At the speed of Puget Sound
Thanks in part to booming tech and aerospace economic sectors, employment and growth in Seattle have accelerated to new highs over the last decade.
Its regional economy is perhaps best known for big suburban employers Microsoft and Boeing, but over the last decade, the region’s economic growth has been driven by the many companies choosing to locate in downtown Seattle and invest in new and old properties alike. Amazon is expanding massively in South Lake Union near downtown (with more investment on the way), and forest products giant Weyerhaueser is relocating into downtown from the suburbs south of Seattle and building a new headquarters in Pioneer Square. Travel giant Expedia Inc. will be moving to a new campus in downtown Seattle in 2018.
With thousands of new jobs and residents moving downtown, the city has added new public transportation service and increased the share of commuters using transit, helping the city successfully manage its booming growth.
But the question remains: How can Seattle continue accommodating its population growth and sustaining its economic growth while maintaining a good quality of life?
On election day 2016, Puget Sound voters will have the chance to double down on the region’s game-changing investments via the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. If successful, the measure will kick off a $54 billion, two-decade effort to add 62 miles of light rail, extend regional commuter rail service, and install new bus rapid transit (BRT) and express bus routes — moves that will keep Seattle out front and in control of its anticipated growth.
“Seattle is growing rapidly for an already dense, urban city,” says Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Over the last 20 years, Seattle gained 100,000 new residents and approximately 50,000 jobs. The next ten years are projected to bring an additional 60,000 residents and 50,000 jobs. This is great news for our economy, but also a test for our transportation network. Residents recognize this reality every day and are eager to support common-sense solutions.”
CULTURE OF COLLABORATION
Luckily, the Seattle region has a strong culture of collaboration that’s been vital to past success — and will be foundational in the years to come. That collaboration is exemplified by the ORCA transit fare card. Developed over 15 years ago, the “One Regional Card For All” enables transit riders to seamlessly use one card to pay fares with seven different agencies in the region. The ORCA regional fare card project paved the way for all kinds of interagency collaboration that continues today, like the Commute Seattle program.
About 10 years ago, Seattle Downtown Association’s then-President Kate Joncas saw great economic potential if transportation capacity into and within downtown Seattle could be freed up, encouraging more employers to set up shop there. She convened leaders at Seattle DOT, Downtown Seattle Association and King County Metro. They formed the Downtown Transportation Alliance and in turn created Commute Seattle, an entity focused on reducing drive-alone trips into downtown.
TRANSIT AS A GROWTH STRATEGY
Commute Seattle implemented two key strategies that made it easier to access jobs (and future jobs) located downtown.
The first was bus passes. Washington State’s Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Program requires employers with more than 100 employees to develop and promote a program that helps employees reduce drive-alone trips. To attract and retain talent, and meet the requirement, many large Seattle employers provide employees with transit passes and other services. Because smaller employers face no such requirement, Commute Seattle focused its efforts on bringing these smaller employers into the fold voluntarily.
If transit service is high quality and frequent, transit passes are especially effective in getting folks on board. To make the service as frequent and reliable as possible (and encourage smaller employers to participate), King County Metro needed to find a way to bring more buses through downtown, and load and unload them more efficiently in the limited space of Seattle’s high-density downtown environment.
The transit tunnel underneath the downtown core, built in 1984, did not have enough capacity for all the bus lines. The Link light rail service that began sharing the tunnel in 2009 further reduced the available capacity for buses.
To address this, Seattle worked with the business community and King County Metro to incrementally improve 3rd Avenue and set aside space for use as a transit-priority corridor.
If you visit 3rd Avenue at 5 p.m., you’ll be struck by the volume of buses and the crowds of passengers boarding them. These thousands of people are among the workers filling tens of thousands of new jobs downtown. Through all of these efforts, Seattle was able to reduce the proportion of drive-alone work trips into downtown Seattle from 50 to 31 percent over the course of 14 years, making it possible to add tens of thousands of jobs downtown while keeping car trips into downtown more or less the same. 27,857 jobs were added in downtown Seattle just from 2010 to 2013. Making that kind of expansion without choking downtown with traffic would not have been possible without expanding transit and making it work for more people.
THE SUCCESS IS REGIONAL
The appetite for new offices or housing in downtown areas hasn’t been limited just to downtown Seattle or even just the city, however. Other cities in the Puget Sound region have seen resurgence of their downtowns as well.
Tacoma’s downtown resurgence started with a new University of Washington campus in 1990 and is still going strong, with State Farm Insurance opening offices nearby in 2013. Young professionals are flocking to downtown Bellevue — the fifth largest city in Washington and home to offices for Microsoft, Expedia, Eddie Bauer, and video game developers Bungie and Valve — where the median age of downtown residents has dropped from 57 to 34 since 2000. Planners expect the population of downtown Bellevue to balloon from about 11,000 today to 19,000 in 2030.
The region’s light rail system, Link, run by Sound Transit, connects Sea-Tac Airport on the south side of the city to downtown Seattle. Sound Transit opened a northward extension to the University of Washington in March 2016 — an incredibly popular extension which increased the entire system’s ridership by 63 percent almost overnight. In September, Sound Transit completed a southern extension to Angel Lake just south of Sea-Tac.
More transit capacity serves not just Seattle’s jobs growth, but also its population growth. Transit ridership has been up against capacity in city neighborhoods like the University District, where the well-received Link extension just opened. Population growth in the city has outpaced growth in the King County suburbs since 2010, with more than 70,000 new residents being added since 2010 in the city.
Seattle’s strategies to accommodate growth dovetail with other plans to do the same thing regionally.
Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the metropolitan planning organization for the four-county region, has made critical choices to prioritize infrastructure investments that will best accommodate population growth, support economic prosperity, promote affordable housing, improve mobility, and make efficient use of existing and planned infrastructure. In 2014, PSRC eliminated older projects from their list of projects eligible for near-term funding because they didn’t meet the region’s goals as defined by nine performance measures. Tough-minded decisions like these will help PSRC fund higher-performing projects sooner, netting better improvements and benefits for each dollar spent.
GROWTH AND HOUSING AFFORDABILITY
Like most fast-growing cities with strong knowledge-based economies, affordability is a challenge for Seattle. Rents and home prices are rising quickly, putting pressure on low-income households, many of which are paying upwards of 60 percent of their income on housing. Unlike many cities struggling with this issue, Seattle is taking direct action to address the problem by increasing supply to meet the demand that, if unmet, would otherwise result in skyrocketing prices.
In September 2014, Mayor Edward Murray convened 28 stakeholders in a Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee, which generated 65 recommendations to consider. In September 2015, Mayor Murray introduced a housing action plan drawn from these recommendations, which aspires to produce 50,000 new residential units in ten years, 20,000 of which would be affordable to households earning 60 percent of median income or less.
“Seattle’s greatness is derived from the diversity in our economy, our incredible natural beauty and most importantly, our residents — many of whom are immigrants and refugees.” says Murray. “These inequities — if left unchecked — will only worsen as our local economy continues to grow, making Seattle unaffordable to the very people that have historically embodied the city’s rich culture.”
Two parts of this plan are already underway via the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which ensures that developers benefiting from Seattle’s growth also contribute to providing the affordable housing many Seattle households need.
First, a new program will directly fund the construction of new affordable housing by requiring developers to pay a fee on all new commercial development. The required contribution to an affordable housing fund will range from $5 to $17 per gross square foot, based on location. In lieu of that payment, commercial developers can instead include housing affordable for residents earning up to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) in their developments.
The second component is an inclusionary zoning program that requires 2-5 percent of new housing units in downtown and South Lake Union to be affordable to 60% AMI, and up to 11 percent of the new units in other neighborhoods that have been tapped for high density development. In lieu of the building the units, developers can elect to pay fees instead, which the city would use to build affordable units.
Most Seattle residents appear to be supportive of efforts to address housing affordability issues. Over the summer, Seattle voters approved a measure to double Seattle’s Housing Levy property tax which produces, preserves, improves and/or helps operate thousands of affordable apartments.
“Everyone who works in Seattle should be able to live in Seattle, including our teachers, first responders and low-wage earners,” Murray adds. “And that is dependent on us getting this right.”
INVESTING FOR THE FUTURE
Coming into office in 2014, Mayor Murray viewed the challenge of sustaining Seattle’s economic growth without sacrificing quality of life as one of the most important parts of his job. He brought in new expertise to the Seattle Department of Transportation by luring Scott Kubly, a star staffer from Gabe Klein’s transportation team in Chicago, to serve as SDOT director.
Kubly cut to the heart of Seattle’s geometric transportation challenge, warning that “if all the people moving to our city — 60,000 new people by 2025, according to the mayor — have to drive their cars everywhere, we’ll descend into an awful hellscape of traffic jams even worse than what we have now.”
Under Kubly’s leadership, Seattle developed a transportation plan — Let’s Move Seattle — focused on accommodating new growth while preserving the quality of life that Seattle is known for and existing residents value. The plan includes seven new Rapid Ride bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors, and three new light rail access points: one new station, one pedestrian bridge, and realignment of another station to improve access. Safety improvements include 150 miles of new sidewalks and other projects to make the walk to and from school safer for Seattle children. The city will also be able to invest in 16 bridge retrofits to make sure they don’t fall down in earthquakes, and in repaving 180 miles of arterial streets.
City voters approved and expanded an expiring property tax levy to pay for the Let’s Move plan in November 2015, with 56 percent of voters giving the levy a thumbs-up. City homeowners pay an additional $12 per month under the new Let’s Move Seattle levy.
It passed in large part because the city communicated direct benefits to specific neighborhoods, developed a system to ensure funding would be spent as promised, and fostered a broad coalition that included business, environmental and equity interests rallied around the proposal.
“Voters knew exactly what they would be funding with voter-approved levy revenue,” says Kubly. “They connected with the vision of a transportation system that works for all people and overwhelmingly voiced their support for the projects that get us there.”
On the same election day, voters north of Seattle approved a measure for Community Transit, the agency serving suburbs in Snohomish County, to add a second Swift bus rapid transit line from Bothell to Boeing/Paine Field and to increase bus service throughout the network, including additional service to Seattle, longer service hours and improved connections. The Community Transit measure is paid for with an increase in the sales tax funding from 0.9 percent to 1.2 percent.
As a tech hub, it should come as no surprise that Seattle has already begun planning for the future, anticipating and adapting for new smart technologies that will change how people get around.
In October, Seattle joined 16 other American cities in T4A’s Smart Cities Collaborative to explore how new technologies and transportation models — automated vehicles (AV); shared mobility; performance measures and data analytics — can be used to improve mobility and build a more accessible Seattle. Already part of T4A’s general membership, Seattle’s team will work with other cities in the collaborative to develop policy and launch pilot projects to attempt to harness the potential of automated vehicles and new shared mobility models to reduce congestion and carbon emissions and make it easier for all Seattleites to get around.
“A technology-centric city alone will not meet our needs,” say Kubly, who spearheaded Seattle’s application to the collaborative. “We need to use technology to uphold and support our core values of being a safe, interconnected, vibrant, affordable, and innovative city.”
All of this bodes well for further efforts in 2016 and beyond, including the vote in November 2016 to approve yet more transportation funding that will make a core part of Seattle’s regional growth strategy possible for decades to come.
SOUND TRANSIT 3
With the Washington legislature’s passage of a $16.1 billion statewide transportation package in 2015, the three-county regional transit agency, Sound Transit, received the authority to ask voters for significant tax revenue for a long-range, $54 billion transit investment plan called Sound Transit 3. Half of the requested funds will be paid by new sales, excise, and property taxes that are up for vote via a November 2016 ballot measure.
If approved, over the next two decades Sound Transit 3 will extend Link light rail to important residential and employment centers in Tacoma, Issaquah, and Everett — connecting yet more jobs to the region’s transit system — and construct new light rail lines to closer-in Seattle neighborhoods such as Ballard and West Seattle. The plan also establishes new bus rapid transit service, expands capacity and service on the region’s Sounder commuter rail, adds express bus service and improves access to stations.
Puget Sound is unique among American metropolises in that transportation has consistently ranked as the top priority in public polling, and regional leaders are looking even further into the future to solve these challenges. In 2015, King County Executive Dow Constantine pulled together key regional elected, business and non-profit leaders into the Transportation Futures Task Force to bring recommendations to the state legislature for ways to provide more regional authority to address challenges brought on by diminishing gas tax receipts and changing consumer preferences with regards to transportation.
The city’s collaborative approach has resulted in a region that’s added jobs and residents. But unlike other cities experiencing a tech boom, such as San Francisco, Seattle has also invested in new transportation capacity and built impressive amounts of new housing. Will the public’s support for new transportation investments and a positive attitude about transit combine with the city’s spirit of collaboration to help the cities and region continue prospering?
Time will tell, but the region’s leaders have mapped out a smart path forward.
T4America members in the Puget Sound region made this profile possible and include: City of Seattle, King County, Community Transit, City of Tacoma, and Transportation Choices Coalition.
Share this story: