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Light rail offers communities once-in-lifetime chance

North-south route proposed for city

Voters within our three-county Regional Transit District voted 56 percent approval in November 1996 for the $3.9 billion RTA Regional Transit Plan, now called Sound Transit.
The 54 percent approval of the 1997 Seattle Monorail Initiative, and voters’ opposition to Seattle’s $90 million road levy on the same ballot are indicators of new public interests.

As we move into the 21st century, Seattle and the regional community are ready for more appropriate and effective choices for how we grow and go.

Regional Transit Opportunities

Sound Transit is the most comprehensive and expensive public project ever undertaken in the Puget Sound region. Tax dollars spent on rail and bus investments should be used as an opportunity to leverage complementary growth patterns, redevelopment, economic revitalization and infill, as we make the transition from a primarily personal auto and all-bus system to a reduced-auto and regional bus, commuter-rail and (LINK) light rail transit system.

Pacific Northwest citizens are known nationally for their stewardship in adopting innovative public-interest programs. We took the lead on recycling, conserving energy and water, protecting the environment and preserving communities through the adoption of enforcement in Washington of the Shorelines Management Act, State Environmental Policy Act and local growth-management plans, authorized by the 1990 state law. Sensible growth with adopted urban-growth boundaries, includes new pedestrian-friendly development, with homes, shops and businesses located around transit nodes and businesses located around transit nodes and proposed transit routes in urban and suburban areas. With public suport it can help to reduce sprawl, auto congestion and build more livable communities.

Unless we focus on how communities can shape and expand lving and travel choices, we will be unable to gain the benefits from this new transit investment and set the stage for future rail extensions, east, south and north.

Atlanta’s MARTA and San Francisco’s BART are good examples of where a rail transit system and the communities did not plan together with the neighborhoods for this type of redevelopment at station areas. As a result, Atlanta is now paving over more communities and is building a new generation of highways to serve regional-growth mobility problems. The San Francisco Bay Area has just begun to concentrate its efforts on the development around BART stations. We should learn from those cities’ past experiences, andnot repeat their mistakes.

There has been an ongoing effort by cities and Sound Transit to involve citizens, enlist neighborhood planning and community organizations, private developers, city staff and officials in the LINK light rail pre-planning and design, and later through construction.

The upcoming review of Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement, for the new north and south light-rail transit stations and corridors provides a one-time opportunity: to build a more livable city and region within which travel will be easier for all. We will have more choices on ways to move about, and be less dependent on the auto. As a result, we can protect and improve our Northwest urban quality of life, preserve clear skies, reduce run-off through reduction of paved surfaces and protect rural, open space, agricultural and forest lands and wild habitat areas from continued sprawl.

We can’t prevent all the misunderstandings and opposition by communities to the proposed new light-rail corridors in their community. But we can do more to increase the understanding of the choices for building healthy, safe communities adjacent to the light-rail system. Collaborative civic debate is an important and necessary part of progress, particularly in Seattle.

This state’s 1990 Growth Management Act identifies the importance of linking land use with transportation policies, plans and projects. To be successful, we must get beyond a “field of dreams” philospohy of build rail and they will come. Positive communitywide involvement must start with new regional visions and actions to link community needs of the central city with those of the suburbs. No jurisdiction is an island unto itself. But we’ve really not had much experience with making the metropolitan land-use transportation connection.

How to boost ridership

More than 20 years ago, a major study of transit and land-use relationships in the Eastern United States concluded that transit’s share of ridership increases as residential density adjacent to the transit routes increases. Seattleites value their single-family residential neighborhoods and their health and sustainability is important. Here, public involvement is important in “gaining the consent of the governed” relating to the light-rail station design. There will be a transition of the appropriate areas for new infill development, served by transit with more compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities.

Recently, communities within the Sound Transit corridors have been involved in anticipation of the project through the Seattle Neighborhood Planning process. The city council adopted Resolution 29867 Dec. 7. It established Station Area Planning Goals and Strategies and a timeline for the Light-Rail Station Area project.

Last year, citizens from Seattle went on an all-day “Go See” visits to neighboring cities of Portland, with the MAX light-rail system, and Vancouver, B.C., with its primarily elevated “Sky Train.”

Every West Coast city has a unique history and culture. Portland and Vancouver are more experienced than we are with coordinating growth management and transportation. It seems to be paying off. In 1995, Portland’s Tri-Met reported that investment in new development adjacent to its eastside MAX line exceeded the cost of the project fivefold, $1.2 billion. Since September 1998, Tri-Met has operated east and west light-rail MAX corridors, it is now planning to extend the east corridor to the Portland airport, consistent with the area’s regional growth-management plan.

At the same time Portlanders have been creating and planning their rail transit, they have planned and have built more traditional, mixed-use livable neighborhoods adjacent to the MAX corridors. Initially, the light-rail eastside corridor communities were reluctant to have the surface rail in their “back yard.” Now many wish they had been onboard sooner.

In the recent “Land Use, Transportation and Air Quality” study, sponsored by 1,000 Friends of Oregon, careful analysis convinced the region that a proposed north-south limited access state bypass freeway, on Portland’s west side, could be replaced with revised land-use actions and a new west side rail transit corridor. It is an example of a postiive local civic action to build a more livable community, taken in response to our perceived declining quality of U.S. central city and suburban living.

Increased federal funds

The federal government recognizes that innovative efforts to improve land-use around stations can positively affect operations, transit financing and long-term ridership.

The U.S. Federal Transit Administratrion has adopted poicies that emphasize “Transit Supportive Development” and “Transit Oriented Development.” U.S. transportation funding incentives in the 1998 federal “T-21” transportation legislation encourage the integration of land use with transit investments.

By its work to meet the new guideliens, Sound Transit ranks high in the competition with other areas’ transit projects for additional federal matching funds. Federal policies give higher recognition for increased transit funding to areas that are involved with transit-oriented-development programs, such as the local planning under way in the development of Sound Transit.

Moving a community vision to reality

Douglas Kelbaugh, former professor of architecture at the University of Washington, discusses the principles of transit-oriented developments and the movement called “New Urbanism,” in his recent book, “Common Places: Toward Neighborhood and Regional Design.”

New public processes are needed between communities and individual citizens (to) “imagine” a new preferred community “vision” with transit; developing new strategies to move their vision to reality, to improve the diversity and quality of their neighborhoods and accessibility, particularly within mixed-use, compact communities.

In the vicinity of light rail, commuter rail and bus stations, thoughtful preparation and design by transportation and community interests could shape specific sites to have more people-oriented, transit-friendly development. Citizens willing, the light-rail project can provide the opportunity to improve Seattle neighborhoods.