Set to open in 2023, the Judkins Park light rail station will connect thousands of Seattleites to the growing Link light rail network. The future station, which connects directly to the I-90 trail, is uniquely situated to offer safe transit access to pedestrians, cyclists and users of other modes of transportation, like motorized wheelchairs. 

But the Judkins Park light rail station’s connectivity to the I-90 trail only reveals part of the story. The station also abuts Rainier Avenue, a thoroughfare whose high number of collisions and fatalities have earned it the title of Seattle’s “crashiest street.” 

A short video produced by Disability Rights Washington (DRW) showcases the current dismal situation for cyclists and pedestrians on a stretch of Rainier Avenue flanked by narrow sidewalks interrupted by street lamp posts. But as the video’s narration points out, the most pressing dangers are presented by the I-90 freeway entrance and exit ramps.

In the video, Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at DRW, bikes slowly along Rainier Avenue, pointing out areas of special concern and highlighting the dangers for people with disabilities. It is clear that the combination of high speed traffic and limited visibility make the freeway ramp crossings particularly perilous.

In this video created by Anna Zivarts of Disability Rights Washington, viewers can witness the dangerous street conditions near the future Judkins Park light rail station. (Credit: Disability Rights Washington)

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Sound Transit have acknowledged the accessibility issues that face the future Judkins Park Station. In fact, the agencies participated in a 2019 access study that won a Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Vision 2040 award. Undertaken by consultants from local firms Makers and Fehr & Peers, as well as a stakeholder group convened by the Lighthouse for the Blind, the Judkins Park Station Access Study carefully analyzed the surrounding urban landscape, offering up recommendations for improvements. Some of these include “quick wins,” like activating the area under the freeway underpass and installing accessible pedestrian signals (APS) at intersections. The installation of APS is particularly important since clients and employees of the Lighthouse for the Blind are regular commuters through the area.

DRW has engaged with Sound Transit and SDOT around addressing safety concerns at the future Judkins Park Station since 2019, and some short-term improvements have already been made or planned. These include narrower traffic lanes, a bus shelter, rumble strips, crosswalks, new signage, and flex posts. But the organization is continuing to advocate for longer-term improvements, including the addition of a stoplight to allow blind and deaf-blind people to cross Rainier Avenue with greater safety.

I-90 freeway ramps create dangerous conditions

However, even if improvements are made to Rainier Avenue, the presence of the I-90 freeway ramps will continue to present safety concerns. In response to this problem, the station access report offers up recommendations that would decrease traffic speeds and increase pedestrian visibility.

One short-term recommendation is to “T” up the ramps that connect to Rainier Avenue. The visual shown below illustrates what the modification, along with other improvements like bumping out curbs and allowing pedestrians to cross on all four legs of the intersection, might look like.

Figure 19: Short-term I-90 Ramps potential improvements indlude slightly "T-up" intersection so that drivers slow to turn right (rather than speeding up in long queue line). Paint pedestrian crossing.
The Judkins Park Station Access Report, Credit: SDOT

The report also presents the long-term goal of creating an urban or right-angle intersection. Achieving this would require more substantial changes to the freeway ramps infrastructure, including possible ramp reductions and/or closures. While a ramp closure would open up land for development, possibly offsetting some of the cost, creating an urban intersection would still be very expensive. Unofficial estimates have placed the cost of changes to the existing freeway ramps at around $100 million.

The Judkins Park Station Access Report, Credit: SDOT

Should freeway ramps be in Rainier Avenue’s future?

Whether you walk, roll, bike, bus, or drive down this stretch of Rainier Avenue, it is hard to miss the transformation occurring. Once primarily the site of light industrial businesses and parking lots, new residential and commercial development abounds on Rainier. In recent years, both market-rate and affordable housing have sprung up within walking distance of the future light rail station, and more development is in the works–and it’s a similar story near most East Link stations. For example, a land use application for an eight-story, 154-unit mixed-use building with ground level retail, has been made for a parcel at the corner of Rainier Avenue and 21st Street, just a stone’s throw from the future station. The development is planned to include only 64 parking spaces, a revealing detail about what the future holds for the surrounding the neighborhood.

A rendering shows the six story supportive housing building Plymouth Housing is developing at 501 Rainier.
Construction has been completed at 501 Rainier Supportive Housing. The development is only a half mile from the future Judkins Park light rail station; however, residents would have traverse narrow sidewalks and dangerous freeway way ramp intersections in order to access the station. (Credit: Plymouth Housing)

In addition to new housing, established local businesses, like Standard Brewing and Big John’s Pacific Imports Grocery, have opened up new retail locations on the strip. Unlike previous developments that included large surface parking lots, these new developments also have been designed primarily for access by pedestrians.

Sovereign Brewing use barrels with ropes to cordon off a patio space.
New businesses like Sovereign Brewing, opened by the owners of Standard Brewing, are reshaping the landscape of Rainier Avenue. (Credit: Sovereign Brewing)

Given the high cost of changing the existing I-90 freeway ramps, Zivarts has begun to question if the best solution might be to remove the ramps entirely. “Removing all the freeway traffic from Rainier would really transform what is currently one of the most unhealthy and crash prone streets in Seattle,” Zivarts said. “Just looking at all the new housing that’s getting built currently along the stretch of Rainier near the freeway really makes me think it’s time for the city to rethink Rainier and what purpose it serves.”

At the same time, removal of the I-90 freeway ramps might make it more difficult for drivers of both passenger vehicles and freight to access the Central Area of Seattle. The station access report acknowledges that a feasibility study will need to be undertaken before any plans to remove freeway ramps can be put into gear.

In the meantime, SDOT has continued to be engaged in making safety improvements to Rainier Avenue as part of its Vision Zero plan. The improvements are intended to make the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists, while also creating more dedicated bus lanes to increase the reliability of transit through the corridor.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

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Josh

Where the recommendation says “paint crossings,” how about *raised* crosswalks across the ramps. Paint is advisory. Speed tables actually get people to slow down, even if they refuse to yield. An extra lift of asphalt to make raised crossings of every ramp would be a rounding error in the cost of the project.

Neel Blair

In the end, this is yet another post about how awful Rainier Avenue is. That is not to dismiss what it says, which is 100% valid.

I live a block off it, and it’s terrible. It’s dangerous, people speed, ignore traffic signs, crash, maim, injure, kill, and destroy property with their cars all day every day. Fixing Rainier in phases is the only way to feasibly address the decades of poor design, poor management, and poor enforcement. Yet phased approaches mean that we’re not going to address everything at once.

The station area should be addressed. If you address the next layer out from that (the freeway ramp crossings, the inadequate pedestrian facilities), it will merely highlight how terrible the subsequent block is. We fix what we can now, and fix the next layer of the problem next. We’re undoing 100 years of car-only or car-first (everything else a DISTANT 2nd) infrastructure. It can’t be done with one project. Several curb design and intersection updates have been slowly improving things up and down the corridor.

It’s right and proper to point to how bad it is.

Andy

The entire neighborhood is being rebuilt and will be unrecognizable in a year. Is it wishful thinking that that would also apply to the sidewalks and street crossings? Is it helpful to critique a project that hasn’t been completed?

Neel Blair

Waiting until the project is complete means a lot of important decisions that either enable or make impossible certain amenities will be made.

I’ve seen too many projects say “well, wait until we’re done to critique it” only to later say “well, now that we’ve built it the way we did, the time for your critique has passed.”

eddiew

Most Link riders will access via bus routes on 23rd and Rainier Avenue South. The text does not mention bus connections. ST seems to be constructing a grade separated pedestrian crossing of Rainier Avenue South? Of course, 23rd Avenue South is calmer than Rainier, as it does not have a freeway interchange. The current Route 48 connects the future Link station with the Central Area business districts and Garfield.

asdf2

The video makes it seem as though the east side of Ranier, north of the station, has no sidewalk, so you have to take the west side and brave crossing the freeway ramps.

In reality, it’s not nearly that bad. When the eastside sidewalk appears to end, it actually turns into a park path which passes underneath the exit ramp and runs parallel to Rainier for about a block, at which point, the regular sidewalk begins again (or, you can exit the park on the other side and go through the neighborhood). Most of the residential development is east of Rainier, so the east side is probably where you want to be, anyway.

From the south side of the station, if I were coming on a bike, I’d just bypass Rainier entirely and enter the station through the back entrance on 23rd.

Douglas Trumm

So we’re just going to write off the west side of Rainier Avenue? That doesn’t seem very tenable. Don’t we want to create a neighborhood rather than a pass-thru?

asdf2

Not saying the west side of Ranier shouldn’t be fixed, just that the video is exaggerating the situation to the point where it loses credibility – especially when you exit the station to the north.

The video claims that the lack of sidewalk on the eastside forces everyone heading north to take the west side. Thanks to the park path, that claim is simply not true. Also, I-90 curves north just west of Rainier, so the stuff you can actually walk to by taking Rainier’s west-side sidewalk to the north is very limited, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Currently, the walkshed isn’t much more than just a couple of self-storage buildings.

It’s the southeast side of the station where the problems are more serious. The ramp crossing is unsafe, as everybody is speeding to get on the freeway and a driver that stops for you in the right lane obstructs the view of you to a driver in the left lane. Consider that not a single bus route (except for Trailhead Direct) uses that ramp, I’d just close off the HOV ramp altogether to make the crossing distance narrower.