To make a long story short, I’m making the case a wide subway loop around Lake Union. To accomplish, all you need to do is build the Ballard Spur and the first part of the Metro 8 Subway, and then loop these stub lines together via Central Link’s Capitol Hill to University District segment and the planned Ballard to Downtown (via Interbay) line. The loop replaces the operation of the Ballard Spur and Metro 8 Subway alone, allowing the routes to flow into one another and facilitate diagonal movements such as Ballard to Capitol Hill. I’ll go into more detail below.

Lake Union Loop
The Orange Line represents the Lake Union Loop. The yellow dots are possible in-fill stations on the Ballard Spur. The Gray Line indicates the tighter loop with an optional extension to Phinney and Greenwood. (Interactive map)

I also think that building both West Seattle light rail alignments, 3A (Delridge Way) and 3C (West Seattle Junction), together would best serve that portion Seattle, at least based on the Sound Transit study data. The two routes would share the expense of the Duwamish rail bridge and the trackage in SODO. I think both would pencil out better this way. Building Ballard to Downtown, the Ballard Spur, a starter line for the Metro 8 Subway and a split West Seattle light rail line is going to be expensive. Thus, this is also an argument for STcomplete, Seattle Subway’s idea of doubling the timeline to 30 years so that we have the money to pay for all our good ideas.

Predicting the Leanings of the Sound Transit Board

Sound Transit has less than a year before Sound Transit 3 (ST3) goes to the ballot. The Sound Transit Board must finalize their project list and decide on a time span for the next phase of buildout. Expanding the timeline means more money and more projects. At 15 years, Sound Transit would have funding capacity of $15 billion for investments. Adding years beyond the base fifteen expands the capacity exponentially due to Sound Transit’s bonding going off the books.

At 25 years, Sound Transit would have more than $30 billion to work with. A few Sound Transit Boardmembers have indicated a preference for 20 years or perhaps even 25 years in a transportation expansion package. That would expand the number of projects to serve the many light rail-hungry voters in the region. The following is a list based on the latest Sound Transit study:

North Spine – Lynnwood to Everett

  • Cost: $3 to $5 billion
  • Ridership: 42,000 to 58,000
  • Travel time: 25 to 38 min, depending on option

South Spine – Kent to Tacoma Dome

  • Cost: $3.5 to 3.7 billion
  • Ridership: 49,000 to 69,000
  • Travel time: 28 minutes
  • Alignment: I-5

Ballard to Downtown

  • Cost: $4.4 to 5.3 billion
  • Ridership: 67,000 to 87,000
  • Travel time: 19 min
  • Alignment: Favoring a grade separated Interbay routing

New Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

  • Cost: $2 billion
  • Ridership: bumps Ballard line to 102,000 to 133,000

Ballard to Ballard High School Elevated Extension

  • Cost: $350 million
  • Ridership: 4,000 to 5,000
  • Travel time: 2 minutes

West Seattle Junction to Downtown

  • Cost: $1.8 billion
  • Ridership: 39,000 to 50,000
  • Time: 11 minutes
  • Alignment: Favoring elevated light rail

West Seattle Junction to Burien

  • Cost: $2.8 billion
  • Ridership: 18,000 to 26,000
  • Travel time: 22 minutes

Downtown to Delridge to White Center

  • Cost: $2 billion
  • Ridership: 34,000 to 40,000
  • Travel time: 18 minutes

Ballard to University District Subway (Ballard Spur)

  • Cost: $3 billion
  • Ridership: 19,000 to 24,000
  • Travel time: 7 minutes

Totem Lake to Issaquah

  • Cost: $3.2 to 3.4 billion
  • Ridership: 12,000 to 15,000
  • Travel time: 31 minutes

Overlake to Downtown Redmond

  • Cost: $1 to 1.1 billion
  • Ridership: 8,000 to 10,000
  • Travel time: 8 minutes

1. Spine Obsession

The Board’s obvious first priority is in building the Spine from Tacoma to Everett, and it would appear they might have $9 billion or more sunk into that endeavor. Part of the reason that number has climbed so high is Sound Transit is letting Snohomish County talk its way into working in a Paine Field dogleg that would cost about $2 billion more than a simple, direct I-5 route — and maybe $1 billion more than a SR-99 routing that is the most urban and transit-oriented development supportive option for the county.

2. Bowing to Booming Ballard

In Seattle, connecting Ballard to Downtown stands out, particularly with a new Downtown transit tunnel, which allows the whole project to draw a projected 102,000 to 133,000 riders for a capital investment of about $7 billion. In comparison, the Spine’s $9 billion is projected to add 91,000 to 127,000 riders. (Personally, I’m generally skeptical that suburban routes will meet estimated projections.) Ballard is a rock solid investment.

Anton's proposed Belltown alignment. (Anton Babadjanov)
Anton’s proposed Belltown alignment. (Anton Babadjanov)

The latest work from Sound Transit shows a Ballard to Downtown light rail line that manages to completely avoid Belltown, veering toward South Lake Union instead. Anton Babadjanov, a write for The Urbanist, presented a nice alternative routing that manages to connect both Belltown and South Lake Union via the Ballard line.

Initially, I thought the the ideal solution to the Belltown/South Lake Union problem would actually be two subways; that being the Metro 8 Subway along Denny Way paired with the direct routing of the Ballard line through Belltown. Unfortunately, Sound Transit doesn’t appear to want to touch the Metro 8 Subway with a ten-foot pole. It might be up to Seattle alone to build that urban line. Anton’s routing could help Seattle jump start the lurching progress of planning Metro 8 Subway and cut its eventual cost down the road by getting three pricey underground stations built with the Ballard line (it also helps with a loopy idea I will get to later on).

3. The West Seattle Political Expediency Express

West Seattle seems to be the Board’s second priority, and most people expect the 3A option to West Seattle/Alaska Junction even though the Delridge Way (3C) routing projects to get almost as many riders and more effectively meet the Board’s own equity goals. Part of the momentum to 3A stems from what seems to be Sound Transit inflating their numbers. Their latest “Corridor Summary” has 3A inexplicably getting ridership of 39,000 to 50,000, despite projecting to have a population of just 21,300 in the West Seattle Junction corridor. As part of the same study, but at a more detailed level (page C-46), the report showed 3A getting a ridership of 23,000 to 29,000. Meanwhile, the Delridge option projects ridership in the 34,000 to 40,000 range in the same Corridor Summary (versus 19,000 to 22,000 in the more detailed study), despite a slightly larger population in the corridor.

West Seattle to Downtown Seattle alignments. (Sound Transit)
West Seattle to Downtown Seattle alignments. (Sound Transit)

It’s surprising that the Delridge Way alignment performed so well in the Corridor Summary since Sound Transit included only three stops in Delridge, and none for a 3-mile stretch from about Spokane Street to Thistle Street. Most of Delridge Way isn’t particularly dense, but it doesn’t cost much to add an at grade station. Adding a station near the Delridge Library and another at Orchard Street would rectify this oversight and make the Delridge line even more useful. The Delridge Way line would serve a substantial minority population who make up 54% of residents. Yet, the elevated West Seattle Junction line would only serve a resident minority population of 28%. Choosing an alignment solely to West Seattle Junction could open the Board up to severe criticism over the lack of equity and run counter to stated agency social goals.

Maybe we don’t have to choose. The new rail bridge to cross the Duwamish is one of the most expensive elements of reaching West Seattle. If we can engineer a rail junction at Delridge Way, both lines could share the new bridge. Approximately $1.8 billion for SODO to Alaska Junction and $2 billion for SODO to White Center via Delridge Way could potentially become $3 billion or less for both. The split line would offer much higher combined ridership than one line alone. And Delridge Way provides a more direct route to Burien. That should translate into some major savings off of the lofty $2.8 billion price tag of to reach Burien Transit Center from Alaska Junction. That figure could be cut in half, if not more so, since White Center (the last stop of the Delridge Way line) is midway between Alaska Junction and Burien Transit Center.

Combined West Seattle options.
Combined West Seattle options.

One downside is not directly reaching the Morgan Junction or High Point, but a light rail extension could be added later, while in the meantime we would serve those neighborhoods with restructured feeder buses from West Seattle Junction or Delridge Way.

4. Burying the Spur?

Sound Transit has studied light rail that would connect Ballard to the University District (the Ballard Spur). But the study tacked on an operations and maintenance facility to the project, perhaps inflating its cost relative to others. This suggests the Board isn’t too interested in building the Ballard Spur this time around. Still, it draws 19,000 to 24,000 riders for $3 billion and serves Fremont and Wallingford with light rail where other projects do not. It seems bizarre that Sound Transit maintains that a 4.7-mile West Seattle Junction line would see more than double the ridership of the Ballard Spur’s, despite the Ballard Spur having more than double the population. Further, West Seattle Junction costing $1.8 billion to the Ballard Spur’s $3 billion is also a headscratcher.

I suspect the spur’s lackluster ridership numbers relative to other lines hint at weakness in their ridership projection model. It seems doubtful that Sound Transit projections fully account for growth near stations affecting future ridership and the extent pedestrian-friendly environments encourage people to walk to stops whereas hellish motor-nightmares encourage people to seek other modes.

Beyond the Spine: Prioritize Urban Centers, Hubs, and Villages

Seattle Subway’s guiding principle is that every neighborhood deserves high-quality light rail. More and more, I’m seeing the wisdom in that. We need to distribute growth throughout the city so that it is equitable and spreads the benefits of vibrant urban commercial districts. The question is how to prioritize which neighborhoods should be served first. The densest and fastest growing neighborhoods make the most sense. Seattle projects that 80% of the city’s job and housing growth in the next 20 years will be in urban centers, hubs, and villages, which I will collectively refer to as “urban nodes”.

The Seattle 2035 draft plan is still awaiting approval by the City Council. (City of Seattle)
The Seattle 2035 draft plan is still awaiting approval by the City Council. (City of Seattle)

Urban nodes are already denser than average Seattle neighborhoods and growth will make them more so. Thus, urban nodes seem prime candidates for light rail stations. Ideally, we would connect every urban node in ST3. This would also help the ballot measure appeal to a wide spectrum of the population. The question is whether even $30 billion would be sufficient to finance that much light rail mileage.

Who Gets Left Out?

The urban nodes of West Seattle Junction, Uptown, and Ballard look to make out splendidly in ST3, and Anton’s routing suggestion allows both Belltown and South Lake Union to get in on the fun. Capitol Hill, University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate all will be served once the ST2 investments in the Central Link go live. That covers many but not all of Seattle’s designated urban nodes. Notably missing are a myriad of urban nodes like Lake City, Bitter Lake, Upper Queen Anne, Central District, Fremont, Admiral District, First Hill, and many others. The City’s draft comprehensive plan calls for adding an urban village in the 130th Street area near Jackson Park. (Some, The Urbanist included, want to go farther and have pushed the City to add urban villages in more places, such as Wedgwood, Magnolia, Madison Park and Sand Point.)

Some of the omissions can be explained by geography. Lake City is far to the northeast and Bitter Lake is far to the northwest. The Admiral District is inconveniently located toward the tip of the peninsula in West Seattle. South Park fits neatly into neither the Fauntleroy nor Delridge corridor. Others look good on a map, but topography provides a challenge. Upper Queen Anne would require a underground station hundreds of feet deep, greatly adding to the cost. First Hill didn’t get a Central Link station because Sound Transit said it was physically impossible due to soil conditions.

Some neighborhoods likely won’t get light rail because they would too closely duplicate spine service, such as Eastlake and Green Lake. Central District could be served by the full Metro 8 Subway, but that subway hasn’t even been studied by Sound Transit let alone strongly considered. Meanwhile, the Ballard Spur might replicate the Ballard to Downtown line in some people’s eyes, but it does bring light rail service to Fremont and Wallingford.

Lake Union Loop

In a dream scenario fully exploiting STcomplete, Seattle would build Ballard to Downtown via Interbay, the Ballard Spur, and at least the first part of the Metro 8 Subway. With the about-to-open University Link extension, we’d have the lines to run a big loop around Lake Union to serve the urban nodes of Ballard, Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, SLU, Capitol Hill, University District, Wallingford, and Upper Fremont in a continuous circuit. Not serving the central business District (CBD) would be unorthodox, but, as South Lake Union develops as a job center rivaling the CBD, it could make more and more sense. To me, it just seems like a shortcut to more frequent service and one-seat rides throughout this dense and quickly growing part of Seattle.

A Lake Union Loop seems really far-fetched at first but it might not be so outlandish. The Ballard to Downtown line seems to be Sound Transit highest priority within Seattle. From Anton’s suggested South Lake Union station, it’s just a 3/4-mile extension to reach Capitol Hill Station, thereby alleviating one of the most tediously slow bus routes in Seattle, the Route 8. This is the only section of the Route 8 that the loop would absolutely need (extending it to the Central District would be nice, eventually). You would also need the Ballard Spur, but justifying its $2 to 3 billion cost might be easier if it offers more one-seat rides and better service to a wider swath of Seattle via the loop.

More Ambitious Loop With Lower Fremont, Queen Anne

We also have the option of tightening the loop by adding another line through Lower Fremont and Queen Anne. Unlike the latest Seattle Subway map, I’d run this line as an extension of the Metro 8 Subway rather than having the Metro 8 Subway head south to Tacoma in a U-shaped fashion. (You can view my map illustrating that idea here.)

The tighter loop would branch off from the spur in Upper Fremont and head south picking up Lower Fremont and South Pacific University before reuniting with the tweaked Ballard to Downtown line in Queen Anne. This would be a 2-mile section to connect 45th Street and Linden Avenue (where I have the Upper Fremont station straddling Aurora Avenue and Fremont Avenue) to Queen Anne Avenue and Galer Street. Two miles of twin bore tunnel and two more underground stations could cost upwards of $2 billion. Since the Ballard to Downtown and West Seattle to Downtown lines seem to be first on the pecking order, it may be awhile before Sound Transit has the funds to pay for these urban routes on the loop.

The Upper Queen Anne station would be expensive since Sound Transit has indicated it would have to be a particularly deep station. However, once you commit to that, it could still be incorporated into the Ballard to Downtown line without sacrificing much in terms of directness. This get Queen Anne light rail service much sooner and prepares the system for the 2-mile tunnel to branch off to Upper Fremont closing the loop.

Challenges

As always with high-quality rail, cost is a clear concern. The tweaks I’ve outlined to the Ballard to Downtown line could push it to the high end of cost estimates ($5 billion) and perhaps beyond with the new Downtown light rail tunnel (projected at $2 billion). However, piggybacking so much on this high priority line not only lays the foundation for a potential loop but also makes for a dynamic line connecting Interbay, Queen Anne, Uptown, Belltown, and South Lake Union, hopefully without sacrificing too much speed.

To close the loop, we are talking maybe $4 billion in addition to the modified Ballard to Downtown line, which projects to cost $7 billion with a new Downtown transit tunnel. We should also plan at least $3 billion for my West Seattle light rail idea. That’s $14 billion in Seattle light rail projects plus $9 billion for the Spine, $1 billion to reach downtown Redmond, $1 billion to reach Burien, perhaps even $3.3 billion to add a dubious Totem Lake to Issaquah line. It’s adding up, but we are still under $30 billion.

Even the the 3/4-mile segment to link South Lake Union to Capitol Hill station might push a $1 billion with the tunneling work and additional station. Running this as a continuous loop would require engineering intersections where they don’t exist on the Central Link alignment. We could plan intersections right into stations in Ballard and South Lake Union if we decide to go ahead with the loop. I think building the three-quarters of the subway to connect the new South Lake Union station in the Ballard line to Capitol Hill is a no-brainer no matter what. Sound Transit might try to get Seattle to foot some of the bill and this corridor is so important I wouldn’t rule it out.

Some lines could be more important to ST3’s electoral success than the Ballard Spur. Extending the Ballard line to Lake City would serve a large population of North Seattleites, picking up Crown Hill, Greenwood, and Licton Springs. That’s a promising project too. With so many intriguing projects, STcomplete is a must. I hope we see at least a 25-year timespan for the system expansion.

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29 COMMENTS

  1. Why not a loop with the north side as 520, east side through downtown Bellevue, south side on 90, and west side coming up along 23rd? I think that would be a more useful layout, where people could transfer at UW to get downtown and/or for a fast way to cross the lake to/from Bellevue, improve service to the central district, and have a transfer to the first hill streetcar for access to the international district also.

  2. This post has a lot of truth in it, along with plenty of fantasy. Every criticism made of Sound Transit’s current plan is correct. You are right about being suspicious about their numbers (the assumptions they make are laughable). You shouldn’t assume that their numbers for Ballard to downtown are any less a fabrication than their numbers to Everett, though. Nor should you assume that a First Hill station was abandoned solely because of concerns over soil — the Seattle Times reported at the time that federal funding was a bigger concern (I can try and find that article if you want).

    The fantasy part is based on the idea that a city this size will have light rail everywhere or that you can magically pick out the places that have high density and serve them with rail. That just isn’t the way this city is built. Take a look at a census map. This one is my favorite, but it does require zooming in: http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?useExisting=1&layers=302d4e6025ef41fa8d3525b7fc31963a

    To make matters simpler, I will call everything over 25,000 people per square mile “high density”, and everything between 10,000 and 25,000 medium density. One of the things you will notice almost immediately is that there are very few places of high density. We are not Brooklyn. We are not L. A. We are a city with lots of medium density, and very few high density spots. For any rail system to directly serve all of the high and moderate density spots you would have to spend a fortune. Your plan would certainly be costly — probably one of the most expensive plans per capita in the U. S., but it would not serve all of the high density spots, let alone the medium ones. The medium and high density spots include: Upper and northern Queen Anne, parts of the Central Area (including First Hill). most of Capitol Hill. parts of Rainier Valley, Bitter Lake and Lake City as well as huge swaths of the north end. There is simply no way you can directly serve every moderate density part of Seattle.

    The only way you can serve a city like Seattle is with a combination of buses and light rail. By keeping the light rail lines fairly small, you also increase headways. This makes transfers from bus to rail (and back) much easier and faster. The train does the heavy lifting by serving areas that are difficult to serve by bus and by complementing the bus service. This type of system is a very common recipe for success.

    The most relevant example of it is Vancouver (SkyTrain). Vancouver does not have huge amounts of rail. They don’t run trains 30 miles from the center (like a spine). Nor do they run a rail line to North Vancouver, an area remarkably similar to West Seattle (except that it has more density). They run the trains where ridership is high, distances are relatively short, and they can connect well to buses. The ridership numbers of their trains are impressive — over ten times LInk. But it is their overall transit network that works so well. They are third per capita in transit ridership in North America. They have triple the transit ridership of Seattle and Portland. Once Link gets to Lynnwood and Bellevue, it will have more miles of track than SkyTrain, yet carry far fewer people. Worse, though, is that the overall transit network will be way inferior to it.

    We should take the same approach here. The huge swaths in the north end I referred to will never be directly served by light rail, but they can be served quite well with the Ballard to UW light rail line and connecting bus service. Lake City and Bitter Lake can be connected to NE 130th via a BRT line. You get the idea. If you think in terms of bus connections, the priorities change almost immediately and it becomes obvious what projects make sense, and what projects don’t.

    What that means for Seattle is basically this: http://seattletransitblog.com/2015/11/30/an-alternative-for-st3-with-something-for-everyone/ plus a real Metro 8 subway (not something that stops short of serving the Central Area and First Hill). It is unfortunate that Sound Transit forgot to put in enough stops between the UW and downtown. But we shouldn’t assume that it “serves” Capitol Hill (let alone the Central Area) just because there is one station. That would be like saying Ballard is served by the UW station. A “Metro 8 subway” serving not only South Lake Union (and lower Queen Anne) but First Hill, Cherry Hill and 23rd would not only serve some high density spots (unlike any combination of rail lines to West Seattle) but it would enable good bus connections (with a station on Madison and a station at 23rd).

    That’s pretty much it for Seattle. Everything else is gravy (or overkill). Maybe someday the BRT connecting Bitter Lake to Lake City could become a light rail line, but the city would have to grow quite a bit before that makes sense. We really don’t need to spend billions so that we can send half empty trains every twenty minutes to areas like West Seattle or Everett.

    • Effective BRT is a fantasy in its own way until we solve the political problem of taking lanes away from auto use to offer transit dedicated lanea for reliability. And in some key intersections it will require new improved interchange. If the plan is to build an additional lanes to dedicate to transit then it’s also very expensive. With Seattle growing at around 15,000 a year in the 2010’s these density figures could change a lot. It’s about anticipating and guiding future growth too.

      • Nonsense. Madison BRT will have level boarding, 100% off board payment, signal priority. center running and very high headways (six minutes all day). That involved taking lanes and eliminating left turns. That is fast, frequent and effective transit. Political problem solved apparently.

        The big political problem is getting Seattle enough money to do what it wants to do, and to get Sound Transit to build what makes sense. You are worried about “effective BRT”, while Sound Transit has failed to build “effective light rail”. It is crazy to build only one stop in the biggest contiguous high density area in the state of Washington. It means that the buses can serve only a small fraction of the area. First Hill is essentially left out, to say nothing of areas like Montlake and the Central Area. Billions spent and so little gained.

        Yes, Seattle is growing. So is Vancouver. Why do you assume that it will magically follow the trains? Rainier Beach is not growing much, despite the changed zoning. Ballard is growing like crazy, despite the terrible transit. West Seattle will never be as densely populated as the Central Area or Ballard, even if our growth spurt continues. Besides, why build a huge, expensive, ineffective system now in hopes that it will someday make sense. Why not spend that money on areas like Ballard and the Central Area where the demand and value exists now and for the foreseeable future?

        • Madison BRT is a nice improvement but it hasn’t proved that the BRT creep political problem has been solved in Seattle since much of the Madison BRT got BAT lanes instead of fully dedicated lanes. It also only has 6 minute headways at peak. Off peak it drops as low as 15 minutes.

          The Capitol Hill station placement is far from ideal. I wish north Capitol Hill was covered, but I wouldn’t worry about Montlake as a priority. It’s not a very dense area nor transit heavy area. (BTW technically the part of Montlake north of Roanoke is in the walkshed of Husky Station). I expect Sound Transit didn’t build another station in Capitol Hill or First Hill because they though it was too expensive. Deep light rail stations are very spendy. In retrospect it seems like a wise investment but I can see why they cheaped out. The Central Link is still going to heavily used give how quick the ride will be from UW to Capitol Hill and Downtown. I wouldn’t characterize it as completely ineffective. You’re writing the obituary before we even get a chance to see how this thing operates.

          I’m not advocating we build West Seattle LRT before we build Ballard LRT. Because ST can only initially take money in at about a billion/year means it’s going to be a while down the road before they accrue enough resources to build West Seattle LRT. It could be 2030 or later before it goes live. 15 years of growth could change parts of West Seattle drastically. The lion’s share of that growth is expected in the West Seattle Junction neighborhood where the 2035 Comp Plan expects 5,157 additional DU’s even before HALA zoning changes.

          One big problem of BRT-heavy approaches is that there is no guarantee that a new downtown transit tunnel will serve buses. I think if we had a magic wand we’d build a massive tunnel system with space for both. But given how expensive excavating station areas is, it seems more likely Sound Transit will build a slimmer, cheaper rail only transit tunnel for their next downtown tunnel. That causes West Seattle BRT to be much less reliable. Moreover, buses are eventually going to be phased one of the current downtown transit tunnel. BRT system are going to have to fight for dedicated lanes on surface streets at that point.

          That said I’m all about using ST3 to leverage capital improvements necessary to upgrade popular RapidRide lines like the E to BRT standards. The new RapidRide+ replacing the 7 should also be a hit since that line is already surpassing 13,400 daily ridership. BRT in multiple corridors would make West Seattle BRT (if we go that route) make more sense in the larger system. Sound Transit picking one Seattle corridor for BRT while ignoring some other worthy ones would lead to some optics problems.

          • I can understand why you have doubts about the Madison BRT project, what with all the teeth gnashing by people who should know better. But as Scott Bonjukian said on this very blog, it will deliver great benefits. A few facts:

            1) It will run ever six minutes from from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM. This can be expanded, of course, but this is not just “at peak”.

            2) It has center running for much of the line and off board payment and signal priority for all of it.

            3) The engineers believe this is all that is necessary to eliminate congestion. Now, it is possible that they are wrong. It is possible that the folks who have degrees in this sort of thing and who are using the sophisticated models are wrong. Just like it might rain tomorrow. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Chances are they are right, and adding additional dedicated lanes would be overkill. Keep in mind, this is from a guy — perhaps the only one — that actually proposed a way to have fully dedicated lanes downtown (http://seattletransitblog.com/2015/11/16/faster-madison-brt-through-downtown/). Although I support that change, I’ll admit that it may not be necessary because the science says it isn’t.

            4) If they are wrong, they can fix it quite easily. They have said as much. They have said if there is an error with the modeling, or if things change, they can change it. This makes sense. The center running is the hard part. Once you commit to that, you’ve committed to a whole new fleet of buses, as well as off board payment — extending it is very easy and relatively cheap.

            Compare that to Link. Sound Transit will never add a stop for First Hill. No stop for 23rd. No stop for the Central Area. I don’t have to write an obituary for the area, Metro already did. They have pretty much given up on serving the area because to do so was very difficult. It really isn’t about the density of 23rd north of Montlake (which exceeds the density of any area in West Seattle, by the way) it is about the bus network. The lack of stations make serving the area problematic, to say the least. You just can’t do it the way that you could with a normal, urban based light rail system. While a station at, say 23rd and Madison is way more dense than an any place in West Seattle, that really isn’t the point. A station there (along with the current station and a station at First Hill) would enable a real grid for the area. It would enable fast, frequent bus service along 23rd as well as Madison, and quite possibly other streets as well. It takes about a half hour to get from Swedish Cherry Hill to Group Health via transit, despite the fact that they are less than a mile apart, and on the same street! There is no real grid for the most densely populated part of our city, because Metro is busy cutting bait — they are desperately trying to get people to downtown. A billion dollar light rail line can change that, but it won’t, because it won’t enable any improvement in service for the area. Oops.

            While I would never characterize U-Link as ineffective, it is wasteful. They were penny wise and pound foolish. They bought a Ferrari, and then put cheap tires on it. Yes, stations are expensive, but nothing compared to the tunnel itself or even the operations. They didn’t run the line to 23rd (or even build a flat spot for a future line) because they really didn’t care. It is really telling that they remain focused on light rail to Tacoma, Everett and places almost as inappropriate for light rail, but ignore the most densely populated parts of the city. They even ignored a stop at NE 130th! That stop will be dirt cheap, but they weren’t interested, because folks in Everett weren’t interested. They are either focused entirely on building a suburban line (which is destined to fail) or are simply incompetent. They really have no idea what they are doing. I really don’t say that lightly. I am the son of a politician. I give bureaucrats a lot of slack. Most of the time they know the truth and the general public is simply misinformed. But in this case, they are building something that no other city has had any success in building. A light rail line that will extend longer than the London underground and overground. Wow!

            This is very much like DART or BART. Unless there is a dramatic change in the way things are done (starting with ST3) it is destined to be a huge failure for the region, and folks will be left paying the bill for a long time.

          • No no you’re right Madison BRT is pretty damn good by Seattle standards and the standards in general in our country. The needs of cars still trumped buses for much of the line and luckily the engineers said that will still be enough for Madison BRT to be very good. The question still remains whether they will be able to make the tougher decisions in the future when solid BRT requires more significant takings from motorists. I think it’s fair to say there is still a political problem that BRT or any other surface running transit with which has to contend when taking lanes from motorists.

            Whether or not we are on a DART/BART course… It will all depend on what projects Sound Transit actually puts on ST3. There have been some very troubling signs, but also some glimmers of hope. The spine focus is annoying but really politically necessary to get buy in from the whole taxing district. The fact we have East King helping to pay for our projects could be a pretty sweet deal down the line. If Sound Transit switches focus to urban alignments with the spine built it could still be an excellent system.

            I’m a little confused about your geography. Did you mean “density north of 23rd north of Madison”? That area which appears to be technically “Stevens” in Google Maps at least. That area is denser than West Seattle for sure. Perhaps the new RapidRide+ line on 23rd will serve as a pilot for full BRT in the area. And obviously there’s the Madison BRT too if that’s the neighborhood you mean. Down the road, a subway or an elevated BRT might make sense. The Metro 8 Subway would perhaps bring in part of this walkshed in addition to the Central District. Sound Transit refusal to even study the Metro 8 has been vexing.

          • Sorry about the terrible and confusing geographic reference. I honestly don’t know what I was referring to when I put in the word “north”. What I wanted to say is that the area around 23rd and Madison is more dense than any in West Seattle. The three census blocks in the area are 14,000,15,000 and 19,000 per person per square mile. That would be 1st, 3rd and 4th in West Seattle (High Point would move from first to 2nd). A station there would make more sense than any in West Seattle for that reason (and because it would have been dirt cheap).

            But the big reason it would make sense is that would enable very complementary bus service. You could gladly kill the 43, because now people would have a very fast way to get downtown from Montlake. You would increase frequency on the 48 quite a bit, because it would serve both Link and the existing corridor. Someone from the Central area would ride up 23rd, get off at Madison, and then get on Link. For those headed north it would eliminate the congestion in Montlake. For those headed south it would eliminate the congestion going downtown. It would also go to a different part of downtown (Westlake and University). In short, it would be much more useful.

            Madison BRT will help immensely, but a stop would have been an excellent value. The BRT isn’t cheap, and neither would a stop. But both are peanuts compared to digging the tunnel. Again, it is like putting cheap tires on a brand new Maserati. This makes sense only if you want to show off for the neighbors. But if you want to drive it on a track — take advantage of the huge amount of money you spent — then it is not very smart. Either Sound Transit is not very smart, or they weren’t that interested in building very good transit in the state’s most densely populated area.

            Yes, a Metro 8 subway would make a lot of sense. But there is no interest in it because it is short and urban. This makes it the best value for light rail by far, but they aren’t interested in it. Something to consider.

            Oh, and the estimates for Madison BRT are made by the city, not Sound Transit. Sound Transit has a history of wildly exaggerating ridership numbers, the city doesn’t (this will be the first BRT for the city).

  3. All of the images of the network show a nice thick line through north Capitol Hill and Montlake. Oh how I wish this were actually the case and there were, you know, stops there. Or frequent bus service.

      • I think you mean “would have been”. As in, it would have been nice if voters approved Forward Thrust. Or how about: it would have been nice if Sound Transit actually thought about how buses would interact with the trains. Too late now, though.

        There will never be a stop there (at north Capitol Hill or most of the other stations that Sound Transit skipped). Don’t worry though, you will soon be able to take a train to Angle Lake, just like you always dreamed of.

  4. i’m not convinced west seattle should be getting light rail, unless the zoning were to change drastically. BRT seems much more appropriate given the numbers.

    • Correct. The zoning would have to change and then the growth would have to come after the zoning changed. If West Seattle looked like downtown Bellevue, then light rail would make sense there. Until then, BRT is a better bet.

      West Seattle really is a textbook example of an area that is better suited for BRT, for a number of reasons: There is a long distance between a stop in West Seattle and SoDo; the geography makes it difficult if not impossible for a good grid; there is little demand to go to stops along the way; the geography makes building rail extremely expensive; the population is spread out and relatively low; BRT can leverage a very fast infrastructure, while rail can not. I’ve written about this before, but here is another post saying much the same thing: http://seattletransitblog.com/2015/12/16/lrt-vs-brt-to-west-seattle-a-mapped-comparison/

      One thing to keep in mind is that BRT would simply be better for West Seattle residents and visitors than light rail. People often assume light rail is better than BRT, just more expensive. That is similar to assuming that a bigger TV is always better. But a giant TV has the same resolution as a small one. In a big apartment, it is just too grainy.

      The same is true of light rail. Light rail is expensive to run. It simply costs more to run those big machines. It only makes sense to run them if you can pick up a lot of people (and thus have decent fare box recovery). If you can’t pick up that many people running every five minutes, then you run ever ten minutes (or twenty). That is why systems like BART and DART don’t run that often to the suburban cities. It just isn’t worth it. The same is true here.

      But buses are cheaper to run. Thus a series of fast bus routes for West Seattle would lead to much higher headways (more frequent service) which would lead to a lot less waiting, and much faster overall service. Not only would it cheaper, but it would be better for those in West Seattle.

      • Part of the reason I changed to offering a light rail solution for West Seattle is that when I suggested BRT in my last ST3 post, a few West Seattle residents commented that they disagreed and wouldn’t vote for ST3 unless they got rail too. Rail bias is a real thing. If we can get service all the way to Burien transit center for about 4 billion its a steep price but it might be well worth it in the long run.

        • OK, so a handful of voters (likely the handful close to an actual station) will cry and take their ball home with them if they don’t get what they want. Never mind what is best for the vast majority of folks on their peninsula, let alone the city itself. Never mind that nothing has actually been proposed (for BRT or for light rail). Never mind that none of them have any idea about headways or costs of operations or any of that. They want a pony, and they want it now.

          • Building rail doesn’t preclude getting better bus service. I think doing the West Seattle Junction LRT with BRT feeding into it both corridors would be good too. Delridge Way BRT could get to Burien for cheaper without sacrificing reliability like BRT without a rail transfer would. You could run another BRT from Alaska Junction to White Center.

          • Why would you want that?

            Consider this scenario: It is noon on a weekday, and you are riding a new 120. The freeway is wide open. Just before you are about to get on the freeway, the bus takes a left, and heads up the hill, to the junction. When it finally gets there, you get off the bus, head deep into a tunnel and wait for ten minutes for the train to arrive. Who would want that?

            Oh, I get it. During rush hour the transfer might (and I say might) be faster. Fine. So you are basically arguing that we should spend billions on essentially a commuter rail system. That is nuts. That never works. It just doesn’t make sense.

            Now assume that it isn’t noon, but you built both systems. You build new ramps and new HOV lanes for the freeway along with a WSTT. Again, consider the scenario, this time at rush hour. Who would want the bus to head up the street? Very few people is the obvious answer. They all want the bus to keep going, because even if the train magically arrived right when they stepped on the platform the bus would be faster.

            What is true for Delridge is true for just about all of West Seattle. The freeway wasn’t put in by random. The roads favor it. The planned light rail would run right next to it. At all points you are better off just staying on the bus. It takes time to transfer. You have to go down the stairs and wait at the platform. You also have to wait for a train, which of course will be very, very infrequent (for the reasons I mentioned). There just isn’t the demand for West Seattle for that. There just aren’t enough people even if you forced every single one of them to transfer.

            Finally, I am tired of this “in the long run — maybe some day it will get big” nonsense. It won’t. West Seattle will never look like South Lake Union. It will never look like Belltown. If it does — if the zoning magically changes and the huge buildings come — then we will have plenty of time to build a rail system there. But as I said, even then, the buses can handle the demand. The entire peninsula could literally double in size and buses could handle the load easily. It is ridiculous to assume that it will. Why build something that might, someday, maybe, sort of, kind of, be nice when you can build something with obvious benefit now, and into the foreseeable future? Because West Seattle was “promised” light rail? Because the head of the county and Sound Transit happens to live there? That just doesn’t make sense.

          • BTW, I should have also noted that a West Seattle elevated LRT scored the most points in Sound Transit’s online survey in July with 5,198. Ballard-UW LR scored 4,751 and Ballard-Downtown grade-separated LR scored 4,332. Everything else was much lower. Not saying we should let that totally dictate our priorities, but it wouldn’t be a trivial number of people who would be disappointed and possibly spiteful enough to vote against ST3. I think a good many of those people might be satisfied with true BRT for West Seattle but we’d have to show them the Sound Transit plan showing it wouldn’t be crappy first. West Seattle elevated LRT also scored the highest in the 1 to 5 ‘how important is this line’ scale too FWIW. It scored a 4.02 within the Central Corridor.

            http://soundtransit3.org/Media/Default/Document%20Library%20Featured/ST3_Public_Comment_Documents/2015_0723_ST32015Survey_TopLine_FINAL.pdf

    • The Future Land Use Plan in West Seattle does envision upzones and significant growth. That is slotted to go into effect with the implementation of the HALA recommendations.

      • The development capacity report only shows capacity for something like 8000 DUs in WS urban hubs and villages. HALA is not going to quintuple that number.

        What all that SF will see is likely rapid gentrification with rapidly increasing home values owing to proximity to LR stops.

        I think RossB nails it, the numbers are pretty absurd.

        • OK, let’s say HALA manages to double the DU capacity to 16,000 for argument sake. Let say about 80% of the capacity is built for 13,000 new DU’s and each unit averages 2 residents. This is still 26,000 new residents for the Southwest Community which is more than a 50% gain in population. If Southwest is about seven square miles, which is ballpark what it look like, then the density would surpass 10,000 residents per square miles, and likely would be much higher in the West Seattle Junction urban hub (which has already reached that level of density for the most part). It starts seeming more reasonable to serve West Seattle with light rail at those densities.

          http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/Neighborhoods/Districts/Southwest/southwest-demographics.pdf

          Gentrification is whole nuther animal. Some wouldn’t really use the term with West Seattle since it’s a 86% white neighborhood as it stands (2010 census numbers at least.) Delridge might have better case for gentrification with its 51% white population. Furthermore, I don’t know that West Seattle is a bastion of affordability as it stands. The Sound Transit study pegged the West Seattle corridor at 12% low income and Delridge at 18% low income.

          Vigorous growth is the only way to keep up with Seattle’s housing demand and thereby avoid a city wide price spike and pricing out of the low income market. The fact that housing values will go up near LR stations isn’t an argument against building LRT. Inclusionary zoning will harness the increased land value for low income housing. Plus, the greater property tax revenues flowing into city coffers will help fund city services and the Seattle Housing Levy for that matter. We can come up with policy solution to deal with rising land values near LR stations. With the right interventions, it’s a good problem to have.

          • For light rail to West Seattle to make sense there would not only have to be high growth, but growth much bigger than average around the one corridor that light rail would serve. It would have to be like South Lake Union, which seems very unlikely. If the city takes steps to increase growth in the city, then it is
            likely that the growth will occur everywhere. I don’t see West Seattle growing any faster than the broad area north of 45th and west of I-5 which is visible on census maps. This is an area with lots of apartments and lots of houses. HALA type changes would mean plenty of growth here, as there is huge growth there already, under current law. In terms of density it is way ahead, and shows no sign of relinquishing its huge lead.

            A Ballard to UW subway would serve that entire region, and connect it the UW, the second biggest destination in the state. It would also, for everywhere except maybe Aurora, provide a much faster trip to downtown, even with a transfer. It would carry more people, carry way more people per mile, and provide a much bigger time savings for more people than any line that could be built for West Seattle. This would make it a much better value.

            The area that could be served by a Metro 8 subway is also like that. It would grow in a similar fashion, and the subway would enable a host of very good bus to rail transfers, as well as direct service. It too would be a much better value than West Seattle light rail.

            West Seattle should be way down on the list for light rail. Even if density increases there, it still has the obvious geographic disadvantages (extremely high cost and low ridership per mile) and the obvious outstanding alternatives (BRT via the freeway). Those on the other routes (Ballard to UW and Metro 8 subway) are the opposite.

          • Yeah that’s fair about Ballard to UW and Metro 8 being higher priorities than West Seattle but the thing is in a 25-year ST3 *we’d theoretically have money to do all three*, even while sinking $8+ billion in the Tacoma to Everett Spine and perhaps even with the more expensive Ballard to Downtown via interbay route the board seems so keen on, too.

            I think the density metrics you use for LRT worthiness are excessively stringent. Not every neighborhood has to have SLU levels of density to be LRT worthy. Yeah it’s nice if stations areas are that dense, but West Seattle’s street grid has pretty good bones allowing for a widespread walkshed. And the 5,157 additional DUs Junction is already sitting on (pre-HALA upzone) is going to make for a nice urban hub that will put a station to good use.

            The BRT alternative seems obvious enough *if* they can build and then get access to the WSTT mot to mention engineer a expanded freeway ramp interchange, and work out an agreement between Metro Transit and Sound Transit on who will operate the BRT and pay for said operations. They need to do a full study. I do hope Sound Transit gives both options due diligence.

            I actually think it’d be a good precedent to set for Seattle if Sound Transit took urban BRT as seriously as I-405 BRT. They could upgrade a handful of RapidRide lines and turn over operations to Metro Transit to get buy in from more neighborhoods and improve the transit grid.

          • I think we are on the same page.

            One thing I should clarify. The reason the bar is so high for West Seattle is because it has so many obvious challenges. Because of the Duwamish and because of the steep terrain, it will cost a huge amount of money to build a rail line just to put in that first station. On a per station basis the cost is extremely high, even if it is extended. What is true of building it is also true of running it. A train would have to travel a fairly big distance without picking up additional customers. This is expensive.

            Ridership at that station and subsequent stations would have to way higher than average — way higher than Ballard, for example — for it to make sense. That part of West Seattle would have to catch up with areas it trails by quite a bit and then them pass them. It would have to grow much faster than areas that are growing faster than it now. I just don’t see it.

            Sound Transit seems more interested in building things that look good on a map, as opposed to good values. If you want a good looking map, then you extend light rail for miles, thus “covering” a wide area. Unfortunately, in most cases that doesn’t work. You really haven’t covered anything. Most of West Seattle would not benefit from a single light rail line as much as they would a handful of relatively cheap bus based investments. Most of the mid day riders in West Seattle wouldn’t benefit from the single light rail line at all. They would be better off with the current system.

            The focus on miles as opposed to density depends on an ignorant populous. Building something that “sounds good” or mimics our driving patterns sounds appealing. I’ll admit, i supported the first Sound Transit proposal (with light rail to Tacoma). The idea of getting from Everett to Tacoma and everywhere in between sounds great. The problem is that it wouldn’t serve the areas “in between”. Transit isn’t like driving. If you add a new freeway (like the West Seattle freeway) than it automatically leverages the existing road network. This meant that from a driving standpoint, the West Seattle freeway certainly served all of West Seattle. But transit isn’t like that. You have to have a bus network to serve a rail line, or the rail line has to serve very dense areas (or both).

            Focusing on density and an improved transit network instead of distance is not an obviously superior strategy. But it makes sense logically and scientifically. Study after study as well as example after example show this to be true. But Sound Transit does not seem to be interested in it at all (at this point).

          • I’m skeptical of adding another freeway. I don’t think urban freeways have a positive effect on the overall transportation network since they induce demand for driving and then tunnel it to chokepoints rather than the street grid. Our focus should be on the other modes.

            I don’t know that the gulf between West Seattle and other projects on per station cost will necessarily be so wide. If that $1.8 billion price tag for West Seattle Junction isn’t too far off, then it will probably be less expensive than the Ballard Spur and significantly less expensive than Ballard-Downtown LRT and/or a hypothetical Metro 8 Subway. The Spur and 8 are more sure things, but the per station cost would still be considerable.

            And just about any Seattle neighborhood will have its topographical challenges. West Seattle’s are particularly severe, but perhaps not insurmountable.

    • The trouble is that the high infrastructure cost to do a proper BRT to West Seattle make the argument to spend just a bit more for rail to get much higher ridership numbers.

      • It’s not a little bit more, its a lot more. It is a lot more because you can’t leverage any part of the freeway. It is a lot more because you have to worry about grade (which is in part why you can’t leverage the freeway). Rail is a lot more expensive, as the link I mentioned shows.

        Not only is it a lot more expensive to build, but it is a lot more expensive to operate. About three times as much. This is why BART has headways of 15-20 minutes outside of Oakland/Berkeley/San Fransisco (the only area where rail makes sense). Same with DART. They basically send empty trains every 15 minutes at rush hour and every 20 minutes in the middle of the day (and evenings). These are sent to areas much bigger more densely populated than than West Seattle (connecting to a much bigger and densely populated city) because that is all they can afford. It just isn’t cost effective to send them more often. They are only willing to lose so much money. What that means is that if they did build rail, the trains would come a lot less often than the buses. It might be fine for a commuter who times it right, but everyone else finds the thing useless, and wants to stick with their bus.

        Again, check out Vancouver. Check out Dallas. Check out Toronto. Check out BART. The West Seattle/Spine mentality just doesn’t work. It fails and would fail, making things not only expensive for everyone trying to make it in this town, but providing very little in value.

        • But you can’t really leverage any part of the freeway for BRT EITHER… I also don’t think you’re aware of just how many people are crossing that Bridge daily on buses — even outside of peak.

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