There are plenty of smart reasons to vote for ST3, which adds 62 miles of light rail to the current system. (There are also lots of phony reasons to vote against ST3, like the Seattle Times' oxymoron of the year that ST3 is both a “blank check” and “locks us into a $54 billion plan.”)
First, here’s a quick summary of the clearly defined plan: It will build 62 new miles of light rail by 2040, including two new Seattle lines (West Seattle to Downtown and Ballard to Downtown by 2030 and 2035, respectively) plus lines to Everett, Redmond, and Tacoma. The total cost is $54 billion over 25 years—about $14 a month per household in new taxes.
Why vote for it?
Given the region’s explosive growth—86,000 people moved to the region in the last year alone, the biggest increase in 20 years—providing people with an alternative to driving cars is imperative for the economy and the environment. The region is expected to add 800,000 new people by 2040, reaching about five million people, an approximate 30 percent increase from 2014.
It would be impossible to build enough car lanes or bus lanes, for that matter, to accommodate that growth. It would also destroy our region’s environment.
The current light rail system is already working to lower the region’s carbon footprint: The number of passengers taking Sound Transit last year put us on a pace to eliminate 139,000 tons of greenhouse emissions every year.
Adding ST3 to the existing system will help the entire ST network eliminate an estimated 793,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2040. Why? Because the number one contributor to greenhouse gases in our region, driving in cars, won’t be the only option anymore.
And light rail, in fact—with trains running every six minutes during rush hour and every 10 minutes during non-rush hours—will be the better commuting option: While a general purpose freeway lane moves 2,000 cars per hour at best and just 700 in congestion, a single light rail line can carry 16,000 riders in each direction. (And as opposed to buses—you'd need 200 buses an hour to move the same amount of people, requiring one bus every 18 seconds—light rail is grade separated. Buses are key too, though, and ST3 does add: 10,700 hours of express buses in South King County, 12,804 hours in Snohomish County, and 27,820 express bus hours in East King County.)
But here’s the most important reason to vote for ST3: Light rail is about economic and social justice.
According to the most recent data, in 2014 the average family spent more money on transportation than any other expenditure except housing; the average expenditure is $9,073 a year on transportation. That cost hits poor people the hardest. Not only in the up-front cost, but structurally, in the long term. A recent Harvard study identified lacking access to transportation as the biggest economic roadblock for low income families. And so, poor people are stuck in an economic downward spiral: Seattle has become unaffordable for many low-income people, which locks them in the suburbs, making it costly for them to access economic opportunities in the city. That Catch-22 equation, making poor people dependent on costly, time-suck transportation, screws everyone by adding cars to the road and more emissions to the sky.
Connecting people to the city has the exact reverse effect: It lowers the cost of living while simultaneously creating access to the jobs and opportunity.
For example, ridership at the proposed Federal Way Transit Center is predicted to be 57 percent people of color and 22 percent low-income, according to Sound Transit. Likewise, the Lynnwood to Everett rail will serve a population that is 42 percent people of color and 17 percent low-income.
Overall: When you add ST3 to the system, more than 38 percent of the population within a mile of Sound Transit stops will be people of color and 14.3 percent of the population living within one mile of the future stops will be low-income people.
It's also worth pointing out that the ST project will end up serving more than 36,000 current low-income housing units and Sound Transit itself is contributing $20 million to a regional fund to support affordable housing.
If this sounds paternalistic, here’s the most important thing to understand. ST3 won’t simply provide a day pass from District 12 to The Capitol. In addition to connecting communities, it will also create new vibrant communities themselves throughout the region. With transit comes development of its own that will transform moribund and struggling communities into dense hubs of new housing, commerce, and opportunities.
This prospect adds a new dimension to the basic idea of regionalism. ST3 doesn’t simply connect job centers in Everett to Seattle to Redmond to Tacoma along a twenty-first-century transportation grid. It also invests in the communities in between, reshaping them, with transit oriented development, as centers themselves—rather than isolating them as just layovers along the way. That should be the true goal of regionalism. Fortunately, ST3, with it's TOD mandates and affordable housing goals, isn't merely about connecting communities, it's about creating them.