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How Ambitious Will Seattle Get With Its Transit Expansion Plan?

The nonprofit Seattle Subway wants to expand on the current concept for rail and bus expansion proposed by Sound Transit (left), with a more substantial network of light rail lines (right). Maps via Seattle Subway

Next November, voters in the Seattle region will be asked to approve a new tax to fund a major expansion of the region's light rail system.

The $15 billion plan to expand transit, known as ST3, would be funded by a mix of sales taxes, property taxes, and car registration fees collected for 15 years. The big question is which projects will get built.

Sound Transit has proposed a smorgasbord of "candidate projects," including light rail through downtown, commuter rail to the south and east suburbs, and a pair of north-south bus rapid transit routes. But area leaders haven't yet decided exactly what to include in the final ballot measure.

Meanwhile, transit advocates have stepped up with some ideas of their own. The most talked about comes from the nonprofit Seattle Subway, which proposes a much more expansive menu. Their plan, which they call STcomplete, would use the same funding mix but extend the collection period from 15 years to 30 years.

Rumors are swirling that the Sound Transit board is taking Seattle Subway's expanded proposal seriously. Doug Trumm of The Urbanist said he hopes that's true, for a couple of reasons.

The ST3 plan sounds "really ambitious, and it is compared to some cities," he said, "but it’s actually less ambitious than the last one." That was ST2 -- an $18 billion light rail expansion package approved by voters in 2008.

In addition, the expansion projects will be set up according to formula called "sub-area equity," in which the money spent in different parts of the region is commensurate with the money each area contributes. With 15 years of funding, the city of Seattle itself may not get much added transit capacity, but with 30 years worth, it's a different story.

At the same time, it's important to put together a package that can succeed at the ballot box. "It’s a delicate balance," Trumm said.

Transit campaigners are concerned about the STcomplete proposal's chances to withstand the anti-tax vote. Shefali Ranganathan, director of the coalition that successfully pushed for ST2, told the Stranger that she expects the Sound Transit board to opt for a middle ground with 20 years of funding.

Meanwhile, at Seattle Transit Blog, Frank Chiachiere proposes what he calls the "Peanut Butter Plan." Instead of building light rail to West Seattle, Chiachiere's expansion plan calls for a denser network of frequent bus lines running in dedicated lanes:

The result is a rapid transit expansion that brings serious speed and reliability improvements to just about every neighborhood in Seattle, while opening up a new East-West connection for non-downtown trips. Riders of express buses from places like Broadview, Phinney, and Alki would see their commutes shortened thanks to the new bus tunnel and a one-seat ride into downtown.

Against the positive of creating high-quality service for more residents, Chiachiere weighs the political negatives: The difficulty of appealing to voters with bus improvements instead of light rail, and the uncertainty that the needed street space could be secured for bus lanes.

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