Talking to interested folks at Ballard Farmers Market

For the last eight months, Seattle Subway has been working on several paths to build public support for accelerating and expanding transit in Seattle.

For those that don’t know much about us, we’re not specifically advocating for any particular technology, and we don’t necessarily advocate for everything being underground. We just want to ensure that Seattle’s neighborhoods are connected with fast, reliable transit, and that generally means separated right of way. We call ourselves “Seattle Subway” because that evokes, for many people, the kind of speed and reliability that they want in their transportation system. Dominic Holden’s article is a good primer – if you haven’t read it, you should.

This week we broke 2500 followers on Facebook. We have our 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and we’ve been giving presentations and doing direct outreach for months, refining our message and learning from everyone. A lot of our work is basically just boosting Sound Transit – many people, especially in places like Ballard and West Seattle, don’t know that Link is being expanded at all, much less that tunneling to the U-district is already complete. We’re also building a volunteer organization – we’ve had a dozen people helping already at farmers markets and other events.

At the same time, separately from the education side of things, a group of us have been slowly meeting with organizational and business leaders, elected officials, and smart, involved people in general, to discuss how acceleration can best happen. It’s a very, very long list, so if you’re reading this and thinking “why haven’t they met with me about my organization or constituents yet?” – don’t fret, and definitely email us so we know you want to be involved! We’re going to keep doing that for several months – and we’re building strong support from many leaders, triangulating on a particular course of action.

The next part Seattle Subway as an organization can’t do – being a (c)(3) nonprofit, we’re all about education, and can’t campaign (and “Seattle Subway” isn’t a great name for a campaign anyway). But we, the same people, will be soon starting a ballot measure, aiming a year out at the 2013 primary election, to give transit investment a kick in the pants. We know Sound Transit is the right agency to build high capacity transit, and we know the voters trust them – in Seattle, over 65% voted in favor of 2008’s Proposition 1 (aka Mass Transit Now or Sound Transit 2).

It seems unlikely we’d succeed in an ask for funding to construct serious transit, like University Link or Lynnwood Link, in an off-year primary election. But we don’t need to fund construction of new lines today – we just need to fund the next several years of work, so that when Sound Transit goes to ballot again, in 2016 or 2020, we’ve taken years off their schedule – so that there isn’t idle time in between.

So our plan is to make Sound Transit shovel ready with the three lines that are present in both the city’s Transit Master Plan and Sound Transit’s planning: UW to Ballard, Ballard to Downtown, and Downtown to West Seattle. This is something in the range of 5-8 years of work, and would include all the design and engineering, selecting technology, and even property acquisition. This is more like a couple hundred million rather than several billion, and it keeps the ball rolling at the same rate as funding everything at once. It ensures that Seattle is still reliant on Sound Transit for construction, which would keep regional interests happy, and because it would offer a faster timeline to Seattle voters, it would help ensure a strong win for the next regional package.

This plan isn’t set in stone, of course. It’ll take work with more local leaders to figure out the specifics it could include. We don’t want to be too specific – that’s part of what led the monorail to failure – but we do want to use the idea of local funding to ensure we build for the long term, not just for the next few decades. If Vancouver can build fast, grade separated transit that pays for its own operating costs, we should be aiming for the same thing!

Today there are several things you can do to help. First, please consider donating $100, or even $10! We’ve finally got our basic needs covered, and we’re trying to raise money so we can have a button maker at our table at markets, and make banners and signs for some direct outreach that will get us real media coverage. Second, sign up, and if you want to volunteer, check that box. And third (and really most importantly), give us feedback! We’d love ideas and opinions about how we can be most successful.

75 Replies to “An Update on Seattle Subway”

  1. Why Ballard to UW? What’s the reason behind this; population growth or personal popularity? Why not Columbia City to West Seattle Junction then?

    1. We’re not picking corridors – the city and Sound Transit did that for us, in the Transit Master Plan and Sound Transit’s long range plan.

      If we’re going to be successful in accelerating Sound Transit, we need to focus (at least first) on the places that Sound Transit already wants to build – they picked these three corridors in Sound Transit 2 to study for Sound Transit 3.

      And if we’re going to get the city on board, we need to pick from the corridors they’ve identified in the Transit Master Plan that’s just been updated (see page 3-2 for the map):

      The idea here is not to be armchair planners – just to champion what everyone has already agreed on!

      1. Based on the TMP I assume the study will cover TMP corridors 1, 10, and 13 and perhaps corridors 2 and 11 at least in the scoping phase.

        Is the goal just to get the study work to the “ballot ready” phase or to do full EIS work on the three corridors so they are “shovel ready” projects? The latter means construction can start much sooner once the money is there.

      2. Chris, I believe we’ll ask to make the lines shovel ready. That will be determined by polling, though, we can’t set things in stone until we have data and partners.

    2. I don’t have the exact numbers, but there would be a much greater density of people along a Ballard–U-district line than there would a Columbia City–West Seattle Junction line. And much less in the way of elevation differences.

      We are lacking in good east-west connections in the city. A Ballard to U-District connection is the most logical place to start remedying that deficiency.

    3. I would gather that it would be the density and population along this corridor. Columbia City to West Seattle Jct would be a non-starter for me as a voter(there is zero residential in SODO) while the same corridor length between UW and Ballard would have residential and businesses along the entire route, I would be more inclined to vote for it because it would have a stronger, sustainable ridership and even stronger change of being extended to the U-District, Laurelhurst, Bryant, and Sandpoint communities.

      That is just my own opinion though.

    4. UW to Ballard is currently the most broken high-volume transit corridor in the city. The 44 doesn’t cut it; there is no cheap way to fix it; and the problem affects a truly enormous number of people.

      If the new Metro Route 50 and existing 60, together, ever attract as many riders as the three corridors named above attract today, then maybe a West Seattle to Southeast Seattle subway will make sense.

    5. Here’s a map I found of Seattle’s population density, derived from 2010 census data. There’s a continuous band of higher population density running from Ballard to the UW.

    6. I’ve ridden the 44 and its predecesors for decades, and it’s obvious that it has the highest ridership potential of any crosstown (non-downtown) route. It’s well-ridden at 15-minute frequency till midnight, and when Metro started a second route on 40th (#30, UW to Fremont segment), it quickly expanded to 15-minute frequency (#30 and 31) and has excellent ridership too. The people who live in Wallingford, Fremont, and Ballard are well known to prefer transit and to approve transit funding moreso than the city average. And I haven’t even mentioned the huge magnet that’s the UW and the U-district (a transit draw even apart from the university), which is about to get bigger when U-District station opens.

      1. Actually if recall the ridership data correctly both segments of the 48 rank rather high for a non-downtown route as does the Denny/John portion of the 8.

        Still Ballard to UW is even lower hanging fruit than say UW to Mt. Baker via 23rd.

      2. Phillip – makes sense that most of the 48 and some of the 8 are being served by Link, then. :)

        The 48 cross-town ridership makes sense too, a lot of that would probably be covered with a good E-W line.

      3. “The 48 and the 8 do have higher ridership than the 44.”

        But note the people who aren’t riding the 44 because it’s so godawful slow, and the people on the 30/31 who might switch to a subway. The TMP’s map doesn’t show the 45th subway stopping in lower Fremont, but as we’ve discussed before it’s potentially feasable given the speed advantage and lack of obstructions undergroundm, and we may be able to convince ST toward it at the appropriate time.

      4. Also note that a subway would make transfers from the 5 and RR E to the U-district quick and easy rather than arduous enough that people think twice about doing it.

        And, the 48 is twice is long, so the ridership numbers include trips on the southern half.

    7. I am a recently transplanted Manhattanite. I’m curious as to the tunnel boring methods being used now under Capital Hill and those being proposed for the extended subway. Manhattan is bedrock. What kind of earth are we dealing with here? How deep would the tunnels be dug? Much of the subway in Manhattan is just below street level, where subways in Prague, for example, go 100 feet down. Exciting stuff!! Should have been done 20 years ago. . .

      1. Most of the dirt under Seattle that we have to bore through is glacial till, a mix of boulders, gravel, sand, and silt in inconsistent proportions, mixed up and left behind by the glaciers that covered this area. It’s very rare to find solid bedrock, but the soil is very rocky and there are lots of buried boulders.

        We almost always use bored tunnels and cut/cover station boxes. However, the exact configuration of the boring machine varies from tunnel to tunnel, based on soil samples taken on the route and the expected ratio of sand to rock that it will have to dig through.

        Depth is mostly determined by the hills. Capitol Hill station is 60 feet deep, and Beacon Hill station is 165, while the downtown stations are right under the street. But my understanding is that the Seattle Subway is too early in the planning stages to have any conclusive answers on how it gets dug (or even how much of it will be underground).

  2. Thanks, Ben, for all your work to date, and for your part in getting this project underway. It looks to me like you’re doing exactly the right thing, and going about it exactly the right way.

    One question, though: Is there any way to get involved with Seattle Subway that doesn’t involve Facebook? It could be a bizarre generational prejudice, but Mr. Zuckerberg and his creation, and his corporate clients, aren’t presences I want anywhere near my e-mail list or my hard-drive.

    Also don’t like the idea of having above between me and a project I’d like to work on for the rest of my life.


    Mark Dublin

    1. Yes! Please go to to sign up for email updates and be sure to click the box saying you would like information about volunteering.

      What are you doing this weekend? :D

      1. I tried to sign up for email updates a couple months ago but still haven’t gotten anything… did something go wrong or have there not been any updates?

        Anyway, good work! I live outside Seattle but still agree the city needs better transit!

      2. Evan, if you don’t mind please try again! We transitioned to a new system about that time frame so you might have gotten lost in the move. Sorry!

        If that doesn’t work send me an email @ and I will see that you get added.

        Thanks for your support!

      3. Evan, you have my apologies! We send mail periodically. It’s possible there was a typo, or that our system lost you. Please try!

      4. Working between 10am and 1 pm Sunday. Other than that- pretty clear.

        Schedule could be tight next couple of weeks. Prepping to leave for Sweden and points north and east for three weeks end of August to mid-September, to hopefully see some good street rail- which also occasionally runs elevated and also underground and still gets called “streetcar”.

        What’s happening this weekend?


        Will go to now. Many thanks.

      5. Mark, most weekends we will have a booth set up at various neighborhood Farmers Markets or other community events to talk to people about what we are doing and answer any questions. This weekend we will be at the West Seattle Market on Saturday and the U-District Market on Sunday. We can always use more volunteers if you would like to come help out! If joined the mailing list and checked the volunteer block and haven’t heard anything by this evening drop me a message at and I’ll make sure you get the details.

    2. Mark, I appreciate it. :)

      Like Matt said, the signup at now has a checkbox for you to get on our volunteer list – and there’s something you can do to help every week!

      1. Mark, I’m early shift so not sure when it closes, but I believe the Market opens at nine (I just know what time I am supposed to be there to set up!).

      2. Great meeting you yesterday Mark, thanks for showing up and helping out! This is how we are going to make great transit to all of Seattle’s neighborhoods a reality!

    3. I wish had information and announcements. I feel at a loss for a link to give to people who want to know more, especially if they don’t have a Facebook account.

    4. And no, Mark, it’s not strictly a generational thing. Facebook’s ubiquity is creepers.

    1. Thanks for your support!

      For those of you on Facebook who would would like to help out, one easy thing you can do is to help spread the message by sharing this post. The more people know about Seattle Subway and the work we are doing, the faster we get the transit system this city so desperately needs.

      If you have a moment, please go to our facebook page and share this article with all your friends. Together we can get Seattle moving!

  3. How do you plan to secure funding for the preliminary engineering work with Sound Transit? It sounds like you’re saying that is something that can be done without going to ballot?

    1. Through a ballot measure. We’d like to take the lines all the way to shovel ready, not just preliminary engineering.

  4. I can’t think of anything that would slow down the growth of transit around here then suddenly jumping horses in mid Stream and building a subway…now that we’re in the “easy” phase of rolling it out at grade with not so much tunneling.

    And since we basically bought a light rail system at subway prices, one might expect the cost here would exceed the Curiosity Mars lander project.

    1. There is no changing horses, Seattle Subway just wants to accelerate Sound Transit’s work.

      Yes, most of what Sound Transit is building (pretty much everything except the Rainier Valley) is to Subway standards. Seattle Subway just wants to ensure that future lines are built to at least the same standards.

      Seattle needs fast, reliable, high capacity transit to all it’s neighborhoods, not just one line, and we need it now. That is what Seattle Subway is here do.

      1. Then why call it “Subway” as in subterrenean and why its goals any different from LINK?

        If they want to accelerate the work, they should call themselves Seattle AtGrade.

      2. John, come on. Is Sound Transit building at grade in Seattle right now? No. Don’t troll! :)

      3. Only the central Seattle parts and maybe Bellevue for tunnels.

        And Tukwila for elevated.

        But presumably the expansion outside the center South, North and East will be at grade. No?

      4. John, We call ourselves “Seattle Subway” because that evokes, for many people, the kind of speed and reliability that they want in their transportation system. We’re not specifically advocating for any particular technology, and we don’t necessarily advocate for everything being underground. We just want to ensure that Seattle’s neighborhoods are connected with fast, reliable transit.

      5. John, everything Sound Transit is building from the International District Station to Northgate (and possibly Lynnwood) will either be underground or elevated. It also looks like most of Eastlink will be out of traffic, either underground, elevated, retained cut, trench or just flyovers to keep there from being any at grade crossings.

      6. East Link is not grade separated through Bel-Red. In fact it’s proposed to cross NE 20th at grade just west of 140th Ave NE which today carries as much traffic as Bellevue Way going into an out of downtown. And that’s today when there’s nothing in the Bel-Red corridor but light industrial, some retail and a bunch of car dealers. The ROW is also being designed with additional at grade north south crossings in the future. Don’t kid yourself, Bel-Red is envisioned as more Auto Oriented Development.

      7. Bernie, it seems like the best way to ensure more of our investment is not at grade is to use an organization like Seattle Subway to have that discussion and push in the right direction!

      8. At grade is actually working surprisingly well along MLK.

        I live along MLK and ride the train to and from my office downtown every day. I’d say maybe once every couple of weeks the train has to stop for a light. Usually it just proceeds merrily along at 35-40 mph, except to stop in the stations.

        The aggressive signal priority necessary to make this happen causes minor delays for cars, and could prove unworkable if we ever get headways significantly below 5 minutes. But 3-minute headways are not likely to happen anytime soon on any segment of Link except the inner part of North Link.

      9. @David L

        MLK seems to be working OK at this point, but I’m not sure there’s that much more of the city where giving a train it’s own at-grade right-of-way would would be politically possible.

        There’s heavily congested streets (like along 45th St for Route 44) where you could improve bus travel time by taking a general purpose lane, or removing on street parking, as well as giving buses signal priority at all intersections, but because of the impact on cars, perceived or real, this doesn’t happen. If we can’t do it for buses now, I’m not sure the added disruption of constructing at-grade rail and giving it it’s own right-of-way would be tolerated.

      10. Yes, there is no way at-grade would work anywhere in the 45th/Market corridor. But it might work along 15th W/Elliott, for instance.

      11. And we’re absolutely open to at-grade along 15th, if it can run low headways and be reliable. It’s up to the engineers. :)

      12. I agree that running at-grade on 15th Ave W is plausible (and possibly portions of 15th Ave NW too), though it seems like tunneling is the most likely way to get across the canal. Though, as Ben says, that’s up to the engineers.

    2. As the post says, we don’t promote any particular technology. We want Sound Transit to pick the technology that works best in these corridors, we just want it to be fast and reliable. Funding their next steps in that path is the best way to speed things up.

      1. I don’t think I understand your question. Light rail technology, Skytrain technology, high-floor subway with third rail? These questions will be answered by engineers. The important part is to ensure that whatever Sound Transit picks, it’s grade separated, fast, and reliable.

      2. While Seattle Subway hasn’t picked the technology, odds are that Sound Transit will very likely pick light rail.

        One can make a pretty educated guess at which portions of any future lines are likely to be in a tunnel, elevated, or at-grade.

      3. I guess you might say, you’ve already picked *standard-gauge railway track* (it’s crazy to pick anything else), but there are a lot of other technology choices (loading gauge? electrification system?).

  5. A great deal of the New York Subway is elevated and at grade, they don’t qibble about calling it the New York Mixed-Grade High Floor Third Rail Transit System. Seattle Subway is just shorthand in the same way.

    In my humble opinion, the rolling stock tech and equipment will most likely be the same as the rest of Link as much as possible. Why? For reasons such as ease of training personal and purchasing spare parts and equipment.

    1. Exactly, on both counts. The most important reason to call it subway is to get to have that discussion.

    2. In ancient days, they called it the “Interborough Rapid Transit” system… goes to show that shorthand phrases like “Subway” stick better than long gobbledegook.

  6. Awesome work, so excited to see this moving forward. FYI, although 501c3 organizations cannot work on candidate elections, they very much *can* work on ballot measures… subject to certain limits. You should talk with your attorney to get a detailed understanding of the rules, but there’s lots you can do as a c3 here. The Alliance for Justice ( also has *excellent* materials on this stuff.

    1. Indeed – up to 20% of your time, and it puts you under fairly different reporting guidelines. We’re working out what’s simplest.

  7. “many people, especially in places like Ballard and West Seattle, don’t know that Link is being expanded at all, much less that tunneling to the U-district is already complete.”

    Education is so important on this. It can be amazing how little people know. About a year ago an acquaintance in her early 40s who voted for Link said to me, with wonder in her eyes and voice, “Did you know the light rail is going to Capitol Hill?” Even though she had been defending Link among her anti-transit friends, she didn’t know about the CH station until she happened to realize what was going on in the huge construction site she kept passing.

    1. I love that wonder. I get to see it every weekend when we’re at farmers markets. I’ve gotten *hugged* by people who are so excited that there’s someone actually trying to help.

      1. Yep. As a volunteer, I’m really amazed at the bubbling enthusiasm we receive from almost everyone that comes to the table. The map that is part of the Seattle Subway while it’s only a “vision” of what the system might look like, is really what gets people excited. They get the network effect and the real possibility of being able to travel to all corners of the city and in-between without needing a car or taking hours to do it. They gawk, the grin, they get absolutely giddy when they see our information. That excitement will translate into votes in 2013.

  8. You’re going for the primary ballot? Yeah, because that worked so well for the anti-DBT measure. What’s lost by waiting for the general? Three piddling months?

    1. It worked just fine for the library levy and the juvenile justice center. :)

      There will likely be a Metro measure in the general election next year, and we’d likely see less institutional and elected support trying to be on the same ballot. We think we’ll benefit from a strong discussion during the mayoral primary – we think we’ll be a big issue in the race.

      Referendums are really different animals. I don’t think the time of year had much impact on Referendum 1.

      1. Conventional wisdom is that the percentage of conservative voters is higher in a primary election. Since there’s no conservative voters in Seattle I don’t see how it makes any difference ;-)

      2. The percentage of conservative voters is higher in Seattle during a primary, too. But progressive issues still win by quite a lot.

      3. Right, even if both conservatives turn out it doesn’t change the result… McDermott still wins :=)

  9. This is an even more ambitious plan than Vancouver’s. It’s good. I can’t wait for this thing to get built–and the network of routes is perfect.

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