Striving for transit-friendly communities in the Puget Sound region

“Seattle Streetcar,” by Flickr user Sean Marshall.

For those not familiar, they could be forgiven for mistaking the opening speaker at this month’s Transit Financing Workshop in Seattle for an ardent smart growth advocate. And in many ways he is. He just also happens to be the Mayor of Seattle.

Mayor Michael McGinn’s comments about the critical role walkable neighborhoods and transit play in economic development set the stage for a day-long event about transit-oriented development in the Puget Sound region on October 4, 2012. Sponsored by Transportation for America, LOCUS Washington, the Transportation Choices Coalition, ULI Northwest and the Quality Growth Alliance, the event brought together leaders from the business, real estate, advocacy, and government sectors to discuss transit, transit-finance, and how the Seattle region can better position itself for future growth.

As the Mayor’s remarks indicated, the Seattle region is ahead of the curve in many ways with regards to livability, smart growth, and transit. The city boasts a comprehensive transit system, a vibrant downtown, and many walkable residential neighborhoods nearby. Yet if there was one theme that emerged from the day’s event it was that community leaders were intent on doing even better – particularly when it comes to promoting transit and transit-oriented development.

A variety of speakers each lent their perspective to the discussion. From a federal perspective, Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs and Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Chris Bertram discussed new developments at the federal level. Bertram focused on updates in the Federal Highway Administration’s TIFIA program, and how they can help regions like Seattle finance infrastructure upgrades. He stressed that USDOT was flexible in the types of repayment it was willing to accept for TIFIA loans and urged the region to consider the TIFIA program for future infrastructure projects.

Bertram also emphasized the role of the private sector in creating transit-oriented development, and cited two examples – Union Station in Denver and the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco – where proceeds from real estate development were used to secure TIFIA loans. Other speakers throughout the day also discussed the intersection of real estate development and transportation investment. John Hempelmann, a real estate lawyer and LOCUS Steering Committee member, talked about new projects along the East Link light rail line, which is currently under construction between Redmond and Seattle. He likened those developments to examples in Washington, DC where value-capture has been used to fund new rail service, suggesting a similar approach could work locally. Likewise, Pat Callahan, CEO of the Urban Renaissance Group and Chair of LOCUS Washington, described the tremendous opportunities that exist in the region in redeveloping suburban properties to be more walkable and transit-oriented. Later, Nicholas Amrhein of Parsons Brinkerhoff described different forms public-private partnerships can take and how real estate value created by new transportation investment can be tapped to help fund some of that new infrastructure.

Still, despite the enthusiasm expressed by participants for the benefits transit-oriented development can have for the region, several impediments emerged as themes throughout the day. A number of speakers lamented the fact that Washington State currently does not permit tax-increment financing, a mechanism that is used successfully in other states to help finance transit-oriented projects. Though there are legislative efforts underway to change this, there was a sense that this was not an issue that would be resolved quickly. Additionally, some participants urged the region’s transit agency, Sound Transit, to be a more active participant in the development process. A representative from the agency noted that the agency’s board has also been exploring this issue recently, and will be soliciting opinions from stakeholders in the near future.

Overall, there was a clear sense of optimism, both from speakers and attendees, about the region’s future as it relates to transit and livable communities. Several new rail lines are under construction in the region and there is a conscious effort among officials, developers, and advocates to take advantage of these new assets to create better communities. Perhaps the most important outcome of the workshop was not to provide a new vision, but to give decision-makers the tools, from financing methods to messaging advice, to help them achieve the vision they already have.