Seattle Subway’s 2021 Map Upgrades Light Rail Connections in Renton, Lynnwood, and Kirkland

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Seattle Subway adds a Renton branch and new junctions in Totem Lake and Lynnwood City Center. (Map by Seattle Subway)

Since 2012, Seattle Subway has been envisioning a world class rapid transit system for the Seattle region and advocating for that vision. Each year Subway has updated their vision map to reflect new realities and ideas. This year, their new map includes some interesting tweaks, such as a new line through Skyway and Renton, and extending the Aurora line to connect at Lynnwood City Center Station, which opens in 2024. Totem Lake also becomes a rail junction.

In all, Seattle Subway’s vision is for seven light rail lines creating a broad network stretching from Everett College in the north to Tacoma Mall in the south. And from Edmonds in the west and Woodinville in the east. It takes a light rail system, already planned to reach 116 miles after Sound Transit 3 (ST3) is built out, well past 200 miles, with at least 36 of those additional miles in Seattle. This allows Seattle to more than double the number of urban centers and urban villages connected, jumping from 13 of 30 in ST3 to 27 of 30 in the new map, Seattle Subway said. With King County projected to add 1.8 million residents by 2050, this kind of ambition might be warranted.

Seattle Subway also has a new executive director this year with Keith Kyle stepping aside and political director Jonathan Hopkins promoted to take over Kyle’s role. Hopkins is picking up right where his predecessor left off, laying out a bold vision for rapid transit expansion.

Rainier Valley to Renton Line

One focus of the new map is improving connections in South King County, where low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities are concentrated in the region.

“One of the most amazingly equitable things we could do is build a south direct line express through South Park and Georgetown and then have that Rainier Valley line have 50% of the trains go through the Rainier Valley to Renton,” Hopkins said. “And we envision that as a sooner rather than later thing.”

The 2021 update keeps most of the core of the planned system, but tweaks the Aurora Line northern tail. (Map by Seattle Subway)

Those new light rail lines will have the effect of trimming multiple hours per week off the commutes of transit-dependent populations in South King County, Hopkins said. The express Purple Line through Georgetown would be much more direct than the existing Rainier Valley route, providing people who live in Tukwila and south of the city a much faster option to commute to Seattle.

Meanwhile, adding stations in Kubota Garden, Skyway, Downtown Renton, and Renton Landing to the Green Line branch would unite the Rainier Valley with rapid transit service, which would be unprecedented. With rising housing prices increasingly pushing BIPOC folks to the south, the Green Line could provide connectivity to communities displaced from their traditional homes and cultural centers in Seattle’s Central Area, Chinatown-International District, and the Rainier Valley.

Aurora Line extends to Lynnwood

One of Seattle Subway’s goals, Hopkins said, is to support urbanizing downtowns around the region. Edmonds’ efforts to pedestrianize its main street were not lost on him. “We want to reinforce communities that have dense, walkable downtowns and are making the right urban plans; Edmonds is fantastic for that,” Hopkins said.

The logic behind linking downtown Edmonds to the Aurora Line through Seattle and Shoreline and sending it onto Lynnwood also has much to do with strong transit connections to the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, which is the primary link to the northern half of the Kitsap Peninsula and the Olympic Peninsula beyond. Currently transit options to the Edmonds ferry aren’t great.

“If you’re going to connect… Edmonds is hard to reach, unless you have a car. We can make that intermodal connection to ferries, a good multimodal car-free one,” Hopkins said. “In our ideal world, if you make that light rail connection to the ferry system you can access it from Snohomish County as well as King County… It’s a state and regional asset, so we should make sure people can regionally access it.”

Terminating in Edmonds, as Subway’s 2019 map did (shown below), doesn’t provide Snohomish County the same level of connectivity to Edmonds and the ferry.

Seattle Subway’s 2019 Vision Map expanded the Metro 8 line (in gold) and the Aurora Line north to Edmonds (Magenta). (Photo credit: Oran Viriyincy)

Totem Lake gets another line

The major change on the Eastside is extending Kirkland’s Brown line to Totem Lake and on to Woodinville. The Blue Line (East Link) then terminates in Totem Lake instead of going on Woodinville. That makes Totem Lake into quite the junction with direct connections to Redmond, Bellevue, and Woodinville.

Totem Lake is a mall, but it’s a mall Kirkland has ambitions of turning into an urban neighborhood. A redevelopment plan for one section will add 850 apartments as shown, which has been partially realized. (Renderings courtesy Centercal)

This might sound a bit much for those who think of Totem Lake as a sprawling mall with a culturally appropriative name, but Kirkland has designated the mall a regional urban growth center and has ambitious plans to redevelop it. So far, that has translated into a redevelopment building a more upscale mall with apartments over top. However, long-term the area could see a more profound urban transformation.

Pierce County ideas

Seattle Subway hasn’t changed anything in Pierce County, where the extension to Tacoma Mall (which similar to Totem Lake has been planned as an urban growth center) is the only addition they’ve tabbed. However, Hopkins, who grew up in Tacoma, is bullish about that city’s potential. He said additional bus rapid transit and streetcar lines make a ton of sense in Tacoma, but it’s less clear where light rail should go beyond Tacoma Mall. A streetcar up 6th Avenue would be a nice addition likely to attract heavy ridership, he said.

Sound Transit Taxing District was separated into five subareas. (Sound Transit)

Because the Sound Transit Taxing District extends deep into Pierce County exurbia, ballot measures face more of an uphill battle in Pierce County, which was the only subarea to vote against ST3 with 55.76% voting no. Snohomish County, on the other hand, stays relatively tight to the denser core in Everett and points south and voted yes, albeit fairly narrowly with 51%. Pierce County has also grown slower than its northern neighbors over the past decade, although that could change as Tacoma booms and phases out exclusionary zoning policies.

High-speed connections and next steps

The core vision Seattle Subway has elevated has remained surprisingly similar over the organization’s decade of existence, even as more pieces are added. The maps near its founding in 2012 had already identified the Aurora Line, Ballard to University District, the Georgetown express line, West Seattle Link to White Center, and Ballard Link to Lake City as priorities. That vision pushed Sound Transit to go big with ST3 package — even as some groups wanted to play it safe with a smaller measure — and that boldness was rewarded with a decisive 54% victory.

One Seattle Subway’s original maps from 2012 focused on Seattle but included many similar ideas. (Map by Seattle Subway)

Seattle Subway has continued to tinker around the edges over the years, and it has added the ambitious Metro 8 Gold Line, too. However, many of the original lines remain high priority like the Aurora Line — not to mention ensuring delivery of Ballard Link and West Seattle Link is sped up and queued for extensions rather than talking about delays and cuts due to a tightening budget. That could entail a ST4 measure that ensures enough budget slack to keep ST3 on schedule while adding some new high priority additions, whether it be extending Ballard Link, West Seattle Link, and/or adding the Aurora Line and Renton Line.

Seattle Subway has also lobbied the state legislature to amend Seattle’s vestigial monorail taxing authority to fund light rail, and its bill — HB 1304 sponsored by Representative David Hackney — is likely to be back next session after stalling out this spring. If passed, it would give Seattle new options to fund light rail on its own, although Seattle Subway is still hoping for a regionwide or King County-wide package as well.

Cascadia Rail’s latest map. (Oran Viriyincy)

One new tie-in is high-speed rail, which another grassroots organization in Cascadia Rail has come together to advocate for. Hopkins believes high-speed rail could also be a winner based on polling commissioned by Puget Sound Regional Council. People throughout the region crave more mobility and transit options and it appears they’re ready to support it if it’s transformative enough. That shiny new high-speed rail right-of-way could then support faster metropolitan express rail transit options in the time slots between the interstate runs. Governor Jay Inslee has been advancing a governance plan partnering with British Colombia, Oregon, and potentially the private sector to get that Cascadia high-speed rail idea off the ground.

Seattle Subway’s vision maps might strike some as far-fetched and overly ambitious, but Puget Sound voters keep approving them. Polling suggests the appetite for bold transit upgrades and alternatives to driving remains.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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RossB

What is striking about this “vision” is not only how unrealistic it is, but how anti-urban it is. It is if they took the absolute worst parts of Sound Transit planning, and doubled down on it. Not double, of course, but quadruple, quintuple … honestly, I don’t know how much bigger and absurd this is than what Sound Transit is planning to waste money on. It looks like satire — like it is purposely mocking ST3 (if so, well done).

Rainier, Eastlake and Delridge avenues get nothing, but Woodinville gets not one, but two lines. Tukwila gets three. Capitol Hill? Just one. Oh, there is a line going underneath it, but no connection. Too expensive? Yeah, maybe, but somehow they find the money to build an underwater train tunnel from Madison Park to South Kirkland.

It ignores the fact that the busiest rides are within the city and it is where the trips are slowest. It also ignores the fact that the bulk of the density is within the city, and almost of the rest is about to be well served by East Link (thus treating the region as if it is L. A. instead of what it is). It ignores the existing infrastructure (e. g. inline bus stops on 405 and 520) and how well this could be served with decent bus service (e. g. running a bus from the UW to Woodinville every minutes, with freeway stops in places like Totem Lake). More than anything, it ignores what has worked, and not worked, in cities all over the world.

As a “vision”, it is dystopian. It implies that everyone has moved out of the city, yet somehow we can spend billions running trains every 20 minutes to the wineries in Woodinville or the mall in Lake Forest Park. It is a blueprint for the biggest transit boondoggle in a country that is known for transit boondoggles. What is even worse is that it is taken seriously by people who should know better.

Joe

The connection across Lake Washington would not be an underwater tunnel: the floating bridge was intentionally built with enough capacity to add light rail should Seattle desire in the future.

RossB

That is just as ridiculous. First, you have the issue of getting from the underground station at Madison Park to the above ground floating bridge. Then you have the fact that this would destroy the fast connection for buses between the UW and the northeastern suburbs. Riders wouldn’t even have the option of transferring. They would either ride a bus stuck in traffic, or have a tedious 3-seat ride (transfer to the train, ride that train all the way downtown — with 7 stops along the way — then ride a train back north again). Oh, and then there is the fact that the South Kirkland Park and ride station will be north of 520. So the train, having crossed the bridge, needs to somehow get well north of the station to then face south, to provide the one seat ride to Bellevue. Or maybe they expect it to switch tracks every single time at South Kirkland.

It is just silly. It treats the South Kirkland Park and Ride like it is Lower Manhattan.

T.R.5000

You really get yourself tied into knots, don’t you. Expanding Link is dystopian?

That might be the dumbest comment I’ve ever seen on a blog post. Congrats.

Frank

Kirkland with 80,000 citizens (very unlikely to use transit since they don’t have sidewalks unless we build a massive parking lot) gets more stops than any Seattle neighborhood with the same population.

Miles over users is an interesting approach

Henry

Ultimately, unless Stride North sees insane ridership, light rail will probably never go north of Downtown Redmond or north of Downtown Kirkland/Totem Lake (wherever the Kirkland NIMBYs force them to route it). And, similarly to the plan for light rail to South Kirkland, the project would mostly just be so that East King actually gets something out of a ST4 project, land use changes would be required to actually make ridership significant. On a larger scale, a second Lake Washington crossing isn’t incredibly likely either, but neither is light rail going in a tunnel under I-5 to First Hill, so I guess we can dream.

Ott Toomet

I agree that a lot of these lines do not make economic sense any time soon, but I think the point with these maps is to be a vision, some sort of distant aim where we should broadly be striving to. Like just presenting what interesting options might be possible. Do not take it as a blueprint for next four years.

In more practical terms, such plans may help with existing station and line planning, in particular they should encourage the designers to think about potential future connectivity at stations they are building now.

RossB

Yes, but as a “vision”, it is flawed, as Frank described. It doesn’t make sense to focus on miles over users fifty years from now, any more than it makes sense now.

Ott Toomet

Sure. I think part of the problem is as with other map visualizations–large things look so good on map, but a lot of small connections in the urban core will be an incomprehensible (and hardly visible) mishmash. So if I see a large swath of white land on the map, I’ll just draw a new line across it.

Would be nice to come up with some sort of alternative vision that looks more at ridership, destinations, and population projections. But you will probably agree that this will not be a trivial work.

RossB

I think part of the problem is as with other map visualizations–large things look so good on map

I agree. I think it is a freeway mindset. Show this anyone who thinks of mobility in terms of a car, and they immediately understand it, and think it is great. Show this to anyone who understands transit and they laugh (three lines to Tukwila? Ha!).

Sadly enough, this same freeway mindset drove ST3, and much of Sound Transit planning in general. “The Spine”, for example, is ridiculous as a brand new, multi-billion dollar subway line. But if you think subways like freeways, it sounds sensible.

Martin Pagel

I see this map mostly as a vision to strive for. Yes, ambitious, but visionary! I agree that many of these lines do not make sense short term, but may in the future, in fact for the downtown core it may not be ambitious enough, we may need to serve 12th or 15th Ave, may be even earlier than 23rd (somebody had proposed this a few weeks ago on Seattletransitblog).
I also have some concerns about feasibility of some stations like Waterfront or First Hill, but those are details. It would be more important to understand what lines would have priority for the next round of extensions (ST4?). Renton may be important to serve BRT from Kent but then purple line needs to be built asap to take over Seatac traffic (and serve the Southwest). That brings up the question: what miles bring the most ridership?!?

RossB

Yes, ambitious, but visionary!

Yes, It is a freeway-style, suburban-oriented vision laid out by folks who haven’t spent enough time looking at real subways around the world (and what works, and what doesn’t).

It would be more important to understand what lines would have priority for the next round of extensions (ST4?).

Chances are, Seattle is done, other than very minor extensions. For example, if the elevated line goes to Market and 15th, it might be extended to 65th and 15th. But other than projects like that, we are probably done.

No city our size has ever built anything as big as ST3, and the fact that we won’t get that much out of it actually decreases the chances it will be extended. Eventually you have to pay to maintain this extremely long system (top 5 in North America). With nowhere near the ridership of those other systems (New York City, Mexico City, etc.) you don’t have much in the way of fare recovery. Meanwhile, real problems that are faced by real cities are clearly raising their heads (e. g. the homeless situation). You just can’t expect a city to spend that much money on a poorly performing rail system, when other basic needs are lacking. Even in terms of infrastructure related projects (water, sewer, bridges) and even transit related needs (our underfunded bus system) any new project would rank towards the bottom.

The one section that could be added is Ballard to UW, simply because it is relatively cheap, and it would add quite a bit. This would likely be paid for within Seattle. But I think that is doubtful. I hate to be such a pessimist, but I think we blew it. We will be stuck with a light rail system that is clearly flawed, while the buses continue to do the bulk of the work. With any luck we will fund those buses adequately, but I’m not holding my breath.

T.R.5000

Not sure how you’re going to flame a Madison line (over a potential technical issue with a connection?), it hits the densest residential neighborhood in Seattle, but ok.

The core additions in this vision to what ST is already planning (Metro 8 line, Madison, Aurora, etc.) are all obviously really good.

Maybe you just don’t like big transit investments?

AJ M

Ross may be an incrementalist, but handwaving away an issue like how to built an underground junction in the middle of downtown is as unserious as ignoring topography.

Neither Aurora nor Madison are ‘obviously’ really good. Madison will get very good BRT this decade and likely will never need further investment, and Aurora is a obvious candidate for Gold standard BRT, not rail.

Metro 8, like Ballard-UW, is indeed an ‘obvious’ candidate for grade separated transit given the topography and street grid, but given most of the ridership is for short urban trips, including it in a light-rail map shows a lack of serious thinking around modes. It’s possible that all the 8 needs is a dedicated transitway between the Seattle Arena and Capital Hill station, using Harrison through SLU; the only improvement over the current KCM LRP would be a dedicated crossing over I5.

T.R.5000

You have to be kidding me about Aurora and Madison. If we’re going to talk about repeating things that work, putting the highest quality transit where the highest density is (Madison) or where people already use transit the most (Aurora) is as close to a no brainer as investments come.

How to connect Madison to 520 is an interesting question, but it’s hardly a serious reason to dismiss the idea. Similar connections exist in The world. There are lots of options on how to do it. It’s obviously possible. We can leave that part to engineers.

Agree about M8 and Ballard/UW though, those are additional obvious good lines on this vision map.

Andre A

By absolutely no scenario is Ballard to UW relatively cheap. It would likely be $500 million or more per mile. It wasn’t chosen as part of ST3 for numerous reasons. There’s also little point discussing it right now since under current projections light rail won’t even get to Ballard until 2037-2041 or even later.

Andre A

The “visionary” aspect gets lost when the plans are so unrealistic that practically no one can take them seriously. It seems childish. You could have literally anyone draw random colorful lines. The Madison-Kirkland segment is loonytunes exhibit A. A project going through that area would be the most impractical and laborious and expensive project in state history. As for the Southpark segment absolutely zero rail transit lines in the world are going to be built through an area of two really small town sized residential areas in order to attempt to cannibalize ridership from an existing already operating line. The exercise is a house of cards. Not some kind of inspiration.