A gondola tram could be the ideal way to deliver West Seattle’s Sound Transit 3 stations without unnecessary expense and complications of light rail–and with early delivery rather than delay.

Voters may not have realized when they approved the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) package they locked in a one-size-fits-all “solution” to every geographical problem. That includes forcing a technology designed for gentle topography–rail–into some of Seattle’s hilliest terrain: West Seattle.

Sound Transit should be allowed some modal flexibility in case terrain challenges, financing and/or other issues arise between now and the 2030 targeted delivery date of West Seattle light rail. The lack of flexibility explains why Sound Transit’s Cahill Ridge announced at West Seattle Transportation Coalition’s (WSTC) November 2017 public meeting: “We have no Plan B.”

To get light rail from SoDo to West Seattle will require a third bridge, parallel to and taller than the current 140-foot-tall high bridge, in order to span the cement plant, warehouses, marina and Duwamish Waterway. It will drop at Pigeon Point and snake up in a maze of ramps and towers to 400 feet of elevation in barely a mile. Here’s one vision of what that could look like.

History of West Seattle’s Transit Efforts

When the Jeanette Williams high bridge (1984) and the Spokane St. low bridge (1991) were built to the “out of the way” West Seattle Peninsula, neither design included space for light rail track. In 1968 and 1970, Seattle voters rejected Forward Thrust’s light rail network and the federal funding attached to it. Between 1997 and 2005, voters approved a Ballard-West Seattle monorail expansion five times, but it never got built. 

West Seattle Link will extend 4.7 miles to the Junction neighborhood of West Seattle, with stops at Avalan and Delridge. It's an elevated line in Sound Transit's baseline Representative Project. (Sound Transit).
West Seattle Link will extend 4.7 miles to the Junction neighborhood of West Seattle, with stops at Avalan and Delridge. (Sound Transit).

Today, nearly 100,000 people live on the Peninsula–almost 15% of Seattle’s population. The West Seattle Bridge Transportation Corridor is the city’s busiest outside of I-5 (with 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles per day on the low bridge and 100,000 to 110,000 on the high bridge) and West Seattle needs more commute options. Voters settled on ST3 to do the job in 2016. But another option or mode would be better suited to this hilly terrain.

West Seattle Link’s Avalon Station under an elevated option. (Sound Transit)

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott suggested tunneling at last October’s ST3 Elected Leadership Group (ELG) meeting. Backed by West Seattle residents and WSTC, tunnels produce less elevated eyesore, less operational noise, and more surface area for housing. Light rail travels in a tunnel under Downtown, the U District, and Roosevelt. But the ELG rejected the idea, citing lack of funding. So residents and WSTC proposed eliminating one of three planned ST3 stations, and applying the saved money to tunneling. Sound Transit has not replied or entertained the idea. 

A rendering of a West Seattle tunnel at Pigeon Ridge. (Credit: Tomasz Biernacki)

Since 2015, WSTC has advocated for rebuilding the high bridge interchange with SR-99–to add a northbound bus-only lane, and a SR-99 exit south. Buses offer more flexibility and less capital expense than light rail. In 2017, WSTC board members asked landowners under the interchange if they’d support a rebuild. They said yes, if Sound Transit could minimize business impacts and provide compensation. That option has not advanced.

West Seattle Aerial Transit

So we look “outside the box” at aerial transit: proven worldwide, grade-separated, enough capacity for West Seattle, and 50% to 80% cheaper than light rail. It is not slope-challenged, and could be delivered to West Seattle sooner–perhaps by 2025 if Sound Transit proceeds decisively. Seattle engineers and bloggers have advocated since 2012 for aerial to branch off from, or connect to light rail and bus lines, e.g., from Capitol Hill to South Lake Union and Seattle Center, from the Waterfront to Capitol Hill, to First Hill, and within and beyond West Seattle (Seattle Transit Blog, CityTank, The Urbanist). The Gondola Project has championed aerial transit since 2009. 

Rather than rob Peter (eliminate stations) to pay Paul (fund a tunnel), it makes more sense to use a more appropriate, far less costly option. Seattle’s underground, three-mile U Link extension cost $600 million per mile; Honolulu Area Rapid Transit’s 20-mile elevated cost $500 million per mile. A typical 3S (three cable, continuous-circulation) aerial system runs $20-$64 million per mile, depending on capacity and stations, according to the Gondola Project. Portland’s one-mile gondola cost $57 million.

Six years ago, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) talked with aerial transit builders about running a line across Elliott Bay from West Seattle to downtown (see map). “The potential for ridership always appeared strong,” said SDOT Waterfront planning director Marshall Foster, “especially if Metro shuttle service could connect West Seattle to the station on the west side.”

Aerial transit cross-bay and Harbor Island route concepts. (SDOT)
Aerial transit cross-bay and Harbor Island route concepts. (SDOT)

The concept was rejected: its route and 700-foot tall pylons would create issues with shipping, cost, views, environment and permitting. SDOT also considered aerial from the Admiral-Hiawatha playfield area, crossing Harbor Island, and connecting to Starbucks and the stadium area. 

In 2017, the WSTC board discussed more commuter-centered routes with Dopplemayr, builder of Portland, Oregon’s system. As most West Seattle commuters head eastward from the Alaska-California Junction, the routing would start from a station near The Junction, glide down to a Delridge station, then cross the Duwamish on Harbor Island, and land at a Starbucks and/or Stadiums stations, to connect with light rail. It could also connect with light rail in the International District.

Aerial tram concept for West Seattle transit line. (Credit: West Seattle Transportation Commission)
Aerial tram concept for West Seattle. Some of the corners could be rounded off thanks to gondola’s ability to float above obstacles. (Image by author)

A 3S system would probably work best for West Seattle Aerial Transit (WSAT). It can carry 35 to 40 people per car, at speeds up to 25 mph, with short headways, and capacities of up to 6,000 people per hour. It would require fewer support columns than light rail, smaller stations, and minimum disruption of existing urban infrastructure, such as small businesses and residences. The detachable 3S design can turn corners, run with intermediary stations, and tolerate 65 mph winds. Later WSAT designs could extend south from Delridge Station to serve the Delridge corridor and White Center, link east to Morgan Junction, and head north to serve Alki, and/or Admiral. 

Sound Transit has compromised on station locations and routing options, but has stuck to the “You can have any mode you want as long as it’s rail” theme. This appears to be the fault of too-narrowly written legislation. With funding squeezed by I-976, federal stinginess, and construction cost escalations, the safer move would be to opt for a proven, more appropriate, less expensive alternative that could be delivered sooner. While the choice seems clear, Sound Transit continues to advance West Seattle light rail plans. Rather than let inertia carry us toward overbuilt light rail, Sound Transit should add West Seattle Aerial Transit into the mix and let the environmental impact statement show the respective advantages.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Lift lines will be crazy, will groups of 3 or more get access to a faster line? Can bikes be attached to or included inside? What are the emergency plans if the Gondola stops or loses power? Will the ride be free or no cost? If the cost per mile is $20M-64M, how much would it cost in Seattle? $100M per mile?

    • Large gondolas can fit bikes, wheelchairs, strollers… Gondolas are extremely reliable and usually have backup power, otherwise Whistler Peak2Peak would have never been built. I imagine Orca card could be used for payment.

  2. Up to 25 mph means less than half of the top speed of our train network, plus it requires a transfer on both ends, and is hard to expand to the south.

    Trains are faster, higher capacity, more robust in inclement weather, and easier to expand from a network perspective.

    • Nobody is proposing to replace trains between Tacoma and Everett, but for this line we’re talking about 3mi which only takes 8min. Because gondolas depart every few seconds, you might have to wait for a train longer than it takes you to travel to the Junction by gondola.
      Running Link up to the Junction would be far more expensive and very difficult to expand further South unless you’re willing to tear down a large corridor through West Seattle or spend a fortune on tunneling.
      A hybrid solution would be to run Link South along Delridge and use a shorter gondola up to the Junction, but you would still need a Duwamish bridge.

      • Lots of people are talking about a future extension to Fauntleroy, White Center, or even Burien. So, yeah, hard to expand to the south is a legit criticism. And if you do expand it as a gondola, the farther you go, the worse that 25 MPH speed gets, resulting in service that is significantly slower than a good old-fashioned Rapidride bus (which is already in planning for this general area)

        • I disagree completely. If you expand to the south, then you will have stations fairly close together. More stations mean more dwell time. A top speed of 55 MPH (Link trains) becomes meaningless, because the train never reach top speed between stations. The difference in speed between a train and gondola becomes very small.

          If you skip stops, then it becomes very difficult to justify the route. Ridership will go way down if you have very few stops. As it is, it will be very difficult to expand the line. If you run underground, then it will cost a fortune (for relatively few riders). If you run above ground, you end up wiping out lots of very nice housing (making it politically difficult). If anything, the gondola has a better chance of being extended, just because it would be relatively cheap to expand (cheaper than an elevated train) and require very few houses be torn down.

        • To serve White Center etc, it might be easier to add a Link stop at Boeing Access Road and run a gondola up the hill to Highline and White Center and may be even down again to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal. Vashon Island residents would appreciate it. There is no way to do this with a train…

  3. You had me until the part about “speeds up to 25 mph.” Presumably this is top speed. Average speed will be much slower. In fact, too slow to be considered as serious RAPID transit for the distances involved. Sometimes you really do get what you pay for. Although for shorter distances like upper Queen Anne to SLU and Seattle Center, be my guest.

    • For a route like this, average speed will not be much lower than top speed. The smaller cars have lower dwell time and there aren’t many stops. You are looking at average speeds over 20 MPH, which is blazing fast for a mass transit system. A train would likely be faster, but not worth the money.

      The main advantage of a gondola is the low headways (measured in seconds, not minutes). Here is a rough estimate of the total time it takes: It is about five miles from West Seattle Junction to downtown. At 25 MPH, that works out to 12 minutes. Add a minute for dwell time. Wait time is basically nothing, but add a minute anyway as there may be capacity problems. That works out to a 14 minute trip. Round it up to 15 minutes.

      It is tough to find travel times for West Seattle Link. But this articles (https://www.theurbanist.org/2018/02/14/scoping-begins-weigh-ballard-west-seattle-light-rail-extensions/) says it will take ten minutes from the Junction to SoDo. That seems like a mistake — I think they meant the Junction to IDS. I’ll go with that, but if anyone has official time estimates, I would appreciate it. So, assume a ten minute travel time (including dwell time). The train will go anywhere from every 6 minutes to every 12 (during the day). So that works out to somewhere between 10 minutes (if you just catch the train) to 22 minutes (if you just miss it, in the middle of the day).

      So the train is sometimes faster, sometimes not. Is it worth spending a few billion to build something that is only a bit faster (and only sometimes)? No. Will we do it anyway? Of course.

  4. There is nothing wrong with an elevated rail system. There is no controversy. It is not a controversy to hear the shouts of neighbors wanting it to be a tunnel. We voters passed this system. It will be built. Chicago’s *entire* rail network is elevated for the most part. They even dubbed it the “L” short for “el”evated. West Seattle needs to accept the reality of topography and we don’t need to waste time with ideas that require people to go on a sky chariot, get off, and transfer to a light rail train.

    • There is quite a bit of pushback from the Port to build another bridge to the North and there isn’t much space to the South. A proposal to run a tunnel through Pigeon Pt got rejected as too expensive. A gondola could just go over the hill. Chicago doesn’t have such topography challenges. That’s why Portland built a gondola, Vancouver is working on one, and La Paz build their whole public transport system using gondolas.

  5. I feel like the question is what happens when in st4 you push for an expansion of light rail south from west seattle through white center and burien and reconnecting with the existing line?

    • Good question! Depending on demand, for ST4 you could either run Link or another gondola through Georgetown and South Park to White Center or a gondola from Boeing Access Road to Highline and White Center and may be even to Fauntleroy ferry terminal.

    • Another would be to upgrade the Stride route and have light rail from White Center to Renton through Burien. This would be similar to the Kirkland-Issaquah LRT where the primary goal is movement within the subarea.

  6. There may be enough projected revenues and debt capacity now for the North King Subarea to fully fund TWO tunnels to West Seattle, not eliminate stations, and tunnel to Ballard as part of the ST3 expansion. 2018 and 2019 revenues are so much higher than anticipated when the placeholder figures for ST3 were developed in 2015 that projects should be augmented. Problem is, Sound Transit is keeping these financial projections from the public, despite the fact that it is required to disclose them by terms in ST3.

  7. If the gondolas carry only 40 passengers, how could such a system move 6000 riders in one hour? That would require a gondola leaving the terminal every 24 seconds. A gondola line would also require two transfers for most riders– from bus to gondola in West Seattle and again from gondola to bus or Link in SODO. A clumsy and awkward experience for riders.

      • OK, thanks for the link. I see how it works for end of the line stations, but couldn’t find anything about mid-line stations — I’ve heard elsewhere that they are possible.

        Another issue to consider is acquiring the aerial right-of-way — that would have to be leased or purchased from each landowner underneath, except where the system operates over existing streets.

      • La Paz has built their whole public transport system using gondolas as they have even more hills than Seattle. They have many mid-stations: https://youtu.be/468unoEu1k0, there is one in Whistler, too.
        I would assume its much easier to acquire aerial rights than to tear down huge areas for the line and much bigger stations.

        • A few seconds of the La Paz video appears to show the ropeway traveling over the top of buildings. A public agency would certainly havre powers of eminent domain; it could condemn an aerial right of way, but I can foresee large and costly problems acquiring such a right of way over dwellings, at least in the USA. Many people will just not be comfortable with all those cabins cruising (even silently) over their homes 20 hours a day.

          That said, I’m becoming impressed with what I see from Doppelmyer. But having lived through the whole monorail debacle here, I’ve got a healthy amount of skepticism.

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