Spotlight on Sustainability: Puget Sound building communities around transit

A Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional planning grant is helping the Central Puget Sound region plan for future growth and leverage a significant transportation investment.

Sound Transit Light Rail; credit: LeeLeFever

Investing in Puget Sound

The Central Puget Sound region approved the Sound Transit 2 Plan (ST2) in 2008 to develop and construct more robust regional rapid transit. At an estimated $17.8 billion cost, the majority of which is devoted to 36 additional miles of light rail track, the project will more than double the current system, expanding service to three counties and connecting the larger Seattle metropolitan area. Upon completion, slated for 2023, the project’s planners expect half of all trips to Downtown Seattle will be on transit. ST2 will help support the projected growth of the Puget Sound region in the coming years, with an anticipated 1.5 million new residents by 2040.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), an organization focused on planning for regional transportation, growth management and economic development, realized the need to prepare the Puget Sound area for a projected population of 5 million. Working with residents and county, city, and local officials, PSRC developed VISION 2040, a regional strategy for accommodating the area’s projected growth. Complimenting ST2’s efforts, VISION 2040 is a set of regional policies that local jurisdictions must consider when planning their decisions addressing land use, economic, and environmental issues. While an effective framework for regional growth, the plan does not focus on the individual community level and local benefits, opportunities, and potential impacts of ST2. Says Ben Bakkenta of PSRC, “There wasn’t that bridge from the regional vision to the local jurisdiction.”

Growing Transit Communities

To address this gap, PSRC applied for a HUD Regional Planning Grant in 2010. The $5 million grant they received has helped develop strategies for communities receiving new light rail stations, as well as those with other high capacity transit, such as bus rapid transit. Growing Transit Communities seeks to ensure that ST2’s investments help to concentrate housing, jobs, and services near transit, promoting faster and safer travel. Led by a diverse consortium of 39 partners including local governments and regional transit agencies, business organizations and non-profits in the central Puget Sound region’s 3 counties, the project has a particular focus on housing affordability and equal access to opportunity and transit.


Growing Transit Communities has created corridor action strategies as a set of tools to influence the development around three light rail expansion corridors and respond to local needs specific to the region. Ben Bakkenta, Growing Transit Communities’ Program Manager, says, “They are meant to be implementation strategies – what are the key steps a community needs to take to implement the comprehensive plans they are already required to update every seven years under our state’s Growth Management Act.”

The HUD regional planning grant provided the area with opportunities otherwise unavailable, and is felt to be instrumental in ensuring success of VISION 2040. Says Bakkenta, “The grant gave us resources to create a forum of stakeholders that hadn’t really been brought together before, to consider the opportunities and challenges these rail investments have brought to this region. We simply would not have had the capacity to build an understanding of transit investments without the HUD grant.” Lori Peckol, Policy Planning Manager for the City of Redmond, just east of Seattle, agreed with Bakkenta’s sentiment, “The grant has been a great opportunity for the region and participants to talk about what the goals are for leveraging this transportation investment.”

Building communities along transit routes will provide Puget Sound residents with greater access to employment centers, while creating economic opportunities in newly accessible neighborhoods. Says Peckol, “There is a need to enable people to get to destinations, to get to work, and having that light rail is really critical in meeting those mobility needs. Ultimately it will extend to our downtown, but it will also connect Redmond to other destinations in the region.” Peckol went on to say, “The other critical thing is for this region to continue to grow economically. Transit is one of those features in a community that I think is very attractive. Having a more robust transportation system is an economic attractor.”

Along with its planning efforts, Growing Transit Communities established a competitive grant program to build local capacity. These Community Equity Grants will function as local models “for how to achieve economic, housing, transportation, environmental, and social equity objectives simultaneously.” The grants have benefitted 39 communities across the Central Puget Sound region. In addition, the program awarded four demonstration grants – intended to serve as visible templates for how to plan for and incentivize growth in priority development areas in the region. A demonstration grant in Tacoma, for example, has funded the creation of a long-range plan to prepare for future public and private development in major portions of downtown as well as the area surrounding the University of Washington Tacoma campus; removing barriers and expediting the process of bringing new businesses and jobs to South Downtown over the next several years. Through this process, the City of Tacoma will position South Downtown as an economic hub and direct 19,650 of the City’s projected new residents and 25,680 of the projected new jobs to this area by 2030.

The Sound’s Future

A draft of the corridor action strategies recently went through a round of public comment. Many local residents expressed their opinions, concerns and hopes for the project. Isaac Conlen of Federal Way Washington summarized his views of the strategies, “Overall I think it’s a well written document, dealing with some complicated topics, that sets out a clear vision for maximizing return on the region’s investment in high capacity transit.” With these sessions closing earlier in June, the project’s next phase will challenge jurisdictions and other stakeholders in each corridor to determine which tools to utilize from the corridor action strategies. Growing Transit Communities will begin to offer technical assistance ensuring that communities are able to successfully implement the proposed strategies.

Growing Transit Communities’ HUD Regional Planning Grant is a part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Partnership has allocated more than $4 million for communities across the United States, improving local economies and environments. The Partnership works with communities to create more housing and transportation choices, and support neighborhoods’ sustained vibrancy by attracting new business. As congress considers programmatic funding, it’s up to us to make sure these programs continue. Community development projects are a worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars, and yield economic returns for businesses, communities and taxpayers alike. Tell Congress to fund these programs today.


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