“This region really loves transit,” said Kevin Desmond, general manager of King County Metro Transit, chair of the APTA Sustainability Committee, and a member of the APTA Board of Directors, in describing the public transportation mix in Washington State’s Puget Sound region. “Partnership Strategy Moves Puget Sound Region Toward Its Vision,” the Oct. 1 Host Session at the APTA Annual Meeting in Seattle, highlighted the region’s embrace of public transportation and the mesh of jurisdictions, funding, and operations required to deliver those services.
Harold S. Taniguchi, director, King County DOT, moderated the session. Other panelists were Washington State DOT Secretary Paula Hammond; Joni Earl, chief executive officer, Sound Transit, Seattle; Kate Joncas, president and CEO, Downtown Seattle Association; and DeLee Shoemaker, senior director, state government affairs, Microsoft, Redmond, WA.
Besides offering an integrated mix of buses, light rail, and commuter rail across multiple cities and counties, Puget Sound boasts the nation’s largest public ferry system, the largest publicly operated vanpool, a region-wide smart card used by one million passengers, and a private bus system used by 13,000 Microsoft employees. “Transportation choice is really the key” to the multi-faceted system, Desmond said.
Two new Seattle streetcar lines reflect the increasingly common cooperation among Puget Sound’s public transportation agencies. On one line, Desmond said, the city raised the $1 million needed for construction, while King County Metro operates the line. On the other line, Sound Transit, a regional agency, provided the $150 million in financing and the city takes care of operations.
Creating that level of cooperation has taken decades, as the development of downtown Seattle’s public transportation mix demonstrates. Squeezed between Puget Sound on the west and steep hills and major lakes on the east, the downtown area has only six major north-south streets, Joncas said.
Construction of a bus tunnel in the early 1990s snarled downtown traffic, she said, and generated “a huge lack of trust” between public transportation agencies and the association’s business members, she explained. When Sound Transit announced its plans to add a new light rail line to the tunnel less than a decade later—potentially sending buses back onto surface streets—she said the association’s members became “mean, ugly, unhappy, demanding adversaries” of the public transit agencies.
Eventually, however, instead of battling each other through the media, the groups managed to sit down and work out a strategic, long-term downtown plan. The result was the Third Avenue bus-only corridor, which considerably eased area congestion.
In the years since finding common ground, Joncas said, “We’ve actually created a common vision between our agencies and the private sector.” Three association board members now specialize in public transportation and help educate other board members about those issues. As a result, the association helped lobby the King County Council when King County Metro sought additional funding.
Sound Transit serves only the urban areas of Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties, the most populous in the state. Because the agency is only 15 years old, Earl noted, it had to focus on cooperating with existing agencies from the beginning. As a result, she said, “We work very closely with our partners.”
With shrinking or static budgets, more residents, and growing challenges, Hammond said, strategic cooperation will become ever more important: “This is a way of life for us now and we’ve got to collaboratively make this work.”
Shoemaker agreed, noting that, with more than 40,000 Microsoft employees in Puget Sound, the company has become a strong supporter of “cost-effective public transit.” One reason: when recruiting new employees, the software giant must compete against California’s Silicon Valley, where workers can choose among hundreds of high-tech firms. One big challenge, she said, is “recruiting these young people who are used to lots of transportation options.”
Microsoft introduced its private bus system, The Connector, in 2007. By offering onboard Wi-Fi and pickup locations throughout the region, The Connector has helped Microsoft reduce its rate of single-driver commuting to 60 percent of its workforce—16 percent less than the national average.
Taniguchi asked the panelists whether Puget Sound has finally shifted away from the longstanding either-or debate of roads vs. public transportation. Hammond said that may be the case, noting that existing state gas taxes no longer generate enough revenue to meet highway maintenance needs.
Legislators from the state’s rural eastern half, traditional opponents of public transportation, are beginning to recognize that public transit can reduce the demands on highways. Shoemaker said when legislators visit Microsoft’s campus and see firsthand how much the private firm depends on public transportation, “it opens their eyes a bit.”
Speakers at the “Partnership Strategy Moves Puget Sound Region Toward Its Vision” forum, from left: Kevin Desmond, Harold S. Taniguchi, Paula Hammond, Joni Earl, Kate Joncas, and DeLee Shoemaker.