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Effective Transportation Infrastructure More Important Than Ever in a Growing Pacific Northwest Region

By Jack Stubbs

As the Greater Puget Sound region—and the Emerald City, Seattle, within it—continues to expand geographically, there is a growing impetus for effective transportation networks as a means to provide both a symbolic and literal link between the area’s increasingly interconnected urban cores. Seattle is one of many cities across the country that is facing the similar pressure of needing to compensate for its rapid growth by way of effective transportation infrastructure.

“The majority of Americans now live in cities, and that shift has been happening over the last decade. Rural America is slowly moving into the cities, and that’s true in much of the country. This trend is the result of the fact that the intellectual capital is mostly in the urban areas around the great universities and tech centers,” said John Hempelmann, attorney with Seattle-based real estate law firm Cairncross & Hempelmann. 

“That’s certainly true in Seattle, where a very high percentage of the residents of the city of Seattle have a college degree or higher. Especially [in the] technology sector in Seattle—along with bio-tech, aerospace tech, and communications tech—the largest cohort of those people are the millennials. On both the West Coast and East Coast, especially in the global gateway cities, the number of teenagers applying for drivers licenses has declined every year for the last decade.” 

Though perhaps not seemingly a hugely-significant finding in and of itself, the fact that the usage of cars is on the decline—especially in quickly-densifying cities like Seattle—is creating a domino effect, both in Seattle and more broadly across the nation, according to a recently-released 2019 report entitled “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros,” written by The George Washington School of Business and Smart Growth America. Smart Growth America is a D.C.-based non-profit that works with local city agencies, real estate investors, Departments of Transportations and economic development agencies to identify long-term goals around urban planning and growth in expanding urban areas. 

The report, which also included data and analysis from Cushman & Wakefield and Yardi, examined the current level of walkable urbanism of—otherwise known as the “walkability”—the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas in relation to the relative size of the local commercial, retail and multifamily real estate markets. The report found that Seattle ranked at eighth on the list (after Pittsburgh, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., Boston, Denver and New York City). 

According to Hempelmann, who assists clients throughout the Puget Sound region with their real estate development projects including land-use, zoning and transit-oriented development, one of the factors unique to Seattle in particular is a growing realization about the necessity of—rather than merely the preference for—more efficient transportation systems. “If you’re not driving, the modes of transportation are bus, rail, pedestrian, bicycle… so the declining interest of millennials and subsequent generations in owning and driving automobiles has led inevitably to a focus on other modes of transportation,” Hempelmann said. 

One of the keys looking ahead for Seattle, in particular, is an increased focus on how to expand the local transportation network in a growing region—which in turn impacts the local real estate market. “Seattle is a bit surprising in that it’s one of the major metropolitan areas in the U.S. where there has been a consistent increase in the use of transit in the last 20 years. But in Seattle, we can’t buy buses fast enough or build our light rail system fast enough. Seattle is investing an immense amount in transportation infrastructure, which is why it is such a magnet for all kinds of real estate investment dollars in everything,” Hempelmann added. 

Local transportation authority Sound Transit is working on the Sound Transit 3 (ST3), a multi-phase, multi-year expansion of the regional transit system to connect the major cities in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties with Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit, and express commuter rail. ST3, the phases for which have been approved through three different ballot measures in 1996, 2008 and 2016, will look to expand the currently-20-mile light rail system to more than 50 miles by 2023, and will ultimately more than double the regional light rail system to total 116 miles comprising over 80 stations by 2041. 

Looking ahead, the geographical reach that the region’s Light Rail system encompasses—currently, the 22-station light rail spans twenty miles and runs from the University Street Station near the University of Washington to the Angle Lake Station beyond Sea-Tac Airport—will be a primary focus. The Light Rail will ultimately expand north to Everett, South to Federal Way and Tacoma, East to downtown Redmond and Issaquah, and West to Ballard and the West Seattle neighborhood. 

Especially in a rapidly-expanding region like the Puget Sound, effective transportation networks are becoming increasingly important due to the unique geographical constraints and the Pacific Northwest brings, thinks Hempelmann. “Part of it is geography, with the Puget Sound to the West [of Seattle] and Lake Washington on the East, and the Eastside cities of Bellevue and Redmond squeezed by the Cascade Mountains,” he said. 

Until the main spine of the ST3 expansion is completed in 2041, the worry in the meantime is that issues around transportation and congestion will continue to mount—with each new addition to the Light Rail addition putting pressure on a system that it is meant to help relieve, thinks Hempelmann. “Every time we add a segment and stations to it, the trains get that much busier during rush hour. Whereas people understand congestion better in other cities, this is a new thing for Seattleites,” he said. In the longer-term, and even with the ST3 expansion well under way, it could be that even these efforts will not be enough to provide relief in a region that is clearly experiencing growing pains. 

According to Sound Transit’s proposal for ST3 drafted in June 2016, transportation continues to be one of the Puget Sound region’s biggest challenges, with approximately 800,000 more people expected to call the region home by 2040, by which time the region will have grown to support 800,000 new jobs. At the time of writing, the region’s population had increased by 52,000 people in the past year alone, according to the report. 

Ultimately, the loftier hope is that large-scale initiatives like Sound Transit’s ST3 will contribute to a better quality-of-life for residents of the Emerald City and the Pacific Northwest in addition to taking some of the load off of regional transportation systems, according to Hempelmann. “The answer to all of this is more housing that is in the urban centers, connected to high-capacity and high-speed transit, because then people get rid of their cars; you don’t drive a car for fun anymore in this region, you drive for necessity,” he said. “And you also have to have these open, green spaces in the city; it’s a matter of breathability.”

Perhaps worryingly for a region that is clearly in transition as it tries to contend with a rapidly-increasing population—according to Hempelmann, the Puget Sound Regional Council projects that between 2019 and 2050, the region will grow by 1.3 million people and 1 million new jobs—much will depend on the ability of ST3 and other transportation initiatives to provide a much-needed relief valve. “We’re projecting that 75 percent of those new jobs and residents will be absorbed within a half-mile radius of high-transit nodes,” Hempelmann said. 

As another indication that the complex challenge remains how to successfully incorporate a large-scale transportation expansion into an already-established region, ST3 might come at its own cost—one that is no longer optional, but rather a product of necessity, thinks Hempelmann. “With the ST3 Bond measures, property taxes, sales taxes and excise taxes all rose…we’re taxing ourselves like crazy to build a system where we don’t need a car…this is a generational trend that is not going to abate in the short-term.”