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Seattle’s transportation system garners praise, but does it deserve it?


Seattle and King County’s transportation system is often maligned in complaints that vary from over-budget projects to over-congested city streets. Recently, though, it’s been praised both by articles in The New York Times and Vox, providing an interesting outside perspective to say the very least.

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“Seattle is doing a really good job of both expanding its rail system and improving its bus system at the same time, and actually linking the two systems together to make a much more useful system overall,” wrote Vox, in a December article talking about the best and worst cities in the country for public transportation.

“Seattle has won accolades for its transit system, where 93 percent of riders report being happy with service — a feat that seems unimaginable in New York, where subway riders regularly simmer with rage on stalled trains,” said the New York Times in a Jan. 1, 2019 article on how west coast transportation is beating the East Coast.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s break it down.

The Times seems to be referring to a King County Metro survey in 2016, that saw 93 percent of people in the “frequent riders” category respond as “satisfied.” The survey talked to 800 total respondents, weighted by demographics that reflect the most recent census data for residential households in King County.

For Vox, it’s likely it’s talking about measures like ST3, that increased spending for light rail expansion across the region. Or maybe it’s talking about Seattle’s controversial trolley project, that was halted in March, after it became apparent that costs were over-budget by $23 million.

The sum total is an outside look at a transportation system with its fair share of pros and cons.

On the “con” side of things, the region certainly has had its pitfalls.

Light rail projects have gone millions of dollars over budget, ST3’s passage saw rates for car tabs triple for drivers, new bike lanes in Seattle have taken away parking and traffic lanes while the number of cyclists decrease, and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff ran into trouble in 2017 after reports of verbal aggression, profanity, and sexism, among other allegations.

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There are also positive takeaways to consider. Ridership on King County Metro continues to increase, including a 7.1 percent bump in Link light rail riders. King County Metro was even named the best transit system in the country by the American Public Transportation Association.

In the coming months and years, Seattle’s transit system will face significant challenges. The city’s population isn’t getting any smaller, the SR 99 tunnel opening set to increase congestion wasn’t actually designed to relieve traffic once it’s finished, and Seattle consistently ranks in the top ten cities in the country for having the worst traffic.

The first major test is mere days away with the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the first project in a years-long stretch Seattle is dubbing the “period of maximum constraint.”

In the meantime, whether the region’s transit authorities are up to the challenge remains to be seen.

RELATED: A case for Seattle’s controversial bike lanes

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