I’m often quite fond of trying to draw lessons about Seattle from our nation’s capital. Unlike comparisons to New York, Seoul, or some other megacity, metro Washington is at least of the same order of population as greater Seattle, and closer still when today’s Washington is compared to Seattle in 2030.  The city proper is only about 30% denser. DC is also a bit newer, in general, than the other great cities of the Northeast. And of course, I know it well having grown up there and traveled there frequently in the last few years.

For these reason I was quite struck by this passage in Slate in December:

And yet, as Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey wrote in the Washington Post, “today, Washington has fewer miles of freeways within its borders than any other major city on the East Coast.” Thirty-eight of the planned 450 miles would have routed through D.C. proper; today, there are just 10. Instead, after a wrenching and protracted political battle, they write, “the Washington area got Metro—all $5 billion and 103 miles of it.”

Although Seattle was able to fight off a few freeway spurs, we still have highways in 6 directions out of greater downtown, and we certainly didn’t get — nor will we ever get — anything like the DC Metro. It’s going to be a long climb out of that mistake. And for all the talk about overruns and traffic diversion, I think recognition of that ultimately drives opposition to the DBT.

56 Replies to “The Nation’s Capital”

    1. Sorry – after seeing how things are not progressing here, I’m inclined to believe this statement. Agencies refuse to work together, they are only able to work on one line at a time, and the NIMBYs of this area will prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, our city is full of short-sightedness.

      Everyone here LOVES the idea of a great transit system, but no one really wants it in their back yard…or if they do, they don’t want the disruption it may cause to construct it (cut and cover, or tearing up the road to install light rail, etc). ST doesn’t want to work with the city on connecting Seattle neighborhoods, and Community Transit could really give a rat’s ass on what happens in Seattle. Bellevue cries over everything when somebody tries to do an initiative, and heaven forbid we have an elevated line that might block someone’s view here in Seattle.

      It’s a pipedream that will never get realized here, unfortunately.

    2. I don’t think we’ll ever get a heavy rail system on that order, but I think our light rail system can eventually become as extensive as the DC Metro is today.

    3. Come on Ben, lets be realistic. Heavy rail isn’t viable anymore because it’s so costly and a hard political sell. Light rail is much sexier, cheaper, but less effective. We had our only real shot 40 years ago, and people voted it down. And we’ve invested a ton of money on the hybrid Link system so we’re stuck with that technology. On the good side, with the rest of Link, the plan is to model it after a heavy-rail sytle system, but we will reasltically never be true heavy rail. Nor is there any remaining taxing authority at least for the next 40 years to create such a system.

      Cyclist Mike is correct. The lack of forsight and regionalism in the Puget Sound will forever harm us. The attitude here is “oh I want to be a good transit supporting, biking, tree-hugging liberal, but it’s not nice to my view/back yard/bicyclists/puppies and kittens/etc” (see: Settle votes out Nickles because he’s a hard ass), or “we can come up with a better idea” and it ends up not happening or failing (see: monorail).

      The only way to get real cooperation between the separated trainsit regions is to make a TriMet/MTA/Metro/LA Metro/MTS/CTA/et al style agency. As it stands, Metro only cares about King Co, CT cares only about Snoho, ST doesn’t care about local service, the other sprinkling of small agencies are just trying to survive, and nobody cares about actually serving everyone. Snohomish County vs. Seattle vs. The East Side vs. Tacoma will never go away if each region has a seperate transit agency. I cannot think of another region in the US that operates with such a strange mix of transit agencies, each with its own set of goals and objectives.

      1. A couple of points in response to Mike B:

        1) Once you’ve decided to tunnel, heavy rail is actually cheaper than light rail. Light rail requires bigger tunnel bores (bigger trains) and more expensive rolling stock. And nobody buys light rail cars in the quantities that New York buys subway cars, so there’s no way to glom onto a huge pre-existing order for economies of scale in manufacturing. I agree that we’re probably not going to get heavy rail, but that’s because we’ve already started on light rail and there are (different) economies of scale associated with maintaining only one system.
        2) After you deal with cost, the rolling stock differences between light and heavy rail don’t really matter. What matters is grade separation, station frequency, and passenger capacity. We’re mostly getting heavy rail style grade separation, semi-suburban station frequency and high capacity. I like the grade separation, though I’d go for higher station frequency and lower capacity, given the choice.
        3) Unifying agencies is not really a magic bullet. The LA Metro area is building an expensive, pointless, light rail extension (the Foothill extension) because the Foothill cities are part of the uber agency and they have nothing better to ask for than a light rail extension. Or consider MTA’s issues with Nassau county or CTA’s fights with Metra. A unified agency would just be somewhere for Seattle to consider to suburban-centric and the suburbs to consider too Seattle-centric.

      2. We just went through a housing boom and now we’re in the resulting recession. In the next few decades, highways and driving will become less and less viable, and new city development will be in the center, not at the edge. As a result, yeah, there will be demand for heavy rail!

      3. Given that the tunnels and track for Central/University/North Link are engineered for two-minute operational headways, and that a four car train can easily move 600 people, I don’t think Central Link is under-engineered for the foreseeable needs of that corridor. It’s coverage that’s our problem. Link does very little for Belltown, Queen Anne or Ballard, to name just the ones at the top of the list. Hence the importance of getting westside light rail right.

      4. I strongly agree that our transit agencies need to merge. When you travel to Vancouver or Portland and see all the transit coming from a single agency, it starts to seem ridiculous to stand in downtown Seattle and see 4 different agencies all operating buses (add in the ferries and the SLU streetcar, and you’re at 6). We need a regional government and regional transit. Pierce, Snohomish, and King County should all merge and have one transit agency. Service should be allocated roughly the way the Metro Task Force recommended recently, and cities should have the ability to buy additional service.

      5. Bruce, I was under the impression that the RV segment was engineered for 6-minute headways, and that we’re looking at 3 minute headways between ID station and Northgate, once East Link comes online and the buses leave the tunnel.

      6. The two minute number comes from the North Link EIS, and refers to the segment north of the SODO pocket track (immediately south of Stadium.) I don’t have time to dig up the page number right now. I don’t know the number for the rest of the system but 6 minutes sounds reasonable for the RV.

        Three minutes comes from a draft operational plan also (I think) from the North Link EIS. That’s 20 trains an hour — 12,000 people, almost half our current daily ridership in an hour. We have a ways to go before we tap out the Stadium-Northgate part of Link.

      7. Thank you for the info, Bruce.

        I imagine we’re only ever going to get near 3 minute headways by interlining East and Central link. And of course we don’t have the demand to fill our capacity (4-car trains every 2 minutes), but we should certainly consider the pros and cons of running 1-car trains twice as frequently.

      8. I’ve brought this up before but it wouldn’t have to be a complete merger. I realize there is a difference of scale, but possibly some variation of what is going on in the Research Triangle.


        “A three-year contract approved Wednesday by Triangle Transit trustees will make the agency responsible for planning, marketing and management of DATA, the Durham Area Transit Authority.

        DATA will still be the city’s bus system, with the Durham City Council paying its bills and retaining ownership of buses and bus stops. Triangle Transit will propose annual budgets and recommend service improvements, but the City Council will make the decisions.”

    4. Ben,

      I’d like to believe in the possibility, but it can’t be. There is no more money coming from the Feds and rural Washington has enough power in the Leg to put the kibosh on anything that might bring this bright future about. Look at how close run a thing was the car tabs, and most especially how it was warped by the Eye-men (and women) in Olympia to be essentially unusable.

      If the rest of the state is so dead set against Puget Sound that it won’t even allow the citizens of a county to tax themselves to preseve existing transit service how in the world can you believe they’ll allow the region to build something even an anorexic shadow of the elaborate Washington Metro?

      Please, be realistic. It’s very unlikely Washington will have a third track south of Nisqually. Maybe the UP can be double tracked between East Tacoma and Black River Junction to allow for more commuter trains but that’s about it.

      1. I still think we should get North Link built out past Northgate before breaking ground on any West Link.

    1. DC was also built on a swamp, though I’m not sure how that might be relevant.

      However, the Washington Metro was as much a prestige project as it was a transportation one. All the worlds capitals had great underground railways: London, Paris, Tokyo and most importantly Moscow.

      Keeping up with the Joneses. And since Lafayette gave the city enormously huge arterials, there was no real need to destroy so much of the city to move more cars.

      1. ‘DC was also built on a swamp, though I’m not sure how that might be relevant.’

        Actually it wasn’t -it is a common misperception I hear a lot. DC was originally constructed on what had been a major tribal trading center where trading trails converged. Only a small section of the city is on what can properly be termed a reclaimed ‘swamp’ or marshlands -the rest is dry ground.

  1. To think, we had our shot at a crazy heavy rail system 40 years ago. Sadly, not only did we reject that, but we rejected building more highways (some of which made sense). Sort of a double whammy of bad mistakes for us.

    I’d love to see the DBT die as much as anyone here and become something intelligent, but nobody has a legal alternative to it. Much of the DBT money comes from gas taxes, which is unconstitutional to use on non-road spending. Go on and on about irresponsibility and unsustainability of driving, but until that law changed, which is as likely as Cougs and Huskies getting along on Apple Cup Weekend, then there are no realistic alternatives. Maybe that should be the next step in our transit battle…

    1. If you have to accept the tunnel, then argue for some “freeway stations,” sort of like Mount Lake Terrace. Have little short separated roadways with bus platforms and make it like a second, freeway-speed bus tunnel, with unobtrusive thru-traffic mixed in.

      1. The DBT is incredibly deep underground, it’s not feasible to build stations into it Downtown. However, it being so deep means it’s not really in the way of a future second Downtown transit tunnel.

      2. Well how deep is it? Referencing Washington DC’s metro, Wheaton Station is roughly 115 ft. deep with escalators running from the platforms to the surface. Forest Glen Station is even deeper at 196 ft. deep and has a bank of 6 elevators connecting it to the surface (completing the trip in roughly 10 sec.)

      3. Washington Park MAX station in Portland is 260 feet under the surface. It is the deepest train station in North America and third deepest in the world (Wikipedia). Seattle’s proposed DBT will be 60-200 feet deep (WSDOT).

      4. WSDOT’s website says that the DBT will reach a max depth of about 200ft.

        But combine the expense of building those stations with their location. How useful is a 200-ft-deep express bus station—that would need to be extremely well-ventialed ventilated, by the way—underneath downtown or South Lake Union?

      5. I recently noticed that the DBT just north of Yesler Way follows 1st Ave pretty closely. However, it veers away from the heart of Belltown to make a beeline for the existing Aurora corridor. If we do make the DBT rail later, we’d probably want to build a spur from it somewhere just north of Stewart.

        Although I’ve seen some slightly different routes; this one pops out of the ground pretty close to the Center, though I’d still want to split a transit line off somewhere between Blanchard and Denny.

      6. Yeah I mean the big problem is that you need a lot of staging area to dig a 200-foot-deep station, and I don’t think we’ll be able to knock down skyscrapers and pay hundreds of millions for a station. Anyways, to be really useful it’d need at least a couple stations, which would make it extraordinarily expensive, probably cheaper to build a cut-and-cover tunnel all the way through Downtown with frequent station-spacing.

      7. alexjonlin: The Beacon Hill Link station’s staging area was pretty small. I highly doubt you’d need more than a block for a project like this.

    2. Picking nits here, but one that drives me crazy and relates to the last election. The Forward Thrust transit won the election with a 59% majority. The anti-democratic supermajority requirement of 60% was what killed what might have been, and now that the Eyeman has furthered his Mississippiation of Washington with the two-thirds requirement, backward minorities have even greater power to prevent any positive change the majority wishes to invest in, transportation or what have you.

      1. NickBob,

        The 2/3 Eyman requirements are only for legislative actions, not popular votes.

  2. It’s certainly also worth noting that DC is weathering the recession better than almost any other major metropolitan area. I’m not sure if that is directly due to walkability and transit access, but at the very least their lack of highways hasn’t resulted in economic doom.

  3. A majority of voters actually voted in favor of the original Forward Thrust proposal. Unfortunately, there was a ridiculous super-majority (60%) requirement for it to pass.

  4. Just to play Devil’s advocate, but has anyone thought that maybe failing to get Forward Thrust through was a good thing? Have any of you ever ridden MARTA or spent alot of time in Atlanta? I realize Seattle and ATL are two completely different cities, but I have to wonder if the autocentric zeitgeist wouldn’t have got us a similar system… heavy rail yes, but freeway running with giant Park and Rides surrounding every stop outside of DT…

    1. This is probably correct. Most mass transit from that era was focused on getting people from their suburban bedroom communities into the central core using park and rides.

      1. Well, to be fair, the bulk of the Seattle area’s public transit system seems to be geared to getting people to the downtown Seattle business core and fails to acknowledge other significant commute patterns that have nothing to do with downtown Seattle. Everett-Bellevue/Redmond, Everett-Lynnwood, Renton-Bellevue/Redmond, Tacoma-JBLM, Tacoma-Bremerton, Olympia-Central Puget Sound, Federal Way-Auburn and so on and so on…

      2. Was that supposed to be a joke? There are express busses for almost every one you mention.

        Everett-Bellevue/Redmond 532 or 511 + 550
        Everett-Lynnwood: SWIFT BRT. Not really King County’s problem, though, if this doesn’t work as well as you’d like.
        Renton-Bellevue/Redmond: 560, 566
        Tacoma-JBLM Not sure about this, although you can hardly lay this problem at Seattle’s door either.
        Tacoma-Bremerton: Ferry + any number of 59x busses leaving from the I.D.
        Olympia-Central Puget Sound: Not in ST’s taxing district. I’d be happy to see ST annex them, if they wanted it.
        Federal Way-Auburn: 578

    2. It actually doesn’t appear that the Forward Thrust plan was like that. Its only freeway-running segments were across the I-90 bridge, although it did also travel up Lake City Way and down through the not-very-urban industrial district.

    3. Forward Thrust was NOT freeway oriented. Have you never seen the map? It was to have been a large “X”. One arm was to have gone from Lake City Way through the U-District then to a station near 23rd and Madison, and another on First Hill. The second north branch would have gone from Northgate Way and Greenwood to 85th and 15th, down NW 20th (I believe) through downtown Ballard, under the ship canal and along 15th NW to Lower QA, and the Seattle Center. It would have joined the other north leg about Stewart and Third.

      The south legs were to have gone down past Boeing and swung through Renton to Kennydale and east across the I-90 corridor just about exactly like the Link proposal.

      As you can see, with the exception of the cross-lake route and the section from Southcenter to Renton, there is no significant section of the plan which was adjacent to a freeway.

      It was a very good plan, and would have provided a great north-south trunk from which service to Federal Way and Lynnwood could have been added pretty cheaply. There was even a dotted line on the map going up the old Interurban ROW for a couple of miles to 145th.

      Because it bracketed I-5 on both sides, it would have intercepted buses away from the freeway, providing much better mobility. True, it didn’t serve Northgate directly, which was a weakness. Perhaps the gap between 75th and Roosevelt and the southwest corner of Evergreen-Washelli would have eventually been bridged, via Northgate.

      It was a VERY good plan.

      1. Absolutely spot on. That plan should have been the basis for all further rail transit discussions/plans in this area. If you read the report the vote was based on, it clearly spells out why a single N-S line along the freeway was not a good solution for our area (the report was written by DeLeuw, Cather–now enveloped into Parsons Engineering).

        I imagine the bus service in Seattle with that type of rail spine would have turned to frequent cross-town service; in many places it wouldn’t have even mattered which direction you caught the bus as it would intersect a rail line either way.

  5. If people want more of a DC Metro-type system for Seattle, you certainly need to support more than simplistic street-running light rail for the Ballard-West Seattle line. I’ve seen some people arguing that it’s better to get something going even if it’s not ideal (the Mayor seems to subscribe to this line of thinking), but I say do it right the first time. Granted it’ll take a much longer time to fund higher quality transit, but future generations will appreciate the investment. It took 25 years from the opening of the first short subway line in DC to reach the full build-out of the originally planned system (1976 to 2001). Don’t take the “cheap” route on the Ballard-West Seattle line… take the time to do it right and hopefully by 2034 – 25 years after Link’s opening – the Puget Sound region will have high quality light rail connecting various areas.

    1. +1. I would only add that West Seattle doesn’t have the ridership yet to justify the tremendous expense of doing it right. Ballard is a decade further along in this respect and, conveniently, would be a sh*tload cheaper.

    2. Yes I totally agree. And if West Seattle doesn’t have enough ridership for grade-separated rapid transit yet, then a Ballard-Pioneer Square line is enough for now. The Mayor points to Portland as a great example of cheap, at-grade light rail working, and yet it’s faster to walk in Downtown Portland than it is to take MAX, and consequently (and for other reasons as well, like its many freeway-running alignments), transit modeshare has not risen substantially in Portland since MAX opened.

      1. Where do you all live? And have you ever been to West Seattle/White Center/Burien>?

        Ballard may well be a better place to build light rail, given the topography to get there and the density that has already occurred, but West Seattle is also rapidly becoming more dense, especially along the three “junctions” at Admiral, Alaska, and Morgan. Westwood/White Center is growing rapidly. They may have the best pizza in town at Proletariat, and the best ice cream at Full Tilt. Good beer and a nice little bar at Big Al’s. Probably the best burgers in town at Zippy’s, formerly of Highland Park–now with beer and breakfast too! Burien is doing all the right things to enhance an already robust core. And getting to Southcenter with rail is essential. Tons of people work there every day and there is the potential for lots more residential development.

        ST deferred a station at 133rd along the current alignment, where they could easily build a station to meet Central Link.

        Just saying, a little regional vision might be in order here. Especially if you want to pass a vote to build it. Build it to Ballard and West Seattle. People start to get the vision of where we need to go in terms of a regional network.

        You either build it right, and to last like the DC Metro, or you don’t build it at all. Portland-style light rail light is no better than Rapid Ride for a lot more money. Seattle is a much bigger urban area and we need to build rail for the next 50-100 years, not on the cheap today. You get what you pay for.

      2. I have been to all of those places; I think we’re actually agreeing on most things. What I think we’re trying to say is that given the choice between building shitty rail from Ballard to the Junction, and building decent rail to Ballard with potential for future expansion to Burien, we should choose the latter. If you look at the ridership stats, the 15 + 17 + 18 have more ridership than 22 + 54 + 55 + 120 and we have to lay a LOT less track and build one less bridge to get there.

      3. It’ll be difficult for the Admiral District to get rail – any line would have to go out of its way after crossing the West Seattle Bridge, unless we built a completely new structure further north.

  6. How did we only get 36 new miles of two-way light rail track for $18 billion when DC got 103 miles of grade separated heavy rail for $5 billion? Is it just not inflation adjusted or is there some other reason our system is so much more expensive?


    1. First of all, I’m not sure of the exact proportion, but nothing close to all of that $18b is going towards building new light rail. Then also, DC Metro has lots of segments at-grade in freeway medians, and you have to adjust for inflation.

      1. Yeah, I’m totally in the dark about that number. Here’s what I can find:

        Central Link: 2.5
        U-Link: 1.9
        North Link: 1.4
        East Link 2.4
        S 200th St: 0.3
        Lynnwood: 1.3

        You’re at about $8.8 billion there. When you inflate that $5 bil and consider the engineering challenges we face that DC doesn’t, it’s not completely out of whack.

  7. I don’t know DC all that well, but my impression is that its height limit causes jobs to be spread more broadly and evenly through the core, which makes for a different transit pattern than for Seattle.

    The Seattle area has two employment centers that make very good transit markets (greater Downtown and UW) and a few marginal ones that could get better if the density/parking situation changes (DT Bellevue, SLU/Queen Anne, maybe DT Kirkland and Northgate). Most other neighborhoods we’re talking about connecting with light rail are primarily residential and will be for the foreseeable future.

    So our light rail lines really have to connect to Downtown or UW (or both) to be successful now, where DC’s poly-centrism makes a broader network useful (some people are going to the Pentagon, some the L’Enfant Plaza, etc.) there.

  8. I used to favor heavy rail and I’ve ridden MARTA and others, but Link’s light metro just seems more pleasant. It feels smaller and more human-scaled, and it doesn’t have as much rusting brown/silver steel, and is quieter than some of them. Sounder and Caltrain feel like ugly behemoths compared to Link. The engineers say Link’s capacity is adequate for the next several decades. If that turns out to be false or if there’s a dramatic reduction in car usage, we can build those parallel lines on Aurora and 520 to take care of them.

  9. Metro Rail is a wonderful system, got to try it out in 2000 or thereabouts. One line even crossed over the Potomac River, and in April (as it was), the display of cherry blossoms in the sun was wonderful! The main station there had 2 rail lines crossing overhead two others, and every transit type zeroed in there: Amtrak from Baltimore, buses, etc. I daydreamed how nice if the King Street Station could even be partially that. But, instead, Central Link pushed many and eventually all buses to the surface, and it itself travels on surface enough that car/vehicle and car/pedestrian accidents add to the mechanical delays to give riders a large chance of delay, making riding it iffy to Sea-Tac as it rocks back and forth. Our “Seattle Way,” which is now demonstrating itself with endless talk of the DBT, gave us a shorter, more expensive light rail system that now is headed east on a route that the Sound Transit 550 covers extremely well and northbound, where at least through Northgate, it won’t be impacted by street traffic. After that, it seems that the freeway system without many connections is the leading choice due to its lower expense. I gave up wishing for better a long time ago, and nothing in what I’ve seen indicate that anything is changing in that regard. We collectively like discussing everything, then when a decision is made, if it’s not what we want, doing everything to delay and/or change the decision to our liking. Meanwhile, other countries have no problems with high-speed rail (as your article on the Japanese train showed yesterday) and its implementation (Canada’s airport line, which took less time than Link).

  10. You’ve heard of The Beltway right? The highway ring that runs around DC in the outer part of the metro area and which is the transportation mode of choice for almost anything done of significance in the last 40 years? There are people who would never set foot on a “subway” or the “dense core” of DC and yet live and work along the Beltway.

    1. You’ve heard of what a raging success the DC metro has been? The biggest change in the DC area is the mini-cities that have sprung around Virginia metro stations. They are getting the highest amount of commerce, biggest competition among retailers for space, and highest real estate values except for inner DC. That has encouraged more suburbs to build mini-cities around their metro stations or to push for the metro to be extended to them.

      The Beltway is as useful as any other ring road. Both it and the metro are heavily used. Even if some people refuse to go to DC or ride the metro, an even larger number of people do. The metro doesn’t have an outer ring line, so those who refuse to go to DC by definition have less opportunity to ride the metro.

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