ZOOM!, by Mike Bjork
ZOOM!, by Mike Bjork

Frankly, I wasn’t around actively advocating for Sound Transit’s Central Link when it was being conceived, but one common criticism that I’ve heard rail opponents iterate time and time again is that the Central Link alignment was some sort of a political ploy or gimmick. “Why Tukwila of all places? People don’t go to the airport on a daily basis. Why not the suburbs first?”  First of all, it’s rather ironic that the same people wanting to block light rail to the Eastside (and anywhere else in general) are tied with those who criticize the Central Link alignment and throw their hands up in the air asking why the suburbs were not Link’s first destination.  It’s a fair indication that these people are just against rail transit in general under the pretense of a number of other excuses up their sleeves.

More below the jump.

Jim Miller of the conservative blog Sound Politics, makes the implication that transit proponents support Central Link because it was built to make Seattle feel like a “real city.”  Rather, we know it was built as a buffer to initiate the expansion of a much larger high-capacity transit system in the Puget Sound area.  However, the arguments get a bit asinine when people start calling the line Mayor Nickels’ “pet project” and some kind of a political ploy.  While it’s true that Nickels has long been an ally of transit even before he was Mayor, the  attacks calling Link “toy trains” get crass when you consider the fact that the mayor lives in West Seattle.  A look at the original routing negates the credibility in those arguments.

To the naysayers, a Westlake-Tukwila run does raise eyebrows.  It’s reasonable to assume that until it is apparent how out of context the initial segment has often been perceived.  When Sound Move was passed in 1996, voters were promised a line from the University District (UW) to the SeaTac Airport area via Downtown.  Considering the relatively north-south longitudinal urbanization of the Seattle metropolitan area, these destinations were reasonably picked and for all purposes, should be linked.  All three still exert tremendous economic influence in the region today: UW being one of the largest employers in the state as well as the Northwest’s largest university, Downtown being the largest city center in the Pacific Northwest, and SeaTac Airport being the region’s primary commercial aviation hub.

After Sound Transit’s dark era in the early 2000s and a near dismantling of Link, the line was effectively shortened to help mitigate cost overruns and the general volatility that had plagued the project.  Central Link was cut from both termini and the new line ran from north in Downtown to south in Tukwila.  A permanent shuttle service would run to and from the airport.  It wasn’t until later that funding and grants were secured for Airport and University Links.

So was the Central Link initial segment a real gimmick?  Not if the University of Washington and SeaTac Airport were chosen as the initial termini of the original line.  Rail opponents often take things out of context, but it is clear from a simple glance at the original Sound Move plan that there is a real reason why the alignment follows its route today.  Considering how troubled Link was in its infancy, it’s surprising to hear people suggest Link should have gone to Bellevue first.  We’re lucky it wasn’t planned that way.  Seattle might just still have a bus-only transit system.

31 Replies to “Editorial: Reasons why Central Link wasn’t a political ploy”

  1. It was always planned to go via the Duwamish past Boeing Field and on to Federal Way.

    But then Martha Cho stepped in…

    Face it, the routing is a gentrification program presented as Economic Justice. But it goes to the Airport, so what me worry?

    1. If we didn’t want to improve the city, we’d have just added buses. It makes more sense to run a rail system in a depressed area. Just ignoring the economic impact a rail line has wouldn’t have been a good decision.

      1. Adding buses does improve the city but it also carries with it higher operational costs. Adding further buses bogs you down over time with higher operational costs per passenger. With light rail, most of your costs are initial capital investments in the form of track, overhead, and maintenance yards, and trains. Adding more passengers to an existing light rail line is relatively cheap. These incremental passenger costs are where the real debate needs to be focused. The real question will be whether, over the long term, people will be willing to give up their one-seat bus ride for more comprehensive 2 seat service using bus feeder lines linked to a spine of light rail.

        Early signs are good – I’m watching bus/light rail transfers grow every week down at Mt. Baker TC, but there is still a LONG way to go.

      2. Adding buses does improve the city but it also carries with it higher operational costs.

        The analyses that I’ve seen have bus vs. rail costs when all things are considered (including the substantially higher capital costs of rail) at comparable.

        I like rail – but see a trend and an attitude among the more fervent rail advocates to focus on rail at the expense of other forms of transit – starve buses to force people on to rail. Many here on this blog have voiced that very sentiment, along with things like “we need to spend more to get wealthy white people out of their cars, too”, etc. Add in Ben’s comment which demonstrates a blatant bias stating that adding buses does not improve the city. Tell that to the folks who rely on buses to get where they’re going.

        I also have a general objection to the utopian “urban planning” viewpoint – openly advocated here – that the best way to go is to create trasnportation infrastructure and force business and population to build itself around the transport. My own bias and background favors transportation options that meet the needs of the community rather than a strategy that forces the community to meet the needs of transportation.
        That’s all old ground, no need to re-cover it here though.

      3. “The analyses that I’ve seen have bus vs. rail costs when all things are considered (including the substantially higher capital costs of rail) at comparable.”

        That’s a pretty broad statement, do you have any references for that?

      4. Zed,

        I believe Schiendelman provided some source material on that in a much earlier thread. I’ll see if I can get STB’s search box to cough it up again.

      5. Sorry, that would have been Bernie, not Ben. Busy watching the election returns now. Suffice it to say that substantial capital costs, debt service and not insubstantial ongoing maintenance and operational costs make rail comparable in cost to buses – of this I am convinced. The rest of the arguments (and in some ways more valid ones in some ways) come down to preference and esthetics.

    2. Whatever. Sorry to disrupt your revery, but Central Link was always meant as a seed route from which a system could develop. And the valley alignments were under discussion even before the NEPA process began, Cho’s involvement or not. The fact of economic justice (actually “social justice”) effects cuts both ways. Originally, the valley folks were more concerned those effects would be adverse ones. I know because it was my job to walk the route and count the property takes for that part of the analysis.

      1. You don’t build the “spine” of a large rail system through a neighborhood with 35mph speed limits. It instead becomes the choke hold on the rest of the system.

        The MLK alignment was always a political payoff for Ron Sims.

      2. The guy above says it was for Cho, you say it was for Sims. I think you’re both full it. You do build the seed of a system through neighborhoods where people who will actually ride the damn thing live and can walk to it. The speed limit issue is a red herring.

    3. God forbid anyone should actually be able to catch a train near where they live. The Duwamish route would have been ridiculous. You think people complain about low ridership now (unjustly, IMHO)? Imagine how few people would bother getting on a train through SODO to Boeing Field after 5pm. (Would be nice for the folks in Georgetown, though. It would practically be their own private train.) With the exception of Georgetown — which is not very dense in population — there aren’t really a lot of residential neighborhoods along that route.

      I suppose it would have come along with the park and rides that so many people have been complaining about not having with Link, though.

      (Speaking of which. I live a couple of blocks away from a station, and I am tired of hearing people say that we should have park and rides for the station. I imagine the people who say this would get all NIMBY if the city tried to put a huge parking lot next to their houses. So I wish people would stop suggesting that it’s a good idea to put an ugly parking lot next to mine, thank you very much. But I digress.)

    4. Why even respond to disingenuous prats who can’t fathom that real transit is intended to make Seattle actually BE a city.

      Even LA knows that relying on cars and buses equals eventual gridlock, both literally and economically. The fact that we’re even behind the city where “everybody drives” should embarrass all of us.

      And Erik, I agree that having the train drive through neighborhoods where no one lives would have kept the “gentrification” police off the city’s back, but I’d rather route it through actual neighborhoods, you know, where people live. Good on Martha Cho if she was behind that.

      1. Nevar said Martha Cho was wrong, but I did study the history of all the proposals, and was irked by the whole “Save Our Valley” crap that held up the start of construction.

        LA provides a priceless example of the old mentality with the Green line, which cold have gone to LAX, but instead was sent south to serve all the aerospace companies…

        …which closed or dramatically shrank as the line was opening. Moving people to factories is not necessarily good transportation planning policy.

    5. So instead of going through a sparsely populated, low-density industrial area, it went through a dense, low-income, transit dependent neighborhood. This route was chosen because it’s the highest possible ridership route you could have between downtown and the airport.

  2. To whoever maintains this blog, i am a transit advocate, and geek that lives in the birthplace of modern Light-Rail Transit. I have ridden Central Link, and would like to share my thoughts on it. If there is a place for me on this blog for a post.

    1. All I really wanted to say was that “Central Link is the way it is because it was originally routed from UW to SeaTac…and it eventually will be.” That’s pretty much your condensed short.

  3. The other point to remember is that the initial line was always supposed to be U-District (and maybe Northgate) to S. 200th. When cost overruns threw the entire line in doubt, the southern segment was seen as a less-costly and less technically complex line that ST was confident it would complete. As a standalone line it might not make a lot of sense, but as a central component of a N/S line it makes a lot of sense.

    The question then turns to, why RV and not along I-5 or East Marginal Way. Simply put, there’s no riders on either of the other options. I-5 has NOTHING next to it between the airport and downtown, and anything near Boeing Field would travel through a decaying industrial area with few jobs and even fewer transit riders. West Seattle could have worked, but RV had higher existing ridership and more potential for redevelopment. Considering all of these factors, I think it made sense for the southern corridor.

    However fast forward 25 years when Link goes to Federal Way and Tacoma. I think at this point the MLK segment will be maturing in terms of redevelopment opportunities and the ride from the Airport and points south would be unnecessarily lengthy. At this point, I’ve always thought it would make sense to add a set of tracks in the I-5 median or Airport Way to “bypass” RV for riders from the Airport, Kent, and Federal Way. This could be marketed as a separate line, splitting at the operations facility, stopping once in Georgetown, then meeting back-up near the 599 junction. I would think that such a line would be rather cheap to construct considering that it would be entirely at-grade or within an existing ROW. It could even be a single-track and run during rush hours only in the peak direction.

    1. I suspect that the ‘bypass’ really would have to be a separate line. The ‘express line’ to the Link’s ‘local line’. Sounder *should* be the ‘express line’ but it takes a roundabout routing on already-congested tracks…. so once the high demand is really there, a Downtown-Airport-Tacoma Direct rail track would make a lot of sense. I think it will take a while for that demand to be there.

    2. I think way out in the future they should replace the RV segment with tunnel. That would shave at least a few minutes off travel time. Besides, SODO to Boeing Access Road along 4th/E Marginal Way is only about a mile and a half shorter than Central Link’s route, so it would only be a couple minutes less than Central Link. I do think, though, that in the future there should be a route along there with a few stops in SODO, Georgetown, and next to Boeing Field (Boeing Plant and Museum of Flight maybe) but I think that should be extended out to Renton.

  4. RV = Rainier Valley

    or then again, maybe it’s the RV’s full of pink-curler, flip-flop wearing shoppers parked outside of Bellevue Square!


  5. Doesn’t foster TOD.
    Doesn’t have the short headways like the train.
    Doesn’t have a dedicated right of way.

  6. Thanks all… although now that the RV mystery is solved, I gotta go try and figure out TOD.

    You people are worse than the military! ;)

  7. Let me just say how happy I am with the initial Link routing. Yesterday I went from downtown to Renton via the Rainier Valley. In only 90 minutes on Link and Bus 106, I picked up library materials at both Beacon Hill and Columbia City, had some great Southern BBQ just off Rainier and Ferdinand, grabbed groceries at Othello Station, then rode to Rainier Beach to catch the 106 back home to Renton. How long would that have taken just 8 months ago? I’ve spent alot of time down there that I otherwise wouldn’t have…it’s now my destination of choice. I can’t wait until East and U-Link broaden the choices further.

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