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Why Seattle’s light rail expansion is taking so long


Building a city-wide light rail is certainly no easy task, but when residents have been paying associated taxes for ages, one begins to wonder just when the train is actually going to arrive in your neighborhood.

The $54 billion tax package to finance eight light-rail extensions is likely not to see the fruits of its labor for up to 22 years, with trains projected in Redmond and Federal Way by 2024, Tacoma and West Seattle by 2030, Ballard in 2035, Everett in 2036, and Issaquah and South Kirkland in 2041.

So, why is it taking so long?

“This idea that more money would help maybe speed it along is true in some cases. But one of the qualifiers of that is that the problem with having more money it that it would allow for more options to be considered, and that could slow it down even more,” said KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney.

According to a report from The Seattle Times, the seemingly drawn out timetable is due to several issues, including funding, meeting prescribed environmental checklists, securing the property early on, and getting interested parties and organizations on the same page, among other factors.

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“Now other people are saying enough already, we’ve been paying taxes since 1997,” Tom added.

While the light rail can feel delayed, major transit projects can take upwards of decades to complete. In Los Angeles, for example, their 2016 $120 billion ballot measure is projected to be completed over the course of 50 years.

Will Seattle’s light rail become obsolete by the time it’s finished?

For co-host John Curley, the drawn-out approach to a transit project like light rail is another indication of government bureaucracy trailing behind the free market, especially with regards to a technology that may become anachronistic under the current timetable.

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“By time the work is done it’s normally obsolete because the free market and other choices rush in and actually surpass the speed in which the public projects are being done,” Curley said.

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott of West Seattle told The Seattle Times that he believes it OK for light rail to take this long because “The light-rail alignment we build now will serve us for over a century,” he said. “We need to make sure we do it right, not just faster.”

But Curley doesn’t agree.

“If he actually believes that 100 years from now that we’ll still be traveling the exact same way, and that this thing needs to last 100 years, let me tell you something, Mr. McDermott: It will last because not many people will be using it, so the normal usage wear and tear that you’re probably calculating into that 100 years, you can probably increase that by twofold.”

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“The speed in which science and technology leaps ahead of many of these public projects happens every single time; the market comes in and solves a problem faster and more effectively and you get more people moving from point A to point B. So all the money we’re truly wasting on this project to carry such a teeny-tiny percentage of travelers is outrageous. But we all feel good building light rail.”

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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