News

Sound Transit looks around the corner

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

King County residents have a chance to help guide the future of transit in the Puget Sound region as Sound Transit prepares for its next phase of transportation improvements and capital projects.

Sound Transit recently issued a draft supplemental environmental impact statement that revisits early population estimates and congestion assumptions and updates the plan with new estimates. The agency will take public comment on the document through the end of January and, with ideas and concerns in mind, its board eventually will adopt a new list of projects to send to the voters.

Sound Transit sprung from discussions in the early 1990s about the need for regional mass transit to alleviate what was fast becoming excruciating congestion on the major corridors in Puget Sound –– Interstates 5, 90 and 405, and state routes 18, 167 and 520.

The Legislature passed a law that set the stage for the creation of Sound Transit, and in 1993, an environmental study was conducted to see what the transportation needs were on several of the congested corridors. The study looked at growth projections, anticipated congestion and potential employer locations to make an educated guess where to put high-capacity transit.

That study underlied the 1996 ballot measure to create Sound Move, which voters approved to tax themselves to create a revenue stream and conduct a list of projects in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Projects included regional express bus service, light rail and commuter rail and associated high-occupancy vehicle lanes and transit centers.

The Federal Way Transit Center, currently under construction on 23rd Avenue South, and the accompanying high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) ramps from Interstate 5 to South 317th Street is one of four such projects that came from the regional plan. Similar HOV access ramp projects are under construction in Bellevue and Ashway, and ramps in Lynnwood are finished. Federal Way’s project was the only one to include a parking garage.

Almost 10 years after voters approved Sound Move, Sound Transit is closing in on completion of most of those projects, and the time has come “to see what the future of transit should be,” spokesman Geoff Patrick said.

When the 1996 plan was approved, voters also approved a phased, long-range plan to build high-capacity transit in stages, with the intent to seek voter approval at the beginning of each phase.

The recently released environmental plan supplements the 1993 plan that created Sound Move and established the projects and priorities the transit agency would adopt. The new plan predicts population growth and the projected increase in commuting to 2030, and addresses changes in policy or in environmental concerns since 1993.

Those population growth estimates will help Sound Transit officials predict how much high-capacity transit will be needed, where to put it and what the most appropriate mode would be for each particular area.

Over the next several weeks, Sound Transit will conduct public outreach to share the study and get input on what and where projects should be. From now through Jan. 31, the agency is accepting comments “to help make informed decisions about what we want to do about congestion,” Patrick said.

Following public comment, the Sound Transit Board will conduct additional public outreach to see if the 1996 Sound Move plan still makes sense or if it should be changed, Patrick said. If changes are needed, the board will make them before discussing projects.

Mass transit will be an important component of transportation planning over the next decades, as lawmakers and agency heads try to alleviate congestion to improve freight mobility and keep people moving to and from work and home.

According to Sound Transit’s population estimates, the Puget Sound region is expected to grow by 1.2 million people over the next 20 years. “That’s the pressure for continuing to try to do something” about traffic congestion, Patrick said. He said that by 2030, transit users are expected to increase by more than 150 percent.

Sound Transit’s ridership levels indicate commuters are pleased with the services, Patrick said.

“Not everyone’s going to use transit to get to the dry cleaners on Saturday morning, but it’s important during peak hours, especially considering population growth. Already, transit is an important mode of travel during peak hours in urban cities,” he said, adding that transit accounts for 35 percent of trips into and out of downtown Seattle during peak hours today. By 2030, Sound Transit estimates that number will climb to 60 percent.

Because of the emphasis on mass transit, Patrick said there’s been a push for funding to “provide quick, efficient ways to move people,” he said.

“No one has a crystal ball for the state and federal funding picture in 2030, but the federal government has played a particularly important role in funding transit, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t,” Patrick said. “But we need to find projects that voters would approve.”

Once Sound Transit gets the public input it needs to update its planning, the agency will to send a ballot measure to the voters for approval in the November 2006 election.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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