Mike McGinn in 2009
Mike McGinn in 2009, photo by flickr user holy outlaw

In his 2012 budget, Mayor McGinn is proposing that $1.5 million be set aside for high capacity transit planning in the city. You can read more here about the corridors that will be studied if the funding is secured.  The Mayor is asking you to perform the following steps if you support the project and want the city to perform the study (emphasis in the original):

If you want to help these projects become a reality:
1) Please attend the Tuesday, October 4th City Council budget hearing at City Hall and sign up to tell Council you support the $1.5 million for high capacity transit planning. Sign-in begins at 5pm, hearing begins at 5:30 pm.
2) Please email the City Council (addresses below) that you support the inclusion of $1.5 million for high capacity transit planning and that they should keep it in the budget.
3) If you have other lists or contacts or friends that support high capacity transit, please forward this information to them.

Emails for Councilmembers:

richard.conlin@seattle.gov; sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov; tim.burgess@seattle.gov; sally.clark@seattle.gov; jean.godden@seattle.gov; bruce.harrell@seattle.gov; nick.licata@seattle.gov; mike.obrien@seattle.gov; tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov

My thoughts on this below the fold.

While obviously I support this funding, I think  the city here missing an opportunity by not considering fully grade separated light rail. In the Transit Master Plan draft (linked above) the city identified two rail flavors and two bus flavors: Rapid Streetcar (similar to Portland Light rail or the T-Third Street Line in San Francisco), Local Streetcar (similar to the First Hill Streetcar or the SLU Streetcar), Bus Rapid Transit (something about higher capacity than Rapid Ride) and Enhanced Bus (something a bit less than Rapid Ride). All of these are an improvement on what we have now, but I wish the city would be more aggressive and at least do analysis on ridership and costs for grade-separated rail.

If the city doesn’t go after taxing authority to build grade-separated rail we are never going to get as much rail in the city as we want. Right now, only Sound Transit will have enough money to build grade-separated rail here, and they are maxed out on taxing authority – meaning no new projects for a long time. Further, they require not only the same legislative approval from the state the city would to get more taxing authority, they also require region-wide vote to approve new funding. Obviously Ballard, Fremont and Belltown have different transit needs from Orting, Dupont,  Sammamish and Mill Creek, just as those places have different flood prevention needs (or whatever they do need there, I confess ignorance). It makes no sense to me that Seattle should wait to get new grade-separated transit until the entire Sound Transit District thinks it’s a good idea.

Probably it would cost  more than $1.5 million to study grade-separated rail. And certainly it would cost more to build than streetcars. And maybe the legislature doesn’t want to approve it. But none of these   mean the city shouldn’t at least look into it, see how much it costs and if the cost is reasonable, ask Olympia if we can do it. Then ask the voters if they want it. We know we have the desire for rail here, and if it more rail came to the ballot the citizenry in Seattle would likely approve it. So why are our elected officials so unambitious when it comes to actually doing something about it?

52 Replies to “Action: High Capacity Transit Planning”

  1. In the grand scope of things what would 1.5m buy you besides a cup of coffee and a couple of doughnuts? That’s about like saying NC has been awarded 30m for high speed rail (which buys them one piece of track and a couple of railroad ties).

  2. I have no idea how much it would cost to study it, or how they came to determine that $1.5 million is the right amount to study the four options they are.

    My guess is from how these things work in my field is that these are time-bound (and hence cost-bound) exercises. A $1.5 million study gets you $1.5 million worth of study.

    But maybe it’s different with with these, maybe you need $2 million to study these four options and one more. I dunno.

    But that’s my main point. If $1.5 million can’t get you more than a couple of bus studies and a couple of streetcar studies, maybe we need to be ambitious and go after a bit more money.

    1. Obviously the cost of such a study depends on how detailed you want to be. The more you spend the more refined and assured you can be in the accuracy of the study.

      1. Exactly. It costs $A to get X,Y and Z details. If you want to X and Y, it might cost $B where B < A. Which is another way of saying it's cost-bound, for $1.5 million you get $1.5 million worth of study.

  3. Why couldn’t they just use the information from the Monorail days? There’s not much that has changed in the last few years within the city of Seattle.

    1. That’s not really true. There’s been a lot of new downtown and Ballard development, and you might notice we now have Link…

      1. Yes, there has been some new development in Ballard, but you’d still run the rail line up 15th, not 24th. As for LINK, since we already know where it is (generally) going, there’s no need to study those corridors. So, I hope if the money does get allocated that they don’t waste time trying to reinvent the wheel, but hey, this IS Seattle, where they like to study the same thing 10 times and then decide not to do it.

      2. Yes, Sound Transit is going to study this corridor, UW district to Downtown via Ballard.

        There are plenty of other places to study, the mayor’s proposal mentions some. Madison to Downtown, Lower Queen Anne to Downtown, etc.

        There’s no reason the projects couldn’t complement eachother, anyway.

      3. Cinesea, if it’s underground, it could go up 17th or even a little more to the west after crossing the canal.

  4. Good thought — to study grade-separated rail. That’s what Honolulu did (along with the alternatives) for the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project. Our Yes2Rail blog is loaded with photos of the safety issues involved in at-grade transit, plus the fact that only grade-separated transit provides the unmatched travel reliability that consumers increasingly demand.

  5. As a West Seattle resident, I hope we really start to study all the options (grade separated rail, gondolas) along with the necessity and feasibility for each neighborhood. Commuting from here nowadays is like pushing a watermelon through a straw.

      1. I don’t know–Capitol Hill is pretty convenient to commute from with the multiple bus lines that run through it, or at least it was before I moved away 8 years.

      2. Cynic – it takes like 15-20 minutes to take a bus from Pike/Pine and Broadway to Westlake. With Link it will take 3 minutes. Our perspective of “pretty convenient” is seriously skewed.

  6. Grade separation would be totally awesome. Signal priority and similar technologies for at-grade rail, however, is currently eroding the benefits of grade separation.

    10 or 15 years ago I would have been shouting “elevated or nothing!”, but now I’m willing to be argued either way.

      1. If not complete grade separation, we should at least look at the potential costs of partial grade separation. I can’t imagine much benefit to grade separation of the Ballard line along Westlake, for example.

        Study it, by all means, but I have a hunch that the price tag to build elevated would be too heavy for the city council to swallow, no matter what the benefits. We don’t have the taxing authority to do it, and Olympia will absolutely never give it to us, either.

      2. What’s U-Link costing?
        Ballard-UW spur shouldn’t cost any more:

        – It’s shorter
        – Contains the same number of “deep” stations (two)
        – No water crossings
        – No passing within feet of I-5 (as U-Link does downtown)
        – 3/4-mile cut-and-cover segment (with two stations) can be done on the cheap

      3. I feel like I’ve answered the spur question a lot of times.

        It can’t happen.

        When we have North Link and East Link, headways in the tunnel will be at 4 minutes peak – and we’re going to fight to have them at 3 minutes or even 2.5 later. ALL trains, both South and East, need to go to Northgate. The north corridor demand is almost equal to south + east combined.

        There simply isn’t room for more trains between those. There’s too much variance in the system. We will need another tunnel downtown to handle a new line. It can handle two eventually. :)

      4. Ben, Aleks and I have answered that retort as many times.

        If your tunnel can’t handle 2-minute headways, then you bought yourself a signaling system that is inferior to nearly every other one on the planet.

        If that’s the case, don’t declare something “can’t happen.” Fix the deficiency.

        Frankly, I don’t even buy your “all trains need to go to Northgate” argument. It has been said that the “northern route” needs the combined frequency, but Capitol Hill and UW are responsible for the preponderance of that demand.

        A split line need not even have perfectly equal headways. 2:1 could be arranged. Any way you slice it, it’s ludicrous to think that Northgate has as much demand as the U-Link segment.

      5. The only time Northgate has disproportionate demand is at rush hour. (The rest of the time, the 41 has less frequency than the 44, you know, and is much less packed.)

        So there’s no reason you wouldn’t run Ballard-Bellevue and Northgate-SeaTac trains at all hours, and run additional Northgate-Bellevue trains at peak.

        “Oh, it’s so confusing for the poor, helpless newbies!”

        Too bad. I don’t think we need to base transit policy — and whether a whole quadrant of the city ever gets rapid transit — on the premise that people in Seattle are too dumb to figure out where their train is going based on myriad signs and announcements. Like people the world over do every day.

        Your position involves building for peak rather than building for scope and connectivity. It inherently contributes to the commuter-railization of Link, whether you wish it to or not.

      6. From Stadium and points north, Link would be capable of two minute headways, if the section to the south were reliable enough. The DSTT and the tunnels to the as far as Northgate have been engineered for those headways; presumably the same will be true of the elevated section to Lynnwood. This is all in the North Link EIS.

        The 41 has fairly solid all-day ridership during the week, and runs at the same headways as the 44. Evenings and weekends, it is indeed much quieter and less frequent than the 44. If Northgate develops as the high-rise urban center many of us want it to, it will not lack for all-day ridership by the time North Link opens.

      7. The 41 is packed all day long, which you can observe by hanging out at the Convention Station and trying to get on it. Good luck. Northgate is a designated Urban Center, which means if all goes according to plan it will absorb a huge amount of population growth in the coming decades. Given all that, it would be foolish to turn trains around at the University.

      8. Thanks for your even-temperedness as always, Bruce.

        I’m not arguing against high all-day frequency to Northgate. 5-10 minutes is very high frequency and could nevertheless share the central tunnel with another branch of equal frequency.

        But Roosevelt-Northgate, no matter how built up or how major a transfer point the latter becomes, is never going to have the demand that the U-District and Capitol Hill have, and it’s silly to argue that a vehicle frequency set for the busiest segment need continue all the way to the end.

        The more I think about it, the more strongly I disagree with Ben’s assertion that Northgate has higher demand than the east-west spur would. Keep in mind that such a spur would be designed to siphon significant portions of the demand for the 18, 15, 28, 5, 16, and 26, in addition to most of the 44’s demand. That’s more riders, period.

        (Yes, I know that the Fremont-Ballard streetcar plan anticipates a measly 25,000 boardings per day. That’s because it is a bad plan.

        East-west also offers more likely permutations of trips. This is a matter of distance and of land usage: On the Northgate line, ridership will increase uni-directionally as the line heads south. There are no “short hops” to be made until you get to the U-District (the whole line north of the U-District is low density, as we’ve been fighting with the Roosevelt N.A. about). The 44 corridor, meanwhile, has lots of on-off demand and many potential start/end points for trips to/from elsewhere in the Link system. It’s much better for the kind of multi-purpose demand we should be trying to incubate.

      9. But Roosevelt-Northgate, no matter how built up or how major a transfer point the latter becomes, is never going to have the demand that the U-District and Capitol Hill have, and it’s silly to argue that a vehicle frequency set for the busiest segment need continue all the way to the end.

        +1. A *lot* of people will board/exit at Capitol Hill, UW, and Brooklyn stations. This is pretty much inarguable. Sound Transit’s website says that the daily boardings at each station are estimated to reach these numbers in 2030:

        Capitol Hill: 14,000
        UW: 25,000
        Brooklyn: 12,300
        Roosevelt: 8,500
        Northgate: 15,200

        In other words, of the passengers on a train departing north from Westlake, only about 30% will still be on the train after the U-District.

        Conversely, the 44 currently has about 6,000 daily riders (based on STB’s chart from Spring 2009); the 15 has 7,000; the 18 has 5,500. That’s 18,500 riders who would have a strong chance of switching to the train. And that doesn’t take into account the new riders you’d get because trains are snazzy, nor the riders who would take a bus from the north and transfer. (In fact, the 41 only has 8,000 daily riders.)

        However I look at the numbers, what I see is that, once you get to 45th, there’s just as much demand heading west as heading north.

        As far as headways go, Bruce and d.p. are right on the money. You could easily imagine three separate routes (and in fact something like this was proposed by Sound Transit, I believe): Ballard-Eastside, Brooklyn-Airport, and Northgate-Stadium (or Mt. Baker, or wherever it is that you can sustain 2-minute headways and turn a train around). Then you’ve got 2-minute headways on the central segment (U-District to Stadium), and 6-minute headways on all the branches (Ballard, Northgate, Airport, and Bellevue).

        It’s all about tradeoffs. If we want 2-minute headways to Northgate, then we get 15-minute headways — and a much longer, agonizing trip — to Ballard. Or we build a much more expensive line and another grade crossing, which could easily add another 5-10 years to the project duration.

        Or, if we want 6-minute headways to Ballard, we get… 6-minute headways to Northgate.

        I’m not seeing the problem here.

      10. I love how passionate you guys are about this. Why spend your passion on me? I agree with you (minus a minor point or two). Let’s spend it where it matters!

      11. To be clear, no one here argues that we don’t want an East-west spur or a North-South spur or a whatever spur.

        We all want *all* of those. Let’s not argue here which one is best. Let’s ask our elected officials whose job is to listen to us to at least try to do something. Anything. Not Nothing.

      12. I love how passionate you guys are about this. Why spend your passion on me?

        Points taken, Andrew. But anyone who knows the history of Washington’s anemic funding policies and Seattle’s transit lethargy knows it’s unwise to want “all” things, because you won’t get the right things done well.

        I don’t want 2-minute headways to Northgate, I don’t want the second downtown tunnel, and I don’t want the Ballard streetcar, because all of those suggestions serve to push quality rapid transit across this city back by decades!

        I really don’t want the downtown “streetcar connector,” because it would be a giant monument to our backward priorities, a rolling advertisement for the next “No On Transit Funding” campaign.

        Let’s ask our elected officials whose job is to listen to us to at least try to do something.

        There’s nothing I’d love to do more than to sit down with the mayor, pull out that to-scale map I made, explain its reasoning, explain its superiority to the streetcar proposal, explain that it’s expensive, but not prohibitively so if you make it the priority and sell it correctly, and why its compounded advantages more than compensate for its higher costs. With some refinement of the argument, I feel I could persuade the man, if not the politician.

        But we all know how well that worked out for Campbell Scott.

      13. d.p., the reason you think you’ve responded to my retort is that you’ve never done the headway math on your proposals and figured out that you’re suggesting WAY less peak capacity for Northgate than we need. Sorry man.

      14. Ben, Aleks is correct, and you’re wrong.

        You will never see demand north of Brooklyn that is more than 30%-50% of the demand at Brooklyn at the same time of day.

        If Cap Hill and the U District require 3-minute headways at rush-hour, Northgate will do just fine at 6.

        Four-car trains every 3-4 minutes — multiply articulated, so really the equivalent of 6-8 car trains — that’s a New York level of capacity.

        Maybe you think Northgate’s going to be New York in the near future, but there’s nothing self-evident about that position. The onus is on you to prove it. There are only 8,000 riders on the 41 today.

      15. Well, mate, then let the perfect be the enemy of the good if you want to.

        I might argue that’s what you’re doing.

        Second downtown tunnel is “the perfect.”

        Waiting for that is the enemy of the good.

        The streetcar plan is not good.

    1. Signal priority limited Link to 35mph. A proper subway might do 80. There’s a very big difference.

      We NEED people to shout “grade separated” or “elevated” or “subway” or the compromise position ends up streetcars.

      1. 35mph all the way from Ballard to downtown sounds perfectly reasonable (and a big improvement on current bus service). However, it is not as competitive with driving. For a lot more money we can get much faster “subway” service and make it faster than driving. The problem is that money needs to come from somewhere and there are always tradeoffs. It may seem really obvious to you that we should spend billions on full grade separation so Ballard can get downtown as fast as possible, but tell that people in other parts of the city who might think it’s better to spend millions on a whole series of smaller improvements. Here in Portland, I am starting to find myself sympathetic to the folks who point out that for the cost of a single streetcar line, we could build out a very large electric trolleybus network. Or for the cost of a single MAX line, we could build out the whole streetcar network, or build several BRT lines. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs, tradeoffs. Remember the tradeoffs.

      2. Sure, if we were even getting a streetcar network. But no one is even pushing for that!

        You really don’t need all that much subway. Downtown, Belltown, LQA, sure. But from there Ballard, you don’t need it.

      3. Like Zef says, a sustained 35mph does look pretty good compared to rush-hour surface traffic.

        Throw in some crossing gates, like Central Link through SoDo, and we can bump it up a bit (what’s the speed there, 50?).

        I would like to see it elevated. But our current city council will not spend the money, period. They seem to have no interest at all in serious city-level transit.

        If we do get a surface line to Ballard built (or heaven forbid, a shared-lane streetcar), and it quickly goes to crush-loads like the projections say it will, THEN maybe there’ll be the policital will to give it grade separation as a second phase.

      4. …THEN maybe there’ll be the policital will to give it grade separation as a second phase.

        Good luck with that. This is not a city that fixes its mistakes. Get this wrong, and it’ll be wrong for a hundred years.

        No public transit is perfect; every system has its flaws, quirks, and impediments to flawlessly efficient running. The difference between a commendable system and a broken one is whether effort is taken to minimize as many flaws as possible, so that the flaws don’t compound and compound into something insufferable. (Metro is the perfect example of broken: bad routing, bad frequency, bad reliability, bad transfers, bad payment policies, bad driver incentives, bad, bad, worse.)

        So ask yourself how the streetcar plan stacks up. It takes care of the bad payment policies, but makes insufficient advances in frequency and routing, and it does nothing for the reliability (bridge queue jump har-de-har) and leaves the transfer penalties intact (downtown or anywhere else).

        That last one may be the most malignant. When something takes twice as long as driving to downtown (as Zef estimates), that still means 4-5 times as long to anywhere else. Ballard to anywhere-but-downtown still screams out for driving. I cannot see the appeal of this plan at all.

      5. Frequency and reliability are more important than speed. Any semi-decent average speed (above about 25) is great. I think the New York subway averages about 20, though I’m not 100% sure.

        But you’ve got to have the frequency, or else the wait time kills the overall travel time. Psychologically, waiting is much harder than moving. And you need grade separation to maintain reliable headways at high frequency, so we need grade separation.

        50 MPH with gates vs. 35 without gates? Who cares? The problem is that needing to let the cross-traffic through the intersections limits headways. (Note: it looks like headways are fine in the RV right now, so I’m more talking long-term here)

      6. The headway problem is real. We’re talking about maxing out at 8 minute headways, having to stop cross traffic every 3-4 minutes. This is the same as current & future peak headways on Central Link, so it’s not that bad, but it’s not awesome, either.

        I think you’d have a hard time arguing for better headways on an in-city line to Ballard than on Central or East Link, though.

        The mixed-traffic segment on Fremont is a reliability issue, but the rest of the alignment is either sharing row on low-traffic streets, or running in exclusive row. Hopefully the money will materialize for a high bridge across the ship canal.

      7. I think you’d have a hard time arguing for better headways on an in-city line to Ballard than on Central or East Link, though.

        Absolutely incorrect.

        Fact of life: a longer-distance journey is inherently less spontaneous than a shorter one. Even on the west coast, even in Seattle. You’re going further, you’ll be gone longer.

        There’s not much difference between waiting 5 minutes or waiting 15 for a trip that takes 45 minutes each way and that has you gone the whole day.

        There’s a huge difference between waiting 5 minutes or 15 for a 10-minute trip that might be just an errand.

        There is no commuter rail, S-Bahn, or regional metro on earth that runs higher frequencies than its respective urban-transit counterpart. Everywhere else gets this.

        But we’re Seattle. Gotta reinvent the wheel, and this time the wheel has to be square.

      8. “But we’re Seattle. Gotta reinvent the wheel, and this time the wheel has to be square.”

        Don’t forget the free ride vouchers for the SHARE/WHEEL folks, otherwise the whole plan goes down…

      9. @ d.p.

        Do you have market research showing that passengers value their time differently if they’re making a short trip versus a long trip?

        I realize that you may perceive it that way, but do the facts actually bear it out that it is truly a “huge” difference?

        The reason I ask is that I don’t know of any such differentiation when it comes to the percieved value of transit wait times – and if there is, I’d like to know more about it.

      10. Actually, yes, I do.

        In the form of commuter rail systems all over the world running on hourly schedules. (Even New York’s, with higher ridership than North Link could garner in its wettest dreams.)

        In the form of Amtrak trains (even extremely high demand routes like Boston-NY, running 8 or 9 times daily).

        In the form of cross-country flights that run only once or twice a day.

        It’s not about “valuing time differently.” It’s about whether infrequency has a slight vs an exponential impact on trip time. Adding 5 minutes to the wait time does not exponentially increase a long-distance trip in the way it does a medium-distance one.

        When your trip is inherently long, it inherently requires blocking significant time. At that point, 5 vs 15 minutes is not a huge discrepancy.

        Of course, even “metro-grade” BART is wise enough to publish precise schedules. (As are Germany’s S-Bahns, Paris’s RER, etc.) You see, if you’re going to be gone half the day no matter what, it’s easier to arrive in time for a scheduled trip than to wait any amount of time (5, 10, or 15) on the platform.

        That exurban stations often require driving to, rather than walking, also affects the need for schedule over frequency.

        15-minute frequencies with no schedule or an untrustworthy schedule (see: RapidRide; everything else Metro does) are bad regardless of distance. But the need for ultra-frequency is much less severe when you’re traveling a ways. Scheduled medium-frequency service is the proven ideal for such journeys.

      11. I understand what you’re saying in regards to frequency.

        I thought you had something more tangible regarding the value of wait time. I have yet to see a market research study that shows that longer distance commuters have a different value for wait time than a shorter distance customer. It’s a very interesting premise – I was hoping for more than anecdotes to support it.

  7. This is why I think ST should have invested in the Aurora corridor rather than wasting money on north Sounder.

    1. barman, are you aware of why we have North Sounder? Or do you just assume it was some planner? It was the Snohomish delegation that demanded it, or they wouldn’t support Sound Move.

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