A Case For Transit Expansion: Seattle vs. New York

I’ve temporarily moved to Seattle for a summer internship, and it’s been quite a culture shock for a New Yorker used to 24/7 life and dirt-cheap food. Equally interesting, however, is the public transport system here. Seattle’s public transit isn’t as good as New York’s, but it can be very effective. The light rail is quick, easy-to-use, and well-kept, the fare media isn’t from the same era as the floppy disk, and transit agencies across the region cooperate and work well with each other. Granted, bus reliability leaves something to be desired because of how bad traffic is here, but for the most part the transit is pretty good for an American city.

More interesting, though, is Seattle’s continued commitment to investment and expansion of their light rail system. The regional transit agency, Sound Transit, is pushing forward a third ballot initiative in as many years to bring 58 miles of 100% grade-separated rail to the region by 2040, at a cost of $53.8B. Coming from a state where state funding of basic transit maintenance is considered a heavy political lift, this kind of regional commitment to investment is mind-blowing.

Now, a direct comparison between the two situations is a bit unfair. Seattle is an up-and-coming city with a young light-rail system, whereas New York is an old, mature city with legacy infrastructure issues. However, New York also needs to consider expansion; existing infrastructure is over-capacity, and the city is hitting growth predictions five years ahead of schedule. While we should still be funding maintenance, we should also be planning for the future.

It wouldn’t be hard for us to come up with the money; the New York metro area is many times Seattle’s size, so coming up with an equivalent amount of money would not require tax raises or fees as high as Seattle’s. And with $54B, we could fund quite a lot of expansion, even at inflated New York construction costs. Imagine a fully-built out Second Avenue Subway with connections to Brooklyn and the Bronx, the TriboroRX, a reactivated Rockaway Beach Branch, an SE Queens extension, and more.

Those might not be the right projects for New York; community outreach and in-depth studies could reveal different priorities or better transit solutions. Yet a regional plan based on outreach and study with serious funding would be better than today’s planning, which is largely based on flavor-of-the-month pet projects. We need a plan to reduce congestion on existing trains, to reduce commute times for outer-borough residents, and to account for the nine-million-plus people expected in New York by 2025, and Seattle provides an instructive example on what can be done about it.

Seattle, with its plethora of other transit options (light rail, streetcar, buses, ferries), also provides other examples for New York. Expect more comparison posts in the future.

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One comment on “A Case For Transit Expansion: Seattle vs. New York
  1. Jake Seliger says:

    From what I remember, part of NYC’s problem involves high personnel and pension costs, which are particularly pernicious due to the power of its unions. See e.g. here: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/does-new-york-city-know-it-has-a-transit-cost-problem.

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