Light rail: We will love it
The question comes as I'm whisking 55 mph on a standing-room-only light-rail train in this city's west suburbs. "What is wrong with Seattle...
Seattle Times staff columnist
PORTLAND — The question comes as I'm whisking 55 mph on a standing-room-only light-rail train in this city's west suburbs.
"What is wrong with Seattle?" It's not me who asks it. It's the woman next to me, Debby Fehrenbach, of Hillsboro, Ore. She is commuting 15 miles on Portland's MAX electric light rail to her job at a Portland software firm.
Fehrenbach lived in Seattle for 25 years. She moved here two years ago. Part of the reason, she says, is because of how stuck Seattle is.
"I love Seattle, but I kind of gave up on it," she says. "It's a bus city. In Portland it's so easy and fast to get around, you feel like you don't even have to have a car anymore.
"Seattle really, really needs one of these."
She's talking about the train we're on. At that moment it's in a 260-foot-deep tunnel, barreling along as fast as an East Coast subway.
I agree with her. Seattle needs this. It really, really needs this.
I've been skeptical about light rail since we first approved building it (the first segment is due to open, years late, in 2009).
My main issue wasn't the cost, though the critics are correct there: It's far pricier than buses. My worry has been about what we'll get for the money. You don't want to spend billions and end up with transit that dithers, stopping at red lights and halting about like a street trolley.
So I came to Portland to ride its 44 miles of light rail. To see what it's like. Portland's system is similar in technology and design to the 50-mile light-rail expansion plan King, Pierce and Snohomish counties are voting on in the Nov. 6 election.
It didn't take more than two minutes for me to be impressed. That's how long I waited to catch my first train in downtown Portland.
In two days of riding the rails, on 14 different trains, the longest I waited for one to come was eight minutes. That was at 11 on a Sunday night.
The longest any of my trains spent stopped at a station was 25 seconds — even when 75 rush-hour commuters tried to board a crowded train at once. I've waited much longer for a single rider to get on a Seattle bus, fumbling for change or arguing with the driver.
The trains are surprisingly speedy. Well, not in downtown Portland, where they run on the street like streetcars. But outside the core of the city, on their own grade-separated tracks or in the medians of arterials, the trains routinely reach 40 to 55 mph. (Seattle's system is slated to be faster than Portland's, because none of it runs in street lanes. All of it is planned for medians, tunnels or elevated tracks.)
When the trains cross side streets, they commandeer the lights so they get the right of way. I rode more than 100 miles on MAX trains and never once got stopped by a red light.
The riders I spoke to seemed happy with light rail. They praised the cheap price (top fare: $2.05) and the reliability. Light rail isn't necessarily faster than a car, they said. It's cheaper, and you always know exactly how long it will take to get there, regardless of traffic.
Plus it's electric, so it's quiet. And mostly pollution-free.
Some other things I noticed made Seattle seem like it has its head stuck in the sand. We've got critics — such as King County Executive Ron Sims — contending Federal Way and Tacoma don't have the housing density to support light rail. Yet those two cities have much higher densities than practically the entire Portland system — where light rail seems to be working just fine.
There's also the endless Seattle navel-gazing about which is better, buses or rail.
Portland has the answer: Both are better. Everywhere around town you see buses, streetcars and light-rail trains.
Buses are more flexible. But light rail concentrates development (see the fresh condo complexes sprouting along the MAX line). With such a transit mix, Portland at least has a shot at confronting congestion and global warming. Seattle seems to prefer talking.
The upcoming Proposition 1 is complex. It's $10.8 billion of light rail and $7 billion of highways, spread over three counties. Every voter has to calculate the tax burden and decide whether it's worth it (I'll write more about the highway and cost issues later).
All I'm saying in this column is that if we build more light rail, we will love it. As Portland plainly does. It's pricey. But it's reliable, quiet and, when designed so the tracks aren't right in the street, fast.
So maybe we'll start acting like a big city and build some real rapid transit.
Or, maybe we'll go on as "Seattle: Bus City, USA."
Forced to forever face that awkward question from our smaller, smarter friends to the south.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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