The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Friday, March 7, 2008

The 1996 Case for Rapid Rail (STARRT) v Light Rail

STARRT, an alternative to the RTA proposal.

by David E. Carnes

The Puget Sound area is roughly the same size as the
greater San Francisco Bay area; about 60 miles by 35 miles;
the population is roughly comparable. This being the case,
any rail transit system under consideration for this area
should have the same SERVICE MODEL.

The builders of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)
system in the San Francisco Bay Area took as their service
model a high-speed, isolated-route system. By using BART,
it is possible to travel from Hayward to San Francisco (a
thirty-mile distance) in about 30 minutes. Because of a
similar geographical challenge (a body of water that limits
the number of routes into the primary city in the area),
commuting by car is not as practical because of traffic
snarls that can pop up at any time and cause major delays.

Since all Bay Area Rapid Transit system tracks are
elevated, underground (or underwater) or surface-level
behind fences, trains cruise between stations 4-5 miles
apart at 80+ mph. If the system were being designed today
instead of in the 1960's, the speed between stations would
most likely be 120-150 mph.

The system construction cost including the eight-mile
Trans-Bay tube was well under $1,000,000,000.00 (1 billion)
when completed; the equivalent 1994 cost, allowing for
inflation, is $3,900,000,000.00 (3.9 billion). Opponents of
the system have stated on numerous occasions in numerous
forums that the BART system isn't economically viable; the
often-flouted principle of contrary motion has resulted in
the construction of 50 miles of new track (from Hayward to
Livermore and from Concord to Antioch) to the BART system.

The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has decided not to
pursue an isolated-track, high-speed rail transit system;
reasons for rejecting this approach have been given as
excessive cost, or the impossibility of integrating rail
transit into the landscape (one representative on the RTA
Board told me that the BART elevated stations are just sooo
ugly!... with the implication that street-level light-rail
stations are preferable in their aesthetic-non-offensiveness

The RTA plan (rejected by voters in March of 1995)
called for a light-rail system which would occupy the left-
turn lane area of Highway 99. A single track would run from
downtown Tacoma to Sea-Tac Airport; the rest of the run into
Seattle would be of double-track design.

This extreme design compromise would result in a
commute time of 70 minutes minimum between Tacoma and
Seattle; a distance of thirty miles. What must be noted at
this point is that the time estimate comes directly from the
RTA - not from myself or any other opponent of this
particular design. Estimated cost in 1994 was
$6,300,000,000.00 (6.3 billion) - and the debacle
surrounding the repair of the Kingdome roof shows that the
true cost of the system could -and certainly would - be much

Instead, the RTA is taking the Portland, Oregon MAX
system as its service model for the Puget Sound area; low-
speed, street level light-rail. Using the MAX, it takes 45
minutes to travel a distance of 15 miles (personal
experience; and this was on a Saturday morning, with no rush-
hour traffic crossing the tracks!). Stations are 1-2 miles
apart. Trains must stop at all traffic lights, observe all
traffic laws, and have a maximum speed of about 25-30 mph.

The RTA will resubmit the light-rail proposal for a
second vote in 1996 or 1997. If the RTA plan is accepted,
the residents of Puget Sound will be saddled with a light-
rail system that will be obsolete on the day that it opens.
The reasons are clear: it will take too much time to travel
from Tacoma to Seattle, and the equipment will be too narrow
for long-distance comfort. In addition, the idea of having
a station every mile to cover all neighborhoods means that
you would spend more time sitting in a station than
travelling toward your destination.

If the RTA plan is rejected for a second time, it is
extremely unlikely that any form of rail transit will be
considered for another twenty years. In the intervening
years, we will have to live with the increasing commute time
penalties of that decision.

The STARRT System Proposal:

"All the world's best intentions won't get it built"
may be sad but is also true. The following paragraphs
describe a plan that is a better alternative to the RTA
plan. The question of construction cost is the central
issue and obstacle to completion; but the answer to this
issue is seen in the I-90/Mercer Island Floating Bridge
project - i.e., if it's considered important enough, funds
will be requisitioned at the Federal level.

For instance, the EPA has proclaimed this area in
violation of Clean Air Standards. That being the case,
funds are (or can be made) available if the correct statute
is invoked, showing that a rail transit system is a vital
component in reducing emission of pollutants in the area.

Ultimately, residents of the greater Puget Sound area
must bear a portion of construction and operating costs.
Taxpayer impact could be made easier by constructing the
STARRT system over a ten-to-fifteen-year period, in the
following order:

Phase One
When initial funding is secured, work is begun on Main
Lines One (complete line, Olympia to Everett), Two (complete
line, Alderwood Mall to McChord/Tacoma International
Airport) and Three (partial line, Issaquah through
Seattle/Main to White Center) as soon as possible.
Environmental Impact Statements have already been performed
for most of the locations for Lines One and Two and would
not need to be repeated.

(A note on place names is in order; the "Seattle/Main"
station would be located at or near the site of the Metro
International District/King Street tube station - it would
be the "heart" of the system, the central station where two
of the rail lines cross. It is possible that the system
administrative offices would be located there. McChord/TIA
is based on the idea that decreased military funding will
eventually cause the base to be returned to the City of
Tacoma; this would also relieve congestion at Seattle/Tacoma
International Airport by making the controversial idea of a
third runway a reality without the associated construction
costs. International and/or freight flights could operate
from TIA, while domestic traffic continued to operate from
Sea/Tac. Accessability would be guaranteed between the two
major airports, since the STARRT system would provide a fast
rail link.)

Phase Two
When final funding is secured, work is begun on the
Line One North Extension, from Everett through Mt. Vernon
and Bellingham to Vancouver B.C. Airport (note that funding
for this line comes from areas north of Everett), and the
Line One South Extension, from Olympia through Centralia and
Kelso to Portland, Salem and Eugene, Oregon (funding from
Olympia south to Eugene from non-RTA sources). Please note
that not every train from the central portion of Line One
continues north past Everett or south past Olympia - most
turn around at that point and go back.

At the same time, the Line Three tunnel is completed
from White Center to Southworth/Harper by tunneling under
the north end of Vashon Island, connecting King and Kitsap
counties (and adding a Vashon station if island residents
should change their minds) with the line surfacing at
Southworth and continuing through Port Orchard, Bremerton
and Silverdale to Bangor (optional extension to Port
Angeles). The STARRT system is now complete per its
original design goal.


Instead of planning a system which is designed down to
meet a certain budget, the transit system for this region
should be designed up to reach a more practical long-range
goal: operational viability for the next 100 years. Rather
than picking a random amount of time off the wall, consider
that New York City has had subways for 100 years; so
anything built here should have an expected service lifespan
at least as long. Next, one should ask; in that amount of
time, how will the population of this area change? Where
will new subdivisions and communities be built?

Space is fast running out near Puget Sound; within 25
years, Enumclaw (at the western edge of the Cascades and a
pleasant back-water in 1995) could become a city with a
population of 75,000 with major industry, 20-storey office
buildings, and quarter-million dollar bungalows. If this
sounds incredible, consider what the Valley between Renton
and Auburn looked like in 1969, and what it looks like
today; it has gone from farmland to industrial and high-tech
manufacturing in a 25-year timespan.

Whether we like it or not, many companies have their
offices in downtown Seattle, yet their employees are living
in Marysville, North Bend, Puyallup, or even Bremerton, and
for a variety of reasons: housing costs, liking the view,
it's where they grew up, etc. The transit system under
development will not serve any of these communities 20 years
from now, even though people are driving back and forth
everyday of the week, contributing to ever-increasing

I am wondering how long the future residents of this
region will wait before they are forced to tear out an
inadequate LRS system and replace it with what should have
been built in the first place.


If the preceding has urged you to some form of action,
you should contact your elected representatives who are
listed on the Internet at House of Representatives,
Senate Roster, committees by commitee, at the state and
national level urging the course of action described above.

The "STARRT" acronym, the "Seattle-Tacoma Area Rapid
Rail Transit" name, and the text of this document are ©1995
by David E. Carnes. This article may be reproduced in whole
or in part only if unaltered in any way (no quoting out of
context), and if attributed solely to the author. Opinions
expressed are strictly those of the author, and are
not those of any member of the RTA. Many
thanks to Ken and Malcolm at Peninsula Computers in Gig
Harbor for their generous assistance.

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