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NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled The Seven Phases to a World Class Regional Rail System, Sketched.  It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.

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On the precipice of a major vote to determine if Sound Transit 3 (ST3) is a proposition deserving of passage, it is of immense value to consider Seattle’s history of mass transit excellence. Indeed, once before has the Puget Sound region itself been a supreme example of transit interconnectedness, and of rail transit in particular.

That period ended decisively by the 1940s, with transit companies overcome by government subsidies for new highways, ignored in favor of the popular demand for private vehicles, and, in some cases, collapsing due to poor management in dealing with the fallout of these fatal trends. Shortly thereafter, the epoch of express freeways and urban sprawl took hold with the same ferocity that shook most other American cities, commencing an urban-to-suburban transition whose consequences are those that ST3 is striving to remedy. Nonetheless, the foundation of our modern urban arrangement is almost exclusively thanks to those early rail backbones.

With that being the case, are we taking cues from our “pre-modern” transportation networks as we attempt to reconnect these very same spaces, or exploring ways in which we can revive the best components of the historic regional system?

The answer to those questions is sort of.

Sound Transit has designed a plan to reconnect our most populous cities together with rail transit, echoing the spirit of the original transit backbone from the last century. However, the emphasis on a Seattle to Tacoma light rail spine that is shifted uphill to the west from the valley floor cities of Kent, Auburn and Puyallup, previously the focus of every rail spine from our past, and for good reason, is a deviation that violates sensible planning principles (review maps here, here, and here).

The proposal for dedicated freight and passengers corridors that is proposed by this blog (1,2), easily the most intelligent scheme for the movement of people and goods in the Seattle-Tacoma area, is totally ignored by ST3. Even casual upgrades to Sounder commuter rail services, which ultimately would benefit a realized corridor modernization program, are hidden away on the margins of the proposition and obfuscated by uncertain plans and a lack of clear objectives. While the bare-bones Sounder service is wildly popular and growing in demand, it plays second fiddle in every regard to the light rail line that is to be extended to its west through Federal Way to Tacoma, serving sprawling suburbs on its way toward a city already connected by the Sounder line, and promising to cannibalize commuter rail ridership and funding.

Are these city’s residents deserving of high quality transit anymore than those in Puyallup, Auburn, Sumner and Kent? Is it wise to commit billions of dollars toward the automobile oriented suburbs of Federal Way and elsewhere along a brand new light railroad, as opposed to the historic and urbanized cores which adorn a heavy railroad that has existed for over a century?

Detractors of this plan raise the specter of difficult negotiations with BNSF and UPRR railways as evidence of it being unrealistic. This is a flawed perspective. ST3’s $54 billion package of sprawl inducing light rail extensions will itself be an unrealistic plan should voters have it meet its deathbed come November. Proposals are only as realistic as the institutional forces proposing them. This rail project has neither had the privilege of publicity nor debate that even much inferior ideas have been generously afforded. And while the political nature of this plan is a real obstacle to its realization, let us not forget the established precedent:

  1. Of the 173 miles of railroad between Seattle and Vancouver, Washington, 85% of the corridor is already shared by both BNSF and UPRR cargo trains, with the remaining 15% of the route being the minor portion of mainline this blog suggests utilizing for the benefit of the modernization proposal. In fact, the two railroads would share the entire corridor were it not for a historical anomaly, the construction of the Milwaukee Road railroad, whose 1977 bankruptcy saw the partner UPRR acquiring its Seattle-Tacoma area mainline. For the two railroads today, joint operations are not an issue, particularly in our cooperative region. Indeed, in times of operational distress, both railroad companies have operated trains on the competitor line within the Seattle-Tacoma area.
  2. BNSF and Union Pacific have also already benefited from new infrastructure that consolidates rail lines and requires joint operations,  most notably in the Los Angeles area with the Alameda Corridor. This is a triple-tracked freight corridor that bears striking resemblance in conception to the freight dedicated corridor proposed by this blog. Unlike in congested Los Angeles, the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way of Seattle, the underutilized mainline that would be improved and dedicated for freight train movements, is mercifully wide and rural. It would not require any trenching or massive civil works, dramatically lowering cost and expediting delivery timeframes.
  3. BNSF and UPRR make business decisions that are in their self interest. A freight dedicated transportation corridor built specifically to transmit their goods in a timely and efficient manner, in an area congested by passenger trains, makes tremendous sense, especially if it preserves current operations and eradicates every grade crossing, raising speeds. It also removes coal and other toxins, flammables and obnoxious cargos from the city centers of Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn and Kent, while removing legal requirements to blast locomotive horns (in the absence of crossings). In this scenario everyone wins, and the public benefits with faster, more efficient, quieter, and safer railroad operations, as well as more livable communities.
  4. The heavy railroad lines are already laid out, serving real communities that also seek innovative and legitimate transportation solutions, unlike the suburban hubs that have summarily rejected the most logical light rail alignments (here, and here). With publicity and support for this plan, certainly the mayors and residents of valley floor cities would hear the clarion call for improved regional passenger services, cultivating in a drumbeat of support that excites people from Tacoma to Tukwila, and possibly even Georgetown. However, it is hard to be enthused about dinner when the meal you desire is not an option on the menu. That must change.

For those not familiar with the basics of the plan, please review here:

Map 1:Before and After“, a quick summary of the proposal.

Beyond the transformational benefits listed above, and before in previous postings, another critical benefit to an upgrade to the BNSF and UPRR corridors, as opposed to the Link light rail spine proposed by Sound Transit, is scalability. For all the aspirations of creating urban villages between Seattle and Tacoma, all-the-while urbanized cores languish underserved a short distance away, there is no guarantee that any meaningful urbanization of Federal Way or on the margins of Kent will ever come to fruition. At least, certainly not approaching any level of investment to justify multi-billion dollar light rail lines.

Why is this problematic? It is worthy of concern because, unlike the Sounder program, where trains can be added and deleted when necessary, and infrastructure improved in a piecemeal fashion for substantial service improvements, once Link is constructed there will immediately exist a high capacity rail transit line capable of few minute headways. Does Federal Way or low-density King and Pierce County need such levels service, especially in the context of their poor financial commitments to their local transit providers, or their lack of desire to realize a more consistently urbanized form?

Indeed, unlike the Link scheme, the rail modernization proposal is innately scalable, easily broken down into component projects to be constructed as soon as the public is ready for the next upgrade to service quality. Each constructed component will dramatically improve the performance of the railroad, and do so in responsible “bite-size” construction programs and budgets.

Map 2:The Seven Phases“, an overview of component pieces that build the project.

When our region is ready for a system that moves people quickly and effectively, which embraces historic cities that are welcoming growth in a responsible manner, and which adheres to the ideals of conservatism and modesty that formed the backbone of the 1996 Sound Move program (see page 5), Sound Transit’s foundational legislation, the Seattle-Tacoma railroad modernization program awaits. Our historic railroad spine should once again fulfil its role as the south Puget Sound’s critical agent of mobility.

6 Replies to “Our Regional Rail Future Already Exists, Awaits Investment.”

  1. Self-review of one’s own plan making it sound like you are reviewing someone else’s plan? Bizarre. It’s being ignored because it is one person’s plan, and there is no second person that has expressed interest in it, as far as I can tell.

    That said, there is a simple reason ST is being vague about the future of Sounder service. They are in negotiations with BN&SF. If they promise something, and win funding for it, but BN&SF hasn’t yet agreed to it, BN&SF will charge a lot more than if BN&SF had agreed to it pending public funding. BN&SF took ST to the cleaners over four Sounder North runs. Let’s not repeat that mistake. ST is taking the proper approach toward making Sounder improvements affordable.

    1. With roughly $2.2b appropriated for Sounder improvements, we already know ST is attempting to work within those financial constraints. This whole vagueness for negotiating leverage claim, particularly with a company that is famously stubborn (though reliable), is nonsensical. Paltry when compared to light rail budgets, we know the Sound Transit hand. That claim, coupled with a complete lack of enthusiasm on the part of ST for a broader rail program, suggests that the transit agency is not in the heavy rail game whatsoever, despite clear advantages of this plan.

      What happens should these negotiations fail after the approval of the public for ST3, in part in support for a better commuter rail program? We simply do not know.

      And while this plan is proposed by me as it is detailed here, others have thought of similar plans, either mirroring the entirety of it or components of it, as well as local business officials and even the railroads themselves.

      Thanks for contributing, Brent!

      1. We do know what will happen with Sounder and your proposal if ST3 loses. Nothing.

        If it does come back to the ballot four years down the road, I still don’t see your plan having much momentum.

        The best hope for your plan is to pass ST3, and help mold how the south commuter rail pot of money is spent.

      2. Brent the only difference between proposals is name recognition. It is unfortunate given people like Maggie Fimia get a place at the table even though their arguments have failed twice in a row. If ST 3 fails it will not be because of them.

      3. ST has told BNSF that if the price for Sounder improvements is not reasonable it will walk away and do something else. What that else is I don’t know, but it could include a higher quality of Link, BRT for Kent, or something like that. Or if nothing else pans out ST would just cancel the Sounder project and subtract it from the budget, and your taxes would go down sooner.

  2. The momentum is certainly behind Sounder South Line, and, as you stated, investments of any kind into the corridor would ultimately advance this plan to some degree. That is great.

    Additionally, for as much as Sound Transit may lament the current window rent costs, they remain far more affordable than the capital budgets of Link extensions. For the time being, those limited runs, in addition to the I-5 express buses, should be sufficient for Tacoma-Seattle travel demand.

    Is Sound Transit’s current light rail heavy and fund-hogging proposition this plan’s savior? Hardly, if anything the opposite is quite clearly the case.

    Should this region have any desire for advanced passenger services between Tacoma and Seattle (and beyond to Olympia), if it ever seeks to bypass dangerous cargo trains away from city centers, and if it hopes to affordably route high-speed trains into King St., it will have to be built.

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