The LINK to a more sustainable region

The opening of the Sound Transit Central Link Light Rail last week has caused me to both reflect and to look ahead.

Link Light Rail was the project that brought me to Seattle. That was ten years ago. VIA was retained by Sound Transit to develop the design concepts for Capitol and First Hill Stations and to develop the system wide architectural standards for Link.

When we joined the project the engineering team had already been working on the project for a year and a half. In those early days of the project the sense amongst the design team was that Link Light Rail was going to be a catalyst for Seattle to become a more sustainable, more livable, less car dominated city. I remember thinking at the time that we would be riding Link from the University to the Airport sometime in 2006. That was before everything that possibly could go wrong went wrong.

It is hard to fathom how a transit system could take so long to conceive, build and make operational; eleven and a half years from design start to opening day of Central Link; and that’s opening day for only a part of the system that had been envisioned -- the Capitol Hill Station we were designing back in 1999 won't be finished for another seven years.

The technical parts of transit systems don't take this long to design and construct. It's the other dysfunctional stuff that takes all the time. Most of the delays for Link were due to funding and budget squabbles which thankfully Sound Transit was able to navigate through; otherwise opening day may never had happened.

How does this checkered past bode for the future at a time when we need transit more than ever? With the opening of Central Link, will Seattleites get a taste for light rail that will make them want more? Will we make demands for more service, delivered more quickly?

Based on our experience with the later phases of SkyTrain in Vancouver, I am optimistic that public demand and political will can indeed accelerate the process of getting transit built. The Millennium Line, similar in scale and complexity to the Central Link segment that opens on Saturday, took only four years to design and build, opening in 2002. As an extension to the original Expo Line it was able to build upon the public acceptance already in place for SkyTrain, and was implemented in an aggressive time frame due to a political mandate from the BC Government.

The good news is that construction is now underway on the next portion of Link called U-Link, which extends Central Link northward between Westlake Station and UW. It is slated to be completed and operational by 2016. In Vancouver, a similar LRT extension called Canada Line is opening in a month. This extension, which is more comparable in character and complexity to a North Link segment between Westlake Station and Northgate, only took seven years to complete from design start to opening day.

How can Vancouver build so much more LRT in the same time frame? In Vancouver people enjoy their LRT and want more. In Seattle, we should be able to do the same. The answer: Ride Link…and want more! Let’s celebrate last Saturday’s opening of Link and then set our sights on aggressive goals for transit in our region.

The planet deserves for our city to be more sustainable.

Vancouver or Seattle: Who's greener?

As a slight interruption to our transit posts, I wanted to link to this article that came out in the Vancouver Sun by Michael Geller last Friday.

When asked to speak to Urban Land Institute individuals from Portland to Seattle, Geller had this to say:

"Over a day-and-a-half, the Vancouver/Seattle debate continued, with the Portland delegates making the case for their wonderful city.

I talked about the mayor of Vancouver's desire to be the greenest city in the world, and while the American delegates did not laugh, they did smile, since both Seattle and Portland are considered the two most sustainable cities in the United States.

But there are similarities. As Vancouver gets ready to start its rapid transit line from the airport to the downtown, today Seattle is opening its long awaited 23-km, $2.3 billion light-rail line that will connect its downtown to Tukwila. An extension to SeaTac airport will begin later this year."

Click here to read the entire article.

The case to abort LRT, October 21 1982

Alan Hart, one of VIA's principals, recently found this newspaper clipping that he had saved from a 1982 British Columbia paper, that talks about the new SkyTrain system coming to Vancouver and why the government should "scrap" the system now and go back to more conventional methods -- a great read.


The case to abort ALRT

Is system unproven and too expensive…

Or far-thinking step to meet area needs?

from The Province, by Andrew Ross

Bob Bose, chairman of the rapid transit committee of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, calls the Advanced Light Rapid Transit system a billion-dollar gamble.

“The wisest and most prudent thing to do,” says the Surrey aldermen, “would be to abandon this unproven technology and begin converting immediately to a conventional system.”

At, he says, only one-third of the cost.He sounded this alarm to the GVRD last week, sparking a new round of debate on the costs and merits of the ALRT system, and calls from the GVRD’s transit committee for a full accounting from the provincial government.

Education Minister Bill Vander Zalm, Victoria’s minister in charge of transit, notes Bose is seeking re-election to Surrey council Nov. 20, and declares: “Mr. Bose obviously is running a campaign.” But it is finally becoming clear to the members of Bose’s committee that the ALRT system is a highly expensive technological experiement that will cost Greater Vancouver taxpayers enormous amounts. The Social Credit government neglected to mention a few things when it announced, at a breakfast meeting in Vancouver on Dec. 6, 1980, that it had chosen a space-age technology (Which uses a magnetic propulsion system and has computers instead of engineers) to answer the needs of a region suffering from hardening of the traffic arteries.

For more than a decade prior to the announcement, the GVRD and Vancouver-area municipalities had pleaded with the government to help them build a conventional light rapid transit system, using an updated version of the streetcar system on ground-level railroad tracks. Finally the government relented. That announcement almost two years ago took them by surprise because they had little or no knowledge of ALRT. But mostly they were relieved.

The decision to build ALRT, after all, included a commitment to use the line long advocated by the GVRD and member municipalities. And, perhaps more significantly, the decision seemed to contain a government promise to build the system without reaching into the wallets of Greater Vancouver’s taxpayers. As Bose puts it, municipal leaders “assumed” that, since the system was being “imposed” on them by Victoria, the provincial government would be paying for it.

Last month, it became clear to civic leaders that, by agreeing to become willing partners in the development of ALRT, the GVRD had made a tacit commitment to contribute financially to the system, and in a big way.

And that leads to the first of some key questions:

How much is ALRT going to cost to build?

The government has, for more than a year, placed the cost of constructing the system at about $718 million in 1986 dollars. But B.C. Transit, the Crown agency helping to administer the project, now concedes that the estimate omits interest on capital borrowed for the job. Socred MLA Jack Davis, chairman of the Rapid Transit (1986) Committee, said last month that almost $600 million must be borrowed through a government bond scheme for ALRT. (Both the federal and provincial governments have already contributed $60 million each for the project).

Bose says ALRT will cost $40 million a kilometer to build – something like $1 billion including the cost of borrowing – and he says that is three times as much as a conventional aystem.

B.C. Transit says his figures exaggerate the interest rates it hopes to obtain when it borrows the $600 million. It hopes to persuade the federal government to make interest-free loans available for ALRT and thereby help reduce the cost of borrowing.

How much is ALRT going to cost to operate?

Bose predicts annual operating costs of about $160 million. Neither Davis nor B.C. Transit project administrator Mike O’Connor was able to give an estimate, and won’t until B.C. Transit negotiates a price with B.C. Hydro for electricity to power the system.

And who pays?

Davis confirmed that Greater Vancouver municipalities will be required to share operating costs once the system is operational. And he and O’Connor agree that operating costs will include not only any deficit that remains after fare-box revenues are deducted but also the amortization costs of the capital borrowed for building.

That’s what municipal leaders didn’t realize at first. The cost-sharing formula, according to Vander Zalm, will be the same one now in place for the operating deficit of the existing transit system in Greater Vancouver. Under this formula the GVRD must pay 35 per cent of the transit deficit, from funds collected via the fare box. If those funds fall short of 35 per cent the GVRD must make up the difference. It also must pay one-third of the remaining 65 per cent of the transit deficit. In all, the GVRD faces a bill of up to 57 per cent of the operating costs. Victoria will pay the remainder.

Bose predicts that only about six per cent of the GVRD’s share will come directly from the fare box, leaving the region’s taxpayers with a bill amounting to 51 per cent of the annual operating costs—about $80 million a year.

The only options open to civic leaders to pay it will be to sock taxpayers with yet another surcharge on gasoline and Hydro, or with higher property taxes.

How many people will use the system?

B.C. Transit confidently predicts that ALRT will have about 30 million passengers annually. O’Connor himself goes further and predicts 40 million.

But the GVRD, which spent more than a decade analyzing commuter patterns and transit “ridership,” has predicted that a conventional system – which would travel basically the same route as ALRT – would attract only about 15 million passengers annually. (However, the GVRD has no ridership predictions on ALRT). The ridership figures, Bose says, are something else civic leaders failed to pursue when they attended the Socred breakfast meeting almost two years ago. If they had asked some hard questions then, Bose suggests, their long-held commitment to conventional light rapid transit might not have been relinquished so readily.

Which raises another question:

Why this system rather than a conventional one?

Vander Zalm said almost two years ago that ALRT stood a better chance of qualitying for federal funds than a conventional system because it’s exclusively Canadian in design and construction. Ottawa subsequently contributed $60 million toward the capital cost of Greater Vancouver’s ALRT. (It was never asked, though, how much it would be willing to contribute to a conventional system.) Also, Vander Zalm said, an ALRT vehicle will be cheaper to run than a conventional one because it will have no driver.

But critics of the system reply that many people will be leery of riding a train that has no operator. Opponents also suggest that ALRT was also chosen by the government because it promised something different and innovative – something to brag about when Greater Vancouver becomes the transportation showpiece of North America during Expo ’86. All that a conventional system had to recommend itself, by comparison, was dependability at a low price.

The critics also contend that, if ALRT doesn’t work as planned, its tracks and elevated system simply cannot be converted to carry conventional LRT trains. Meaning that if the gamble doesn’t come off, the bills are going to be that much more horrendous.

Whether the choice of ALRT was a wise or foolish gamble won’t be known until it’s too late to turn back, the critics say. Scrap it now, says Bose, and go conventional.

“It’s not too late. The government (B.C. Transit) has only spent about $40 million so far, and getting out at that price would be a bargain considering the eventual cost.”

copyright The Province newspaper, division of Canwest Publishing Inc.

Congrats to Sound Transit

At least we got one rapid transit project built!

Congratulations to Sound Transit on the opening of the Link Light Rail, July 18, 2009.

The Great Urban Debate: Who has better transit?

Here is the second clip from the Seattle debate that highlights a discussion on transit in Seattle and Vancouver.

Who's got it right? Vancouver with an integrated multimodal transit network and no downtown highways? Or Seattle with a comprehensive highway network and a brand new transit line?

Watch this clip and let us know what you think:

Can Seattle successfully evolve without its own Stanley Park?

We are excited to have guest blogger Knute Berger, Crosscut's chief Northwest native and author of Pugetopolis, to kick off the Seattle vs. Vancouver Parks discussion. Among many other thought-provoking blog posts on Crosscut, he wrote an excellent piece on The Great Urban Debate.
by Knute Berger

Every Seattleite who visits Vancouver envies Stanley Park: beautiful woods, trees and trails, a wonderful perimeter pathway, amenities like restaurants and tribal totem poles. Like great city parks, it offers both retreat and activities. Who wouldn't want one in their city?

Seattle has approached parks differently. We have no big central park, but the elements of one have been dispersed throughout the city: a zoo in Woodland Park, an Arboretum and tea garden in Montlake, waterfront walkways at Lincoln Park, Discovery Park, Seward Park and Green Lake. Much of this is threaded together by Olmsted-designed boulevards. It seems to me that Seattle has de-centralized the urban park and made many of its neighborhoods park-like.

In the 1990s, Seattle battled over creating a big central park at South Lake Union with land to be donated by Paul Allen. Proponents of the "Seattle Commons" argued that it would fix a long-standing central park deficit in Seattle and help spur development. Opponents argued that it was too expensive, too much of a benefit a single developer (Allen), and some questioned the need for a Stanley-like Park. From the top of the Space Needle, you can see at least three U.S. national parks. In other words, who needs central park when your city is adjacent to world-class protected wilderness and recreation areas?

So my questions are, does Seattle need a central park? And how would Vancouver have developed, for better or worse, without one? Is a central park's main value now that it is a magnet for dense development? And lacking a central park, what should Seattle do, if anything, to make up for that?

Obviously, the days of acquiring a large Stanley Park tract are gone, short of a neighborhood-leveling Katrina-like disaster or a dramatic Detroit-like depopulation of the urban core. Is this truly a significant loss, or can Seattle successfully evolve without its own Stanley Park?

The Great Urban Debate: Who has better parks?

Here is the first clip from the Seattle debate that highlights a discussion on parks in Seattle and Vancouver.

Who's got it right? Vancouver with Stanley Park? Seattle with Olmsted Parks?

Watch this clip and let us know what you think:

The Great Urban Debate, Seattle vs. Vancouver

The Great Urban Debate, Round Two: Seattle
June 18th, 2009