Tomorrow is the last day to submit online on this latest phase of the Ballard Study.  If you haven’t submitted comment, please do so.  If you don’t send a letter, please take the time to fill out the online survey.

Seattle Subway Logo

To: Mr. Ryan Bianchi

Re:  Ballard Transit Expansion Study

The leadership and volunteers of Seattle Subway would like to thank Sound Transit and the City of Seattle for partnering to take the first steps towards bringing rail to Ballard. The Ballard to Downtown corridor is a key regional corridor that deserves fast, reliable service and connections, and we are excited to see that three of the five options in the Ballard-to-Downtown Transit Study include grade-separated service from Downtown Seattle to Market Street. Specifically, we have the following observations of and recommendations for the proposed grade-separated segments studied so far:

  • Grade-separation. Alternatives A, B, and D are grade separated and will provide a faster alternative to driving in traffic between Ballard and Downtown Seattle. Regarding the at grade sections included in option B north of Market street: We want to urge Sound Transit to not intermingle at grade sections into a line that would function best as 100% grade separated. The at grade sections would hamper the speed and reliability of the entire line and would preclude the option to select better rail technology, specifically both driverless technology and the fastest possible technology. Seattle Subway recognizes that Crown Hill may not be currently considered for grade separation. However, we urge Sound Transit to consider the system-wide impacts of at-grade alignment well into the future.
  • Operable Bridges. While options A and B consider operable bridges, none of the options studied include bridges that would be likely to open more than a few times a week. Seattle Subway urges Sound Transit to study the highest possible vessel clearance for bridges in order to minimize delays.
  • Future Connectivity. In all options, Seattle Subway hopes to see designs that are compatible with and connect to the studies currently underway for UW-to-Ballard and for Downtown-to-West Seattle. Furthermore, in order to accommodate the growth coming to Seattle and to get the most out of public investments, we believe it will be critical to design any downtown tunnel with the ability to split and connect to an additional line entering and exiting downtown in the future.

That being said, our work is far from over. As 2016 approaches, Seattle Subway realizes the next step towards building a high-quality subway system is preparing a great ballot measure. After Sound Transit completes its long range plan update, it will have an arsenal of studies at its disposal including Ballard-to-Downtown as well as other studies currently underway from Downtown to West Seattle, and from Ballard to the UW. This will give Sound Transit the tools to compose a package for the voters that balances geographic equity with the expense of building fast, reliable infrastructure that does not get stuck in traffic, and we urge the agency to use these studies to tailor the ballot measure to best fit each neighborhood and lay the groundwork for a system that will serve Seattle and the region for the next one-hundred years.

While Seattle Subway envisions high quality rail built to every neighborhood in Seattle, we realize that finite resources mean there will be difficult choices and tradeoffs. In a future package we hope to see as much of our vision funded for construction as possible, however we realize the scope of that package will depend on the availability of state and federal funding. Thus, we encourage Sound Transit to set aside money in that package for planning and design in all of the remaining Seattle-area corridors so that design decisions captured in the Long Range Plan don’t preclude the eventual build out of the rest of the system. Furthermore, we want to stress that tradeoffs should not include at-grade alignments as cost-saving measures. For example, a cost-saving measure for Alternative D (from Level 2 analysis) would not be Option 5 (from Level 1 analysis) – it would be an updated version of Alternative A or B  (from Level 2 analysis). Lastly, as Sound Transit’s Long Range Plan studies continue, we encourage the agency to build early community support by promoting their efforts specifically to those neighborhoods where rail is being studied, such as West Seattle and communities along the 45th Street corridor.

Again, we write in support of the work Sound Transit has done for Seattle and the region. We are passionate fans who urge Sound Transit to build a system designed from the beginning to serve every neighborhood so that we can realize our shared vision:  A city and region fully connected by fast, reliable high capacity transit.

Thank You,

Seattle Subway

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Seattle Subway is an all-volunteer organization that advocates for grade-separated rail transit in Seattle.

44 Replies to “Seattle Subway’s Comment on the Ballard to Downtown Level 2 Analysis”

  1. University Link and North Link don’t connect different cities to each other. Sound Transit’s goal isn’t just to connect different cities to each other.

    1. As will any line to Ballard – there’s a 99 corridor to serve, as well as a Crown Hill – Northgate – Lake City – Kenmore – Woodinville corridor!

  2. Sound Transit’s goal is to connect regionally-identified urban centers, regardless of which municipalities they are in. The list of urban centers includes Ballard along with downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, University District, Northgate, Lynnwood, Bellevue, downtown Tacoma, etc., etc.

  3. Connecting downtown Seattle to Ballard is (in distance and concept) sort of like connecting downtown Bellevue to Kirkland or Redmond… except they happen to be in the same incorporated city and have better current land use. The relevance to regional transportation isn’t affected by Seattle’s annexation of Ballard.

  4. Chad N’s definition sums it up well.

    “Sound Transit’s goal is to connect regionally-identified urban centers, regardless of which municipalities they are in.”

    The initial focus was city to city mainly to address the highest priorities in every subarea, and to many people the highest priorities are the congestion on I-5, I-90, and 520. (Some urbanists may disagree with that, but it’s a widely-held view that has the most clout with the Sound Transit Board.) So the initial lines were designed to divert parts of those markets. Now that ST2 addresses most of those, the remaining priorities are more intra-subarea, so that’s where a Ballard-downtown line fits in. And of course, the Ballard-downtown project, the downtown-Burien project, and the Burien-Renton project may all be combined into one line anyway.

    1. Haha… Archie Mcphee isn’t in Ballard anymore — oddly fitting. That said, the Seattle lines would be part of a package that would include rail in the other subareas so the mission question is somewhat moot.

  5. Good letter, and I’m glad you’re not taking a position on which of the grade separated alignments is best.

    It was a little disappointing to hear from ST that there is little or no chance this line will in fact be automated. The rep ascribed this to status quo bias, but I think the “at grade north of 65th” option presented shows the more likely reason is that some MLK style sections are envisioned to complete the network beyond Ballard – downtown.

    1. At-grade for the future lines is a mistake. This is a 100-150 year infrastructure investment. Automation allows economic sustainability through independence from operating subsidy. It would be gloriously idiotic not to design for it, at least as a future option.

    2. So long as the line is completely grade-separated, then it can be automated in the future. This isn’t unprecedented. History is full of examples of rail lines that have been upgraded: first from horse-drawn carriages to steam, then from steam to diesel, then from diesel to electric catenary, then from catenary to third-rail.

      And frankly, even if the line isn’t grade-separated, the at-grade segments can always be replaced or eliminated later. But from a cost-benefit standpoint, I would prefer to make investments that are likely to be mostly useful in the future, rather than ones that will need to be scrapped if we end up upgrading the line.

      1. 100-150 years is a long time for technology improvements. I would not assume that just because an at-grade segment means no automation today that it would always be so in the future. Look how far Google cars have come in automated driving? Compared to what they have to do, controlling the speed for a train though a few intersections by a computer does not feel like rocket science.

      2. Once a line is in service, the chances that we would move to driverless technology at some point in the future is pretty small. It hasnt happened in DC or New York – why would we expect it here?
        We’ve got one chance make the case to ST and the powers that be to go driverless. Its a long shot, but its worth fighting for – we’re talking $50M+ in future savings for Seattle once the system is built. Also a more flexible system in operations. Would you fight for $50M+/year in transit funding? I would.

  6. I agree with Dan. Great letter and I’m glad you aren’t just picking your favorite line. I think your letter covers just about everything I would mention, even if I would might emphasize one facet over another. The only thing I would add is that if a bridge is added, it should provide good pedestrian and bike access (especially bike access). The Ballard bridge is terrible for bikes and pedestrians. A good bike route through there could increase the number of people who ride bikes from Ballard to downtown (or vice-versa).

    1. I do like the idea of a shared bicycle/rail bridge, even if I am not very happy about the idea of a bridge that opens for boats now and then. At least we eliminated the low bridge from consideration…

      1. As a lot of people have said, 70 feet is really, really high. It reminds me of the 520 bridge (until recently). Opening only happens once in a blue moon.

      2. What’s wrong with a shared bicycle/rail bridge? By “shared bridge”, we mean a shared bridge structure, but separate pathways on top of the structure. I can’t imagine we would build a design that would limit trains crossing the bridge to 10-15 mph, as they get stuck behind bikes. And that’s ignoring the fact that riding a bike over train tracks is extremely dangerous, just from the tracks, even if there are no trains.

    2. I’m not sure why anyone should be happy about *not* picking a line. There will be one more piece about this in the morning. :)

      1. Well, I already gave ST a detailed submission on why I favor A, and looking at the regional vision you guys have produced, I would expect nothing less than a full throated endorsement of D. Either one is substantially better than the other alternatives, and I appreciate this acknowledged that.

      2. A will get you more votes in ST3 than D for a similar amount of money, so it helps us win. :) I would be happy with either in the end, but D brings in volunteers and capacity from Fremont!

      3. Dan – Each line as presented has bugs. I think D is great, but I question the cost/benefit. D will likely get the most support – but some of that support will be predicated on the false idea that we need to tunnel under UQA in order to get to Fremont. We’ll be getting to the most populous part of Fremont via the Ballard to UW line. Plus D means East Magnolia/Interbay on the never. UQA would be a great place for a stop: But maybe not at the price. $500M-ish? Maybe better spent elsewhere.
        All that said – any fully grade seperated option would be awesome. We’ll be better able to analyse this stuff once we see the options for E/W and to West Seattle.

      4. The way we get $500M is by having something to spend it on that we want. There’s never just a $500M nebulously sitting out there waiting for us to pick a project.

        In the future, when Ballard and West Seattle and UW-Ballard are done, I can definitely see a Magnolia-Interbay-Uptown-SLU-CH-CD line, especially if we say “yeah, urban villages and centers get investment” and see Magnolia and Interbay step up.

  7. Favor Option D chiefly because I think it will serve much greater ridership than will line past Interbay. But would like to see subway and streetcar through same area designed together.

    Might be possible to run operator-driven trains on Ballard to Fremont stretch down Leary Way, and then keep surface service on surface on Westlake and Northlake after entire subway is built to Ballard.

    As I’ve said, don’t like transit of future used to excuse lame service in present.


    1. If a streetcar were to be built in conjunction with option D, C would be the obvious choice. It covers all of the areas D misses. It would need to be pushed for the 1st ave option though if it did happen.

      I say “if” though because I seriously question if the current mayor would be behind the Ballard streetcar idea at all. We are going to have a lot of battles in the near future (restoring bus funding, getting ST3 to happen at all, continuation of the other Seattle transit studies, etc), so I suspect quite a lot of the attention of transit advocates will be spent elsewhere.

      Ben was right that the study did include both surface and separated options for two different stakeholder projects, the question though is if the public will understand that… they certainly didn’t make that even remotely clear to people at the transit study.

      If I am not mistaken, the voice was loud and clear at the transit study that they should “go big or go home”. Unless some champion steps forward in the new administration for streetcars, the public will probably see the ST3 project as the only option and the Ballard streetcar idea will just end up “going home”.

      I am no expert at politics by any stretch of the imagination though… any one have a different reading on this?

      1. the study did include both surface and separated options for two different stakeholder projects, the question though is if the public will understand that… they certainly didn’t make that even remotely clear to people at the transit study.

        The “dual outcomes” meme expressed endlessly on this blog was always a fiction.

        The two stakeholders (SDOT and ST) did a remarkably good job of working together to consider all options in all price ranges… but they did so precisely because they were not anticipating “dual outcomes”.

      2. What the city will do with regards to transit is a complete mystery. Not only do we have a new mayor, but the city council member who knows the most about transit is leaving. The good news is that the mayor seems to be hiring top notch people (in all positions) and O’Brien seems to be stepping into Conlin’s shoes. Good news on both fronts.

        Personally, I’ve never been to keen on the streetcar thing. Streetcars make sense when we have trouble with capacity. But generally speaking, we have trouble with speed (which is why everyone is so gaga over grade separated rail). It just takes too long to get from one place to another. But streetcars make sense for certain corridors. It would be great if the mayor added a streetcar right over an existing (or planned) light rail line. This would send shock waves through the transit riding public. Streetcars aren’t a cheap substitute for light rail (BRT is) but they can compliment it just fine. When you consider that our light rail has really big stop spacing, streetcars can do a pretty job in that regard. Ballard to Fremont would a fine streetcar line, as would 45th from the UW to Phinney Ridge and then turning north. I hesitate to even propose such an idea because I fear that the powers will be will say that is good enough, and there would be no need to add light rail (or BRT) to the area following that.

      3. Ross,

        “45th from UW to Phinney Ridge and then turning north”.

        While you have nailed a very good dense corridor, there are no reservations possible in it, and a streetcar would be hopelessly strangled through Wallingford.

        Streetcars work best in the Muni Metro/Boston Green Line/Pittsburgh model. Those, plus the Shaker Heights service are the only streetcars which survived from the original streetcar explosion in the teens and twenties until the modern era.

        Why did the survive? Because they all have a grade separated express connection into and through the CBD and, in the case of Pittsburgh, Shaker Heights and Boston, reservations in the catchment zone. San Francisco had the Twin Peaks and Buena Vista tunnels which are both just too narrow for buses to use safely and they’re now adding reservations in the Avenues. The T Third was built with a reservation.

        Let that be a lesson: light rail — be it called “streetcar” or “tram” — in mixed traffic dies a slow and miserable death. You can have it for an urban circulator but not a radial trunk line. A Westlake streetcar done properly serving the Fremont and Ballard could work nicely given a tunneled crossing of the ship canal and through Fremont (option E), especially if they put frequent stops through central Ballard and on the 24th Avenue stub to the north so that it operates like the outer ends of the long time street cars.

        And you need the vehicles to be bigger than the toy Inekons shown in the concept diagrams. They are simply too uncomfortable and lack seating for a long trip from 75th and 24th NW to downtown.

      4. Streetcar makes a lot of sense for Fremont and Greenwood as a corridor from SLU. D is great for Fremont and Ballard to downtown but we will need SLU connectivity in the future as well. In the future, you might take Crown Hill to Fremont on subway and then streetcar the last couple of stops to SLU.

      5. Yes, Anandakos, don’t neglect the people who would get off the subway miles before their destination, fight central Fremont street traffic, and possibly get stuck behind the bridge… all because streetcars are neato!

    2. Another thing I like about option D is that if we want to build a UW->Ballard line in the future, we would already be halfway there – all that would be missing is the Fremont->Wallingford->U-district segment. Even with a transfer in Fremont, a UW->Ballard trip by subway would be orders of magnitude faster than the 44.

      1. Tragically, Sound Transit’s current design would make it impossible to add a junction east of the Fremont station. I hope they redesign it, though – that possibility’s actually my favorite part of Option D.

      2. I’m not sure that’s where a cross-town line should go anyway. That’s a long veer south.

      3. Ben,

        Yes, it’s a long veer south — through a major urban village. Remember, you’re moving at about 35 miles per hour, so adding two miles to the trip is only four minutes end to end. No, it doesn’t “intercept” the 5, 28 and E as well as going straight across does, but that Fremont station is going to have to be pretty darn deep to avoid an unnecessary roller coaster between 3rd NW and Stone Way.

      4. Adding a switch to the trip causes unreliability, risk of delay, and operational capacity limits. Also, you’d have to add the switch *south* of Fremont to connect Fremont to UW, so you’d end up with some horrific big loop that has to go under the ship canal or Lake Union. When you actually start thinking about the mechanics of connecting a line, with minimum turn radii and such, it just wouldn’t be a good idea.

  8. ST A and City E, or C and D. Obviously it’s unlikely that both get funded at the same time, but I’d like to see Mr. Murray commit to putting the appropriate streetcar option complementing ST’s subway line choice on the city’s transit plan as a priority following the City Center Connector project.

    1. I’m sort of hopeful they’ll send the streetcar from South Lake Union to the U-district first.

      1. Yes. Eastlake is an urban village with a lot of growth, and it’s where the current streetcar points. I’m hoping that comes next, as it sets up a precedent for an “express” and “local” in the U-district.

    1970 and Forward Thurst is mentioned in the piece. of course, the West Seattle pennisula had several streetcar lines until 1940. the SDOT link shows the network in 1933. Fauntleroy was a streetcar suburb; look at its nice street grid and sidewalks. West Seattle has three hubs with junction in the name; that is from the streetcar era. they had a bridge over the Duwamish. between 1940 and 1963, West Seattle had electric trolleybuses.

    In 1979, then Seattle Transportation Committee Chair Jeannette Williams (Rasmussen was her aide) went to Olympia and lined up funding for the new high level West Seattle Bridge. Seattle has it within their power to provide more exclusivity to transit on that bridge; they own it.

    There are some key questions only hinted at in the post and by the commenters: how would the West Seattle rail line serve downtown Seattle and is it affordable for a tax rate that voters would pay for? All transit planning is subject to the constraints of budget and rights of way. The proper puzzle to pose is not any one line but the entire network. billions?

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