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What would Seattle’s 1970s subway look like now?

“Atlanta is at a disadvantage because MARTA is the largest transit system in the country that receives no support from state government." KIRO Radio's Feliks Banel wonders how a similar system would look in Seattle if it was approved decades ago. (Wiki Commons)

It’s fairly well known around Puget Sound that King County voters twice rejected a ballot measure in the late 1960s and early 1970s that would’ve built a heavy rail commuter line connecting Seattle with the suburbs. It’s also fairly well known that by rejecting those measures, the region lost out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars that instead went to build a rail system in Atlanta.

The widely held belief and conventional wisdom years later is that the rejection of that system and those dollars was a bad thing. Former Seattle City council member Phyllis Lamphere told a reporter last year that opponents of what was called Forward Thrust said the proposed system was too big, and too focused on downtown Seattle. Lamphere described that perspective as “shortsightedness,” and said that the failed vote was “the most significant determinant of our failure to deal at an appropriate time with the transportation needs that we knew were there.”

Almost 50 years on, there’s some question as to what that Seattle rail system might look like now. Would it be humming along, a model of efficiency, maintenance, and good management? Would it be a decrepit and dangerous eyesore? Or would it be somewhere in between?

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Or, like another major public work that was approved by voters in 1968, the Kingdome, would our original commuter rail system also be long gone and replaced with something entirely new and incredibly expensive?

While it’s impossible to guess what a parallel universe might look like, where Seattle had a 40-year-old rail transit system, it is possible to engage in some mild speculation and a little bit of, shall we say, informed conjecture.

If the Forward Thrust vote had gone differently, Seattle would’ve been one of three metropolitan areas in the United States that built new rail transit systems in the 1970s. Instead, those three places were Atlanta, Washington DC, and the Bay Area.

While each of these regions has their own unique circumstances and challenges, an informal survey of their respective rail systems circa 2016 provides a sense of what might’ve been, and what might be now, had voters said “yes” here nearly five decades ago.

San Francisco’s BART

The oldest of the three systems is Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco, which debuted in 1972. Nowadays, BART has 107 miles of track and carries an average of 430,000 riders each weekday.

Spokesman Jim Allison says that BART is facing two major challenges.

“Number one is the fact that it was built for a much smaller population and a much smaller ridership,” Allison said. “So we’re struggling with capacity issues in terms of carrying people. The other [challenge] is the fact that much of our equipment is at the end of its useful lifespan, so we need to reinvest. That’s the two-faceted, double-headed hydra that we’re looking at,” he said.

Current crowding is so bad at BART stations such as the Embarcadero downtown, where a single platform serves both directions of the train, that planners are now looking at radical solutions. One possibility would involve creating “saddle bag” platforms by expanding the underground station laterally to build passenger platforms on either side of the existing rail line. This would require major excavation and a major cost.

While the trains are crowded – with passengers often “packed like sardines” Allison says – BART hasn’t had high-profile accidents or chronic service interruptions, and the system appears to be well-managed and to routinely score high on customer surveys. Allison says it hasn’t always been this way.

“We have continually been reinvesting in the system, but we didn’t have what would be characterized as an asset management program until recently, until five years ago,” Allison said. “So we weren’t taking a big picture look at what was the lifespan, what were the risks of not reinvesting, what were the parts of the system that were most at risk.”

Allison says that the smarter focus on maintenance and things like station cleanliness are among the reasons that BART is likely to seek a $3.5 billion bond measure this November to pay for the replacement of original electrical systems and what are now vintage train cars. In the early 2000s, BART successfully won the required super-majority voter support for about $1 billion in seismic upgrades, and Allison is optimistic about this new measure that may be on the horizon.

Washington DC’s Metro needs a superhero

Four years after BART trains first rolled beneath the Bay Area, Washington, DC’s Metro (also known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority or “WMATA”) opened to great fanfare in the Bicentennial year of 1976. WMATA now comprises 117 miles of track and carries about 700,000 passengers every weekday in and around DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Last month after a fire, the aging Metro shut down for an entire day in the middle of the week in what was described as an “unprecedented move” to conduct an emergency inspection of the entire system. Hundreds of thousands of commuters were inconvenienced and authorities found dozens of problems.

Chris Barnes is a private citizen who works in IT in the Washington, DC area. He also runs a popular Twitter handle. Barnes loves WMATA and he’s a member of the Riders’ Advisory Council, but he’s frustrated by the problems that he says run very deep, all the way to the system’s creation more than 40 years ago.

“The nexus of the problem is our system was built as a Congressional compact between [Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC]. And that compact resolved a lot of issues to get the system built,” Barnes said. “But what was missing was a plan to operate it and maintain it.”

And maintenance has especially been a problem lately for WMATA, where multiple passengers have died in recent accidents attributed, in part, to billions of dollars of deferred maintenance.

“[The deferred maintenance] probably began in the 1990s, but we really had our eyes opened in 2009 when there was a crash that killed nine people,” Barnes said. “We’d had little incidents here and there throughout the decades, but that was a major incident that really opened the eyes of the region.”

Barnes says that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash.

“Once they got down to the track level saying, ‘Wait, what is going on here, what have you guys been doing?’ That’s when some of the questions started coming up, and a few of the answers came along with those questions,” Barnes said. “But to this day, we’re still asking ‘What are you doing?”

What Barnes is doing is being hopeful; if guardedly so. In response to some of the problems uncovered by the NTSB, he says that WMATA has spent $5 billion over the past five years on a rebuilding project called “Metro Forward.”

But Barnes also says that a passenger died in a smoke-related incident last year when debris came in contact with worn out components of the electrified “third rail” and caught fire.

“These smoke and fire incidents are [still] happening,” Barnes said. “In the past three days, we’ve had four of them. We had a five-year, $5 billion rebuilding program that apparently did not rebuild very much. These problems just are not getting fixed.”

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And they aren’t likely to be fixed soon, Barnes says, because of the complicated governance structure of WMATA that includes two states, the District of Columbia, and Congress.

“Things don’t move quickly and of course, no one can agree on exactly what the right solutions are here,” said Barnes.

One recent estimate puts the price tag at fixing all of WMATA’s deferred maintenance problems at around $30 billion, or roughly eight times what BART may seek for its upgrade this fall. Barnes says that all of these factors – the bureaucracy, the deferred maintenance, the deadly accidents and the lack of funding – have taken the fun out of what he says used to be a celebrated system.

“The joy of building public projects like this just isn’t there anymore because the cost has become outrageous,” Barnes said.

Joy? Was the DC Metro actually once a joyful pursuit?

“Yeah,” said Barnes, emphatically. “If you look back at the archives, people were excited about, ‘Oh, Metro’s going in! I’ll put up with the road construction because once Metro comes in, it’ll be great, traffic will be better, and some people are gonna be taking Metro. I could even take Metro,’” Barnes said, mimicking the spirit he believes pervaded Metro in the past. “Metro was gonna be the way forward, it was the new utopian idea that everybody would share things like transit, and stop driving their cars to work.”

Barnes also says that designing and building the DC Metro system in the mid-1970s brought its own set of challenges just a few years later, even if it was initially praised for its unique architectural features.

“Picture it. The 1970s. We’re gonna build something that’s cool, that has mood lighting, that looks like you’re at an art gallery or a museum,” Barnes said, of the intricate walkways and ornate, vaulted ceilings. “Well, OK great, so we build our entire system like that. And then, at the same time, you have a group of people fighting for disability rights and you have the [Americans with Disabilities Act] (ADA) come along, so now we’ve had to go back and retrofit all of these cool museum-looking stations, somehow put in elevators, somehow put in lighting so people with low vision can see where the heck they’re going.”

It’s clear that Barnes is passionate about WMATA. And if he’s sometimes passionately critical, he also holds out hope for its future.

“I am optimistic about one day being optimistic,” he said, chuckling. “I will always be optimistic that we can have a functioning transit system, but it’s really gonna take a superhero to come in and make that happen.”

Atlanta’s MARTA caught in political crosshair

While Atlanta doesn’t have its own superhero, deferred maintenance isn’t an especially acute issue for its rail system, either. Atlanta’s issues are more about creating the will to expand enough to serve the whole region, and then finding the money to do it.

The system there is called the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority or “MARTA.” It has what one observer says are stunted growth problems going back decades. MARTA was launched in 1979. It currently has 48 miles of track and the entire system, which also includes buses, carries about 500,000 passengers each day.

Maria Saporta is the observer, and she’s a supporter of the concept of mass transit. She’s a longtime Atlanta journalist who also has an MA in Urban Studies, so thinks a lot about how to make MARTA better. Saporta has covered business and urban affairs for 35 years, writing for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and for her website.

Saporta says that when it was first built and for several years after, MARTA was pretty good.

“Atlanta was ahead of the pack, and for a good 20 years we were expanding our system and graduating to the next level of great cities,” Saporta said. “Unfortunately, Atlanta quit investing in transit. So the transit system is limited to just two counties, the core of the region.”

Saporta says that unlike Atlanta, officials in the Bay Area and Washington, DC continued to expand their systems for one reason: because they had state funding.

“Atlanta is at a disadvantage because MARTA is the largest transit system in the country that receives no support from state government,” Saporta said. “So it has been difficult to build a system [when it’s] financially hampered. We’ve not been able to grow our system to really serve the entire region.”

A missed opportunity to expand MARTA came as recently as July 2012, when Atlanta area voters rejected a referendum to create a $7.2 billion transportation tax.

Saporta says that one major problem is that Georgia’s gas tax revenue is constitutionally off limits to mass transit. She also says that there are other more, shall we say, political reasons for the lack of state support for MARTA.

“It is much deeper than that. It goes into Atlanta being a fairly ‘blue’ city and the state being a very ‘red’ state. There’s always been a pro-Atlanta, anti-Atlanta tension that’s occurred, and transit may be seen as serving certain people,” Saporta said. “It could be partly the rural legislature not wanting to support Atlanta.”

Atlanta, like lots of American cities, is changing, Saporta says. She says that counties around the city that previously didn’t want MARTA routes in their jurisdictions are now gradually coming around to appreciating the positive effects of transit on economic development, especially as vehicle traffic gets more and more gridlocked.

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“I think attitudes are beginning to change, but they are changing in those communities that are closest to the core of the city,” Saporta said. “In 2014, they added Clayton County to MARTA. That was the first new county to join in the 45 years since [the MARTA measure] was passed by the voters in 1971, so that was a major move.”

Atlanta, Saporta says, also has issues around race and racial discrimination that have affected MARTA’s growth in the past, and that still do so, if to a somewhat lesser degree.

“Today the region is much more diverse, but there’s still this lingering impression that MARTA will bring crime and bring [what racists would call] ‘those people’ into communities, and it is perception much more than it is a reality,” Saporta said. “Because if you’re going to be stealing something, you’re probably not going to be waiting on a MARTA train with a stolen television set.”

Back in Washington, DC, WMATA critic Chris Barnes is also a Georgia native, and he concurs. “I grew up [outside Atlanta] in Gwinnett County, and I very clearly remember MARTA not being run out to the ‘burbs ‘cause people didn’t want ‘that element,’ and I put that in quotations because that’s exactly what they say, ‘that element.’” Barnes said. “That means they didn’t want black people in their backyard.”

Barnes doesn’t believe racial discrimination is at the root of any of WMATA’s problems, and BART spokesman Jim Allison says he doesn’t believe it’s been a factor for BART, either. However, in an email, Allison wrote that “there have been allegations by some that when BART was designed and constructed, wealthier neighborhoods received underground stations while poorer neighborhoods, like West Oakland, had to settle for overhead tracks. This perception ignores the fact that the City of Berkeley actually reimbursed BART for the increased cost of building underground stations,” Allison wrote.

Working around water

According to Allison, the biggest factor making a difference in how BART does business, and how it succeeds, is the geography of San Francisco Bay.

“I think one thing that is different about BART compared to DC or Atlanta is the geography,” Allison said. “People in Seattle can relate to this because there is so much water and unique geography in the Seattle area. We have the San Francisco Bay, and so most of our trips are headed from the East Bay into San Francisco and back again.”

Allison says that this means that BART is an easy choice for commuters compared to driving a car on expensive, crowded bridges.

“The Golden Gate Bridge is known across the world, but throughout the Bay BART is equally well-known and better utilized so more people use BART and touch BART on a daily basis than use the Golden Gate Bridge,” Allison said.

It’s still hard to guess how Seattle’s transit system might have turned out and how it might have aged had it been built in the 1970s. On the positive side, our geography and choked bridges are similar to those of the Bay Area. Racial discrimination, while certainly present here now and in the past, doesn’t seem to be as severe as it has been in Atlanta. But while we lack the bureaucracy of the DC Metro with two states and the District of Columbia, addressing multi-jurisdictional issues here has not always been as smooth as it could be in “blue” Seattle. And somehow, the specter of the brutalist Kingdome lurks in the background when one considers what our stations might have looked like when they would’ve built and especially 40 years later.

In hindsight

As our region moves far beyond the “could’ve been” of Forward Thrust and debates rage about future routes and frustratingly long construction timelines, a story comes to mind as told by Maria Saporta. It’s about a conversation she had earlier this year with an old friend from a county outside suburban Atlanta.

“He said his family opposed MARTA [in 1971] because it was going to take 20 years before they were going to get transit,” Saporta said. “And I said, ‘Well if you had voted for it then, you would’ve had transit now for 25 years.”

You could say the same thing about Seattle.

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