by ROSS BLEAKNEY
[Update 3/30/2015: the author has published an update to this article.]
Keith Kyle wrote a very good article suggesting that we build a Ballard spur with added stations (which he calls “A4”). I would go even farther than Mr. Kyle and suggest that a Ballard-UW line would provide much greater value than anything Sound Transit is in the process of studying or proposing. In fact, it should be the highest priority corridor for ST3.
Take a look at this interactive census map and zoom into Seattle. Keep in mind that the darker the area, the more densely populated it is. I think it should be obvious that almost of the dark (populous) areas are in the Central Area, downtown or the U-District.
Of course, population isn’t everything. People travel for various reasons, including employment, education and recreation. That criteria is harder to quantify, but since the UW is a major university, Capitol Hill has a lot of nightlife, and downtown is by far the biggest employment center in the area, all three rank really high on those standards as well. Given all that, it is no surprise that Sound Transit calls downtown, Capitol Hill and the UW the “three largest urban centers in the state of Washington”. The UW in particular is growing, and will grow substantially in the coming years (even with current zoning).
Additionally, we must consider how light rail will interact with other forms of transit. Looking at the census map again, it is clear that if we only serve the areas with really high density, we won’t have much of a light rail system. On the other hand, it is fairly easy to find contiguous, broad areas of Seattle that could be considered moderately high density (for this state). While, most of these areas are not likely to be served by high-capacity transit for a long time, buses can serve these areas quite well. Therefore any proposed light rail lines should provide good connections to the bus network.
Superior to the Queen Anne Routing
For decades, the default assumption in Seattle is that Ballard would connect to downtown via Queen Anne or Interbay. Indeed, there are some great ideas in Sound Transit’s study for HCT from Ballard to downtown via Queen Anne, but most of them are either slow or expensive. None of them, not even this route, provide the value that a route from Ballard to UW can provide.
If Ballard-UW were modified, per Keith’s “A4” suggestion, to include a lower Fremont stop, it would provide many of the same benefits of a Queen Anne route and also provide an excellent connection service for bus riders coming from anywhere in the Northwest part of the city.
The difference in speed between a Queen Anne or UW route is marginal. As should be obvious, the big gains in speed come with avoiding traffic, not by taking the most direct route. For example, Corridor D is less direct than Corridor B, but saves at most a minute end to end. For inner city travel, the easiest way to compare trip time for grade separated lines is by comparing the number of stops. A route via the UW would have the same (or roughly the same) number of stops as a route that includes (or skirts) Queen Anne.
The fastest, most expensive Ballard-Downtown option, Corridor D, is expected to cost $3.2B to $3.6B. A3 would cost $1.4B to $1.9B (A4 would cost a bit more). In other words, for a bit less than $2 billion you get two stops on Queen Anne (Queen Anne Ave @ Galer and 2nd N @ Republican) and a stop in Belltown (2nd @ Battery) while losing a stop in Wallingford as well as a fast ride from Ballard to the UW. It isn’t worth it.
Complements the Bus Network
Buses in Seattle tend to travel much faster going North-South than East-West. North-South buses – such as the 28 on 8th NW, the 5 on Greenwood/Phinney, and RapidRide E on Aurora – have average speeds in the double digits (in MPH). On the other hand, the East-West 44 averages less than 8 MPH in the middle of the day (and worse at rush hour). This leads to some surprising conclusions. For any riders in Northwest Seattle headed to/from downtown, transferring from a bus to the Ballard Spur would save time versus a direct bus downtown.
This means that the “bus catchment” area of a line like A3/A4 would be huge, covering almost everything North of the ship canal and West of I-5. For example, with a Wallingford Avenue station, buses in the area could be funneled into a stop at Wallingford while spending a minimal amount of time on 45th (see this re-routed 16 for an example).
But it isn’t all about downtown, of course. Everyone knows that if you are trying to go downtown, the buses are great. If you want to go just about anywhere else, they can be slow and unreliable. For riders going from Ballard to downtown, there is very little difference in speed between A4 and Corridor D. For riders attempting to get around North Seattle, A4 is far superior. Getting from Ballard to UW or Northgate via Corridor D means transferring downtown, meaning that Metro would probably need to keep a lot more buses to serve Ballard and Fremont from the East. Redeploying that bus service elsewhere would improve the entire system.
Ideally the Ballard-UW line would mix with North Link at or near the U-District. Both the lines heading East and South have limited headways. The Southbound line is limited because it runs on the street through the Rainier Valley, while the Eastbound line is limited because only one train is allowed on the I-90 bridge at a time. The section between Husky Stadium and the International District, however, might be able to run trains as often as every two minutes (with a bit of work). Therefore you could interline a Ballard train and have 2-minute headways between UW and downtown. Should interlining prove unworkable, a simple transfer in the U-district would be an alternative.
There is the unlikely possibility of crush loading at the UW station. The nice thing is that we will be able to see this coming. If we ever start getting close to maximum capacity, then we have several ways of dealing with it. The first is to build the ventilation shafts so that we can lower headways to two minutes [Ed Note: Sound Transit does not concede that this would allow two minute headways]. If we still have too many people on the line, then we can build another line. This could be something fairly economical, something fancy, or maybe something even more expensive, like a line serving Queen Anne, Fremont, Phinney Ridge and Greenwood. I don’t think we will need such a line to deal with crush loading for many, many years. In the meantime, we should build the “A4” now, as it will provide the greatest benefit to the area for the least amount of money.
U-Link will soon connect the three biggest urban centers in Washington – Downtown, UW, and Capitol Hill. A line coming from Ballard would connect all of these stations with all of Northwest Seattle. Good East-West transit service — service that would be faster, in most cases, than driving — would be transformative. That itself makes it a huge winner. The fact that it can be done much more cheaply and just as fast as a route via Queen Anne makes it the logical choice for the next light rail line in Seattle.
Ross Bleakney was born in Seattle and now lives in the Pinehurst neighborhood.