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Cover of official voter guide for Sound Transit 3 referendum. (Soundtransit3.org)

Amid speculation about the ways autonomous vehicles (AVs) may upend current ways of living—and require fundamental changes to the way real estate and critical transportation-related infrastructure are developed—voters in Washington state’s Puget Sound region approved tax increases in November to fund a $53.8 billion, 25-year program for expanding light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit. Is it irony or prescience that one of America’s longstanding hubs for technological innovation is making a dramatic, long-term bet on an old transportation technology? Only time will tell.

Following are details about the Seattle area’s ambitious plan:

The program—Sound Transit 3—shares its name with Sound Transit, the regional transit authority that serves the urbanized parts of King County, home of Seattle, and Pierce and Snohomish counties. The $31.7 billion allocated to light rail constitutes nearly 60 percent of Sound Transit 3’s package of improvements, and each of Sound Transit’s five subareas gets a piece of the light-rail action. They are promising true urban-style rail service, with trains
running 20 hours a day and departing every three to six minutes during peak hours.

Sound Transit 3’s ambitions for light rail are impressive. It completes the 116-mile (187 km) system
and adds 37 stations, bringing their total number to 78. By 2041, frequent rail service in the Puget Sound region will be in the same league as today’s Dallas Area Rapid Transit (93 miles [150 km] of light rail and 64 stations) and Washington, D.C.’s Metro (118 miles [190 km] of heavy rail and 91 stations).

Sound Transit 3 is not the region’s first leap of faith for frequent rail service. Voters approved taxes for Sound Transit 2 adding 36 miles (58 km) of light rail and 19 stations in 2008, a year before the opening of Central Link, the region’s first major light-rail line. The first stations built under Sound Transit 2 will not open until 2021. The first stations under Sound Transit 3 are planned to open in 2028.

By approving Sound Transit 3, voters added a property tax levy and increased the rates for the sales and motor vehicle excise taxes that were already dedicated to Sound Transit. The Sound Transit 3 taxes are estimated to bring in $27.7 billion during the 2017–2041 period. Sound Transit promises to reduce the tax rates after the final Sound Transit 3 projects are completed in 2041, although debt service on the expected bonds may continue decades longer.

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