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Last year I was in Olympia for transportation lobby day and I heard something absolutely stupefying. A State Senator advocated for light rail on the Sammamish Plateau. My thought at the time was that a streetcar would be more than enough to serve all of Sammamish transit needs for the foreseeable future. Since then I have learned a great deal about different transit technologies and how the geography of Sammamish makes implementation difficult.
How steep the hills are, both going up to the plateau and internally in the city of Sammamish, precludes all streetcars and cheaper surface light rail alignments (many steep areas are over a 9% grade and some points over 15%). The alternative in my view is a gondola which would uniquely serve trips between Sammamish and Bellevue.
Why Serve Sammamish?
At first glance Sammamish seems to be the exact opposite of the kind of community one would want to serve with transit. It is not dense, nor walkable, bikeable, transit dependent or lower income. People tend to live in houses with two car garages and drive everywhere. An aerial picture of Sammamish could be in the dictionary next to the word sprawl.
The problem is that Sammamish is not going to go away anytime soon. Right now they have a surplus, “AAA” rated bonds and host national events at Sahalee CC (Most recently the 2010 U.S. Senior Open). Furthermore they are part of Sound Transit’s tax district and will feel entitled to some transit in the future. Indeed the Eastside members of the Sound Transit board are already advocating for them to get better coverage in the long range plan.
It’s a matter of opportunity costs in my view. Assuming that people continue to live there and we must serve them with transit, then we want to serve them with high quality transit, so that they won’t feel the need to advocate for more expensive options like Light Rail or high quality BRT.
What are Sammamish’s Transit Problems?
Immediately the problem is that the current transit situation is awful. The 927 was providing the only midday service to Sammamish and only served the center of the city on 2 hour headways because of having two tails. It was the kind of slow, circuitous and infrequent route that gives transit a bad name. However now that it is gone there is a gap between 10AM and 3PM, and on weekends, where there is no service at all. This is a problem because it strands the young, poor and transit dependent people of Sammamish. (I know they exist because I was one.)
Other buses currently serve the area. The 216, 217, 218 are peak expresses to Seattle via I-90. The 554 operates as an early morning and late night alternative for those moving in the peak direction. The only local is the 269 which goes between Microsoft’s campus in Overlake and Issaquah TC. As the core bus service in the area the 269 ought to run all day at reasonable frequencies. However 269 improvements won’t satisfy Sammamish residents. (Also the 269 must be a hard route on the buses due to the hills involved.)
The alternatives to local buses are constrained by geography. The grades are a problem I’ve already mentioned, another problem is the lake. As the crow flies Crossroads mall is the closest to central Sammamish. But Redmond and Issaquah are faster trips because Lake Sammamish creates an over 7 mile gap in east-west transportation.
So what Sammamish needs is a transit system unconstrained by steep grades, that can hook it into Link and Metro’s frequent bus network (such as Rapidride B), and ideally provide a way to bridge this transportation gap as cost effectively as possible. I think a 3S gondola on the route shown above could do that.
Benefits of a Gondola
The proposed gondola would travel from Sammamish, with a station around NE 8th ST and 228th Ave, to Crossroads Mall, with a station at about NE 8th ST and 156th and from there it would continue to Downtown Bellevue going few degrees south at each tower in order to get to Downtown Bellevue Link Station.
The station vicinity in Sammamish has a grocery store, several apartment complexes (one being the only current mixed use area in Sammamish), a teen center, and even some townhouses.
Along the way the gondola would cross Lake Sammamish requiring a span between towers of slightly less than 3 KM (about 1.85 miles); which while an impressive distance, is slightly shorter than the tower distance on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola at Whistler.
Because a 3S gondola is required for the cross lake span, you also get the benefits of the higher speeds. The travel time from Sammamish to Crossroads (assuming a gondola run at 18 MPH) would be cut down to 15 minutes and Sammamish to Downtown Bellevue would be 26 minutes.
Compare this to the current fastest bus trip of 49 minutes from Bellevue TC to Sammamish with most trips being closer to an hour. Also compare 46 minutes from Crossroads mall to Sammamish with most trips taking an 1 and 10 minutes or more. Even the Crossroads to Downtown Bellevue time of 9 mins is faster than the B Line which is can get point to point in 15 minutes and usually takes around 20.
In simpler terms it doesn’t matter how much faster the buses go (in a potential Sammamish BRT system) because they have to go around the lake. Even against driving the gondola is faster between Sammamish and Crossroads Mall and time competitive to Downtown Bellevue and probably faster if there’s traffic on I-405.
The last wonderful thing about gondolas is they are remarkably cost effective. The Peak 2 Peak Gondola was only $57 Million. Of course the Sammamish Gondola would be on a different scale entirely, it would be more than twice as long, feature an intermediate station and would have to account for land acquisition costs for towers (likely over a dozen of them), air rights over property owners (including wealthy lakeside homeowners) and lawsuits from people who don’t like the idea of a gondola going over their (previously) private suburban houses.
This project would cheap enough to be done as a joint effort by the cities of Bellevue and Sammamish and cost efficient enough to be done by Sound Transit. The strengths of gondolas makes them ideal for projects that no other kind of transit can handle.
Special thanks to gondola expert enthusiast and all around good guy Matt Gangemi for his help in writing this.