The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Our Mission: Monkeywrench the Anti-Transit Forces

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Monday, October 28, 2002


"It is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous to be subject to ridicule."
James Howard Kunstler

From the Cabalmaster:

(or: Where is Jonathan Richmond when we need him?)
The Historical Context

Continuing our coverage of the Seattle monorail plan:


Seattle's long-depressed regional economy gained strength from the mid-1980s, triggering population -- and traffic -- increases. New skyscrapers dramatically altered the downtown skyline (and spurred an initiative to limit this), while new office space was built even faster in the suburbs. (The average Seattleite tends to ignore the obvious connection.) Between 1985 and 1990, King County gained 125,000 new residents. They brought 50,000 additional autos and made 500,000 additional daily trips on area roads by 1990. (Projections of this type of growth, and impacts thereof, were not taken seriously during the '70s.) Even with the large increase in transit ridership, extensive ridesharing and 36 miles of freeway HOV lanes, most commuters drove alone to work. Planners forecast that, from 1990 to 2000, one additional car would be added for every four on the road -- half a million more cars competing for the same space.

Population growth and traffic congestion became major public concerns by the mid-'80s. Local media provided favorable coverage of new rail lines in Portland and Vancouver, BC. One interesting comparison: BC Transit carried 105.6 million revenue passengers in the "Lower Mainland" (greater Vancouver) during FY 1988. Metro carried 65 million, nearly 40 percent less, despite serving a larger area with a greater population -- and charging a much lower fare.

PSCOG came under increasing criticism as newspaper editorials and a growing chorus of politicians argued that the region could not afford to wait until 1993 to begin rail planning. Metro also came under criticism after announcing that it would defer installation of rails in the tunnel owing to lack of funds.

The compromise between rail supporters and critics collapsed in 1988. Metro decided to proceed with rail installation (but used a spray-on insulation that was later proved inadequate, so the rails will have to be removed and replaced before any rail vehicles can use the tunnel). Pro-rail members of the King County Council then placed a non-binding referendum onto the ballot, asking if rail planning should be accelerated so service could begin before 2000 (They didn't make it . . .). This measure attracted a 69 percent "yes" vote in November 1988; rail supporters then called for submission of a specific plan, with financing, within two years. (They didn't make this one . . .)

PSCOG dug in its heels briefly, then announced at mid-1988 that it would begin detailed rail planning in 1989. Shortly before the November 1988 election, the Metro Council adopted a resolution calling for rail construction by 1995 (they didn't make this one, either . . .). Metro won the "contest" for control of regional transit development: PSCOG, which had no dedicated funding source, completed work on a regional plan ("VISION 2020" . . . those were the Bush Sr. years . . . you know, the "vision thing" . . .), then voted itself out of existence. It was reconstituted as the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC)

(*with apologies to Hank Ballard and James Brown

In Seattle, process is at least as important as the result . . . and then some. Hence the attention to details of the rail-planning process started in 1989. Funny thing, though: impeccable process, unworkable result.

The "VISION 2020" regional plan (the "vision thing") outlined 15 regional and sub-regional centers, connected by a "High-Capacity Transit" (HCT) network. HCT corridor selection, planning and design was carried out by Metro's "Metro 2000" project (later rechristened the "Regional Transit Project"). The Legislature established two panels to supervise and coordinate HCT planning: the "Expert Review Panel" (ERP, not to be confused with ELO . . sorry . . .) monitored Metro and its consultant, a joint venture between Parsons Brinckerhoff (aka "those guys," aka "the taxi drivers" . . . their "meter" never stops running . . . ) and Kaiser Engineers. The Joint Regional Policy Committee (JRPC), including local and state officials, was created to coordinate HCT development in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Any transit plan or financing measure submitted anywhere in the three-county region had to be approved by JRPC. Metro took particular care to produce realistic cost and ridership estimates (this was during the immediate "post Pickrell Report" era). Ridership projections were based on current population patterns, with no assumption of higher density around stations. Nor did forecasts consider the effects of the state's commuter trip reduction act, which requires major employers to implement measures to discourage workers from driving alone (darn SOVs!).


Yeah, we know, we've used that one before, but it bears repeating. (Besides, it has more pizzazz than another cheap shot: "RTP was DOA!")

Impeccable process, unworkable result. The RTP outlined a 164-mile regional "light rail" network . . . which included extensive tunneling within Seattle and full grade separation to permit BART-type speed. The plan also included bus expansion, 400 miles of new HOV lanes and a 40-mile Seattle-Tacoma commuter-rail service. Cost, including all capital and operating expenses over 30 years, was estimated at $6.5 billion in 1991 but soared to $11.6 billion by mid-1992. The "light rail" system was estimated to cost $8 billion, with federal funds expected to pay no more than 20 percent. The remainder would be paid by a 0.9-percent sales-tax increase, or a "menu" of local tax increases to generate the equivalent revenue.

The federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act ("ISTEA") included $300 million for regional rail or busways in Seattle. This money had been allocated to Houston, but cancellation of a controversial monorail plan -- no, we're not making that up -- left the money up for grabs. The local congressional delegation, quite naturally, grabbed . . . and secured this amount and $25 million more for the commuter-rail project.

The $12 billion price tag created much sticker shock, virtually all of it behind the scenes. The absence of any public criticism by elected officials was deafening -- but, after all, this is Seattle, famed for being "aggressively nice." Metro, sent back to the drawing board, released a 56-mile plan in April 1992, estimated to cost $8 billion over 30 years, with about half this amount for rail construction. "Scaling down" consisted of truncating the network rather than adopting of less-costly standards. Again, the behind-the-scenes reaction was negative.

Metro could not maintain its early momentum. It anticipated a vote in September or November 1992; early in 1991, Metro even talked of holding the vote ahead of schedule, prior to completion of planning (holy blank check!). Not long thereafter, staff members realized that planning could not be completed in time for a 1992 vote. As time passed, the RTP attracted growing community opposition on grounds of cost and disruption due to tunneling. JRPC endorsed the plan but it stalled before reaching the ballot.

The RTP, prepared at a cost of $30 million, was sunk by an insistence on full grade separation, never mind the cost. Some FOCs blame this on "those guys" (the taxi meter types), but we think that's too simple. Planners complained that they did what they were told -- design a high-quality transit network to link the regional centers outlined in the regional plan ("VISION 2020") -- only to have the results rejected as unrealistic. That's also a bit too simple.

Local residents are loath to admit that Seattle has a long-standing inferiority complex vis-a-vis other regions, California in particular. This stems in large part from one inescapable fact: Seattle has neither the population base, nor the broad-based economy, to support civic amenities that San Francisco and (augh!) Los Angeles can easily afford. The Bay Area has a considerably more people than all of Washington State. With regard to transit, Seattle became America's Curitiba: emphasizing buses because it could not afford rail (after losing federal funding). Honolulu is in a similar position, but that's another story.

Low-cost light rail, as in San Diego, Sacramento or Portland, is an automatic non-starter in Seattle. The average Seattleite was firmly convinced that the Portland approach just wouldn't do (whether or not s/he had ever ridden MAX, as a surprising number of local residents had not). No, Seattle needs something "more," something "faster." Something like BART, but they don't say that. (Or something that nobody else has . . . like monorail . . .).

Low-cost surface LRT would have presented many design challenges, but these could have been overcome. However, the idea of reserved lanes, traffic signal preemption and so forth generated animosity from road interests, criticism from neighborhood groups concerned over loss of curbside parking spaces, and scorn from auto commuters.

Seattle's near-total lack of support for surface LRT as in Portland, Sacramento (or Zurich, for that matter) was demonstrated by the Puget Sound Light Rail Transit Society, founded by the late Kim Silver. Silver proposed a surface LRT line along major arterial streets between Everett, Seattle and Tacoma. This he dubbed the "Rhododendron Line," and lobbied tirelessly to generate support (fatigue and disappointment probably contributed to his death at a relatively young age). "Those guys" produced a "slash and burn" evaluation of the "Rhododendron Line" plan for Metro, but that was beside the point: the Rhododendron Line failed to attract any significant popular support (it wasn't a monorail, so it wasn't exotic enough . . .).

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