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The latest idea for ST3 station placement in Downtown has the planned Midtown Station on the chopping block in favor of an expanded station at Pioneer Square where transfers between lines will be made.  This is not a great idea for efficient Link transfers.  But I started thinking about the possibilities of what an expanded Pioneer Square Station could be.

As luck would have it, there are other amazing transit use cases for a redeveloped King County Administration Building.  Uses that mitigate a lost station at Midtown and support The One Tunnel option.  Uses that would serve a dense neighborhood and large employers adjacent to the station.

Let’s start with an idea, a first principle if you will, that rider experience matters. Rider experience should always be our #1 assumption for station and network design.  Stations should be built as close to the surface as possible, with easy-to-understand wayfinding, built with properly sized and redundant conveyances to the platform, allow platform-to-platform transfers in as short a distance as possible, and station exits should be positioned to seamlessly connect to other modes.  I would use a station that did all of that, wouldn’t you?

With this in mind, I propose a two-station funicular train in an elevated alignment in the Jefferson Street right of way. The entire length of track is about 450 meters (~1500 ft). The downtown terminus will be in the mezzanine of a rebuilt administration building at 4rd and Jefferson, and the upper terminus at street level on the NW corner of 9th and Jefferson at Harborview.  A bridge or overpass will carry the train over I-5. To get to the lower terminus from Pioneer Square Station, passageways will be cut on the east side of the mezzanines under 3rd to 4th avenue and into the new structure.  There should also be additional street entrances to Pioneer Square Station on the west side of 4th and the east side of 3rd between Jefferson and James.

More below the fold.

Single track elevated funicular

Putting the Fun in Funicular

It’s like a horizontal elevator. Typical funiculars have two counterbalanced carriages attached to opposite ends of a cable, which is looped over a pulley at the upper end of the track.  An electric motor pulls on the cable to put the carriages in motion, as one ascends the other descends at an equal speed.  

Funiculars are used everywhere, Hong Kong, UK, and Portugal to name a few.  Some of these systems have been in use for decades, are quite long, and have multiple stations giving them the feel of a typical rail system.  The unobservant rider might not be able to tell they are in a counterbalanced carriage.

It’s important to note that funiculars are not an every day transit mode.  You wouldn’t use them on a steep hill at street level like a cable car, for example, when a trolley bus would do the job just fine. But on a steep grade over difficult or impassable terrain, an elevated funicular seems purpose-built for the job.

Funiculars have other advantages that make them ideal for this application:

  1. Carriages are lightweight compared to other rolling stock due to their shorter length and external motor.  They only need lighting, environmental, and safety systems on board. 
  2. Cost efficient design has a narrow profile, and can be single tracked with a passing loop.
  3. They are reasonably fast, speeds of 9 meters/s (20 mph) are possible.

Harborview Station

Adding a station level with the sidewalk at Harborview on First Hill would be pretty exciting and finally right a decades-long wrong.  A rail station east of I-5 at 9th and Jefferson next to a major employer and a population that really needs accessible transit seems to check all of the boxes.   It would also increase the Link walk shed by a significant amount, and begin to serve a dense neighborhood that really deserves to be on the transit spine.  If someone could diagram a proper walk shed map for this location, I’ll include it with this post.

I-5 Crossing

A single tracked rail bridge is an obvious way to get across the freeway at Jefferson.  A bridge similar in design to the pedestrian bridge at Northgate but structurally capable of supporting two fully loaded carriages could be a possibility, we already know it works over a freeway. An elevated railway might also be an option if there is road space for the piers.  The passing loop for a single tracked two-stop funicular always occurs in the middle of the line, and this would happen above the Spring Street onramp to I-5 south.

Pioneer Square Expansion

The line continues in an elevated fashion above Jefferson Street to the terminus at 4th.   If possible, the platform should be located within the new building at the mezzanine level rather than on the exterior.  In other words, nothing like the Westlake Monorail Station.  Multiple escalators and elevators would deliver passengers to the street level or the underground walkway that leads to the Link station platform.

Animation showing Angel’s Lift Funicular in Los Angeles. Courtesy LA Times.

Details to Consider

On paper there seem to be some benefits to this transit addition, let’s review:

  1. No station at Midtown? Serve First Hill anyway
  2. Lightweight, efficient, and can run on 100% clean energy
  3. An incredibly accessible form of transit
  4. Maybe spend ST3 dollars to build it

I’d also have to argue there are some challenges with this approach. There would be significant disruption at Harborview because there isn’t enough road space to add a surface funicular to Jefferson between 8th and 9th . So the street will need to be excavated for a shallow tunnel, which is a bummer but not without precedent.

On top of all that, Harborview might lose the north end of their parking lot near 8th and Jefferson. I thought maybe you could terminate the funicular at the parking lot on 8th and save on construction costs, but you’d still have to tear up Jefferson to 9th to widen the pedestrian environment, which might not even be practical given the ambulance traffic on that road. And this decision doesn’t play well with our first principles of rider experience. Even though a tunnel will be more expensive, it really would be the right thing to do.

Also, Jefferson St. is pretty far south so this line ultimately doesn’t serve the entirety of First Hill all that well, but the Rapid G will help. The funicular will eliminate some ridership on Metro routes 3 and 4, but a reroute has been on the drawing board for a while.

Finally, only transit nerds like funiculars. The general public will need to be convinced this is a practical and responsible idea.

Could this train be built?

That’s the real question I think.  If the technical, construction, and funding issues could be resolved, would we have the courage to build it?  A funicular is not Link nor a Streetcar and exists outside of how we think about rail today.  I would like my transit agencies be empowered to invest in sustainable, purpose-built transit to solve our most difficult intra-city mobility challenges.  In some cases this means overcoming bias and taking measured risks, particularly when obstacles make construction of other transit modes risky and expensive.

If we could overcome these challenges the payoff could be transformative. Connecting First Hill directly to the transit spine has been a goal since the first draft of ST1. The accessibility of a funicular is ideally suited for this alignment, particularly when you consider the mobility challenges of the population who would frequent the line. With a travel time of only about 90 seconds between stations it would be far superior than taking the 3 or 4 from 3rd Avenue up the hill at James Street.

16 Replies to “The Jefferson Street Funicular”

  1. Good write-up for a great idea.

    I’m a funicular rider from Iowa, and they’re both efficient and FUN. Even non-transit nerds learn to love a funicular.

  2. I don’t know if there’s much of a reason to build a funicular when modern cable cars like in Medellin do all the same things, but at a much higher capacity, with fewer support structures, and with the potential to be longer with several stops.

    Downtown shuttles just tend to be a very poor use of resources.

  3. If we do end up with a station at 4th & Jefferson, some sort of crossing over I5 would be very powerful, but it may be sufficient to simply have a pedestrian vertical conveyance (escalator or elevator) and then a pedestrian bridge over I5. Something more like the Marion Street Ferry Walkway or the Weller Street bridge (both of which support grade changes) than a furnicular.

    And FWIW, the Peak Tram in Hong Kong is a tourist toy that is also useful for locals, very much like Seattle’s monorail. The Central-Mid-Levels Escalators are much more useful than the tram.

  4. Thank you! Thank you!!!! I’ve been suggesting this for the Harborview Access challenge for years!

    I think you mean “typical use” instead of “everyday use” in your write-up. Funiculars are used every day. Check out the high-use funicular between two rail stations in Luxembourg!

    I’ve gotten to use the word “incline” when promoting the idea. The word seems to be better understood in the US.

    There are a few other advantages that I would mention:

    1. It can be automated like an elevator! It doesn’t need a driver — only security with some remote control center monitoring.
    2. It would be awesome for bicyclists! It would connect bicycle tracks on Broadway and Second Avenue.
    3. It has level boardings! Unlike the RapidRide G with sloped stops Downtown, it is much more user friendly for wheelchairs as well as bicycles! (Side note: I’m expecting bicycles on RapidRide G buses to occasionally break loose and slide through those buses when on a steep block.)

    They are actually a cable-pulled technology like a cable car.

    Finally, it appears that King County owns most if not all adjacent property. That eliminates concerns about private property acquisition as well as opposition. Actually, Metro could even build and run it if ST kicks in.

  5. How would you handle fares? It could be free. It could be designed to be inside the paid fare area. It could be treated like any other fare on Link or Metro.

    I wouldn’t be averse to concessions at the top. That rent could offset operations cost. It would be a particularly cool gimmick location for a coffee roastery that could be used in branding.

  6. I think this is the type of thing that should have been built instead of the First Hill streetcar. A little background. The original plan (passed by voters) had a station at First Hill. The board abandoned the station because of concerns over the soil. Basically they were afraid that when the dug there, it would cost a lot more than they expected. To compensate the neighborhood, they build a streetcar. In my opinion, the streetcar is not very good, and worse than a bus (partly because of the routing, but also because it can’t avoid obstacles, and the tracks pose a threat to bicyclists).

    In contrast, if done right, this could be a nice way to get from Link to First Hill. Take an elevator, then take a funicular. Or a gondola, for that matter. The point is, to be able to get from one place to another with a very short dwell time and a fairly fast trip (due to the system being automated, grade separated and fairly short) makes it quite attractive, even if it only serves one stop. As the author noted, the transfer experience is important. But while the monorail transfer is not ideal, it still works reasonably well in my opinion, as long as you know where to catch the elevator.

    Likewise, I would be happy with this as an addition now. But I don’t see this being added to a new tunnel, because the new tunnel will have limited value, and is already way more expensive that anticipated. The new tunnel will only directly serve a subset of riders (those coming from Ballard/Uptown/SLU or Rainier Valley/South End). I don’t see riders catching one train, transferring to the other, then taking this up the hill. Not when the other train gets you fairly close to buses that go to pretty much to the same spot.

    So yeah, basically I could see this if they decide to go with the “one tunnel” option, but that likely complicates planning, as you would have to refurbish one of the stations (Pioneer Square?) to make it work.

  7. This seems much saner than a lot of the other ideas that are being tossed around. I’m worried we’re going to get stuck with the consequences of the infatuation of Dow and Bruce…

  8. Cute, but costly concept; one could compare it to the Queen Anne counterbalance. It seems similar to the Portland cable car; it also serves a hospital and crosses I-5.

    There are buildings at all four corners of 9th Avenue and Jefferson Street.

    Metro decided not to build electric trolleybus overhead on Yesler Way and 8th/9th avenues, so routes 3 and 4 cannot be shifted to that congestion free corridor. But hybrid routes could serve the corridor. They would same the same inbound stop on Jefferson Street nearside 9th Avenue; that reduces wait times. A virtual moving sidewalk could be provided between routes 3 and 4 and some hybrid routes. Harborview is not the only market that needs better service; consider Yesler Terrace, Swedish, SU, and Juvenile Justice. A bus-based concept would be much cheaper and serve more markets.

    Note that the King County parcels could be marketed on the basis of the PSS and the robust transit network without the second DSTT station.

  9. The idea itself, works both from financial and practical standpoint. Honestly if they end up building the subway station on 5th avenue, it might be even easier.

    > Connecting First Hill directly to the transit spine has been a goal since the first draft of ST1.

    However, a direct connection from a downtown link station to first hill — isn’t this what Rapidride Madison/G is already supposed to accomplish connecting to University Street Station? Plus before that there was already the Capitol Hill Streetcar connecting to Chinatown station. Not to mention the existing 3/4 bus routes.

    There’s been enough projects trying to connect First Hill to downtown, and we really reaching diminishing rates of return at this point. I’m not quite sure how much it’d cost (I’m guess like 50 million?), but I’d much rather spend the money on other rapidrides bus/queue lanes or added frequency.

    1. The problem is the solutions today don’t connect First and Cherry Hill to Link or downtown.

      The street car is awful, whether from PS or the Broadway Link station. 3rd is perceived correctly as unsafe even for a guy in the daytime (one reason 5th CID N as you note is better). Who wants to exit Link on 3rd and James to wait for a bus. What’s next. The bus stop at 12th and Jackson?

      The other options are the 630 or 332 for suburban riders.

      Ideally someday 3rd and James and First Hill are safe and vibrant. A gondola could be interesting and safe enough (strict fare enforcement) to get normal people to use it and put up with a transfer to/from Link. You will need to secure the Link station.

      Otherwise stick with the buses on James for urban folks and the 630/332 for suburbanites.

      But don’t spend a dime until this part of 3rd and 5th is safe. The cost of the 630 to Metro is negligible.

      1. > The problem is the solutions today don’t connect First and Cherry Hill to Link or downtown.

        That’s exactly what the Rapidride G is going to do via Madison Ave?

        Does first hill to downtown really need yet another option, like I understand First Hill is important but it is already kind of covered. If frequency really is the issue — then just pay more money to run the streetcar or 3/4 more frequently. It’s not really worth it to spend so much capital money when one could just spend a fraction of that money on the existing transit there.

    2. The Yesler-James connection is far enough from the G Line that both make sense. Move Seattle had a desire line on the Yesler Way corridor. Added bus service would cost very little for the routes I have suggested.

    3. “isn’t this what Rapidride Madison/G is already supposed to accomplish connecting to University Street Station?”

      Two distance problems:

      Harborview is over 2000 feet from Madison St. That’s a distance similar to that between Old Ballard and a proposed 14th Ave station.

      Madison St is two blocks from a Link station.

      1. > Harborview is over 2000 feet from Madison St. That’s a distance similar to that between Old Ballard and a proposed 14th Ave station.

        I understand that, but it’s a bit unrealistic to cover every square of First Hill. First Hill is important, and we have already implemented the First Hill Streetcar, and are actively building the RapidRide G, do we really need a third project so soon? Unless if it’s very cheap like 5/10 million dollars maybe it’d be worth it. But if it’s in the 70~140 million dollar range there’s many other areas/projects I’d prioritize spending.

        > Madison St is two blocks from a Link station.
        The northbound bus stop is on Spring Street and 3rd Street, it is only one block from the University Street Station. It’s the same as walking from Westlake Station to the 3rd Ave & Pike stop. Heading southbound one can just wait for the loop and get off on Spring Street too if they don’t want to walk from Madison St. It is also a flat route on 3rd avenue if walking from Madison St.

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