Seattle’s investment in Mass Transit begins to pay off

By Jason Warner, GOPC Manager of Government Affairs

Politico Magazine recently featured a report on Seattle and the investment the state, city and region around Washington state’s largest city has made in mass transit alternatives in the fast-growing region. At a time when the city has added more than 116,000 people (the second largest percentage increase among the nation’s 50 largest cities)[i], it’s car traffic has gone down, and the number of daily users of the regions mass transit system has increased a staggering 89 percent.

This was not a change which occurred overnight, but rather is the result of 20 years’ worth of work and investment on the part of regional leaders. Starting in 1996 when voters in the three county Seattle metropolitan region approved a sales tax increase and a tax on car registrations to fund Seattle’s Sound Transit plan for light-rail, commuter-rail and regional bus service, voters in the region have since approved two further investments in mass transit. In 2008, voters approved a second sales tax increase to expand the system, and 8 years later approved a further $54 billion tax levy to further expand the system. With these investments, the light-rail system is set to grow six-fold by 2041, to 117 miles, making it as large as Washington, D.C.’s Metro system.

As the article notes, Seattle hasn’t banished cars, nor is it seeking to do so. Instead, it is seeking to create a balanced, multimodal system that can accommodate all forms of transportation.

The transitions happening in Seattle can serve as an example for cities across Ohio.

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Columbus, the 14th largest city in the US, has realized an annual rate of growth of 1.68% per year since 2010, ranking the city number 17 among the 50 largest cities by percentage growth. Yet while Seattle has seen an annual increase of 2.8% among commuters using transit between 2009 and 2017 (averaging 70,606 riders per day), Columbus has only realized a 0.10% increase in transit ridership (averaging 12,262 riders per day). In fact, Columbus averages nearly as many people walking to work per day as they do using public transportation.

Columbus today very much mirrors Seattle of 1999 – cars and buses being the primary means of travel across the region. But along with the financial investment that residents of the metropolitan Seattle region have been making, the state of Washington has been a willing partner in promoting smart growth strategies that have helped to support and encourage the growth of mass transit in the region. The state’s Growth Management Act, enacted in 1990, requires local governments in fast-growing areas to reduce sprawl, promoting density and infill development. Furthermore, the 1991 Commute Trip Reduction Act requires large employers to encourage employees not to drive to work alone (part of the reason only 51% of commuters in Seattle drove alone between 2009 and 2017, compared to nearly 81% in Columbus during that same period.) In addition, Washington state law requires Sound Transit to attract affordable housing to the land it uses for construction staging around new stations, while Seattle further encourages transit-oriented development by allowing developers to build housing without off-street parking in areas with frequent transit service.

Seattle and Washington state are showing the way, that with sound investment and public policies that promote and encourage the use of alternative transportation, the public will come to embrace mass transit as a viable means to transportation. It is important for policymakers around Ohio to learn from this example and embrace changes now.

[i] Recent data from the U.S. Census bureau shows that Seattle now has the largest percentage growth increase among the 50 largest cities, with an increase of over 136,000 people since 2010, an average of over 17,000 people per year.