Transportation Policy

Seattle Looks to Spend $54 Billion on Mass Transit System Few People Use

Sound Transit might not be sound policy.

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A Sound Transit light rail car
VeloBusDriver / Flickr

At the Seattle bar and music venue Neamos last Tuesday, the usual entertainment of hair-gelled rock stars had to make room for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and a string of other city officials.

The leaders were there for a launch party for Sound Transit 3 (ST3), a proposed $54 billion expansion of the Puget Sound area's transit system that will be voted on this November. According to the final plan, which was approved back in June, ST3 would buy commuters an additional 62 miles of light rail, new bus rapid transit lines, and expanded traditional bus services, all to be completed by 2040.

The objective of this staggering new investment is to cut down on highway congestion and make room for the estimated 800,000 new residents the Puget Sound metro area is expecting to attract in the coming decades. In addition, Murray has promised that light rail will also heal the environment and bring about racial justice in Seattle.

How will ST3 accomplish these glittering social goals? By providing 56,000–72,000 additional commuter trips a day. Mind you, this does not mean 56,000–72,000 additional commuters: A trip is defined by in the plan as one complete journey from origin to destination (say, from home to work). As most commuters will likely want to return from work at some point during the day, the number of new riders gained by that $54 billion is likely to be somewhere around half as high.

In fact, Mariya Kargopoltseva of the Washington Policy Center used Sound Transit's own projections and estimated that ST3 will net about new 28,147 riders. "This means that under ST3, each new transit rider will cost over $1 million dollars," she wrote. "It also means that 97% of the one million new residents expected in 2040 will likely not be using Sound Transit's costly services, meaning Sound Transit officials do not meet the demand for mobility they themselves anticipate."

And this assumes that ST3 remains in-budget and that its projected ridership scenario plays out. Given the agency's track record, neither should be taken for granted.

In 1996, when Seattle-area voters approved of a new light rail proposal, they were promised that the system would cost $2.3 billion and carry 105,000 daily riders by 2010. Instead, taxpayers ended up shelling out $5.3 billion, and the system was completed 10 years late and carries just one-third the number of riders expected.

Yet despite the high price tag and disappointing performance of previous light rail projects, ST3 has attracted widespread praise and support. Everyone from corporate titans Microsoft and Amazon to the ultra-leftists at The Stranger have touted its benefits, and their enthusiasm has translated into real money. Mass Transit Now, the official "yes" campaign, has attracted over $2 million in donations, much of it reportedly coming from unions and construction firms.

Meanwhile, opponents of the measure have raised a paltry $10,000. These donors, few that they are, might be better off saving their money for fare on what will likely become Seattle's newest boondoggle.

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  1. Where do they get all this money? I’m assuming it’s bonds. Who keeps buying these bonds? “Guaranteed to fail colossally? Sounds like a great investment!”

    1. Also, “grants” (other people’s tax dollars) from the federal government.

      1. Of course. Who can forget the ever-important “infrastructure spending”. Nothing is gonna fix our roads like trains nobody will use.

    2. The bonds get bailed out, so unless the implosion is really big, there’s a return on investment.

      1. Moral hazard, what’s that?

        1. Fantasy, pure fantasy

        2. It’s actually savings, don’t you know.

      2. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the bondholders are public employee pension funds. It’s the perpetual motion machine of government spending. The multiplier must be huge.

        1. They are. The inevitable collapse is going to be spectacular.

    3. Why bus these bonds? Public retirement plans! And if that is not enough, expect mandatory investments of your 401k in public bonds… For your own safety of course.

  2. Seattle Looks to Spend $54 Billion on Mass Transit System Few People Use 20-years of guaranteed Union Contract work

    FTFY

    1. to be completed by 2040

      Sorry = 30 years.

      assuming over-run.

      1. What happens when teleportation is invented in 2032?

        1. Have you seen how uber is treated?

          1. Yeah, I can definitely envision a horde of pitchfork wielding luddites attacking the teleportation machines.

            1. Where ‘pitchfork wielding luddites’ = unionized transit train drivers.

        2. Teleportation will be fine, but federal regulations will require a man with a lantern to proceed you.

  3. This was one of the plotlines of the 1991 movie Singles. As I recall, the mayor wisely shot down the character’s speedy train proposal.

    1. Urban Transit = The White Whale perpetually being chased. Expensively

      I HAVE EVERY CONFIDENCE COST ISSUES WILL BE RECTIFIED. TOP PEOPLE ARE INVESTIGATING

      There have been some in-house efforts to examine the issue, though none that anyone seems to find particularly useful.

      In 2008, the M.T.A. released the report from a “blue ribbon” panel on unwieldy megaprojects. Then it appointed a traffic engineer…to run those projects and “implement ideas the panel generated.”

      Seven years later, all of the M.T.A’s megaprojects are still late, and nearly all are hundreds of millions over budget.

      Cuomo appointed a “reinvention commission” to tackle the problem, too. It came up with recommendations, like creating a “center of excellence” to reform procurement procedures.

      Asked which of these recommendations the M.T.A. has implemented, agency spokesman Adam Lisberg said, “We have used design-build processes for billions of dollars’ worth of procurements, we solicit input from the contractor community during the design of complex projects before locking them down, we do formal risk assessments of all large procurements, and we develop mitigation strategies to manage that risk.”

      1. Lesson = the process is working exactly as designed.

        Its just (as per my above comment) people keep mistaking WHAT the process is intended to achieve.

  4. Will this also be a monorail?

    Did Seattle buy theirs from Lyle Lanley?

    1. Hey, it worked great in Brockway.

  5. Mass Transit Now, the official “yes” campaign, has attracted over $2 million in donations, much of it reportedly coming from unions and construction firms.

    Really makes you think.

  6. TRAINS in Seattle is like FOOTBALL in Texas.

    1. No, you’re thinking Portland.

  7. Murray has promised that light rail will … bring about racial justice

    WTF?

    1. = we’re going to force you uppity whiteys to ride this train.

      1. Cool! Social justice, too!

      2. Only in the back of the train, as reparations.

        1. You need a special ‘check privilege’ ID to get on if you’re a white male.

        2. +1 Rosa Parks her ass elsewhere

      3. *= we’re going to force you uppity whiteys to ride this train.*

        No, it just means the unsavory sorts won’t have to own a car to get to YOUR neighborhood.

    2. It’s total BS, Rich, and they know it. Racial Justice is just an enabling buzzword that has to be included in the goals of all rightthinkful projects.

    3. In a just world, he would have been tarred and feathered for that idiotic pronouncement

  8. I’m just going to point out that for that kind of cheese you could buy over 2 million brand new Prius automobiles, paying full list price no less.

    For a sense of the magnitude of that number, there were about 113,000 sold in the entire US last year.

    1. You could also cut a check for over $14k to every resident of the Seattle MSA.

      1. If you just give people money how will they know the right way to spend it?

        1. Hell, no! That’s why we need financial advisors and the government.

    2. But you’d have to want to buy a Prius.

    3. Or you could buy 3 million good cars.

    4. So, who cares? That would allow individuals to choose on their own when and where to go. Much better to leave that to processional politicians who know much better where people should be allowed to live and work. Not to mention the huge unemployment among union government train drivers. What were you thinking?

      1. Maybe they’ll have a cash for clunkers perfectly good cars deal where they buy all the cars from city residents, for 2x the value, and recycle them to make windmills. They should bring in Joe Biden to sell that.

      2. ^This. Seattle is conducting a war on cars.

    5. Buy only 1 million. You’ll need some money to spend for either new parking lots or more parking meters.

  9. “Yet despite the high price tag and disappointing performance of previous light rail projects, ST3 has attracted widespread praise and support. Everyone from corporate titans Microsoft and Amazon to the ultra-leftists at The Stranger have touted its benefits, and their enthusiasm has translated into real money. Mass Transit Now, the official “yes” campaign, has attracted over $2 million in donations, much of it reportedly coming from unions and construction firms.”

    Yet? What we’re we supposed to expect from them?

    1. I find it hilarious that it’s considered vaguely newsworthy that a reliably Left local paper would support a mass-transit scheme.

      The world will probably end the first time a local alt-rag doesn’t support a light rail boondoggle, no matter how stupid it is.

  10. “In addition, Murray has promised that light rail will also heal the environment and bring about racial justice in Seattle.”

    Right. Making the train like the bus system here will be the fastest way to get whites and Asians off.

  11. They need to make sure all the lines are underground so:

    a) it takes 4x as long to finish
    b) the homeless can be moved from their current homes underneath I-5 overpasses to their new CHUD homes in the train tunnels.

  12. “Seattle Looks to Spend $54 Billion on Mass Transit System Few People Use”

    Build it, and they will come.

  13. Has there every been any public mass transit project that was completed on time and on budget and met the ridership and the financial operating projections?

    I doubt anyone can find a single instance anywhere in the country where that has been the case.

    1. The Deutsche Reichsbahn Holocaust Trains?

    2. If you’re willing to accept toll highways, road bridges, and car tunnels as “public mass-transit projects”, then a lot (but by no means all) of them have met their projections (not so many were built on time/under budget though). Naturally, these are ripe targets for the government to raise money off of. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge (the Maryland one) has probably paid for itself several times over. So the state raised the tolls.

      1. And the fucking “Delaware Turnpike” (aka the tiny section of I-95 that passes through Delaware) is expensive and in godawful shape, with never-ending construction. WTF are they constructing? More potholes?

        1. When your incentive is to keep people employed, and not to keep the infrastructure in good shape without wasting taxpayer dollars, then you get shit like that. I’ve seen 10-mile stretches of busy highway get repaved beautifully in under 1 month. I’ve also seen bloated work crews take 10 months to turn a 1-mile stretch of road from “old and understandably shitty” to “new and inexplicably shitty”.

          1. Just looked it up…26 miles for $4/car.

            1. This stuff astonishes me. This summer we drove past Chicago, where big hunks of interstate highway are also toll roads. That should not be legal. Part of the point of the federal highway system is avoiding such a patchwork.

              It is mildly surprising that the states along 95 haven’t put up seasonal tolls to catch snow birds coming too and from Florida. So far they’ve just settled for tourist trap truck stops like “South of the Border” South Carolina.

      2. “If you’re willing to accept toll highways, road bridges, and car tunnels as “public mass-transit projects”

        I don’t put those in the mass transit category. Bridges tunnels and highways are assets being driven on by both individual, freight and mass transit vehicles. They are not mass transit systems in and of themselves.

        I am talking about the actual mass people mover systems – trains, buses, streetcars and such.

    3. You know, the government is generally prohibited from choosing contractors based on cost.

      . . . because that might mean they were skimping on safety and other important considerations.

      1. There’s a difference between “prioritize cost above all other factors” and “optimize for cost given constraints on minimum quality and safety”. A well designed and executed bidding process should deliver the latter.

        Remember the old adage “good, fast, cheap — pick two?” The reality of government contracting (never mind when the government tries to do something “in house”) makes it necessary to amend the adage to “good, fast, cheap — pick at most two?” None of the above is a distinct possibility.

        1. Delete the second question mark

        2. How about “good, fast, cheap, union, diverse”. Pick two, and the first three options don’t count.

          1. Don’t forget “green”!

        3. You mean bidding can mandate various standards in the bids?

          That’s crazy.

          (Prohibited from choosing based on cost? Can you show me the actual statutes?)

  14. Tell me the system includes a monorail.

  15. From the opening sentence (it’s “Neumo’s”, and hair-gelled rock stars? are we in the 80’s?), I could tell the author seems to have little grasp of Seattle’s growth and its local traffic and transportation issues.

    I don’t agree with the way public transportation is funded, but the current light rail system has been a huge success. I don’t know anyone who lives in the Seattle region who is disappointed by it. That latest extension (only 2 additional stops) has increased ridership 80%. Also, under budget and completed on-time.

    The main problem with ST3 politics is that the ST agency appointed one of the most hated ballot initiative phony-libertarian trolls, Tim Eyman, to represent the (legally required) opposition voice to the proposal. So the debate has been effectively shut down.

    Just a touch of impartiality and I might have taken this article to be a _reason_able point of contention to the plan.

    1. “Also, under budget and completed on-time.”

      http://mynorthwest.com/374427/…..er-budget/

      “As it turns out, the only way the project could be considered on time and under budget is if the first 10 years of the project are ignored.”

    2. SMS runs the monorail at a supposed profit, so why couldnt they fund, build, and operate the ST as a private entity if its such a good idea?

      1. Apples to oranges. The monorail is pretty much an amusement park ride left over from the ’62 Worlds Fair.

        And I was talking about the latest extension to the light rail. It was completed for $200 million under the $1.8 billion budget.

        1. “And I was talking about the latest extension to the light rail. It was completed for $200 million under the $1.8 billion budget.”

          The latest extension was supposed to be completed 10 years ago.

        2. It seems like it would be easier to run a useful train at a profit than an amusement ride.

          1. Amusement rides are taken rarely and don’t need to be very functional or cheap. Transportation needs to work reliably, predictably, and cheaply every day.

          2. Politicians and “social advocate” types get all whiney when transportation actually costs money.

            I’m not sure any public transport system in America runs at a profit – none of them are allowed to even if they could somehow.

            (They’re basically openly acknowledged to be a welfare grant to poor people.

            Which is fine – I just wish they’d be even more explicit about it.)

    3. “Increased ridership by 80% by adding two more stops” tells me the trains only just started going where people wanted them to.

      That’s not a “huge success”, that’s “recovering from a huge failure”.

  16. Mega projects (over $1 B) have a 1 in 10 chance of finishing on time. A 1 in 10 chance of coming in under budget. And a 1 in 10 chance of providing the promised results. These are apparently (mostly) independent variables, so the odds of getting all 3 are about 1 in 1000.

  17. The objective of this staggering new investment is to cut down on highway congestion and make room for the estimated 800,000 new residents the Puget Sound metro area is expecting to attract in the coming decades.

    Always Vote No, and Encourage People To Move Elsewhere.

    It’s my plan for Portland, and it shows great promise.

    1. Hahaha. I’m here first! Love it or fuck you!
      Stay classy Portland.

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