There has been a groundswell of opposition to the Sound Transit SR 522 BRT design as our Lake Forest Park (LFP) neighbors have learned of the plan to replace our tree-lined corridor, substituting 400 mature trees and countless shrubs with a concrete wall nearly mile long as high as 16 feet. Deputy mayor Tom French said in the recent Fall 2023 LFP Times newsletter “Over 300 neighbors attended a recent City Council meeting where Julie Timm, Sound Transit’s CEO spoke and responded to questions from the City Council. I suspect that this was the largest group ever to assemble at our City Hall both present and past”. That number was topped shortly after as nearly 450 residents attended the Sound Transit meeting at LFP Elementary School where Julie Timm attempted to answer questions.
With so many questioning the value of this damaging and expensive dedicated lane in LFP, what are the compelling reasons to move forward? Sound Transit has characterized the SR 522 BRT as an essential component of a 100-year, multi-generational project to improve transit options. But there are three questions we should seek to answer.
1. How valid are Sound Transit’s assumptions about ridership and benefits of the project?
CORE has questioned the benefit of a 2.3-minute faster bus commute through our segment, especially since the 2.3 minutes saved in the LFP segment is such a small proportion of the overall route time savings, despite the higher cost (both environmentally and financially). Sound Transit has always responded that we must be mindful that that is only a single person’s savings on one ride. We need to instead multiply and consider the cumulative benefits for a regular commuter, and those of all the bus riders during the year. But those who ride the 522 know that it is almost always nearly empty. in fact, ridership is down 64% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Sound Transit has a poor record of meeting project ridership goals, and they anticipate 522 ridership to increase by 2,000% by 2040!
Sound Transit ridership assumptions were based on pre-pandemic commuter behavior. It is generally acknowledged now that factors reducing the ridership are here to stay, including remote and hybrid work. Sound Transit Board chair Dow Constantine acknowledges as much in a June 19, 2023 New York Times article “With Commuters Staying Home, Transit Agencies Try to Reinvent Themselves“ when he said he wanted efforts to rebuild ridership “in what I think is a permanently changed environment”. This is illustrated by the post-pandemic reduction on 522 weekend ridership, which is less than half of the week-day reductions.
In describing the benefits, Sound Transit focuses on how frequently the bus arrives and how much time it takes to get to the new Shoreline light rail station, but isn’t the most important metric how long it takes for a person to get from where they are to where they need to go and how much trouble it is to make the trip? That metric is conspicuously absence from the data, and it bears heavily on whether the person chooses mass transit in the first place.
I suspect nearly all riders won’t complete their trip at the 148th station. Where are they going? Where are they starting from?
In the absence of real data, it’s likely that prime destinations along the 522 route include downtown Seattle and UW.
If they are going to work, downtown is clearly not the destination it was prior to the remote/hybrid work revolution. Just look at office vacancies downtown (What mandates? Data shows WA workers aren’t rushing back to the office). Perhaps Sound Transit is hoping for a Taylor Swift concert every week. Sound Transit has reminded those of us in LFP who miss the 522 Express to get downtown that we will be able to take the new 522 BRT to the link station and transfer. They say that for most of us it will only take ten minutes longer after their devastating and costly development - assuming the escalators and elevators are working, or for that matter the trains themselves.
Aside from downtown, a prominent destination will be UW. On August 10, the LFP City Council was told that the 372 bus that goes directly to UW will be discontinued in favor of the 72, which will go to UW but only go as far North as 145th. For those students, faculty, and staff of our area who caught the 372 and were delivered right to their campus buildings, progress will mean that you will soon have to take the 522 to the 148th link station and transfer. That’s sure to be more time consuming, especially when you consider the added walk to your building from the light rail station either at U District or the stadium (see Lynnwood Link agenda item - video at 7:46).
Sound Transit has acknowledged that traffic congestion will not improve after wrecking permanent environmental damage to our community and spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Thats right, for those who need to drive because the transit model doesn’t effectively support their trips, it will get worse (Sound Transit booster admits building light rail will not improve traffic congestion » Publications » Washington Policy Center).
2. With a 100-year project, is it reasonable to initially commit all resources to a design that can’t be altered in the future?
I spent my career managing large software development projects. Originally, software developers followed the “waterfall” method of assessing requirements. This involved fully understanding project needs as a first step followed by development of the software. It would often take months or years to finish large software projects and during this time, the needs would change. In the last 30 years, the waterfall method has been supplanted by “agile” development wherein smaller, incremental software releases allow for changing requirements. Although transit projects fall more into the hardware category than software, the ST3 project sure looks like a waterfall project in the extreme. There’s an emerging sentiment in academia that transit infrastructure projects should also be pursuing more agile development (LRT, REM, mass transit projects and their fuz | EurekAlert!)
At the LFP Elementary meeting, CORE co-founder Vicki Scuri asked CEO Julie Timm how Sound Transit can reasonably anticipate what will be needed 100 years into the future. Ms. Timms response was that, essentially, they do the best they can. Later in that same meeting, another resident asked how can Sound Transit commit to a 100-year bus project when buses, as we know them now, didn’t exist 100 years ago and almost certainly won’t 100 years from now. Clearly, Sound Transit’s planning didn’t accommodate the new reality of remote and hybrid work. The pandemic forced this change, but it was technology that enabled it. What other technological developments will inform how and where we work in the next ten or twenty years? Isn’t it critical to have the flexibility to adapt our transportation projects as circumstances change?
Seattle’s new Transportation Plan has a more realistic twenty-year planning horizon. King County Metro has a 30-year plan. How much will it cost to replace the current project in 30 years when it becomes obsolete?
3. How carefully did Sound Transit evaluate alternatives for cost/benefit?
The answer here is clear – they didn’t. Both CORE and the LFP City Council have been asking for Sound Transit to pause and consider re-design, but they say it’s too late – it would cause a delay and add to costs. When asked why they plan bus queue jumps on 145th but didn’t consider it in Lake Forest Park, they said it was too disruptive to property owners on 145th. But what about the 110 property owners in LFP? They also said they would have preferred a dedicated BAT lane on 145th, but most of the anticipated time savings are on the 145th segment without a dedicated lane.
The LFP City Council has recently requested that the Washington Department of Transportation reduce the speed limit in the LFP section of SR522 to 35 mph. This would make the roadway safer and consistent with the adjacent segments in Kenmore and Lake City. The Council also sent a letter to Sound Transit informing them of this action because lane and shoulder widths are reduced for a 35-mph state roadway. Residents should insist that Sound Transit redesign the roadway that would be four feet narrower. That would save trees, reduce the wall height and cost less. Sound Transit must not be allowed to redesign the roadway for the reduced speed without formally evaluating bus queue jumps or other creative approaches – and making that analysis promptly available to the public. With the reduction in lane widths, perhaps other approaches are feasible, like using the center two-way left turn lane for the new BRT lane.
Further analysis should also consider options that might supplement the project and enhance ridership. The problem with fixed route transit is that people need to travel to board and must travel after departing to their final destination. What if they are carrying groceries, or the kids to soccer practice? Sound Transit should be looking at a new form, “micro transit”, to supplement its infrastructure in a redesign that would avoid heat domes and deforestation. Advances in technology promise to make micro transit much cheaper within a few years - picking you up where you are and delivering you to where you want to go. In contrast to Sound Transit light-rail and BRT, micro transit CAN reduce vehicle traffic volumes. Here is a description - What is microtransit? - Via Transportation (ridewithvia.com). There are already successful pilots throughout the country such as the King County Metro Flex program implemented in 2019.
In her August 2023 “Line” newsletter, Lori Boddi says “I truly hope that Executive Timm follows up this time, takes our comments to heart, and directs a significant redesign of the BRT project through LFP (or further postpones it to 2044, same as the LFP parking garage proposal).”