Sound Transit Releases Preliminary Report on Ballard-UW-520 Rail


Ballard to U-District Alternatives Map

On June 5, Sound Transit released a preliminary report on the Central and East HCT (High Capacity Transit) Corridor Study. The report studies three new HCT corridors: University District-Kirkland-Redmond, Ballard-University District, and Kirkland-Bellevue-Issaquah. The overall thrust of the document is to connect Ballard to the U-District and to use 520 to connect to one of many different locations on the Eastside. The corridor study also includes a few options for reaching Issaquah and the Issaquah Highlands.

For the Ballard to U-District corridor (starting from page 10), three different alignments and a mix of modes are considered, including rapid transit (BRT), at-grade streetcar, full light rail subway, and a combination of streetcar and elevated. (The rail options are collectively called light rail transit, or LRT.) A few key points that stand out here are:

  • All of the streetcar routes run along Leary Way, with one route taking a detour up Stone Way to Wallingford.
  • The subway route (A3) is the fastest route. It sails from Ballard to the U-District in a mere 6-9 minutes, only stopping in Wallingford (at Stone Way) along the way.
  • Both BRT routes stay clear of the popular N 45th Street. Only the rail routes provide central Wallingford with a stop.
  • The only route that serves both Fremont and Wallingford is the streetcar-elevated hybrid.

Though some of these routes skip Fremont, it’s worth noting that the most popular alignment for the Ballard to Downtown corridor would give Fremont a prominent stop.

The A3 subway route stands out as the top contender for solving North Seattle’s east-west transit problem. It’s not much more expensive than the other rail options, and it could give a stellar 6-minute commute time from Ballard to the U-District, which is generally not possible with any mode (transit, bicycle or car) today.

On page 4, the study looks at the options for serving UW Station and the U-District (page 4). This part is a little confusing, because it appears that Sound Transit is suggesting that the UW and U-District need more high capacity transit than they’re already getting with U-Link and North Link. In fact, the goal here is to connect the Ballard to U-District line with the route crossing the 520 bridge.

The next few pages (5 and 6) illustrate ways in which the line might connect to the 520 bridge, and where to connect on the other side. The options include running along the Montlake Bridge to 520 and running in mixed traffic as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or running light rail along its own bridge or guideway across the bay and across Lake Washington along an expanded bridge deck. On the other side of Lake Washington, page 6 explores possible end points for the transit line, including Totem Lake, Downtown Redmond, and Hospital Station.

None of these routes consider an alternate lake crossing. All of them use 520.

The final corridor reviewed is Kirkland to Issaquah. Three BRT and two light rail options are considered here, and an additional BRT and LRT alignment is considered for continuing up from Issaquah to the Issaquah Highlands. All of the BRT options to Issaquah utilize freeway managed lanes for all or part of their route, and rely on WSDOT’s ability to keep the lanes moving at a minimum of 45 mph. All of the light rail routes utilize the Eastside Rail Corridor for at least part of their route. The ridership numbers for both BRT and light rail are quite low, with a few of the BRT routes having potentially better ridership than the light rail routes. When the Issaquah Highlands extension is included, both BRT and light rail come out at roughly similar numbers, with light rail costing 2-3x the price of BRT. The light rail does manage to shave about 7-9 minutes off of travel times.

Of the corridors presented in this study, Ballard to U-District seems the most promising, with the most ridership potential and the greatest improvement to travel time. The low ridership numbers for the Eastside study do leave the impression that it will be difficult to find a cost-effective Eastside light rail project besides East Link (the route that will connect Seattle to Bellevue via I-90). It may be worth Sound Transit’s time to put all of the Eastside’s plans side by side to find the most cost-effective rail investments, and perhaps to consider investing in all of the BRT options rather than just a few of them. More density and growth in the Eastside’s city centers may be needed before a second light rail corridor makes a lot of economic sense.

Thanks to Seattle Subway for posting the study document to Twitter.

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Charles is an avid cyclist that uses his bike as his primary mode of transportation. He grew up in the Puget Sound, but is currently overseas living in Japan. He covers a range of topics like cycling, transit, and land use. His time in Tokyo really opened his eyes to what urbanism offers people and has a strong desire to see growth happen in Seattle.

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I’m definitely a fan of A3. I think we can service Fremont suitably without jogging a rail line all the way down and back. I like the C1 alignment in terms of coverage but I just don’t believe that we have the will to make a C1 alignment effective. Corners will be cut and we’ll end up with a slow and meandering streetcar stuck in traffic for much of its length. With that in mind, I’d rather see A3 with some sort of BRT/frequent bus service that integrates the Wallingford A3 stop with Fremont.

mike eliason

having lived and worked in fremont for most of my time in seattle, i’m slightly biased, but i really like C1 as E-W option.

1. more riders – and I think this has potential to pop significantly if fremont ever gets developed beyond bars and the I/B along canal is upzoned (as it should be) – same goes for leary way – ridiculous amount of capacity in this strip to accommodate growth with some vision from the city. in fact, i’d argue this would be a solid move because it’d force the council to add growth in this deadzone. (especially as transit and land use in this city need to be jointly planned much, much better)

2. supports significantly more businesses – it’s effectively a biz deadzone between 8th ave and stone way. it actually pains me there’s so little on market/46th between 15th and 8th. there’s probably already 3x as many businesses down stone way, through fremont and leary than between market and u-district tunnel could hit, and that’s before any potential growth in interbay.

3. less expensive – yeah, i know some folks don’t care about cost. but i do. and so do a lot of voters. i think if there are 2 proposals and one is anticipated to be 20% less expensive, poses less risk – AND connects more people and businesses in about the same time, it should be a no brainer.

4. speaking of time – the difference is minimal. time between the averages is less time than it takes to get a coffee. the trains in freiburg run less frequently (~15 min i think, and still manage to carry significantly more folks).

5. i like that it’s mostly at-grade in the biz districts. when i lived in freiburg, my apt was directly above a tram stop. my day started with the first screeching of wheels and was intertwined with the trams balance of the day. there’s something about seeing the tram, hearing it, engaging with it, knowing when it’s coming and being able to see things along the route that are just so much more… humane, than a tunnel. it’s like biking – you can still window shop.

Jonathan Hopkins

Streetcars and grade separated rail do two totally different things. Streetcars are great for building business and may have the largest effect on moving tourists. But if you want to move a large number of people in the long run and relieve pressure on our streets, you choose grade separated rail. A tunneled option moves nearly 10,000 more people than all but C1 (because C1 goes through Fremont). Assuming a tunneled option from downtown to Ballard is built first and goest through Fremont, then A3 would connect all the urban villages (UW – Wallingford – Ballard – Fremont – Downtown) and BARELY costs more than the streetcars which are slower and don’t carry as many people.

I support streetcars as well in their place–moving people short distances especially through commercial areas. The City can continue to build streetcars too, but we have to recognize they are for a totally different purpose. But with Sound Transit, we need to build a system for the long term that moves LOTS of people and does it FAST. You only get that done with grade separated rail.


I’m puzzled by all of the north-south configurations around the east side. We’ve seen two sets of studies now, and I still don’t see one that will get a rider from downtown Kirkland to downtown Bellevue. If one or both of the most critical nodes in the middle is missing, then it’s not surprising that the ridership numbers are so underwhelming.

Totem Lake has potential as an urban center (unrealized as of now), but otherwise all the 405 options are marrying themselves to a park-and-ride model north of Bellevue. The ERC options get you closer to where people live, but the downtown Kirkland station (if they even build one) would be marginally walkable at best from downtown. Already-existing-Metro and the 255 to Seattle do much better.