As this Ringer piece details, Seattle is booming. In fact, it’s booming too hard. The home of Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing is the fourth fastest growing city in the nation, and local officials project that 800,000 people are expected to move to the area by 2040. That means that the 2nd worst (behind Los Angeles, of course) rush hour traffic situation in the country is only going to get worse going. As that TomTom study notes, “Seattle drivers who typically spend one hour driving each day are wasting 148 hours per year due to congestion.” Pretty basic math, but still staggering. Even Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, was fittingly late to a broadband internet event back in March because he was “stuck in traffic.”
Today, voters in Seattle’s King County and adjacent Snohomish and Pierce counties may or may not take a step to fix this long term issue. However, depending who you ask, Sound Transit 3, or Proposition 1, may not fix the issue at all, and if you ask someone else, it the issue may be overstated, too.
If more people in those counties vote “yes” than “no” regarding ST3, here’s would happen: taxpayers in the three counties would drop $54 billion over the next 25 years in an effort to lay 62 new miles of light rail, which would run, primarily, from Tacoma to Seattle. It would entail 37 new train stations in all, and as part of the deal, affording housing would be built in the communities that may attract more Seattle workers due to those new stations. That’s a lot of money, yes, but light rail would be pretty cool right? Better than LA-like traffic, and you gotta do something about that, supporters say, and that’s without mentioning all the jobs that would come along with such a project.
Opponents of Seattle’s light rail version of the Big Dig counter all that by saying: besides the $54 billion price tag, how can the government be trusted to spend that wisely, and timely? This project could easily go over budget and take too long, just like the Big Dig did. As someone who lived through the latter stages of the Big Dig, it was a real pain to deal with, even if I was just sitting in the back seat. Still, traffic in Boston is much better off for the Big Dig, and it would be hard to imagine the city handling its recent population increase without those substantial changes.
The better counter argument is that in 25 years, or whenever this thing may get done, is that ridesharing and driver-less cars will render light rail and other forms of transportation relatively useless. In Kirkland, a Seattle suburb, Google is already testing driver-less cars. Fixed rail is fast, yes, but it’s still fixed and sprawling. Uber’s CEO will tell you that things like uberPOOL are already solving these kinds of problems, and these solutions are coming in much faster than any track can be laid down. Additionally, in 25 years, the traffic and living patters in the Seattle area could change and further render these fixed tracks moot. $54 billion is a lot of money, and some would say too much, but governments will always be underfunded in comparison to tech giants that are working on dialing down traffic in the name of profit, already.
An up-to-date light rail system appeals to me. I’ve always loved trains, and I still enjoy looking out the window whenever I get to take the outdated Commuter Rail or Amtrak. A mid-21st century version of those transit options would be cool, and it would definitely beat sitting on the I-5 in traffic. Yet, for Seattle commuters, it would be incredibly frustrating to vote yes to this initiative and possibly not see the fruits of your tax dollars until you may be retired. It’s a tough vote, but at Seattle-area residents have a choice.