SeaTac Station

SeaTac Station by edgeplot

[UPDATE: Mr. DeRoy corrected his original statement of when the plexiglass was installed. January, not March.]

When last we’d heard from the Port of Seattle, six years of experience with Link service to the airport had inspired the Port (and Commissioner Stephanie Bowman) to come up with a $3.5m, four-step plan to improve the experience of connecting to the station:

  • enclosing the walkway to block the wind
  • installing heaters
  • electric carts to transport people that need it between the station and the airport skybridge
  • adding a moving walkway to the airport master plan, which was expected by April 2017. The $28m project would presumably happen years in the future.

Over six months later, two of these are done, one is dead, and one hasn’t happened — yet.

The port installed the plexiglass in January March, with decorations and other details finished in March, about 3 months after originally planned. Port Spokesman Brian DeRoy simply says that the original 3-week estimate was overoptimistic: “it took a little longer than we’d hoped.”

The four carts also started running in March. Two operate at any given time between the Sound Transit bridge and the second airport skybridge, from about 6am to midnight. Your correspondent got to ride one of these carts when travelling with small children in April, and “it was a relief,” in the words of my companion.

The heaters proved to be too difficult to install easily. There wasn’t adequate electric power, so they looked at natural gas. But, as Mr. DeRoy notes, the gas required would have exceeded the Greenhouse Gas emissions of the entire rental car shuttle fleet. The Port rejected this as inconsistent with its sustainability goals, so it shelved this plan.

People have asked for a moving walkway since the station opened in December 2009. Unfortunately, the concrete parking garage doesn’t have sufficient clearance to simply install a walkway on its surface. A mooted hotel immediately north of the garage was a potential vessel for a walkway, but that project did not materialize. In keeping with Ms. Bowman’s expectations, Mr DeRoy says the moving walkway is “likely” to be in the Sustainable Airport Master Plan. However, we will not see this plan until the end of 2017. Even then, any such project will likely occur years after release of the plan.

Critics often exaggerate the inconvenience of walking to the airport, particularly in the context of peer airports elsewhere in the world. But that’s no reason to ignore creative ways to make the experience better. It’s good of the Port to put some organizational energy into making transit to the airport work better.

66 Replies to “Link/Airport Connection Update”

  1. I got to experience the enclosed walkway for the first time recently. It makes a world of difference.

    But even with the enclosed walkway, I still think it is unfair to dismiss critics of the distance. Martin, I’m guessing you’re relatively able-bodied and typically fly Alaska Airlines (or another airline which flies out of D or N gates)? The walking distance from the northernmost skybridge to the mezzanine of the Link station is ~1/4km, which adds insult to injury to the ~1/3km walk from the International skybridge to the northernmost one.

    By all means, I’ll continue to hoof it instead of waiting for a golf cart. But my joints are far worse than they were even a few years ago, and if SeaTac were still my home airport I’d be pretty grumbly about dismissing the walk.

    1. I fit that description. I’m fit so it never would have occurred to me that the walk is long. I hope POS takes the needs of all its users seriously. The low transit usage in the US isn’t surprising considering 2nd rate service like this is the norm.

    2. If 1/4 km is too far to walk, how were you getting to the Link station on the other end in the first place? Uber?

  2. The station should have been built much closer to the terminal. In Amsterdam you take escalators straight down from inside the terminal to the train platforms. In Vancouver it’s about a 60 second walk from the train platform to the terminal.

    1. That would have impinged upon southern extensions no?

      In Vancouver, there’s nowhere past the airport for the line to go

      1. The access roads get in and out and are much wider than Link tracks and station. The sharp curved orientation of the airport is a potential issue for train tracks, but you could imagine going over the garage instead. Still, the station placement on the main road does allow for some “airport city” TOD potential. Moving walkways greatly help!

      2. Going on a curved route in between the garage and terminal is exactly what the DC Metro does at Reagan airport, and it has no problem going farther in either direction.

  3. Why can’t they thread a power line for the heaters? Not enough power doesn’t make sense.

  4. The lack of “adequate electric power” for heaters seems like a bit of a weak excuse and a solvable problem.

  5. Has the POS looked at a rubber belt moving walkway? I am guessing they have not and are myopically focused on the now more traditional metal plate version. A rubber belt system as used in Toronto’s Terminal 3 and once upon a time at Denver-Stapleton’s A concourse can be built above a surface, with a ramp leading users up to the moving belt.

    See example engineering diagrams here:

    1. According to the specs they require a minimum of only 1′ clearance below the belt and can be as narrow as 27″ (though I believe would have to be 36″ to be ADA compliant) and I think both of those measures are easily doable in current walkway space.

  6. Apologists of the station placement downplay the inconvenience of the walk especially compared to peer US airports like Atlanta or DCA, It is typical Seattle transit philosophy. Being able to say you serve a place , no matter how inconvenient, is more important than serving it optimally. You also see it with the stadiums and UW.

    1. Judgement aside, a very valid point lies here: “[b]eing able to say you serve a place…is more important than serving it optimally”. We have loads of examples beyond those two listed above, the most notable absence being Mount Baker (perhaps the city’s least optimal service point for any passengers). Deciding how to maximize value of transit is philosophical: serve as much of the public as possible, or present the best possible product. It’s not a trivial choice.

      Serving a place optimally often requires a coverage sacrifice — rare is the case where the opportunity for optimal service and greatest coverage perfectly converge (and I can think of really only one, Capitol Hill station. They had a shot with Mount Baker, and entirely blew it). The airport provides a perfect frame for this debate: if the alignment had followed the inner airport roadway and been built either right on top of or even as a direct expansion of the terminal building itself, the station would have been unable to optimally serve passengers transferring to/from the rapid A line. This is still an issue even with Angle Lake, though less so. (And it will continue to be, as the south alignment will mostly follow I-5, rather than 99.)

      Sound Transit chose to serve more people rather than serve people more optimally — and in this specific case, the choice neatly presents itself as mutually exclusive. Was there a compromise out there? Who knows, and given enough dollars and time to engineer and build, anything is possible, but that conveniently overlooks the reality of public works projects (lengthy processes, limited budgets, public timelines, etc.).

      And, now that we have three new lines and a tunnel to plan and build, we’ll have this conversation all over again.

    2. It’s not worse than O’Hare or other airports which are also a long way to the station. It comes back to the difficulty of interfacing new infrastructure with existing infrastructure that wasn’t designed for it. In SeaTac’s case there was an additional problem: the feds got paranoid after 9/11 and wouldn’t allow the station closer to the terminal. It wasn’t Sound Transit’s doing; ST would have preferred a closer station, for the same reasons y’all do.

      Mount Baker station was more under ST’s control. Even there there were limitations: the UW wouldn’t relocate its laundry facility next door, and ST can’t eminent-domain a state institution. I will fault ST for not making the courtyard under the platforms more active: it would be a perfect place for a farmer’s market. And the lack of down escalators. I’m not so concerned about the size of the station as some others are.

      1. Mike is right, I remember the reasoning for the location of the SeaTac station being that they didn’t want it too close to the terminal in the post-911 paranoia.

        I forgot about UW laundry. They haven’t been the best partner to ST have they? Kinda funny since their students make up a large percentage of the ridership.

      2. Thanks for the reminder about the (continuing) post September 2001 idiocy in the US.

      3. Refusal to move the UW Laundry has to be the poopiest batch of spoiled diapers that the University of Washington ever produced. It’s not even convenient for them.

      4. I think the Mt Baker design failure is a result of two problems:

        1. Barebones budgeting probably prevented pursuing a more ambitious station layout. A mezzanine pedestrian landing with a Rainier Crossing to the MBTC (possibly all the way to Franklin HS) or a positioning of the transit center under the tracks are two obvious but costly better designs.

        2. A lack of designing for better stations if more funding becomes available appears to be the way ST designers think. Cost-cutting is good — but failing to have designs where elevators, escalators and better access can be added later is a cultural problem in the ST design process. As ST3 does not have much finding available for fixing existing station problems, these design problems will be staying with us.

      5. The initial segment was particularly vulnerable to cost-cutting. because light rail was still theoretical at that point. More people believed it wasn’t worth spending billions more than our traditional bus expansions, or that anyone would ride it. So ST was afraid of a repeat of Forward Thrust, and thought that the best way to win approval was to keep the cost and extras down. Originally ST proposed a surface alignment from Mt Baker all the way to SeaTac. It turned out people didn’t want to go that cheap or slow (and Tukwila objected to impacts on Intl Blvd and Southcenter), which led to the current elevated alignment south of Rainier Beach. That raised the cost, and probably made ST more adverse to extras.

        But after Link opened and people got to ride it, and people from other neighborhoods that were considering light rail tried it out too, the penny-pinching objections diminished. McGinn said comments from constituents stopped being “Seattle doesn’t need a train.” to “When will it come to my neighborhood?” Everybody wanted it now. If you look at Capitol Hill station, there’s nowhere near the penny-pinching that happened in the initial segment. The fact that Rainier Valley is on the surface is a legacy of that earlier political climate. In some ways, “The area that gets it first gets it worst”, because it doesn’t benefit from the lessons learned from the initial segment.

  7. The lines for the ticket vending machines remain the longest at Airport Station. The payment and distance options take a while to get through. Some may not appreciate what a flat fare will do for the customer experience, but tourists will see much faster lines. The wait to get a ticket / card can be much longer than the walk to the station, especially when nobody notices the three extra vending machines at the north end of the station have no line.

    Of course, the insipid $5 card fee remains a complicating factor in choosing fare media. There is little warning that the train tickets don’t transfer to other Sound Transit modes, much less other public transit agencies’ buses.

    Metro is about to remove two of its unique fare complicating features (er, bugs). Sound Transit should return the favor, and have the Board go on record supporting and encouraging elimination of the card fee (so we know it isn’t ST blocking card fee elimination at the ORCA pod board), and implementing a Link fare system that doesn’t require a several-minute lesson on how distance-based fares work before choosing a fare product. $2.75 is a reasonable price to charge for any distance ride on Link (at least from the time Metro’s $2.75 flat fare kicks in until Northgate Station opens), and would probably improve fare recovery for the next four years, at least.

    1. Does it really take several minutes? The new TVM interface gives you a map to pick a station.

      Right now the screens go like this:
      0. Choose light rail [ticket] for today or ORCA
      1. [ticket] Choose station from map (or list)
      2. Choose one way or day pass
      3. Specify quantity of tickets
      4. Choose payment method
      5. Insert payment
      6. Get ticket

      If the card fee is waived then just issue all tickets on ORCA. Replace Link-specific tickets with e-purse equivalent or regional day pass for easy transfers.

      1. Most purchases don’t take several minutes. Some take longer than others. The wait in line takes several minutes.

      2. When a visitor gets to Seattle and rides Link for the first time, he/she will always take extra time to conplete the TVM steps. More machines are needed.

        Further, when Link goes more places on a few years, more TVM machines will be needed to accommodate the additional station demand. When any new station opens, TVM activity will also increase at existing stations. ST should always consider this in any extension planning.

      3. I’ve never used the Link TVM’s, but based on what I’ve seen in other cities, the whole process can take several minutes, particularly if you need to buy tickets for multiple people and you’re not sure what the options are, how to insert the credit card, etc.

        Once, while visiting the bay area, I had a very tight BART->CalTrain connection and was forced to fiddle with the ticket machine right as the train was approaching. At least Link runs frequently enough that unexpected delays using the machines won’t cause you to get stuck. If the machine didn’t print the ticket before the train came, I was prepared to bail, hop on the train, and, if necessary, chalk up the fine as the cost of not having to sit around and wait a full hour for the next train. Fortunately, the slow machine printed my ticket just in the nick of time.

      4. Last night in Union Station I helped a foreign family who was stopping over in LA for 24 hours. Despite LA’s simple fare structure relative to ours (flat fare, no youth fare, day passes, $1 cards), it still took minutes to explain and complete the transaction.

    2. “$2.75 is a reasonable price to charge for any distance ride on Link”

      That just happens to be the existing value of my one-zone monthly pass. Probably the majority of riders are in that situation, commuting one zone (or on Link the distance of Rainier Beach to Westlake), and only occasionally making longer trips that require a surcharge.

  8. Given ST’s policy that it is okay for elevators to be broken down 5% of the time, and that the reliability of all the other elevators in the system has kept the systemwide vertical-conveyance-device reliability around 95%, there is only one long-term fix for Airport Station’s repeatedly broken-down eastern elevator: Build a second one. (But thanks for having stairs most of us can use.)

    1. I would also add escalators as well, since there is space for one in the large plaza they have

  9. I’m personally pretty happy with the fixes they’ve put in so far. I’d like tp see more eventually, but I do think these two help quite a bit already.

    1. I walked to the terminal on a cold, windy day in April and the plex made the trip much more bearable. Visually, the walk is still grim; but it isn’t as unpleasant as it used to be on cold days. What’s still needed is better wayfinding signage in the terminal for arriving passengers.

      How exactly would the Port efficiently heat the walkway? Even with plex it’s basically an open space.

      1. Radiant heaters don’t help warm the air much, but they do provide a sensation of warmth that helps.

  10. As the Puget Sound area goes toward green buildings and green remodels, I don’t see Seatac wanting to heat an outside wind tunnel.

    The station has always been controversial. As I remember, to save costs on the initial line it was almost not built at all. So in 2006 many, many compromises were made. This was one of them.

    I like to think I can come up with an easy cheap solution, but this one is difficult. The solution is probably looking at rail stations that serve an airport and the adjacent community. That is what ours does. It is kind if unique. Looking at stations that serve the airport only will not bring many solutions. Finding partners to solve the people mover problem is the biggest obstacle in my opinion, so far.

    1. I don’t recall that SeaTac station was ever “not going to be built”. It opened later than the rest of the line because the federally-mandated changes to the station location came late enough that construction couldn’t be finished by the time the rest of the line was ready.

      1. I think I mispoke with “never being built”. In the early 2000’s Sound Transit decided to trunkate their original 21 mile starter line. The shortest of these options discussed was Tukwilla to SODO, not even entering the tunnel, at first. Everything else would be dferred, with no definate timeline. It was widely publicized and widely criticized.
        I remember being criticized for defending a nowhere to nowhere train. There are facts to back up my outlandish stories but I no longer remember how to find them.

      2. I never heard of that alternative but I was less involved with the news then, and there was no STB to publicize all the details.

      3. Also the original light rail station was supposed to be Reyerson Base. That is why it is where it is. If you talk to a technician there, yhey will tell you the doors are skinnier than any in the system. Because trains don’t have mirrors. The old tracks in the tunnel are still present at Convention Place. They are aimed at the Expess lanes. This is slightly off the subject because that was all before Sound Transit. But when Sound Transit was created they had to redirect all these ideas because it was clear they no longer would work. It wouldn’t surprise me if one route was shaped like a bow tie.
        Also King County and Metro knew when they built the tunnel it would cost 2 million more to correctly insulate the tracks. They knowingly voted it down. I do know someone who has proof of that but won’t give it to ne.

      4. The cost of insulating the original rails was reported on by the Seattle Times during the tunnel retrofit in 2005. Though, even if the original rail had been adequately insulated, there would still have been some ripped out and replaced, as the entire road and rail surface in the station boxes was lowered during the retrofit so that Link would have level boarding. That was cheaper to do than to raise the platforms, which would have require new escalators, and rebuilding the elevators.

  11. Any effort appreciated, but given what I’ve seen of the Port of Seattle’s general attitude toward our transit system, I wish we could spare our passengers the experience of stopping there at all.

    Not sure which says it better. Absence of the large, welcoming information desk at for MAX at Portland airport. Sorry, but small black phone beside tiny white card on side of police booth by our schedules. Or fact that rental car customers at the beautiful new facility have to take traffic trapped buses to even get to the end of the walkway in question.

    So here’s Donald-Trump grade negotiation I’d offer. Transit gets a sheltered moving elevated walkway from the rental car castle – probably same hospitality management- to Tukwila International, and we start stopping at Sea-Tac station again.


    Mark Dublin

  12. The carts work pretty well – but people seem to think it costs money to ride and they are not sure where to wait. Better signage and instructions are needed.

  13. I was just at the airport today. The plexi glass is actually quite helpful, and the cart is.. well yeah signage would help, and its less than ideal because its a vehicle/pedestrian conflict.

    I’d really like to know what the Port’s plans for the old rental car cleaning lot are now. (Figuring its the spot that they wanted to put the hotel at.) They’ve repaved it and it looks like it is lined for buses of some sort, but I didn’t see any use there.

    Now that the uses for that space are back in the air, has the port considered just building a walkway from the light rail station directly to the terminal, connecting just north of skybridge 6? (i.e. the skybridge closest to the Light rail walkway in the parking garage. Benefits that I see:
    1. From the station to the terminal its a direct line
    2. The port could have escalators, etc specifically for the light rail line.
    3. It takes a different path than the existing walkway, so the existing walkway could remain in service during construction.
    4. There could be informational signage/recordings etc along the way as to how the light rail system works.
    5. Its new construction so it could be enclosed, and climate control could be designed in with the system.
    6. Potential exists to stack the walkways, so the to the airport one goes to the departures level and from the airport goes to the arrivals levels.

    I’m curious if this has been studied since the station went in..

    1. The old car rental lot will be used for buses during the cruise ship season to pickup and drop off cruise ship passengers and possible also for buses that currently use the lot at the south end of the terminal building outside baggage claim. That lot will be closed as that is where the airport will built the new Immigration Station to replace the current one which is some 40+ plus years old and can no longer handle the volume of international passengers that arrive each day. The old immigration area also cannot be expanded which is why the new one will be built.

  14. I’m surprised the long trip time between the Airport and downtown isnt an issue?

    On a few occasions now when people from out of town (training courses/visiting from other offices) ask me what the best way to the airport is and I tell them Link will take about an hour the idea is quickly dropped for a quicker route/mode.

    Heck when I lived near the Rainier Beach stop, the 8 stops to University street was tiring. The at grade path along MLK will forever be a thorn in the system, when it takes Sounder ~ 15 minutes ~ to get to Tukwila you realize what should be possible.

    1. Link takes 34 minutes to Westlake. it will be 4-6 minutes less when buses leave the tunnel. The Rainier Valley surface alignment is unfortunate, but the stations there are more important than an express from the airport. For an hour, see the 150 from Westake to Kent in the daytime.

      1. When I hear my friends dismiss the Rainier portion, I tell them that the route had to serve more than one purpose: a neighborhood rail system and a shuttle. I prefer stations farther from the freeway.
        I also tell them that it is more efficient to carry 400 people every 10 minutes than 60 every 15 minutes. That by itself is worth the extra time they complain about.

      2. 30 minutes Airport-Westlake post-joint ops is pretty fast considering the direct access it provides to the dozen neigborhoods in between.

        The 194 as it was could never beat that, let alone serve all those stops.

    2. Telling people it will “take about an hour” to take Link downtown from the airport is a bit deceptive. Sure, I guess if you’re including the time it takes to walk to the station, buy a ticket, and the longest wait for the next train, then it might be about that. But many people would assume you’re just referring to travel time on Link itself.

  15. So is all the walkway enclosure able to be opened for ventilation in the summer when the wind is desirable?

  16. Unfortunately this discussion illustrates why the time for light rail has passed. Seattle is the most aggressive city in the nation pushing forward with huge investments in an obsolete system of transit.

    The heyday for light rail was 100 years ago. Building standards, land use, alternative transportation, public expectations, and build costs relative to benefit have shifted since then. What we get from light rail today is costly and ineffective. Necessary compromises undermine what is now a pipe dream.

    It’s time to look ahead at new rider-centric transit technologies rather than system-centric fixed line plans like ST.


    1. Sorry, PRT is not the answer. It is a joke and a distraction. Similarly driverless cars/taxis/etc. while potentially a solution to some transportation issues do not in any way make fixed route rail “obsolete”.

  17. I honestly think that $28 million for a moving walkway is not the best use of $28 million. Those who cannot walk can use the electric cart service.

  18. What I don’t understand is hard is it to bolt on an extension to a 5 level concrete structure. Make it bridge but have side supports. Like a skyway.

    There is even a defunct ramp they could for t least a small portion.

    So what people need to remember , long walk to transit. Means cars first and crappy planing.

  19. First, if cold is the issue, cut through the parking lot – which is faster anyway, unless perhaps you are going to the Alaska terminal. Second, many airports have longer distances from gate to train. I doubt Sea-Tac is worse than average on this front. Third, people who cannot make the walk are very unlikely to take the train in the first place.

    1. SeaTac has a longer terminal to station walk than a lot of places–notably JFK and Portland, for two disparate example. Chicago Midway has a long walk around a parking garage, but they do a good job at wayfinding and visual interest. SeaTac does have the advantage of a station on the transit rail mainline, which isn’t that common in the U.S. SFO has that, though you usually have to take a people mover within the airport to reach it. So do Chicago (both airports) and Portland, but not that many other places. There are plenty of American airports that have no rapid transit at all like LaGuardia in New York or San Diego. LAX is finally getting a people mover connection to transit rail.

      I know that disabled people have complained about the walk at SeaTac. I think the carts are a real godsend–a relatively cheap solution to part of a very expensive problem. Airport pedestrians have to watch out for carts already, so extending them to the station shouldn’t be a problem.

      1. JFK really isn’t a fair comparison, since you have to take the Airtrain to LIRR or the subway. The walk from the Jamaica Airtrain station to the E or the LIRR is not insignificant.

  20. Initial versions of the airport long range plan and their staff emphasized roadway capacity over and over again. When asked about transit, the reply was that most of those using Link to access the airport are employees and it won’t be a big proportion of enplanements. It seemed they totally missed how massive the Link expansion with ST3 is and how important a better transit connection is. Given they are looking at a $10-$15B expansion plan with a possible second terminal to the north, a much improved moving sidewalk access to the Link station is warranted. The current garage infrastructure is not relevant.

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