So many buses, so much transit: Rail~Volution in Seattle

By Barb Thoman, Executive Director

King County electric buses in downtown Seattle.

Recently, I was in Seattle to give a presentation on advocacy at Rail~Volution, the national transit conference coming to Minneapolis next September. With over 1,400 attendees and sessions on everything from streetcars to parking reform to bicycle network planning, it was certainly worth the trip.

The conference hotel was right downtown near the streetcar and monorail, but what was most eye opening to me was the tremendous number of buses pulling up to the curb—electric buses, articulated buses, hybrid buses, long-distance coach buses. At one point I checked my watch wondering if I was confused by the time difference between Central and Pacific Time. But, no, it was only 1 PM, not rush hour.

With a regional fleet of 2,100 buses, King County Metro and Sound Transit, the major transit providers in the Seattle metro region, provide a huge amount of bus service—even at mid-day. For comparison, the regional bus fleet in the Twin Cities area numbers 1,200.


Local buses meet the ferry from Fauntleroy.

Seattle’s dominance in bus transit is not explained by population. It is a metro area only slightly larger than our own.

The difference is funding.

The Seattle region’s combined regional sales tax for transit is 1.8 cents, while our transit sales tax is 0.25 cents. Seattle’s robust funding level is enabling a $15 billion expansion of transit. Voters in the region have twice approved referenda to make this level of investment possible and some are seeking an additional rate increase next year. The tax increases in 1996 and 2008 pay for the impressive bus system I saw and used, for ferry service, and also for a growing rail network.

South-Union-Streetcar-WEBSouth Union Streetcar.

The Seattle region’s rail system is still relatively small with just one light rail transit (LRT) line, a 2.6-mile streetcar, and one commuter rail. A second LRT line and a second streetcar line are under construction. More routes are funded and in some stage of planning. The region also has a newly renovated train station that serves state-supported intercity trains running from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, BC.

Seattle’s growing transit system is paying big dividends with regard to ridership. Transit riders there hit 143 million in 2012! That is nearly 50 percent more transit trips than in the Twin Cities metro area that same year.

Expanded transit also is integral to the success of Seattle’s regional growth strategy, which targets 20 designated centers for housing and employment growth, as well as for regional funding. The growth strategy identifies eight manufacturing/industrial growth centers as well. Transit for Livable Communities has been pushing hard for many years for our own metro region to target growth in this way.

Sound-Transit-Commuter-Rail-at-Union-Station-WEBSound Transit Commuter Rail at Union Station.

Anecdotally at least, Seattle’s system of transportation options—which also includes expanding bicycle, car sharing, and pedestrian systems—contributes to the appeal of the region to Minnesotans. During my brief stay, I had breakfast with a young man who grew up in Winona and now works in IT for an Amazon subsidiary in Seattle; I met a woman from Hopkins who now sells state-of-the-art electric bicycles in Seattle; I stayed with a woman used to live in Apple Valley and now works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle. They’re not alone. In April 2013, Seattle was named one of the Top Ten Cities for New Grads. I hope this point isn’t lost on decision-makers in our own region. If so, we are likely to miss out on a talented generation of young people to peer regions and cities like Seattle who aren’t afraid to make real investments in transit, bicycling and walking.