I believe the STB crew to be universal in its support of the general direction and competence of Sound Transit. Since we spend almost all of our time defending it against criticism, I thought I should, in the interests of fairness, level a few criticisms of my own.

1) Stop saying LINK is “on time and on budget.” Sure, the new management has righted the ship and met its new, internal benchmarks. As someone who’s been in a lot of large organizations, I know that that’s not nothing. But it doesn’t win over any skeptics when you promise one cost and timeline when you’re going into the vote, do a faceplant soon afterward, come up with a new timeline where you have every incentive to be conservative, and then trumpet your success as if the initial promises never existed. It just adds to people’s cynicism about the process, and has probably been counterproductive politically.

2) They really, really should have grade-separated the Rainier Valley segment. Ben S. has repeatedly told me that this only costs riders two or three minutes, and I have no doubt that it’s true. Nevertheless, the whole point of rail is reliability: by running at-grade you’ve introduced the possibility of idiot drivers and pedestrians gumming up the whole system. Inattentive drivers have already seriously disrupted the SLUT on some days, and I hate to think that they could do the same for a regional backbone.

Furthermore, speed is as much about perception as the stopwatch time. Even without a disruptive emergency, a train sitting at a stoplight tells the people riding it that the train is slow. A train whizzing by cars stuck at a stoplight tells them it’s faster than driving.

Looking forward, now that we’ve built the system there are ways to minimize these problems: pedestrian overpasses, arterial underpasses, crossing gates, fencing, etc. ST and the City of Seattle should energetically look into these solutions. As a bonus, this kind of stuff is substantially cheaper than elevating or burying the line in the first place.

3) Use signal acceleration in both directions. A corollary to the other point is something else Ben S. told me: that the signal acceleration will be only used in the peak direction through the Rainier Valley. I repeat my argument from the bullet above.

4) Start Digging, Dammit. Nothing ensures completion like facts on the ground. Transit projects have their near-death experiences when they mess around for years without turning a spade of Earth. For that reason, it would have been a great idea if they’d found the money to start in on U-link before the critics have a chance to kill it, even at the cost of a few months of extra delay in Central Link, which is now a fait accompli.


So that’s my wish list for what they would do/have done differently. However, like any political process, the actual ST program is a mix of various interests, so that the result is not perfect from any one person’s viewpoint.

Opposing a system because it uses the wrong kind of rail car, or because its initial segment doesn’t run from your house to your workplace, or because it’s bundled with some other stuff you don’t like, doesn’t get us any closer to having a decent rail system; those decisions were made for a reason, and you ignore those reasons at your peril.

It’s with hesitation that I open this post to comments, because it invites a scattershot of random gripes. I ask that you focus on what I’ve suggested, or look forward to tactical changes that could still be made, as I’ve done.

And if your gripe is “go to Ballard and West Seattle before anywhere else,” we’ve already had that thread, several times. I wield my “delete comments” button as necessary.

18 Replies to “Things I don’t like about Sound Transit”

  1. “2) They really, really should have grade-separated the Rainier Valley segment.”

    Which would make U Link unaffordable, sacrificing a $750 million federal grant and 60k riders per day.

    An elevated system would have also been less beneficial to high density development in the valley. Other transit systems, like Boston’s, are tearing down their old elevated segments leading to an urban renassaince.

    Had ST bypassed MLK altogether, the initial segment would have traveled through industrial areas, and ridership would have been abysmal. A tunnel would have made Central Link totally unaffordable – and less TOD friendly.

    It’s good to keep these agencies’ feet to the fire. I just wish people would look forward instead of backwards around here. We have enough complainers trying to settle past scores on the anti-transit side.

  2. I definitely think they could get to UW quicker than 8 years from now, I’m not sure why there’s no hurry.

  3. max- On the other hand, a separate right-of-way is undoubtedly beneficial to the success and reliability of rapid transit.

  4. And if you want a better example of “what not to do”, visit San Jose, Houston or SF, for that matter. Muni and BART officials did just about everything wrong. Including ordering rail cars from an airplain manufacturer.

  5. I wonder about digging under the intersections cars trains. They’ve done this in the South Bay on the Santa Clara Valley light rail lines, but they have more space there.

  6. daimajin, we’ll eventually dig out intersections if they get crowded, yes.

    max, it was a $500m federal grant for central link – U link got the $750m grant. Do you mean that we wouldn’t have had enough money for U Link if we had built Central Link with full separation? I agree with that.

    Martin, I wrote a response in a post, because I think it’s important enough.

  7. BART is completely grade separated, has space for 10-car length vehicles (capacity for an astonishing 2000 people per train), and has beautiful stations

    So I wouldn’t say they did everything wrong.

  8. Oh, yeah, I think a good job was done with BART, other than going with Rockwell. They could have built half again the length that they have now with the same money had they gone with standardized systems.

  9. Tunnel boring at 35-50 feet per day takes a longggggg timmeeee……

    Somebody want to add that up for the distance of U-Link?

  10. I’m totally with Michael on the website. I think they are hiring a new designer if you know somebody.

  11. Re: Brian,
    I think they’ll get more out of capitol hill than 35 feet a day, because it’s mostly rock. the worrying part is the area around Mountlake/Husky stadium. Water, sand, deep canals, this could be messy :P

  12. “Furthermore, speed is as much about perception as the stopwatch time. Even without a disruptive emergency, a train sitting at a stoplight tells the people riding it that the train is slow. A train whizzing by cars stuck at a stoplight tells them it’s faster than driving.”

    This is one of those things that can be fixed later. As mentioned by “Use signal acceleration in both directions.” Ultimately we can put in flashing lights and drop down gates if it is needed.

    When is the last time you saw a freight train stop for cars? Hey, in Oakland Amtrak goes right down the middle of the street without any separation!

  13. Gotta love Jack London Square =D

    Most tunnel boring machines are good for 45 feet a day +/- some inches. Your right though that the big challenge will be Montlake.

    I know when the Beacon Hill Tunnel boring started, it was only 3-5 feet per day then slowly ramped up.

  14. “…a train sitting at a stoplight tells the people riding it that the train is slow. A train whizzing by cars stuck at a stoplight tells them it’s faster than driving.”

    Yes, EXACTLY.

  15. Kind of off-topic, but I wouldn’t celebrate BART too highly. The rights-of-way were largely built in highway medians and the resulting system is very suburban. Only the Oakland/Berkeley/SF section really has frequent service and an urban feel.

    The Washington Metro, built for about the same cost in about the same era carries about 3 times as many riders as BART does.

    Not to say that BART’s an utter failure — it’s better than a lot of systems out there — but personally, I’d be happier if they had more lines, even if those lines were lower capacity.

  16. I’ve never taken bart north of Berkeley or South of Oakland. Oakland is a city about like Seattle, and Berkeley is an old suburb. The rest of where Bart goes in the Eastbay are far-flung areas, Fremont, Lafayette, Vallejo. At that point it’s almost like Sounder service.

    The southern section, to the airport, is pretty good though.

    DC, on the other hand, is surrounded by old surburbs, so the system works better there.

    BART’s not awesome it’s a compromise, but it works and is a necesarry part of the transportation in the bay area.

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