Sound Transit is in the process of deciding what will be part of ST3. For the subarea that includes Seattle, I believe the set of projects listed here can best serve both Seattle and the larger region.
While it is tempting to assume that we can build anything, Sound Transit won’t look at every possible light rail line. They won’t, for example, propose something to replace the Metro 8 bus route, even though a strong case can be made that such a subway would be the best value for the region. Sound Transit will propose projects largely benefiting areas they have started studying: West Seattle, Ballard, and areas next to them. With that in mind, and with a rough idea of what these things cost, I propose that Sound Transit build the following:
There are other small projects that could be done by Sound Transit, the city of Seattle. or some combination of agencies. This includes the NE 130th Station, the Graham Street Station, and a pedestrian bridge connecting North Seattle College with the Northgate Station. For the Elliot/15th corridor, two small projects are critical. The Elliot and 15th Avenue bus lanes need to operate as bus lanes at all times, along with signal priority given to the bus (as they would with light rail). A new underground bus stop at Dravus and 15th should be added. A stop there does not appear to be that difficult to build — there is space there for a wheelchair ramp. Making these changes would allow a bus to avoid traffic, and thus greatly reduce the time a bus spends serving the 15th (N)W corridor.
There are a lot of smaller projects that could make a big difference, but the three projects I listed are large and should be the focus of ST3 efforts in Seattle.
The obvious alternative to these sets of a projects is a subway line from Ballard to West Seattle. The combination of projects I propose are much cheaper. This means that money could be spent making these projects even more productive. For example, the Ballard to UW subway could be extended to include stations at 24th NW and University Village. Neither of these stations are included in my proposal, but they do remain a possibility if costs are as expected.
The Seattle Department of Transportation has suggested a routing for the northern section of a Ballard to West Seattle light rail line. This serves as a good comparison point. There is no suggested subway line to West Seattle, but costs make a subway system for West Seattle problematic. To send even two subway lines to West Seattle is extremely expensive, and won’t happen in the next round of funding. At best we get one, which is adequate for a comparison (and the basis of a previous post).
There are winners and losers with every project — even the most far fetched. If we built a subway line from Discovery Park to Madison Park instead of U-Link, some people would come out ahead. As should be obvious though, U-Link is simply a better value. It will mean a bigger improvement in transit time for more people. While less obvious, the set of projects in this post is better than the Ballard to West Seattle proposal for the same reason: more transit riders would save more time.
Many of the stops are the same, which makes the comparison between the two projects fairly easy. The trade-off between a station at Belltown and a station at Denny and Westlake is a toss up. Both are very densely populated (for Seattle) and have plenty of jobs. Both are about the same distance from other stations. I don’t see a substantial advantage of one versus the other.
With West Seattle BRT, the vast majority of riders come out ahead with BRT, because the vast majority of riders would have to take a bus to the light rail line. There simply isn’t enough money to build three (or more) railway lines to serve most of West Seattle. We will never have great light rail to West Seattle, but we can have great bus service to West Seattle, which is why it is the better choice for the majority of riders.
Service from one part of downtown to the other would be the same or slightly better with the WSTT. There would be the same stops as with the subway, but buses have lower headways, lower operating costs and thus will come a lot more frequently. It should be assumed that the buses in the WSTT run like BRT — with off board payment and level boarding. Even RapidRide, with all its flaws, has this. Buses are capable of passing other buses (as this old Seattle bus tunnel video shows) which means that buses can travel quite quickly through downtown (although with off board payment I think such passing would be rare). So riders traveling between Lower Queen Anne and West Seattle (and every combination in between) come out the same or ahead with my proposal.
Riders who walk to the Interbay station(s) would come out about the same either way. A BRT bus along this corridor would travel just as fast as a train. Either way the vehicle would travel just like Link does in Rainier Valley (fairly fast and with rare delays). For those in Magnolia or West Queen Anne, feeder buses either go through the station, or buses feed the other buses. Either way, because of the greater frequency (or possibility of one less transfer) those in Magnolia or West Queen Anne come out ahead with my proposal.
Those in Ballard (at 15th and Market) headed to downtown will take the other subway (via the UW). It takes almost the same amount of time to go via the UW as it does to go via Interbay. The Ballard to West Seattle subway is faster, but not by much (around two minutes).
Riders who are going between Ballard and Interbay, Lower Queen Anne or South Lake Union come out ahead with the Ballard to West Seattle subway. Going via the UW would be substantially slower. Direct bus service from Ballard to Interbay, Queen Anne or South Lake Union would be good, but not be as good as if there was a new (much higher) bridge over the ship canal. This is the only set of trips that benefit substantially from the Ballard to West Seattle subway.
Advantages of This Proposal
Meanwhile, the number of trips that are made substantially better in my proposal is huge. Unlike the Ballard to West Seattle subway, I can’t list every trip that is better with my proposal because there are so many of them. So rather than list every connection that is better, I will summarize and talk about large regions, rather than individual connection points. First, the WSTT provides service along Aurora to South Lake Union and downtown. It would pair nicely with bus service heading east-west in South Lake Union. Once the SR99 work is complete, buses can travel east-west over streets like Thomas or Harrison, possibly in their own lane. This would mean that accessing any part of South Lake Union/Cascade from this stop would be very fast and frequent.
At this point, I believe my set of proposals is way ahead. With all due respect to the riders traveling between Ballard and Lower Queen Anne, I think the number of riders from Greenwood/Phinney Ridge to downtown outnumber them. They also see a bigger improvement. While traffic can be really bad crossing the Ballard bridge, it is not as bad as a bus slogging through downtown traffic. Those riders could transfer, of course, but that has its own (substantial) time penalty. Without a new tunnel, buses on Aurora will have to compete with cars to get downtown, a situation that is likely to get worse, not better.
But the really big improvement comes from the added set of trips with the Ballard to UW subway. The UW is one of the biggest destinations in the state (and growing). It also happens to sit at a major transit crossroad. So not only would this mean that a trip from Ballard to the UW is fifteen minutes faster, but a trip from Ballard to an area like Roosevelt, Maple Leaf, Northgate, Lake City, Lynnwood (and many other neighborhoods) would be fifteen minutes faster. What is true for Ballard is true for every stop along the way (e. g. Wallingford) as well as stops connected with bus service (like Greenwood and other parts of Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard). As mentioned in a previous post, the buses that run along the north-south corridors in that area travel fairly quickly, and would complement a light rail line quite well. In short, anyone in the area north of the ship canal and west of I-5 would have a substantially faster transit ride to just about everywhere. This makes it clearly better than a Ballard to West Seattle subway. A Ballard to West Seattle subway would only benefit a small part of Ballard, and only for those heading along a single corridor (a corridor that would see substantial improvement with my proposal as well). The set of projects I listed will serve a much greater area, and a much larger combination of trips.
I would love it if we built light rail everywhere in this city. But we have to be realistic, and assume that not every possible subway line will be built. It is also important to build the most productive lines first. Building things out of order costs money and diminishes support for transit. We have to live with the possibility that the next set of projects we build could be our last set (just as we did with the previous proposal). Of course it makes sense to plan for the future, and the possibility that the system will be expanded. But we shouldn’t build less productive lines now and hope that we fill in the gaps later. We may never get that chance. With that in mind, it makes sense to build projects that provide the greatest improvement in transit time to the greatest number of riders. This is clearly the case with this set of proposals.