Photo by Oran

In 1995 and 2007, voters struck down measures to build and expand regional rail at the ballot, only to pass both the following years (1996 and 2008, respectively).  In both instances, the approved measures were scaled down in scope from their predecessors, which has since unleashed quite a bit of consternation over the what-ifs and the woulda-coulda-shouldas had we built rail out to places like Tacoma, Everett, and Issaquah.

The question of how far we should extend rail is a practical and worthy conversation to have.  Rail, by its mathematical nature, performs best where there are the highest concentration of riders in the least amount of space.  And as a result, productivity will only decrease as trains travel across longer distances and lower population densities.  When you get to these kind of routing typologies, freeway segments and park-and-rides are usually thrown into the mix to net a broader drivershed-based catchment area.

The innate danger in operating these low-productivity segments is that train capacity and hours, that could have gone to serving dense urban core populations, essentially go to waste.  If you take a look at some of the newer expansive light rail systems built out west, you’ll notice that while ridership isn’t exactly in the tank, productivity measures fare terribly when compared to urban systems.

Annual boardings Boardings per hour* Boardings per mile*
Boston 65,471,593 100.68 10.72
San Francisco 49,396,925 78.70 8.57
Los Angeles 46,409,075 108.19 4.81
Phoenix 12,112,733 66.27 4.57
Dallas 17,799,186 71.73 3.60
Denver 20,087,726 47.86 2.52

 *Annual unlinked passenger trips over revenue vehicle hours/miles, data from National Transit Database 2010

Denver and Dallas, for example, trail the pack when matched with powerhouses like San Francisco and Boston.  While it’s not the fairest comparison to make, it’s a cut-and-dry indication that such sprawling systems will almost certainly have a long-term ridership plateau with low-density land use patterns and park-and-rides limiting growth.  With lower densities served and longer distances traveled, ridership for every unit of service operated is held to a minimal level.

Whether the same lessons are applicable to our region is debatable.  The three oft-cited ultimate termini of our regional rail network–Everett, Tacoma, and Issaquah– are far removed from the urban core of Seattle, separated by sprawling low-density areas that house a limited number of rail riders and would almost certainly warrant large expensive parking garages to lure ridership.  Low-performing segments could also be used by transit opponents as a political tool to justify modal bias against rail.

Land use considerations also carry their own implications.  Building our rail network to chase sprawl runs the risk of encouraging people to live farther away from the city center, shifting demand for housing that would be most valuable and effective within Seattle.  And as many of these low-productivity suburban and exuburban segments would be sited along freeways with park-and-rides to boot, limitations of development potential would stifle the system’s long-term utility.

Nonetheless, given the region’s political framework, the practical considerations of withholding rail expansion to cities like Issaquah and Tacoma  may be moot, as they would effectively cause Sound Transit to renege on its regional obligations.  Above and beyond, it’s important to remember that Seattle remains the powerhouse for transit ridership and economic development, renderings efforts like Seattle Subway and joint rail planning to Ballard the top of anyone’s priority list.

Disclaimer: The author is currently employed as a temporary worker for Sound Transit.  Any opinions in this article are his own and, in no way, express the views and policies of his employer, past or present.

281 Replies to “How Far Should We Extend Rail?”

  1. How far should we extend rail?

    Let the public decide.

    Put an equivalent highway measure that accomplishes the same mobility goals side by side with the rail version.

    The public is smart enough to figure it out.

    1. No they’re not. This is the same public that constantly votes for the unconstitutional Tim Eyman measures that prevent the collection of funds necessary to deliver the exact same services they keep demanding for themselves.

      1. Kyle;

        a) Hard to say they’re unconstitutional when in the past the State Supremes have ruled in favor of the supermajority OR public vote protection.

        b) Requiring a public vote or a supermajority does NOT “prevent”.

        BTW, until Eyman puts stuff on the ballot to control user fees it’s almost if not impossible for me to vote for his agenda.

      2. @Avgeek When did the Supreme court rule that a 2/3rd majority rule for the State house and senate is constitutional, because their last ruling struck it down.

      3. The Washington State Supreme Court has consistently refused to nullify I-960. The only ruling that has accepted the arguement that it violates the State Constitutions came from King County Superior Court. Remember, judges in our state are elected so it’s not surprising that they would vote with an eye toward their constituency rather than the State Constitution.

        Washington Legislative Supermajority or Voter Approval Required for Tax Increase, Initiative 960 (2007)

      4. Thanks. I though that last ruling was from the Washington State Supreme court, not the King County Superior court.

      5. I believe the ruling has been appealed and scheduled to be heard by the Washington State Supreme court this fall.

      6. Art. II, Sec. 22 of the Constitution of the State of Washington says in clear 19th-century language that it takes but simple majorities in both houses of the Legislature to pass a bill — any bill. The State Supreme Court has not ruled on this section; they ducked on a procedural issue. There’s a new action pending which will force the Court to address the issue squarely. It would take a huge act of judicial activism for them to rule that the constitution means something different from what it says it means.

      7. I’d like to see the state supreme court strike down Eyman’s proposition, and then see the Democratic-controlled state legislature raise taxes. Gov. McKenna will veto the increases, and the Republicans will sweep the subsequent legislative elections.

        Who knew how much the transit advocates wanted to turn this state red? I wouldn’t think you’d want that, but maybe you’ve got some secret strategy I don’t grasp?

      8. Seems to me that the sole mission of Washington State’s Democrats has become the search for ways to raise taxes. This doesn’t strike me as a formula for long-term success, but who knows?

      9. The state’s job is to provide the basic services expected by a state. We can argue about what those are, but promoting the citizens’ health and the economy sound like two important parts. Good transit improves the economy by allowing people to get around without the expense of a car. If people want a car anyway as a luxury item, that’s OK but they can’t expect an extraordinary amount of concessions like mega highways. Taxes should be right-sized for the state’s responsibilities, which could mean an increase or decrease depending on the situation. We should be arguing about what the state’s responsibilities should be, and then admit that the state needs an adequate amount of taxes to cover them.

        In my mind, the state and counties/cities have grossly underfunded transit for the past sixty years, and especially missed their opportunity after the 1970s oil embargo to build a transit system that would serve the majority of citizens. Alongside that is land use patterns that could have put jobs closer to transit stops.

      10. “mega highways”

        I mean a mega number of highways. I’m not saying I-5 or I-90 shouldn’t exist, although it would be better if they went around Seattle rather than through it.

      11. “Taxes should be right-sized for the state’s responsibilities, which could mean an increase or decrease depending on the situation.”

        I hope you’re at least fooling yourself, because you’re not fooling anyone else.

      12. “I’m Magnolia and I Don’t Care” — if your primary issue is that you want lower taxes, I assume you support eliminating most of the state highway system, which sucks up vast quantities of sales taxes and gross receipts taxes?

        If so, you are going to have trouble finding a candidate to vote for. Perhaps the Green Party?

      1. Actually, that’s not true. “Roads and Transit” failed but ST1 and 2 passed. There’s strong support for rail in Seattle and medium support in the suburbs, but little support in the exurbs and rural areas. North Seattle residents who use the Northgate P&R asked ST not to expand the P&R but instead to put better bus/ped/bicycle connections to Licton Springs and Maple Leaf. Finally, people don’t want freeways in their backyard. It’s become increasingly difficult to site both freeways and airports. Widening existing highways is tolerated if a lot of mitigation money is pumped into the surrounding neighborhoods, but building a new freeway in a residential area is another matter.

      2. But that’s a recent and partial change, Mr. Orr. There are still vast masses of highway projects which don’t go to the ballot — yet only a tiny number of public transportation projects which don’t….

    2. There’s a serious flaw in your straw man: there is no highway measure which could “accomplishes the same mobility goals” as a rail transit system. That’s because the goals of public transportation and highways are not the same.

      The ultimate design goal of the highway system is to link the greatest possible fraction of the population of the polity for which the system is to be built to one another, to activities and to services. If one uses the term “the highway system” to include gravel roads it’s arguable that the goal is to serve 100% of the population, no matter the cost. It’s an equity thing; all pay through property taxes (county roads) so all should be served.

      The highway system has a secondary purpose to serve the needs of commerce.

      The goal of the public transportation system is quite different. Because of the limited physical scope it can never serve 100% of the population. In The Netherlands and the other low countries it might reach 90% but nowhere else in the world does it achieve that. Instead it has the goal of providing access to 100% of people with disabilities and the mobile poor in the areas to which it does extend. And then secondarily it has the goal of maximizing the utility of the urban road network by providing more efficient use of road space with buses or alternative rights of way using rail systems or occasionally busways.

      So how can one replace the other? That’s just typical simplistic “conservative” straw-man reasoning. Cities need both; without streets and roads they simply don’t exist. But without public transportation they grind to a halt. This has been shown to be true worldwide for the past 100 years; the most successful cities have effective and efficient public transportation.

      1. @Anondakos

        There’s a serious flaw in your straw man: there is no highway measure which could “accomplishes the same mobility goals” as a rail transit system.

        This is no straw man argument. I’m being taxed for both kinds of transportation systems. I should have the opportunity to evaluate both, side by side.

        That’s because the goals of public transportation and highways are not the same.

        The ultimate design goal of the highway system is to link the greatest possible fraction of the population of the polity for which the system is to be built to one another, to activities and to services. If one uses the term “the highway system” to include gravel roads it’s arguable that the goal is to serve 100% of the population, no matter the cost.

        No matter the cost? I’m quite alright with 2 lane county roads, but if demand requires more than that, I need more information before I’m taxed to support something I don’t use.

        It’s an equity thing; all pay through property taxes (county roads) so all should be served.

        You need to be a bit more specific as to which roads get which part of their funding from which sources.
        It’s a bit more complicated than that.

        However, that comment brings up the question of what happens to the state gas tax that is collected when driving on your county roads? The gas is being burnt on county roads, but where is it being spent? State highways?

        The highway system has a secondary purpose to serve the needs of commerce.

        So did the railroads when they were deeded the land to build their rail systems. Given that argument, why don’t we deed the trucking industry the government owned right-of-way available that is adjacent to the interstates, and they can build and maintain their own system!

        … And then secondarily it has the goal of maximizing the utility of the urban road network by providing more efficient use of road space with buses or alternative rights of way using rail systems or occasionally busways.

        So how can one replace the other?

        The question really is, when do you move from a roads based solution, where ‘congestion’ is the problem to be solved, to a rail system, whose payback occurs just a bit farther into the future from when the latest highway widening project would have been maxed out.

      2. “(B)ut where is it being spent? State highways?”

        Yes. At least as I understand it, fuel taxes are dedicated to state and Federal highways and the Interstate system. County roads and city streets are the responsibility of the respective jurisdiction, and therefore mostly paid for by property taxes. County sales taxes may juice the pot a little bit, but they’re relatively minuscule.

        So far as your reference to the railroad land grants, you really don’t know much about them, do you? Yes, the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe all received alternate sections for either five or ten miles (in the NP’s case twenty) to either side of the rail right of way on their original transcontinental trunk lines. The Illinois Central received alternate sections for five miles either side of its two main trunk lines in Illinois.

        I don’t know what recompense Illinois may have levied on the IC, but the Federal government insisted that the land grant roads carry government freight for one cent per ton-mile, originally to be in perpetuity. Government officials and troops were carried for one cent per passenger mile.

        During World War I, when the railroads were run by the US Railroad Authority, the one cent per ton mile was extended to all US railroads, land grant or not, and that responsibility continued after the war.

        During World War II the government recognized the folly of having had the USRA run the rails in WWI and forebore a repeat of the experience. Still, the stupendous volumes of war material and troops carried basically wore out the transcons, but fortunately the government recognized the essential nature of the rails for fighting a two-ocean war and had given essentially free loans for double-tracking and CTC installations over critical bottlenecks. So at the end of the war much rail was worn thin but lots of new signals and some new double track had been added.

        It was not until the 1950’s I believe, but definitely after the war sometime, that Congress released the railroads from their requirement to carry freight for the government at the artificially low rate.

        If you’re proposing that the trucking companies have the capital necessary to build their own roads, you’re smoking some of Mendocino County’s finest. And even if they did, the land grant history shows that the availability of right of way would come with strings (not to mention how the heck do you handle the interchanges on the truck side of the road?). In many places on the Interstate system the former medians are no longer available; they already have lanes.

  2. I am stunned – Rail in non dense areas can and will ultimately building density around it. Rail to these ares is not seen as serving already ens areas but helping them become so.

    Of all people I would think the STB would see that more than anyone. Disappointing for the lack of foresight by the STB but then again, its all about seattle for you people. You fail to recognize the mass influx of people that come into the King/Seattle area to work and back out at night – it would be better they used alternative modes of transportation than their cars.

    1. Jackson, if increased density was that much of a slam-dunk guarantee, Sound Transit wouldn’t be prohibited from considering land use changes when performing its alternatives analysis.

      There’s not going to be some fundamental shift in the attitudes of Issaquah or Federal Way residents that leads to the sudden conversion of their city into a dense, walkable transit-oriented neighborhood. Existing patterns have nigh-insurmountable inertia.

      Besides, we don’t need more downtowns in this region. We already have two, and they are being underutilized. And only in the City of Seattle does the political and economic will already exist and is being expended to increase density. Even here we have real-estate industry lackeys like Glenn Roberts fighting tooth and nail to throw wrenches in the gears.

      Quite frankly, yes, it is all about Seattle. We have the jobs, we have the people. We already have the governmental structure and willpower to function as a dense city. And yet we get to sit back and watch as we spend exorbitant amounts of money building commuter service with technology and infrastructure that would be put to much better use in Seattle.

      1. Yes, that’s what I was referring to. It’s underutilized as a downtown, but at least the hard part of creating the political will to upzone is done.

      2. +1 build the infrastructure where you need it and where people will use it. It will be an immense waste of time and resources if we end up with a light rail system that does nothing more than string together park and rides.

        More transit infrastructure in seattle now please!

      3. Yes Seattle needs more rail. But we could do so much good by simply adding frequency to bus routes, perhaps by funding Metro like the State funds Amtrak. A levy of moderate scale would do the trick.

      4. –“Jackson, if increased density was that much of a slam-dunk guarantee, Sound Transit wouldn’t be prohibited from considering land use changes when performing its alternatives analysis.”–

        Which is completely ridiculous. All parts of our system need to work together: zoning, transit, planning, development, etc. Segregating it artificially for political purposes just slows everything down.

        Yes, rail has the ability to catalyze development like none other, and we need to remember we are NOT building the 2020 and later lines for the cities of today, but for the cities of tomorrow. Of decades hence. A decade ago, what was Bellevue?

      5. Of decades hence. A decade ago, what was Bellevue?

        Hehe. Haven’t been here for long. A decade ago was 2002. Bellevue wasn’t exactly blueberry farms. The notion of a Bellevue circulator bus is still fiction. But we’re going to spend Billions on rail across a sinking bridge and promote a swamp as TOD. The result of ST being voted in as a spend it if you got it “transit” agency where elected politicians get to give away free candy.

      6. Swamp TOD? I wasn’t aware there were plans to build TOD in a swamp. Would you mind showing me these plans?

    2. Jackson, you missed my point. A more direct question you might consider is this: “Why should we build density elsewhere when density in Seattle itself is sorely lacking?”

      Now, these two options aren’t mutually exclusive, which is what I’m trying to hint at. I’m saying that if we want to get our priorities in order, Seattle must come first. Don’t you think it’s a problem that cities like Federal Way and Lynnwood might get rail before a neighborhood like Ballard? It’s not good regional land use policy.

    3. You’d also be mistaken to believe that I am against regional rail expansion. My point, as I alluded to in the post, is that efforts like Seattle Subway are paramount in moving forward while Sound Transit continues to expand Link. Like I said, ST cannot build solely within Seattle; that’s not what the agency is meant to do.

      Again, putting out the disclaimer that I am temporarily employed by Sound Transit with these opinions wholly my own.

  3. I’d suggest three principles:

    1) Stay within the area around Seattle (or Tacoma or Everett if you like) where demand exists all day in both directions. Beyond some point (about the Seattle city limits north-south, plus the central eastside) demand becomes very peak oriented, inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon, where commuter rail or bus is a better solution.

    2) Focus on a network, not system length. Until there’s a network, rail will have a less transformational effect on travel and remain primarily a work trip demand – that’s because a network lets you get to dramatically more destinations, and non-work trips are multi-destinational. Where I grew up in Boston, the four lines there could get me close to almost everywhere I wanted to go. Three lines in Seattle and two on the eastside would have the same effect here; getting to Lynnwood and Tacoma would not.

    3) Make sure there’s a strategy behind each line that can be explained that takes advantage of the things rail can accomplish more effectively than buses.

    1. I agree 100% with everything you’ve said. A compact but effective network is far more important and practical than flinging rail at bedroom communities along an existing highway.

    2. …Three lines in Seattle and two on the eastside would have the same effect here; getting to Lynnwood and Tacoma would not.

      Most important STB comment ever.

      But those three lines must be built correctly. If the routing is compromised, if the walksheds are misaligned, if all trips rely on sub-par connecting transit (remember how rarely you had to think about buses in Boston?), then the transformative effect you describe is undone.

      Just say “no” to half-baked schemes that aim too broadly, as well as to corner-cutting plans that achieve too little. We only have one chance to get this right.

      1. If you’re rich enough to afford waste, you can afford to build wrong once and build right the second time. Arguably this is the history of London’s rail network and of the London Underground, both of which had really questionable early choices, but because *it was 19th century London* they were rich enough to just go ahead and redo their mistakes.

        Yet I don’t think that Seattle will be an economic boomtown long enough to afford to get things wrong very many more times. You already blew your first chance (Forward Thrust).

  4. Link has tried to be both mass transit and, as it builds out, commuter rail. It would have been better to focus on one or the other. At the same time, going with light rail, elevated power lines, etc., will really limit effectiveness as a regional system, as will the sheer number of stops when traveling longer distances.

    For Link to be an effective routing between Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett, you basically have to believe our highways (and HOV lanes) turn into complete gridlock. I’m sure some passenger will take Link over long distances, but for the most part, Sound Transit’s projections show that the majority of trips will occur within each county. Given the long delays associated with building out from Seattle all the way to Tacoma/Everett, this really begs the question: wouldn’t we be better off building rail out from Tacoma and Everett first?

    1. If you start from Tacoma or Everett, where are you going to go? Rail works well when there’s a common destination.

      1. If you’re in Everett you might go to Lynnwood, Shoreline, Greenlake (less likely), the U-District, Capitol Hill, downtown, the stadiums, or the airport. If you’re in Seattle or Shoreline you might go to the Everett Events Center, Everett Boeing, the naval station, or a show in downtown Everett. Or your grandmother might live in Roosevelt or Lynnwood.

      2. If you start in Everett or Tacoma, I’d think you’d look at the demand heading into those cities and for circulation within them. If I was thinking about rail for Tacoma, I wouldn’t imagine it as a huge park-and-ride at the Tacoma Dome and a transfer to get into the downtown – that’s been built only to serve Seattle commute trip needs (using three separate high capacity modes even). Both Everett and Tacoma could benefit from smaller-scaled systems focused around their own downtowns and activity centers. This is why the fixation with connecting cities forty miles away is so misguided – it does little for the cities it’s connecting to in that case.

      3. Correct. The Seattle-Everett and Seattle-Tacoma markets alone would not warrant something like light rail.

      4. Ideally the Tacoma extension would go to downtown Tacoma and beyond. Just terminating at Tacoma Dome is a lot less effective.

    2. Link has always been trying to solve the peak hour “congestion” problem. It has never been trying to enable people to live without a car. To support the latter, we need Seattle Subway to finish the in city grid.

      That said, Link is a good start, and it was built with subarea equity and promises to link major population centers with Downtown Seattle, Bellevue and the airport.

      1. I agree. I’ve been on Link not just during Seafair Weekends & the recent American Heroes Airshow but also at other times such as March 2012 and January 2010. Come rush hour in the morning & the afternoon, it’s standing room only.

      2. Yes it has. The Rainier Valley stations were installed to facilitate living without a car, especially Othello which didn’t have much of anything until the station was announced. Othello station was built as the site of a future transit-oriented neighborhood. Also, the Capitol Hill and UDistrict stations are clearly intended to facilitate living without a car; otherwise the stations would be on I-5 which would have been cheaper to construct. Yes, a lot of people in those places already don’t have a car, but the existing bus transit is so slow and irregular that it deters other people from ditching their car. Having a real subway in those places will encourage more people to use their cars less, and the effect will spill out into other neighborhoods.

        Seattle Subway will make it easier to go without a car throughout the city, but the existing Link is also doing its part.

      3. Okay, Mike, imagine if this constituted the entirety of the New York Subway system:

        30 miles long. Stations well over a mile apart. Dense residential areas skipped entirely. Lateral connections ignored.

        Not all that useful, eh? Not that helpful for trips less than 5 miles. Not within walking distance of millions of Manhattanites.

        That’s exactly how Link is designed! No one in Seattle is giving up their car because they can now reach precisely 5 urban nodes.

      4. I don’t have a car, even though I have to take a slow/overcrowded/infrequent/unreliable bus between these five nodes. Link is what I’ve been wanting for 35 years. It’s weird that you think Link is worse than nothing.

      5. I’ve never said that Link is worse than nothing! I’ve never even though it!

        It’s just so exasperatingly less useful than it could have been for all the money we’re spending on it!!

        You claimed that (part of) the line was designed specifically to enable and encourage car-free living, and that is simply inaccurate. You and I may stubbornly try to live car-free in this poorly connected city, but those who make rational choices about the value of their time and their freedom of movement do not.

        No one who would previously have chosen car ownership has relinquished their car because 5 disparate nodes (and nowhere else) became slightly easier to reach.

      6. When people can envision a mental map of the world they inhabit — all of the places they go or would like to go on a regular basis — and realize that all of those places are accessible via easy-to-comprehend transit spines, with painless transfers between them, plus a short walk…

        …that’s when they start giving up their cars!

        Link seems custom-designed not to do that.

        Note how new commenter Quasimodal said pretty much the same thing, independently of me, back before you and I went buck-wild on this thread. This is a truism for those who have lived in cities where everybody uses transit rather than just talking about it.

      7. No one who would previously have chosen car ownership has relinquished their car because 5 disparate nodes (and nowhere else) became slightly easier to reach.

        I did, because a high-quality link to downtown unlocks the rest of the system.

      8. I’ll half agree with Martin and half with d.p. If reaching “disparate nodes” enables connections throughout the “network,” then it greatly increases the attractiveness of transit, albeit not nearly yet competitive with car ownership. Nonetheless, we’re far from the anywhere-anywhere network even with Link as a trunk. Martin, you commute entirely auto-free, but am I not correct that you still own a car for non-work trips?

      9. My wife has a car that she uses almost exclusively, except when going DT or to the airport (rail bias!). In general I’m on transit, work and leisure trips, unless the whole family is going together.

      10. Martin, I’m glad that Link has been such a life-changer for you — honestly! — though as an avowed transit promoter and the editor of a transit blog, your experience may be no more representative than that of stalwart transit users like Mike and myself (both childless, irregular commute patterns, use transit at all times and for all purposes, probably both know in our heart of hearts that the rational way to speed up our lives would be to own cars).

        But even you, living on the line and enjoying its strengths, must also be able to recognize its weaknesses.

        The system that Link “unlocks” with its straight-shot to downtown is one of slow, infrequent, unreliable connections to Greenwood and Capitol Hill and the Madison Valley. For now and forever, thanks to its express approach, such sub-optimal transfers will be part of the deal.

        Sure, the 30 minute walk from Link to Rainier & Graham may be easy and (in the summer) enjoyable for you and me, but for many more people the skipped Graham stop tells them, “this train is not for you,” and relegates them to a bus that never seems to get any better.

        Or, if they can afford it, keeps them in their car.

        Imagine a trip, with your family, to the Volunteer Park Conservatory, followed by lunch along 15th Ave East. Say, sometime around 2017. Because Link was neither built as an old-fashioned multi-stop cut-and-cover line under Broadway/10th, nor explored sinking a deep-level station under the 15th Ave business district, Volunteer Park is more than a mile from Link, with steep grades along the walk, even though the line passes directly beneath.

        Are you going to Link it to Capitol Hill, and then wait to load everybody onto a bus (perhaps two), then probably skip the lunch outing because it seems so out of the way? No! You’re just going to drive!!

        Now multiply your experience by all of the thousand other possible ways that people might almost take Link trip, but then renege because something about the stop spacing makes it inconvenient and tips the scales back to driving.

        That’s the universal experience of a subway that hops between nodes, ignoring the need to create unbroken corridors of service.

  5. A few things I’d like to point out are:

    1. Denver has a rather punitive distance-based fare structure, which tends to encourage short hops to avoid long-distance fares. In the core, their light rail has consistently high ridership, which rapidly drops as the train gets further out.

    2. L.A.’s system is not really light rail, its more of an SBahn-type system like Calvary and Edmonton.

    3. Sound Transit’s current LRT technology and build-out will not reasonably accommodate trips longer than Lynnwood-Seattle, Federal Way-Seattle, or Redmond-Seattle. Adding the longer termini (Everett, Tacoma, Issaquah?!?) turn the system into more of an interurban connector system.

    More thoughts about Sound Transit… Their funding and bonding structure constrain them from building at a cost-optimized pace. Rather than building out like Portland or Salt Lake City, where the system gets built out in 7-10 years, ST is forced to do it in a manner more like L.A., where it takes 20-30 years to build out the system because they are blocked from fully utilizing bond financing. Another constraint is ST’s insistence on over-designing/over-engineering their guideway. Seattle-SeaTac should not have cost $3bn. It should not have used non-open technology that costs more to implement (1500vdc cantenary for instance).

    We’re stuck with Japanese Tank Engines with tiny windows instead of Sleek, Stylish European LRT’s with panoramic windows which would showcase our beautiful area.

    1. How is a distance-based fare punitive? Doesn’t it make sense, in a system with vastly different trip lengths, to charge less for shorter trips? Isn’t a distance-based system much more fair than a zone-based system?

    2. In the core, [Denver’s] light rail has consistently high ridership, which rapidly drops as the train gets further out.

      I’m genuinely confused as to what you’re describing.

      With the exception of a single mile of on-street running north of downtown (almost nothing in the way of destinations or connections along it), Denver RTD Rail has no core service! It leaves the CBD, it passes through the immediately-adjacent UC Denver campus, then it jumps into the freight and highway corridors and gets the hell out of Dodge as fast as it can.

      In my experience, RTD Rail is a commuter rail service through and through.

      1. From an armchair, non-resident perspective, your argument may seem to make sense. Being as I actually lived in Denver for a while last year, I can tell you that the service in the core network (I-25/Broadway through the Downtown loop) is highly utilized, with the outer legs (Mineral, Lincoln, 9 mile) having significantly less ridership, particularly in Zone C and D.

        The west line out to Golden is going to have higher ridership when it opens because of the close-in developments to the line.

      2. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Denver (family).

        I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing with each other on the facts; it’s just a matter of perspective. The ridership is definitely better north of I-25/Broadway, but as an East Coaster, it’s hard for me to accept the description of that segment as “highly utilized.”

        Pedestrian egress from the South Broadway commercial strip to the I-25/Broadway station is so atrocious (and the street-level experience at Alameda and 10th/Osage is that much worse) that you really don’t get the sense that many of the riders are there by choice.

        This is reflected in RTD’s boarding figures, which are higher on the central segment (especially off-peak) than on the distant fringes, but don’t exactly qualify as “high”.

        Let’s call a spade a spade: this segment is a cheap bypass on the way to the suburbs. It doesn’t serve the urban core; it skirts it.

      3. I live in Denver, and agree entirely with d.p. The walkshed of almost every light rail station is cut in half by either a highway or freight rail line, and the stations that are close to density outside of the core (e.g. the one at Denver Tech Center) make you cross a skybridge to get to the density.

        And speaking of the Alameda Station, it’s probably the worst-positioned rail station I’ve ever used. There is some density along Broadway, but to get to the station from there you have to walk through the Albertson parking lot, through the Kmart parking lot, then down an unmarked alley to get to the light rail station, which is hidden behind an ACE Hardware. It’s insane.

        The west line isn’t any better—it runs via an abandoned rail line through single-family housing for half its length, then along the side of highway 6 the rest of the way. It doesn’t even make it into Golden!

      4. Thanks for backing me up, Eric.

        Isn’t it so strange how super-psyched everyone in the Denver area gets about the rail system, when it’s so very difficult to access and they themselves hardly ever use it?

      5. Denver is a victim of late 20th-century new cheapo suburanesque light rail planning.

      6. Denver has sprawl of a sort which is hard for you in Seattle to imagine.

        Denver did make one of the same mistakes Seattle is making: Denver needs a Colfax streetcar (in exclusive ROW), and similarly, Seattle has failed to build rail in its major downtown corridors.

        But unlike Seattle, once you build that one corridor, or maybe a second one, there’s nothing *but* suburbs and exurbs and outlying towns in Denver; you start hitting the sprawl within blocks of downtown. There *is no core* to serve.

        In Seattle there’s quite a large area which is fairly dense and deserves quality all-day public transportation.

      7. So here’s the thing.

        Denver basically developed like LA or London — a bunch of independent towns started sprawling until they ran into each other. Except Denver developed later, so the sprawl was entirely automobile-centered.

        The result of this development pattern is that people in Denver are looking for *local intercity rail*. They aren’t looking for urban rail. There is some effort made to get the train stations into the downtowns of the former cities, but that’s a secondary consideration.

        So of course they’re happy with their new rail system. They probably would have been just as happy if the interurbans and local steam trains had never gone away.

        Only in a very small area are they even considering it as all-day mass transit.

        That’s OK. But that’s not all you need in Seattle. There’s practically no core to Denver. (Though that is changing, and perhaps demand for that Colfax streetcar will start rising again.) There is already a fairly large core to Seattle.

  6. How far should we extend rail? Everyone who is within the Sound Transit district boundary should be able to enjoy the product for which they are taxed.

    1. Which is why Sound Transit is building light rail lines spaced every half-mile, latitudinally and longitudinally. /sarcasm

      1. So I know your sarcastic, but that is actually what we should do eventually. To the question of “How Far Should We Extend Rail” the answer is everywhere.

        A better question is “How do we Prioritize our Rail Investments” , at which point it makes more sense to satisfy basic connections inside Seattle city limits than to build a rail line to Issaquah—but once we’ve built good rail in Seattle there’s no reason to also serve Issaquah if the money is available.

    2. The folks in less dense areas have access to ST express buses. Isn’t that what you “conservatives” really want: rubber tired, diesel powered paeans to the oil/concrete duopoly?

    3. When I see a single plan for something in Seattle north of the Ship Canal and west of I-5, we can talk. Somehow I think there are more people there than in the space between Federal Way and Tacoma.

  7. I don’t know whether sound transit has planned for anything like this, but you could always have nearer termini for most transit, so that only say, half of trains make the trip from Seattle to Everett, which the others stopping in lynnwood. That could at least help some with operations.

    either way it’s a very good question.

    1. Why build the guideway infrastructure if you’re not going to use it? We already know from the Rainier Valley that at-grade running for LRT is a reliability destroyer, and Bellevue raised enough of a stink about it to ensure we will never see it again. So we’re stuck building grade-separated caternary-powered guideway thirty miles south of the city.

      1. In the scenario I laid out above, you would use it, but maybe half the time instead of all the time.

        Here, we’re going to build it because of the political realities of sub area equity. Unless the Seattle subway takes off, for every line in the city limits, you need one segment outside the city in Snohomish, the Eastside, South King and Pierce.

      2. “We already know … that at-grade running for LRT is a reliability destroyer, and Bellevue raised enough of a stink about it to ensure we will never see it again.”

        Are you not familiar with East Link segment D?

      3. I completely agree: catenary and “light rail” were a TERRIBLE choice for “BART-North” ™. But when Link was proposed “light rail” was the greatest thing since sliced bread — and it can be great when suitable rights of way are available (e.g. WestEnd Max using the old Oregon Electric right of way). So Seattle planners, who had gotten black eyes twice before proposing heavy rail systems, went with the sexy new model.

        But it was stupid to force a system that otherwise has an almost 100% heavy rail profile to use overhead catenary, with all the construction costs and maintenance problems it entails.

      4. aw: I keep saying “at-grade” when I mean “street-running.” It is my impression that all street-running elements of East Link have been removed and all grade crossings eliminated. Am I incorrect in this understanding?

      5. Anandkos: If third-rail power is what it takes for the Seattle Subway project to escape the “not for light rail” provision of RCW 35.95A.010, then so be it. It would be fantastic if we could avoid repeating the grievous double error of non-level boarding and catenary power.

      6. East Link (and all of ST2 Link) was going to be completely grade separated at one point, but that was watered down in the changes last spring.

      7. East Link (and all of ST2 Link) was going to be completely grade separated at one point, but that was watered down in the changes last spring.

        Complete fabrication. How urban myths are born.

      8. There is absolutely nothing wrong with overhead line power. It’s actually consistently more reliable and easier to repair than third rail, and it’s cheaper to construct. The only reason to use third rail power is if you have a helluva lot of tunneling and want to use narrower tunnel diameters.

    2. Sound Transit has proposed stopping some trains at Northgate and letting some go all the way to Lynnwood, and it’s come off as a horrible idea.

      1. Recall that they once proposed turning back half the trains at Rainier Beach Station. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

      2. Some people are categorically opposed to turnbacks, but they’re sensible in the right circumstances. The tails need at least 15-minute frequency, or better 10. Otherwise you’re waiting 20 or 30 minutes for a train, which makes it not much better than a bus. The airport is such a major all-day draw it makes no sense to turn back before it, but north of Northgate is a different situation.

      3. I thought the “turnbacks” were actually one of the lines terminating at Northgate while the other ran all the way to Lynnwood. This would have the same effect–more service from Northgate through the city whilst not having to look and see if your particular train were terminating there or going further.

        IIRC there is supposed to be a Lynnwood–Airport line and a Redmond–Northgate line, both serving the stations between International District and Northgate. (This could also work the other way: Northgate–Airport and Redmond–Lynnwood, although I am not familiar with the actual operating requirements of the two lines so am not sure which routing they will choose.)

      4. ST has changed its mind more than once about how the lines should overlap, so anything we assume now is subject to change anyway. Once scenario is for Central Link to always go Lynnwood – Highline CC, and for East Link to terminate at Lynnwood peak hours and Northgate off-peak. Another is a three-line scenario, something like Lynnwood – Highline CC, Lynnwood – Rainier Beach (or Stadium?), and Northgate – Redmond.

      5. I found these notes from a Lynnwood Extension meeting sometime in late 2011 or early 2012: 4 minutes peak frequency to Lynnwood on two lines. 5 minutes off-peak frequency to Northgate on two lines. 10 minutes off-peak frequency to Lynnwood on one line (i.e., the other line turning back at Northgate).

        Regarding our earlier discussion of promises, this is effectively a promise of 10-minute service to Lynnwood. Extensions to Everett, Tacoma, and Issaquah are not promises; they’re just theoretical ideas. ST may have promised to “study” them but not to build them.

        I also asked an ST rep at the meeting about DSTT capacity. He said it’s theoretically 2 minutes but that may be iffy operationally. The DSTT is the main bottleneck for any frequency/line expansions in the system.

  8. A good question but boardings is the wrong metric to be use. A better one is passenger miles. A boarding can be anything from a quick trip from one station to the next to a trip using the whole line. While fewer people will travel the longer distances, these trips are probably replacing long car trips. Short trips on transit are more likely to be replacing walking and cycling trips.

    1. You need both, along with average load factor measurements (which Metro inexplicably won’t use). Using passenger miles alone is particularly punitive in a city like Seattle where short trips can be necessary because of steep hills or blocking waterways.

      1. Actually, you need load factor measurements for each time of day.

        There’s a lot of different metrics. Raw number of riders is by far the most important when it comes to, you know, political support.

    2. I would disagree with your statement about short trips. Nowhere in the Link system except downtown will a link trip replace a walking trip. Some medium and long distance bicycle trips might be replaced but that’s a pretty small number of trips.

      It all depends on what “success” is defined as. I tend to lean towards passenger boarding because the primary role of *mass* transit is to move lots of people, but distance is important as well. Using both is really the best.

      1. My statement can be generalized beyond Link, but I can easily imagine someone riding (for example) from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill because to walk that distance they would have to climb over First Hill. I don’t see why a downtown Link trip is less valid than any other Link trip.

    3. “Passenger miles” is a terrible metric that is only ever employed to trick the eye into perceiving extremely costly long-distance commutes as less so.

      “What? Taxpayers subsidized a commuter from Pleasanton to Oakland to the tune of $32?” “Well don’t worry, it only cost $1.28 per passenger mile!”

      Who cares!? You still spent $32 transporting a single human being from his remote residential outpost. And transit still sucks in SF and Oakland proper because of it!

      And as Adam says, it’s ridiculous to de-emphasize in-city journeys on the premise that they “replace walking and cycling trips.” Cycling, while noble, garners a negligible mode-share, and most people will not walk more than a mile (if that), except recreationally.

      The vast majority of all automobile trips are in the 1-5 mile range, and especially so in Seattle, where the transit sucks at those distances. Transit that you can actually use for all of your needs* is immeasurably more efficient in cities, no matter what metric you employ.

      *(i.e. not Unwalkable Link)

    4. Richard, as others have already stated, using passenger miles as a metric is not the most appropriate metric for this discussion, for the very reason that it tends to make long commutes that garner high VMT look better on paper.

  9. You leave out one critical factor: cost.

    The costs of the LINK are so extraordinarily high compared to all other light rail systems in the world, that a rational debate on what is “productive” has been rendered all but impossible.

    Basically we paid above average subway prices for a cheap mixed surface-elevated-underground system.

    We spent all our time and effort building a few miles in downtown and being charged exorbitant rates, when the whole reason they call it “light” rail is that its supposed to be cheap and fast to implement!

    Ok, so now that we’re at the point when we could roll out the cheap and easy part, into the exurbs, where if we did the rational think and ran it along corridors and avoided tunneling and elevation entirely we could effectively unite the whole region with a rail system — because of the ridiculousness of the Seattle sections you claim it wouldn’t be productive!

    My sense is that the people responsible for this travesty are either grossly incompetent or designed the worst possible system for either criminal intent of bilking the taxpayers or to make sure that real transit into the exurbs for the reasons you cite would never, ever be possible as that would impact the few landowners of downtown Seattle and their hegemony on jobs.

    1. Incorrect: It’s not called light rail because it’s cheaper, it’s called light rail because it generally has a lower capacity that a fully grade-separated heavy rail system.

      Comparing Link to most light rail systems is also a bit far-fetched. The technology may be similar, true, but the level of grade-separation and 100% dedicated right-of-way place it much closer the heavy-rail systems you reference.

      Suggesting that Sound Transit is some sort of mass conspiracy is just laughable.

      1. Here’s an interesting definition:

        APTA Glossary of Transit Terminology definition:
        “An electric railway with a “light volume” traffic capacity compared to heavy rail. Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading and multi-car trains or single cars. Also known as streetcar, trolley car or tramway.

        So its DESIGNED to be low volume..presumably because of its low cost and not having to have exclusive right of way.

        Oh, wait, Seattle spent zillions building exclusive rights of way.

        Ooops…back to my original point — we paid Maserati prices for Nissan Versa.

      2. Well, you know what? Arguing over terminology is meaningless. If the voters WANT to, they could construct a system of grade-level branches off of Central Link (like the Boston Green Line). Or if they WANT to, they could lengthen platforms and run longer trains, becoming more like “heavy rail”.

        Argue practical details, not terminology.

    2. Cost has nothing to do with this discussion. This is about the productivity and performance of rail extensions.

      1. With all due respect, cost is part of the measurement of productivity and performance for most taxpayers.

        If this were simply an exercise in maximizing boardings per mile, we’d build the line from downtown to UW, and call it good.

        If this were simply an exercise in maximizing boardings per hour, we’d build the line all the way down to Tijuana and up to Whistler.

      2. Sherwin, cost *does* factor into the discussion. If you had endless money (as people around here felt they did a decade ago) you would saturate the region with capital-intensive transit, but if you don’t, you need to recognize that every dollar spent on capital construction comes at the cost to service that could have been provided.

        In the end I think you’re partly right though – if you start with the position that every transit mode should be applied in the places where each is most effective (including cost-effective), you would probably have the same balance between rail and other modes over time regardless of budget constraints. If people on this blog were able to find agreement on that proposition, it would be a major game changer.

      3. Brent, the original plan WAS to build the line from downtown to UW and then “see what to do next”… but politics got stupid and so that didn’t happen.


  10. I’m just glad urbanists, with their myopic “we must only allocate resources to dense areas” philosophy didn’t build the postal system and electrical grid because then nobody living outside of urban areas would get mail or have electricity.

    1. You’re right. It’s terribly inefficient and expensive to provide most services to the suburbs.

      1. Instead, they build thousands of miles and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of side streets and cul-de-sacs, water mains, sewage systems, and electrical/communications infrastructure, most of which will one ever be used by a handful of people per day.

        It is well-proven that suburban infrastructure is more cost-intensive per resident than urban infrastructure, and that urban tax dollars are siphoned off (both federally & state-wide) in order to subsidize suburban living.


      2. Suburbs are frightfully expensive and infrastructure intensive.

        This does NOT apply to true rural areas — you know, with farms and ranches and very widely spaced roads, where it’s viable and efficient for each house to provide its own water and sewer. Rural electrification was worth it and rural Internet would be worth it too. Rural areas are also providing an important service — FOOD.

        That’s quite distinct from suburbs. Suburbs are inefficient and cost a lot to maintain, and aren’t providing anything particularly valuable. They used to be playgrounds of the elite and semi-elite, back in the era of streetcar suburbs. Those weren’t so bad from a societal point of view; car sprawl made them both more expensive to operate and less pleasant, while eating up more rural land.

    2. I would entirely support abolishing subsidized mail service. I’d pay the occasional $5 per letter that it would cost to mail using a private operator in order to stop fat subsidies of worthless direct mail. Would abolishing subsidized mail affect rural areas more than urban ones? You bet. But I’d support it anyway.

      As for electricity, we quite properly set up a government program in the 1930s specifically to extend electrical utilities to areas that would otherwise be too expensive to serve. Now the infrastructure is there, almost everywhere. Where there is a real problem, rather than just a desire by rural residents to enjoy the benefits of rural life without paying the costs, then the REA approach is valid.

      1. If we ran mini-grids with renewable solar and hydrogen storage, then we wouldn’t need to “extend” anything, as the power would be produced locally…with the suburbs lower land values being more optimal.

      2. I’m with you on the solar. Paneling all the suburban roof space we have in the sprawling suburbs of this country could take a huge bite out of our national appetite for coal.

      3. I have occasionally considered defining a “bad” suburb as an area which is:

        – dense enough that having your own well and your own septic system field is kind of unpleasant;
        – but not dense enough that running the sewer system and water system out there is really worth it.

    3. Which is exactly why Cable TV is nearly impossible to find in Exurban and rural areas. The cost of providing it to the few who live further from the densist areas is too prohibitive, as there are fewer people per service mile. In fact it wasn’t until decades after cities had residential electricity and telephone service that it was expanded to outlying areas. The rural electrification and telephone programs were instituted as one of the key pieces of the Roosevelt’s New Deal.
      So yes, services like Electricity, and Mass transit can be made available to those far outside of cities, but it requires a massive investment on a federal government level.

  11. At least I know this: You’ll never run it to where I live, thank God, and over time the light rail money hole will swallow the bus system. This, in turn, will kill off what’s left of bus service to Magnolia, and that, in turn, will end the threat of low-income housing in Discovery Park.

    So I guess we call that a win-lose-win?

    1. Were you aware they are completely different pools of money? LRT is Sound Transit and Metro is King County?

      1. If you really think the money pots stay separate, you’re dreaming. In the end, the taxpayer has one wallet and he’ll find a way to protect it.

      2. Metro never has nor ever will fund rail, that is exactly why Sound Transit was set up. As Link and ST Express expand hundreds of thousands of Metro’s service hours will be freed up, allowing Metro to expand service all over the County, exactly contrary to your misguided statement.

      3. Here’s how it works: One unit of government goes over the top, so the taxpayers vote for a Republican governor (better get ready, ’cause McKenna will win) and every tax limit that Eyman proposes (get ready for his latest, because that’ll win too). And we defeated the mother of all liberal wishes, the income tax.

        Many taxes, one wallet. We really aren’t as dumb as you think. Now, as it concerns the buses, the county $20 tab fee expires pretty soon. Do you think the Republican governor will sign a replacement into law? I don’t.

      4. I hate to break it to you, but Magnolia is likely to get a Seattle Subway by way of Interbay. Metro could easily then reinvest service hours into a local loop service to Magnolia to the two stations. But frankly, what does it matter? No one wants to live in Magnolia anyway? It might as well be in Duvall.

      5. “No one wants to live in Magnolia anyway.”

        Music to my ears! We don’t want you either. And we especially don’t want to take some requsite share of the criminals and crazies that McGinn wants to scatter throughout the city.

        Without bus service, even the most compassionate of the do-gooders aren’t going to spend a lot of energy trying to inject the — ah, what’s the right phrase these days? — “at risk population?” into an area where they won’t have a way to get back home after hanging out at the downtown drug markets all day.

        And Interbay isn’t Magnolia. It’s Interbay. Whatever. You’re right, though. No want wants to live in Magnolia. Please, spread the word!

      6. FHSC is Sound Transit money funding a City of Seattle project. As far as I know Metro’s only involvement is to be paid to operate it.

      7. “I’m Magnolia and I Don’t Care”: if nobody wants to live in Magnolia, and the people in Magnolia don’t want outsiders, perhaps Magnolia will consider privatizing its streets rather than leeching off the general sales taxes and the property taxes of the central business district?….

        Didn’t think so.

      8. “I’m Magnolia and I don’t Care” wrote:

        “Without bus service, even the most compassionate of the do-gooders aren’t going to spend a lot of energy trying to inject the — ah, what’s the right phrase these days? — “at risk population?” into an area where they won’t have a way to get back home after hanging out at the downtown drug markets all day.”

        Don’t you know that it’s traditional to build prisons and mental institutions in low-density areas with no bus service? If your vision for Magnolia comes true, it would become a tempting target for such things…

    2. over time the light rail money hole will swallow the bus system

      That made me laugh when I read it, because light rail is more expensive at first and gets cheaper later. It has high construction costs, but lower operating costs than buses.

      1. Wrong. It’s much more expensive in cost per hour to operate light rail than buses. Link breaks even with ST Express on a cost per boarding but loses big time on cost per mile. And that’s comparing a single light rail line to the average of all of the most expensive bus routes to operate. And ignoring capital cost (depreciation and interest) is like saying it would be cheaper if it weren’t more expensive. Rail can only be cheaper when it’s stations have high demand throughout the day. The only such Link Station is the airport. To fill the rest of the seats you need a high level of supporting bus service so there is no windfall reduction in service hours.

      2. Cost per passenger hour or mile, not cost per operating hour. Trains are more expensive in absolute terms, but much cheaper per passenger.

      3. There is nothing about passenger rail that makes it inherently cheaper to operate. When you take the true cost of operational subsidy plus debt service and depreciation Link is a money pit. Cost for light rail in the ST 2012 budget is 66% of total capital spending and commuter rail is 19%; ST Express less than 10%. Debt service is already 37% of O&M spending and the only reason it isn’t equal to O&M spending is because so much of Central Link was put on Uncle Sam’s credit card. Yet for all of the debt Link has only half the daily boardings of ST Express and Sounder commuter rail only one fifth.

      4. Debt service is not operational expense, it’s capital expense.

        Everything you wrote confirms my point: more expensive to build, cheaper to operate.

        You compare Link to the entire ST Express network. Which is cheaper to operate (not build): 50 electric trains (when the system is fully built out) or a few hundred diesel buses? And when the system is built out, Link will pulverize ST Express in daily boardings. It’s already halfway there and we’ve only opened one of three lines, and not the one with the highest ridership.

      5. There is nothing about passenger rail that makes it inherently cheaper to operate.

        There is also nothing about bus that makes it inherently cheaper to operate.

      6. Bernie,

        You’re certainly right about Central Link; the only decent all-day station is the Airport. But you won’t be right about North Link. While I do expect that the initial ridership from just the Husky Stadium station may be disappointing (what a lousy site for the station east of Montlake!), once Brooklyn opens all those folks squeezing into the 7? expresses and 70 trolleys will be on Link, along with a lot of new “choice” riders.

        Honestly, however, I think they should push it to Northgate and call it a day. Hang wires over a bi-directional transit roadway on the I-90 bridge and the RR B route (conveniently short-circuiting any complaints and lawsuits about “non-road uses”) and run articulated trolleys from Redmond to downtown Seattle and on to the Seattle Center.

        Most people headed for the U would just as soon take the express buses across 520 I expect, because though Link will be insulated from traffic at least in that core route, it will still have nine stops between downtown Bellevue and Husky Stadium, assuming it’s ever finished.

        Every stop takes time.

      7. Bernie wrote: “There is nothing about passenger rail that makes it inherently cheaper to operate.”

        Actually, you’re just wrong.

        There are many things about passenger rail which make it inherently cheaper to operate.
        (1) More people can be carried per vehicle.
        (2) Running on tracks is more energy-efficient than running on roads.
        (3) This is really electric vs. diesel (so trolleybuses are “inherently cheaper”) but electric operation is inherently cheaper than motor operation.

        In fact, passenger rail is also cheaper to *construct* than roadway + bus service.

        The numbers are disguised by the fact that track, overhead line, and way maintenance is billed to the operator in rail service, but the roadway is billed to “somebody else’s problem” in bus service. When someone builds a grade-separated BRT system, you can see the true apples-to-apples comparison: RAIL IS CHEAPER.

      8. It is, of course, absolutely true that billing “someone else” is always cheaper than paying for it yourself.

  12. This is one of those false divides that ensures transit advocates struggle to get their projects funded and built. We should build as much rail as possible, whether that’s light rail to Issaquah, a subway to Ballard, and so on. Building rail doesn’t “chase sprawl,” it encourages densification by providing a node for TOD and density to emerge.

    It’s a political necessity as well, since there are simply not enough votes in cities alone to fund mass transit. Building rail to suburbs, aside from being a smart thing to do in and of itself, is a key piece of building and sustaining a political coalition to get the rail built that we want in cities. It’s no skin off our backs if that urban rail requires suburban rail as well. The more rail, the better.

    Finally, there is the environmental/climate argument. Getting commuters out of their cars and onto electrified transit powered by renewables is a top priority to address climate change.

    Urbanism should not be defined as “starve the suburbs” or else it will absolutely fail as a political movement.

    1. I think the question Sherwin is asking is what do you prioritize, rail in existing high density areas or extending the termini of your system. That isn’t about “starving” the suburbs, its about what you think is more important. Spreading rail out over the whole region or focusing it in areas that are already dense.

    2. Building [far-flung] rail doesn’t “chase sprawl,” it encourages densification by providing a node for TOD and density to emerge.

      Except in Denver, Dallas, the Bay Area, etc., etc., where it has been designed to chase sprawl, has failed to encourage density at any of its outer nodes, and has encouraged additional sprawl now that one only has to fight traffic to the station rather than fighting traffic all the way into the city.

      Your above mantra is refuted by every Link-esque example the United States.

      1. Agreed. BART was the original sprawl chaser (40 years and counting) and has done little to densify its suburban service area. In fact, during BART’s tenure, the largest city in the Bay Area transitioned from San Francisco to sprawling, suburban San Jose.

      2. “… during BART’s tenure, the largest city in the Bay Area transitioned from San Francisco to sprawling, suburban San Jose.”

        You can’t blame that on BART. Blame Silicon Valley. Or housing prices in SF.

      3. This, however, you can blame on BART.

        The exurbs behind the Berkeley Hills were already be beginning to sprawl prior to the 1970s. But with traffic beginning to max out State Route 24 (the only way over the hills), demand hit a plateau.

        Enter BART… a license to sprawl! Half a million more people now live east of the Hills than did 40 years ago, 98% of them in subdivisions.

      4. [aw] I blame the same forces that are happening in Seattle right now for sprawl around Silicon Valley. I’ve recently been down there and in most of the cities nothing is over 3 stories tall. When buisness started booming there, the locals (shall I call them NIMBY’s?) refused to let anyone build up, so it sprawled out and out. Housing prices shot up*, and never came back down. Why I went down there was to help a family member get an apartment. A 3-month lease on a very basic 1-bd furnished apartment was $3,000 a month.

        *which, of course is a great thing for the existing homeowners. not so much for renters or people that want to live close to their jobs.

      5. Something like 90% of Bay Area commuters drive. The sprawl would have been identical with or without BART and Caltrain. Most people who buy a house don’t even consider whether it’s near transit. And for the large hordes of people who don’t work in San Francisco, downtown Oakland, or Berkeley, BART isn’t going their way anyway. You’d need a much more extensive BART system within the East Bay to make it feasable for people to get to East Bay jobs on BART.

      6. 99.999% of East Bay BART users — whose numbers are not negligible, in spite of the per-person subsidy being outrageous — drive to the train.

        Sorry, Mike, but the sprawl-feeding roads were maxed out decades ago, and it was the pressure taken off of them by the outer BART lines that enabled and encouraged further sprawl. (Now, of course, the roads are maxed out again, and since the Regionalists never learn from their mistakes, here come the eBART DMU line and the San Jose extension!)

        Meanwhile, you said it yourself: for all the billions in capital cost and the $30 subsidies per boarding, BART is useless as anything but a commuter rail. What a mold in which to fashion our system!

      7. You can’t blame the transit system for people driving when the transit system isn’t extensive enough. The only places where the majority don’t drive have much more extensive transit than the Bay Area. You also can’t blame the transit system for the people who insist on driving even when transit goes practically door-to-door to their destination. What BART does is make it somewhat possible to get around the East Bay without a car, for those who are willing to. The alternative is a bus-only system that forces even those people to drive because it takes twice as long to get anywhere on the bus. That’s not a solution, it’s just giving up and letting cars take over completely.

      8. You’re just not getting it.

        BART can’t be extensive enough to serve more than a portion of commute trips. The East Bay is just too sprawling.

        Replicating BART’s model — rapid transit service that functions as nothing more than a glorified commuter option and requires absurd operating subsidies on top of high capital costs, something that you routinely advocate for the Puget Sound — is the very definition of “throwing good money after bad”.

      9. “You can’t blame that on BART. Blame Silicon Valley. Or housing prices in SF.”

        Of course there are other reasons for the expansion of San Jose. The point is that systems like BART promote rather than deter sprawl.

      10. Mike, I’m not sure I agree with argument that we should build “everywhere” just so people have alternatives to driving. You’re also showing modal bias. Buses don’t take longer just because they’re buses. They might take longer due to a variety of factors, none of which have anything to do with the inherent operating speeds of the vehicles.

      11. Of course bus ROWs can be built like train ROWs. But the actual bus routes in the Bay Area and Pugetopolis are nothing like that. Somebody suggested a bus alternative for my Federal Way – Auburn – Kent – Renton – Bellevue – Bothell line. The bus would have to get off the freeway, go to a transit center (stopping at the traffic lights), and get back on the freeway. All that sucks away time.

      12. Riddle us this, Mike:

        BART, for all of its insane costs, is “not extensive enough” to do much good.

        Urban transit in San Francisco, as I’m sure you know, has far more bottlenecks and is far less convenient than it should be, given the city’s density and the all-purpose demand for transit within it.

        So how, in Seattle, a smaller city in a less populous area, with about a 40% smaller tax base, would you propose to follow BART’s wasteful service pattern example without starving urban transit needs just as BART has?

        Answer this and I’ll never bug you about your BART fetish again.

      13. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. You act as if regional travel and express-level service is completely unimportant. We’re building one before the other because that’s what’s politically feasable. I have said that all the other Seattle lines can have as many stops as DP wants, because the regional spine will be in place. I’m not going to cry about the people on 15th/John and 23rd/John who don’t have a station while their counterparts in Wallingford and Ballard will, because Link is still better than what Capitol Hill has currently. People will walk further to a fast/frequent regional service, and we’re still advocating transit improvements on 23rd, Madison, and Denny/John which will make those areas more pleasant for the carless. You’re worrying too much about single-family residential areas, which have no equivalent in Manhattan/Boston/Chicago, etc.

        San Francisco has BART only in one corner. It should add a line to Marin and one to southwest SF. The East Bay has the opposite problem. BART is extensive but local transit is atrocious. I wouldn’t add more BART there but rather streetcars and more frequent buses, 24 hours. That would solve the problem of having to drive to BART P&Rs, or driving because BART doesn’t work for most intra-penninsula trips. Seattle currently does not have either SF’s extensive local service or the East Bay’s regional rail service.

        I don’t expect you to stop denouncing BART-North, but I would like to talk with you in person sometime because I think we have several similar goals, and I’d like to hear about your experiences in Boston which I’ve never been to. I don’t want to publish my email address here but you can write to STB and ask them to reply and cc me.

      14. By the way, you may want to join the “Tacoma streetcar” movement, and push for a similar system in Everett. That may take their minds off extending Central Link to Tacoma and Everett, or at least weaken their support for it.

        The movement for citywide streetcars in Tacoma is growing. In Everett, I hear a downtown streetcar has fizzled, as have so many other Everett development projects over the past few decades. But of course downtown is not extensive enough. Suppose a streetcar or MAX-like train went down Broadway southward, and another went northward on Aurora, and eventually in the future they would meet and become one line. Suppose it had a good transfer to Central Link somewhere, somehow. Perhaps a spur to Lynnwood station. Then you could get complete rail to Everett without extending that abominable BART-North.

      15. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

        No, it’s not! There isn’t the money. There isn’t the tax-base. We’re not a region of 6 million, and we’re not going to be. We’re not going to have 5 new major urban centers spread across the region from Lynnwood to Federal Way.

        Both/and is a fiction you and Ben have created, to the detriment of all.

        You’re model of a disparate collection of high-density TOD that people hop back and forth between all day and night is a fiction as well. It exists nowhere.

        If you want all-day demand, you build a contiguous urban area. And sometimes, that contiguous urban includes plenty of low-rise and even some densely-packed single-family.

        Don’t believe me? This is where I was born.

        Chicago? What’s that thing at the end of the block?

        Continuous urbanity breeds demand. As your own (admittedly! by you!) ineffective BART has proven, the model you advocate breeds disappointment.

        If we don’t have the money for both — and we don’t — we need to choose the one that works!

      16. …When you bypass areas that should be served, the people there will have no choice but to shrug and drive.

        And when you express to areas that can’t possibly be served well, the people there will have no choice but to shrug and drive.

        205 comments later, you need to go back to the top and internalize Sherwin’s chart. Urban model: works. Regional model: fails.

      17. Re: your Tacoma/Everett streetcars.

        Tacoma may be barely big enough, and ripe enough for a renaissance, to justify some consolidation/regeneration-oriented medium-capacity transit investments. But when a major city like Seattle can’t extract itself from auto-dependence, I’m not going to hold my breath for its smaller cousin.

        Everett is tiny. Tiny and on life support. There’s simply no justification for an rail network there at all. Sorry.

      18. Yo, sorry for freaking out about the “both/and” comment and then replying to that before even reading the rest.

        I do think you need to understand that the pot of transit money won’t grow to the size that would be required to justify your “both/and”s and your skip-stop/local overlays. And I do think you need to realize that, even if everything were built and operated as seen in your wildest fantasies, the demand simply wouldn’t exist to support it.

        But I don’t think I need to lash out at you about it. Yes, I would love to actually meet the elusive Mike Orr for coffee or for the drink I’ve already said I owe you. I will contact an STB editor whom I have not completely alienated to ask for your e-mail. Looking forward to it, actually.

      19. We don’t know how much the region can afford until all the ballot measures are put up. At some point there will be a limit but we don’t know where that limit is. Presumably people will start saying “less expensive projects” rather than “no more projects”, because they know transit is nowhere near adequate. We shouldn’t self-impose an artificial limit below that, if we believe the projects are necessary and important.

        Seattle is density islands. That’s our historical legacy and topography, and there’s huge resistance to upzoning single-family neighborhoods. I agree that a several-square-mile rectangle of medium density would be better, like Chicago, but that’s not what we have or are likely to get. It’s easier to build Link than to convert single-family neighborhoods: look, we’re doing it! It’s also easier to build a 45th subway than to get rid of the on-street parking on 45th, amazing but true.

        Sometimes you have to build transit before the density, not after. This is one of those cases. We don’t know how people’s attitudes will change in fifty years; they may be more open to density in a decade or two. If the transit is there already, it will help it along. If not, the dream may be killed before it starts.

      20. Sometimes you have to build transit before the density, not after.

        That worked in the era of the Streetcar Suburb. That’s precisely how we got the reasonably-pedestrian-friendly continuum that defines even the single-family zones of central and north Seattle.

        But there’s been no “magic density” springing up in the East Bay, or in Littleton, Colorado. Build for a suburban market, and you will only reinforce

        Please, I beg of you, read my last five comments in their entirety (including my apology for jumping down your throat). Read them closely; take them to heart. Your grand regional obsession is not only unfeasible, but runs directly counter to all transit experience of the last 60 years!

        We don’t know how much the region can afford…

        Yes, we do. Unless you’re a megalopolis on the order of London or Paris, dozens of miles of dedicated, built-from-scratch ROW are out of the question. Sadly, all medium-sized cities that waited too long to build transit have been forced to limit new corridors to very key segments, and to otherwise repurpose existing ROWs (at-grade boulevards, highways, freight railways).

        Even BART did a great deal of this.

        Even Los Angeles, with a tax base an order of magnitude larger than ours and an ingenious expedited-financing strategy that it has the community interest and the clout to pull off (which we don’t), envisions only a single line built as an entirely new bored subway.

        Unfortunately for your vision and for Ben’s Fantasy Marketing Map, neither Seattle nor the surrounding area has much existing infrastructure that would make sense as transit corridors. So we have to choose our corridors wisely, or run out of money and get no rapid transit at all.

        Presuming unlimited resources, in a small metropolitan area, in a state with a 100-year history of refusing to tax itself at levels needed for even its most basic needs, is just folly!

      21. Ben’s map — the city-only map, not even its pandering regional version — would be a $20 billion investment at least.

        It is sototallynevergonnahappeninamillionyears that it’s insane how I get shouted down for questioning its brilliance.

        If you’re going to advocate real rapid transit, you must choose wisely, or you’ll get nothing.

    3. there are simply not enough votes in cities alone to fund mass transit.

      The distribution of votes for transit measures says otherwise. Did you mean “money”?

      1. You’re ignoring the “no” vote on the $60 car tab, most of whose money would’ve gone for the SLUT. That one went down the memory hole, eh?

      2. That’s not true. Prop. 1’s plan was to primarily implement treatments along priority corridors and in fact would have benefited buses far more than streetcars.

    1. The goods:

      * At least make a start at doing something about parking minimums.
      * Increasing density around specific cores.
      * Eliminate pointless regulations on electric vehicles.

      The bads:

      * Usual NIMBYs fighting any density increase whatsoever.
      * Usual NIMBYs fighting any addition of noisy rail lines whatsoever.
      * Senseless rail regulations (extreme weight for the “safety” of mixing commuter rail with freight traffic, for example) needlessly increases costs of rail lines (other nations favor signaling and preventative maintenance).
      * Capital levy on the properties to support the necessary infrastructure investments create a competitive disadvantage with discount slash-and-sprawl car-only exurbs elsewhere.
      * Extended urban streetcars into the boonies runs into funding problems due to the low population density not supporting the required infrastructure.
      * Expressway dedicated bus median: similar story, high capital cost sunk by undensity of target area. Also: walking near a freeway is unpleasant at best (carcinogens and ear-crushing noise, yum yum), why would people do that if they had any alternative whatsoever?
      * Vague at best on how “adding some sidewalks” and creating “safe pedestrian crossings” would suddenly create a walking paradise.
      * Cosmetic bicycle infrastructure of “shared cycle signage and some means for cyclists to trip “automatic” lights”? This sounds like the usual slap-on-some-sharrows and a humiliating “push button and maybe you get a green in a cycle or two” or if lucky the DOT actually put in a bicycle detector at that one intersection? Yeah, no.
      * “upgrading roads in the cycle over 45mph in the areas to include rideable shoulders will fill in what would otherwise be a hole in the cycle transport hinterland of the Suburban Village.” A glass-and-debris-and-distracted-car-driver strewn shoulder is supposed to encourage cycling how? Has the author actually bicycled on such a deathway? How many more John Przychodzens must be ground down to prop up the blessed American way of life?

  13. I think in some regards this discussion is kind of academic. The primary determination of how far Link is extended is what can be financed under subarea equity. The south and north subareas will likely see extension of Link, but their funds for ST1 and ST2 are fully bonded out otherwise. The East subarea had a reserved from ST1 which is why they were able to afford some much in ST2.

    The big question is how much can Seattle get and how does this balance out with the other subareas. It’s a balance because taxing across the subareas has to be uniform, so the question becomes how much money does Seattle need to get want it wants and then in turn what does that mean the other subareas can get. Or will the question be reversed. Will people say what does it take to get to Everette/Tacoma, and then look at Seattle and say what can they build with that amount of money.

    1. “It’s a balance because taxing across the subareas has to be uniform”

      Which is dumb. Observe the taxing authority of the Illinois Regional Transit Authority:
      “In Cook County the tax rate shall be 1.25%”
      “In DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will Counties, the tax rate shall be 0.75%”

      Guess where the transit is actually useful.

      1. Well, in Chicago the transit is useful in the places which had train service in 1950, roughly speaking. Minus several. I’m afraid the situations of the areas with ‘legacy systems’ are so different from the situations of the areas which developed more recently that I find them hard to compare.

        It is kind of extraordinary that Seattle has replicated the multiple competing transportation fiefdoms which have caused so much trouble for both Chicago and New York, though.

    2. Adam, that’s a far different question than the one posed. The system’s architecture and extent were driven by its founding legislation which required connecting cities 40 miles apart and dividing the money into subareas. That doesn’t mean that the system resulting from those policies is sensible from a transit perspective or the best use of transit funding. How far rail should extend from a transit perspective relates to where rail is most effective and how dense it needs to be to achieve the transformation in travel accessibility and behavior (including land use) you are trying to accomplish.

      If I think about what I want to accomplish, getting between Seattle and Tacoma on rail is extremely low, while being able to access the neighborhoods and centers around me quickly and reliably is a lot higher – and that would require a network rather than a line. But I think that’s part of the problem we face — nobody has really established what the most important objectives and outcomes would be; we’ve only got some dictates about connecting far-flung places and requirements to divide up the money and borrow heavily to get it done.

      1. “The system’s architecture and extent were driven by its founding legislation which required connecting cities 40 miles apart and dividing the money into subareas. That doesn’t mean that the system resulting from those policies is sensible from a transit perspective or the best use of transit funding.”

        So the answer to the original question is, simply: “What can we get the votes for?”

        I’ve always said, the places which *want* service generally get it, the places which *don’t want it* generally don’t. This is skewed when arbitrarily drawn political boundaries destroy the political power of an area, or enhance the political power of an area.

    3. Adam:

      You seem somewhat confused about the bonding. All the bonds are sold on an district-wide basis; the policy of subarea equity is not related to the bonding.

      1. WRONG. Bond repayment is required to come from the subarea where the funds are spent. In reality the district backs up bonds, but the board requires repayment by subarea. It’s important to note that a lot more borrowing is needed as a result of that policy, because the full district’s resources can’t be used to get expensive things done.

  14. How Far Should We Extend Rail?
    As far as it remains cost-effective when measured against other modes of transport.
    Commuter Rail North v. Express bus is an extreme example of spending 4-5 times per passenger on rail over bus that takes the same time between the same points.
    Clearly, that is not cost-effective.
    How about Fed.Way TC to Seattle? The bus will win that race hands down, and cost much less in the bargain for both capital and operating.
    Issaquah, Redmond, …???
    Transit is in the business to move bodies from A to B. It should choose the right weapon. Why shoot rabbits with tank rounds when the .22 accomplishes the same outcome?

  15. With subarea equity, it’s useless to say “Where should light rail be across the region?” as if one person can make the decision. North King decides what it wants, East King decides what it wants, etc. It’s not for Seattlites to tell Pierce County whether they should have Link. It’s up to Pierce County to decide what extensions it wants and whether it’s willing to pay for them. We only need to make sure it complements the rest of the network, and that some of the stations are designated urban villages.

    At some point, the subarea rates will have to be decoupled so that Seattle can get the more lines it wants while the suburbs can keep their taxes low. I don’t know if that’ll be necessary before ST3 or ST4. My assumption is ST4, because all the subareas will want extensions in ST3 so the common rate will probably not be an issue, but they may not want additional extensions in ST4.

    1. “It’s not for Seattlites to tell Pierce County whether they should have Link.”

      But it’s for Pierce County to tell the Rainier Valley they can’t plug the 1.5-mile hole in the line with a station at Graham Street because that would add a whole 2 minutes to the trip from Federal Way.

      Other cities have rapid transit systems and commuter rail systems. We get a both-but-really-neither system.

      1. …because that would add a whole 2 minutes to the trip from Federal Way.

        Or, like, 35 seconds.

      2. That’s a red herring. We don’t know that ST would deny a Graham station due to those desperate people in Federal Way and Tacoma. Graham was left out initially because of cost (to keep the total cost of the project down), and because the region did not yet have any direct experience with MLK-style light rail so people weren’t sure how well it would work. MLK has turned out significantly better than my expectations. It’s not 55 mph grade separated but it’s not crawling either, and stoppages are uncommon.

        By my estimate, the “Rainier Valley detour” adds 10 minutes to the trip, compared to a 55 mph route through Georgetown. That will remain constant if Link is extended further south. That means Link is predestined to be slower than ST Express for Seattle – Federal Way and Seattle – Tacoma, around 10-20 minutes slower (again my estimate). So there’s no hope of making Link “express speed” for those trips. Therefore, we might as well add a stop at Graham and at S 133rd Street — that’ll make it another minute slower. Federal Way can cry but it’s North King’s money and North King’s decision.

        (North of downtown, the situation is different. Westlake – Lynnwood is estimated at 28 minutes (ST’s estimate). Westlake – Everett would be about an hour. That’s within 5 minutes of ST Express, so a complete replacement of ST Express is possible there. That would incidentally serve more destinations than ST Express could ever hope to achieve. As for whether ST Express in FW and Tacoma could be replaced or consolidated anyway even with Link’s slowness, I think it’s feasable off-peak in exchange for keeping the 578 and 594 running peak-hours.)

      3. Don’t forget that much of the time you lose with the Ranier Valley detour, you gain back through less wait time at the bus stop and greater reliability, plus faster travel time downtown. As things stand today, it takes the 577 almost as long to get from the north end of downtown to the south end of downtown as it does to get from the south end of downtown all the way to Federal Way.

        For those continuing north past downtown, Link saves even more time by avoiding the transfer. For instance, travel time from Federal Way TC to the U-district today is schedule at about an hour when the 7X’s are able to utilize the express lanes. Riding Link all the way from Federal Way TC to the U-district would probably be about the same. Transferring to Link downtown would likely be slower because the transfer/getting into the tunnel/getting stuck in downtown street traffic on the bus outweighs the Ranier Valley detour of Link.

      4. Asdf, yes, exactly. People focus too much on downtown-to-airport, or [suburb]-to-downtown. Link’s major advantage is it provides express-level service on [any station]-to-[any-station]. Lynnwood to UW, done. Des Moines to stadiums, done. Even Rainier Valley to UW! All leveraging the same investment. Doing any of these nontraditional trips by bus would require a transfer and take twice as long. (The 48 takes 45 minutes from Columbia City to UW.)

      5. Woo! Lots of trains from a random inaccessible point in the Lynnwood sprawl to a random inaccessible point in the Tukwila sprawl.

        That’s so much better than being able to get from Montlake to 15th without spending 15 minutes on the crappiest bus in the universe for all eternity!

    2. Decoupling rates won’t “help” Seattle since it’s already at the maximum 9.5% allowed by State law. In essence Seattle already charges a higher tax rate because of the car tab fee (not sure but believe that also applies to the small portion of the North Sub-area outside Seattle city limits). The North Sub-area will need another creative approach like say the King County Ferry District to suck in more outside money.

      1. “Decoupling rates won’t “help” Seattle since it’s already at the maximum 9.5% allowed by State law.”

        And this is how state law prevents cities from helping themselves. Tax caps imposed at the state level are *not* cool.

  16. Our transit system should probably extend further than in other cities, considering how much water is close to our city center(s). Lake Washington takes up a lot of land that could otherwise be used for development.

    1. We should have a region-wide transit system.

      But extending our high-capacity, high-capital-cost mode out to low-density suburbs is dumb.

      The current “subarea equity” nonsense means that Lynnwood and Federal Way are higher priority than Ballard or the Central District.

      1. On the other hand, subarea equity means South King County is on the hook for the cost of making Link faster between Seattle and Tacoma, when at-grade would serve South King County’s local needs just fine.

      2. Or, y’know, they’ll probably try to convince Sound Transit to pay for a Rainier Valley bypass on Seattle’s dime, just as we’re bypassing most of central and north Seattle at Snohomish’s behest on our own dime.

        You have way too much faith in Seattle’s ability to advocate for itself (or to even have a fucking clue what urban transit should look like within its own borders).

      3. Lynnwood and Federal Way are not higher priority than Seattle as a whole. Seattle is getting one line; they are getting one line. Seattle (Ballard) may be getting a second line in the near-ish future, but don’t expect a second line in Lynnwood or Federal Way in that timeframe. Seattle may even have a third line by the time a second line reaches Lynnwood (Aurora) or Federal Way (Auburn).

        Without subarea equity, what’s the chance that Federal Way and Bellevue would raise their taxes for a second line in Seattle? “Hell no!” In more socialist countries (Canada and Germany), the regional transit authority puts lines exactly where they’re needed and everybody pays for them, but that’s not possible here in the present era, especially with Eymans running around trying to eliminate taxes and transit.

      4. “they’ll probably try to convince Sound Transit to pay for a Rainier Valley bypass on Seattle’s dime,”

        That’s just speculation. It’s extremely unlikely that ST would approve a bypass before Link has reached all corners of the city.

      5. Speculation based upon past behavior and demonstrated biases is not only valid, but prudent.

        Pinehurst and Shoreline will be getting rapid transit service well before any of our urban neighborhoods are stitched together. The I-5 corridor will receive significantly closer stop spacing than any part of Central Seattle.

        This is all happening on Seattle’s dime (we share a sub-area), but it is only happening because ST made Lynnwood a priority. We never would have elected to prioritize those places or to completely underserve our core.

      6. Who would pay for your Seattle-first approach, and how would you convince the politicians and public to pay for it? The “train” is moving on Link, and the politicians and public are on board with it. That’s an opportunity we can’t pass up, because something is better than nothing. We’ve succeeded in getting ST to avoid the worst mistakes (not going to the center of the U-District, Capitol Hill, Rainier Valley, and downtown Bellevue).

        Have you ever lived in a suburb? Do you understand what people there value? Sometimes we have to say no (no new highway), but we need to work together with them, not treat them as enemies. That means compromise. 80% of Pugetopolis’ population is not going to go away like a bad dream, and they’re not suddenly going to fall in love with condos. But we can gradually improve things if we work together with them.

      7. I refer you to the aforementioned example of Denver.

        Denver is really proud of its light rail system.
        And the regional alliances that formed around it, and built it quickly.
        And the suburbanites are particularly wont to crow about it, and to show off the shiny new train to visitors.

        But on a daily basis, hardly any of them use it.
        And it serves the urban area terribly.
        And it’s ridership numbers are abyssal.
        And it’s a money pit.

        Are you willing to forsake usefulness, and billions of dollars, for mere pride?

      8. The voices in West Seattle and Lake City may not be loud enough to build lines to them, but they’re definitely loud enough to prevent a bypass line being built before their lines are.

      9. Perhaps Denver is actually informative.

        The psychology among the cities in RTD is this: We Want Rail To Denver.

        Now, because these *are* actual cities with boundaries for the most part, they have no particular interest in extensions even further out.

        Once they get rail to Denver, what do they want next? *Next* they want to be able to get to multiple attractions and commercial locations in Denver. So they will probably actually vote for more downtown Denver rail once they can get to Denver. But right now they are all fighting because the deal was: they all get rail to Denver. So far only some of them have it.

        As for *residential* areas in downtown Denver, well, the suburbanites won’t advocate for them. But Denver is so sprawly there aren’t that many of them — and they will advocate for themselves, and I think they are probably going to do OK (they’ve basically controlled the “central corridor extension” design).

  17. I don’t know much about our north-south freight lines—and less about dealing with the freight companies themselves out here—but Everett and Tacoma scream commuter rail, not Link.

    1. The problem with commuter rail to Everett as currently constituted is that the right-of-way is owned by BNSF and therefore a) already maxed out on capacity and frequency and b) subject to that incredibly disruptive 48-hour safety rule after the slightest of mudslides. The only way to get reliable commuter rail on the north line is probably going to be a complete ground-up build out on ST- or Amtrak-owned ROW, which is likely to never happen due to the expense involved.

      Link then becomes a stopgap to make up for the deficiencies in the commuter-rail (and long-distance rail) infrastructure, because we need something in between Sounder trains (which, remember, won’t ever get more frequent) and buses.

      1. It’s not just the ownership; the North Line is in a really terrible location right next to the water. Difficult to expand and difficult to protect from mudslides.

        As for Amtrak Cascades/WSDOT, do they have an incentive to fix it? Well, with border crossing being the big pain which it is right now, and lack of cooperation from Canada, the state is focusing on service southwards from Seattle.

    2. The North Sounder half-rideshed screams low ridership. The South Sounder 1-hour ride between Seattle and Tacoma, with 15 minutes average wait time (vs. less than five minutes average wait for a peak 59x bus) screams *not for commuting between Tacoma and Seattle*. Besides, if we wanted to encourage riders to take Link instead of an express bus, we’d make the train fare lower than the bus fare instead of substantially higher.

      1. South Sounder *could* theoretically be improved to the point where it replaced the express buses, and the Seattle-Tacoma rail corridor might actually be worth doing this in (it would help Cascades from Seattle to Portland too).

        There’s no way that the equivalent work would be worthwhile for North Sounder.

  18. An assumption permeating this discussion is that rail trumps roads for mass mobility and always will. That assumption may not hold as the future unfolds, which may result in some of the unfunded rail extensions not happening.

    A workshop in Irvine, California this past week organized by the Transportation Research Board to develop a research agenda for road vehicle automation [Google for it] indicated that roads used by many types of vehicles, including buses and vans, may yield surprisingly improved flow and safety performance, much better than today as the decades roll on.

    Wireless communications and computerization combined are foundations of a different wave that we may be riding someday, in addition to the urban passenger train lines of Sound Transit. The emerging electrification of cars would reduce oil consumption and emissions.

    Puget Sound Regional Council in its T 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan (2010) assumed expressway use fees with off-peak discounts implemented in the 2030s. See map at . This resulted in its forecast of future expressway congestion staying below today’s levels and rail ridership in 2040 at half of the ST2 forecast of 2008 for 2030. PSRC didn’t need to assume that road vehicle automation coming on fast would yield fewer accidents and congestion to get the predicted trip market share in 2040 of 95% for cars, despite also assuming build out of light rail to Everett, Tacoma, and Redmond.

    A response from a Sound Transit official I received today by e-mail on the differing ridership forecasts is “PSRC and ST have had differing approaches to modeling transit ridership in the past.”

    1. Rail opponents are forever using the technology “just around the corner” to argue rail investment is unnecessary.

      Heck, physicists are exploiting quantum entanglement (“spooky action at a distance”) to teleport photons. Hold off on ST3 and just beam me up, John.

      1. I mostly blame the ‘spooky’ ridership forecasting done by ST on the FTA. To get the Federal pots-o-gold, agencies played the game by showing how many hours of travel time would be saved (one of the key ranking factors), which favored very long systems that competed with forecast road congestion far into the future.
        That gives us current Link ridership levels running 40% below original estimates. PSRC has estimated ridership will be only half of the original estimates. The FTA is silent on the matter, but are changing how New Start money is allocated and will start doing their own ridership forecasts in-house to level the playing field.
        It’s only a big deal here locally when new lines open, then fail to live up to expectations, with riders cut in half, but operating expenses coming in at or above original estimates, giving cost of service per rider at double those projected.
        This is how we get $32 rides on rail from Everett to Seattle and $5 rides on the bus that do the same job.
        Garbage in, Garbage out.

      2. Meanwhile. we in Seattle ignore technologies in the present next door in Vancouver. SkyTrain has changed the cost issue through automation, allowing it to break even on operation. That fully changes the question about where rail adds tangible value compared to other modes.

    2. “emerging electrification of cars”

      Re-emerging. Electric cars were abandoned around a century ago.

      1. John, I’m not sure what you mean by “revival of 1920s interurban electric light rail” considering that electric tramway systems had been continuously operating around the world for all of last century.

      2. Sherwin, I was only talking about “revival” of 1920s interurban electric light rail in the Seattle regional context. Of course there are still interurban electrics around the world here and there, though mostly gone in the USA. The T Green Line in Boston area remains from a long time back and some new ones, like in San Diego. But before World War I there were more miles of street railroads and inter-urbans in operation in this country than there are miles of interstate highway today.

        In my comment I had in mind not the street railroads like I experienced in Detroit in the 1950s, but rather the heavy duty trams that used to run between Bellingham and Tacoma before I was born. There is one of those rail cars on display in Lynnwood that’s fun to visit; picture at .

        In my view, ST’s light rail beyond Northgate and Rainier Beach is very much like a 1920s interurban, though of course going into a subway tunnel in central Seattle is a new thing for our region.

    3. By the way, on the wildly differing future rail ridership forecasts from Sound Transit in 2008 and PSRC in 2010 that I have highlighted since 2010 beginning with my speech to elected officials at, there is a new development:

      Prominent transit activist Ben Schiendelman has convinced himself, erroneously according to available documents, that PSRC counts round trips and ST counts one-way trips, and THAT explains the forecast difference. Nope.

      Now is the time for everybody to insist on a more detailed explanation than Sound Transit’s admission to me of yesterday, “PSRC and ST have had differing approaches to modeling transit ridership in the past.”

      Ben and I have lately been having a polite interchange on Twitter, visible here without joining Twitter:

      1. So PSRC and ST’s models have differing assumptions. What’s the big deal about that?

      2. The entire foundation of planning, starting with the Alternatives Analysis process, depends on accurate information as is humanly possible. For the local Transportation Planning Organization to arrive at half the ridership projections that ST is using to justify its projects should start some alarm bells going off somewhere.
        Would other alternatives have been a better choice? It’s hard to trust the U Link and ST2 projections now that Central/Airport Link is falling far behind it’s goal to hit 47,000 by 2020. Cost for construction and operating are coming in on schedule, but dividing those among fewer riders puts a greater burden on non-rider taxpayers to make up the difference. It’s a fairness issue for me.

      3. mic, it’s far from a definite that Central Link won’t meet its 2020 projections. And your fairness argument incorrectly presupposes that typical voters (1) don’t understand the meaning of the word “estimate” and (2) prioritized ridership in the first place when voting yes.

        I couldn’t come close to guessing U-Link’s projected ridership, and I’m sure I follow these things closer than most voters. I can tell you funding a frequent train that takes three minutes from downtown to Capitol Hill and another six to UW makes sense to me as a voter. Which is to say destinations, headways, and trip times matter more to me, and I’d guess most of the public, than ridership. I’m not sure the typical voter calculates “fairness” in the way you do.

      4. I have neither respect nor time for Niles and CETA – but I’m old enough to acknowledge that they do have a point.

        But first:

        Très plus grand exceptionnalisme américain: “It’s okay, informative and useful to critique a transit ridership forecast without any reference to what the line, as built, might actually carry.”

        At 2010, Central Link (“CL”) carried nearly 7.0 million passengers. The average travel distance (ATD) was 12.9 km (8.0 mi). Implied passenger traffic density, based on the 25.0-km (15.5-mi) line length: about 3.6 million pass-km per km of system length, or about 12,000 per weekday.

        The “estimated” passenger count for 2011 was 7.8 million – up by nearly 12 percent from 2010. If this continues “unconstrained,” the line will carry the 14 million implied by the “weekday” forecast for 2020 (47,000) within 7 years – that is, by 2019.

        The “max-out point” – the point where peak-period crowding would impose a “ceiling” on ridership – is in the range of 50,000 – 70,000 per weekday, or 15 million – 20 million per year. I suspect that the “lower” end of the range is the more correct, because of the long trips this line carries (and the fact that as ATD goes up, the share of passengers willing to travel as standees goes down).

        I do not have information about the forecast division of traffic between the three “branches” conveniently at hand. However, the same “max-out” range would apply to the East Line, given similar peak-period service levels. Thus, we’re up to 100,000 – 140,000 per weekday as the “system limit” (again: based on passenger tolerance for peak-period crowding).

        The North Line “max-out” estimate is complicated by greater peak-period capacity (= more frequent service), and by traffic patterns: a significant share of peak-period passengers would travel “through” downtown Seattle to the U District. The “max-out” range is wider – and gives a “system limit” of perhaps 150,000 – 250,000 per weekday.

        Conclusion: the smaller of the two forecasts critiqued by Niles is credible in terms of “what the system, as built, might actually carry.” This is not true of the larger forecast – absent significant investment to increase peak-period service, thereby reducing peak-period crowding to levels that consumers would tolerate.

        One more thing: certain rail critics have a history of – um, misrepresentation – with reference to the type of analysis presented above (admittedly in brief). One might be tempted to argue that the above demonstrates the superiority of “bus rapid transit” or “roads” over “rail transit.” To paraphrase my favorite invective from “Down Under:” only a fool, or an American, would say such a thing – or expect others to believe it.

      5. Sherwin, the big deal is that ST’s forecast for rail boardings in 2030 is about twice what PSRC’s rail forecast is for 2040. The bigger deal is not the spread but that the trend is going in the wrong direction, with rail ridersip down in 2040 from what ST said it would be in 2030.

        Ben Schiendelman ‏tweeted, “Sounds like someone entered a digit wrong then.” Could be I suppose, but I think something more fundamental is going on. My theory [unconfirmed by anybody in the agencies involved] is the drop from 2030 to 2040 comes from modeling the effects of the region’s officially approved plan (as of May 2010) to implement road use fees with off-peak discounts on all regional expressways starting in the 2030s.

        That’s also a big deal, because if the implementation of road use fees leads to reduced rail ridership like PSRC is forecasting, the grounds for the $600 million Federal grant for Northgate to Lynnwood are threatened.

        If you are working inside ST these days, you are in a good position to get at the real story and let us know.

      6. Leroy,

        I’m honored you took the time to respond so comprehensively to somebody you don’t respect! I certainly respect your work, and thanks for sharing your observations.

        Question — Have you seen the CUTR work by Polzin et al examining the early years of ridership experienced on U.S. New Starts light rail lines? Latest version cited at, older full text at .

        The year by year graphs of ridership growth published by CUTR seem to confirm the point made by former APTA boss William Millar when he visited Seattle in autumn 2009 and declared that rail ridership on new lines tends to top off after 18 months or so. You don’t buy this, I gather?

        In reaction to that conventional wisdom, Sound Transit is now saying our Central Link light rail is different than the usual case, that it needs more time to mature, and growth is coming along nicely, thank you very much. More people need to just Ride the Wave! In your comment where you do a linear extrapolation on present trends, you seem to be confirming the ST point of view — year after year, steady growth. Am I reading you right?

        My own linear extrapolation of ST’s published future boarding estimates shown in got to about 36,000 in 2020, sans new openings, the point where the NEPA forecast estimated 45,000.

        2011 Link boardings were indeed 12% over 2010. But so far, January to May 2012 is only 9% over the same five months of 2011 — a falling growth rate?

        [Of course Link Light Rail in year 2020 with no extensions is likely counterfactual, given the scheduled opening of the two station subway extension to Husky Stadium in 2016. That opening is forecast by ST to create a new ridership trend line toward doubling and prove Niles was hasty to criticize the slow ridership build up until that ribbon is cut.]

        As for criticizing the notion that poor ST light rail ridership therefore means Seattle needs BRT lines, if you read me closely you know I’m not exactly there any more. I’ve come to find the whole idea of building urban RR mainlines, or “heavy” BRT busway mainlines, with “ordinary/local” bus feeders in/out of the high capacity stations, supplemented by all the people walking to/from nearby apartments, to be ineffective in building transit mode share commensurate with the cost, at least in Seattle region.

        My evolving opinion has been shaped by the lousy (5%) transit mode share performance that PSRC is forecasting for our combined light rail network and smart-dense-growth, fomented by many, including the folks who run this blog.

        Solutions, please, asks Ben Schiendelman? I’ll be in the middle of describing a new mobility paradigm by early 2013. Certainly not more Seattle Subway.

        I do appreciate your point that a supply of comfortable space aboard rail cars is a pre-requisite to ridership. At least I think that’s your point! The small size of Seattle’s light rail cars is quite startling compared to the newer generation of urban rail vehicles up north in BC.

        Best regards
        John N

      7. Jason: Sorry I didn’t respond sooner to your comment ” (1) don’t understand the meaning of the word “estimate” and (2) prioritized ridership in the first place when voting yes.”
        Nearly all of the campaign literature and talking points for elected officials to get ST1/2 finally approved, included many reassuring statements like:
        … very conservative estimates …. or
        … reviewed by an Expert Review Panel …
        and in general all gave the impression that these numbers being passed out to the public for their vote were pretty solid and understated the benefits.
        Now, two decades after the whole process started in 1992, we’re finding out that it takes much longer to build the spine, will cost much more, and probably only serve half as many people than conservatively estimated.
        As john Niles has correctly pointed out, mode shift after all of this building for the future barely sees a bump in solving the congestion riddle. Total mode share stays at 5%. Sure, YOU get to ride on a nice shiny new train with few stops, subsidized to the tune of about 80% by your neighbors, but what about the other 95% of the people NOT using it?
        I’ll agree that voters probably didn’t prioritize ridership, but they do make a conscious decision just moments before pulling the lever on ‘Yes, tax me more’ ballot measures. They ask themselves is this a reasonable measure to solve a real problem? The literature and speeches all scream YES.
        The PSRC and actual experience 20 years after the fact say NO.
        I’d love to see more factual discussion here on STB like commentors Niles, Bernie and d.p. provide, then maybe we can agree on solutions that take us off the 5% mark. Just sitting in the stands, going Rah, Rah for a team that sucks is kinda wasting your time – unless you’re just at the game to drink beer.

      8. John Niles wrote:
        “My evolving opinion has been shaped by the lousy (5%) transit mode share performance that PSRC is forecasting for our combined light rail network and smart-dense-growth, ”

        The PSRC forecast is evident bullshit and I would not base your opinion on it. I’d trust d.p.’s intutition before I’d trust a model with 300 parameters based on 10-year-old data.

      9. I honestly have no idea if this was intended as a burn, and if it was, then I’m unsure of the intended intensity of the burn and whether it was bi-directional.

        I offer so many intuitions, they can’t help but vary in trustworthiness.

    4. You don’t really believe that all those assholes passing you on the right, cutting you off, and tailgating you unmercifully are going to sit back and let some CTRL-ALT-DEL effing computer drive their cars, do you?

      If so, I have a deep-bore tunnel currently under construction, title to which recently came to me. My attorneys have assured me that my ownership is unencumbered and can be transferred to YOU! for a reasonable emolument.

      Please contact me through my attorneys, Dewey, Cheatham and Howe, LLC if you are interested in this exclusive offer.

    5. “An assumption permeating this discussion is that rail trumps roads for mass mobility and always will.”

      A correct assumption.

      Rail is inherently more efficient for high volume transportation than roads, because of the passive stabilization character of the rail/wheel interface. This is what allows very long trains; there is no equivalent for road transport. If you can’t fill a single bus, perhaps trains will be less efficient. If you can fill more than one bus — trains ARE more efficient and *always will be*.

      The result of this: if you try to use roads for something with the volume to demand rail, you get congested, slow-moving roads. Period. Doesn’t matter whether you’re using magic automated electric cars. (Of course, automated electric trains *already exist in revenue service*).

      Rail is inherently less carbon-intensive than roads. First, there’s the asphalt. Concrete is also very carbon-intensive. While carbon-negative concrete may possibly change that, there’s also the rubber tires.

      And rail is inherently more energy-efficient because of the losses in the rubber tire – road interface.

      And then: electrification is inherently more efficient than fuel motors. Yes, we are probably all going to switch to electric cars. But carrying around electric batteries is another energy loss — so overhead wiring is inherently more efficient for high-volume applications.

      So yes, rail is better for high volumes. Now, you may ask: “do we really have high volumes?” If you’re doing fine with two-lane (one each way) roads, you don’t have high volumes and you sure don’t need rail. If you start talking about widened roads with more lanes, or about grade-separated expressways, you should instead almost certainly be talking about rail.

  19. The way to make it both light rail for local trips and commuter rail for longer trips is to add an express system; one that only stops at high volume or end of line stops. We will eventually need one or two more sets of tracks to make this feasible. (I know…cost). Point is we need to think outside the box we are in sometimes, there’s always a solution.

    1. That would make the transit system more useful and well-used. But Pogetopoleans are nowhere near ready to tolerate the cost of four tracks. Only NYC has been able to achieve that.

      1. NYC has quadruple-tracked segments largely because of the close-in stop spacing, which makes an express ideal. Link already has fairly wide stop spacing– the question is: what market are you targeting if you were to build express trackway?

      2. Even London didn’t manage to get four-tracking on hardly any of its system. What tends to happen is, rather than four-tracking, a “relief line” gets built which takes a different route. And ends up with nearly as many stops.

        The only way NY got four-track lines is that NY was *replacing* two-track elevated lines, so they already knew they needed the capacity.

  20. One set of data I would like to see for the several cities being compared is Passenger Miles per Hour of Service. Boardings are only one measure, albeit one that favors the author’s worldview.

    1. As already debated above, using passenger miles would reward long-distance commutes; it’s more of an efficiency performance measure, like how you can get more miles out of a tank of gas if you at a faster constant speed over a long distance.

      1. “Très plus grand exceptionnalisme américain:” “As already debated above, using passenger miles would reward long-distance commutes.”

        Sherwin Lee’s unstated but nonetheless inherent underlying premise: “It’s okay, informative and useful to give an essentially political (or public-policy) consideration priority over the laws of physics.

        Transit “capacity” is a function of passenger-miles, not “boardings” (or “revenue passengers”). Increases in average travel distance (ATD) lead to reduced “capacity” in terms of boardings – and this fact was recognized, and written about, more than a century ago. I concede that that “capacity” is an issue associated generally, although not exclusively, with weekday peak periods (roughly 50 percent of traffic moves during the five busiest hours of the day).

        Another fact, which leads me to snicker at “exceptionnalisme américain” with more than the usual vigor: As ATD increases, one needs to increase the amount of service (vehicle-km, more precisely “place-km”) provided. That’s because: if the “duration” of the average “standing” ride increases, then the share of passengers willing to travel as standing passengers decreases.

        “Passenger-miles,” specifically “passenger traffic density,” has some interesting implications that tend to escape those who cannot quite bring themselves to let go of . . . well, “exceptionnalisme américain.”

        Modal thresholds were worked out more than 30 years ago. In brief, the “rail transit threshold” for a “basic” surface-only LRT system is 5,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday – in other words, 5,000 people traveling, on average, over each km of line. This is the passenger traffic level at which LRT becomes more economical to operate than buses – and there are multiple studies that confirm this.

        A passenger traffic density level of roughly 10,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday implies peak-period volumes sufficient to justify (or to require) significant separation, perhaps even a downtown subway.

        The “virtual heavy-rail threshold” is roughly 20,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday. This implies peak-period volumes sufficient to justify – or require – full separation.

        The L.A. Blue Line is the proverbial “exception that proves the rule.” It carries a passenger traffic density of roughly 30,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday. However, there’s a catch – in fact, there are a number of catches that Sherwin Lee or others might expound upon.

        The Blue Line has a remarkably low ratio of “peak-hour, peak-direction” to “two-way, all-day” traffic. That is either 1.) characteristic of the corridor, 2.) the result of this line’s visible peak-period capacity constraints, or 3.) some combination of 1.) and 2.). It was once reasonably possible to argue 1.); that is no longer so after more than 20 years of operating experience. This line would carry more traffic if it could provide more service during peak periods . . .

        . . . however, the practical limit on peak-period train length and service frequency has been reached – and will not change for the foreseeable future. The line was built for two-car trains. Platforms were lengthened (at considerable expense) to permit three-car trains. The operator said, almost to the day that the first three-car train entered service, that they would be operated only during weekday peak periods. Famous last words: to the best of my knowledge, most Blue Line service is operated with three-car trains. Oh, yes: the east-west Green Line was operated with single cars until Blue Line trains were lengthened; the obvious reason was to avoid overloading the Blue Line.

        Service frequency cannot be increased because 1.) this would impose major “impacts” on vehicular traffic using major cross streets, and 2.) because the terminal must now be shared with the new Expo Line. So, the “maximum” Blue Line service is three-car trains every 6 minutes . . . indefinitely. I doubt that anyone down there has any real idea abut what the “next increment” of capacity increase might be.

        So, “should” this line have been built as “heavy rail?” Well, yes – except for the fact that this was politically and financially impossible. Several individuals who worked on the project have assured me: If it had cost significantly more, then it would not have been built. And, of course, “the money” needed to do this could not have been used for “other projects.”

        One more thing. I’ve noted an unsavory bias toward “long-distance” commuting here, and elsewhere. This needs to be tempered with reality. As a long-time Los Angeles resident, permit me to assure you that the true nature of “transit apartheid” is to confine low-income minority residents within a “cordon” of, say, an hour’s ride aboard “buses in mixed traffic.” That’s roughly ten miles, which, in L.A., is not very far. Within this “cordon” are located the lowest-paying, least-desirable jobs in the area. The L.A. rail system, among other things, permits “inner-city” residents to travel “farther afield” to better-paying, less-onerous employment.

      2. Thank you for these comments, Mr. Demery — they match what I remember.

        “Modal thresholds were worked out more than 30 years ago. In brief, the “rail transit threshold” for a “basic” surface-only LRT system is 5,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday – in other words, 5,000 people traveling, on average, over each km of line. This is the passenger traffic level at which LRT becomes more economical to operate than buses – and there are multiple studies that confirm this.”

        I think the exact number would be likely to change given a truly large change in the price of oil, which hasn’t happened over the period of the studies.

        Readers should also note that last I checked, this figure is for mostly-exclusive ROW with grade crossings, vs. buses in roads paid for by “someone else”, so the number should NEVER be used to justify construction of busways. Busways are pretty hard to justify, since they’re practically always more expensive than equivalent rail.

        The question of when to build shared-lane streetcars is a difficult one; I think they cannot generally be justified on transportation grounds, unless the shared lane is solely for rarely-used local access or something like that (as happens in Camden, NJ). However, they do seem to be justifiable on development grounds, probably because diesel buses stink.

        “A passenger traffic density level of roughly 10,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday implies peak-period volumes sufficient to justify (or to require) significant separation, perhaps even a downtown subway.”
        As noted above, this is for separation against cross traffic. Separation against parallel traffic is assumed.

        “The “virtual heavy-rail threshold” is roughly 20,000 pass-km per km of system length per weekday. This implies peak-period volumes sufficient to justify – or require – full separation.”

      3. Oh. And, um, another important fact: the RAIL BIAS.

        In general, if you replace a bus route with an identical rail route, ridership goes up by 10-20%. (And conversely, replacing rail with buses cuts ridership.) The exact number seems to vary by region, and of course if you change the route or frequency of service, you change the results.

        So if the threshold for “rail service” is 5000 pass-km / track-km, then if you’ve reached 4500 pass-km / road-km on your buses, you might as well build rail service now.

  21. An example of subruban rail transit done right in the Bay Area is the Caltrain corridor through Northern Santa Clara County and San Mateo County (between Mountain View and Millbrae). Caltrain stations in this corridor are right in the heart of these communities’ walkable downtowns and provide great walksheds that encourage walking and biking, and provide easy access to San Francisco and neighboring communities for residents who live within a close proximity.

    These suburbs – particularly near San Mateo and Burlingame – are among the densest and most walkable in the Bay Area, with lots of great shopping districts anchored by rail transit and good access to the city.

    This is in stark contrast to Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose (i.e. Silicon Valley) where San Jose’s light rail and Caltrain stations are typically surrounded by low-density sprawl and are designed to drive to. The East Bay exurbs-turned-suburbs of Walnut Creek, Concord, Pleasant Hill, etc. are sprawly communities by nature and it is questionable that they brought BART there to begin with – it’s just not a model that makes sense cost-wise when there are better investments to be made.

    I think there’s a lesson there – Let’s hope that if (or when) Link expands down to Tacoma from West Seattle (i.e. the Southern extension of the Red Line) they target walkable downtowns (i.e. Burien, Renton, (eventually) Kent, etc.)instead of cost-efficient but sprawly locations. I know Seattle doesn’t have a string of dense suburbs like the ones on the Penninsula or a right of way as good as the CalTrain track, but it is a better model to follow.

      1. As a long-distance line used primarily for commuting, Caltrain can’t support BART’s frequencies!!

        Just as BART itself can’t support BART’s frequencies (resulting in preposterous subsidies per ride).

        Want extremely high frequency? Then live where transit has any potential to be useful for all of life’s needs. That means not Redwood City, not Walnut Creek, and not freaking Kent!

      2. Want extremely high frequency? Then live where transit has any potential to be useful for all of life’s needs.

        Like NY City? Transit trips 12M/day; Seattle, what 80,000? Link has been called a system for the next century. The last time London had a population equal to Seattle King George II was in power. Spending is centuries ahead of demand.

      3. Doesn’t have to be Manhattan.

        Queens does just fine, despite a surprising amount of (closely spaced) single-family housing. Same goes for Brookline, Mass. and Evanston, IL.

        Many parts of present-day Seattle would do just fine, too, if only we had transit worth getting out of our cars for. A 90% automobile modeshare for non-commute trips means there are potentially 10x as many transit trips that could be taken if the service were good enough to justify such a choice.

        Of course, by making Link impossible to access for 70% of trips to/from Capitol Hill, and by planning stations so expensive that we can only afford to build them out of reach of most destinations, and by acquiescing to “regional desires” by planning highway-based routes, and by even discussing connecting piss-ant Downtown Issaquah to empty Downtown Federal Way, we’re charging boldly in the wrong direction!

      4. d.p., Queens does NOT do just fine. There are basically three subway lines in Queens: two of them are parallel to each other and very close, and the other is the Astoria line.

        Get too far away from those, and Queens service is terrible, and all the people living in those parts of Queens drive everywhere.

        This is kind of making your point, though!

      5. More or less, though there’s no shortage of demand in the single-family areas served by the 7, the E/F/R, the A, the tails of the J/Z and M, and the high-frequency segments of the LIRR.

        There’s also a truly amazing quantity of single-family south of Prospect Park, often served within walking distance by more than one Brooklyn trunk line.

    1. That is what Link must do: walkable downtowns. One north-south line can’t go everywhere, so Burien, Renton, and Kent were left out, but they can be on future lines. And if those lines are built, they’d better go directly to the pedestrian centers (including East Hill, which has potential).

      1. Exactly. While CalTrain’s frequencies aren’t great, it does operate between 4:30am and 1:30am with 10-15 minutes headway during commute hours (4:30-9 & 3:30-7) and has 45-1hr headways during non-commute hours. So, as long as trips are planned, it’s very functional. But most importantly, the stations are in very walkable areas and many represent destinations in their own right.

        Now, while it’s true the Bay Area is much denser and has more walkable areas than the Seattle Metro (Seattle does not have suburbs like Daly City, San Mateo, Burlingame, Berkeley – many of which are denser than much of Seattle itself), but we can still apply the same prinipals of making sure to put the stations in as walkable areas as possible. Clearly, TIB in Tukwila and I’d argue running down MLK instead of elevated or underground on Rainier were both huge misses.

      2. During non-commute hours, the Caltrain operates at hourly headways and that is it. Even during commute hours, the trains tend to skip stops a lot, so the headway of trains serving any particular station is often 30 minutes at best, even if the paper headway of the overall route is better than that.

        Even if trips are planned, it’s important to remember that real trips begin and end at homes and businesses, not rail stations. If you have to take a connecting bus to get to the CalTrain station that runs every 15 minutes and has a 15 minute margin of error as to how long the trips takes, guess what – you have to allow yourself a 30 minute cushion to catch the train.

        A couple years ago, I took a trip that illustrated just how disfunctional CalTrain is. I was staying with a hotel in Redwood City for a visit to family who lived in the area, but I wanted to take a side trip into San Francisco for an evening after arriving off the plane. Getting from the airport to San Francisco was a quick hop on Bart – it was a bit expensive, but with the trains running every 10-15 minutes, the experience was a breeze.

        For the trip from San Francisco to my hotel in Redwood City, however, I had to do a lot more planning. Geographically, it should have been a straight shot on CalTrain, as the Redwood City CalTrain station was only a mile from the hotel. However, Google Street View revealed that the mile from the train station to the hotel involved crossing an overpass of highway 101, with its maze of off-ramps and on-ramps, which didn’t seem particularly safe to do at 11:00 at night. So, I called the hotel and asked about their shuttle service. Turns out that transit is so irrelevant there that, while the hotel is perfectly willing to shuttle guests 10 miles to and from the San Fransisco airport at no charge, they do not pick up guests at the CalTrain stop, a mere 3 minute drive from the hotel! On the San Francisco end, things get worse. The place I was visiting for the evening was about 4 miles from the San Fransisco CalTrain station, but to get there required a patchwork of slow, not-super-reliable local buses, plus a choice between a mile-long walk, a transfer, or a very circuitous route. Turns out that in order to reliably catch the hourly train to Redwood City, I would have had to leave my destination a full hour before the train departed, in spite of being only 4 miles away.

        In the end, I opted not to do this. Instead, I retraced my steps and took Bart back to the airport, then called the hotel and waited half an hour at the airport for the hotel shuttle to arrive. Door to door, getting to the hotel required nearly 2 hours to go 17 miles – had I had my bicycle, I could have peddled it all the way and gotten there faster. My only regret after it was all over was that I wasn’t willing to cough up the $50 for a cab.

      3. That sounds like an unfortunate situation, and it’s true that Redwood City is one of the worst stations along that stretch. (The other side of 101 is a bit of a wasteland, too)

        However, the number of residents within a reasonable walk- or bike-shed of many of the other stations (San Mateo, Burlingame, Broadway, Palo Alto, California Ave.,Belmont) is very high – so it is fairly easy for those people to just walk to the station when needed and head to SF or to other penninsula downtowns. As I said, many of these stations are located smack-dab in the middle of vibrant, pedestrian-oriented downtown with lots of amenities.

        Also, with the recent passing of the HSR funds, CalTrain will be electrified which will increase frequency, and the SF CalTrain station will be extended to a more central location.

        Out of curiosity, where were you trying to get to in SF? There may have been a better way. SF is so compact and dense I’ve never found it too hard to get around during my visits.

  22. We should extend Light Rail to Everett north and Tacoma South.

    Interurbans were built almost 100 years ago which ran between Downtown Seattle, Everett, and Tacoma. They provided quick mobility to people before cars reigned.
    The Interurban was built and deployed quickly.

    For Light Rail to provide service to the greatest number of people, we should deploy service to major workcenters in the region. Boeing to the North, Amazon/Starbucks/Downtown businesses in Seattle, Microsoft/Bellevue on the Eastside, the Airport and Tacoma to the South. Moving lots of people rapidly to major work centers would do a lot to get people off the roads.

    Cities in between the line(s) are best served by buses providing circulator support for the light rail line. When Light Rail is deployed, we should reduce the number of buses travelling Downtown.

    1. They provided [quick] mobility to people before cars reigned.

      They indeed provided the mobility, when they had a lock on demand and the only development between the endpoints was along their corridor.

      Even then, they were never, ever quick.

      1. Some of the interurbans in the Midwest were, in fact, quick, speeding across flat land at 100 mph. I suppose you are thinking of the ones in the Seattle area though.

  23. The initial system was designed for more abstract reasons — many political. Now that the system is partially operating, it’s important to shift how light rail is viewed. We’ve already bought the Maserati — now it’s time to drive it well and get back the return on the investment! That means increasing the current system’s popularity and productivity as much as possible. Sound Transit needs to create a better “business plan”, which strategies to add riders to the current (and programmed) system. That means everything thing cell-phone, pick-up zones to partnering for high-frequency “shuttle” services from many stations (Metro route restructuring) to encouraging adjacent private paid parking garages and lots to in-fill station incentives for TOD developers to some large bike stations to moving more high-use public facilities to be next to stations to adding new, short light rail branch lines to the core system rather than focusing most on building out further on the edges. I think many in the public are still taking a wait-and-see attitude about Link’s value, and will likely assess its value once U-Link opens in a few years. In the mean time, I hope that we can inspire agencies and leaders to think harder about how to get the ridership higher!

    1. Ridership really is immaterial. The fare revenue plays such as small part in the operations costs that increasing ridership won’t make any difference.

      I’d add that the best approach — the one that helps the “branding” of the agency — is to ignore ridership completely.

      1. Metro has a better than 25% fare recovery. That’s hardly immaterial. But, perhaps more important than the recovery ratio is the fact that the whole purpose of Metro is to move people which makes ridership the number one priority.

      2. Link is ‘supposed’ to have at least a 40% fare recovery. It’s only immaterial when you can’t even get close, then decide it wasn’t important in the first place.
        “Sleep well my child.”

      3. Ridership is what drives votes. For anything done by an elected government, that is hardly immaterial…

        I guess I’d look at yearly distinct riders, myself. From a political point of view, someone who rides once a week is as good as a daily commuter.

    2. Good ideas, but many are out of ST’s domain. Shuttles and connecting routes would fall on the responsibility of Metro, though their first crack in the Rainier Valley was far from a resounding success. One thing that advocates are looking for, however, is granting transit agencies station area planning authority.

  24. I live in Tacoma and light rail to the airport would be cool.

    More important to me, however, is ST funding of a good intra-city light rail line within Tacoma along with express buses traveling in HOV lanes with higher HOV requirements (3 or 4 people) at rush hour to ensure that buses can get to the airport and Seattle from Tacoma at full highway speed, which is quite a bit faster than light rail would be anyway. To me, a frequent, fast, safe, reliable express bus system between Seattle and Tacoma with hours as long as you get with light rail would be good enough.

    1. Tacoma has several options for ST3. It could ask for streetcars on 6th Ave, Pacific Street, and to Lakewood. Those streetcars can be slow shared-lane like the SLUT, or faster exclusive-lane like Link on MLK. I don’t know whether the “Tacoma Link” design would have enough capacity if it were expanded citywide, maybe. Or Tacoma could ask for an extension from Seattle. It may have to choose one or the other depending on affordability. An extension from Seattle is also dependent on the Federal Way segment, and South King is poor.

      If I lived in Tacoma (I have relatives there), I’d choose the local system first over the Seattle extension, because each person would be able to use it more often, and it would help create more walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods in Tacoma.

  25. Rail has always had a way of attracting ridership more so than any bus line ever could. In the early part of the 20th century rail lines were built out into forests, and fields and sprawling (by the days standards) neighborhoods started to fill in the trolley line until eventually it was no diffrent than any part of town, even Tacoma’s LINK light rail achieved its 2010 ridership expectations 6 months – thats right 6 months – after opening. I’d hardly call it a flop. And really it’s more of a streetcar than the interurban nature of Central LINK light rail, so it shouldent be considered such. Finally the line does need to be expanded upon, 6th avenue to the North and west, and mabye even pacific avenue south to Parkland. This would serve a very busy pierce transit corridor, and relieve PT of some of the hassles of operating the line while they focus on saving the remainder of their system.

    1. Tacoma Link is a flop because:

      1) Most trips that you could do with Tacoma Link, you could just walk in less time than it would take to wait for the train

      2) Every local bus that goes through downtown Tacoma (including some Sound Transit routes as well) serves the same corridor as Tacoma Link and makes the same set of stops. And even with Pierce Transit’s budget crisis, the combined headway of every local bus through downtown Tacoma is actually better than that of Tacoma Link. So the train doesn’t really provide any new mobility that wasn’t already there with buses anyway.

      1. And yet people choose to ride Tacoma Link instead of those buses you refer to.

        Yeah, not a flop. The RAIL BIAS is real.

    2. Some of the rail lines built into forests were built by developers as a way to convince people to buy property there. Phinney Ridge is one example.

      Tacoma Link is too short to make a significant dent in Tacoma’s transit needs, but paradoxically it’s popular — like the SLUT. Popular enough to add a station. It’s useless for people on express buses because the buses make all the same stops. But it’s useful for people going to Sounder or to UW-Tacoma, and that’s a start.

      Extending it citywide makes sense, with double-tracking and whatever other improvements are necessary. There would arise the problem of detouring into Tacoma Dome station and back out, since Tacoma Dome is a bit east of the north-south route. But that may be an acceptable evil.

      1. Tacoma Link is free to ride and provides free parking. Of course it’s popular but it’s $350+/hr operating cost is a terrible value when you could provide 3X the amount of bus service and replace some of the significant coverage lost due to PT cutbacks. FWIW, I was at the T-Dome station Sunday and nobody, and I mean nobody was there with the exception of two security cops standing around smoking.

      2. 3X the amount of bus service would probably have fewer riders.

        The RAIL BIAS is real.

  26. From the land of “American Exceptionalism:”

    Anandakos (July 30, 2012 at 10:01 am):

    “But it was stupid to force a system that otherwise has an almost 100% heavy rail profile to use overhead catenary, with all the construction costs and maintenance problems it entails.”

    There must be a lot of stupid planners in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, among other places . . .

      1. You are comparing apples to oranges, d.p. Yes, Shinkansen and TGV use catenary, but they have no choice; third rail does not work at the speeds at which they operate. There’s too much friction and bouncing of the follower shoe.

        Sure, one could probably create some sort of rolling rather than sliding pickup, but it hasn’t been invented yet, or if it was invented at some time in the past, it fell out of favor.

        Third rail is vastly better for urban rail systems because it’s cheap to build and requires very little maintenance of either the pickup systems on the cars or the third rail itself.

        Catenary on the other hand requires considerably taller tunnels and underpasses to accommodate the extra height, more frequent maintenance of the cars to keep the tensioning of the pickup follower balanced properly, and it gets seriously fouled in ice storms.

        And finally, heavy rail cars are typically considerably wider than light rail vehicles, which means quicker loading and unloading and higher capacity.

        Light Rail might have worked in Seattle if a serious effort to use its strengths had been made. There is a little street running along MLK and there may be street running along NE 20th along Bel-Red. I expect that the good burghers of Redmond will insist that their Link to the Region be fully grade separated just like Northgate’s.

        But ST has categorically rejected using at-grade south of the airport, where there is PLENTY of opportunity for it or north of Northgate, where the is an existing right of way almost unbroken between 115th and Lynnwood TC.

        Yes, in a few spots the system would have to be elevated where the ROW has been encroached upon, but there’s a LOT of it that would have been useful, and there are actual people living along it, some of them in actual semi-urban clusters. Lawsy-lawsy. Will wonders never cease.

      2. Tunnel height is a real issue; none of the other things you mentioned are real issues. You can make nice wide cars with overhead catenary or trolley wire (and many, many places do).

        Maintenance of third rail is actually an expensive and work-intensive proposition, and the shoes have to be replaced every so often (yeah, with tensioning issues and everything). Ask Metro-North; they have both overhead and third rail. They both have a lot of maintenance.

        Third rail is harder to keep insulated than overhead and has more electrical losses. It also has more metal content so it’s more expensive upfront.

        Oh, and most forms of third rail get wrecked by “leaves on the line” and rendered unusable by ice storms (Metro-North’s underrunning third rail is an exception).

  27. Also, I think the BART comparison is generally a bad one. The Bay Area, even outside of SF and Oakland/Berkeley, is a much denser region than the Seattle metro. There are many cities and suburbs that achieve high densities outside of the urban core. Overall, I think BART makes sense as a regional system. However, what’s missing is more in-city stops in SF and Oakland. Although, they are working on expanding MUNI (which links seemlessly to BART and is mostly underground) to Chinatown and hopefully other areas of the city as well.

    I think BART/MUNI could be a great in-city and regional system, if there were more infill urban stops as well as new MUNI extensions that covered other sections of SF/Oakland/Berkeley.

  28. “Très grand exceptionnalisme américain:”

    Sherwin Lee’s unstated but nonetheless inherent underlying premise, “it’s okay, informative and useful to compare rail systems without reference to traffic patterns – average travel distance (ATD) in particular.”

    Annual boardings Average km (mi) per boarding Pass-km per hour Pass-km per (revenue service) km
    Boston 65,471,593 3.8 (2.4) 380 25
    San Francisco 49,396,925 4.3 (2.7) 340 23
    Los Angeles 46,409,075 11.6 (7.2) 1,300 35
    Phoenix 12,112,733 11.7 (7.2) 780 33
    Dallas 17,799,186 11.4 (7.0) 820 25
    Denver 20,087,726 11.2 (6.9) 540 17

    Seattle-1923 88,900,000 3 (2) 150 10
    Seattle-CL-2010 7,000,000 12.9 (8.0) 650 35

    During the early years of LRT operation in L.A., the Blue Line ATD exceeded 16 km (10 mi) during weekday peak periods.

    Now we come to the heart of the matter which Amerikanskiy rail philes and phobes alike tend to give the “mokusatsu” treatment (= “to ignore with silent contempt”):

    Passenger traffic density – the number of passengers who travel, on average, over each unit of line length – is calculated simply by dividing annual pass-km (or -mi, if you insist) by km (or mi) of system length.

    Results for the above:

    Boston 6.2 million pass-km per km of system length
    San Francisco 3.6 million ” ” ”
    Los Angeles 4.4 million ” ” ” (the Blue Line carries in excess of 8 million)
    Phoenix 4.4 million ” ” ”
    Dallas 2.6 million ” ” ”
    Denver 4.0 million ” ” ”

    Seattle-1923 1.4 million ” ” ”
    Seattle-CL-2010 3.0 million ” ” ”

    I do not believe that one should ignore the “boardings” statistic – which, after all, gives some idea of how many warm bodies actually use the service (“some idea” = only a fool, or a Libertarian, would present weekday boardings / 2 as “the number of people who actually ride”) – and provides vital information for planning, policy (and punditry).

    However, it is not a good idea to ignore travel-distance statistics (- and those related thereto, e.g. passenger traffic density -) merely because one does not like the implications, or some other lame reason.

  29. Hmmm . . . I hope readers will forgive me for not knowing how to arrange data into something resembling a table.

    Average km (mi) per boarding :

    Boston: 3.8 (2.4)
    San Francisco: 4.3 (2.7)
    Los Angeles: 11.6 (7.2)
    Phoenix: 11.7 (7.2)
    Dallas: 11.4 (7.0)
    Denver: 11.2 (6.9)

    Seattle-1923: 3 (2)
    Seattle-CL-2010: 12.9 (8.0)

    Pass-km per hour:

    Boston: 380
    San Francisco: 340
    Los Angeles: 1,300
    Phoenix: 780
    Dallas: 820
    Denver: 540

    Seattle-1923: 150
    Seattle-CL-2010: 650

    Pass-km per (revenue service) km

    Boston: 25
    San Francisco: 23
    Los Angeles: 35
    Phoenix: 33
    Dallas: 25
    Denver: 17

    Seattle-1923: 10
    Seattle-CL-2010: 35

    1. You might actually get someone to read these missives if you just make your point and link to the data to support it.

      1. Please.

        Excepting “Seattle 1923,” I calculated the following directly from NTD data – which “mic” certainly knows:

        Average km (mi) per boarding,

        Pass-km per hour,

        Pass-km per (revenue service) km.

        The derived statistics above are not available “directly” from NTD, nor for any other source that I am aware of. Even if this were not so, it has long been clear that the implications would be ignored. Exceptionnalisme américain . . .

    2. I don’t actually think it makes sense to look at systems as a whole. In LA, for example, it’s well known that the Pasadena Gold Line was extended beyond all rational thought, and I’d expect it to have much lower pass-km/track-km numbers than the Blue Line or Expo Line — but the same is true in almost every city. There are “good routes” and “bad routes”. Even London has its Amersham and Chesham branches.

      1. “Nathanael:”

        “I don’t actually think it makes sense to look at systems as a whole. In LA, for example, well known that the [Los Angeles] Pasadena Gold Line was extended beyond all rational thought, and I’d expect it to have much lower pass-km/track-km numbers than the Blue Line or Expo Line.”

        The problem here is that data by “line” are not always available. System-by-system comparisons might be the best one can do.

        The statements about the Pasadena Gold Line remind me of Obama’s observation: “Ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.”

        Annual passenger traffic density, pass-km per km of system length:

        Blue Line, 2009: 8.7 million.
        Blue Line, 2011: 8.6 million.

        (Please remember that the Blue Line provides a classic example of an “outlier.”)

        Green Line, 2009 4.0 million.
        Green Line, 2011: 4.1 million.

        Gold Line – Pasadena, 2009: 3.9 million.
        Gold Line – Pasadena and Eastside, 2011: 3.5 million.

        So it would appear that, in terms of annual passenger traffic density, the Gold Line had grown to equal the Green Line just before the East LA extension opened. The Eastside branch carried a significantly lower traffic density during the first full year of operation – no surprises here.

        “Lower:” Yes. “Much lower:” Not at all.

Comments are closed.