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Originally published October 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 29, 2008 at 10:01 AM

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Bus vs. light rail: Which is your ticket to ride?

As the crowds grow inside Seattle-area buses and trains, there's no longer much debate about whether the region needs more transit. The big argument is about how to do it.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

BRT: Where it might go

Advocates for bus rapid transit (BRT) haven't devised a comprehensive plan like Sound Transit's. But they have suggested some incremental steps:

HOT express lanes: Add to I-5 express lanes in north Seattle so two lanes go each way, all the time, limited to transit, high-occupancy vehicles and toll payers.

Downtown Bellevue tunnel: For about $1 billion, dig a busway to serve primarily north-south commuters along the I-405 corridor.

520 bus lines: Use federal grants to add bus service on the existing bridge, while tolling general traffic; include an HOV lane on a future bridge.

HOV-3 lanes: Make car-pool lanes faster for buses by kicking out (or tolling) two-person carpools.

Duwamish bus ramp: Stretch the Sodo Busway a half-mile south, by creating a new bus-only exit from I-5 to South Industrial Way.

Free rides: Use the tax proposed for light rail to subsidize a ride-free zone for buses beyond downtown Seattle, maybe to cover all King County.

BAT lanes: Build more "business access and transit" lanes for buses and right-turning cars only. Community Transit will run its new Swift buses in such lanes on Highway 99 in Snohomish County, and Seattle has built new BAT lanes through Interbay.

Source: Public Interest Transportation Forum; James MacIsaac; Federal Transit Administration; interviews.

— Mike Lindblom

Sound Transit Proposition 1: 34 miles of light rail

The measure, on the ballot in urban areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, would raise the Sound Transit sales tax by 0.5 percent (a nickel per $10 purchase), or $125 for a median household making $65,000 a year. The agency already collects a 0.4 percent sales tax in those areas, and an annual car-tab tax of $30 per $10,000 of vehicle value. In return, the agency says it would deliver:

Light rail: Track extensions to Northgate by 2020, the Overlake Transit Center, near Microsoft, by 2021, and to Lynnwood and north Federal Way by 2023. Those would stretch the system to 55 miles, expected to accommodate an estimated 286,000 daily rides in 2030.

Streetcar: A line from Seattle's Chinatown/International District to First Hill and Capitol Hill by 2016.

Commuter rail: A 65 percent capacity increase for Sounder between Pierce County and Seattle, by adding four round-trip trains and lengthening the station platforms, by 2015.

Express bus: A 17 percent increase in Sound Transit's share of bus service, starting next year.

Source: Sound Transit plans

Light rail

PROs:

High capacity

Fewer delays

Smoother ride

CONs:

Takes longer to build

Costs more than $300 million a mile

Limited reach

Bus rapid transit

PROs:

Broader reach

Can be implemented quickly

Less costly

CONs:

Considered less comfortable

Prone to traffic delays

Diesel fuel pollutes and its price is volatile

As the crowds grow inside Seattle-area buses and trains, there's no longer much debate about whether the region needs more transit.

The big argument is about how to do it.

Some opponents of the $17.9 billion Sound Transit Proposition 1 — mainly to expand light rail — argue that commuters would get more service if the region spent its dollars to make bus service faster and more frequent.

But a first-class bus network would be easier dreamed than done.

The Nov. 4 ballot measure would extend regional light-rail 34 miles, reaching Lynnwood, north Federal Way and the Overlake Transit Center, to create a total 55-mile system. Proponents say trains can move tremendous numbers of people as population grows.

Though buses would probably be cheaper than rail and be ready for commuters earlier, transit officials would have to solve major problems, including slow car-pool lanes.

Several cities around the world have embraced "bus-rapid transit," or BRT, which combines roomier buses with special road lanes, so buses become nearly as convenient as trains.

Notable examples include Ottawa, Canada; Bogotá, Colombia; Brisbane, Australia; and Kunming, China. Closer to home, Vancouver and Calgary supplement their light-rail systems with BRT, a plausible scenario for Seattle.

The Puget Sound region already has some ingredients: a downtown bus tunnel, the Sodo busway and 235 miles of car-pool lanes on the freeways.

Rail costly here

Seattle leaders envy Portland, which already has four popular light-rail lines.

But scarce land, wet soils, hills and a preference for tunnels make Seattle among the costliest places to build light rail.

Taxpayers are spending $150 million a mile on the first line, to open late next year from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Portland has spent $60 million a mile. A planned tunnel to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium would run $600 million a mile, while the suburban light-rail lines on the ballot would cost more than $300 million per mile, counting inflation.

Proposition 1 opponents wonder: What if a few billion dollars went into a better bus system?

Buses would reach more places than trains, which target selected job centers and densely populated areas. Areas such as Renton, Kirkland, Bothell, Issaquah, Sammamish and West Seattle that aren't near rail routes could be served by an improved bus system.

"It wouldn't cost $18 billion," said Carolyn Duncan, a spokeswoman for King County Executive Ron Sims, former chairman of Sound Transit and a BRT convert.

Commuters have proved they'll ride a practical bus system. King County Metro alone attracts 400,000 boardings per weekday, and about 40 percent of downtown Seattle employees arrive by transit. The Seattle-Everett-Tacoma area ranks seventh in the nation with 8 percent of all commuters using transit, ahead of metro Portland at 5.6 percent.

Another argument for buses is quick results. Buses take only two years to order.

Sims has warned that by pouring nearly all its money into rail, Sound Transit would condemn bus commuters to years of standing in the aisles, or being left at stops.

By the time Proposition 1 light-rail lines would open, in 2023, the effort will have gone 27 years since the time voters launched regional rail in 1996.

Other bus issues

The upside is that when the line is finally done, it's going to take the guesswork out of the commute, Sound Transit officials say.

The agency assures a ride from Lynnwood to Westlake Center would always be 28 minutes. On the south line, which includes a surface segment, a ride from north Federal Way would last 47 minutes, beatable by a direct bus trip — if the roads are clear.

Rail backers say buses get stuck in traffic.

Community Transit buses arrive on time on more than 94 percent of their trips from Snohomish County to Bellevue and Seattle, which sounds good.

But Community Transit pads its schedule to adapt to gradually slower highway travel. A morning ride from Lynnwood to Seattle was scheduled at 24 minutes in 2002, but is now 32 minutes. An afternoon ride from Overlake to Edmonds used to take 66 minutes, but is now 72 minutes.

Buses rely on fast high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, but they've become so full they often fail to meet the state Department of Transportation's 45 mph standard. DOT could kick out two-person carpools, but officials fear that more traffic would fill the general lanes.

Tim Eyman's Initiative 985, promoted as congestion relief for drivers, would further slow many buses, because HOV lanes would open to general traffic at 9 a.m. mornings and 6 p.m. evenings, government officials say. "At just a time when HOV lanes are going to be more important than ever, Eyman cuts them up," complains former state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald.

Meanwhile, Metro is straining to meet a ridership surge.

General manager Kevin Desmond says that barring major changes to Interstate 5, the quality of bus service will decline between Northgate and downtown. He doubts BRT can succeed there.

For Northgate, "There is not an alternative to rail, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "That's a very good investment."

At the Northgate Transit Center on Tuesday, commuter Wayland Wasserman said he has mailed in his yes vote for light rail, because experience on Route 41 has shown him the limits of buses.

"It's almost always crowded," he said. Even when buses arrive five minutes apart — more often than some BRT — he can still barely squeeze on, he said.

The pro-rail campaign, Mass Transit Now, boasts that trains can carry 1 million riders a day. Sound Transit predicts actual ridership will be far less, at 286,000 weekday trips in 2030. One train can carry as many people as 10 buses, says transit-board Chairman and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, in debates.

But a very aggressive bus program could outperform rail, thinks light-rail opponent John Niles, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute. On the I-90 floating bridge, buses could travel several seconds apart, instead of four to six minutes between trains, he said. "Then after those buses go across the bridge, they fan out in all directions."

Room on the road?

If we don't build rail, a region full of self-doubt would have to muster political will, tax dollars and sufficient road space to prevent buses from getting stuck in traffic.

Mass Transit Now spokesman Alex Fryer dismisses the rail-vs.-bus debate as "completely insincere," made by people who would rather build roads. "It is a way to distract voters from the issue before them, which is Proposition 1."

Recent history shows voters couldn't necessarily count on rapid development of BRT. Look at Transit Now, the Metro sales-tax increase voters passed in 2006.

King County is taking four to six years to bring new RapidRide lines to Aurora Avenue North, Ballard, West Seattle, Overlake-to-Bellevue, and Highway 99 from SeaTac to Federal Way. And that's assuming Metro can avoid the riptide created by lower sales-tax revenues and higher diesel prices. The agency predicts a $60 million deficit in 2010.

Niles said there is no reason bus upgrades should take six years.

Metro buses already come every 10 minutes or less on Aurora, he said, while Community Transit's new Swift service is ready to start next year.

"If Proposition 1 goes down," he said, "there's a case to be made for the Legislature reassigning some of that tax capacity to Metro, and other agencies."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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