Among all the Link light rail extensions unleashed by Sound Transit 3 (ST3) lurks a weakest link: the Purple Line to Issaquah. But we can fix that. 

It starts and ends at a parking lot.

If it were built as currently planned, its Issaquah terminus would be one mile away from its city center and almost 4.5 miles away from the Issaquah Highlands. With its current routing, the Purple Line is set to become yet another compromise in favor of the Eastside’s currently car-oriented landscape. That’s arguably because the Purple Line is public transport designed for now. Sound Transit spending a few billion dollars building a light rail to the low-rise “downtown” of Issaquah is simply not feasible at the present day. But to the park-and-rides with wide, glamorous parking spaces for hundreds of cars? Maybe.

Regardless, it’s important to first note that both Issaquah expects its population to grow by over 17,000 people by the time the Purple Line opens in 2041. Much of the growth is likely to be accommodated by dense mixed-use development, a stark contrast to existing land use patterns. The Purple Line designed for today simply will not fit the Issaquah from the tomorrow. It would have insufficient connections to central areas and is a missed opportunity to transit-centered living.

So instead of pouring billions into a Purple Line that’s only half-completed, let’s design one that accommodates future growth and the people that growth brings. It’s important to start planning early for this proposed extension so that the cities can grow into and around light rail. 

First stop: Gilman at 7th Ave NW and NW Gilman Blvd. Gilman Station builds upon the City of Issaquah’s plans (Central Issaquah Plan) for the area around the station to be part of Issaquah Valley, the city’s new mixed-use urban core. The City is working to zone the surrounding area as higher-density, mixed-use development. Light rail works in perfect harmony with that dense development: residents can enjoy a more walkable immediate neighborhood while light rail connects them with destinations further afield so they can ditch cars altogether. The key here is access: optimally, transit should be located within a half mile of all residents; this holds especially true in a car-dominated suburb like Issaquah where easy access to transit needs to be seriously considered in order to get residents out of their cars. Hence, Gilman Station can work together with Central Issaquah Station (about a mile away) to improve accessibility and promote denser, transit-oriented development (TOD).

The benefits of transit-oriented development are massive. TOD disincentivizes driving, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and boosting air quality. TOD’s walkable neighborhoods also encourage healthier lifestyles. Likewise, the emphasis on transit benefits lower-income households, improving their access to economic opportunity. The City of Issaquah is working with developers to integrate affordable housing with redevelopment plans; transit and light rail will play a key role in building that equity. And as plans for light rail begin to materialize, developers might see more incentive in developing even higher-density buildings. A handy pedestrian bridge across I-90 can connect light rail with Costco’s growing international headquarters; other employers might also be attracted by light rail’s regional connections. The development might very well play out similar to that of the neighboring Spring District.

Central Issaquah Plan includes “districts” labeled Western Greenway, Issaquah Valley, Confluence, and Eastlake. (City of Issaquah)
Central Issaquah Plan “districts” (City of Issaquah)

Next stop: Olde Town, near Front St N and E Sunset Way. Olde Town predates the suburban sprawl that forms much of the rest of Issaquah and is the historical center of the city. It boasts a charming collection of historic small businesses and cultural institutions. Here, light rail can greatly improve local and regional car-free access to popular destinations such as the city hall, salmon hatchery, courthouse, and parks. As the city aims to preserve the neighborhood’s nature and small-town feel, light rail provides a helpful alternative to more parking. And as per the city’s aims, streets can be restructured for bike lanes and additional greenery as light rail reduces vehicle traffic.

The City has also opened the possibility of some private redevelopment of some of Olde Town provided that it adheres to some design guidelines. Arguably, many buildings on Front Street can be artfully redeveloped to preserve the neighborhood’s character, while the clean street grid is a source of potential for that redevelopment to be walkable and transit-oriented. The myriad of beautiful trails nearby will certainly benefit new residents and can be enjoyed by more people once connected by transit.

Conveniently, there is already a disused section of railway that can be converted for light rail use to connect Olde Town Station with Gilman Station; it runs from Olde Town Station to the NW Gilman Blvd, where it can link onto the aforementioned (proposed) viaduct and then to Gilman Station. The railway will need to be widened into two tracks but there seems to be enough room in Rainier Blvd right-of-way that parallels the railway to do so (as to not use eminent domain).

Last stop (for now): Issaquah Highlands. There will be two stations: one adjacent to the Swedish Hospital and another in the commercial center at the existing Issaquah Highlands Park-and-ride. Now, although the Purple Line’s terminus is a [dreaded] parking lot, this particular one fills up quickly: King County Metro warns us that it’s usually filled 90% or above by 9am on weekdays. Just to clear things up, we will not be expanding the lot from its current 1010 spaces. The main issue for transport to and from the Issaquah Highlands in the future will likely not be the capacity  of the park-and-ride but rather the clogged I-90 freeway and the lack of frequent routes. Currently, King County Metro plans for only one frequent route by 2041 to the Highlands and the (currently) proposed Purple Line ends miles away at Issaquah Transit Center. Today, there is only one route that serves the Highlands on Sunday: Sound Transit’s 554, at a 30-minute frequency.

That overall lack of usable transit options in the Highlands will arguably stifle car-free development there in the future. We can already see that much of the commercial core of the Highlands is covered by parking–we don’t want that trend to continue. And while single-family homes currently make the bulk of housing stock, there is a desire for denser townhomes and mixed-use development. By building light rail to the Highlands, we can take advantage of some of its existing walkability and development potential.

Light rail is a perfect complement to the hundreds of planned apartment units, as well as the hospital, apartments, townhomes, homes, and myriad of commercial space already built. With transit, developers might see incentive to transform existing parking lots to denser, mixed-use buildings. The City of Issaquah has also promised to be good partners with transit and upzone near stations. But without significant transit improvements, it’s unlikely that the Highlands’ true car-free potential could be realized.

From Olde Town Station to Issaquah Highlands, the Purple line can run east at-grade on E Sunset Way until near 5th Ave SE where it elevates onto a viaduct to tackle the steep grade onto the Highlands.

By directly serving key destinations where people want to go, the Purple Link extension can truly give Issaquah residents a car-free way around town. I-90 and the Sammamish Plateau (which the Highlands is located on) serve as natural barriers to walkability that light rail can help break down. Light Rail can unite the different developing regions of Issaquah into one connected whole. And Seattle, along with the rest of the Eastside, will be just a short ride away.

Map of proposed extension. (Google Maps, edits by author)

That short ride going west would be on the already-approved portion of Purple Line along I-90 to Factoria. There’s little retooling needed for this section here; I-90 provides the quickest and most direct route. The point of contention comes at the connection between Richards Road and East Main. The currently-proposed option is for Purple Line to turn north just west of Richards Road Station and follow I-405 to East Main Station. A better option, however, would be for Purple Line to instead continue due west along I-90 and connect directly to the East Link tracks at Bellevue Way (see picture below). There, Purple Line can turn north and connect to the existing East Link tracks from South Bellevue to Wilburton that it will follow to serve the same stations as originally planned with one addition that is South Bellevue.

I-90 connection. Red is the proposed Purple Line, Blue is the East Link, Purple is the currently-planned Purple Line, Green shows Issaquah’s proposed new direct connection to Seattle. (Google Maps, edits by author)

Perhaps the biggest advantage of this I-90 connection from Richards Road is that it also allows for a future light rail line between Seattle and Issaquah. The Purple Line can connect to East Link in both directions in an “interchange” over I-90: north to Kirkland and west to Seattle.

I-90 connection. red is the Purple Line, blue is the East Link. Issaquah line would branch to offer direct service to both Seattle and Bellevue. (Google Earth, edits by author)
I-90 connection. red is the Purple Line, blue is the East Link. (Google Earth, edits by author)

This Seattle-Issaquah “Magenta” line has many justifications, a few being that it can become part of the regional light rail spine and that it can largely replace many existing Seattle-Issaquah bus routes. These routes include King County Metro’s peak-only 212, 214, 216, 217, 218, and 219, and Sound Transit’s all-day 554. The Metro routes see a combined 7,100 riders per weekday and the 554 sees 4,170 for a grand total of 11,270 riders in all–a massive number for a city with a population around 40,000. The revised Seattle-Issaquah Purple Line will serve more riders than the currently-proposed one, which Sound Transit’s preliminary estimate pegged at 8,000 to 10,000 daily riders. Factoring in Issaquah’s expected population growth, ridership could be quite substantial. 

There are a few differences in the termini of the bus routes, for example, the 217 serves some extra stops around Eastgate and the 216 continues past Issaquah Highlands to Sammamish. While light rail won’t be able to serve every bus stop, local feeder bus routes will continue to exist and last-mile transport options like Via to Transit could fill in the gaps. 

Building a three-way interchange at the Mercer Slough could routes to both Seattle and Bellevue. (Google Maps, edits by Hyra Zhang)
Building a three-way interchange at the Mercer Slough could routes to both Seattle and Bellevue. (Google Maps, edits by author)

Sure, if we build the currently-proposed Purple Line, riders can still travel from Seattle to Issaquah on light rail, but it will require potentially tens of thousands of riders to not only transfer from East Link but also make a four-mile detour in doing so. And seeing as the currently-proposed Purple Line does not serve the Issaquah Highlands and other urban centers, the East Link transfer may not even be the only one riders will need to make. Alas, such complications may very well push current and prospective riders back into their cars.

That’s why it’s crucial to build at least the I-90 connection under ST3 instead of the currently-proposed alignment along I-405. If we stuck with current plans and built the latter, it would accommodate the Purple Line but not the Seattle-Issaquah Magenta Line. If we were to build the much-needed Magenta Line later on, we would likely have to build the I-90 connection anyway. So why not kill two birds with one stone and just build the I-90 connection that can accommodate both lines now? We don’t even need to completely build the I-90 “interchange” under ST3; it could be built in phases with the Magenta Line portions being built in a later ballot measure. 

The potential big barrier to building the East Link connection as it will likely require a very tall and long bridge to be built over I-405 and Mercer Slough. Design and cost constraints may be prohibitive to its construction. The Issaquah extension will also inevitably result in a rise in cost; the extension requires some land acquisition and extensive viaduct construction over challenging terrain.

The East Link connection viewed from “QFC” (see previous map), looking west. (Sound Transit)

The buses running Seattle-Issaquah and Seattle-Eastgate routes already run at six-minute headways at peak and suffer from frequent delays, yet many are still crammed to the brim with riders. Can Seattle’s congested streets handle even more buses? We need an efficient Seattle-Issaquah light rail that serves Issaquah’s growing urban centers moving forward; our current ST3 plans are simply not enough. Now simply isn’t the time to cut corners.

While cost inevitably poses to be a great barrier to any transit project, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A 2014 study by the American Public Transportation Association found that, for each dollar spent on transit, cities experience $4 in economic returns. And this isn’t even considering the priceless societal benefits transit brings, such as reduced air pollution, increased equity, and better overall quality of life. In a quickly developing region like Issaquah, the economic and societal benefits could be even greater. All in all, the new Purple and Magenta Lines might very well pay for themselves and then some in the long run.

We still have time to design a Purple Line and a light rail system that puts people before parking. The Eastside is about to have a chance to put cars in its rearview mirror; let’s embrace it and complete it with light rail. Purple Line will move us all forward.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent write up. As an Issaquah resident I have been perplexed that the existing park and ride off route 900 is an odd station location for the Issaquah area being in the middle of nowhere. A station in the i-90 medium at maple street will serve both sides of the freeway and if a cross Street is added here will give the Gilman Blvd based new town access to the Costco office area on the north side of the freeway. I would skip old town and extend the light rail to the highland with a viaduct through the old quarry into the Highlands Downtown.

  2. The weakest link in ST3 is Tacoma Link Phase III. Don’t besmirch Issaquah Link when the Tacoma streetcar is the silliest project in ST3!

    Don’t judge a line by its end points. Many Rapid Ride routes end in parking lots – they are usually a transit center of some form, just like the South Kirkland and Issaquah TCs. What matters is what do the lines serve on the way. The Purple Line is mostly about connecting Factoria, Eastgate, and Bellevue College to East Link and downtown Bellevue. A further extension to Issaquah is logical given the growth plans of the east side, but not critical. Look at the bus routes you analyze – other than the 219, most of the ridership of the 21X series and 544 is generated within Bellevue, not Issaquah. “Issaquah Link” is about Issaquah as much as Ballard Link is about Ballard – sure, it’s the logical endpoint and clearest branding, but not primary source of trips (here, the stations in Bellevue are analogous to the LQA and SLU stations)

    Don’t overestimate the connection to Seattle. Yes, it will be the superior trip generator, but Pierce, Snohomish, and East King politicians have been explicit that ST3 investments are first about connections within their subareas and secondarily about connections to Seattle. By turning north to Bellevue, the current routing prioritizes all day ridership over commuters. This will reduce total ridership but may still be a compelling design for an urbanist, particularly as Kirkland+Redmond+Bellevue emerges as an urban center coequal with Seattle and Tacoma.

    Nonetheless, the Wye junction is a good idea and will hopefully be considered, but it will be an uphill battle. Don’t underestimate the legal barriers to building across the Mercer Slough. The best option is to partner with WSDOT when the 90-405 interchange is rebuilt, to allow for sufficient space to squeeze in Link under the 405 rather than over. But it will be hard because it is not in the representative project.

    On the other hand, don’t read too much into the station location for the representative station location in Issaquah. The current transit center is an adequate placeholder for planning 20 years out, but it’s a terrible location for a station because half of the walkshed is greenspace (south and west). The station will surely drift north and east given the Central Issaquah growth plans. Personally, I am bullish on a station in the middle of the freeway akin to Judkin’s Park. The Costco headquarters campus will likely be the largest job center, which strongly suggest the station should strive to serve both sides of the freeway, and the I90 footprint narrows at the proposed 12th Ave crossing such that the walkshed lost to I90 is minimized. My hope is a station within the I90 envelop will actually increase the north-south permeability of I90 by providing a high quality non-motorized crossing. Here, the pedestrian bridge at the Microsoft station is a good example (or the Northgate ped bridge, but without the execution issues).

    As you note in your piece, the city hopes to preserve the character of Olde Towne. Despite being the civic node of the city and a excellent urban form, it is very low density. The existing rail ROW makes for temping access, but even then direct Link service would be wild overkill. Bus service should suffice, but if you must use the existing single track rail, I’d look to the existing trolley (still in service!) for a last-mile connection, perhaps akin to the eBart extension, an awkward mode shift but a transit investment right-sized to the neighborhood. Could be done with negligible capital investment.

    The grade approach to the highlands is likely prohibitive. Simple bus lanes on Highlands Drive and a good bus-rail interface at the Link station for buses arriving on I90 should be more than adequate to serve what will be a very dense & walkable neighborhood once the 2nd half of the Highlands is built out. Look to the 219 being one of the higher preforming STX routes after the East Link restructure.

    Enjoyed reading the piece.

    • “The Purple Line is mostly about connecting Factoria, Eastgate, and Bellevue College to East Link and downtown Bellevue.”

      Except it won’t really do that. A trip from T-Mobile headquarters (likely the biggest destination in Factoria) to downtown Bellevue will still require a bus ride. You might as well ride to South Bellevue Park and Ride. The same is true for BCC and the offices spread out in Eastgate. In all of those cases a bus ride to South Bellevue or Mercer Island is better if you are headed to downtown Seattle. If you are going to downtown Bellevue the other train might be faster, but most likely the improvement in speed will be lost as the train won’t run as often. You spend less time on the bus and the train, but more time waiting.

      It is reminiscent of much of the line, in that it pretends that satellite cities are just as big a draw as the main one, or that people will ride subways from a distant exurb. Tacoma light rail to Seattle isn’t about folks in Tacoma getting to Seattle (or vice versa), since of course Sounder will be faster during rush hour, and buses will be faster the rest of the time. It is about connecting places like Federal Way or Fife to Tacoma.

      Likewise Everett. Suddenly this city of 100,000 will need it’s own major multi-billion dollar subway system — not to connect it to Seattle, but to connect the suburbs to Everett (and knit together the bustling metropolis).

      Except that Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett are small! They are tiny. Very few people ride buses making that connection, and very few people will ride trains that involve a transfer by a freeway station. Just look at the data. There are six bus routes that go along the corridor from Issaquah to downtown Bellevue. Many of these cover areas that Issaquah Link won’t. For example, the 241 provides a one stop connection from Factoria Mall to downtown Bellevue. It is one of the worst performing buses in our fleet (in terms of ridership per hour) carrying only 600 riders a day. The only express from Eastgate to downtown Bellevue is the 556, which goes from Eastgate to downtown Bellevue in less than 15 minutes. Yet only 50 people (each way) actually make that trip. For other routes, this connection (from Eastgate/Factoria/BCC to downtown Bellevue) is a small part of the route, and yet even all six of these routes, combined, don’t carry that many riders:

      226 1500
      240 2300
      241 600
      246 300
      271 5700
      556 824

      The 240 connects to Renton Boeing, while the 271 is mostly riders going from Bellevue to the UW. There just aren’t that many people riding the bus from Issaquah/Eastgate/Factoria/BCC to downtown Bellevue. Of course for some people the train will be faster. But for many others, it won’t. You aren’t going to get thousands of new riders just because you can get from the Eastgate freeway station to downtown Bellevue in 6 minutes instead of 13. You certainly aren’t going to tens of thousands of new riders from Issaquah if their trip to downtown Bellevue involves an extra transfer.

      • You sound like someone arguing Austin shouldn’t bother with a light rail because no one rides the bus. Of course no one rides the bus – the options are terrible and the parking is free! There’s no bus ridership between Issaquah and Bellevue because the options are terrible. During rush hour, it took me 25 minutes to drive between Issaquah and Bellevue; the best bus option was over 45 minutes. If Seattle commuters had the same scenario – bus rides double the time of driving and ample free parking – then Seattle’s mode share would look like Bellevue’s. Add 15K jobs to Bellevue, start charging for parking, and create reliable & frequent transit, and you’ll see ridership emerge.

        Bellevue will be a job center comparable to U Distict + UW; no reason it cannot have the same level of ridership with commiserate investment.

        “A trip from T-Mobile headquarters …to downtown Bellevue will still require a bus ride.” Say what? It’s an 8 minute walk from T-Mobile to SE Eastgate Way & Richards Rd; that’s clearly within the walkshed of a Factoria station, even if it’s on the north side of I90.

        And don’t bother comparing Issaquah Link to the current 1-seat riders to Seattle because those will all disappear in 2024. I don’t mind catching a train to East Main rather than a bus to Mercer Island if the train is more reliable & has better all day frequency.

  3. A shiny turd is still a turd. Spending lots of extra money on an area that shouldn’t have rail is not going to fix it. It is too far from the central core and too low density to ever make sense. If you could leverage an existing railway line, sure, but otherwise you are way better off sending express buses to Mercer Island and/or Bellevue.

    Issaquah rail is not an outlier, but the biggest example of the ST3 mindset: Ignore what works the world over for mass transit, and mimic a freeway system instead.

  4. ST3 projects in some subareas now are at revenues risk. The agency will get far less tax revenue than voters in 2016 were told to expect. I’ve been trying to track down the East King subarea’s projected revenues and expenses to see if this extension is feasible by 2041. Obviously some of the East King revenues and debt capacity are going to be needed for the Seattle tunneling and all the ID Station work.

    ST3 requires a Financial Plan showing what revenues and debt capacity will remain for East King subarea projects/services?

    https://st32.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Document%20Library%20Featured/8-22-16/ST3_Appendix-B_2016_web.pdf

    Can anyone locate it? We might be in a financial situation like what happened with the Initial Segment — it was shortened and delayed because N. King subarea projected revenues and debt capacity were coming up short.

        • 2020 Financial Plan and Proposed Budget, page 3 shows Sources and Uses by subarea. It’s the 4th file from the top when I looked today. This table is included in the Financial Plan every year.

          If you want to understand the impact of current events on the Plan, watch the Finance or Capital committee meetings as staff gives the Board updates.

          • That chart does not contain the information the subarea equity Financial Plan required by ST3 needs to show. That chart only shows what the spending through 2041 might look like by subarea, and how resources might be allocated to cover those projected costs. It does not show projected revenues by subarea through the entire ST3 system plan, it does not show the expenses for the system plan post 2041, it does not show remaining debt capacity in each subarea, etc. You seem woefully ignorant of what ST3 says about the subarea equity Financial Plan and what information it must display.

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