This morning, we posted on a Seattle PI report that had city experts hinting that an expensive light rail expansion couldn’t be funded with city sources alone. Mayor McGinn responded today at a press brown bag event, saying that he plans to build an affordable line.

Publicola has the word:

“We are going to try to minimize the amount of expensive infrastructure” associated with rail construction, McGinn said, mostly by building rail on the surface on existing city streets. That, obviously, would mean taking out lanes of traffic—a move that caused major political problems for the now-defunct monorail, whose concrete pylons would have taken out traffic lanes in West Seattle, Ballard, and downtown.

McGinn said he isn’t worried about the political implications of removing traffic lanes. And he declined to commit to a specific light-rail route, saying, “We’re not starting with lines on a map.” He noted, however, that 15th Avenue NW—where the monorail was supposed to run—would be “an obvious corridor” to get to Ballard.

No follow-up today on the comments from McGinn spokesman Mark Matassa, who told the PI that the mayor “hasn’t gotten to the point of studying how [light rail] might happen, and whether it would go to a vote, or what the funding source would be.” It seems to us on the outside that the city should begin studying possible routes now if a vote is on the table for next year, as McGinn promised during his campaign. We’ve sent a message to mayor’s office to clarify.

76 Replies to “McGinn Says His Rail is Affordable”

  1. He doesn’t have a plan, yet he says his plan will be “affordable”. Then he starts cutting corners. I miss Greg.

    1. If Nickles were in power, we would be expecting light rail to come to Ballard at around 2035 or so. Mcginn will get it there sooner.

      1. If Greg Nickels were in power, we would not have the dysfunctional mess we currently have – City politics is all over the place thanks to McGinn’s style of handling things in general…

    1. To be fair neither has McGinn. Anyone can propose something. I’ll believe it when I can vote for it or at least see a realistic plan go before the council. Until then its just empty rhetoric.

      1. McGinn promised a Seattle-only vote on rail expansion. Nickels never did that. McGinn is actually working on it, so it seems not to have been an idle campaign promise.

      2. Nickels got us ST2 onto the ballot and passed. And he did it in not the best of circumstances. That is a direct accomplishment that we can all be thankful for.

        And Nickels didn’t start by dumbing down his proposal. McGinn needs to back-off and let the data actually determine how we go forward. Making decisions without data is a recipe for disaster.

    2. Except for Central Link? Lots of people were responsible for the first Sound Transit line, but Greg Nickels was pretty instrumental in seeing it through, from start to finish. It’s a heck of a legacy, and it mostly belongs to him. Politically, at least.

  2. Oh well then. No problem at all! McGinn should be laying the ground work for this now. This is an undertaking that will coordination amongst agencies and levels of government, the support of the city council, and numerous neighborhoods. Instead it seems he is more interested in brushing off concerns and acting as though being mayor comes with more authority than it does.

    This is what happens when you elect ideologues whose only experience is involvement with interest groups.

    1. I know many people within the city, and Mcginn isn’t talking too much about this right now because he has a budget hole to fill, a hole that Nickles barely accepted existed. Let’s wait to see his plan before jumping to conclusions. Besides, if we had Nickles of Mallahan no one would even be talking about light rail.

      1. The only reason McGinn is talking about light rail is that he doesn’t understand the problem. His big example is a new light rail line in Portland that was built on land purchased, graded, and set aside for light rail 20 years ago. From this McGinn deduces light rail can be “affordable”.

        What makes this expensive is a river crossing, a wasp-waisted downtown, and a ship-canal crossing. These crossings could be wrested by brute strength from the automobile, but if they are, be sure to have Leni Riefenstahl there to record it- it would for sure be a triumph of the will.

      2. “These crossings could be wrested by brute strength from the automobile, but if they are, be sure to have Leni Riefenstahl there to record it- it would for sure be a triumph of the will.”

        Sounds like he’s planning to do exactly that. I wish him luck. He may actually succeed, as the winds of change are on his side. Or he may not.

      3. I do appreciate a mayor like McGinn, regardless of his lack of a grasp of real politik in running a city bureaucracy, that is trying his hardest to expand rail all over the sound, particularly west seattle, the eastside and ballard where it is sorely needed.

    1. A lightrail line down the middle of the road IS a streetcar. I don’t think McGinn understands what a worldclass subway system looks like… it involves digging.

      1. How many cities of 600,000 have “world class” subway systems? I know we like to think we’re a highly urbanized city, but outside of a few areas Seattle is mostly single-family housing. By population density we don’t even come close to being in the top 100.

      2. If you insisit on grade separating all rail transit you won’t see another mile of light rail in Seattle beyond what is in ST2 before you are dead.

        Most light rail systems have substantial portions of their lines at-grade. This is also why they are quite a bit cheaper than Central Link or U-link. At $400 million per mile or even $150 million per mile it takes a heapload of cash to build anything.

      3. Uh, no. A light rail line down the middle of the road is a “streetcar with *reservation*” in the old terminology. The exclusive streetcar-only lane makes all the difference.

  3. I distinctly remember the counterargument to holding up the 520 bridge replacement: “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.” Now Mayor Mike has turned around and said he wants to cut corners on a Ballard light rail project, risking sticking us with an ineffective solution as the area grows.

    We have the streetcar to serve as a stopgap solution for our immediate future needs. A capital project like Link should be given the time, attention, and money it deserves.

      1. I was using Link as a generic term for light rail in the Puget Sound region. If the Mayor wants to build a supplementary light rail system independent of Link, he’s off his rocker.

      2. He is potentially off his rocker on this.

        And I’m not even sure he has the authority from the State to go forward with something like this. Remember, even the Seattle only monorail required consent from the State Legislature before it was allowed to even go before the voters. McGinn seems not to understand the political environment he is operating in.

  4. I’m never a fan of light rail that runs on the streets. It doesn’t offer speedier travel which is what I care about most when it comes to public transit (well that and small headways). I still have hopes of actual speedy rail transit from West Seattle to downtown in this first vote. And since a speedy light rail line between downtown & Ballard seems unlikely to be affordable with next year’s vote, a more modest costing extension of the streetcar up to Fremont and then onto Ballard would be preferable. In the future when more money is hopefully available, a subway from downtown through Lower Queen Anne to Ppper Queen Anne (via Queen Anne Ave) to Fremont to Ballard would be ideal (15th Ave doesn’t effectively serve the core of the neighborhoods and misses the opportunity to have *one* line that connects Queen Anne, Fremont, and Ballard).

    1. That subway line would work better if it were from Downtown to lower queen anne,and then went onto 15th Ave to serve Interbay before Ballard.

      1. Except it misses out on Fremont. I’d like to see a subway line that connects Queen Anne, Fremont, & Ballard all together.

      2. Agreed. Build it to Central Link standards and go up 2nd to lower QA with a station near Seattle Center, then up 15th to Ballard.

        If the city wants to build a SC network on E-W routes or other routes of interest to tie the city into Central Link and the evental Westside LR line, then that is a perfect thing for McGinn to propose. But building dumbed down SC-like LR on the prime N-S commuter route is nothing less then idiotic.

    2. It depends on how it is built. There’s a big difference between actually running trains in the street and running trains in a dedicated right of way along the street. A light rail line built in the center of Elliot and 15th NW in a dedicated ROW, like Link is on MLK, would be very fast between downtown and Ballard. There are hardly any cross streets in that corridor, and the important ones, like Dravus and Garfield, are already grade-separated. Traffic along there already flows at 40-50 mph, I’d imagine trains would too.

    3. “I’m never a fan of light rail that runs on the streets. It doesn’t offer speedier travel which is what I care about most when it comes to public transit (well that and small headways).”

      A light rail line with exclusive lanes and signal pre-emption, as on MLK, can in fact offer speedier travel than a bus in shared lanes on the same road.

      (Yes, a bus in exclusive lanes with signal pre-emption can offer nearly the same speed — rail accelerates slightly faster but not much. However, rail can also offer higher capacity, and it attracts more riders.)

  5. My preference would be for the city to loan Sound Transit the funds to expedite North Link to the city limits. Was the plan to have three deep-bore tunneling machines build the tunnels from Westlake to Husky Stadium, and then continue using the same machines to bore north to Northgate? Or would new machines be brought in along the way? If the latter is the case, why not just get them now at recession prices, and bore in both directions, leveraging a city loan to Sound Transit to take advantage of the cheaper contracting costs. A few months of tunneling should give us ample evidence that the machines work, and that it is worth it to buy more.

    I want the spine first, before worrying about the lower-capacity spurs.

    Getting the spine built out to Northgate will dramatically reduce operating costs for Community Transit and Metro.

    1. Unfortunately the tunnel bore machines are purchased by the contractor building the respective segment. This means it isn’t just a matter of saving now for later. Of course, that would make too much sense.

      1. I’ve noticed that tunnel boring machines have a startling tendency to *not* get reused (half of the ones for the Chunnel were rammed into the rock and thrown away). I wonder if the city could buy one or two from the contractor for cheap after they’ve finished the existing bores, and use them to save huge amounts of money on future bores. (“City of Seattle Tunnel Boring Machine”. Standardized Link size….)

      2. If boring machine reuse is not in the cards, then why doesn’t Sound Transit go ahead and let the contract on the portion of the tunnel north from Husky Stadium, and have the whole tunnel ready to open in 2017 or so?

  6. I hope the funding package is big enough to pay for some infill stations, like one or two of those we discussed in an older STB thread. I know the intent of McGinn’s plan is to bring mass transit to new parts of the city, but it’s really cost effective per new passenger to add a few stations to the lines we’ve already built. We could spend a little and get a lot more.

    The broad street Sounder station, despite its merits, serves the suburbs and shouldn’t be paid for by Seattle. But the proposed MLK infill stations on Central Link, and maybe even the Ballard sounder station, would be cost effective ways to add passengers to stuff we’ve already built. They don’t need to be fancy – based on prior at grade stations, they might cost only $10-20 million each.

    1. Haven’t we thrashed through this before? A Ballard Sounder Station is like Eastside Rail; a nice model railroad exercise but completely unworkable in terms of a public transportation project.

    2. Sounder from Ballard would be a terrible waste of money. I say this as a Ballard homeowner:
      – The bus connection (and future light rail connection) will be faster.
      – Sounder will drop at the south end of town, requiring a lengthy connection back to the heart of downtown. Or, if a Broad station were built, there would still be a lengthy connection time.
      – The station would be in a very low density no-mans land of Ballard with no room for parking or a significant bus transfer facility (not that these things make sense anyways). The station is not in a convenient walking area to dense residential neighborhoods or the heart of Ballard either.
      – The frequency would be too low to attract riders from buses, even considering the factors above.

      It looks nice as a dot on a map, but a Ballard commuter rail station makes no financial sense.

    3. How about that incredibly awesome, almost mind-blowingly cool idea for a Sounder station down at University St. proposed by the Discovery Institute Cascadia Center, connecting straight up to the heart of Downtown and straight to Link?

      1. haha, mind blowingly impossible too. Forgetting about Sounder, which wasn’t my point, do you think the McGinn ballot proposal will raise enough money to put an infill station on central link? Hopefully some voters don’t vote against the plan just because they live outside of the areas getting new service, but an infill station will help sell the idea as focused on city wide transit.

      2. I think putting in the Graham St. Station would be a great use of money. I don’t think there’s any other places where I would want a station though; Good station spacing is about a mile, and it’s about a mile between most of the stations, except for the current 1.75 mi gap that the Graham St. Station would fill.

      3. As a person that drives MLK everyday between my house in Mount Baker and I-5, a Graham Street station is a must. However, I would place it a bit north possibly between Graham and Orcas in order to get all the home, apartment and condo dwellers between those two streets. Isn’t there some contingency remaining from ST1? Why can’t they build a decent $10m station here?

  7. Isn’t a tunnel as opposed to a perfectly wide enough surface “way” also “expensive infrastructure”??

  8. No!!!! If he wants to do it on the cheap with it all in the middle of the street, then just don’t do it at all and wait until the economy gets better and we can build a fully grade-separated corridor from West Seattle to Ballard. Light rail in the middle of the street can hardly go faster than a bus, won’t be able to have more than two-car trains, will get into accidents frequently, and will damage the vision that Puget Sound residents have of Link.
    Please, please, please, just wait a couple more years until the economy gets better and we’re more into raising taxes, and make a line going underground from DT Ballard to the south side of the Ship Canal, elevated or at-grade without crossing streets down the 15th corridor, underground all the way from Uptown to the Stadiums, elevated through SODO, elevated next to the West Seattle Bridge and along Fauntleroy, and underground for the last couple blocks into the Junction.
    For those who say that it isn’t necessary to have high capacity on a line that’s not a major trunk line going to the suburbs, that’s totally incorrect, as Seattle itself will be getting very dense in the next couple decades, and more and more of these people will want to take transit. Other dense cities have subways that are entirely within the city, so it makes sense that we could have one that is also just serving dense city neighborhoods.

    1. I agree. I’d rather have a faster, better system a few years later than a cheaper, slower one now. Plan for the next 100 years, not the next 15.

      1. As much as I would like to see this plan implemented, I think it will be more than “a few years” before we find the political will to spend upwards of $1 billion just on the downtown tunnel portion of such a system.

        Call me crazy, but I think the ROW which would be freed up by removal of the Alaskan Way viaduct would be worth exploring as a light-rail corridor. I know it’s along the waterfront with a steep grade separating it from the downtown core, but I think that could be mitigated with escalators or some other kind of people mover to get pedestrians up the hill. And I think it would be better than running trains in downtown streets.

      2. It’s several blocks down a steep hill from the center of Downtown, a few blocks farther to a lot of the jobs and destinations that a line down 2nd or 3rd serves. It would be way too out of the way for a line that is supposed to serve Downtown.

      3. Matt L:
        “I know it’s along the waterfront with a steep grade separating it from the downtown core, but I think that could be mitigated with escalators or some other kind of people mover to get pedestrians up the hill.”

        If you change “waterfront” to “I-405,” doesn’t that almost precisely describe the C14E “Vision Line” concept that would be almost useless as the Link station for downtown Bellevue?

      4. The “Vision Line” would be almost useless because I-405 is an interstate highway and thus hardly a pedestrian-friendly area. The waterfront is not only a popular tourist destination and employment center in its own right, but it is also home to Colman Dock where thousands of pedestrians enter the city every day on the ferries.

        I really only meant to suggest some way to provide a better connection between such a line and the DSTT. It would be unfortunate to build two light-rail lines which did not have a convenient transfer point, though we would hardly be the first city to do so.

      5. Build a cheap, slow line now and we’ll regret it almost immediately. We’d be hamstrung for decades and would eventually be faced with a decision on whether or not to upgrade the line to the standards it should have been built to in the first place.

        This proposal is very short-sighted.

      6. I think the emphasis should be on replacing bus route 44 with light rail between ballard and UW. To be honest, bus service between downtown and Ballard is pretty good, but the 44 is a slow, traffic-clogged mess of a route, and it’s one of the busiest routes in the system. I have friends who walk to UW because the bus is slower, especially on game days.

        Fast, grade-separated light rail between ballard and UW would also finally provide a quick way to get between ballard and capitol hill, which currently takes, at the very least, 45 minutes by bus (or 15 min by car).

      7. Great in theory, squints, but as a former resident of N. 47th St. in Wallingford, I have to ask, just what above-ground corridor would you suggest building in? I can’t think of a single one.

        An E/W light rail line would almost certainly be built underground for the same reasons that University Link is being built underground. And at higher cost because stations would have to be much closer together to provide transfer connections with all the N/S bus routes.

      8. Yeah it would have to be underground. It would be costly and take a while to build, but get a ton of riders and greatly help mobility for everyone around there. In the meantime, I’ve heard discussion of having the 44 be the local for U District-Wallingford and Wallingford-Ballard trips, but then having another express U District-Ballard bus along 50th. That would make that trek a lot quicker.

      9. All right. How about building bus lanes then?

        *Truly* cheap — paint — and it would cause the buses to run on time.

    2. I agree entirely. A slow, lumbering streetcar is not a substitute for a fast and reliable connection to far-flung neighborhoods.

      I simply don’t see how a cheap streetcar could serve Ballard either way. A new canal crossing would have to be constructed, and it would have to be high enough (or underground) that it wouldn’t open for ships.

      And there’s still the big question of downtown. I don’t think there would be any political support for an at-grade line downtown. It would not only be slow and unreliable, but it would take out lanes from already congested streets. In addition it would not connect well with the existing tunnel, which I think is highly critical for system connectivity. Imagine going from Ballard to the Airport and getting off light rail at some street stop on 2nd or 4th Avenue, and then having to walk a couple blocks and re-enter the tunnel. That’s not good transit planning.

      We need to work towards a coherent and integrated system, not a hodgepodge of pet projects that don’t work together. Right now, it’s a bit of a nightmare with buses run by 4 agencies, light rail, sounder, a streetcar, and the monorail. All of these systems are great, but they are disjointed and disconnected. We have to do better.

    3. This is the core of the argument. What you put in the street is going to move about the same speed, or slower, than the rest of the traffic. Any street-running transit is a ‘slow boat to China’ and you’d be better off taking a fast bus. If riders are going to desert you for buses, there’s no reason to hang wire and lay rail.

      And while McGinn doodles us all with his vague imaginings, the Central Line, which would really be useful, goes unbuilt, and the Benson Streetcar is not restored. Not change you can believe in.

      1. “What you put in the street is going to move about the same speed, or slower, than the rest of the traffic.”

        Not if it has exclusive lanes. Can’t people tell the difference between MLK and the SLUT?

    4. “won’t be able to have more than two-car trains”

      Your blocks are only the length of two-car trains? Those are very frequent blocks.

      Well, shut every other street crossing the train line (dead-ending on both sides). Next question?

  9. Does anyone know if McGinn wants the City to build and own the WS-Ballard line (the SLU streetcar model), or would the City contract with and pay ST to build and own and operate the line? The latter course would make the most sense to me.

    1. Council sentiment in the past has been very much in favor of the SLUT model, due to ongoing frustration with Metro’s service allocation policies. Jan Drago (who is no longer on Council, but very much represented the thought process) was adamantly in favor of the City owning the infrastructure. I haven’t heard anything from current Councilmembers to indicate that thinking has changed.

      1. Isn’t part of the problem with the SLUT model the fact that Metro steals hours from other Seattle neighborhoods to pay for streetcar operations, and at way more than a one-for-one basis?

        I would think ST would be easier to work with, as they have been with the FH streetcar project in which they are the funding partner.

      2. It wasn’t really stealing. Seattle had a certain number of new service hours, part funded by the Bridging the Gap levy, that were going to be distributed to various bus routes and some of those hours had been earmarked for the streetcar from the very beginning. It’s not stealing unless you’re trying to pit one neighborhood against another. But then you could do that by pointing out neighborhoods that received expanded bus service and others that didn’t.

  10. Actually, the amount of roadway that the Seattle Monorail Project sought to remove was fairly minimal — almost entirely parking or left turn lanes. In 2003-04, SMP bent and tucked its Green Line alignment to please countless stakeholders, to such an extent that it drove up costs and required sharp turns in the trackway. An extreme example was Second Avenue, where SMP proposed trains as close as 6′ to office towers (creating new enemies), rather than eliminate the Second Avenue bike lane. In theory, Mr. McGinn could keep “Green Line” LRT costs down by displacing street features, but that requires a sort of stubbornness and a power base of support, we don’t normally see in local government.
    – Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times transportation writer.

    1. “In theory, Mr. McGinn could keep “Green Line” LRT costs down by displacing street features, but that requires a sort of stubbornness and a power base of support, we don’t normally see in local government.”

      In other words, if you’re willing to take a couple of lanes from cars, it’s cheap, but nobody is willing to?

      Yeah, sounds about right.

      If McGinn manages to take away any car lanes for exclusive transit lanes, my hat will be off to him.

    1. Zed–the article is interesting, but there are three big hurdles to a cheap alignment. First is the ship canal. The Ballard Bridge cannot accommodate rail and you wouldn’t want trains waiting for boats. Big $$$ for a bridge here. I don’t think McGinn can build at grade through downtown on the cheap unless he runs it on the waterfront far away from uses for most people. Big $$$ for a tunnel or to engineer an at-grade alignment. And the Duwamish and SODO will almost certainly require elevated segments over railroad tracks and another even bigger bridge due to traffic and the steep grade into West Seattle—$$$.

      McGinn has no plan, no design, no process, and no authorization from the state to do this.

      1. You’re right, he doesn’t have a plan or design, and has never claimed to. All he’s ever presented is an idea that he’d like to develop over the next two years. There’s nothing wrong with talking openly about what he’d like to see done.

        He doesn’t need authorization from the state, where’d you get that idea?

      2. Certainly, talking openly is good. Better though is that cheap talk has gotten McGinn a lot of support. Yeah, the guy’s crazy… crazy like a fox!

      3. “The Ballard Bridge cannot accommodate rail and you wouldn’t want trains waiting for boats.”

        How often *are* there ships requiring openings?

        I will note that in the Northeast Corridor, there are unimaginable numbers of moveable bridges which must open on demand. They have ’em in the NYC Subway (Harlem River) too. It’s not inherently a problem unless there’s a *lot* of shipping traffic.

  11. As a resident of a neighborhood on the city limits, I can tell you that living near city limits makes the politics of getting services much harder.

    For example, I think it would be cool to extend Rapid Ride Line C (so that it doesn’t end in the middle of nowhere, er, White Center) further along Roxbury, to the Olsen/Meyer Park&Ride (a topic of future consternation), continuing down Cloverdale through South Park, and then exit the city limits down 14th Ave S, either entering Hwy 99 to head to Marginal Way, or generally following the current path of the 128 through Boulevard Park, either way ending at a real destination: Tukwila International Boulevard Station. This could be West Seattle’s rapid ride to connect to the Link spine headed south to Tacoma some day… unless West Link happens.

    I think having the Line C go from somewhere to somewhere, rather than just somewhere to various neighborhoods, will help increase ridership and justify better headway, and better dedicated right-of-way. No, I don’t expect that people would ride the C between downtown and TIBS. But I do expect that people in the neighborhoods in between would ride to the destinations in two directions, instead of all just heading downtown. It would keep a steady flow of fullness on the bus all the way along instead of working its way from emptiness (which transit-hating car drivers take note of) to crushload.

    The major problem is political boundaries. The City of Seattle isn’t going to subsidize extending the Line C to TIBS, since that extension is outside the city limits. The county has no budget, much less a plan, for additional bus service any time soon, outside of what was promised in the Transit Now bond package.

    Extending the Line C would provide South Park Boeing employees the fastest path to connecting to the 124, which they could take north to the facilities they used to be able to walk to across the South Park Bridge.

    Extending the Line C, doubling frequency on the 124 (which we’ve seen become the bypass for light rail blockages twice already) and building a high footbridge near the soon-to-be-removed South Park Bridge, would be far less expensive than replacing the bridge. I’m not holding my breath for this to happen, though.

    We’re able to get help from the city on increasing service on the 60 for one reason: The 60 never leaves the city limits. So, we have an odd situation. Twelve buses pass through South Park during rush hour. Only two of them head downtown. We can’t get help from the city for better headway downtown because … those routes start from outside the city limits.

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