Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced this morning that a light rail ballot measure will come next year, in November, 2011.  Publicola reports:

At the press conference this morning where he answered questions about the seawall proposal he sent to the City Council this morning, Mayor Mike McGinn also revealed that he has no intention of trying to put light rail expansion on this November’s ballot.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that we will propose light rail expansion this year,” McGinn said. “I think we will move forward in 2011″ instead.

His announcement comes just over a month after the Mayor polled the possibility of putting a light rail on the ballot this November. While it’d be exciting to have a ballot measure this year, we’ve editorialized that any proposal should be planned carefully — which would’ve been hard to do in just a few months.

McGinn ran on the promise of delivering a light rail ballot measure within two years of his election. Past comments have suggested he would pursue a plan to deliver rail to the west side of the city.

61 Replies to “Light Rail Measure Planned for 2011”

  1. Good. While I want a modern transit system YESTERDAY, making sure it is world class requires at least a LITTLE bit of planning… ;)

    Also, he keeps saying ‘Light Rail.’ My understanding from reading posts here is that for the time, money, and places he is talking about a beefed up Streetcar would be much more practical than a LINK Light Rail system. Is this correct?

    How could these extensions be built for today (with the money we’re talking about) but with the ability to upgrade in the future as demand/density/money allows?

    1. The Sound Transit long-term map contemplates a line through West Seattle to Fauntleroy, then to White Center, on down to Burien, then to the airport.

      I don’t know if this is necessarily a light rail line, but I think the ridership is there to make it one. It’s way too long of a line to just do a streetcar.

      1. The Sound Transit plan would almost absolutely not go to Fauntleroy. It’s a big thick line on a little map, don’t consider it to be too accurate. :)

      2. Yeah, even if you could get down to Fauntleroy (highly doubtful), your line would have to end there, for there would be absolutely no way to get out. The closest you could come would be California and Fauntleroy Way, which should be more than adequate, just a short bus ride from the ferry. Anyway, the main beneficiaries of this would be people from Vashon and Southworth, who aren’t even in the Sound Transit district, and who get more than their fair share of transit subsidies through the WSF and King County Ferry District.

      3. You raise good points. In that light, it does make sense to me that the Fauntleroy-ish rapid ride line be paid for by the county, so Vashon can help pay for it.

        Indeed, maybe we should be having the ferry district pay for that rapid ride line.

        If Vashon can get more frequent direct rides downtown, it would be cool if the foot ferry could take over more of the runs and go directly between Fauntleroy and Vashon, enabling WSF to redeploy one of the car ferries.

        Has there been any talk of the rapid ride line and a light rail line serving different routes through West Seattle?

      4. And if West Seattle light rail ends up replacing the Fauntleroy rapid ride line, can the ferry district pay for the shuttle line that gets people to the nearest rail station?

        Either way, having the faster foot ferry do most of the runs to Vashon would be way cool.

      5. What Fauntleroy rapid ride line? Rapidride doesn’t go to Fauntleroy.

      6. “The Sound Transit long-term map contemplates a line through West Seattle to Fauntleroy, then to White Center, on down to Burien, then to the airport.”

        … merging into the Burien-Renton line that will likely be in ST3. Then from Renton it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Bellevue, Kirkland, Bothell, and Lynnwood, giving the Eastside a north-south alternative. I expect that will be built in the mid 2020s.

      7. Mike,

        You do not understand how badly the Repugnants are going to screw public transportation when they get back in and how poor the country is going to be in a decade. There will BE NO MONEY.

        Especially for the Soviet of Washington.

      8. That may be true, but you don’t get anywhere if you don’t plan. You have to have shovel-ready projects ready for when opportunity knocks. One of the reasons for building maximum rail now is so we won’t be screwed when/if gas gets so expensive people can’t afford to put it in their cars and Metro can’t afford to run buses. Europe invested in transit when it could, and that made the current downturn there less painful.

        I think the westside and Burien-Renton lines are pretty likely because there’s high demand for them. A north-south Eastside line, maybe not, people are richer and more car-happy over there, and some would find the north-south Seattle line good enough for Bellevue-SeaTac and Bellevue-Lynnwood (but not Bellevue-Renton or Bellevue-Bothell). But if the desirable addresses do move toward the rail stations in the coming years, and if driving every day becomes impractical, the Eastside may wish it had built that north-south line.

    2. I think it is best to call it something between a streetcar and light rail. Although it certainly won’t be more streetcar than light rail it also certainly won’t be on the same level as Link, which in many ways isn’t really light rail either. This probably sounds a bit european but I would say that it will probably be something like modern european trams. They often have their own ROW but are mostly at grade.

  2. Great news. Couple-few thoughts:

    1) Assuming the economy has rebounded, voters should be more willing to write a check in 2011 anyway. It would probably pass this fall regardless, but it is good to have a commanding win on these types of initiatives. This likely gives us a better proposal in a better political environment.
    2) I think Anc raises a great point. We might not need full light rail to West Seattle/Ballard at the moment, but that won’t necessarily be the case forever.
    3) While delaying the light-rail/streetcar initiative makes sense, it would be nice to see at least some funding on the ballot this fall for implementing portions of the pedestrian and bicycle master plans.

  3. In the original build up to the street car plan, there was a line which connected to West Seattle. It was actually referred to as the Green Line. I remember seeing Ethan Malone discussing this line with the council on the Seattle Channel. In fact, he said something along the lines of “I don’t know where we got this name” and smiled. However, as we know, that line was not included in the plan.

    Why, I don’t know, but if it was for some defined reason, be it engineering or otherwise, I hope it does not come back in ballot form.

    1. It was not included in the plan because rail cannot safely make unprotected lane changes, as it would have to in order to get to the center lanes of the bridge, while an elevated structure attached to the bridge would be $100m/mile, too expensive for a streetcar. Meanwhile, they found that running it over the lower-level bridge would require making some turns that are smaller than the minimum turning radius for a streetcar. We are going to get rail to West Seattle, and it is going to be real light rail. I don’t remember it ever being referred to as the Green Line.
      This all comes from one of the appendices to the Streetcar Network Report: Streetcars along Interbay to Ballard, from Uptown to Capitol Hill, and from Mount Baker Station to the International District via Rainier were also considered, but were rejected because of high cost and operational problems, steep grades, and redundancy with Link, respectively. Out of all of these considered but rejected, the Rainier one is the only one that wasn’t rejected for technical reasons, so it will probably be built sometime. Maybe it could run continuing up to First Hill and Capitol Hill instead of the International District, like the 9.

    1. Well he certainly doesn’t seem for it at the moment, but I don’t see anything there saying he is against it (from his quotes, not Dominic’s), just that construction needs to be in line with his proposed rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

      1. I read it the same way, Anc. But then again he’s cited multiple reasons for holding off on the Central Line (first it was Metro’s financial crisis, now we need to wait to discuss its potential place in the larger network) without once saying anything positive about it. To me, that is telling.

        It’s also telling that as a self-described “neighborhoods” candidate/mayor, he always refers to it as a “downtown” line—as if SLU, Lower Queen Anne, Uptown, Belltown, Pioneer Square, the ID, Little Saigon, and the Central District aren’t neighborhoods. Seems to me he’s distancing himself from he what he considers (or at least wants to label) a Nickels/downtown developers project.

    2. He says that we should consider a whole network, but a streetcar that serves very dense Greater Downtown neighborhoods certainly could be part of that network… It’s not like it needs any more studying, though, as it was thoroughly studied for the Network Report.

    3. He has asked to hold off on just a First Ave Streetcar. After all, we may end up with a light rail line going up and down 1st or 2nd Ave or 3rd Ave, on its way between West Seattle and Ballard.

      Having a light rail line end at SODO Station, and forcing people to transfer there, will not fly. We can argue that it makes sense timewise until we turn blue in the face, but people will still insist on a one-seat ride. So, I agree on holding off on a north-south downtown streetcar until we can see if it ends up being a piece of a longer line.


        I’m all for a one-seat ride whenever possible. West Seattle deserves efficient transit as much as any area and I would be in no hurry to introduce new transfers into anyone’s commute.

        But in general, I wonder if the quest for the one-seat ride is approaching the levels of self-defeating orthodoxy in this region. One of the requirements of using transit technology such as light rail is that the system has to be planned as a sequence of “lines”. The lines can cross; the lines can share segments, but in what is a basically two-dimensional surface of the world (north-south and east-west), assuming you don’t snake around endlessly, sooner or later you are going to have to transfer to get to a lot of destinations.

        A well-designed system will keep those transfers to a minimum, and avoid them for the high-volume trips, whenever possible, like trips to the center of the city. But most transit systems in cities around the world require transfers for a great many origin-destination pairs. The Paris Metro has 300 stations for its 13 lines, and 62 of them are transfer stations where multiple lines come together. The Parisians seem pretty happy with this system.

        As others have pointed out on this blog, the quality of any transfer experience makes a big difference. A comfortable cross-platform transfer between very frequent and reliable rail service is a world away from, say, getting off a westbound 520 bus at Montlake and trying to catch a southbound 43 or 48… climbing up a ramp and crossing three traffic signals in the process.

    4. I think that you have to read it a different way. He doesn’t think that rail transit like SLU is the best use of transit money, he does think that rail trains more like Link is a good use of transit money. That might just sound like semantics but this is my reading of his views.

  4. Let’s see. Last year’s election was November 2. The 2011 election is November 8. That’s more than two years.

    See! Another promise broken! Or else he can’t do math! (Just kidding. If you don’t read the newspaper blogs and the kindergartenish stuff that gets posted there, ignore this post.)

  5. The ST long term plan would suggest building portions of this route:
    West Seattle – Downtown – Ballard – UW – Redmond (via 520, interline with East Link in Bel-Red)

    West Seattle to Downtown has the Duwamish crossing. Getting through Downtown requires some additional ROW, either a tunnel, or an alignment on the post-Viaduct waterfront, which is probably a lot easier and cheaper to build but not the best catchment area. Downtown to Ballard has a Ship Canal crossing. Ballard to UW probably requires fairly long bored tunnel sections, at least between Fremont and the UW, unless you did it on the cheap and ran it along the canal, which would bypass most of the areas where the ridership would come from. The easiest section of this route may actually be UW to Redmond via 520 since 520 is being rebuilt anyway. That, too, has a Ship Canal crossing in addition to the lake crossing. We sure do have a lot of water around here!

    Here are a few smaller scale ideas contained within the city that have been discussed:

    First Hill Streetcar extension to Broadway/Aloha (cheap)
    Streetcar extension to 23rd/Jackson (cheap)
    SLU Streetcar extension to Fremont, Ballard (medium)
    SLU Streetcar extension to Eastlake, UW (medium)

    I doubt the grand vision is achievable in one go in a form that would be both effective as a transportation system and widely supported. And, of course, there’s no shortage of non-light-rail transportation projects worth funding, including ped/bike improvements, South Park Bridge (outside city limits), etc.

    It’s interesting to speculate on alignments, but there will also need to be exploration of funding sources and the mechanics of a city contribution to a regional system. Obviously Federal contributions would be great, but there’s a lot of competition for those funds, including locally. In any case, with a target date of 11/2011 for a vote, there’s some time to discuss all this.

    1. Jonathan, the prospect of using 520 for light rail is abysmal. It’s far more likely that we’ll want to serve Children’s.

      1. Do you mean the prospect of using 520 for light rail when it opens or in the long run? Because while the prospect of using 520 bridge for light rail when it opens is abysmal, the chances of using it for light rail in the future are almost 100%. In a few decades we’ll have way fewer cars and we’ll need to be moving from our diesel buses to electric transit, so we’ll need light rail over 520.

      2. You mean we’ll need light rail across the lake. It may make a lot more sense to go from Sand Point to Kirkland.

      3. Why the hell would we build an entire new bridge? That would be billions of dollars whereas 520 could be retrofitted pretty soon.

      4. You’ll never get permission to build yet another bridge across Lake Washington. The next glaciation period will come and you’ll be able to walk across the ice if you are still alive.

        Why? These bridges are still an environmental hazard. The neighborhoods on both sides will fight tooth and nail. Everyone will wonder why we built a light rail ready bridge on 520 if not to use it. etc. etc.

      5. Plus, 520 is the best location to serve the UW/Downtown-Kirkland, UW-Redmond, and UW-Bellevue routes. A routing that went up from Sand Point to Kirkland would add a lot of time to the UW-Bellevue and UW-Redmond routes. The UW-Bellevue route, at least, is very popular.

      6. Who said it had to be a bridge? Sand Point – Kirkland submerged tube!

        Then continuing along NE 85th to Redmond, following the old 540 Redmond-Kirkland-UW route.

      7. alexjonlin – the cost of getting from UW to 520, and retrofitting 520, versus the cost of building a new bridge would likely be similar.

        We aren’t really building a light rail ready bridge…

        Gary, a transit bridge? Lots of places have gotten bridge permission. NOAA isn’t using it anymore, nor is the Navy.

        alexjonlin again, 520 is a poor place to serve UW-Kirkland-Redmond. Look at a map – 520 is south of everything. UW-Bellevue isn’t where we’d build anyway.

      8. Getting from UW to 520 isn’t much of an issue, it would require a new tunnel or bridge but that plus the retrofit of 520 probably wouldn’t be more than, say, $400m (at most) while a new bridge would certainly be well into the billions. I guess we don’t have the same concept of the point of Link on 520; I always thought the highest ridership routes that would go on it would be UW-Bellevue and maybe on to Issaquah, which is already high ridership, and UW-Kirkland, which would get people transferring from Central Link. UW-Redmond seems like it would get much less ridership, but still could be included, at lower headways than the others.

      9. I have to agree with alexjonlin that adding the additional pontoons and trackbed to 520 is likely going to be cheaper and easier than building a new bridge from Sand Point to Kirkland.

        I see a 520 line largely following more or less the route of the 271 out to Issaquah: UW, S. Kirkland, Hospital, Bellevue TC, Main, S. Bellevue P&R, Factoria, Eastgate, Issaquah. This provides with East Link a nice X crossing the Eastern suburbs. The West end of the 520 line could tie in with the Ballard/UW line many have mentioned.

        Ultimately a N/S line along 405 tying into the Renton/Burien line could be built with stops at Totem Lake, Downtown Kirkland, S Kirkland P&R, Hospital, Bellevue TC, Main, S Bellevue P&R, Kennydale, N. Renton (continues on at the Renton/Burien line).

        Though with three possible lines running through Downtown Bellevue it might be wise to build a tunnel now rather than later.

    2. Slight correction to the above: West Seattle is not actually in the ST long range plan (520, in contrast, is in the amended 2005 plan.) West Seattle been a City of Seattle priority in various ways, but it has yet to be made a ST priority as an HCT corridor.

      Frankly, I am not sure how best to serve West Seattle, given its layout, the Duwamish crossing, and the challenge of getting anyone to the north end of downtown without a transfer. I’m certainly open to new ideas on how to do that.

      1. The original ST long range plan did contain West Seattle and Ballard. The monorail project pushed back at ST, saying they wanted to do that work and wanted ST to stay out of it. As a result, ST pulled it from long range planning.

        Now that ST2 has passed, the 2005 long range plan is out of date – West Seattle and Ballard are in ST planning again.

      2. I think they should update the long-range plan sometime soon. It doesn’t seem long-range enough. Most of the projects on there could be complete by ST3. I think it would be good to have a long-range plan that really looks far into the future.

      3. Jonathan,

        The best way to serve West Seattle is the way it’s being served now: with express buses on the high bridge. Until and unless you turn lovely West Seattle into Capitol Hill there will not be sufficient density to support anything more than street cars, and the run into downtown through the industrial district is too long for the top speeds of which they’re capable, typically 35 to 40 mph. Besides, “modern streetcars” like the SLUT and Portland Streetcar really don’t carry that many people and are only rarely MU’d, so the agency doesn’t get large labor savings.

        They load and unload quickly which is a big plus, but they have very few seats; I doubt that people are going to want to stand between downtown and West Seattle every day.

        The crossing of the Duwamish is just too expensive for the volumes of riders. Unfortunately, the same can — and should — be said for Ballard, too.

        It makes more sense to remove parking and make bus lanes along Avalon, First Avenue South and both ways on the high bridge for articulated ETB’s. They have the “transit goes here” physical presence of the overhead, are quiet and fuel-cost-increase resistant, don’t need a new bridge or tunnel across the Duwamish, and are cheaper and lighter and hence use less energy.

        Such parking removal would have to be done for LRT, so why not buses? Politicians as a class need to “grow a pair” and take lanes from parking and general traffic at choke points throughout the city.

        It’s true that operating costs for ETB’s are higher per seat mile than those of LRT. But the capital costs dwarf the operations over even three or four decades.

        This fantasy some have advocated above of a West Seattle-Burien-Renton-Bellevue-Kirklandl loop line is frankly insane. The 560 only runs once an hour between West Seattle and Sea-Tac and every half hour from there to Bellevue, so they’re doesn’t appear to anywhere close to enough ridership to justify the huge capital cost.

        Get a grip on your fantasies people. The only reason transit works in relatively low-density Seattle is the physical barriers to getting to the CBD. There will never be adequate demand for rail service anywhere other than radial lines to downtown that include a relatively long express portion approaching it and possibly streetcar level service between the U-district and Ballard. Punto.

        If the Puget Sound region continues to prosper — a big “if” given the economic and social future the US faces — there may be excellent opportunities to “elaborate” the Link “T” structure beyond the mid-points of the trunk lines. There is fantastic opportunity for transit oriented development in the Aurora/Linden corridor between Northgate and Aurora Village where all those CRAPPY single level auto-oriented junk buildings between Aurora and Linden from the 1960’s could be replaced with mid-rise multi-use residential and Linden turned into an at-grade Link branch.

        A well-designed branch to Issaquah that ST was willing to invest enough in to bridge the freeway twice in order to serve both Factoria and BCC directly and the ripe-for-TOD old industrial area just west of the Eastgate TC would be another great addition.

        Those are about it, though. Here are the other candidates that people are going to propose and why to say “No”.

        Bellevue to Bothell via Kirkland? Why not: it’s pretty well built up through Kirkland but much less dense than even West Seattle and Ballard which can’t support anything more than streetcars. It might make sense to run a Sprinter along the BNSF as far as Woodinville, but no one should fool him or herself that it would be competitive with the express buses on 405.

        A branch from MLK to Auburn via Renton and Kent? The three cities are not very dense and the areas between them are already completely taken by extremely low-density industrial/warehouse development. It’s Sounder or buses.

        CBD-Ballard-Northgate? It would be ruinously expensive to make the jump between 85th and 15th NW and the southwest corner of Evergreen-Washelli. There is no surface right of way because lanes can’t be taken from Holman, and there isn’t now and is likely never to be sufficient ridership to support an underground line. Nobody is going to agree to an elevated structure along Holman.

        Northgate to Bothell and Woodinville? Basically the same problem. It might be possible to tunnel the short stretch from just north of Roosevelt station to NE 17th and Lake City Way and build surface alongside LCW to 125th, but where are you going after that? The only option would be elevated and there isn’t much room along LCW. The grid through which the big street pushes has far too narrow streets for an elevated structure. It would be tunneling from 125th to past Lake Forest Park. It would be quite expensive for not that many riders. Worse, it would explode development east of Woodinville which today is limited by the hideous commute along Lake City Way.

  6. This may be a dumb question, but what exactly is the difference between light rail and street car (I always assumed they were interchangeable)? (no, I’m not a transit hater: I love riding buses & trains, but just trying to understand the difference)

    1. Not a dumb question because there’s no clear distinction. In general and with many exceptions, light rail has higher capacity vehicles, makes fewer stops, and is more likely to run in grade-separated and dedicated right-of-way. Light rail is therefore usually faster and can serve longer transportation corridors. Streetcars are often used as business district or entertainment district circulators, to move people within downtowns or between adjacent neighborhoods.

      1. Sorry, that should have ended “…adjacent or relatively close neighborhoods.” Again, with exceptions.

      2. Am I correct in my understanding that Portland’s Max is somewhere in or between eityer Heavy Streetcar and Light Light Rail?

      3. Max is pretty normal lightrail. SF Muni is more of Light-light-rail outside of the 12 or so subway stations. Link is Heavy Light Mail

      4. Max is typical light rail, running on surface streets except where a dedicated ROW happens to be conveniently available (usually an abandoned RR line or adjacent freeway). Underground/elevated sections are minimized to keep costs low. Max-like systems are in San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles (Blue line), San Diego, Dallas, St Louis, and Jersey City.

        Link is sometimes called “light metro” because it uses light rail cars but the routing is more like a subway: extensive underground/elevated sections, and stations 1+ miles apart. This gives it greater speed and thus, greater potential to entice people out of their cars. But it’s also more expensive to build. Seattle is the first light metro system in the country, so it remains to be seen whether it will be a model for others. (The MLK section also seems to be larger and and have fewer intersections than the other systems mentioned above, but that may be just my estimation.)

        Tacoma Link looks and smells like a streetcar. One hopes it will be renamed Tacoma Streetcar someday to avoid confusion.

      5. There are other light metro-like systems in the country. Much of the Muni is underground, making it a partial light metro and partial streetcar, while Dallas, Pittsburg, and St. Louis, among others, have light rail systems that are more grade- or at least traffic-separated and have longer stop spacing. However, I think Link is the most metro-like of all, considering that the vast majority of planned expansion is grade-separated.

      6. Light Rail has the option of surface running with grade crossings and even street running if needed. While all light rail systems have their individual quirks, a light rail system can often perform all the things that a heavy rail system can, albeit with less passenger capacity per car (you can add more cars tho’) but can also do things like street running like a streetcar. Light rail never runs on third-rail (although again, one exception I can think of is the Norristown High Speed Line:

        …which is rather light-rail-ish.

    2. There are some systems in which not just the terms, but the whole concept of light rail vs. streetcar, are totally interchangeable and integrated. A great example is Karlsruhe, Germany, where regional trains run on their own right of way in the outskirts of town, with long-distance a freight trains far outside town, and right on the street with cars and pedestrians in the urban core. It rules!

      1. Sounds like a cool system. What’s the unique problem in Karlsruhe that makes this kind of solution appropriate there but not more widely applicable elsewhere?

      2. Because in Karlsruhe the main train station is not in the city center, so train commuters had to transfer to local service at the train station to make a short trip in to town. To eliminate the transfer they decided to develop a system of trams that could run in the street to the city center and then fan out into the suburbs via the regional rail lines.

    3. Light rail really began in Germany during the 60’s as kind of a step between streetcars and full-on subway systems. Many streetcar lines were over burdened and stuck in traffic, but replacing them with a full subway system wasn’t affordable, or necessary, in all but the largest cities. Cities instead built lines using upgraded streetcar vehicles that ran in dedicated corridors through the city center, usually in tunnels, to avoid city-center congestion, but then ran in the street in the lower density suburban areas. These lines were usually called Stadtbahn lines. The idea first spread to France and Belgium where it was called “premetro” and then to the US where the term “light rail” was coined.

      Frankfurt is a good example of a prototypical “Stadtbahn” or light rail system.

    4. The SLUT, is it a streetcar or light rail? Although it is called a streetcar, the trains look a bit like Link.

      1. It’s a streetcar, same as Tacoma Link.

        Central Link is LR, or potentially light metro.

  7. I think that a November 2011 vote for Light Rail for West Seattle will be great – less immediate overload and this will give time for certain things to settle by then. Surely by this point, the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel will be underway and so too the 520 brdige replacement projects – both huge projects that need to be underway before we can ramp up on the next big thing.

    If Light Rail can be incorporated into the design of the 520 wirhout losing the overall construction timeframe, I am all for it, but I do not think this will happen, so until someone can convince me otherwise, I think we should proceed as decided with the planned HOV lanes on the bridge deck.

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