It’s fun to get out ahead of McGinn on this light rail plan, but let’s remember that even if McGinn wins it’s going to get passed off to the eggheads for a couple of years. For that reason, it’s most important to understand the principles that is going to guide McGinn’s decisionmaking on this, not try to pin him down on a specific alignment.
Anyhow, a few unrelated musings on the plan are after the jump.
There’s been an idea circulating — in the Times! — that ST3 could go to the ballot as early as 2016. Transit fans take that to mean that we can get a proper, big-money line to grade-separate all these corridors by 2030 or so. However, that is nothing like a done deal because there is zero funding authority for Sound Transit to even start building until bonds are retired in the 2030s.
I don’t see anything in the legislature that indicates a willingness to provide substantial new revenue authority for transit; even if some is found, Metro may very well suck it up, since every local politician left of Susan Hutchison is in the press whining about Metro’s revenue sources. Meanwhile, the County has no plans to use all the taxing authority it has for Metro, so it’s pretty easy for the legislature to ask why they need more. Furthermore, should more funding become available no one knows how large it’ll be or if it’ll be enough to build a deluxe design.
All that said, I don’t want to discourage readers from pressuring their legislators to change this reality.
If you like, you can just sort of assume that we’re going to hit some sort of climate/gas price armageddon in the next 7 years that radically transforms the legislature‘s attitude to transit and taxes, but that’s dangerous to count on. If you “know” that’s going to happen, stop wasting time on transit blogs and make a fortune on the futures market.
Meanwhile, if McGinn or his plan fail, there’s a real chance we have to wait till bonds get paid off in the 2030s to even start bonding for ST3, with completion around 2050-ish.
When you look at some of the neighborhoods McGinn mentions — Queen Anne, Wallingford, Fremont, Ballard — you can’t help but notice that it basically matches the Ballard/Fremont streetcar line plus the Western part of the Central (aka 1st Avenue) line, if you’re generous with the boundaries of Queen Anne.
McGinn’s “Cadillac” remarks seem to indicate that he’s leaning towards an at-grade alignment to maximize coverage. Due to the length of a block, at-grade through downtown means you’re going to have, at best, two-car trains.
In other words, aside from West Seattle, McGinn’s proposal may be a warmed-over portion of the streetcar plan, with the crucial exception that it would be in a dedicated ROW. ROW can be expensive, but if you’re sufficiently willing to anger drivers and businesses, it can be done extremely cheaply by taking away bus lanes, on-street parking, and general-purpose lanes.
So, aside from West Seattle, a good first-0rder approximation for the minimum cost of this thing is the capital cost of the Ballard/Fremont streetcar line. The Streetcar Network Development Report pegged the midpoint capital cost as $135m plus fleet purchases, or $29m – $32m per mile. That uses the SLUT tracks and gets you only to Westlake.
We can go up from there.
As usual, there’s a tension between two criticisms of Sound Transit: one, that Link costs too much per mile relative to other light rail systems; the other, that anything less than full grade-separation is substandard. Of course, Link occupies the middle ground between these viewpoints: it’s more expensive than MAX precisely because it grade-separates in many places.
We don’t know how much revenue is going to be available, but building light rail is going to stress the capacity of the City to raise taxes. I predict, without much evidence, that there’s going to be a point where the City has to make the decision between going almost entirely at-grade or not serving all the neighborhoods McGinn mentioned.
From his comments, McGinn would probably favor the former, but I suspect he’s persuadable on that point. I’d probably prefer the latter, but in the event that the plan emerges almost entirely at-grade, the elevated/tunnel supporters are hereby advised to support it anyway. A better plan is not in the pipeline in the near future.