Alternative Link Alignments Into Downtown Tacoma: A Mapped Review

The publishing of the Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) proposal within this blog has stirred a large debate regarding how Link should properly serve the City of Tacoma over a decade from now. There was broad agreement that terminating services at Tacoma Dome Station was deeply unsatisfactory, with most commenters agreeing that a natural terminus for the regional metro system is, indeed, Downtown Tacoma.

However, among the many proponents of such an extension, there were legitimate concerns of how it would be accomplished. Where CTLE came under routine fire was on two fronts: its interaction with the existing streetcar system, and the location of the Central Tacoma Station. Although these points are addressed extensively on these pages and on other websites, they are real concerns that warrant further investigation. The CTLE surface option remains the cheapest and most cost effective manner of delivering trains into Central Tacoma. That station, even without extensive bus connections, has independent utility as a rail station in an urban core. Still, it is worthy to consider alternative alignments into Tacoma that: one, have no impacts on the existing streetcar system; two, more finely integrate Link with the existing Downtown transit corridor along Commerce Street, and; three, furthers the conversation of getting trains into the city center.

Continue reading “Alternative Link Alignments Into Downtown Tacoma: A Mapped Review”

If Link to Tacoma Must Be Built, Do It Right: Send Trains Into the City Center

NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters.


Do consider the lunacy of the journey foisted upon the traveling public: after riding at least 80 minutes from Capitol Hill or Downtown Seattle in order to reach Tacoma, riders must disembark Link and await an untimed streetcar transfer—for an additional 15 to 25 minutes of travel time—all to reach the UW Tacoma campus, the city’s premier museums, key bus transfers, inner-city neighborhoods, and the workplaces of the downtown. To any reasonable person unfamiliar with the current rail arrangement in Tacoma, this would be deeply illogical rail planning. And yet this will be the Tacoma rail transit future, the consequence of early 1990s urban planning for a then-stricken community, financed in 2016 for a city on the rebound, and not opening until ±2032 to service a city that has since been utterly remade.

Sound Transit should strongly consider extending Link Light Rail into Central Tacoma. The agency should be advancing such an alignment not only because it makes the most sense from a community and transit-planning perspective, but also because rail investments of this sort clearly have a dramatic impact on their adjacent neighborhoods. Tacoma is primed to accept new urban development and continue to grow into a regional urban showcase—as long as the rail facilities are provided.

Continue reading “If Link to Tacoma Must Be Built, Do It Right: Send Trains Into the City Center”

The SPIRE Plan Becomes Our Region’s Surest Bet for Express Rail Service: A Mapped, Annotated Update.

NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled With Major Revisions, the SPIRE Plan Becomes Our Region’s Surest Best for Express Rail Service: A Mapped, Annotated Update. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.


For over a decade now, and principally advanced by the November 2016 election, the majority of voters within Sound Transit’s taxing district have committed themselves to the extension of the Link light rail line from Seattle to Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma. The resurrection-in-spirit of the old interurban line of the Puget Sound Electric Railway, which dutifully linked the two cities between 1902 and 1928, manifested itself through a number of factors: the anguish over limited mobility options between the two cities; increasing congestion and delay; the failure to prioritize bus transit on existing roadways; environmental concerns, and; the pro-transit pull of our region’s growing urban cores. By 2030, a passenger-friendly rail system should again bridge that divide in a manner that no system has since the termination of interurban services nearly 89 years ago. Whatever one may feel regarding ST3, compliments to Sound Transit for this rather extraordinary achievement.

In a high-tech, fast paced region like the Puget Sound, however, the ±70 minute travel times between the two cities will eventually prove unsatisfactory; indeed, the primitive interurban had precisely 70 minute trip times scheduled, too, including padding, for their express services in 1922 (a separate, undated timecard details 65 to 75 minute express services). Damningly, this was achieved on a notably longer pioneer alignment that began on Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square and ended not on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma, but near old city hall in the crowded central business district. Though our ST3 rail investment will spur growth and positively affect the geography of the region, we are paying an enormous sum of money to establish transit services that are roughly comparable to those conceived in the late 19th century, constructed in the early 20th, and dismantled a few decades thereafter.

The SPIRE rail modernization plan was initially a 2015 reaction to the numerous technical criticisms of the Link extension toward Tacoma. It was a proposal that conveyed a potent message: despite the price and the press, Sound Transit’s multi-billion dollar rail plan was neither the visionary nor intelligent plan needed. Unfortunately, the SPIRE’s best mechanism for financing died with the passage of ST3, considering the core of its alignment rests entirely within the taxing district, and the existing services utilizing its right-of-way for their operations are already wildly popular. In the future, with rail service between Commencement and Elliott bays underway and Sound Transit largely working to pay down huge debts, it seems unlikely that a majority of voters would agree to a major upgrade of rail services on the heavy rail mainlines parallel to the Link corridor.

Consequently, the future genesis of the SPIRE plan will likely have to come in the shape of rail investments in the Cascades corridor to Portland, Oregon, representing a multi-state and/or federal effort to deliver quality express services to the region. Such an effort will be mandatory, in fact, should we ever insist on regional trains that travel at speeds swifter than 90mph (145kmh). That figure is the strict BNSF speed cap for passenger trains, with or without positive train control (PTC). Now, with the following improvements rendering the plan even more rational and executable, the Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia core of any higher speed rail project would almost certainly be the SPIRE line proposed here. Alternative alignments would cost billions more and require a dismaying planning process, the entirety of it vulnerable to collapse due to local politics and eminent domain battles.


When originally proposed by this blog, the SPIRE plan was to feature routine operating speeds of 125mph (200kmh) on largely tangent track between Tacoma and Seattle, with antiquated curves widened to a minimum 6235ft (1900m) accordingly. However, multiple issues arose from this choice: grade crossings were required by law to be eliminated, raising costs dramatically; numerous homes, or even neighborhoods, were destroyed for some curve improvements; the speeds were unrealistically high for corridor commuter trains and had no real impact on lowering travel times, and; it failed to take advantage of higher equilibrium cants, in essence the sum of the tilt of the rails and the distance value of how fast a train can travel around curves before distress. The higher speed was a benefit to express travelers, though. Unfortunately, express trains were never meant to be the focus of the SPIRE plan.

Modifications, which are presented below, lower the maximum speed to 100mph (160kmh) on track with 10in (254mm) of equilibrium cant, or 110mph (175kmh) on 12in (304.8mm). To accommodate these speeds, curves are widened to a far more sympathetic 3935ft (1200m), sparing numerous homes, businesses and streets from condemnation and destruction. On the express track from Auburn to Tukwila, and on the new passenger-dedicated tracks from Tukwila to Georgetown, top speeds may remain at their original 125mph (200kmh) cap should investments be made to eliminate or avoid grade crossings on those stretches. As this blog has argued before, grade crossing elimination should be a safety priority for the region whether-or-not the SPIRE plan is realized, especially in the valley cities of Kent, Auburn, Sumner and Puyallup.

The speed update to the SPIRE plan allows for a piecemeal grade separation of the corridor—if at all—as the lower speeds no longer legally compel such a separation. While this does substantially lower the cost and complication of the project, it allows for the nuisance of approaching train horns to continue largely unabated.

This SPIRE update also includes a dramatically more precise measurement of rights-of-way based on technical standards from the California High Speed Rail Authority, BNSF, Deutsche Bahn, the Israeli Railways, LTD., amongst others. Elevation contours provided by the city of Seattle, and Pierce and King counties, also were useful in determining the location of critical civil works. This provides us further confidence in the strong technical feasibility of the SPIRE plan, for both the passenger and freight corridors. Roughly all prominent physical features along the railroad rights-of-way, with the exception of utilities, are now identified based on their likely impact.

Additional modifications concern new research and awareness into specific planning issues:

1) The Stampede Pass rail link to the freight corridor is now achieved via graded fill and bridges, rather than trenching. Geotechnical issues related to the water table precluded trenching, as did impacts to adjacent roadways and bridges (pg. 15).

2) A lengthy tunnel is no longer supported though Tacoma; instead, the current alignment is improved with widened curves, affecting some local streets while avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars on civil works under a busy urban zone (pg. 27).

3) Highway columns, especially on the new I-5 Puyallup River Bridge, were incorporated into the project and considered during the design. While some curves were altered to circumvent these columns, it is presumed on other, smaller bridges that steel would provide a means to relocate errant columns. On other bridges, still, a rebuild would likely be cogent due to end-of-life estimations (pg. 26).

4) A new alignment is proposed between Tacoma and Puyallup that roughly parallels the existing BNSF right-of-way. While the new alignment does include a modest tunnel, it avoids the evisceration of a neighborhood and spares numerous additional structures on tribal land. The alternative alignment remains in the SPIRE plan maps for consideration (pgs. 22, 25).

5) Near Olympia and Lacey, the Woodland Trail alignment was selected as the preferred option of accessing the center of Olympia, having proven incredibly amenable to express rail infrastructure using 1200m curves. It is now, by far, the best route to serve the people of the south Puget Sound (pgs. 37-41).

6) In Olympia, competitor siting options for the station were discarded for the location along Legion Way. It is far less disruptive than the alternatives, allows for UPRR to continue to access the Olympia port on their operational cargo line, and provides a fine location near both the city center and the capitol (pg. 47).

7) In the Nisqually Valley area, great pains were taken to avoid the destruction of hamlets and farms, all-the-while preserving 200kmh (125mph) speeds that support a high-speed link to Portland, Ore. The interchange from the SPIRE line to a central Washington high-speed line will probably be made in this rural area (pgs. 35-38).

8) Though the map represents a right-of-way capable of accommodating three tracks, the freight corridor is no longer presumed to be triple-track from the outset, but double. While the SPIRE plan will preserve enough space to allow for three mainline tracks on the entirety of the corridor, current daily freight train totals on the UPRR and BNSF do not warrant three active tracks. Only alongside the rail yards in Fife, Auburn and the Tukwila area can we presume that three main tracks will be useful at this time.

9) Now depicted on the maps are the recently constructed third main lines on the BNSF corridor between Auburn and Tukwila, with the intentional gap through Kent (the railroad has had difficulty acquiring property through the area, and it would further require destruction of Kent Station facilities to accommodate the third track). Should the Seattle to Portland passenger rail link be constructed, this section would need the third track to support express services. A third track would also be required south of Tacoma, though the location is undetermined and dependent on currently uncalculated timetable work. This work is underway and the maps will be updated accordingly.

10) A challenging stretch of right-of-way between Tukwila and SODO has been refined to avoid numerous structures, and now incorporates previously unaccounted-for civil works. Tweaks in the alignment have improved the line’s feasibility (pgs. 2-7).

11) Fort Lewis Station has since become Dupont / Fort Lewis Station, having been moved away from the Fort Lewis main gate and toward a more sensible location near Dupont and the fort’s Clark Road gate (pg. 34).

12) The north arrow is now facing up, mercifully.

These improvements, as well as the precision updates to track geometry, will allow us to better understand the impacts of the intelligent SPIRE proposal on our region. Furthermore, simple budgets and timetable string graphs are now able to be completed, providing us a much clearer picture of how transformational these rail services would be on our mobility and urban geography.

From here, I’ll let my plan speak for itself. I welcome scrutiny and constructive criticism.

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The Upgrading of Our Regional Rail System Is Now Called the SPIRE Plan; Poster Included.

NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled The Upgrading of Our Regional Rail System Is Now Called the SPIRE Plan. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.



In an effort to consolidate the many critical pieces of the Seattle-Tacoma (-Olympia) rail modernization project into one digestible concept for the public, I would like to introduce some helpful branding into the conversation: the SPIRE Plan.

It is an acronym for Seattle, Puget Sound, Intercity Railway Express. It is a vision for a rail based future that invigorates both our economy and our population.

For those within Sound Transit’s taxing authority—especially those living south of Seattle and who are dedicated to improving transportation options in a systematic, meaningful manner—the SPIRE plan is the mechanism through which our transportation ground game is revolutionized.

The SPIRE plan is the reorganization and enhancement of our local rail infrastructure that, incredibly(!), already exists. It would serve historic communities like Kent and Puyallup, cities with good urban bones, all of which are primed for new infill development and additional residents.

With up to 350 daily passenger trains at full build-out between Seattle and Tacoma, traveling safely at maximum speeds of 120mph, the social geography of the Puget Sound would be forever altered in powerful, transformational ways. Additionally, it places higher speed rail service to central Olympia directly at our fingertips, and it accomplishes this through a logical exploitation of existing resources. Key to the plan’s success is the diversion of all freight trains to an adjacent and parallel railroad line, thereby streamlining heavy freight operations into and out of our major ports and urban areas.

The SPIRE plan is absolutely doable, politically and technically, but only when we make the responsible planning, legislative, and funding choices that pave the way toward its realization.

By comparison, the planned Link light rail extension into Tacoma is the epitome of planned obsolescence. Not only does it build redundant rail infrastructure to poorly considered stations in low density auto-sprawl areas, it endangers actual quality plans with more deliverable timeframes, and which possess far more potential to positively affect regional mobility.

The SPIRE plan is one such proposal, a no-brainer commitment to incrementally upgrade our rail network to a world class standard, and which is fed riders by a suburban bus rapid transit system that stretches into the hinterland.  Ultimately, we could tie a region together via swift, reliable, high-capacity transportation. We could construct a passenger rail spine that is truly worthy of financial capital, political capital, and our collective admiration.

Do you want swift, electric, frequent, and reliable passenger trains serving Seattle, Tacoma and beyond? Do you agree that our freight railways are an integral part of our transportation system? Do you wish to protect our cities by diverting dangerous freight cargoes away from their city centers? Do you want to eliminate every dangerous and traffic-plagued railroad crossing from our regional map?

If so, only one proposal could ever deliver those transformation results.

That proposal is the SPIRE plan.





Our Regional Rail Future Already Exists, Awaits Investment.

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.



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.

ST3 is Not the Way Forward.

NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled Sound Transit 3 is Not the Way Forward. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.


If you had listened closely, you might have heard a collective gasp as Sound Transit unveiled the draft ST3 plan on March 24, 2016.

While the public may have been expecting a higher tax bill in order to provide the agency some financial wiggle room, especially as it tackles Seattle’s notorious congestion, few seemed prepared for the three-way collision that is borne out of enormous capital costs being paid down by a limited number of taxpayers through funds that are restricted by borrowing stipulations long ago codified into law. The reaction was immediate and shocked.

The consequence of this collision, it was discovered, are wildly extended project delivery timeframes for most of the major proposals. To the great many who were blindsided by the figures, these 25-year delivery estimations, which are vulnerable to further delay due to political whims and a reliance on generous federal funding, are simply unacceptable. Indeed, for a region clamoring for solutions now, they are certainly unacceptable.

Worse, a more in-depth review of the component plans for any potential ST3 package reveals that, for the necessary purposes of relieving congestion and expanding mass transit coverage for its constituents, Sound Transit is treading the entirely wrong path and is no longer advancing toward a particularly useful transportation system for the masses.

Many of the criticisms that are being levelled against the individual plans or overall scheme have been made before, notably on my very blog (here). They include:

1) The promotion of wasteful spending due to the funding structure of Sound Transit that mandates sub-area funding equity, despite the great inequities in worthiness between more cost-effective Seattle projects and less cost-effective suburban projects.

2) A political aversion to the most sensible corridors for investment with rail transit, based on census population and employment data, or other fine information sources;

3) A cannibalization of existing, parallel services by new light rail infrastructure, and a failure to consider alternatives that could provide similar, or even far better, transit services at a lower cost;

4) A strong emphasis on suburban commuting and single-occupancy vehicle parking at the expense of quality urban growth, and;

5) The failure to perform cost & benefits analyses to properly determine the worthiness of infrastructure projects before being put out to a vote, let alone whether they are remotely cost-effective, amongst others criticisms.

That the rail proposals of ST3 often lengthen commute times and force transfers onto riders who previously enjoyed speedier, direct bus journeys, is only now coming into stark relief as the details of the light rail program become more refined.

After considering the high-costs and elongated delivery schedules, many are asking why they should bear the burden of higher taxation for what may prove to be a significant degradation in the typical transit commute. Additionally, many doubt that a single, slower (albeit more reliable) rail corridor parallel to Interstate 5 could do anything to combat congestion for the grand majority of commuters. This is a legitimate skepticism that is worthy of a detailed response by public officials and other proponents.

Presumably, Sound Transit would argue that its objective is not to solve the congestion issue that generates so much ire here, but rather provide alternatives to single-occupancy commuting in the auto-oriented Puget Sound. To some extent, Link light rail would accomplish that goal, sure. However, this singular focus on the massive expansion of the light rail program siphons valuable political capital away from far more cost-effective and deliverable infrastructure investments that would benefit both the popular ST Express bus and Sounder commuter rail services. These are services that presently move tens of thousands of commuters each day, and which would be negatively impacted by the expansion of light rail, one-way-or-another. To ignore these services and expand Link light rail instead would be a mistake.

Critics of this perspective are well reasoned when they declare that the winds of momentum appear to be lifting the sails of light rail, and that now is better than tomorrow when deciding to act. These are fair, if not entirely sensible, points.

But Seattle will not wilt should light rail never be extended to the Tacoma Dome, much as it has not wilted without light rail to areas within its very urban core, most notably Belltown, Uptown, First Hill and South Lake Union. Indeed, Manhattan Island has done just fine for the last eighty years without the Second Avenue subway plying that busy corridor, though it may likely be the most anticipated, fundamental rapid transit project in the world (despite even its reprehensible cost to New Yorkers).

Seattle should never build transit for transit’s sake, let alone bad transit of limited usefulness. Simply because it runs on rails or carries more people than a car does not render massive new spending worthwhile. Indeed, huge investments that generate zero meaningful change, or do little to alter the commute mode-share in favor of transit may, in fact, poison the well that supports future infrastructure investment. Why support an agency that, after spending billions in public funds, has to continually ask for more to repeatedly address the very same problems? Eventually, there would be a revolt.

What, then, is the alternative?

First, let us never rush into poor investments that will have to be paid off over decades. We know better.

Second, we should acknowledge and better understand the mutually-exclusive transportation needs that reflect the suburban and urban divide of the Puget Sound region.

Central Seattle needs reliable transit coverage through its urban core that extends well into the neighborhoods, the most densely populated of which could be served by some form of rail transit with urbane station spacing (especially if costs are kept in check). Otherwise, bus rapid-transit and local bus services should provide the desired coverage across the city’s difficult terrain.

Conversely, the suburbs require express services that have far greater station spacing, if not point-to-point services, that take full advantage of the inherent flexibility of bus rapid-transit and the speeds and reliablility of trunk-line commuter rail service. This provides suburbanites who have been pushed to the fringes in search of affordable housing direct and convenient access to the job centers of the region. Not only is the cost-effectiveness of bus rapid-transit in complex suburban areas without parallel, there exist strong social justice arguments in their favor due to their relative affordability, their increase in transit area coverage, and their far more executable infrastructure investments that exploit existing roadway systems. Commuter rail fills in the gaps between the region’s most prominent suburban communities and our main centers of commerce and culture.

Unfortunately, bus rapid-transit has not had the faddish, thirty year, multi-billion dollar backing that light rail has enjoyed in the Puget Sound. That does not mean cost-effective bus transit proposals warrant dismissal, especially when they are a slam dunk for a particular corridor (as they would be on Interstate 5, or to West Seattle from Downtown). And while specific investments in bus infrastructure are yet to be determined as a consequence of this improper focus on rail to everywhere, we nonetheless can see during our daily commute what is needed and where. That is, lane exclusivity for transit; new on and off-ramps reserved solely for transit; increased headways with buses of greater capacity; meaningful upgrades to bus facilities, in particular level boarding platforms and on-site ticketing machines; the establishment of key travel corridors, and; reliability improvements where necessary to move the hundreds of thousands of daily bus riders, even to the detriment of single-occupancy motorists.

And if it truly is an impossibility to reserve just a single lane in each direction for transit exclusivity, alongside the many others, maybe the problem of congestion is not overly problematic at all, and certainly it must mean it is not critical enough to require massive expenditures into new railroad lines.

Finally, before we even begin to build new lines for slow, commuter light rail services, we must begin the effort to secure the BNSF right-of-way between Tukwila and Tacoma Dome Station. The process of improving this corridor for world-class passenger service will be lengthy and pricey, but it promises to be far more valuable than the parasitic light rail program a few miles west, and overall more affordable relative to its impact on mobility within the South Sound.

Sounder services and infrastructure could be upgraded in meaningful phases as funding becomes available. Each new upgrade would deliver a dramatically enhanced service to a rail line that has enormous potential to bridge our region in unique and profound ways. It is entirely technically feasible as has been documented on this blog (here and here); the investment takes full advantage of existing rail resources and eliminates redundancy in our heavy-rail infrastructure into Seattle; the practice of sharing trackage and joint dispatching between BNSF and UPRR is well developed and even employed on this very corridor, and; the benefits of ownership are transformational, especially when combined with an urbanization of our land use patterns in Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila, and perhaps Georgetown.

So, yes, credible alternatives do exist and are waiting to be evaluated and refined. The politics of both may be fraught with hurdles, but given the thirty year gestation period that has been afforded to light rail, not to mention the money, they are certainly achievable. The Puget Sound just needs to ensure that our civic institutions have the proper political structure to begin to identify and plan for them. Arguably, this is the greatest failing of Sound Transit in 2016.

Ultimately, the enormous capital and operational costs of a new light railroad are not justifiable when commuter rail alternatives presently exist and, also, bus rapid-transit opportunities are similarly unexplored. This is especially true for areas that have long been averse to new rail infrastructure, or have failed to fund their skeletal local bus transit systems. Furthermore, we should reject the funding structure of an agency that has delivered a set of projects with a genesis in wasteful spending.

We can do better—we must do better—and it starts by rejecting ST3.

LRT vs. BRT to West Seattle: A Mapped Comparison.

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.

The Olympia Rail Extension: A Mapped Plan.

NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled Fast Trains to Olympia: A Mapped, Annotated Extension Proposal. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.


Olympia, the seat of government for Washington State, is sited at the southwestern edge of the urbanized Puget Sound region. While the politicking inside the statehouse may directly affect the other cities of the region, Olympia is not otherwise well connected to them. Including the bus commute on Interstate 5, a ride that is frequently halted by worsening congestion, Washington State’s economic, political and social centers remain unlinked by any reliable, frequent and swift mode of public transportation.

It does not have to be this way.

The Tacoma to Seattle core rail line endeavors to close the most critical gap within the region. It does so sensibly by eliminating mainline redundancy and utilizing existing rights-of-way; by improving rail capacity for cargo trains that have been diverted away from our city centers, and; by building smart, new infrastructure to link the two cities and their suburbs together in a single, urban, high-speed line.

In much the same way, the extension from Tacoma to Olympia will also capitalize on existing infrastructural resources, and similarly employ the best passenger railroad engineering practices of Western Europe to achieve a uniform speed profile of 200kmh (125mph). This is the overall system’s design standard, with the only exceptions being the last few kilometers into Olympia and Seattle’s city center terminals, or those segments where top-speeds are higher.

Some have already questioned the merit of a line to Olympia. Indeed, after decades of malinvestment into the region’s railroad network, and even dismantling quite a bit of it, the capital costs of the project, as-of-yet not calculated, will be substantial. However, to discount a project whose cost should have been evenly distributed over the decades is irresponsible and short-sighted. Railways have not been afforded the same generosity as has our regional highway network.

Consequently, it is even more imperative to thoroughly review and understand the benefits of any such extension.

One, and perhaps most fundamentally, the extension would further transform mobility in the Puget Sound region and upend current notions of distance and geography. Following another on-time departure from King Street Station’s stub tracks in central Seattle, for example, a businessman could arrive at an Olympia Station just eight blocks from where his meeting will be held inside the Capitol Building, and do so roughly twice as fast as driving—likely far more quickly should the interstate not be having a rare free-flowing day. Distance becomes unimportant when high-speed trains are your preferred mode of travel, exposing formerly ignored real estate to investment opportunity from sources across a newly connected region.

Two, as new BRT and streetcar lines are developed and improved bike and pedestrian systems connect with the high-speed line at its stations, the vast majority of the region’s populace will finally be offered a real alternative to driving for the first time since the commencement of the Automobile Age.

Three, the segment of the line between Fort Lewis Station and Lacey Station is designed to accommodate true high-speed trains traveling upwards of 300kmh (185mph). Responsible planning dictates us to prepare for a time when much of the extension is incorporated into the Central Washington High-Speed Line to Portland, Oregon, rendering the final miles of trackage into Downtown Olympia merely a spur. In other words, the extension to Olympia must be seen as the initial segment of a true high-speed line linking the primary cities of the Pacific Northwest. This proposal has us securing the critical urban rights-of-way now before urban sprawl and poor planning eradicate these limited, very precious resources.

Lastly, four, while the construction of any rail line will undoubtedly pollute, their subsequent operation will generate dramatically fewer toxins than their vehicular counterparts. With high-speed electric trains, the comparison becomes even more pronounced. Confronted with worsening congestion, deteriorating air quality, poor mobility and city centers stifled by underinvestment, the Puget Sound has extraordinary potential to recast itself as one of the most resilient and sustainable metropolitan areas of the world through this rail improvement plan.

The Olympia Extension could play a major role within this transformation.

Measured to within mere feet of inaccuracy, this project is technically feasible. All that is required now is the political will to begin establishing the sole rail spine of a rapidly growing region.

From here, I’ll let my plan speak for itself. I welcome scrutiny and constructive criticism.

A Mapped Plan for Transforming the Seattle-Tacoma Rail Network.

NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled Improving Rail Mobility in the Puget Sound: A Mapped, Annotated Plan.  It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.


This plan is not intended to improve intra-Seattle mobility. In fact, unlike that of Link Light Rail, the objective of this plan is clear: to provide rapid mass transit between the region’s cities as affordably, efficiently and as swiftly as possible.

I introduce Link into the discussion because Sound Transit is currently extending Link Light Rail southward from Seattle to Tacoma. Link is envisioned as being the region’s new passenger rail spine. With a brand new political alignment, it will be expensive, serve sprawled areas, and be unacceptably slow as it attempts to perform a role better suited for intercity trains.

While much of the final alignment is undetermined, it is quite possible, if not probable, that the routing of the new railroad will be politically expedient and ultimately lacking in the qualities that define world-class transportation systems. With a skeptical eye, we can already see the planted seeds of a new, BART-like system that disappoints more than it engenders praise; indeed, it threatens to be a mediocre system that does not meet any reasonable metric for high-capacity, rapid transit excellence.

Already, the Link Light Rail line south of Seattle features numerous sharp curves and an alignment panned by astute transit planners and critics. At full build out to Tacoma, a worst case scenario sees the line running in the median of Interstate 5 for miles to serve suburban park-and-ride stops sited away from the sprawled centers that Link should be serving. These are the same suburban centers that urgently need to densify. This worst case scenario is not hyperbole.

Incredibly, despite the massive investment that will have been made to build the line, which already costs at least $5 billion (when including projected costs only to Federal Way, and not including existing infrastructure like the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel), the trains will never achieve trip time parity with that of the wildly popular ST Express buses that currently use busy, parallel I-5. Ridership per mileage will be low and maintenance costs will rise for a Link Light Rail that gets you around the corridor reliably, albeit far too slowly for such a prominent and wealthy region.

For the expenses to be paid and effort expended, we should expect better. We deserve better.

There is an alternative.

While Sound Transit puts all of its eggs in the Link basket, betting it all on a new alignment and operating technology wholly unsuitable for swift regional mobility, Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter train popularly operates a nearby corridor without any intense focus from the agency (or from Puget Sound area voters that influence our transportation agenda). The South Line, as it is called, is actually the BNSF mainline between Seattle and Tacoma and hosts, courtesy of expensive, rented time slots, ten round-trip Sounder trains each day. For a two-track line already running 50-60 freight trains daily, it has several real, complex problems: Sounder speeds are limited to roughly 20mph faster than the quickest freight train, artificially capping speeds and significantly disrupting freight traffic; passenger operations are restricted to a frustratingly brief window of time during the rush hours, and there is no weekend service; onerously heavy diesel locomotives and passenger cars are required by federal law because of the mixed traffic, rendering impossible the acceleration, deceleration and top-speed standards that a modern passenger railroad should attempt to meet; platforms are low due to an antiquated state law and railroad policy that prohibits taller platforms, rendering illegal the level boarding of passengers that is a necessity for precision scheduling, and; well, you get the drift. This is not a world-class operation. Sounder commuter trains are merely freight trains in passenger train clothing, and which also happen to carry people.

However, Sounder commuter trains have an incredible asset that render its otherwise mediocre service quite exceptional: an arrow straight alignment that serves many historic, fine-grained cities in the central Puget Sound, allowing for run times that are respectably fast—oftentimes faster than the bus, and occasionally even driving.

My plan is the securing of this right-of-way for the deserving public, and its subsequent upgrading into world-class electric railway infrastructure featuring a modern passenger operation.

The cost will be billions and the politics likely complicated.

Crucially, it will require triple tracking one of two railroad mainlines into Seattle to radically increase its low track capacity, which will be followed up with a seamless diversion of all freight traffic to it. This corridor, currently owned by the UPRR, would become a freight-dedicated corridor that is to be shared and jointly managed with BNSF. The two railroads already jointly dispatch shared corridors in the United States, so there exists an established template for cooperation. Once built, never again would a passenger train delay cargo traveling between Seattle and Tacoma. The corridor will also be grade separated, eradicating dangerous roadway crossings from the regional map. As a bonus, also eliminated is the majority of the noise pollution generated by honking trains rolling across roadways, once and for all neutralizing a nuisance of a federal mandate. For those living near crossings, real estate values might rise (and they undoubtedly would for those near the BNSF line).

The capital cost to triple-track the UPRR will be substantial, but not prohibitive: the existing rail corridor easily accommodates the one or two extra tracks with utterly zero takings of property. Only existing road crossings would be affected; however, the grade separation of both the BNSF and UPRR rail corridor should be done anyway, whether or not this plan is realized. In fact, a significant portion of the expense of this project is attributable to upgrades that should have already been completed. Railway malinvestment in the Puget Sound will force the capital costs of this reasonable project to be higher. Ultimately, the opportunity cost for not making these investments—investments that free up the BNSF line for a strictly public use, a major win for citizens—would be tremendous.

Besides widened curves, the most impacting change will be the relocation of the Auburn Yard to a site near the Emerald Downs racetrack, also in Auburn. This is the most suitable location for a large rail yard on the new freight corridor. Without this new facility, old Auburn Yard continues to exist and perform its critical function of storing freight trains waiting for their travel slot into Seattle. It is imperative to note that any mixed traffic on the BNSF line is the undoing of this plan, and the public would need to settle for a drastically reduced quality of passenger service (think Utah’s Frontrunner as opposed to commuter sections on the Dutch national network). However, should the yard be relocated, and should a trench be dug connecting the Stampede Pass rail line to the freight corridor, every significant BNSF rationale for holding onto the line, besides its financial value and historical importance, would be eliminated. With a direct purchase or favorable agreement, we can divert freight trains onto the shared corridor, remove toxic cargos from our city centers, and take over a railroad line primed for hauling people.

Dependent upon the quality of service the public expects—with this plan offering a fine balance between affordability and operational excellence—all, some, or none of the plan can be constructed. This vision specifies top-speeds of 125mph using off-the-shelf electric trains that have terrific top-speed, deceleration and acceleration specifications. The trains would tilt to maintain comfort on highly super-elevated curves. The curves on the right-of-way themselves would be widened to accommodate world-class urban speeds. A passenger-dedicated section north of Tukwila would be constructed on a largely greenfield alignment to overcome geographic constraints and heavy freight traffic, starting just before the location where the BNSF & UPRR corridors rejoin for their final jaunt into Seattle on historically shared right-of-way.

Simply possessing the BNSF corridor would drastically improve commuter service in the region. However, it must be noted that the type of service levels envisioned in this plan require dedicated tracks and the standard electrification and signaling systems of advanced passenger railroads. Without the tracks the line is partially shared with numerous freight trains, and the constant disruption to all trains would be a never ending reminder that the business goals of freight and passenger are often mutually exclusive. Without the electrification and signaling, precluded is the scheduling of a world-class passenger service. Should such choices be made in the interest of politics, money or time, the rail line will never be world-class, will never provide a future connection to a high-speed rail line to Portland, Oregon, and will eventually fail to meet growing service demands in an expanding region. This could be our shot to get it right the first time, or risk having our children paying far more for new capacity later.

Best yet, it would catalyze the rejuvenation of the historic cities of the corridor, all of which have urbane street grids from the pioneer era that would become logical places to densify. These cities demand recognition. These are cities deserving of new infrastructure, of new investment, of new citizens and new vitality. Urban life here would fundamentally change with grade separation and the eradication of railroad noise pollution, to say nothing of fast, frequent service to the area’s biggest job centers. It would allow for the flowering of central Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn and Kent, even as their cores already experience healthy growth. It would be a reward for sensible development patterns.

Truly, the most responsible plan for regional rail mobility is not the one Sound Transit is struggling to iron out, but the one already in existence and time-tested, just waiting for its moment to transform. Very technically feasible, all that is needed is political and civic will. Never involving a courtroom, the key players in this plan would reach consensus through negotiation. The quid pro quo nature of the plan would generate agreement between the railroads and the government as it satisfies all parties equally.

While this alignment includes new-build track miles, the majority of it already exists and awaits meaningful public investment. Instead of building an entirely new line, a pointless and wildly expensive endeavor, this plan best utilizes the region’s resources, eliminates redundancy, and delivers the goods affordably and efficiently. We could do this.

From here, I’ll let my maps speak for themselves. I welcome feedback and constructive criticism.