My initial impressions of Sound Transit’s draft plan for Sound Transit 3 were that it was weighted too heavily to delivering project to the suburbs first rather than moving forward the highest ridership urban projects first. I suggesting adding in Ballard-to-UW subway line to give Ballard (and the rest of Northwest Seattle) a quicker win, but Sound Transit appears to view that project as an addendum not a prologue, which puts more strain on building the Ballard-to-Downtown line as quickly as possible.

The Transport Politic‘s Yonah Freemark did an excellent analysis of the ST3 package and confirmed what many urbanists suspected: the Ballard-to-Downtown is by far the strongest project on the list and deserves to be built first.

The Transportation Politic ran the numbers to find the cost per rider. (Yonah Freemark)

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 11.18.37 PM
The Transport Politic ran the numbers to find the subsidized cost per rider, which is a good indicator of a line’s performance. (Yonah Freemark)

As you can see by the chart, the suburban projects do not perform nearly as well as the urban projects, particularly the Ballard-to-Downtown line. Freemark put it thusly:

When analyzed from a comparative perspective, as shown in the following chart, the benefits of a Ballard-to-downtown line shine through. The project’s construction costs per daily rider and per population and jobs served in the surrounding areas are the second-lowest in the entire system, and much less costly than most of the suburban extensions the agency is prioritizing.

That’s even more relevant when incorporating the operating costs of and the revenues generated by the lines. The total subsidized cost over 30 years per rider—in other words, how many public funds must be expended for each rider after fare revenues to cover the cost of construction and operations—is a good indicator of project performance.

There, the Ballard-to-Downtown line excels, costing the public just $2.77 per rider, the least of all projects being considered. That’s compared to $5.93 for the Kent/Des Moines extension and $15.88 for the Redmond extension, the two lines ST3 prioritizes in the short term.

Freemark also suggested a line of argument:

But Seattleites have the grounds to challenge the way Sound Transit is prioritizing projects. Assuming the project list is relatively final, at minimum the Seattle light rail lines and the Tacoma streetcar extension, which perform better than all the others, should be advanced. They’re the best deal for the taxpayer.

More broadly, residents of Seattle—and people living in any central city in a region contemplating a regional transit investment plan—should make the argument that transportation equity not only means serving many parts of the region, but also maximizing return on investment for taxpayers and picking projects that will attract the most number of transit riders.

So let us make that argument. Transportation equity does entail spending regional dollars wisely and Sound Transit’s own data shows Ballard-to-Downtown is the strongest investment by far. Getting it done in 2038 is not good enough. With a 25-year timeline and $50 billion, we should be able to accrue enough money for the $4.6 billion project much sooner than currently phased. We should probably even come through with the extra cash to build a tunnel crossing of Salmon Bay rather than a less reliable but slightly cheaper moveable bridge to ensure our 100-year investment doesn’t end up getting bogged down anytime a pleasure yacht goes out to sea forcing the bridge to open.

The UW station is large and has several ticket machines on the first platform.
The UW station is large and has several ticket machines on the first platform.

By way of comparison, I ran the numbers on the Ballard-to-UW subway line using Freemark’s method and due to the line’s headscratchingly low prediction of 19,000 to 24,000 daily ridership. The line does not perform as well as the other urban lines, performing slightly ahead of the Redmond extension in cost per rider. Notice how the Redmond extension is the very first rail project built in ST3 while the Ballard-to-UW line isn’t even on the list despite almost identical cost per rider performance in their study. This shows how skewed Sound Transit is toward political considerations rather than performance metrics. I expect the Ballard-to-UW would perform much better in real life, especially with an additional station at 8th Avenue NW. I could see it easily doubling Sound Transit’s lowball prediction.

ProjectDaily ridershipTotal 30-yr costsConstruction cost/daily riderConstruction cost/population and jobs served30 year revenuesSubsidized cost per 30 years of daily riders
Ballard to UW21,5003,557141,48843,96040015.79
West Seattle to Burien22,0003,656126,86476,19451215.37
Ballard High School extension4,50043980,66724,527848.49
Madison Street BRT10,00012912,9006791860 (-0.61)

Everyone is asking for faster timelines. Everett even got nearly a dozen state legislators to write a strongly worded letter. However, Seattle can make the strongest case that its lines will improve the financial performance of the whole system. Look no further than the very low $2.77 subsidized cost per rider line from Ballard-to-Downtown which absolutely blows everything else (save the Tacoma Link) out of the water. Building that line first doesn’t just appease impatient Seattleites. It makes the most financial sense.

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  1. @Dysharmonica:disqus — As to your second point, I disagree. The suburban lines have been just as contentious as the ones in the city, if not more so. East Link changed several times. The Issaquah rail line will be very controversial, since it could be built over the Slough.

    But I think that bolsters your overall point. Issaquah is at the back of the list, because it will be controversial (oh, and even ST knows it is a silly project). The projects that are being built first are the ones that are more straightforward (and less controversial). Redmond and Federal Way have been planned (and expected) for a long time. There was talk of including them in ST2 (I believe Federal Way was actually part of ST2, but they ran out of money).

    Everett, Tacoma, Issaquah, West Seattle and Ballard are very different, which explains why they get put on the back burner. That being said, there are a lot of weird aspects to these projects. For example:

    1) Why is the Graham Street Station so far down on the list. It is scheduled for 20 years from now, even though it is just a station. This is one of those cheap, easy things that should be added in the first couple years.

    2) Combined, the West Seattle and Tacoma projects are just as expensive as Ballard, yet built five years before them. Wouldn’t it make sense to reverse that?

    I just think that this is part of the overall planning problem that Sound Transit has had from the very beginning. Ever since they built rail to the airport instead of the UW first (when they ran out of money) they have been more interested in symbolic improvements, not functional ones. A new station isn’t sexy, but it is by far the most cost effective improvement in transit you can make. Light rail to Tacoma will be very visible but it will do way less for Tacoma then what the Interbay line to Ballard will do for Seattle (which will do less than the Ballard to UW line would do).

  2. That’s a fair point. Redmond really has been an exceptional partner for light rail expansion from the beginning. The city has done a lot in terms of accommodating station-oriented zoning near future locations, reservation of right-of-way on private property, fine grained installation of complimentary public improvements, and constant coordination with ST. And as you note, it was actively planned as an extension in the first incarnation of ST2 (the Roads and Transit programme) before the Downtown Redmond extension was removed in the second incarnation.

  3. If the line were never to be extended, I might agree with you on the bridge. But it’s clear that there is an appetite and real need to greatly extend the Ballard line north and likely east. Why spend billions now on the line if we’ll just have to rebuild it in 20 years or less?

    I also can’t help but think you actually think that region never becomes denser and multi-nodal for business and activity. The long-range planning assumptions would not agree favourably with that assertion.

    Pointing to Vancouver only bolsters the proposition that I laid out above. It doesn’t act as the counter that you suggest above.

    • Again, both Chicago and New York have movable bridges. A 70 foot bridge would open very rarely, and trains running every six minutes would have no problem avoiding the rare ship that went through. It wouldn’t open at rush hour (the existing Ballard Bridge doesn’t open at rush hour) so you really don’t have to worry about it delaying the trains at all.

      Of course we will become denser and more multi-modal. But we aren’t going to become New York or Chicago (and they have movable bridges!). But again, the problem isn’t the bridge. It is the line!

      We can’t just keep spending billions on poorly designed light rail infrastructure. With the exception of Washington D. C., no North American city has spent that kind of money. It is too expensive. D. C. did it because they got funding by the federal government. We won’t get that kind of funding, especially for these types of projects. Even if the record setting growth continues for the next forty years, we won’t be dense enough to justify that kind of spending. We will never be Brooklyn, let alone Manhattan. There will be better values nationwide for subway spending and the feds know it.

      But that doesn’t mean we can’t build a good subway system. Again. look at Vancouver. The transit system works way better than ours. But it is only 42 miles long. Toronto only has 43 miles of subway. Toronto!

      Even without ST3, our system will be over five miles longer. In general, length correlates with both capital and maintenance costs. We are spending more on less. The problem isn’t that our system isn’t long enough, it is that it is poorly designed. When you spend over $12,000 per woman, man and child in the region, and the best thing you can say is “don’t wait, it will eventually be really good”, you have failed.

      This system has failed because it has ignored what works throughout North America. It has ignored what works in our nearest city! The Vancouver transit system works really well because the lines are short, but very effective. They depend on transfers from trains as well as buses. You can’t look at the SkyTrain map in isolation, you have to look at the buses and how well you can get anywhere to anywhere. Train ridership is impressive, but it is overall transit ridership that is really good. They have 3 times the transit ridership (per capita) then we do.

      But our system fails to do that. Consider the Metro 7, which carries 13,500 a day, or only 200 less than our busiest bus, the RapidRide E. It runs down Rainier Valley, and happens to intersect Link. You would assume, then, that this station would be very busy, since it provides the connection between our light rail line and a very busy bus. But that isn’t the case. Boarding at Mount Baker station is a small fraction of the ridership on the 7. The transfer is so bad that it isn’t worth the effort. People just stay on the 7 if they are headed downtown. There are other examples as well. A station at NE 130th remains a “provisional station”. People have had to fight hard with Sound Transit planners to convince them of the value of a station there, when it is so obviously beneficial to the overall transit system.

      Sound Transit has ignored the value of building a real transit network. They have ignored what works in other cities, and have focused on providing symbolic light rail to various parts of town, as if that was the goal in and of itself. The result will be like Rainier Valley. It might work for part of the area, but it doesn’t work for most of it.

      Arguing over the bridge is really silly, and my apologies for dragging it out. It is like arguing whether you should live with the cheap stereo system on the Hummer the salesman is trying to sell you. Yes, it would be nice to have decent tunes, but that really isn’t the problem. We shouldn’t by a Hummer.

      • I’m skeptical that the Vancouver rail network is as fundamentally different from Sound Transit as you say. Vancouver has rail to Richmond, Surrey, Burnaby and starting next year all the way east to Coquitlam. They want to build 17 more miles in Surrey/Langley (at least if they overcome recent ballot failure). That would bring their system to 67 miles, which, considering the Seattle metro’s larger population, is comparable to the 108 miles of light rail Sound Transit has planned. Both system lean toward regional service IMO. Obviously the Vancouver system is way better on ridership but it’s also more mature and admittedly better at bus connections. I’m not convinced ST3 is hopeless.

        As to our moveable bridge, I expect we’d have a much busier crossing than New York or Chicago given all the moorage in Lake Union, Lake Washington and the canals. To only expect six minutes headways does not look very far into the future or account for the potential of the Ballard LRT. This is a 100 year investment.

        • Sorry, but it is fundamentally different. The Vancouver system was based on the Toronto system, which is really tiny for a city that size (yet very effective). It is based on transfers (including transfers from surface transit to underground transit) along with urban stop spacing (the two go together).

          Obviously these points are debatable, so let me start with stop spacing. Here is a nice Google Map of the stations and lines as they exist now for Vancouver: It is about five miles from downtown Vancouver to the edge of the city (the yellow area). Within that area I count 24 stations.

          Do the same with Link and get less than 15. Do the same with larger distances, and the difference is even bigger. For example, go out 8 miles south and you are in Richmond and the Vancouver Airport (the Vancouver Airport is much closer to the rest of town than is SeaTac). To the east this takes you well into Burnaby (almost to Simon Frasier). As a result, you now have about 40 stations for Vancouver. With Link you have 16. We have way more miles of rail, but way fewer stations in the central urban areas.

          ST3 really doesn’t change that equation. It doesn’t even catch us up with where SkyTrain is now, let alone with where they want to be. You have three stations in West Seattle (two right under the freeway), and a handful of decent stations from downtown to Ballard.

          Vancouver expansion would certainly involve expanding outward, but nothing like we are planning. Even the planned stations that are “way out there” are only 15 miles from downtown, which sits on the other end of the city. We are very close to that now (at SeaTac) and will have far more distant stations (in Federal Way and Lynnwood) even if ST3 fails. But Vancouver is not done with the city proper. They would also build a cross town subway on Broadway, replacing one of the best BRT lines in the world — the B-Line. The set of projects adds about 20 miles of rail to the system, a lot of it the suburbs. But the longest extension would be in the city. With those extra 20 miles, Vancouver would have roughly as much as Link has with ST2, but with dozens of stops in the core city, and criss-crossing lines to serve it.

          If we build ST3, we will have way more miles of rail, without anything like that. We won’t have a cross town connector (the only intersection will be downtown, along a corridor built long before Sound Transit was formed). Vancouver will have dozens more stops in the core of the city, with bus and trains making up a highly efficient, high frequency, very fast transit system.

          We would have to get to ST4, or ST5 before we have that. By then our mileage would be double or triple theirs.

          The Vancouver system is not unique. Nor is the Seattle system. But they are very different. So different, that it prompted a nice little debate on Human Transit: Just to boil down the argument, folks (like me) made the point that ST is doing things wrong. They are not building enough stations, nor are they focused on bus to rail interaction. Jarrett Walker defended ST’s decision. But he didn’t deny that Link was suburban by nature, only that fewer stations makes sense for a suburban focused line. He essentially made two points. The first that stations are expensive (which should give someone pause when discussing tunnels versus bridges — would you rather have more stations or a tunnel?). The second point he made is that this line goes all the way out to Lynnwood, and may go out to Everett. Therefore, you don’t want that many stops. I agree. But that is precisely the problem. This sacrifices urban transit mobility on the promise of a faster trip to the suburbs.

          If that is your goal, then you don’t want to build something like what Vancouver, Toronto or DC built. You want to something like what Phoenix is building.

          There are two big problems with that. First, it has never worked.

          Second, we aren’t Phoenix. If you look at the census maps, you can see that the high population density areas in Phoenix are all over the place. (When I say high density I mean high density for the region, not compared to other cities). It is also relatively cheap to build surface rail in Phoenix (it is fairly flat as long as you avoid the rock outcroppings). We are the opposite. Almost all of our high density areas are within the city ( Making matters worse, light rail manages to miss most of them, while it focuses on less dense areas that are extremely expensive to reach!

          One can only conclude that Sound Transit is more fixated on serving regional interests and providing symbolic (often less useful) light rail to those areas than it is building an effective transit system for the region.

          • Lovely analysis but Seattle’s metro area is what is. We can’t wish away rambling suburbs as much as we might hope. Seattle/Tacoma’s suburbia encompasses a much larger area. Vancouver metropolitan area is just physically a lot smaller since it’s more hemmed in by the mountains and the population is smaller. This makes TransLink seem less focused on serving the suburbs when the main difference is there is just less suburban area to serve. But don’t get me wrong they have a great transit system and Sound Transit could learn a few things from them.

            Your analysis also ignores the potential for high capacity transit to guide growth and turn low density suburbs into more urban walkable places. Sure there are examples of terrible station placement. Sound Transit has made it share of blunders. What would the region do without high capacity transit? It’d be one thing if we relatively static, but we are growing rapidly so it helps tremendously to have the the structure of high capacity transit from which to grow since we are going to grow anyway.

            True, you could probably accomplish the same thing with BRT in much of the suburbs, particularly in the shorter term. But there is a pretty good case for Tacoma to have it’s own light rail link to the airport. Perhaps Everett’s case is less convincing and frustratingly they chose the most expensive alignment. But the structure of Sound Transit makes it very hard to tell Tacoma you get light rail to Seattle and Everett you don’t. Regardless, the high cost of ST3 has much to do with the cost of doing business in hilly and spread out Puget Sound region. If only it weren’t so, but alas our suburbia really does stretch 70+ miles along the sound.

          • Sorry, but that just isn’t what Seattle is. Again, we aren’t Phoenix. Just look at the census maps of Phoenix and Seattle and there is a striking difference. With Phoenix, it is really hard to find the center of town ( There is moderate density everywhere.

            That just isn’t the case with Seattle. Almost all of the census blocks over 25,000 people per square mile are in Seattle. There are only three outside Seattle; two in Bellevue and one in Kent. The same is true with the 10,000 to 25,000 census blocks. There are dozens and dozens in Seattle, including clusters next to each other, surrounding higher density areas. That simply doesn’t exist anywhere else in the area. Not in Bellevue, certainly not in Everett, and not even in Tacoma. Tacoma has plenty of charm, but it doesn’t have density.

            The suburbs of Vancouver are much more densely populated than our suburbs, yet much of it doesn’t have light rail. Take North Vancouver. In many ways it is very much like West Seattle. A peninsula that is very close to the mainland, but you have to go around (by land). So, despite miles and miles of rail that has been built up for over thirty years now, North Vancouver area doesn’t have a light rail line. Yet the area looks like Manhattan compared to West Seattle. It is has way more apartments and way more office towers. It gets by with buses and a boat.

            A sprawling set of light rail lines to random, low density areas will be no more effective in Seattle than it has been anywhere else. Seriously, where has this worked? I can think of lots of examples where the opposite is the case. Vancouver, Toronto, Boston all have relatively few miles of rail, yet very good transit.

            We aren’t unusual. There are plenty of cities with suburban cities 30 or 40 miles away. What is unusual is building a subway to those cities. No one does that, because it doesn’t work. It won’t work for Tacoma. In the middle of the day, it will be faster to take an express bus than it will to take the light rail. This is why cities don’t do this. There aren’t enough destinations along the way to warrant the extra cost in time and money. People really aren’t interested in going from Ash Way to Lynnwood, the way they are interested in going from the UW to Capitol Hill. This is why cities run express buses and commuter (express) rail from the suburbs to cities much, much bigger than ours. Seriously, check it out: Go to the map for New York City, and click on transit to view the greatest transit system in North America (and one of the greatest in the world). Now right click on a spot in the middle of Manhattan to see how far it stretches. Yonkers is only a dozen miles away, yet it has no subway service. Queens is much closer than that, and much of it lacks subways as well. Are these suburban areas low density? NO! These areas are as dense as any place in Seattle. They don’t have subways there because it doesn’t make sense to extend the subway out that far. They get by with commuter rail and buses.

            What is true of NYC is certainly true of Seattle. It is true of D. C. as well, and inspired this nice little comment: We aren’t building what D. C. built; we aren’t building what Toronto, or Boston or Toronto built. Building what they built would be as appropriate for us as it would be for them. Building what ST built would be as stupid for them as it would be for us.

            We aren’t a special snowflake. Suburbs are everywhere; there is no reason to assume they will will grow faster than the city, nor is there any reason to think that serving them with light rail is the right thing to do.

  4. Let us look at what is in the real political interests of the suburban voter! Suburban voters moved to the suburbs to avoid the congestion of the city. By emphasizing the construction of new light rail connections within the city of Seattle, they can make it possible for Seattle itself to accommodate the next half million Puget Sound area residents.

    We know that Seattle’s high tech and manufacturing are a magnet for growth, and the whole region is benefitting by this growth. Thanks to this growth, we are not a Cleveland or Detroit, a slowly dying city. We have not only job growth, but great culture, hospitals, entertainment, and other urban amenities.

    New people want to move to Seattle! Should we build out ST3 in a way that prioritizes suburban growth, and thus brings more congestion to the suburbs, or should we make it possible for Seattle itself to accommodate these newcomers?

    If we do the latter, suburbanites will have an easier time preserving the amenities that brought them to the suburbs in the first place. Kirkland wisely recognized that this was so, and rejected an expensive and economically questionable light rail line.

    Build light rail in Seattle, where it actually is needed and will be used. Use Bus Rapid Transit in suburban areas, like Issaquah, Kirkland, and the north suburbs beyond Lynnwood.

    Suburban voters actually do need more light rail within Seattle, because it means there is more room for them and their cars when they want to visit Seattle.

    • I agree. Different areas have different needs in terms of transit. The “light rail is the answer to every transit problem” approach taken by Sound Transit is a huge mistake. My guess is people will realize this before the election and ST3 will go down in flames. Take Snohomish County, for example. I see only a handful of people that will benefit from the light rail which dominates this project. Most of the people live south of the Lynnwood station (the terminus if this doesn’t pass). For them, a line heading north (to Everett) is completely unnecessary. There is no reverse commute there. Getting to their destination will certainly involve taking a bus, and the combination of buses will be just as good without ST3. Heading to Ballard (or Fremont or anywhere in between UW and Ballard) will be just as slow. It doesn’t make sense to go all the way downtown and then back up again. With West Seattle you have the same issue as Everett — no reverse commute. A bus from SoDo would be faster if, say, you are headed to South Seattle College (one of the few destinations in West Seattle). For a trip to Tacoma, you are better off taking Sounder or an express bus. The only trips that I can see being a bit faster are the ones to lower Queen Anne, South Lake Union and south Puget Sound. But with South Lake Union, the benefit will be marginal (it will often be faster just to walk than transfer to the train). So that leaves lower Queen Anne, Federal Way and Fife. I just don’t see that many riders willing to spend billions on that.

      On the other hand, a Ballard to UW line would change the lives of very person in Snohomish County headed to Fremont, Wallingford or Ballard (all of which are growing in employment rapidly).

      I think ST3 will fail by a wide margin once people realize that it won’t actually provide that much value. I want to be ready with a solid set of projects when it is done. The combination of projects laid out here would be much better for the city, as well as the region as a whole. I wish I knew about all the little things that could be done to improve
      mobility in the suburbs, but I don’t. My guess is there are dozens of
      improvements that could be made — things like HOV lanes on the surface
      streets and new HOV ramps. The combination would make a lot of sense, assuming that things are funded in the same manner (with subarea equity).

  5. The only way light rail can work is if it’s a regional transportation option that’s why the lines connecting cities are prioritized. It wasn’t meant to be a Seattle neighborhood transportation system.

    • It’s important that we don’t gloss over the fact that this is meant to be a regional system. I think we all understand that.

      With that said, there are two ingredients to a successful regional system. First, people have to be able to travel between the regional centers quickly and, second, people have to be able to get around the regional centers once they get there.

      In other words, a Ballard line isn’t just for Ballard. It’s so people throughout the region can access Ballard. Rail to many other places is fine and its great to connect those locations but they simpler at a regional destination and rail won’t make them one either. It will be too slow (slower than buses) and there isn’t employment and services.

      • I agree with your second paragraph. You have to be able to travel quickly between regional centers, and you have to travel within the area once you get there.

        I also agree with your other statement — a Ballard line isn’t only for Ballard. Which is why building this line is so ridiculous. This won’t work for anyone north of the U-District. Building Ballard to UW would not only be cheaper, but it would build a better overall transit network (e. g. someone trying to get from Everett would have a much faster ride to Ballard, while someone from Tacoma would only have to spend an extra two minutes on the train).

        But building expensive light rail to the suburbs is a recipe for disaster. There has been no city anywhere that has been successful trying that technique (and many have failed). It just doesn’t work. The suburbs are too spread out, and the ridership pattern is too focused on getting to the other city. For example, the light rail line from downtown to the UW works well in part because it enables people to get from the UW to Capitol Hill as well as downtown to Capitol Hill. This is the way that successful subways work. All day long, you have people coming and going at every stop. But that simply isn’t the case with a suburban line. There aren’t that many people trying to get from Ash Way to Lynnwood TC. Furthermore, a lot of them will regret the delay that stopping entails. They would rather get an express into town. You also have the cost issue, which is really high. This is why cities generally either add commuter rail service or express buses, both of which are just as effective, but much cheaper. The combination of that, plus a good inner city subway system is what enables cities like Vancouver to have much higher transit ridership than Seattle does.

    • That’s not what it is being sold as, for good reason. As a means to travel from city to city it is ridiculously expensive. The only part of this that can possibly be cost effective is the part inside Seattle. Everything else will be a huge waste money (billions spent for empty trains traveling every half hour for miles and miles).

      • I’m not saying we shouldn’t build a Ballard line, we need to build the regional lines first.

        • OK, what I’m saying is that we only need to build the inner city line. What you are suggesting we buy fuzzy dice before we buy a car. Except in this case the fuzzy dice cost as much as the car.

          Vancouver doesn’t have regional lines. Toronto doesn’t have regional lines. Chicago doesn’t have regional lines. They have a good inner city light rail system, as well as commuter rail and express bus service from the suburbs. It works really well. No one, anywhere, has built what you are suggesting. The cities that have have built regional lines (like BART) have failed outside the core urban area. It is hard to imagine a system with far fewer people, far less density, and little in the way of urban mass transit succeeding.

  6. If you build Ballard first, then let Ballard pay more of the $50 billion worth of tax. Going up queue means paying more money. Taxation should be tiered. Nothings free.

    • Not necessarily. Seattle was pushed back because serving the suburbs first was considered more politically expedient. There isn’t some inherent rule that is must be so. Seattle holds about 24% of the population of Sound Transit’s Taxing District. If ST3 can bring in about $2 billion per year, Seattle should have accumulated about $5 billion in about 10 years. I understand the ST3 authority is backloaded somewhat but it shouldn’t be much longer than 10 years to have accumulated enough money.

      If Sound Transit really gave Seattle its ST3 share as it was collected rather than diverting it into the Spine, I think that could mean finishing the Ballard-to-Downtown in the early 2030s rather than 2038. Also, note the Ballard-to-Downtown should have the strongest case for federal grants based on its strong ridership numbers and metrics.

    • Sorry, but that is ridiculous. The most productive projects should be built first. This means starting with the little stuff (which ST does). But there is no way that some of the suburban projects (e. g. Ash Way) are anywhere close to as productive as Ballard. Even West Seattle (within North King subarea) is nothing compared to Ballard.

  7. This analysis strikes me as misleading. The revenue numbers do not account for whether the riders on a new public transit line were previously using other public transit options, which would mean their fares were already going into the same pool. New riders to the public transit system at large are the most impactful when looking at the net financial impact of different proposed lines. Moving a rider from a different public transit option to a new light rail line does not mean more dollars in (depending on fare comparison). With that in mind, when considering financial impact, more weight should be given to proposals that will serve new regions where driving is more common or where the transit line could trigger growth/increased residency. Ballard seems like a line that will have far fewer new public transit customers and is already thriving in terms of growth.

    • Dave, In Ballard, Interbay, Uptown, South Lake Union, the primary service provider is Metro Transit not Sound Transit. So these would be primarily be new revenues for Sound Transit coffers. You could argue that Sound Transit would cannibalize Metro Transit customers and fares. However, this discounts the effect of a better transit network begetting more transit riders across all of its parts, both on the new rail and on the local bus network (Metro Transit). As more people switch to transit for their primary mode the whole system sees stronger ridership. Actually the argument that Sound Transit is going to just being moving people from buses to trains and not boosting ridership much is probably more true of suburbs where solid Sound Transit express bus service already exists. Sound Transit isn’t really in the business of serving Ballard at this point so this would be a brand new market for it.

      The problem with your theory is that no matter how shiny the transit station is in Dupont of Fife or where have you, it is still going to surrounded by low density single family sprawl making the car the dominant mode. You might convince someone to park and ride to commute to work but for almost every other trip cars will continue to predominate if the land use and walkability doesn’t improve. Suburban park and ride station cannot compete with an urban station in a highly walkable dense neighborhood on cost effectiveness.

  8. Doug, or Yonah I suppose, is starting an important conversation, but there’s another side to this. In the world of zero sum games with budgets, you can have something faster or we can make it BETTER. There are a lot of people north of Downtown who would much rather see a better construction option for Ballard to Mercer Street than have the line be the first to be constructed. That’s actually a pretty stupid thing to be arguing about. It should all be much faster.

    • It can be both faster and better if the new set of projects are cheaper. More money doesn’t equal better quality. This is obvious when it comes to consumer goods, and should be obvious when talking about bigger projects as well. A light rail line from Leschi to Kirkland would be extremely expensive, but provide very little in the way of transit mobility for the region. While not as bad, these sets of projects are similar. Just the WSTT alone would be more effective than West Seattle to Ballard rail, and it could be built much sooner.

      • No. The WSTT is over now that we have $50B for the region to spend on rail. The issues are actually that there is a fixed budget and building a better route north of Mercer takes more money and so does speeding it up. The priority for the community activists so far is a better route.

        • WSTT (and supporting projects) would be better for the region than Ballard to West Seattle light rail. It would save more people more time than light rail along there.

          So I have no idea why you say “it is over”, when, at the same time, you say we don’t have enough money to build these things quickly. Of course we don’t. They are more expensive. Ballard to West Seattle light rail will take a really long time to build because it is so expensive.

          What exactly is your “better route” plan, anyway? How are going to build it cheaper? Once you accept Ballard to West Seattle is a given, the game is over — you really can’t do any better than what they proposed. You can’t build it much sooner, either, unless you throw the most beneficial parts of the plan (such as a tunnel through downtown).

          • What does that even mean? You two are saying we need a “better route”, but you haven’t explained what that route would be. Do you want Ballard to UW instead of West Seattle to Ballard? Good luck with that — West Seattle would throw a fit. How about replacing Ballard to downtown with Ballard to UW? That has potential, but now you haven’t done anything for the downtown corridor (no downtown tunnel) which means nothing for what is arguably the most cost effective part of this entire project (the tunnel that includes South Lake Union and lower Queen Anne).

            Ballard to West Seattle is a dubious project, but if you accept that it must be done, then this is by far the best way to do it. Give ST (and SDOT) some credit for that. You could swing over to Belltown instead, but that is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. The only way you can have both South Lake Union and Belltown is build the WSTT. Everything else is too expensive (for projects that are barely making the cut as is).

          • @pickoven — Then you are saying it should take even longer, or not be built. We can’t build it faster unless we build something cheaper. We can’t build anything more expensive unless we remove something.

          • I’m saying my preference is to prioritize the quality of the line ahead of the date it’s finished.

            This may mean that it would take longer to be built. I’m ok waiting a few more years for a line that is much better. With that said, I simply find ST’s projections difficult to believe. I’m inclined to think they have wiggle room to solve this issue.

          • >> I’m saying my preference is to prioritize the quality of the line ahead of the date it’s finished.

            Fair enough. But I don’t think that is possible. This takes a long time because it is expensive (and because of the bonding authority). Building cheaper projects would mean it could get done sooner. But the opposite is not true. Simply taking longer
            to build this doesn’t make it possible to build anything more expensive.

            I hate to sound like a broken record, but something has to give. Here is the thing: This uses up all the money. All of it. When this is done, Sound Transit doesn’t look at the situation and say (OK, what else do we want to build). As it is, there are several, very cheap projects (stations) that are sitting there, waiting for additional funding. This is the “bare bones” version of Ballard to West Seattle light rail. If you extend the tunnel underneath the canal (all the way from Mercer) you have to throw away something else (like West Seattle rail). There is just no other way to do it.

          • How does Ballard to Downtown and West Seattle Junction light rail burn up all of Seattle’s money? Seattle holds about 24% of Sound Transit’s Taxing District population (which ST estimated at 2.8 million last year.) That means Seattle’s share could reasonably be more than $12 billion of the $50 billion package. The 4.6b price tag for Ballard-to-downtown could still be upgrade to the fully grade separated $5.1b C-01C tunnel option and we could build the apparently $1.8b West Seattle Junction line and could still expect to have claim on about $5 billion in funds based on share of population.

          • >> How does Ballard to Downtown and West Seattle Junction light rail burn up all of Seattle’s money?

            I honestly don’t know. If you add up all the projects, they don’t add up to 50 billion. So maybe some of it in paying back the bonds? In any event, given subarea equity, if we spent more, then every other subarea would have to spend more. It’s just not going to happen. There really aren’t enough worthy projects in the suburbs as is — spending more money in each area is really a crazy idea.

          • Specifically my argument is that Ballard-to-Downtown could and should be done quicker through re-prioritizing early revenue. The first money coming in seem to be pretty clearly diverted into the spine while putting off Ballard. I think Ballard should go before West Seattle based on ridership. I’m not talking about spending more than ST3 is already spending but rather dedicating more of the early revenue to Ballard-to-Downtown, the highest performing line. The result could be pushing back West Seattle Junction a few years and maybe Redmond too but everything on the list could still be built. Also choosing a Salmon Bay tunnel rather than a moveable bridge would only add a few hundred million to the cost according to ST studies.

          • Sorry, I think these arguments got confused. I should have done the @Doug, @pickoven, thing.

            So, Doug, your argument is sound. I have no problem with it — I think it does make sense to prioritize Ballard to downtown. I don’t believe that is enough to save ST3, but it would certainly make it better.

            My comment about using up all the money is in regards to digging a tunnel, rather than using a bridge. I would like to see a tunnel built, under Queen Anne, with a stop at Fremont before Ballard. But that would be too expensive, and so too would tunneling all the way from Mercer to Ballard. They just don’t have an extra few hundred million sitting around (and it is possible it costs a bunch more).

            I find myself in an awkward position defending Sound Transit, but I believe there are two different groups. There are the big picture folks. They are the ones that say “We need West Seattle rail” or “Issaquah to Bellevue rail would be great”. Then there are the folks that actually work within that criteria. The ones that did that for ST3, in my opinion, did a great job. They have looked at the various options, and picked the most cost efficient ones. They also know that money is limited, so not everything can be built (which is why there is no tunnel under Queen Anne). Which is not to say that those folks have always done a great job. The Mount Baker station is terrible, and it costs lots of people a lot of time. The omission of a NE 130th station is also terrible, but that, again, seems like the result of the pig picture folks.

            The big picture folks have completely blown it here, because they haven’t tried to create the most cost effective transit system possible. They are focused too much on serving parochial interests or building ineffective symbolic projects. Those that are forced to work within those parameters may not be perfect, but what they are proposing is quite reasonable (much bigger cities have movable bridges for their subways).

            Of course, there are also people who set the priority for the projects, and they have failed as well (as you mention). But that isn’t the big problem. You can put the lipstick on the pig just so, at just the right time, but it is still a pig.

          • But just so we are clear the tunnel (and completely grade separated option) was only about $500 million more as per Sound Transit’s own corridor study. I think that’s what Owen was getting at when he said we have to go for best route. This isn’t that much more money.


            The obvious benefit of going with the tunnel under Salmon Bay is the higher reliability, but it seems like it should simplify environmental review. A tunnel also disrupts the waterway less from an ecological standpoint. Sound Transit has started “scapefishing” saying salmon mitigation is part of why they have a 22 year schedule and can’t speed it up. The tunnel minimizes the issue of salmon mitigation since it basically doesn’t touch the bay.

            Bigger cities may have movable bridges for their subways but is that ideal? Boat delays will only get more annoying as, down the road, the Ballard line becomes busier (it may even become the second spine) and sees higher frequencies.

          • So you’re saying Ballard light rail and West Seattle light rail will be much more expensive because they won’t start building until after 10-15 years of inflation?

  9. Ridership per dollar is only one metric. It is a good starting point, but that is all. If ridership is not very high, then there is no point in going further in the discussion. But if ridership is OK, then there are other things to consider. In short, the best way to measure the value of a system is time saved per trip per dollar. Sometimes the savings come from a minor time savings that just happens to be used by huge numbers of people (e. g. 2nd Avenue Subway in New York). Sometimes the savings are the result of a huge time savings, but relatively few riders. Ballard to UW is that type of savings. If we accept ST estimates (and I certainly don’t) then we should keep that in mind. Ridership might be lower, but the time savings (for each trip) would certainly be much higher. In the middle of the day a trip along that corridor is not especially slow — a bus averages well over 20 MPH going from Ballard to downtown via 15th. But a bus traveling along 45th is much slower (well over half as fast). So, too is a car. This is why we should consider transit trip savings, assuming every trip involved a bus (even though we know a lot of people drive). In that light, Ballard to UW looks much better.

    But the estimates are obviously off because Sound Transit routinely underestimates the effect of bus to rail transit. They have a history of completely ignoring this idea. The 7 bus is the second most popular bus in our system (just barely behind the RapidRide E). It manages to intersect Link at the Mount Baker station, but the transfer is so horrible that very few people make that transfer. Between downtown and the U-District, there is only one station. There is no station on 23rd, Madison, or where SR 520 crosses the light rail line. This despite the fact that there are buses traveling on those lines quite often (every six minutes for Madison, every ten minutes on 23rd and who knows how often on 520). Sound Transit is so dismissive of bus to rail interaction — or building a decent bus network — that is doesn’t want to build a 25 million dollar light rail station at NE 130th, despite the fact that on one end you have a neighborhood more densely populated than any place north of UW (Lake City) and the other end you have a neighborhood with more potential growth (and more density) than any place in Snohomish County.

    But I really don’t want to argue that Ballard to UW light rail is a better value. Ignore that for a second. What is clear is that this plan — this proposal — is so fatally flawed that it really doesn’t matter what is built first. If money is short (and it most certainly is — which explains the long timelines) then build the most cost effective project first. This is neither the subway to Interbay, or the subway through Wallingford, but the bus tunnel known as the WSTT. This would certainly provide a better trip to trip experience for the vast majority of people in West Seattle, if not Ballard. Those who travel across the ship canal would have to put up with the Ballard bridge, but those whose trips stay south would have a trip that is just as fast, but more frequent, and with fewer transfers. For many in Ballard the trade-off would be worth it. If you are on 24th NW, or Old Ballard, it means you might have to wait for the bridge (outside of rush hour) but make up for it by avoiding a transfer. Meanwhile, if we do as engurban suggests, and built a brand new bridge, everyone wins. With a new Ballard bridge, the WSTT (and supporting projects) simply means that every rider gets to take a trip that is faster and more frequent. At the same time, it would save a substantial amount of money (which could then be applied towards projects like Ballard to UW).

    The WSTT is the best value for a transit project in the region. It should be built first.

    • Ross, I think the problem with your argument is that buses/bus tunnels don’t have capacity of a rail network. Sure it might put off the need for rail for a little while but when the capacity is maxed out and it probably won’t take that long on a good line, you end having to build light rail anyway. If I recall correctly Sound Transit expects ST3 to take its network to
      300,000 daily riders. I don’t think the WSTT could handle its share of that kind of bus

      Moreover some of BRT’s costs are hidden such as the road maintenance costs on dedicated transit lanes on freeways and thoroughfares that you’d have to count on. Generally light rail has lower maintenance costs and lower operating costs, particularly as lines get busier and busier. It’s expensive to build at first, but it puts Sound Transit operations on solider footing, particularly on high ridership lines. You make good points about low ridership lines maybe fitting better with BRT. However, clearly the Ballard lines aren’t those lines.

      Finally, I hate to do it but I have to make a political feasibility argument. I think there’s some chance we can move the Ballard line up the pecking order based on how strong the ridership would be versus suburban lines that will be much bigger operational losers and drag on ST’s finances going forward. However, I don’t think there’s much chance we get Sound Transit to fundamentally change their whole approach from expanding light rail to adding /expediting express buses and building a building a multibillion dollar primarily bus serving tunnel. Sound Transit hasn’t even studied WSTT, which is maybe unfair, but any advantage you claim it has over the second downtown transit tunnel planned as part of the Ballard-to-Downtown line is purely speculative.

      We can’t completely reinvent 2016’s ST3 package at this point but I think we could make important tweaks like speeding up project delivery to Ballard, maybe getting Ballard-to-UW added, or at least making sure EIS work is slated to speed up future lines.

      • It is a myth that bus tunnels can’t meet the capacity needs of a city like Seattle.
        Unfortunately it also seems to be a myth that is deeply embedded in Sound Transit’s DNA. This is what I find deeply frustrating- the fact that our regional leaders have been directing efforts based on misguided goals and that we have grown a culture that is dismissive of real transit solutions that make sense for our region.

        • You and me both, Doug. There are a lot of people who feel this way.

          I believe that ST3 is bound to fail, regardless of what is done inside the city. I think it is important that we figure out what to do next. I want to be able to point to specific projects (like the WSTT) and say “this makes more sense, start designing it” soon after the election.

  10. I live in Toronto, but I’ve visited Seattle several times and have been following ST3 closely. Maybe I’m being completely unrealistic here, but why not rebuild the Ballard bridge altogether? The Emerson overpass is dangerous, the existing bridge doesn’t have nearly enough room for bikes or pedestrians to cross safely, both the north and south entrances to the bridge are a mess of concrete and subdue any kid of walkability or interconnectivity between key Seattle neighbourhoods. And if everyone seems to agree that ST3’s plan to build a new bridge for light rail, just east of the Ballard Bridge, from DT Seattle to Ballard is problematic, why not consider scrapping the existing structure to build a beautiful and more functional one in its place? This could be a defining opportunity for Seattle’s infrastructure. The Ballard Bridge might mean something to the history of Seattle, but it doesn’t have either the aesthetic or the capacity that makes the Fremont or Montlake Bridges so iconic. Building a new bridge, with cars on an upper deck and light rail traveling below on a lower deck, would appease those calling for grade-separated light rail, it would better align light rail stations with the 15th Ave West retail corridor, avoid spending millions on a light rail tunnel beneath Salmon Bay without improving safe crossing options for cyclists and pedestrians, and would open up so many opportunities for redevelopment and investment in areas that are currently paved over with messy onramps and offramps and overpasses. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is so much industrial space on either end of the existing structure to make this feasible, maybe even increase the height of the new bridge enough to avoid having to draw open for passing boats altogether. The Ballard to DT Seattle option presented in ST3 is a joke. It feels completely half-assed and is thrown onto the back burner in favour of projects that probably won’t even serve a quarter of the riders this extension would. But I’m disappointed by the popular solution: digging a tunnel. Of course building a new Ballard Bridge would be expensive, but digging a tunnel solves all of one problem in a corner of Seattle that is bound to continue growing. Prioritizing light rail to Ballard over other projects like extending Link to Tacoma or Everett will already be a polarizing trade-off, but insisting on a tunnel will just confirm to the suburbs that downtown gets all the things downtown asks for. Rebuilding the Ballard Bridge with grade-seperated light rail is a legacy infrastructure project that makes sense for the city and can easily be sold to the suburbs as Seattle’s own Burrard Bridge or Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge.

    • The Ballard Bridge is a historic landmark and cannot be demolished all that easily. Besides, the bridge itself is quite fine in its own right, design-wise, but the approaches built in the 1940s are ugly as sin. And unsafe.

      • The Ballard Bridge has been identified as a major gap in the bike network. I think a considerable portion of the pressure to upgrade it comes from the bicyclist community desiring a canal crossing near Ballard that doesn’t suck.

        • I agree. Which is why it would be a shame to build a brand new bridge right next to the old bridge, and do nothing for bike riders or pedestrians. But that is the plan.

    • The bridge isn’t the problem. The ST3 plans for Ballard light rail include a new (much higher) drawbridge. That bridge would be for light rail only (no pedestrian or bike access).

      All the more reason to start with the WSTT. Build that, and the Ballard bridge remains a problem. But it isn’t the biggest problem in the city (not even close). If we need to build a new bridge, then we can do so by also supporting bike and pedestrian travel. It would have bike and pedestrian travel on the same level (otherwise it would defeat the purpose of the higher bridge). Since it would be buses (BRT) on the bridge, it could probably be built with steeper ramps. Thus building it would probably be cheaper, even though it would support bikes and pedestrians.

      That is one of the biggest advantages of a bus based system. It can be built piece by piece. Build the WSTT. Add ramp meters to the West Seattle Freeway. Build extra ramps connecting the two, so that a bus in West Seattle gets to (and through) downtown as fast as a train. Add the 24 hour bus lanes on 15th. Add stations along the way, including one for Interbay. Various parts of that are really cheap and could be built right away. Adding a new bridge would likely be the last thing we build, and by then we might decide to put up with it while we spend money on a Ballard to UW light rail instead.

    • The bridge situation is complicated. If ST builds a bridge, it will result in a perpetually obsolete high capacity transit corridor because the bridge will be required to be built with a bridge opening. ST and Seattle can’t build a bridge tall enough like the Burrard Bridge to avoid ships navigating Salmon Bay. That means it will have to be opened every time a substantial boat passes through.

      Adding walking and biking infrastructure to the mix further complicates the situation. But adding vehicular travel lanes makes the whole concept for a bridge a mammoth undertaking that would require very close coordination between ST and SDOT. And it would greatly push up the price for a Ballard bridge which Seattle currently has $0 allocated for capital improvement.

      Most of us here want a high-quality line to Ballard, not because Ballard is the end of the line, but because it is the beginning of a second spine for the light rail network. Sacrificing quality of service for expedience, some shared cost, and admittedly underserved road users shouldn’t be a compelling argument for a multi-use bridge that will make transit riders suffer forever.

      Fundamentally, Seattle needs to fund its own bridge replacement project and not piggyback on ST to do it. The tunnel is simply the best option to address accessing the core of Ballard and provide for future expansion northward.

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