– Seattle’s battle for light rail


Severe problems with Kemper Freeman’s disillusioned perception of light rail

The Bellevue Reporter recently released an article regarding developer Kemper Freeman’s long-famed dislike of Light Rail. Freeman claims to have commissioned a team of “experts” to study the perfect archetype of a transportation system, but all they are telling us are numbers that are based on a Seattle as it is in 2009. The truth is that because Kemper Freeman is such a big stakeholder in Downtown Bellevue, he is afraid that light rail will detract the quality of his real estate empire. Under the guise that rail is “too costly” and that Seattle’s density is too low, Freeman has provided quite a voice for those who only rely on car transportation but advocate for travel modes they would never use.

Let’s start with simple elementary counterarguments against these claims:

Freeman notes that metropolitan Seattle is far from ever reaching that level, with 2,200 people per square mile compared with New York’s roughly 60,000 people per square mile.

“We’re trying to apply (rail-based transit) where we have a fraction of the density,” he said. “We’re using the wrong tools. It’s like using a sledge hammer to set a tack.”

I’m not entirely sure who wrote the 2,200-60,000 number, but those figures are very off. If we look at the densities of each city proper, Seattle has a population density of 7,179 people per square mile (Washington State OFM). Even in the five boroughs of NYC, the population density is 27,000 people per square mile. That gives about a ratio of 1-4, far more even than the previously cited numbers. When considering the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue MSA vs. the New York MSA (Tri-State Area), the ratio becomes 1-5, but still far from the 2,200-60,000 blowout that is cited.

Secondly, this is a pretty incredulous claim by Freeman if he’s actually ignoring other successful rail systems in cities that are less dense than Seattle. Cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Atlanta are all credited with having successfully adequate public transportation systems, despite all having lower population densities than Seattle.

The major point that Kemper and his “experts” ignore is that the whole point of light rail is to spur density and development. Link Light Rail is not a system that is built to merely serve the needs of 2009 Seattle Area residents, but those who will be using it in 2030 or 2060. Claiming that population density is too low is far from an excuse not to build, especially when the region expects high growth within the next twenty years.

Freeman is also skeptical about Sound Transit’s ridership projections. He argues that the overwhelming majority of metropolitan Seattleites around 95 percent will always be dependent on the car.

I’m not sure what Freeman is skeptical about. ST2 passed loudly and clearly last year, and those ridership estimates account for PSRC numbers (which don’t account for changing land use policies). Sure, the majority of Puget Sound residents will be dependent on the car, but that does not mean these residents will have an aversion to transit. I myself use a car to get around South Bellevue, but always commute into Seattle via bus. In reality, a large number of these residents will use rail when it becomes more and more convenient.

Freeman has his own version of the ideal regional transportation system, but it starts with a concept every bit as divisive as light rail. He’s calling for more roads, specifically a six-percent increase in lane miles that he estimates would reduce congestion by 36 percent.

Can he really vouch for more roads despite highway infrastructure having similarly expensive costs? Isn’t that a little hypocritical? Freeman is further disillusioned by claiming that a 6% increase in highway miles will reduce congestion, when the region’s expected 1+ million new residents in the next few decades will only fill these lanes to capacity and recongest the roadways. There’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that expanding highways only sets the capacity level higher for congestion. When filled, that puts a tremendous amount of stress on merge lanes, on/off ramps, and especially surface streets. A truly wise decision.

Freeman says a bus rapid-transit system using dedicated lanes to bypass congestion could be implemented in under three years at a fraction of the cost of light rail. He suggests buses will attract more riders because of their ability to reach every nook and cranny of the region.

The claim that buses will attract more riders than rail is far off base. It’s clear that he doesn’t understand how a progressive transportation system works. Light Rail, in our context, is designated as a high-capacity transit mode as opposed to buses, a low-capacity mode. It’s quite elementary: a train can hold far more passengers, arrives much more frequently, and gets people to their destinations much faster. Buses should merely act as feeder routes to these rail stations. Does Freeman understand that buses take an extraordinarily long time to get to each “nook and cranny”? Those who commute by transit regularly (like myself) strongly prefer rail to bus; Kemper distastefully shows his own aversion to transit by suggesting the opposite.

Freeman’s dream transportation plan also includes free ridership, which he claims would increase the number of transit users while still costing less than building and operating light rail.

As a businessman, it’s surprising to see Freeman suggest this. Buses have fairly high operating expenditures. Their cost-per-boarding numbers are higher than those of rail. You can drive those numbers down with higher ridership, but they are meaningless with no one to pay the fare. No fare collection means zero farebox recovery. This would mean that government subsidies (AKA taxpayers) would have to foot 100% of the bill. For someone outraged at the capital cost of rail, it’s a hypocritical claim to make.

Kemper Freeman seems like a bus advocate’s best friend until it clearly appears that he does not regularly travel by bus. I would, in fact, question when the last time it was he took the bus. It is true that the capital costs for a rail system are greater than those for a BRT (bus rapid transit) or expanded bus system. However, there are four major arguments why buses are a far worse long-term investment:

1) Buses have a higher cost-per-boarding. As already mentioned, buses cost more to operate because of higher costs in labor, maintenance, and fuel (oil-based commodities). If you look at Sound Transit’s 1st Quarter 2009 report, the calculated cost-per-boarding for ST Express buses exceeds that of Tacoma Link Light Rail. Over time, they depreciate and become a maintenance burden for transit agencies.
2) Buses are subject to congestion. Freeman argues for dedicated lanes along highways, but does he realize that these buses still have to contend with merging out of major arterials and with street traffic? With congestion a growing problem, buses will spend more time on surface streets than on freeways. Buses also have to stop at lights and wait for crossing traffic at intersections, like any other vehicle.
3) Buses provide a lower-quality passenger experience. As the Seattle Times politically correct piece on Metro Route 7 describes, buses are often the rendezvous for drug deals, prostitution meet ups, vandalism, and other criminal activities. As I’ve already mentioned, the vast majority of regular transit commuters would strongly prefer rail over bus.
4) Buses don’t spur nodal development. Unlike rail, buses fail to create nodes for developers to build around. Transit-oriented development is a rail-driven phenomenon and proven so by the success of such communities in places like Alexandra, VA. In the long-term, these developments could reap billions of dollars in economic growth that would far surpass the capital costs to build the rail supporting them.

In reality, it is Kemper Freeman who is off base. He disregards the need of those who wish to travel by alternate transportation modes and is merely using short-term arguments against what are long-term plans. Despite the fact that East Link will bring thousands of new shoppers to his empire, he openly opposes it. Seattle needs a progressive transportation system and has been long haunted with an inadequate one. It is Freeman’s stone-age ideas that will hold the city back until it resembles nothing more than a carbon copy of a sprawly Pacific Northwestern Los Angeles.

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2 Comments on “– Seattle’s battle for light rail”

  1. zweisystem Says:

    The problem in Seattle is that light-rail was designed as a light-metro with miles of expensive viaduct and tunnels. What Seattle has is a hybrid light metro/rail system that not only cost 3 to 4 times more than it should, it services very few destination nodes.

    There is a very strange coincidence that Seattle transit planners had a close affinity with Vancouver transit types and TransLink and fell in with the belief that the more money one spends on transit the better it is!

    • TransView Says:

      Two years ago I phoned TransLink Vancouver and spoke with the head planner. I asked him if he had ever heard of PRT… he had not. These people have their heads buried in bureaucracy and don’t even bother to read about any other systems! Innovation is not in their vocabulary.

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