At a press conference his morning, NHL Seattle, Seattle Monorail Services, and several public- and private-sector partners will announce a major package of upgrades to the Seattle monorail, along with a program to provide subsidized public transit access to NHL events. These improvements will dramatically improve the peak capacity of the monorail system, and improve the rider experience at all times. Along with other local media, STB was given a preview of these improvements.
The big ticket item in this package is a major upgrade to the Westlake terminal. Perhaps the best way to introduce this upgrade is to discuss what once was. As pictured above, the original 1962 downtown station was built over public right of way, and included a platform area that amounted to maybe half a city block. This capacious facility, plus the fact that people in 1960 were less capacious than today, allowed the cars to approach their design capacity of 450 persons on each trip, and in turn to carry about 45,000 riders daily during the World’s Fair.
In the 1980s, the Monorail was saved from likely demolition by Councilmember George Benson, who arranged for today’s station to be shoehorned into the side of the redevelopment we now call Westlake Center. This station suffers from a number of compromises: it’s cramped, access is poor, ticketing is slow, only one train can operate from the station at once, and only four of each train’s eight doors can be used for loading. Barely adequate for today’s tourist traffic on a busy summer day, the Westlake terminal was identified by Via in a 2018 study as the primary obstacle to the Monorail once again serving as a true high capacity transit service.
The $5 to $6 million package of improvements at Westlake will address most of these issues, and should unlock the potential of the Monorail. The station footprint will expand further into the mall, with fare gates surrounding the platform area, and full-service ORCA vending machines performing all ticketing work. Dramatically improved wayfinding, to include real-time arrival signs, will direct riders between the Westlake tunnel station, the street, and the Monorail station. A wall will be moved, to make an existing elevator to the ground level available to riders who need or prefer it.
There will not be any new access directly from the platform to the street, because the owners of Westlake Center want riders to circulate through the mall, possibly spending some money on the way. The mall will stay open late for all NHL events, and likely other times, as part of an effort by the owners to diversify their offerings and activate the space in the evenings. The escalators directly feeding the station will both operate down when spectators are discharged from arena events.
The upgraded Westlake terminal will still only support one train. The optimal strategy for throughput is to have trains operate at even headways, with trains leaving opposite terminals at the same time. This mode of operation does not require two trains to be present simultaneously at Westlake.
Not yet known is whether the station will remain outdoors, or whether platform doors can be used to make the station an indoor space, fully integrated into the mall environment but for the fare gates. The indoor option would be a much better rider experience, but there are building code issues associated with large platform doors that must stay open for more than a minute at a time.
A smaller package of improvements will be implemented at the Seattle Center terminal. Access to the ground level will be improved, and made ADA-compliant. Faregates will be installed at the entrance of all three platforms. This will allow the station to operate in the mode used during the World’s Fair, with passengers loading from outside platforms and deboarding in the center. Combined with two-driver operation, this mode should allow trains carrying 325 modern Americans to depart every three to five minutes, for a throughput of about 6,000 passengers per hour. At times of lesser demand, the current mode of boarding from the center will be used, as it provides more operational flexibility.
Another aspect of the system that won’t change is the train cars themselves, which are protected historical landmarks, inside and out.
Who will fill all this new capacity? NHL fans, for a start. The as-yet-unnamed NHL Seattle franchise intends to join the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors in providing a full subsidy for public transit access — Monorail or otherwise — to and from all games. Moreover, NHL Seattle’s organizers hope that riding the Monorail will become part of the communal experience of attending a game; something not just logical, but positive and fun. Each fan’s first NHL Seattle experience will be an opportunity to coach them on transportation options, including this radically improved Monorail experience that will be new to most. If a fan’s first transit experience is a good one, it could well become a habit.
The mechanics of the NHL subsidy remain to be decided. Multiple possibilities exist for fare media. ORCA 2.0, when it arrives, will provide a great deal of flexibility — but it may not arrive in time. A more clunky but dependable option is a pass on the existing Transit Go app. NHL Seattle ticketing will be all-digital, so there won’t be an option to just wave a paper ticket at a bus driver, but NHL Seattle will have its own app, which opens up possibilities for transit ticketing. Similarly, the time window for rides has yet to be chosen, but could well extend some number of hours before the game to give fans more prefunk options, and spread out the incoming crowd.
NHL Seattle will be the flagship partner for the Monorail, but if the rider experience proves to be as good as expected, they may well have company. Other arts organizations could choose to provide monorail tickets for event attendees, perhaps as a benefit for season ticket holders, similar to how the Seattle Opera currently subsidizes parking.
The improvements to Seattle Center station will come from the Monorail’s capital improvement fund, which is mostly used to pay for major maintenance. Funds in this account come from ticket sales plus some public subsidy, such as FTA formula money. The major improvements to Westlake station will be funded from increased ticket sales.
Construction is expected to start in January of 2021, which would allow for completion in time for the 2021-2022 NHL season. By that time, the Northgate Link extension will open, but the regional high capacity system will otherwise look like it does today. If there is a weakness to the NHL/Monorail plan, it is that for the first two years Link+Monorail will be competitive with driving only on two points of the compass: north to Northgate and perhaps beyond (by customers using the park and ride); and southeast through the Rainier Valley. 2023 seems like it will bring a significant increase in ridership, as the completion of East Link will mean Link+Monorail becomes possible and compelling for Eastside riders, and the completion of Lynnwood Link will incrementally improve options for riders to the north.
When I moved to Seattle in 2010, the Monorail felt to me more like a historical novelty than a serious part of the transit system. It seemed to exist in the strange twilight of Seattle transit, alongside pay-as-you-leave buses, buses that drove in circles, and the Bredas. This package of upgrades represents positive step on that path, and it’s all the more impressive that it will be made without direct cost to Seattle taxpayers.
I’ll close with a sentiment from Tom Albro, the owner of Seattle Monorail Services, with which I totally agree:
“The historic Seattle Monorail is that critical last-mile connection between the new arena to our rapidly expanding transit network. It helps make the entire transportation system work better. As Seattle continues to densify and our region grow, the value of the Monorail grows as well. The Monorail’s high transit value and its iconic importance are the very elements that foster the ongoing stewardship and investment which preserve it. Well that, and also the fact it’s fun to ride!