Old Green Line Route

Last week, Mayor McGinn announced that he intends to ask for $10 million to get to 15% design for 8 miles of westside light rail.

This sounds great in theory. But Sound Transit plans to do basically the same work in a few years – they have $12 million set aside around 2015 to study the same corridor.

Stepping back outside the political arena, what makes the most sense here is for McGinn to ask voters for money to accelerate Sound Transit’s work. Having study work done a few years sooner gives us more time to build public support and look for grants.

It makes sense for several reasons to have Sound Transit as lead on a West Link project: they have experience in planning and building light rail, and they’re experienced in winning federal funds. A partnership here would save millions – if not tens of millions – and could result in a line built with both Sound Transit and city of Seattle funds, rather than a low capacity option likely to be the result of city funding alone.

The Mayor has said before that he doesn’t want “Cadillac” light rail, but we already know from previous study work that the West Seattle and Ballard corridor would develop more ridership than any of Portland’s lines, and these neighborhoods will only become more dense with time. The monorail project was right to want grade separation, at least in the city center.

We can’t afford to be in the position Portland is today. Their light rail is already running into serious limitations, only twenty-five years into a hundred year system. Trains are packed at peak times on the older lines, and there isn’t room to run them with more cars or more often.

While I applaud the Mayor’s initiative in pushing to build more mass transit, I’d like to see him work together with Sound Transit on this issue, rather than going it alone.

70 Replies to “Editorial: McGinn’s Rail Approach Could Be Better”

  1. I support it. But I’m curious about the streetcar plans. I wish Seattle could focus its efforts on the other neighbourhoods too. Cheap, quick investments. Study the real costs of those and come to voters.

  2. Wait, Ben, did you just compliment the Monorail people? Has hell frozen over?

    In all seriousness, I agree 100%. Let’s do this right and make it sustainable.

    My only question is this: by, say 2025-2030, when the line would (hopefully) open, wouldn’t the existing tunnel already be at capacity with Central, East, and North Link? I’m assuming the line would parrallel Central Link for a small portion, no? Does that mean that – aside from a very expensive 2nd avenue subway -we’d also need to widen the exisiting tunnel? That would make costs astronomical and very difficult to sell the public on, IMO. I’d be all for it, I just don’t know if it would have the public and political support.

    Would it involve a Second Avenue subway

    1. The monorail people had a brilliant alignment. Sadly im not sure that their choice of technologies allowed for quality bidders plus other management snafus

      1. Nothing wrong with the technology… and nothing wrong with the bidders. Plenty wrong with management and everything wrong with the financing. We simply can’t afford our own in-city system if we have to build two brand new bridges.

  3. Does getting Link to West Seattle and Ballard REALLY require a N-S route or is this just ‘accepted’ b/c of the Green Line? Would two E-W lines not give us more coverage in the short term, better options for expansion, and breathing space before we have to sink billions in a new tunnel.

    1. Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, and Queen Anne neighborhoods can only be served by a N-S line, and there’s lots of density in those neighborhoods. A true Ballard line on the Green Line model would leave out the hill but I would argue that a tunnel should go under it and to Fremont. The line could split at LQA to serve Ballard.

      In any case, adding riders from Ballard would overwhelm DSTT capacity, so you either need a second N-S tunnel or an intersecting E-W route. I can’t think of a plausible one other than Ballard-UW-Kirkland via 520 or further north. I think we should do that route, but it would also require an expensive tunnel, and it wouldn’t serve the neighborhoods I mentioned.

      1. “Adding riders from Ballard would overwhelm DSTT capacity”?????? Whoa up there Yosemite Sam! Holster y’er iron.

        There are six buses per hour on the 15 and 18 combined and five per hour on the 17. That’s about three link trains worth of riders. I expect they could be accommodated.

        However, that horse has left the barn. For some reason the tunnels were not stacked at the Third and Pine curve, so there’s no way to add an interlocking there.

        And you want to tunnel under Queen Anne Hill and the Ship Canal and have (a) station(s) under Queen Anne (meaning presumably, the top of the hill and perhaps by Seattle Pacific)? Who would write the check for THAT?

        If you’re going to undertake those enormous costs then any branching should occur just north of the Ship Canal to maximize the ridership through the long tunnel.

      2. Anandakos – it’s fallacious to assume that current ridership on slow buses would be all you’d see on regular grade separated rail service.

      3. Actually, there plenty of excess capacity in the current bus/rail tunnel for Ballard-W.Seattle trainsets, after the buses leave in 2020. The tunnel is designed for 24,000 riders per hour, crush load (200), peak direction, with 4 car trains(ST design specs). That’s 48,000 per hour, or 372,000 per weekday, using ST’s formula of peak hour to daily of 15.5:1.
        So even at full build out, using 2030 projections for all the ST2 lines, it’s still only 52% of capacity, in the peak hour of the day.
        The wye between Westlake-Stub-CPS is the logical place to integrate the Green line into the flow (ala Eastside trains at IDS). From CPS a curve, cut cover under 3 streets gets you to aerial to Seattle Center and beyond.
        Bring it!

      4. Ben,

        You can only serve three or four nodes in Ballard and four or five in West Seattle. True, one would expect those nodes to be more intensively developed once a station was created, but there’s no guarantee of that (Interstate Avenue certainly isn’t radically changing). The folks who live around them may have other ideas.

        And it’s true that a train station has a much larger walkshed than does an ordinary bus stop, so you might “steal” some 18 and 28 riders on the north end. In West Seattle you’re not going to steal anything except maybe some south end 37 shuttle riders who don’t want to miss a connection.

        Speaking of the 37, I really don’t understand why the plans for West Seattle completely ignore the huge development that’s going on along the north end of Alki Avenue. It’s a super place for high rises because they don’t block anyone else’s view and they have a GREAT one. But that very “urbanized” part of West Seattle is going to have to take a shuttle to the West Seattle bridge region and change to the train. What’s happening along Fauntleroy except single-family houses? If the huge cost of crossing the Duwamish Waterway is going to be met, provide some sort of rail service along Alki. Maybe it can only be a single-track streetcar that hitches a ride on the ST tracks, but take advantage of that GREAT corridor. It’s only going to grow because of the views.

        So, sure, you’re going to get SOME more ridership, but believe me, folks who ride the 17 or 18 expresses in the rush hour are not going to be happy being forced to change at 15th and Leary.

        “Oooooh, Frances, don’t you LOVE transferring under that bridge in the winter rain?”

        “Why yes, Henry, it makes my day!”

      5. Well no matter what route is chosen SOME neighborhoods are going to be left out. Especially this early on. My thinking is that if we are going to be building an expensive tunnel it shouldn’t be RIGHT BESIDE an existing tunnel. Do that and you basically only create walkshed and TOD potential at the very ends.

        And yes eventually, the DSTT will reach capacity and we will have to build a second N-S line, all I’m saying is that it can wait.

      6. “I wonder what the NYC subway would be like in downtown Manhattan if we thought like anc?”

        You built the subways in New York?

      7. “And you want to tunnel under Queen Anne Hill and the Ship Canal and have (a) station(s) under Queen Anne (meaning presumably, the top of the hill and perhaps by Seattle Pacific)? Who would write the check for THAT?”

        We need to identify what’s best for mobility first, and then pare it down or prioritize to get a realistic budget. If we don’t do the first part first, we’ll always have a suboptimal system.

        The largest ridership nodes between downtown and Ballard are Seattle Center, upper Queen Anne, and Fremont. Not 15th/Interbay. Seattle Center is obvious. Upper Queen Anne has a lot of pedestrians and transit fans, and its steepness serverly hinders surface transit. Fremont has been dissed by transit forever: the fast buses go to Ballard and Aurora, the slow buses go to Fremont, and the 44 trolley skips it entirely. Fremont could become a major transfer point if it had a subway station. Of these three locations, only Seattle Center is essential, but QA and Fremont would give significant benefits.

  4. Wouldn’t it be funny if after we get all our transit lines built they end up being exactly the same routes as the Seattle Monorail Project proposed but they’re slower because of a lack of ROW and cost more to build?

    1. Yeah but the Monorail failed in one key place, the I-90 tunnel through the Mt. Baker ridge. The tunnel is too short except for two Monorails and they were both under capacity.

      Otherwise yes, and it’s because the Monorail had two things going for it, elevated grade separated right of way, and the studies showing that the Ballard/West Seattle Corridor were the next dense user base.

      Anyway the Mayor is right in accelerating these lines. And the funding should go through Sound Transit but dedicated to this project only.

      1. “Yeah but the Monorail failed in one key place…” The monorail failed because the technology is ridiculously inadequate for a high capacity trunk transit system. Switching is slow and ponderous and Alweg has NEVER come up with a failsafe failsafe for the “open switch” problem.

        That is when a train approaches a turnout lined for one diverging route from the other diverging route and overruns its stopping distance. Wheeeee!!!!!! BAM! POW! CRUNCH!

      2. “I-90 tunnel through Mt Baker ridge.”

        The Green Line didn’t go anywhere near there. What are you talking about? Only the theoretical Gold Line (23rd) crossed Mt Baker.

  5. Let’s see, 10 million next year, or 12 million a few years after. Not sure what the NPV of that is, but sounds like ST should hand over a bag a cash to Mr. Mayor next year, and check the box marked ‘DONE’, minus all the grief and gnashing of teeth associated with planning anything in Seattle.

    1. The benefit is it gets the line done sooner. It may allows some things that would be in ST3 to be pushed forward to ST2.

    2. Mike, I think you have it backwards. ST doesn’t have the money until 2015. It’s the Mayor who would hand cash to ST if he wants the study work done sooner.

      1. 10 million is a rounding error compared to most Link projects. Just add a tiny bit more to the next huge bond sale. DOME.

  6. Nice piece, Ben.

    I think at least for the foreseeable future ridership from West Seattle could transfer to a tunnel train or elsewhere at the Sodo Station. Ballard might require a short tunnel under lower Queen Anne. You could either tie it into the Monorail at Seattle Center, or dare I say it, even replace it, with rail to Westlake. No need for a tunnel.

    1. Where’s Norman for this one? Trains crossing streets in Downtown every 4 to 10 minutes? Oh my God…But really, it’s great, except it’s not quick. Focusing mainly on the Ballard portion: Ben pointed out Portland, and he was right to do so. Those trains are God awful slow. I gave up in Downtown and walked blocks instead of remaining on the train because it stopped every block, got every light, and was, well, painfully slow. That eats into your ridership pretty quickly when they’re coming from further out districts. All well and good for a local line, but not a regional line.

    2. You’d probably halve your ridership by creating a transfer for all the people working downtown. That’s a good way to kill building anything!

  7. I liked to thank Mr. Schiendelman for writing such a clear, and concise post, though I’m just a little unsure, what is “Cadillac” light rail?

    1. Cadillac implies tunnels, elevated, extra nice stations. Of course going through West Seattle it should be Elevated to avoid cross traffic tieups and delays.

      (But maybe after GM went broke, he meant a system that isn’t financially broke?)

  8. “While I applaud the Mayor’s initiative in pushing to build more mass transit, I’d like to see him work together with Sound Transit on this issue, rather than going it alone.”

    I agree 100%. Unfortunately, McGinn’s MO in the political arena seems to be going it alone, and not working together with anyone (certainly not the city employees whom he supposedly manages, or the state which his city is an important part of). Unless you’re a citizen expressing some hairbrained idea at a public forum, which are apparently more important than getting anything real done.

    1. I don’t want to pile on — in part because I really would love to see west side light rail online sooner than lighter.

      However, this discussion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Mayor McGinn has alienated any potential allies that could help move this project forward. While his base may be excited about it, it’s basically laughed off by the people he needs to make something like this happen.

      If you want west side light rail — as I do — I think your better bet is to call a meeting with Dow Constantine or Joni Earl and gauge what the interest is on their end. Both have far more political standing and credibility to be the lead on a project like this.

      1. I don’t think Dow and Joni are interested in doing anything until 2016.

        Something McGinn could do to *get* political allies, at this point, would be to provide funding for this and work with Sound Transit on it!

    2. I think McGinn’s more goal oriented than going it alone. If a lot of transit fans tell him they’d rather have the proposal give the money to ST, he’d probably do it.

      1. I don’t think any of McGinn’s actions to-date indicate that he’s “more goal oriented than going it alone.” He shoots from the hip without consulting key political allies and, in turn, creates enemies. The interests of our city would be best served by working with Sound Transit. I’m crossing my fingers that he makes the right decision on my matter, but I won’t hold my breath.

      2. How else can you promote transit and bicycling in this city? Anyone who questions the #1 role of the automobile is bound to be controversial. It will take at least a decade or two and maybe several mayors to get to a transit-oriented city, but somebody’s got to start it.

      3. I disagree. It’s possible to promote transit without creating enemies, and Mike McGinn (prior to his Viaduct flip-flopping) had the credibility to do so. He has lost that credibility almost completely. I’m a transportation enthusiast — I support highways when it makes sense, and transit when it makes sense. In this case, it makes sense for McGinn to consult with the regional transit authority, Sound Transit.

  9. Just like Seattle knows streetcars and therefor Seattle is handling the Fist Hill Streetcar for Sound Transit, Sound Transit knows light rail and should handle the light rail for Seattle. The collaboration should go both ways.

  10. I miss the heady days of the Green Line. Heck, I even miss the crazy days of Initiative 41.

    Looking back on the Green Line and I-41, there were some things that the initiative did better. One of them was the northern segment alignment. Frankly, a line that runs from Seattle Center along 15th Ave W spends money to go where people aren’t, and can’t serve most of NW Seattle. I-41 described an alignment from Seattle Center through Fremont, Greenwood, and Ballard with each stop planned to support dense residential neighborhoods and places of interest (Woodland Park/Greenlake). In short, if I had a choice between a line that stopped at the zoo or the golf range, I’m picking the zoo. (As an aside, ST has already made noise that ST3 would include service to Ballard, so lets let them build that line and the city can use the Aurora corridor to connect downtown/belltown, seattle center, fremont, greenwood, and bitter lake)

    But the north segment is hard because of the terrain no matter how you slice it. Mr. Mayor would do well to start with a line from ID to Lincoln Park, maybe as far as the ferry terminal, to build support for a city-wide system that is integrated to the regional one. This line could be mostly surface (a la MLK) with some elevation along spokane street to maintain ROW of the line and port traffic, and could likely be built at a cost that is palatable to the citizenry.

    1. Going to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal is a waste of money. It would be better to plow through the hill and go to Westwood, White Center, and on to Burien. Let RapidRide handle the passengers from the ferry terminal and Lincoln Park.

    2. Sorry, Jack, but the hill west of Phinney/Greenwood makes any rail solution that serves both the zoo and Ballard impossible. Diesel buses struggle up Market; there’s no way a steel wheel vehicle could make a grade like that.

      And Market is south of the zoo anyway. How in the world do you propose to bridge the gap between 58th and Phinney and 15th NW? The tiny east-west streets are completely inadequate, even without the grade. I can’t be done without a tunnel and deep station under the zoo. Who would fund that? The area is not dense enough to warrant it and will not likely become so.

      All this speculation about where the next rail line should go is foolish given the political and economic environment, which is likely to continue both longer and more viciously than anyone who posts here expects. Unless the state legislature changes its anti-capital transit habits, there will be nothing after U-link built. That’s a shame, but it’s the truth. The Feds are not coming to the rescue.

      1. Nitpick: there is a zoo entrance at 50th and Fremont. However, you would still need a tunnel and Beacon Hill-style station to get there.

      2. @Paul: If the ferry terminal doesn’t have the ridership then ok. I still think Fauntleroy is the least-cost with highest ridership alignment for getting light rail to west seattle.

        @Anandakos: I’m with you! There’s no way a single line can do the Zoo and Ballard south of 85th. I’m in favor of leaving Ballard for ST3, and the city build a line with ST along the Aurora Ave corridor to Bitter Lake. My magic light rail line runs from Bitter Lake along aurora to 105th, 85th, 63rd, 50th (zoo station!), 34th, then across a bridge west of the Aurora bridge, Galer (maybe), into a tunnel to Seattle Center, Belltown, and University Station. The terminus at University would someday be a portal to the express tunnel through downtown to ID. I figure $5B should do it, lemme get my checkbook out :)

      3. If the choice is between Ballard and the zoo, I vote Ballard. Especially if the zoo means an alignment with a big chunk of the walkshed lopped off between 50th (really Bridge Way) and 85th.

  11. I agree that ST is the natural agency to study this line. Mayor McGinn could get the ball moving faster by putting an initiative to the voters and starting the discussion, but any west line has to be part of Sound Transit’s portfolio, even assuming that it would ultimately require Seattle voters to approve a separate levy beyond ST2 and a future ST3. I’d fully support any effort to accelerate such a line, but the engineering challenges and costs of a grade-separated line should not be underestimated, which is why ST’s expertise is needed. Even a “non-cadillac” system would require grade separation over/under the Duwamish, and presumably the Ballard Ship Canal. I don’t think a system stuck at grade at these two water crossings would be improved enough over bus service to warrant the large cost. If Mayor McGinn’s belief is that we can simply copy Portland’s surface rail on such a line, he’s mistaken.

  12. If the study is conducted now will it be done too soon before ST has any financial capacity to build the line?

    1. True, but it would give many years to get all the votes, re-votes, and referendums out of the way, without impacting the schedule.

    2. I don’t see how “getting it done too soon” is a problem. It means ST has a pretty good idea of what they want to offer voters in ST3, which is how they would get “financial capacity to build the line”. I do wonder if the mayor may decide to float his own ballot measure once the study is done, but maybe that would just be to get something started while waiting for ST to come to the table.

      1. Do the studies typically come with an “expiration date”? A study from 10 years ago doesn’t seem very applicable to what is going on today.

      2. Environmental studies need to be renewed if things have changed a lot in the meantime. This is fairly unlikely to happen even in 10 years with an urban route, especially one running down roads. It can happen quite spectacularly with rural routes. Well, I can think of one way it could happen — the demand could skyrocket and the study could have to be redone to demonstrate that more capacity is needed.

  13. While I do favor a westside light rail project if it’s done right, I’m worried that with McGinn trying to propose this now with his popularity as low as it is, all he’ll end up doing is killing whatever support exists for it. Especially if he tries to take a go-it-alone approach.

    With the city budget (and our transit system’s budget) tens of millions of dollars in the whole, now is not the time to spend another 10 million dollars on studies. I think McGinn really needs to sit this one out. Let Sound Transit bring the proposal to voters as part of an ST3 package in a few years.

  14. Forgive my ignorance as a relative newcomer to Seattle, but why exactly is West Seattle so important for high-capacity transit? It’s almost exclusively single-family, with only a couple of retail corridors. Since it can’t be to serve existing density, and since I don’t really think much additional density will easily happen, is it simply to serve the two-bridge chokepoint? If West Seattle has robust but dispersed transit demand hourglassed onto the same bridges over the Duwamish…I’m sorry, but that’s a case for high-quality BRT rather than rail. Belltown, LQA, Fremont, Ballard, etc…deserve it far more.

    1. Have you ever been to West Seattle? Have you seen the development going up there?

      1. 1/5 of the city’s population lives in West Seattle, and the urban villages there are planned to bring hundreds of new residents into dense, urban living environments. Two of the highest ridership bus routes in the City run through West Seattle and across the bridge.

  15. Zach, West Seattle is no longer “almost exclusively single family”–take a look at what’s happening around the Junction, all along California Avenue, at Alki, and even, soon, the Admiral and Morgan Junctions. RR is going to help, but it’s not going to be nearly enough.

  16. It’s pretty sad that our city can’t afford this study without going to the voters for money. Doing this kind of planning work should just be a part of regular city business, it shouldn’t have to be a pet project or campaign promise.

    1. I doubt there are any cities in the US with $10 million lying around for a study of a new rail line. $10 million for a project not related to the unkeep of existing infrastructure is a ton of money to spend. What’s more, if the voters come back with a “No” vote, for whatever reason, then city government will receive a message about the electorate’s desire to build a rail line. $10 million spent on a rail line that the public doesn’t support even as a vague concept would be a waste of money.

      Anyone who watches the often-painful testimony before the City Council will understand in short order that, even in a city with voters as generous as Seattle’s, every dollar is more than spoken for. One example: the City of Seattle shoulders the majority of the burden for the entire Puget Sound region for providing homeless and low-income services. If suburbs were to contribute to social services that Seattle does, that alone might allow Seattle spend more on speculative studies such as a western rail line. Even then, there would be numerous stakeholders in addition to transit advocates who’d have a legitimate call for $10 million: Seattle Public Schools, Seattle Public Library, Parks, Dept. of Neighborhoods, etc. We have so many unmet needs, I think any mayor would be foolish to spend money on a new rail line study without the legitimacy of a public vote.

  17. I wonder about surface Westside LRT.

    Are the downtown blocks long enough to allow for surface LRT? I think of a lot of fairly short blocks. Can you get enough riders to make it worth it?

    Even if you build a cheap, surface line, I imagine you’ll spend most of the amount you’d spend on a “cadillac” rail because of the ship-canal crossing and the harbour island crossing, plus the stations.

  18. I notice people proposing a line that not only serves Queen Anne, but Fremont. That would basically mean that only Wallingford and 44 riders would be screwed if there wasn’t a 45th line. How big a priority would a 45th line be then?

    This thread also has me thinking of an idea for a 45th line that would be closer to a 50th line, at least near Fremont.

  19. Great post Ben! Do you think Sound Transit might be open to use a different technology for this specific line, if its more cost effective per mile than LRT, since most of it would be elevated anyway? Also, I love the idea of Gondolas or some sort of PRT technology to spur from this line.

    1. Nothing will be more cost effective than LRT. The advantage of using stock interchangeable parts is huge, and you already have one LRT.

      1. Ok lets say if Sound Transit build the Green Line and of course instead of building the monorail they used LRT technology in its place. What would be the price difference? Would LRT cost less per mile than monorail or any other mass transit technology?

  20. There are ways to fix the errors committed by the monorail project when they attempted to build in this corridor. Given the grades and apparent capacity needs, 200-foot-long monorail trains (equivalent to current Link 2-car trains) would serve very well for the long term. And the monorail spec could certainly be written to permit multiple bidders!

    Trains need only run from Alaska Junction to Market St. WS needs only two stations, Alaska & Calif. and Fauntleroy @ Oregon. This part of WS is the hub of a great network of local buses which would serve as feeders.

    1. OK here is where I get off the West Seattle express, so to speak. If the area can only supply two good spots for stops, why go through the enormous expense of building the bridges to get there? If WS Junction is such a great bus transfer point, wouldn’t it make much more sense to use RR / BRT to allow buses to run local through the neighborhoods, then just keep going, rather than to force transfers?

      In a perfect world, LRT to WS seems good, but if we’re prioritizing, it seems like Belltown-LQA-Ballard is a much stronger corridor. Also seems to have greater potential, Interbay seems like a much better TOD area than anywhere in NIMBYfull West Seattle.

  21. West Seattle has several good locations for stops. You probably need two near the Junction and the Triangle area. You would most likely build a station near Morgan Junction at Fauntleroy and California and then Westwood Village/White Center, before you reached Burien. All of these areas have seen much multi-family growth.

    It is amazing how many commenters on this site feel free to opine about West Seattle and its merits, but have never been there.

  22. The reason West Seattle is important is (1) it’s a fifth of the city, (2) it has a long history of getting less transit and through-roads than the rest of the city, and (3) it’ll need more transit when the viaduct comes down.

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