NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled LRT vs. BRT to West Seattle: A Mapped Comparison. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.
Once again, the debate is taking place on what type of investment should be a priority within a Sound Transit expansion package, this time ST3. Lacking a coherent investment strategy that places due emphasis on the most critical elements of a pre-planned regional transit network (a plan that exists only in the abstract), ST3 is becoming a transportation grab-bag skewed by big ideas, politics, sub-area funding conflict and disorganization. Perhaps the messy process that characterizes these discussions can produce a meaningful plan on which to vote, but the nature of this animal leaves many doubtful.
Certainly, any investment in new rights-of-way and quicker, more efficient transit will become a welcome addition to the Puget Sound mobility system, but it remains essential that the public be critical of each proposal. Seattle and its environs must demand the finest outcomes within a constrained budget, and, indeed, force Sound Transit to respect the supremacy of any budget and maintain their promises to the public. Transportation “technicals” should be provided their due deference as they whittle expensive and complicated plans to their value-engineered best, if not nixing them entirely as white elephants that serve niche markets. With sensible budgets and scope limitation; with a critical body-politic led by a skeptical expertise, and; with logical projects that take advantage of existing infrastructure and urban development patterns, we can promote a finer Puget Sound region that is both more accommodating and affordable to those who choose to reside here. This process will ultimately be dictated by transit access.
A primary focus of the ST3 discussions is upgraded transit service to West Seattle, specifically Alaska Junction, and rightfully so. Here, a historic neighborhood center has been transformed, home to many new residential buildings, restaurants, grocery stores, cafes, and all the other urban amenities for which people clamor. The population density of the area, as evidenced by the 2010 census, is a defined, respectable block of orange in a sea of yellow, indicative of the new energy focused on the area. The energy is made manifest in development patterns that we should endorse through transportation investment that will not only sustain it, but encourage more of it. West Seattle, and Alaska Junction, in particular, are important places, and the city and Sound Transit should acknowledge this truth with a redirection of funds toward sensible, local rapid-transit projects.
Residents of West Seattle have plenty to be cynical about. While they have done their part constructing a secondary urban center within the city that is urbane and lovely, Seattle has responded with lackluster transit provisions that do not effectively tie the area into the urban core. Frustration has mounted with a freighted intensity. RapidRide C-line, popularly championed as bus rapid-transit (BRT), only marginally reduced trip times from the Junction to Downtown, but only on the best of days, and the buses are frequently caught in clogged traffic lanes that must be navigated in the absence of dedicated lanes in critical areas. The buses are frequently bunched at their termini as a result, despite scheduled 7 to 8 minute headways in peak hours, and are often jam-packed with local commuters. Many are driven to the King County Water Taxi and skip the buses entirely. The current solution is not working, and it arguably never has worked.
While the problem in West Seattle is clearly defined, solutions are not.
As Sound Transit and the region continues its unabashed love affair with light rail expansion, of which Transportation Matters is a critic, many in West Seattle are longing for inclusion into the system. This desire for incorporation into the Link network is sensible, especially in light of the failings of RapidRide. Rail can be swift, is usually unencumbered by traffic over dedicated right-of-way, and is typically a very smooth ride. These are true statements that speak to the value of quality rail transportation, and, indeed, rail services can be an intelligent investment for the public to make. However, these statements can be true of bus services, too, and, for the RapidRide C-line, the fact that they are not is a major failing of the corridor.
In the debate over upgraded service to West Seattle, it is thus imperative to remember the following:
Just because it rolls over rails does not make a proposal worthwhile, and, alternatively, just because it rolls over tires does not make a proposal inferior.
West Seattle residents are rightful in their indignation toward the current iteration of RapidRide, but rail is not necessarily the panacea that should be sought to address the C-Line’s issues. Nor is the indignation toward bus service deserved. The idea of BRT service for the area is not a misguided one, though its execution here is totally inadequate. For those who long for a traffic-free commute from one of the city’s most important centers and who seek rail infrastructure to provide it, they fail to envision the possibility of a better designed RapidRide providing exactly that. Such a transit luxury could also be provided for billions of dollars cheaper at the most expensive build-out when compared to any new rail extension to West Seattle’s densest neighborhood.
This opinion in favor of BRT over light-rail transit (LRT) to West Seattle is neither an expression of anti-rail bias or even partisanism.
Rail infrastructure best serves areas that look and feel quite like Alaska Junction, or are even more urban, and whose importance as a key neighborhood center is undeniable. These areas are dense and likely growing, featuring healthy development patterns. Rail infrastructure links such centers into a system that builds the foundation for a greater city. As an isolated case, Alaska Junction is precisely that: important, urban and growing properly. The context of Alaska Junction in the regional picture, however, upends the model that otherwise would support rail investments to the neighborhood.
First, the daily ridership totals on the C-line are not necessarily indicative of a corridor that will be better served, or even should be served, by rail. At approximately 8,300 daily riders (pg. 68), the C-line is not particularly impressive in numbers of people moved. Vancouver’s 99 B-line, for example, a preeminent bus corridor in North America, hauls nearly 56,000 daily (pg. 65). There is clearly room to grow for the C-line. Though there are other bus routes through West Seattle, none approach the frequencies or prominence of the C-line, and the numbers are therefore telling of the demand for transit in West Seattle: increasing steadily, but not quite noteworthy—yet.
Second, and far more damning, is simply the political and physical geography of West Seattle and its neighborhoods.
Politically, not only are the neighborhood centers disjointed in their arrangement on the isolated peninsula that is West Seattle, the urban centers beyond Alaska Junction are not especially deserving of rail service. More troubling, the areas continue to be entirely surrounded by auto-oriented sprawl. Additionally, any extension of Link to West Seattle would not encounter a meaningful population center until Alaska Junction(!), representing miles of lost revenue and ridership in effort to serve this station. When compared to a hypothetical line serving Belltown or South Lake Union, then Lower Queen Anne, Fremont, and, finally, Ballard, the value of an extension to Alaska Junction is abysmal when we consider its value to the city or region holistically.
Geographically, the peninsula itself exhibits substantial disparities in elevation within short distances, from sea-level to 520′ at High Point (with Alaska Junction resting at roughly 350′). Though LRT can handle significant gradients, beyond 3.5% the machines begin to experience degradation in operational quality, especially on the long ruling grades that would be required to service the hilly terrain of the area. Add the effects of moisture to 4, 5 and 6% grades, or steeper, to multi-car trains and the challenges become self-evident.
Depending upon the particular routing chosen, deep-bore stations may be required. These stations, as they are on Sound Transit’s U-Link extension or New York City’s 2nd Avenue Subway, can often be the most expensive components of any new rail project with subterranean components.
On top of everything else, the rails must vault the Duwamish River, an engineering feat in itself. Compounding this challenge, as if the length of the two waterways (both east and west) were not enough, the span over the Western Waterway either needs a low-level drawbridge to open for shipping traffic, or feature an air draft (i.e., a vertical clearance) of 150′ to avoid this necessity. Pick your poison: keep rail elevation low and suffer service interruptions from tall cargo ships, or erect an extraordinary new LRT bridge with massive approaches.
Third, and the death knell to LRT in this author’s opinion, is cost. Not only is the cost destined to be outstanding—in the multiple billions—due to the challenges related to building rail infrastructure over an industrial river and up and into a hillside, but also due to the overall little benefit of the extension to Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region. The cost/benefit ratio of light rail to Alaska Junction is very poor.
Nonetheless, such an extension is technically feasible.
As with all new transit corridors, there are multiple rights-of-way that can be explored to deliver rail service to Alaska Junction and beyond. However, exhaustive research does suggest that the alignment proposed below, zig-zagging as it does through valleys and vaulting over highways and rivers, is the superior selection.
Alignments farther north of the West Seattle Bridge, including those to Admiral, are superfluous and serve small centers at an extraordinary cost. Otherwise, they become entangled in freeway access ramps and elevated roadways. Alignments farther south of the bridge, especially through Pigeon Point, require taller and longer bridges over a wider, busier section of the Duwamish; require additional and separate segments of tunneling; have direct and unavoidable impacts on the residential community and streets near Delridge Way and the port-industrial clusters along the Duwamish, and; simply do not merit the substantial engineering and planning expenses for a straighter, modestly swifter travel time. Other possibilities, many with popular support, serve the “Avalon Triangle” area adjacent to Fauntleroy Way, but this seems to be a relatively minor net-benefit when compared to alignments that serve the general area with far less community impact.
Mapped below is what a light-rail transit corridor to West Seattle could look like.
BRT, on the other hand, can handle stiff grades and unexpected route changes; can take full advantage of existing surface infrastructure into Alaska Junction and beyond, and; can take full advantage of the existing multi-lane bridge over the Duwamish River. Additionally, using buses to serve the key stop of Alaska Junction is a far better use of funding and resources than having trains perform the same job. In every conceivable area, not only is BRT better for West Seattle and Alaska Junction over trains, but Alaska Junction is a paramount example of a locale perfectly suited for such services.
Needed to save billions of dollars while rescuing West Seattle from the depravity of clogged freeways, wasted hours, and ruined days is little more than a reallocation of space on existing streets; dedicated BRT-lanes. Unfortunately, this has been complicated for Seattle and the region to accomplish, and it spends billions on new rail infrastructure as a consequence of this ridiculous inability to challenge the primacy of cars (even on key transit corridors).
To ensure precision schedules and guarantee trip times, new access ramps to these dedicated lanes could be constructed onto the West Seattle Bridge and State Route 99, and new transit-only lanes should be reserved on the new Alaskan Way Boulevard, on Avalon Way (and possibly Fauntleroy Way), and finally Alaska Street at a terminal situated immediately east of the traffic light on California Avenue. The forthcoming mapped plan has many of these new BRT lanes in the center of the roadway, but such details can be debated and changed should alternatives prove more intelligent.
The most expensive components of this proposal are the new transit-only ramps to the elevated freeways, which, although their cost is not insignificant, are nowhere as astounding as the cost of a new railroad. If the cost for new ramps prove to somehow be unappetizing to taxpayers, metered access points, or even controlled intersections, could be explored at those areas where buses must cross general purpose lanes to access their transit-dedicated lanes. This would mitigate the need for separated access routes for BRT from general traffic, but metered roads or intersections would push traffic jams into West Seattle streets, and freeway speeds could be hampered by cars accelerating from a stop after the passing of a BRT service. Additionally, if BRT services became very frequent, say every 1-1/2 to 3 minutes, conflicts at such areas may prove too much of a traffic-inducing nuisance. This is why separate lanes and access ramps for BRT are proposed outright.
Mapped below is what an authentic bus rapid-transit corridor to West Seattle could look like.
VERDICT: Seattle and Sound Transit Should Invest In Bus Rapid-Transit to West Seattle.