternatives in the federally-required Environmental Impact Statement.

Sound Transit could have been opening East Link in 2021 instead of 2023 if, during those years, cities had focused efforts on refining fewer alignment options so they best served the needs of communities. This highlights a key fact: Collaborative cities and neighborhoods translate to one to three years of time savings. Sound Transit has already outlined key tools it will need from local urban partners to realize these time savings.

Local pro-transit elected officials can play a major role in expediting planning and permitting processes. Essentially, city governments should agree to limit the alignments considered in the environmental review process, focusing on robust community engagement early so we are not endlessly debating dozens of alignment choices.

Cities can also follow the lead of Redmond and Issaquah in making light rail a permitted use instead of an exception, shaving time and expense off the permitting process.

The public wants light rail in our cities faster. Everett, Fife, Federal Way, Seattle, Tacoma and cities in-between can make that a reality by implementing these steps.

Sound Transit is drafting model legislation that would allow cities to shave months or years off the timeline for construction of light rail. It would be a very positive step if these cities — and any other cities that want the benefits of light rail — passed this legislation before November’s Sound Transit 3 vote. Everett and Snohomish County have already passed resolutions.

This will demonstrate to voters that we are very serious about delivering these transportation solutions as quickly as possible.

In order to make this a reality, officials across the central Puget Sound should work with Sound Transit to update city codes and commit to complete light rail on the fastest possible timeline.

Working together, we will deliver light rail projects faster to communities all across the region — a welcome sign to our economy and our quality of life.

Ryan Mello is a Tacoma City Council member representing the Position 8 at-large seat.

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