Route124 (Metro)

Every now and then there’s second guessing of the decision to route Central Link through the Rainier Valley instead of a more direct route to the airport down East Marginal Way. The idea is that a faster trip to Seatac would boost ridership, and more importantly, make South Link a better competitor with existing freeway express buses.

I have three basic objections to this line of argument:

  1. Ridership and Federal Funding. Station boarding data shows that about half of Link trips begin or end in the Rainier Valley. It’s true that some people would board in Georgetown or along Boeing Field, but it’s obviously a much smaller market and anecdotal Route 124 performance* doesn’t suggest robust demand. Cut ridership by a little less than half, and it threatens federal funding and offends basic cost/benefit considerations. Furthermore, bus transfer opportunities from South County are almost by definition riders brought from buses, which FTA formulas frown upon. And of course, North subarea savings couldn’t have been used to extend the line further south.
  2. Low Development Potential. The idea of an MLK alignment is that there is a lot of development potential to join existing reasonably dense neighborhoods on either side.** The East Marginal Way walkshed is fundamentally limited by an airfield on one side and a river on the other. Furthermore, Seattle has shown no interest in rezoning these areas from industrial, and the economics of redevelopment are fundamentally limited by environmental contamination issues. The big employer, Boeing, has tons of free parking on their campus there.
  3. It’s not a Commuter Line. Ignoring the Rainier Valley to increase speed on South Link is a direct sacrifice of all-day ridership to provide better connection between distant homes and jobs.  Although it makes sense to serve work trips wherever possible, optimizing it for commutes gives you commuter rail. Light rail and subways are about providing high-capacity all-day connectivity. Sometimes you have the money to do both through grade separation, as is the case with North Link. That wasn’t the case here. I would rather run express buses to Federal Way forever than skip good, close-in markets for rail.

Next: the outlook for constructing a bypass in the future.

* How about some spring 2010 performance data, Metro?

** The fact that Metro has done a poor job of connecting those neighborhoods to Link is aggravating, but fixable and an issue wherever you put it.

44 Replies to “Duwamish Bypass (I)”

  1. I agree with your logic as you framed the question (this way or that?)
    What if the question was both?
    Central Link does a great job of connecting to MLK to downtown, at the sacrifice of a slower trip to the airport. Tack on double the mileage to get to Fed Way, and eventually Tacoma, and the trip is far slower than buses on HOV lanes.
    As long as were playing what-if this morning.
    What-if you had Link going down E-Marginal, and a Tacoma Link style Street car going from Rainier Beach, to RBS, up MLK, Dearborn, and down 3rd Ave in Seattle. No tunnelling under Beacon Hill would have just about paid for what I described. Now you have two lines, one fast one for the Airport and commuters in S.King Co. and a Link Line for all of S. Seattle. Add in some major TOD around the airport where the Boeing plant is being demolished, an air cargo facility (jobs), and your ridership number is ???.

    1. Then-mayor Paul Schell proposed something very much like this — take SE Seattle out of the regional transit system and serve it with just a streetcar to downtown. What does Rainier Valley need with a direction connection to the Airport? What does Beacon Hill need with rail transit service (just ignore the data showing it would have the highest ridership of all SE Seattle stations).

      And then build a direct line down the Duwamish for fast service for suburban commuters into downtown in the morning, and out to home in the evening; sort of a smaller-scale Sounder line.

      Result would’ve been a slow in-city streetcar line for the minority communities, and a fast light rail line for the white (mostly) suburbanites. Fortunately, Mayor Schell was great at generating ideas (usually too late to be useful) and piss-poor at implementing them.

      1. “What does Rainier Valley need with a direction connection to the Airport?”

        The theory was that the rail line would allow people in the Rainier Valley direct access to the jobs at the airport. I thought I read that there are about 10K workers at the airport. My understanding is that they currently have free parking. If that free parking were to go away, it would make riding the rail line even more attractive.

  2. I am glad that you brought this topic up but for a linked in reason – that of improving service to SeaTac Airport from downtown Seattle.

    At one time, I thought it might be a good idea to express some trains so that they went straight to the airport from downtown and didn’t stop at any intermediate stations south of Seattle until perhaps Tukwila, but on further consideration, it probably isn’t a good idea.

    Next off, I still think that ST should consider the Boeing Access Road station as a viable option for capturing at least some of the East Marginal Way market (with the supplementary use of shuttles)

    My final thought, though, given the on-going unreliability of Link (I get daily messages from Sound Transit about stoppages etc.) is that I think that Metro should perhaps consider reintroducing the 194 as an alternative for downtown Seattle passengers. This could run not in the tunnel but along 5th Avenue southbound and 4th Avenue northbound and basically join the I-5 at the stadium on-ramp (i.e. avoiding the SODO busway). Possibly, but not necessarily, it could also use the Tukwila Station, but either way, I think it would greatly improve reliability. At present, there isn’t an alternative to Link to get to the airport for downtown Seattle businessmen, locals and tourists.

    This is not a dig at Link, but at the reliability of a service that was after all touted as a great improvement on the bus to SeaTac. It still is for those with lots of luggage and who love the space on the trains, but it is not a huge improvement for those who get frustrated easily and who live by precise calendars and time frames.

    Any thoughts?

    1. The business class you describe already has a better option: cabs hovering all over downtown, which, BTW, translates into *jobs* ;) Besides, imagine how Link ridership will plummet if word gets out that nobody will get to see Norman’s smiley face any more.

      Second, It’s hard to justify the Boeing infill station without testing the market without even so much as *a bus route* serving that location. The reasons for that bus route are numerous, including connecting Rainier Valley to Boeing jobs, connecting RV to South King County Sounder and vice versa, serving the Allentown residents who have to put up with the elevated track by their neighborhood, connecting riders along route 150 neighborhoods to Boeing jobs, and providing a built-in bus bridge for the RBS-TIBS Link segment.

    2. I think you’re overestimating the long-term reliability issues with Link. Signaling delays on MLK have just about vanished, most trackwork delays are teething problems, and buses will eventually get kicked out of the tunnel.

      1. Does anyone know if they will remove the “kink” immediately south of International District / Chinatown Station(IDCS)? The trains could go straight, and there appears to be track to do so, but they kink to allow the staging of northbound buses. Its just one more little thing slowing the trains, and once buses are no longer in the tunnel (admittedly that may be a ways off) it would be nice if trains could cruise right into the station.

      2. I expect a much larger renovation of ID Station when the buses are kicked out. With that station becoming the transfer hub between East Link and South Link, ST will hopefully rebuild the floor to have a center platform for fast transfers, and move the track to the outside.

        Or, there might be a shuttle between I-90/Rainier Station and Mount Baker Station. That might just be a little bit faster, but not much. It would have to be timed much better than that lame Tukwila-to-the-airport shuttle that typically sat for ten minutes once you got on it. (No offense to the drivers, who weren’t being ordered to be expeditious.)

        Regardless, the speed through the tunnel will be much faster, but the total time savings would still only be about three minutes, since the trip from Stadium to Westlake only takes about nine minutes now.

    3. Who would pay to restore a partial 194 given Metro’s current finances. Another route would have to be cut to provide it.

  3. I was playing around on Google Earth, as I’m prone to do, and it looks to me like it’d be possible to continue the link trains straight south where they currently turn east to head under Beacon Hill. You’d stay on the Busway until south of Spokane St, at which point you’d wind up on a freight siding, which conveniently already has tracks laid.

    Okay, so you’re going to need dedicated tracks, but at first glance it looks as though there’d be room to shoehorn two tracks in without too much grief. Anyhow, you’d wind up running alongside the railyard, I think that’s the Argo Yard, and that could take you all the way down to the Boeing Access Rd. It might not be a bad idea to have a flyover south of Albro to put you in between Airport Way and the freight line, which would also give you the chance to put a station at the King County Airport. It might be worth putting in a Boeing Access Rd Station at that point too, if nothing else it’d give you a chance to hold the airport express train for a couple minutes if need be to slip it in between two of the trains coming from Rainier Valley.

    South of Spokane St. I don’t see why you couldn’t do 60 mph+ all the way to the airport, as you wouldn’t see another grade crossing the whole way. There’s be some fearsome deal making with the UP and BNSF to make this all happen, but considering there’s no tunneling and not a whole lot of heavy construction to do I wouldn’t think the cost would be too outrageous, relatively speaking.

    At the same time though, you’re going to go through all that to knock maybe ten minutes off the trip to the airport. You would gain a few more riders, I suspect not too very many, if you put in a King County Airport Station, but for the most part you’d just be diluting the ridership on the existing line.

    As much as I’d like to put a light rail line every three blocks, if we have a finite pool of money to draw from it’d probably be better to start on a line from downtown out to West Seattle, which I’d imagine could hit White Center and Burien on it’s way to the airport. Voila!

    1. In the long run, a second set of tracks South for faster access to Federal Way will be needed. However before we build that line, we should run a spur to West Seattle and Points South, and Ballard and points North, Issaquah and points East, for greater coverage. Then build the second line down Marginal Way.

  4. The Bel-Red corridor is the East Marginal Way of the eastside, and Crossroads is the Rainier Valley of eastside, yet I’ve never heard Martin express outrage over that portion of East Link’s alignment, and the bypassing of Crossroads.

    Also, when he says “The idea is that a faster trip to Seatac would boost ridership, and more importantly, make South Link a better competitor with existing freeway express buses,” I believe he’s building a strawman to knock down. The reason people wanted to see Central Link go down East Marginal Way is to service the enormous commercial and industrial job center. That’s why East Link is going to Microsoft. And that’s why Central should have gone down East Marginal.

    1. I was surprised that Link didn’t go to Crossroads because that would have been the natural place. But the Bel-Red option is more direct because it’s diagonal, so it’s ingenious in that way, pulling in riders from the two triangles on either side (Crossroads and Kirkland). With RapidRide B coming, Crossroads is a short 20 min rude from BTC, or 5-10 min from Overlake. (If the Hospital station is built near 8th, ppl might transfer to it to avoid downtown Bellevue traffic.) NE 8th between 405 and 148th is not that densely populated; it has just been the traditional transit route. There are apartments there, but nothing that screams “must have a rail station right here”.

  5. Careful with the 124 performance, Martin. It recently got more trips, right about the same time the South Park Bridge was closed, eliminating that walk-over ridership source.

    We won’t know the full capability of the 124 until several months after the South Park Bridge re-opens. I highly doubt the Metro planners will listen to South Park’s request for a direct bus line to TIBS, given that it hasn’t happened by now. I’ve gotten the planners’ answers. The answers are weak in their logic, but it is where they stand, and only a command from above (the county council) is going to make them spend any more time on South Park.

      1. The current estimate is three years. The money is lined up.

        I’ve thought seriously of moving away because I feel so stranded here, and don’t want to wait three years. I’d have to ride a bus to work every day again, but at least I would feel attached to civilization again once I catch a bus every day out of the neighborhood.

  6. Given the choice between a bypass line through SODO and improving travel time on the Rainier Valley swing, I’d prefer investing in the latter.

    Crossing gates are great for preventing just about everything except suicide. Cost it out. It doesn’t need to make a lot of noise. It just needs to be visible and stop people and vehicles from heading into the path of a train running 55 mph.

    The cost may have to include a couple bridges for semi-major arterials, due to the difficulty of timing the lights, but if it does, so be it.

  7. How about a line that goes from downtown (in a separate tunnel) via Alaska Junction, White Center, Burien TC and then swings sharply east and joins Central Link at SeaTac? You serve two big ridership corridors (54/55/56 and 120) and provide an express to SeaTac and south King. Much of what makes the Ranier Valley slow is running at grade with frequent stops; this route has less than half the stops and would be grade separated. Central Link will have plenty of capacity south of TIBS because of the interlining with East Link downtown. Alternatively, you could make SeaTac a transfer point and continue this line to Renton.

    I realize this is a far more expensive project than an express down Marginal Way but it achieves far more regional transit goals in one swoop, and fits much more in ST’s regional mission.

    1. Burien-Renton was likely to be in ST3 until South King’s tax base collapsed; now they may need ST3 just to get to Federal Way. But Burien-Renton is the second priority line. So West Seattle Link would naturally join it at Burien. Continuing West Seattle Link to SeaTac may be a viable way to get the Burien-SeaTac segment built at a more affordable price for South King.

      1. At least as far as White Center the line could be built with North King money. Renton is also apparently in North King. Do White Center and Renton have a high percentage of minority/low-income people? If so, maybe federal dollars would bridge the gap.

        Has anyone made a map of ST’s subareas? It’s hard to picture from their description.

      2. Why are we so dead-set on sending light rail to Federal Way? We’ve got so much space to cover around Seattle, why are we stretching our system thin and increasing the areas it will underserve?

      3. Because Federal Way is halfway to Tacoma. A complete transit system needs to link Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Bellevue/Redmond(/Issaquah?). And with Sound Transit’s subareas, South King’s taxes pay for the south county’s lines, and North King’s taxes pay for Seattle’s lines — the money can’t be intermixed. So it really comes down to, “What kind of service do the south county residents want to tax themselves for?”

    2. I was actually thinking about this the other day, but instead of joining at SeaTac, it would share Tukwila and continue east to Renton, serving Southcenter along the way.

      1. two words, “taxing base”. The wider the coverage the bigger the spread. Besides if you’ve watched the traffic on I5 near Federal Way you’d realize what a disaster is currently is. Hence the need for an alternative to driving.

  8. …since we’re looking at what-ifs…

    I would categorize the following idea as an interesting exploration, but not likely to happen.

    What if, as SeaTac reaches capacity, instead of developing another significant airport, we move puddle jumper flights (E.g: Horizon Air) to Boeing field? And build a people mover or streetcar to connect SeaTac with Boeing Filed. The line would continue through Georgetown and terminate at the SODO link station where people could transfer to the main Link line.

    There may be opportunities to use the line for green freight delivery to the manufacturing cluster in SODO and the Dumaish Industrial district or to haul garbage and recyclables to the transfer station similar to VW’s urban factory in Dresden:

    1. Southwest and Alaska have both proposed relocating from SeaTac to Boeing, but both were rejected by the county council. Of course, Southwest just wanted to avoid some SeaTac’s fees, and Alaska was just responding to Southwest’s proposal; it wasn’t a matter of capacity. Once that is an issue, maybe Boeing Field will be a legitimate option. Paine Field in Everett has also been floated upon occasion for expanded passenger service, but the Snohomish County council has been staunchly against it. Once SeaTac reaches capacity, though… And, of course, you could run light rail from Seattle to Everett right by the field.

    2. It’s a good idea for the future, especially with the multiple uses. However, we can’t assume SeaTac traffic will always increase. When peak oil hits, business trips and casual vacations will go out the window, and the only people flying will be the rich and those who’ve saved up for an extra-special flight. There’s disagreement about whether oil prices will rise sharply in the next five years or twenty, but I have a hard time believing we’ll be expanding airports or highways in twenty years.

    3. It’s nice to dream, but Boeing Field is run by the county and I don’t think anyone on the council would ever think about expanding taxes to build a new public terminal for air carriers. Nor would an airline shell out the money. Not only that, if any “puddle jumpers” were removed from SeaTac, it would make it much harder than it currently is for the airline’s hub and spoke system to effectively channel passengers and cargo quickly, efficiently, and profitably.

      1. Nor would an airline shell out the money.

        Actually, Southwest’s proposal involved the company building a $130 Million terminal and garage, which would be deeded to the county after 50 years. Alaska Airlines tried to one-up them by proposing a $150 Million terminal. But there still would’ve been considerable taxpayer cost from EISes, road/transit improvements, likely litigation (from whatever airline wasn’t chosen), etc, which was cited as a big reason why Ron Sims rejected both offers.

    4. Seatac has plenty of capacity now, and as oil reaches $200/barrel, flying is going to be priced out of reach for the masses anyways.

      1. As the price of oil rises towards $200/bbl, the viability of alternative fuels becomes apparent. There has been demonstrations of liquefied natural gas being used as jet fuel, as well as liquefied coal.

        The bottom line is transportation will get more expensive for everyone and it becomes more important that we invest in our public infrastructure.

        (btw, I’m typing this using the public wifi aboard Rapid Ride Northbound)

      2. I should have mentioned, air traffic is still lower than it was in 2007, and I think that was lower than 2000. Planes are crowded because the airlines have eliminated flights in order to swallow up empty seats, not because more people are flying.

  9. The real problem isn’t the Rainier Valley routing — at least that’s serving a lot of stations — it’s the curvy routing between Rainier Beach and TIBS. According to Sound Transit’s schedule, it takes 9 minutes to get between these two stations, and they aren’t any further apart than the future Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium stations which Link is expect to travel in 3 minutes. There has got to be a way to make this section faster.

  10. Actually they’re further apart than you’d think. I measured 5.60 miles between Rainier Beach and TIBS, and 2.19 between Husky Stadium Station and Capitol Hill Station. That actually makes it a 2.56 times the distance, so if you apply that to the 3 minutes that’s expected in between Husky Stadium and Capitol Hill you get a little over seven and a half minutes.

    I suppose they could speed up a bit, but there are three relatively tight corners in between Rainier Beach and TIBS. Something tells me they’re probably already running about as fast as they believe they safely can.

    1. Okay, you’re right. But still that makes an average speed of 37 mph. When stations are that far apart the average ought to be a little closer to the top speed of 55 mph. It will have to be over 5 minutes plus acceleration+deceleration+stopping time, though, without faster vehicles.

      Does anyone know any particular reason why our light rail trains are limited to 55 mph?

      1. They might be slowing down on some of those sections because of noise concerns or because of the gel that gets sprayed on the tracks (a noise mitigation itself). Sometimes the southbound trains slip a bit going up the final hill to TIBS – possibly because of gel on the tracks sprayed at the corner that veers away from I-5.

      2. I know when I’m on the train we seem to be keeping up with traffic on I-5, so I’m assuming that stretch averages close to 60 mph. That means the climb up the hill to TIBS and the run between the Boeing Access road and Rainier Beach is considerably slower than the 37mph average. Does it really take nine minutes in between those two stations? I’ve never actually times it now that I think about it. Maybe the timetable is off, and it’s more like seven minutes? Whoever is on there next ought to time it and report back.

      3. The vehicles are capable of going faster; I recall one operator confessing on-the-record to getting near 70mph on the elevated stretch accidentally. This was very early on.

        For noise mitigation purposes, though, they’re required to stay below 60. Otherwise the neighbors will complain.

      4. I’ve timed TIBS to RBS and RBS to TIBS at 9 minutes, several times. I still get the feeling that operators take the curves at a slower speed than the laws of physics would suggest would be the safest speed (due to curvature and lean). I’d still like ST’s engineers to take a look and see if taking any of the curves too slow is a safety issue.

        But the biggest slow-down is dropping to 30 mph before getting to the at-grade segment on MLK / not going above 30 mph until after leaving the at-grade portion. I figure almost a minute is added by this restriction, vs. having crossing gates and a 55 mph limit. Since this is not the residential portion of MLK, I don’t see why the 30 mph restriction should be in effect (once a couple more crossing gates are installed).

      5. It varies by operator as to how fast they choose to go through the curves. The inconsistency really annoys me. The maximum speed however is enforced through cab signalling. I have timed 8 minutes on a few occasions.

        Do you have any example of a center median street running light rail system that installed crossing gates? Also, if they allow higher speeds they likely will have to fence the tracks like in SODO for safety reasons, which would be unacceptable for emergency response.

  11. When Link runs from Everett to Tacoma may not be such a bad idea. I realize there will also be Sounder, but we are really talking about 2 corridors with a few key transfers.

  12. This whole conversation seems tone deaf. ST has an almost $4 billion shortfall in the ST2 plan and much higher priorities than spending hundreds of millions to shave five minutes or so off the trip to the airport.

    The whole premise that speed is paramount is a flawed assumption. I don’t think it makes much difference if rail reaches the airport in 30 minutes instead of 38. What makes a difference to riders is reliability and frequency. The Rainier Valley routing is four miles long and trains move about 27 MPH on average. A Duwamish bypass might travel those same four miles at 50 MPH. The difference in time simply isn’t worth it.

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