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Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell

Jul 27 2009

Sound Transit’s Light Rail Opening: People Will Come

After decades of talk and debate, Seattle now has light-rail to add to its transportation options. The opening of the new 14-mile segment is our 1st down play to move people in this region more effectively. I voted in favor of the Sound Transit 2 measure on last year’s ballot, supporting an expanded system totaling 55 miles and 19 stations in the next 15 years. Light rail is the most effective mode to move a lot of people from urban center to urban center. As one link is built to the next link, between 50,000 to 110,000 will be riding the system in the upcoming decades. Pulling a quote from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come”, in this case, “If you build it, people will use it.” By the way, for you movie buffs, it is “he” will come, not “they.” The phrase is often misquoted.

During the years of debates about providing light rail in this region, opponents frequently advance three main objections: 1) expanding bus service would be more cost effective; 2) light rail transit is the most expensive option; and 3) this region does not have the density for light rail to work. While I support expanding our current bus service, I do not believe the threshold in which we would have to expand service to meet the projected growth by 2025 would be sustainable. The impact of the fleet on our roads and the cost of operations and management would not be as practical as the Sound Transit 2 system. I believe light rail will be the spine behind our growth. The typical average cost per adult is roughly $69 per year through the end of the construction term. I believe that is a very logical and sound price for the way our children will be traveling in the future.

I would like to draw attention to a new trend in America; the growth of Americans moving to the suburbs in the last decade is now reversing and many U.S. cities are now growing quicker. I believe this trend is a reflection of people changing their habits and wanting to live in places where the things they need for daily life is within walking distance. Quoting a statement from John Norquist from the Congress of New Urbanism, “All the ingredients of the city spread out over the landscape, that was weird that was not normal and now what we see is a return to the normal we had before.” While the housing crisis is certainly a factor in this trend reversal, John McIIwain from the Urban Land Institute is expecting this trend to continue for the next 15 years. The move back into the city is being driven by young professionals, retirees, and empty nesters desire to leave road congestion behind and embrace the walkable neighborhood lifestyle—quick access to shops, restaurants, and health care. People were trading commute time for affordable housing and inadvertently increased congestion growth. As we expect some residents to return back into the city, managing crime and providing good schools (the top two drivers of people moving to the suburbs) will be critical.

As I have discussed growth in the previous paragraphs, more discussions will be taking place on Council in the upcoming years to monitor and manage the development around transit stations, building a sustainable neighborhood along these rail corridors, and where people feel safe and want to live. The opportunity has presented itself in this decade and in the next to transform the neighborhoods along the light rail corridor at these urban centers to be beautiful, bright, diverse, vibrant centers with meaningful open space as well. We do not want gentrification, cheaply constructed buildings, and large stores pushing out small businesses. We want these centers to be 1) safe and clean, 2) highly walkable, 3) energy-efficient building designs, 4) mixed-income housing, 5) mixed housing options, 6) open public spaces, 7) community/recreation centers, 8) youth centers, 9) public art, and, 10) a diverse and sustainable community. Growth along the 55 miles of light rail will happen—no debate there—and it is up to all of us to determine what it will look like, not just as lawmakers, but most importantly, members of the community.

Photo credit: flickr/Atomic Taco’s photostream, Creative Commons license.

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