Urban Politics #134: Downtown Tunnel & Sound Transit

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


Downtown Tunnel & Sound Transit – Council Bill 114208

Legislation passed out of Transportation Committee on June 19, 2002 by a vote of 2 to 1; Conlin & McIver for, Licata against. The final vote will be in the Full Council on July first.

This legislation authorizes Sound Transit to use the City’s right of way in the downtown tunnel to allow joint operation of buses and rail in it. The City’s previous agreement with ST and the County needed to be revised because ST’s rail project is now 2 years behind its original construction schedule.

I voted against transferring the downtown tunnel to Sound Transit for a number of reasons.

The most immediate reason being that Sound Transit should not close the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for reconstruction for joint bus and rail use until there is funding and a plan to build light rail north from Downtown to a transit hub, at least as far north as Northgate.

This is important because it is not viable to have a transit hub for buses in the congested University District, and without a transit hub there will be little gain in transit ridership to Downtown.

The negative impact of closing the tunnel for reconstruction and the risks of joint use (it has never been done before with stations) is not justified by the low transit ridership of the southern segment alone. About two-thirds of the total projected light rail ridership for the original 21-mile plan was north of downtown.

Also, the Downtown Seattle Association recently sent an email to all the City Councilmembers echoing the above concerns. To address them I will be offering an amendment to the legislation that states:

“This authority to execute an agreement does not take effect until both of the following conditions are satisfied: (a) Sound Transit has executed a full funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration for $500 million for the initial segment of Link light rail; and (b) Sound Transit has secured enough funding to extend light rail to Northgate as part of the initial segment of Link light rail.”

I may not be able to secure a second on this amendment, but I will try because I believe that without this condition our downtown business district will be financially harmed by the tunnel closure.

When I voted against the legislation I also mentioned other concerns. One in particular is Sound Transit’s continuing drop in support among the general population. Sound Transit must have public confidence to ensure its success and to receive their Federal funding.

A KIRO public opinion poll taken earlier this month asked the question: What should happen next with Sound Transit’s Light Rail line? The responses were as follows:

Re-route it: 8.3%
Build it anyway: 13.9%
Start over: 5.6%
Scrap it all: 72.2%

If these results are a true reflection of public opinion, and I have no reason to believe that KIRO has anything to gain in not making it so, then Sound Transit has squandered an incredible amount of good will that it had inherited in 1996 when this region voted for mass transit. Despite having spent millions on lobbyists and public relations consultants, the harvest they have reaped is shrinking daily. The City of Tukwila Council vote against ST’s rail project this week represents just such a drop in confidence.

I believe that the staff and political leadership of Sound Transit have worked hard in trying to build a mass transit based on a fixed surface rail system. But diligence has obviously not been enough to date.

I do not know exactly why they have not succeeded. A number of Seattle neighborhoods that the rail go through have complained from time to time that ST has not been consistent in describing their plans. In ST’s defense, they have tried to alter their plans to meet the concerns of the various communities that their surface rail will impact. And in that effort, their costs have increased. Although I don’t believe these accommodations alone could account for the rail’s per-mile costs exploding from $80 million per mile to more than $150 million per mile. Meanwhile the total ridership dropped by close to two-thirds.

There seems to be a persistent perception among both transit planners and the general public people that high-capacity transit inherently means a rail system. But high-capacity transit can be provided with less fixed capital expenditures, with more route flexibly and with less cost per transit rider, with other systems such as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. That debate has been truncated while Sound Transit has moved forward with its plans for surface fixed rail.

However, it may be revived if Sound Transit does not receive its federal funding. If that happens, then it will be time for our local political leaders to face up to the reality that surface fixed rail on a short route lacking access to the airport or a north end bus terminal will not relieve our traffic congestion. Other mass transit options will then need to be offered to the voters for consideration.


The Full City Council is scheduled to vote on the Hotel Developer Subsidy Legislation – Council Bill CB 114147 & CB 114183 on Monday June 24th not July 1st. See UP #133 for details on the legislation.

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