Last week, the Sound Transit board unanimously voted to proceed with sending the full Sound Transit 3 project list to voters in November. This project list no longer includes at-grade light rail to Ballard. Instead, this has been replaced with an elevated alignment along 15th Ave W in Interbay. This is a great victory for transit activists, especially in light of the fact that Sound Transit originally proposed to run light rail alongside an arterial roadway with an order of magnitude more traffic than MLK Way which remains a mystery.

The Seattle Times reported last week that there is a contingent of advocates forming to push for a tunnel underneath Salmon Bay as opposed to a drawbridge that would be subject to maritime traffic demands.

Some of the alternatives considered for a Ballard line. (Sound Transit)
Some of the alternatives considered for a Ballard line. (Sound Transit)

But the arguments over alignment and Ship Canal crossings, while important to address, do not hold a candle to the most important consideration when deciding to ask voters to deliver on a transit project: station placement, proximity to urban amenities, and housing.

Currently, the Draft Plan is only considering the construction of one station in Ballard, according to Sound Transit’s documents. This station will most likely be located at 15th Ave NW & NW Market St. This alignment roughly corresponds to the RapidRide D bus line, which currently continues on 15th Ave NW to NW 100th St in Crown Hill.

When the alignments were considered, the only option that served any segment of Ballard west of 15th Avenue was the weakest one in terms of grade-separation in Downtown: a Westlake Ave N alignment that also would have served Fremont. Unfortunately, this configuration was tied to the dramatically stupid idea for at-grade light rail along First Avenue in Downtown as well as in South Lake Union. This was basically dead on arrival.

But as it is in the current configuration, the Downtown-Ballard line will see construction of all but one of its stations occur outside Ballard, and even then bypass “downtown” Ballard, namely 22nd Ave NW & Ballard Ave NW, just like the RapidRide does, leaving the true center of the neighborhood to be served by the Route 40 bus (and a few limited Express routes).

Soon-to-be-constructed East Link stations. (Sound Transit)
Soon-to-be-constructed East Link stations. (Sound Transit)

Contrast this lack of station density with another Sound Transit project: East Link. Here Sound Transit is constructing 8 stations between South Bellevue and Redmond Technology Center (aka Microsoftland). Taking out South Bellevue, the outlier, the distance between the remaining 7 stations is approximately 4.25 miles. The distance from Westlake & Denny to 15th & Market via Interbay is about 4.6 miles, to be covered by 6 stations in a much more urban context.

It is widely agreed that building only one station between Westlake and the University of Washington was a very costly mistake. Ballard residents may decide that it is their wish to look underneath the seat cushions to pay for a tunnel under the Ship Canal rather than a drawbridge. Or they can look at the alignment itself and decide if it’s really going to serve all residents of Ballard.

Seattle Subway is urging its constituency to push for the inclusion of provisional lines in ST3, most significantly creating a connection between University District Station and Ballard. This makes complete sense, with University Link coming in $200 million under budget. Excess funds should be used for their capacity. However, it is unlikely that a full Ballard spur line would be paid for by provisional funds. The most obvious source for supplemental funds in the Ballard line is additional Ballard stations.

Seattle 2035 Land Use Map for the Ballard to Downtown Alignment. (City of Seattle)
Seattle 2035 Land Use Map for the Ballard to Downtown Alignment. (City of Seattle)

The Seattle 2035 land use map shows that dense development is not anticipated near the two stations on the Ballard alignment between Uptown and Ballard, except for a narrow area allowing mixed-use and commercial zoning around Interbay Station at W Dravus St. The Smith Cove station, which will mainly serve Expedia and the other commercial tenants in the vicinity of Elliott Ave W, will also not be a primary driver of all-day ridership on Seattle’s next Downtown rail line. Ballard is the real housing and employment destination on this corridor.

Seattle Monorail's Green Line alignment in Ballard (Seattle Monorail Project)
Seattle Monorail’s Green Line alignment in Ballard (Seattle Monorail Project)

It is worth noting that the Seattle Monorail’s Green Line from West Seattle to Ballard did not end at NW Market St. Stops at NW 65th St and NW 85th St were also planned on that line, stations that would have provided access to rail for more residents of North Ballard and Crown Hill. The question is now: Are we selling ourselves short on developing the Ballard line to its full potential? Could we do better? There is time to get this right.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Duh, Link only fully serves residents near each station. Look at the Dravus St. station, does is fully serve, Magnolia, QA, SPU? No it fully serves the apartments next to it. Go station by station and this is true. ST3 is so expensive, major compromises are made just to extend the rail more miles, what is missing are stations for people/neighborhoods to utilize. Look at the latest segment to open: Downtown to UW, with a station in Capitol Hill. This segment missed multiple stops (1st Hill, Madison,..) which would have opened up Link to many other people/neighborhoods. Spend less per station, open more stations on each segment.

  2. “The distance from Westlake & Denny to 15th & Market via Interbay is about 4.6 miles, to be covered by 6 stations in a much more urban context.” I strongly disagree. Downtown Bellevue is an equal to SLU, with office & condo towers in a truly urban space. Further, the Bel-Red corridor is zoned for medium density, with major projects like the Spring District & Esterra in the immediate pipeline, and will soon with an equal of LQA with its 6 story cap. Add in Microsoft as a huge job center, and I think the corridors are quite comparable.
    Extending the line up 15th Ave towards Crown Hill is not a novel idea. No one is suggesting the Market St station is the permanent end of the line, it’s simply how far the line is going to be extended under the current funding package. Should it be funded as a “Future Investment Study”? Maybe, but the density drops off fast north of market, so simply running a Rapid Ride+ along 15th & Holman between Ballard and Northgate might be all the service the area ever needs.
    I strongly support Ballard-UW, and given the Interbay alignment means the “green” line is going to run up 15ht & miss ‘downtown’ Ballard, it will be nice to have another station closer to 24th Ave after intersecting with the 15th & Market station.
    Maybe we can get creative and have the Ship Canal tunnel be at an angle and have underground stations at 24th & Market and then 15th & 65th. But that would be significantly more expensive that running a line up 15th, and is it that much of an improvement over running buses through Ballard that feed the Ballard station? If you want to serve ALL of Ballard, a good bus feeder system using no more than 3 or 4 routes should be more than sufficient. Did C-01d have better Ballard station placement? Yes. Is it worth spending $100Ms to add stations when you can just run 3 buses on a loop through downtown Ballard to provide the same level of service? I think not. The 15th and Market station is going to be a major transfer station for bus service for all of NW Seattle, and I think that’s going to be the most effective way to serve the people of Ballard.

  3. Something like this? Assuming a Salmon Bay tunnel and two Ballard stations (or three if we build a 65th Street extension too).

    • Or maybe this is better? Positions us to go through central Phinney Ridge and Greenwood in the next phase. I’d argue these are actually quite dense neighborhoods by Seattle standards and they shouldn’t be excluded. 13K/sq mi density in Greenwood and 14K/sq mi in Phinney. Crown Hill would continue to have RapidRide D service.

      • Eh, while they are currently dense, I’m pessimistic on growth prospects for these neighborhoods. Seems like it would be better to simply build the East-West line and feed it with strong north-south bus routes, given north-south is what Metro is good at north of the ship canal? 8th & Phinney don’t have the congestion issues like what ruins the 44 on Market-45th St, right?

        • I agree that the Ballard Spur which is upgrading the 44 to subway probably is the most important upgrade to the transit network in North Seattle. If we are building north I would rather go directly through Greenwood rather than skirting its edge via Holman Road. I think Greenwood will grow as steadily as any other neighborhood in Northwest Seattle.

    • I like this one better – 15th just makes so much more sense north of Ballard, with the natural curve along Holman being a great corridor for light rail with organic spacing along 8th, Greenwood, and Aurora for excellent intersections with bus routes running north-south. Further, Seattle planners really want to see Northgate grow into a proper urban center … Phinny Ridge, while a lovely, walkable neighborhood, is likely to remain overwhelming SF zone outside of the commercial strip along Phinney ave.

      Any reason for the sharp turn towards 15th and Market? If it’s a tunnel under the ship canal, I don’t see any advantage to zig over to there if there’s already a stop a Market & 22nd-ish – simply curve toward 65th and pop to the surface once you are out of the urban village and are running along 15th. D-line riders transfer downtown either at 65th or in Interbay, and transfer to UW at 15th. The long term plan can incorporate a UW line, with a 15th and Market station, and simply build the “central Ballard” station so that it’s ready to plug in the UW line once that’s built (giving UW access to OMS facility via Ballard line. Avoids the need to interline the rail in the U-district, simply need passenger transfer)

  4. This gets at a general problem with Ballard’s transit capabilities that has bothered me for a bit. It makes natural sense to run the D line up and down 15th as far as reliability goes, but the walk from the only two Ballard stops (15th & Leary and 15th & Market) to “downtown” Ballard is not ideal. It’s 10 minutes, which I don’t mind walking, but it’s long enough to make me think twice about taking transit if I want to get to Ballard for a show or restaurant.

    The best answer longterm is probably to rezone and expand the urban village boundaries between 15th and 8th, which HALA seeks to do a little bit. It’s hard to imagine 15th & Market as “downtown Ballard” right now, but there’s no reason that couldn’t be true with the right land use policy. Then you avoid blowing hundreds of millions of dollars on a substandard light rail alignment that affects travel times up and down the line (although I’m sure much more egregious and less worthwhile “diversions” will probably crop up in suburban alignments). Heck, it could happen before Ballard Light Rail opens in 2035. Alas, I’m sure there are some folks in the nearby (admittedly quaint and nice) single family neighborhoods that have some opinions on that.

  5. Yeah, I have major concerns about this rail plan. I live on the periphery of Ballard, about 1.5 miles from this proposed station. I’m right next to the 28 bus. Under the current bus network, if I wanted to ride Link I would ride the 28 to Market and then use the 44 or walk the half mile from 8th to the station.

    Metro’s long-range plan [1] redirects most of the bus routes to serve the station directly once Link opens. This is good for Link access but makes the bus network less grid-like and therefore a bit less useful for many non-downtown trips.

    But even supposing downtown was my destination for most transit trips, how much time would this really save me? The 28 bus currently has a scheduled time of 30 minutes from my house to downtown. Sound Transit estimates riding the length of the downtown to Ballard line will take 17 minutes [2]. If I were transferring I would estimate 5-7 minutes on the bus to get to the station, plus 1-2 minutes to get to the Link platform, plus a three minute average wait time on the platform (assuming six-minute peak headways). Add the 17 minutes on the train and we get 26-30 minutes total trip time.

    This is perhaps a few minutes faster than my current bus ride, sure, but is it really worth spending a few billion dollars on? I have some major doubts. Only people living within walking distance of the station will see major time improvements compared to today. However if you extend the line northward with urban-spaced stops at 65th, 75th and 85th, you get a much bigger walkshed than the current plan with only one station north of the canal.

    [1] http://www.kcmetrovision.org/
    [2] https://st32.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Document%20Library%20Featured/0602_Templates/2016_March_ProjectDetails_LRT.pdf

    • Remember, it’s not simply transit time improvements, but also capacity improvements both with Link able to handle larger volumes and route truncations meaning service hours reinvested in frequency. Here, Link rescues Metro from key chokepoints – Ship Canal crossing and everything south of Mercer – that means Metro routes can serve & connect neighborhoods at high frequencies while Link does the hard work of moving people in & out of downtown and across the ship canal.

      • That’s a perfectly valid point, but the question of whether we’re getting a good value for our money still remains. We need to measure transit improvements by the amount of travel time we save people compared to the transit system as it exists today. To the extent that a Link line would allow Metro to redeploy resources into increasing frequency on bus routes throughout the city, I’m happy to include those time savings in the analysis. What if we spent a few billion dollars on additional bus service instead of building this train? My guess is that this would save more people more time. We could also start realizing some of the benefit from our transit investments immediately rather than waiting until the 2030s.

  6. 1) Why not 28th? That’s where light rail used to be. Go up 20th, left on 65th, up 28th and turn around via Loyal.
    2) Even if we vote for ST3 what’s to stop the voters from later voting against it? Wouldn’t be the first time Seattle voters got cold feet on a project after it was already started (520 ramps to nowhere, monorail). There needs to be some sort of “you voted for it, now you have to finish it” clause to keep wishy-washy Seattle in check!
    3) Will this even be relevant in 20 years? The technology of self driving vehicles is improving at an astonishing rate. The idea of self driving cars was laughable less than 10 years ago yet car companies are now bringing the technology to market in the next couple of years. What will be happening in 20 years? I love rails and trains but can’t help but wonder if such massive fixed investments make sense in the future. Might make more sense to invest in a network of small (~10-12 seat) self driving vehicles operating on dedicated lanes and automatically dispatched to cluster riders together and keep stops at a minimum. Sort of cross between BRT and Uber.
    4) Seattle needs to develop their own transit agency like SF. Not doing us any favors to be beholden to people in the suburbs.

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