The North Sounder line has long been panned by technocratic transit advocates as a white elephant gift to Snohomish County communities. At a cost of more than $250 million for right-of-way slots, the line has four daily roundtrips on weekdays between Everett and Seattle. It suffers from variety of challenges such as geography, shared track capacity, and occasional landslides. And while ridership on the corridor has been growing for many years, it’s not the kind of booming growth that the South Sounder line has experienced leading to more service demand. In fact, in the third quarter of 2017, ridership fell slightly from 1,754 to 1,750 daily riders year-over-year. This may be why Sound Transit put very little emphasis in its capital investment program under Sound Transit 3.

Over the next 20 years, minor improvements will be made to the line keeping it alive. Billed as station access, Sound Transit is poised to spend $40 million on additional parking facilities at stations in Edmonds and Mukilteo by 2024. However, Sound Transit could look at small capital investments to significantly increase ridership while making due with existing service levels. There are four infill station locations in Seattle (i.e., neighborhoods of Ballard, Interbay, and Belltown) that Sound Transit could look toward for only a few million dollars a piece.

New stations need not be extravagant. Sound Transit could limit costs by constructing modest station facilities. For instance, platforms could be limited to one per station on one side of the existing trackbed. They could also be restricted in length and contain nominal sheltering. Accessways could be direct and ideally at-grade to one or two locations. In no case would parking facilities be required, instead riders could take advantage of the local pedestrian, bicycle, and bus network. Of course, some costs may be harder to avoid, such as immediate track replacement, installation of crossover tracks, and stormwater facilities

Broad Street Station

Broad Street Station improvements and station area.
Broad Street Station improvements and station area.

Sounder boosters have long sought a stop closer to the heart of Downtown Seattle. For many would-be riders, King Street Station is a bridge too far, requiring a significant amount of backtracking if they work Uptown. A station near Broad Street could help riders better connect with jobs in Belltown, South Lake Union, and the central core. Transit connections, however, are a bit light at present near this portion of the waterfront.

Currently, Route 99 operates within a short walking distance from the possible station location. But the terminal loop could be altered to more directly serve a Broad Street station. Further up the hill, a variety of bus lines operate on Third Avenue, but the steepness of the hillclimb clearly poses a challenge to many would-be riders. Perhaps routes terminating near the north end of Third Avenue could also serve a Broad Street station and a version of Route 8 could be threaded to this precinct.

A station may be best suited the area between Clay Street and Vine street just west of the mainline railway. This would allow for two full blocks of tracks to be unimpeded by at-grade crossings common along this stretch of Alaskan Way. The platform itself could be located immediately west of the former George Benson Waterfront Streetcar tracks and connect with the Alaskan Way sidewalk. New crossover tracks would be necessary north and south of the station to avoid conflicts with freight and other passenger rail traffic.

Smith Cove Station

Smith Cove Station improvements and station area.
Smith Cove Station improvements and station area.

Expedia will soon call Smith Cove home adding thousands of new jobs at its waterfront campus, which was previously owned by Amgen. Many employees are already Seattle and Eastside residents, but some undoubtedly live in areas further north. Expedia’s sprawling campus is situated just west of the Helix Pedestrian Bridge, which crosses over mainline BNSF tracks and siding. This pedestrian bridge is important because offers one of the few crossings over the railway corridor north of Downtown Seattle and helps create a strategic opportunity for a station at this location.

Aside from Expedia’s campus, vacant properties ripe for redevelopment north and west of the campus remain and a wide mix of industrial and commercial properties line Elliot Ave W. Some properties along the street may also offer redevelopment opportunities for more intensive uses. In terms of transit connections, a station next to the Helix Pedestrian Bridge would be well served. Five separate bus routes operate within one block of the station location:

  • RapidRide D Line is a frequent all-day bus line operating between Crown Hill and Downtown Seattle. On the way, the bus line passes through Belltown, Uptown, Interbay, and Ballard.
  • Route 19 is a peak-hour weekday-only bus line operating between Magnolia and Downtown Seattle in the peak direction.
  • Route 24 is a semi-frequent all-day bus line zigzagging through Magnolia and providing service to Downtown Seattle.
  • Route 32 is a semi-frequent all-day bus line operating between Uptown and the University District via Interbay, North Queen Anne, Fremont, and Wallingford.
  • Route 33 is a semi-frequent all-day bus line operating between Discovery Park and Downtown Seattle. On the way, it passes through Fishermen’s Terminal, Smith Cove, Uptown, and Belltown.

A station would be best suited to the east side of the mainline tracks immediately below the Helix Pedestrian Bridge. Priority would need to be given to Sounder trains to use a siding next to the station platform. This would invariably require negotiations with BNSF to alter use of the tracks. Property acquisitions from adjoining property owners may also be necessary for passenger facilities. However, with the pedestrian bridge already in place, Sound Transit would not need to install a new crossing.

Fishermen’s Terminal Station

Fishermen's Terminal Station improvements and station area.
Fishermen’s Terminal Station improvements and station area.

Further north at the dividing line between Magnolia and Interbay, Sound Transit could add a station at Fishermen’s Terminal along the existing BNSF mainline. The station could be located just north of the W Emerson Pl overpass in the railway trench avoiding conflicts south of the junction and benefiting from nearby crossover and siding tracks.

The area east and north of the railway trench is consists primarily of industrial and maritime uses with some restaurants. East of the railway trench is largely residential in character with a mix of multifamily and single-family housing. Overall, the area is fairly walkable and bikeable despite the railway trench splitting Magnolia from Fishermen’s Terminal. In fact, recently the Seattle Department of Transportation installed protected bikes lanes on Gilman Ave W and W Emerson Pl connecting three different trails. Two bus routes also operate within two blocks of the possible station location providing transit acess:

  • Route 31 is a semi-frequent all-day bus line operating between Magnolia and the University District via Fishermen’s Terminal, North Queen Anne, Fremont, and Wallingford.
  • Route 33, which is described above.

Overall, a station may generate reasonable ridership drawing commuters from the north to jobs at Fishermen’s Terminal, Interbay, and Fremont. Local residents might also find express-like service to Downtown Seattle, Pioneer Square, and SoDo attractive over regular bus service.

To support a station at this location, Sound Transit would ideally locate a platform on the east side of the trench just north of the W Emerson Pl overpass. Access to street level would require construction of ramps and stairs up and along the embankment.

Ballard Station

Ballard Station improvements and station area.
Ballard Station improvements and station area.

The best case for a Ballard station could be just north of the Salmon Bay Bridge and south of NW 57th St. The railway approaches the bridge in a trenched embankment before crossing over NW 54th St and Salmon Bay. The railway trench is largely flanked by single-family residential uses, which predominate the surrounding area. A few blocks east retail, industrial, and multi-family residential uses begin to emerge as one inches closer to the heart of Old Ballard. Meanwhile, the area north and west of the railway is a mix of maritime and restaurant uses along Shilshole Bay.

A station serving Ballard could be successful in generating favorable ridership for several reasons. Firstly, riders north of Seattle may find the station useful to access jobs in central Ballard and the industrial area centered on Salmon Bay. A variety of all-day and peak-hour buses make connections to those areas easy. Secondly, local residents might find the service desirable to get quick service to Downtown Seattle, Pioneer Square, and SoDo. Other proposed stations could make intermediary destinations viable, too.

Three separate bus routes operate within two blocks of the station location:

  • Route 44 is a frequent all-day bus line operating through Ballard to University of Washington Station. On the way, the bus line passes through Upper Fremont, Wallingford, and the University District.
  • Route 29 is a peak-hour, weekday-only bus line operating through Ballard to Downtown Seattle via North Queen Anne and Uptown.
  • Route 17 is a peak-hour weekday-only bus line operating between Loyal Heights and Downtown Seattle in the peak direction. On the way, the bus line passes through Old Ballard, Interbay, and Belltown.

The service pattern of all three bus routes coincidentally fit well with the service pattern of the North Sounder line, which itself operates during peak hours.

In terms of improvements, a station would be best located on the east side of the railway with a platform. Several other improvements would also be necessary or desirable, such as stairs and ramp leading to a sole accessway to the NW Market St cul-de-sac and two crossover tracks would likely be necessary to switch between tracks north and south of the station. Longer-term improvements could include wider station access facilities to NW 56th St or NW 57th St.

Implications of Light Rail to Ballard

By 2035, light rail will be extended to Ballard providing north-south service to Downtown Seattle via Interbay, Uptown, and South Lake Union. Several stations anticipated on the line could influence the proposed North Sounder stations. These include stations in Ballard, Interbay, and Smith Cove. Sound Transit conceptually envisions the light rail stations to be located at:

  • NW Market St and 15th Ave NW (Ballard);
  • W Dravus St and 15th Ave NW (Interbay); and
  • Elliott Ave W and W Prospect St (Smith Cove).

The Ballard light rail stop could end up peeling off some local riders in the area from using the Ballard commuter rail stop, at least until light rail is extended further north. But it certainly wouldn’t fully compete with North Sounder since the commuter line would still serve unique destinations to the south.

Similarly, a light rail stop at SW Dravus St in Interbay could influence local rider demand for commuter rail at Fishermen’s Terminal. The impact, however, might be less significant given that the commuter rail station would have a wider catchment area than Ballard and distance between the commuter rail and light rails stations (likely about a mile apart).

Finally, the Smith Cove commuter rail stop could actually benefit from a direct light rail connection. It would allow riders the option of taking a quick light rail trip to Uptown, South Lake Union, or Westlake. Less obvious locations like Capitol Hill or University of Washington could actually be time competitive with an additional transfer.

Conclusions

These proposed stations each come with their pros and cons and it’s hard to fully know how ridership would respond. One of the most obvious drawbacks is the time it would take for existing riders to reach King Street Station. Each stop would add a minute or more to the commute time for these riders if they don’t commute to locations north of Pioneer Square. Another set of clear challenges is that most of these stations would be located at edge areas with somewhat poor catchment pools–a problem North Sounder suffers from today–and operate at peak hours only. It could be argued that this would pit North Sounder against local express routes, possibly poaching riders. Conversely, it could lead to an increase overall transit ridership.

Importantly though, these stations could change some of the paradigms of regional and in-city commuting, which is traditionally built strictly on north-south spines to Downtown Seattle. New infill stations could further encourage connections that are east-west oriented to emerging growth centers (e.g., Ballard, Fremont, Interbay, and Uptown). They could also offer faster in-city rides to many districts, making the added stations valuable assets to the overall transit network and North Sounder line. The first step to realizing this, however, requires a genuine evaluation by Sound Transit.

19 COMMENTS

  1. This is cool. I’ve never really thought about the fact that King Street Station is the only stop in city limits, when it doesn’t have to be. The ridership on North Sounder is only something like 10% of South Sounder, if I remember right, so anything we can do to make the line more useful and attractive would be a win!

  2. This seems like alot of stations stopping in roughly the same place. Would it be better to have one in Ballard that could have real good connection with the new light rail. To prevent back tracking and not slow down the services to King ST

    • FWIW, I’m not necessarily suggesting that they all get built. Studying them first would be ideal to determine potential utility. Short of an east-west light rail through Ballard (UW-Ballard line), it doesn’t seem like a direct light rail connection is likely in the near future. The Smith Cove stop could certainly serve as an interim solution direct light rail connection with minimal backtracking like you’re suggesting.

    • Just to say, those are NOT all in the same place.

      I would argue however that each would garner legitimate ridership. Maybe not huge amounts, but some. The Ballard stop however existed ages ago because it DID garner ridership and it really ought to exist, even if the others didn’t, again. The current commute from Ballard to downtown is often choked and somewhere around ~30 minutes. The train easily clears that distance in ~15. Some huge potential there for a stop in Ballard. Maybe even double stack parking in Shilshole or Gold Gardens and put a stop right around there! Anyway, there’s more than a few options.

  3. I’m pretty sure a couple of these platform locations were explored early on when Sounder North was being initiated. (I’ve seen 2000s era visual simulations of a conceptual platform at Broad Street).

    Agree 100% that now that ST3 has passed it is time to revisit the Sounder North long range plans.

    I think it would be foolish not to align Ballard link such that a Sounder Station can be built adjacent to one of the Ballard Link Stations. A convenient transfer between systems could easily double the ridership on North Sounder by eliminating the backtracking from King Street problem. I could easily see transfers at a new Interbay station eclipsing King Street and potentially allowing for a split schedule with only a few Sounders proceeding through the bust Great Northern tunnel into downtown Seattle. And this may free up BNSF operations enough to allow additional Sounder North shuttles between Mukilteo and Interbay.

    In Everett there will be a similar situation, though even more pronounced. ST3 will build the light rail spine to Everett station and effectively create redundant service from Everett to Seattle. I expect Sounder North ridership from Everett Station will collapse once this occurs, at which point Mukilteo may become the Sounder North terminus. This may free up BNSF operations enough in the Everett tunnel/Port of Everett to allow for additional trips from Mukilteo to Seattle.

    • I was going to say that Everett to Seattle on Link will be a slog, but then I realized that it’s about an hour by Link or Sounder, and Link comes more often with more stops.

  4. Here’s the question: who actually wants this? Who that’s big enough to get money diverted from other ST projects? Would Snohomish County, its cities, or their people, approve of using Snohomish sub-area money to build a new platform in Seattle instead of putting it all into Link? Would Seattle or its people approve of taking on a share of Sounder operating costs forever for a small number of rush-hour trips serving a tiny number of people?

  5. This is definitely a little late for this. It should’ve been a part of the ST3 discussions. That said, it’s an interesting idea, and I think it merits a discussion.

  6. The viaduct is going down so maybe the downtown train station by Lenora? And since we’re at that, just route a track into the Battery St Tunnel for another station there

  7. The $250M for ROW slots, is that an annual number, or a longer time period.

    One thing to keep in mind is right now North Sounder is fully funded out of Snohomish sub-area. Adding stations to North King would presumably mean north king would need to pick up their share of the operating costs, or roughly $125M, plus the (small-ish) cost for the new stations.

    I think this is a clever idea & a good use of an existing line, but I’m skeptical on ridership unless more runs are added.

    • $250m isn’t annual. My understanding is that the slots are permanent easements. The subarea equity issue likely comes into play in some way, but that’s worth exploring further through a study and policy framework. The whole point of this, however, is to better utilize an existing resource without introducing massive new costs. Adding cars to trains is basically free if we make small investments in neighborhood stations. New trips means scores of millions in new costs that just won’t be made by any subarea under ST3 because there simply isn’t the kind of constituency and ridership to demand it. It’s a chicken and the egg problem, if you will.

  8. What about Richmond Beach in Shoreline? It is also part of North King subarea. It even has a ready-to-go parking lot at the Saltwater Park that I’m sure is not well utilized on weekdays (Not that I’m a fan of P&R, but the density of the area can’t support a station without some parking).

    • In Richmond Beach, there has been a conceptual proposal of bringing commuter rail to Point Wells by a high-rise developer of that site. But a station in Richmond Beach proper could be feasible as you suggest.

      • That development seems very interesting, with Shoreline potentially annexing a bit of SnoCo, thanks for the info!

  9. If ST was interested in leveraging existing transportation infrastructure, the plan all along would have been to use this existing rail line much more frequently, perhaps even as often as the future light rail. It could have been up and running ten years ago. BNSF might have objected, but they have repeatedly shown they can be bought off.
    However, ST seems much happier building entirely new infrastructure, and damn the cost. The multi-billion dollar light rail to Ballard will not be very different from this existing heavy rail line. The rail line already has a bridge, while the problem of getting the light rail across the water to Ballard has still not been solved. If ST wanted to build something new, they could have instead build a subway to Queen Anne, Fremont, and Ballard, potentially continuing to Northgate and Lake City, per Seattle Subway’s pretty maps.
    Of course this is not the only ignored bit of existing infrastructure. There is a rail line from Ballard to Fremont, notable mostly for near disuse, and ST could have used the east side rail lines for more than 1/4 mile.
    I wrote to ST several times about these ideas, and they appear to have considered them, but not for very long.

    • With all due respect, I don’t think you’ve done the math. I’m not sure how you expect ST to do that. They don’t own the right-of-way, BNSF does. They can’t just take it without just compensation. As I noted above, ST spent a massive amount just for the slots they have. If you multiplied that out to Link levels of service, you’d buy yourself more than two Ballard Links with way less ridership.

      Ballard Link will be something new. Personally, I still prefer the original Seattle Subway concept, but that’s well past now for ST3. BNSF’s corridor as light rail isn’t remotely likely given the constraints. That said, I’d like to see more frequency on the line, too. But let’s be fair about the realities.

      • You’re right, I haven’t done the math–it’s hard to find the data. I think the most of money spent so far is a one-time expense, though. ST added three trips to Sounder South last year and didn’t have to pay any more for “slots.” Some of that money went for track improvement, too, which is also a one-time expense. Given that BNSF is actually paid by ST to operate the Sounder trains, they might have been perfectly happy to run four trains per hour, or whatever. We’ll never know. I do think there is an institutional bias at ST toward building brand new infrastructure rather than repurposing existing infrastructure. It’s costing us all.

        • I can definitively say that we’d be spending billions for the slots you’re asking for or spending billions to build new track. Pick your poison. That’s why I pitched possible options to at least make better do with infrastructure that we already have with very cheap investments.

          Anyway, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can contact ST staff directly for past costs and details of easement rights.

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