Sound Transit and Seattle’s Suburban Hangers-On

Both Seattle and my former home of Minneapolis are trying to expand their transit networks. Both metros are running into road blocks convincing their citizens, and especially their suburban citizens, to fund and agree upon on the projects. To try to understand the transit dilemma, let’s talk about growth patterns in the Seattle area.

Seattle Growth Engine

Seattle has been one of the fastest growing cities in the nation in the past few years. It is also growing faster than its suburbs. Gene Balk with the Seattle Times reported, “From July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Seattle grew by 2.8 percent — the highest rate among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities. Seattle added nearly 18,000 residents in the one-year period, bringing its population to about 652,000.” That growth indicates the strength of Seattle’s job market and is tied to the strong tech boom Seattle is experiencing. In fact, a few folks are predicting the Emerald City will surpass San Francisco as tech capital of the US (partly due to cheaper commercial real estate.)

This Stuart Isett really captures Amazon's growth in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

This Stuart Isett really captures Amazon’s growth in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

Amazon, the poster child of the Seattle tech boom, is constructing a new mega-campus in South Lake Union (possibly revitalizing a neighborhood I called a crotch-like in my last post and making it a destination—or at least giving it a new reason to be avoided.) Amazon rival and Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba is planning to make its North American headquarters in Seattle. Amazon, the largest internet based retailer in the US and #49 on the Fortune 500 list of companies by revenue, is still dwarfed by Alibaba in total sales worldwide. Expedia is moving to Seattle from Bellevue, Washington. And of course there’s still the burnt coffee empire of Starbucks scorching its way to #208 on the Fortune 500 list.

Even though Amazon is the poster child, Boeing is still the top private sector employer in the Seattle metro even after the aerospace behemoth moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago in a move many Seattlites deemed a betrayal after so many years of corporate handouts to prop up Boeing (local writer Knute Berger called Boeing a “corporate welfare pig extraordinaire.”) Seattle used to essentially be a company town of Boeing. Luckily, the local economy is now more diversified. Boeing at Fortune’s #30 would still be behind Issaquah based retail giant Costco at #19. Microsoft (#35) has yet to put up offices in Seattle proper, instead keeping its headquarters in Redmond, eighteen miles to the east. Redmond sits at the northern tip of Lake Sammamish, while Issaquah is at the southern end of this 7-mile long ribbon lake. That’s one Fortune 500-y lake.

Shout out to Renton for taking on this massive Boeing factory and incorporating it into is suburban sprawl fabric. Renton is also home of IKEA in Washington. They just love them some warehouses. Photo by Jelson25.

Shout out to Renton for taking on this massive Boeing factory and incorporating it into is suburban sprawl fabric. Renton is also home of IKEA in Washington. They just love them some warehouses. Photo by Jelson25.

Rounding out Seattle’s contributions to the Fortune 500 we have Nordstrom’s at #227 and freight forwarder Expediters International of Washington at #428, while suburb Federal Way hosts forest products company Weyerhaeuser at #363 and Bellevue is home to truck manufacturer Paccar at #168. All those big businesses have been driving Seattle’s growth, but small businesses are doing their part, too. The presence of Amazon and Microsoft has helped turn the area into an incubator for tech startups.

The Booming City

Seattle outpacing its suburbs in growth is pretty remarkable. The dominant pattern in the US since at least the end of WWII has been suburbs have been growing faster than cities.  Many cities actually shrunk significantly in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s after seeing neighborhoods gutted for freeway construction, buildings leveled for parking lots, and their factories shuttered as corporations outsourced industrial jobs. The Freeway Boom ignited by Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was a catalyst for suburban flight as was growing racial tensions of the civil rights era. We are finally starting to see that pattern shift. Even in this era of increased interest in urban living, most suburbs continue to chug along growing faster than the cities they surround. Seattle and a few other particularly booming cities across the nation are breaking that trend. The suburbs and satellite cities of Seattle are stilling growing pretty well in their own right.

Tacoma: The Less Booming City

Historically, Seattle’s regional nemesis was Tacoma, thirty miles to the south. Like Seattle, Tacoma is a major seaport and rail terminal. Tacoma earned the ire of Seattle founders when in 1884 it managed to become the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad instead of Seattle. Apparently, the rail tycoon plotting the line to Seattle went bust, delaying the connection to Seattle. The Tacoma terminus situation only lasted three years, but, during that time, they really rubbed it in Seattle’s face. Tacoma kept the short line to Seattle in dismal shape, sending just one train per day. Seattle got its shit together and made itself the terminus in 1887 but the rivalry continued.

Tacoma is even closer to Mount Rainier, which is also a frequent photo backdrop here.  Photo credit to USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Tacoma is even closer to Mount Rainier, which is also a frequent photo backdrop here. Photo credit to USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Tacoma, a city of more than 200,000 people, is an urban center in its own right. Still, it partially functions as a satellite city to Seattle given its proximity to Seattle and cheaper real estate. A commuter train and express bus line makes the daily commute between Tacoma and Seattle more bearable than some other satellite cities. Tacoma has kept its industrial and working class character more than its larger neighbor to the north and is a bit more diverse too.

Bellevue: A Soulless Paradise

Bellevue is the next largest city in the Seattle metro area with about 135,000 residents, and the booming suburb has largely taken on the rival role with Seattle in recent years and drawn even more ire than Tacoma. Bellevue invites teasing if not outright disdain with its quintessentially snobby and elitist attitude despite a bland suburban character flirting with soullessness. Due east of Seattle, Bellevue was a sleepy little backwater of about 1,200 souls when a floating pontoon bridge was completed in 1940 to span Lake Washington and open all that empty space up for development. A second floating bridge was opened in 1963 to carry Route 520 to Bellevue and ‘burbs beyond. By 1970, this little boomburb that could had boomed its way to a population of more than 61,000.

Bellevue, a city for cars and their operators. Props to Jelson25 for getting in a plane, taking that photo, and putting it on Wikipedia Commons.

Bellevue, a city for cars and their operators. Props to Jelson25 for getting in a plane, taking that photo, and putting it on Wikipedia Commons.

Bellevue boasts its own downtown skyline, which granted does contain a handful of respectable high rises up to the city imposed height limit of 450 feet. However, all that steel and glass hasn’t translated into much culture, and its retail and restaurant scene is still in the suburban mall mode and dominated by chains. Many authorities such as CNNMoney and USA Today, however, rate Bellevue one of the safest and best cities to live and launch a business in the country: a veritable suburban oasis! With a median household income of $88,000!

The Other ‘Burbs

The other suburbs of Seattle largely ring Lake Washington, spread out along the shores of the sound, and hug a few valleys snaking into the foothills of the Cascades. Renton (population 100,000) anchors the south end of Lake Washington. (It’s also possible to think of the coastal region from Olympia all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia as an extended metropolis—one containing upwards of 8 million people.) North of Bellevue, Kirkland (population 85,000) also kisses Lake Washington. East of Kirkland, Redmond has a population of about 58,000 and a Microsoft workforce of 33,000 so probably not too big of an unemployment problem. Collectively the suburbs east of Lake Washington are known as “The East Side.”

Twenty-five miles to the north is Everett, a sprawling suburb of 105,000, rounds out, more or less, the northern limits of the Seattle metro area. The state capital Olympia (population 50,000) sixty miles south of Seattle at the southern tip of the Puget Sound roughly delineates the southern limits. Undaunted by the Puget Sound, sprawl spills west, too, onto Bainbridge Island, Whidbey Island and Vashon Island and all the way to Bremerton and surrounding towns on the opposite side of the sound. Taking a ferry across the sound is quicker than driving around via the (Second) Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, nicknamed Galloping Gertie for how it swayed in the wind, famously fell into the sound in 1940 after being open just four months. Forty mile-per-hour winds did her in, as this gnarly footage attests. And that segues beautifully with Seattle’s storied history of botched public works projects and our current transit funding impasse.


Barney Ellott was on hand with a Kodachrome camera to take footage of Galloping Gertie’s early demise on November 7, 1940.

History of Mega Project Addiction and Blunders

The most recent misstep when the tunnel boring machine dubbed Bertha (after Seattle’s first female mayor) broke down while attempting to dig a tunnel for SR-99 to replace the earlier blunder of erecting a viaduct in the midst of downtown (thereby separating downtown from the waterfront and eating up dozens of acres of valuable real estate.) Removing the obsolete viaduct is an admirable goal; although, many questioned the need for a tunnel, including me—belatedly. Just put a boulevard at street level. Motorists would have to go slower, but it’d be safer. And cheaper. The tunnel project was projected to cost $4.25 billion—before Bertha snarled to a halt.  And it wouldn’t have to be replaced every few decades to keep it from being earthquake fodder or collapse from its own weight. City officials are praying that Bertha will bore again and the tunnel will get finished without any more hiccups.

Bertha emerged from the hole it bored after a year long hibernation.

Bertha emerged from the hole it bored after a year long hibernation. Photo credit to AP Photo.

Before Bertha the state’s biggest mega project was the 520 Bridge Project projected to cost $4.1 billion—before massive cost overruns pushed it $4.65 billion and counting. Are you detecting a pattern yet? The problem this time was cracks and leaking in shoddily constructed pontoons supporting the new floating bridge spanning Lake Washington to Bellevue. But engineers said the first pontoon bridge was at the end of its functional life (apparently they only last 50 years) and was vulnerable to an earthquake or storm, so, get out your credit card; we need us a $4.65 billion bridge.  And they said light rail was expensive!

And that history of blunders is on people’s mind as Sound Transit plans to ask for $15 billion for a package of unspecified transit projects. I assume they are going to get more specific before they ask metro area voters to approve the ballot measure to the tax increases. But, as of this week, Sound Transit seems content with “we are just getting started” after the Seattle Transit Blog panned their conceptional “scenarios” as poorly prioritized. One big hole was that rail to Ballard wasn’t studied, which both I and the blog really like. Apparently, despite being a transit agency, Sound Transit hasn’t thought seriously about prioritizing transit improvements. I’ll dig into the specifics in a later post.

For now let’s just think about the hidden costs of suburban sprawl, the leaky 4-billion-dollar pontoon bridge to Bellevue, broken Bertha, and the fact that investing in mass transit might be safest, wisest investment of Seattle’s apparently easily squandered tax dollars.


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