Light Rail is Best for West Seattle

Map by Oran.I ran Ross’s Open BRT plan for West Seattle because it’s a good analysis of the best the region could do with a budget roughly four times lower than what it takes to build light rail to West Seattle. There are many reasons Sound Transit may need to economize on the West Seattle segment, and in that case they could do worse than to follow Ross’s blueprint.

But Ross’s thesis is much stronger: that BRT would be better than light rail for most riders, largely because an open BRT system would avoid transfer penalties. This runs counter to a lot of work on STB that shows the merits of a transfer-oriented system, which largely involve the operating savings of not running downtown to enable other trips. This aspect doesn’t appear in Ross’s work because he completely punts the issue of operations. This is crucial, because it’s in the operational details where claims of “rail-like” BRT collapse.

(1) One can only assume that Sound Transit 3 would pay for the excellent capital projects Ross proposes. But does ST actually take over operations on the C Line, 21, 120, 37, 55, 128, 116, and all the other buses duplicating each other on the bridge? If so, that’s a lot of ST’s taxing authority tied up in running buses forever. It also assumes an unprecedented level of ST bus service provision in this corner of the region, and other corners without light rail may wonder why they’re not getting the same. Both problems would kneecap ST’s ability to deliver big capital projects.

If Metro keeps running these buses, then that forfeits the opportunity to seriously increase the frequency of buses within West Seattle. This not only would cut headways to board the bus, thus eroding the putative time advantage of no transfer to light rail, but would also improve all intra-West Seattle trips.

(2) On a related note, Ross blithely asserts that his BRT system will have off-board payment. Off-board payment either requires turnstiles (and someone to monitor them) at all stops (which is not going to happen), or fare inspectors, which are one of the big cost differences between light rail and traditional buses. But this is an open BRT system! So are these routes fully equipped and staffed over their entire length, with machines at essentially every bus stop in West Seattle, or do the rules change when they enter the BRT zone? If the latter, then that will impair reliability of what feeds into the zone. Or is it, as I suspect, not really going to be 100% off-board payment?

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Vote By 8 PM Tuesday

[Author’s note: The above video has little to do with city council issues. I put it up as an ode to flailing candidate Tony Provine and nihilist filmmaker Jean Luc Godard. Provine’s bulldozer’s-are-coming mailer is about as absurdist as a Godard flick. The only difference is that Provine is actually taking his delusions seriously.]

The bulldozers are coming for your homes! Okay, not really. But we have the chance Tuesday to toss the most outrageously incendiary and reality-challenged campaigns into the compost bin of history (hopefully without destroying said compost bin).

To vote in person, get in line by 8 pm at Union Station (the building right next to the ID/Chinatown light rail station), at the King County Elections HQ in Renton, or at Bellevue City Hall.

You can drop off your filled-out ballot at any of these sites or any of a couple dozen ballot drop boxes all over the county, by 8 pm.

If you mail your ballot, get it post-marked by Tuesday, and don’t forget to affix first-class postage worth at least 49 cents.

If you haven’t filled out your ballot yet, refresh yourself on our city council endorsements.

Come back here for live-blogging Tuesday night, as we attempt to divine and spin results based on a minority of ballots coming in, since they traditionally trickle in over the next week.

Build Real BRT for West Seattle


[This seems a good a time as any to remind everyone that guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of STB staff or the editorial board – Ed.]

What exactly is Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT)? Perhaps, like the Supreme Court said about “pornography”, you know it when you see it. If the Wikipedia definition of BRT is any guide, I haven’t seen it in Seattle. To quote their definition, “To be considered BRT, buses should operate for a significant part of their journey within a fully dedicated right of way (busway) to avoid traffic congestion”. RapidRide is not BRT, falling well short by ITDP standards.

But we can certainly build a real BRT system for West Seattle that has almost every advantage of what we call “light rail” (mostly grade separated, off-board fare collection, station platforms level with the bus floor, priority at intersections, etc.). Unlike the light rail concepts being offered by Sound Transit, BRT to West Seattle would allow riders from all the key corridors of West Seattle (California, Fauntleroy, 35th, Admiral/Alki and Delridge) to enjoy a fast and frequent ride to downtown without having to transfer.

The Challenges of Serving West Seattle with Transit

West Seattle is a fairly large area, separated from the rest of Seattle by the Duwamish River. If you look at a census map of West Seattle, there are a few pockets of scattered density, but nothing over 25,000 people per square mile. The more densely populated areas are not in a line, either, making it all but impossible to connect the area with one rail line. A light rail line that serves the Junction is likely to miss Admiral, Alki and the Delridge corridor. A rail line on Delridge would miss Admiral, Alki, California, Fauntleroy and 35th.

Link to West Seattle would be expensive. It would have to traverse low-ridership Sodo and Harbor Island, cross water and rugged terrain. Martin Duke estimated the cost of getting to the junction at $2 – 2.5 billion, not including a downtown tunnel.

The city is unlikely to build parking around the stations, meaning that most riders would walk to the station or arrive by bus.  A comparison of population density and the proposed set of stations shows that no set of West Seattle stations will be within walking distance of a majority of potential riders. For light rail to be successful, a vast majority of riders would have to arrive to the station by bus.

Transferring from to bus to train incurs a transfer penalty: exiting the bus, walking to the station, getting to the platform, and waiting for a train (Sound Transit suggests headways of ten minutes). In most of Seattle, the train makes up for that penalty by using its dedicated right of way to outrun buses mired on surface streets. In West Seattle, however, there is easy access to a high-speed freeway if agencies execute several relatively low-cost infrastructure projects. For most riders on West Seattle’s major bus corridors, this would result in a faster trip to and through downtown than with light rail.

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Candidate Land Use Positions Evolve

Seattle Zoning Map, Single family zones in yellow.
Seattle Zoning Map; Single family zones in yellow.

STB did its endorsement interviews late in the day, but that wasn’t enough to catch all late policy revelations. I think it would be an overreaction to actually retract an endorsement — they didn’t rest on that thin of a reed — but the changes are notable.

First, in her interview District 5 STB endorsee Mercedes Elizalde strongly implied she was not for linkage fees, before signing up for the Jon Grant/Kshama Sawant drive to amend the delicate HALA compromise in just such a way. Erica wrote about the apparent contradiction or change on her personal blog, so check it out. We’re sticking with Elizalde, who impressed us with her developer wonkery and good service planning instincts. In any case, some of us are skeptical of linkage fees rather than violently opposed. But if this is more of a dealbreaker for you than it is for us, then I’d suggest Sandy Brown as your next best choice in a stacked 5th District race.

Second, endorsees Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess led the stampede out of changes to single-family zones (SFZs), soon followed by Mayor Murray himself. Here’s Burgess:

While the list of recommendations from HALA is long, one specific policy has received the most attention and criticism from neighborhoods across Seattle. It’s the recommendation that single-family zoning be relaxed in all areas of the city to allow for new duplexes, triplexes and stacked flats, a policy some believe will lead to speculators buying up homes, tearing them down, and replacing them with more expensive multi-family structures. We should take a step back from any policy that leads to that kind of speculation, disruption, and the widespread loss of existing, more affordable housing.

And here’s O’Brien, speaking to Josh Feit at Publicola:

While O’Brien told me he supports “in principle” tinkering around the edges of SFZs (rezoning about six percent of SFZs around transit corridors, urban villages, and SFZ/multi-family borders)—though he still wants to evaluate the specifics of each rezone—he also told me that allowing the possibility of tearing down an existing house for new duplex or triplex construction in the remaining 94 percent of the SFZs “would be taking it further than I’m willing to go—or I think the city is willing to go.”

While only one aspect of a very large plan, the SFZ proposals was probably the biggest qualitative strike for diverse and affordable housing types in Seattle. Duplexes, triplexes, and row homes in single family zones are by far the most plausible path to more large-family housing in Seattle, and critical if we’re not to restrict such housing to the very prosperous and the winners of the subsidized housing lottery. Furthermore, it also further endangers the compromise between all the interest groups on HALA.

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