Why Link Will Cross I-90 First

above: a representation of why I-90 is a better choice

I’d imagine a fair portion of the people who read this blog already know some or all of these reasons that Link is going over I-90 before it goes over SR-520, but I thought I’d enumerate them for easy linking and just to fill in any holes.

I-90 offers a direct connection to the downtown Seattle transit tunnel. If you looked at my earlier tour of Central Link construction, I had a google maps link to the south transit tunnel entrance – you can see there the two tracks we’ve built, plus the space to either side where feeder tracks join with the I-90 center roadway. This kind of a connection offers us the opportunity to interline service – both trains going to the airport (or farther) and trains going to the eastside will come into downtown from the south and run on the same tracks in the tunnel.

It so happens that demand for the northern line (Northgate) is very close to the combined demand for an eastside line and a south line, so having East Link enter the tunnel from the south means that our commute patterns will much more efficiently use our infrastructure. This is also the big reason we didn’t pick buses for building from Seattle to Bellevue – they couldn’t efficiently interline with North Link to increase capacity there.

If we were to cross 520, we’d have two choices, both of them bad: One, we could build a surface level station to transfer at Husky Stadium, and force a transfer for commuters to already full trains coming in from Northgate. We’d create crush loaded trains. The other option would be to build a direct connection into the tunnel toward downtown – which would cost hundreds of millions on its own, potentially have large construction impacts on a residential area, and could be risky due to the depth. Such work would probably also delay University Link.

Even ignoring the capacity and technical issues in Seattle, the eastside would have a problem of its own. 520 is significantly north of downtown Bellevue, so trains would have to turn south first to serve the Bellevue downtown core, then north again to get to Redmond. When using I-90, we don’t have to go out of our way to serve south Bellevue, and the time between downtowns is lower.

Issaquah poses another problem with a 520 crossing.. We’re already planning to build to Redmond, but if we chose 520, later construction to Issaquah (part of the Sound Transit long range plan) would really necessitate an I-90 crossing anyway. With an initial I-90 crossing, it’s much simpler to continue east in or near the interstate right of way.

A 520 crossing would also impose any delays attached to construction of the new SR-520 bridge on Sound Transit’s schedule. The risk added by working with WSDOT on the project would likely also make Sound Transit less competitive for Federal Transit Administration grants.

All this, and I-90’s center roadway was built with conversion to high capacity transit in mind. I think it’s always been the clear choice, but hopefully this convinces more people who were worried about the decision!

More Madness from Montlake Multimillionaires

Update: I am an ass. I looked at this op-ed and thought of what I have seen of the Pacific Interchange project and what was going on at the beginning of the SR-520 alternatives selection, and it came across to me as rich people against transit – something we’ve been seeing a lot of lately in this region. It turns out I was totally off base, and I apologize to Jonathan Dubman and Rob Wilkinson for the following piece, which I will leave up so that people can continue to lambast me in the comments.

In actuality, it seems like these guys really do want to improve transit, and at least Mr. Dubman uses it, and while I disagree with them that this would be a good use of Sound Transit money this round, I see the utility of the project eventually. I’m still concerned that this would drastically change the routing and availability of the buses that use 520 and start from I-5, and I still think it’s far more useful to use North King or East King money to extend light rail, especially because we can’t build Snohomish light rail until we get North King built out.

But this post was out of line, and I’m sorry about that. I wish the best to both of you authors in becoming multimillionaires, and I hope we can be allies even though I’m a jerk. Mr. Dubman, thanks for replying and setting me straight, and thank you jamesk for making me say “uh-oh” and go have a second google.

Today’s Times makes me cringe with a sneaky op-ed by two Montlake Multimillionaires who have worked hard for years to undermine the SR-520 bridge replacement and HOV project, and now want to bring their delaying tactics to light rail in a sad attempt to keep a bad idea alive.

The gist of it is that these guys do not care one whit about transit, but want money for their pet project. They spearheaded the “Pacific Interchange” alternative for the SR-520 bridge replacement, with the aim of getting commuters (outsiders!) out of their once-elite neighborhood by building flyover ramps from 520 to Husky Stadium. They already lost that battle – WSDOT chose the six lane alternative (the same two general purpose we have now, with an extension of the HOV lanes all the way to I-5), and these jokers think they can get their project back with Sound Transit money.

Their myopic view ignores the region’s actual commute patterns. They point out that an uncongested express bus trip takes 14 minutes from Montlake to Microsoft – but (intentionally) ignore the fact that the vast majority of commuters at Montlake are not coming from the immediate neighborhood – they’re coming from Capitol Hill, the UW, Ballard, Roosevelt, and Wallingford neighborhoods, among others. They say the trip from Husky Stadium to Microsoft on Link would be 41 minutes – but ignore the fact that someone living near Roosevelt or Capitol Hill stations would still have a shorter commute boarding there than transferring to the bus at Montlake, and someone at Brooklyn might just take the train for the convenience of a one-seat ride. I would personally save time by boarding at Roosevelt than using my current bus down to Montlake.

The claims here by our Montlake Multimillionaires (who have probably never even taken a bus across the bridge) are stretched, if not simply bogus. Taking money from East Link to get commuters out of their neighborhood would be a horrible use of public funds. This is another example of fake transit support – these people claim to be really interested in “bus rapid transit”, but take a layer off the onion and you see they have another agenda entirely. When they pitch this kind of thing to the Laurelhurst Community Club, they even suggest that their direct access ramps could later become “high occupancy toll” roads so the rich can avoid the Montlake interchange.


Metro still hasn’t released anything about Ballard or Aurora RapidRide, but tidbits continue to drip out in the P-I:

If adopted, the proposals would bring wider sidewalks and an end to the center turn lane to a 35-block-long stretch of Aurora Avenue from North 110th Street to the Shoreline border, said Rick Sheridan, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. Three lanes would carry traffic in each direction, including one lane reserved for bus and business traffic…

A bus rapid transit line would be included in the redesign. The proposed line would shuttle people into the city’s core with minimal stops and buses coming at 10-minute intervals.

Sheridan said the designs are preliminary and that construction wouldn’t start until 2011 at the earliest.

So it seems that there will be a bus lane for at least part of the Aurora line, much like Ballard. Good.

That makes four of the five RapidRide lines (Ballard, Aurora, W. Seattle, Pacific Highway) that will have at least some portion of the route with a semi-dedicated right-of-way. It’s just the Eastside that gets nothing in this department.

But hey, maybe we can overcome Ron Sims’ objections to East LINK, so that they can get something too.

Search for “RapidRide” in the bar at the top of the page for our other coverage of this topic.

UPDATE 8:46 AM: Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes are explained here.

Image from http://www.metrokc.gov.

Our Slow Construction Will Save Thousands.

For the last few days, we’ve all been reading about the earthquake in China – tens of thousands dead, many more homeless, whole towns destroyed.

There’s speculation that this quake could have been caused by the massive shift in weight caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the addition of millions of tons of water (175 meters, eventually) to an area near the Jiuwanxi and Zigui–Badong fault lines. It is, so far, unclear which fault line caused this quake, and it may not be either of these.

Regardless, though, of what caused the quake, one line about a collapsed school in a horribly depressing (take that as a warning) New York Times article today caught my attention:

One man said officials built two additional stories on the Xinjian school even though it had failed a safety inspection two years ago — allegations that could not be verified.

There are two problems here. One is the obvious – two additional stories on a structure that failed a safety inspection? The other problem is far more insidious – you can’t even check. The result? Hundreds of kids crushed to death.

Every time I tell someone that Link Light Rail will get to Husky Stadium around 2016, I know to expect the immediate response – a complaint that it takes too long. I have a new answer:

In eight years, I’ll probably have a child of my own. Some of my good friends here have kids already who could be going to school on Link. And inevitably, we will wake up to an earthquake one morning – maybe a 7, maybe an 8, but it could devastate our city. As emergency crews are cut off by collapsed fifty year old bridges, and I am running down the street to pull people out of a hundred year old apartment building, the one thing I do not want to worry about is kids on their way to Roosevelt or Franklin on our brand new light rail system.

I don’t feel a need to “speed up” the processes through which we build infrastructure. Public meetings, design reviews, these are all time in which people with knowledge can speak up. The real answer is the same answer to a lot of our problems: We must learn to plan ahead.

Update: I want to add something to this. I know that much of the time taken between, say, now and when U Link opens has to do with the way money is collected. I am not writing about that – I’m writing about the public comment periods, the design reviews, everything that makes more people aware of what’s being built and able to say something. Don’t you suppose that if we were building a Three Gorges Dam here, a group of USGS seismologists might have had something to say? I’m saying that while I’d rather not see East Link delayed or cost more because people in Beaux Arts are NIMBYs, I’m happy to let them complain to the Sound Transit board when it means that someone with a real issue can bring that forward as well.

Clearing Something Up about East Link

The most common reaction I’ve seen, here and elsewhere, to Sound Transit’s plans for East Link light rail is:

“Why wouldn’t they go all the way to Microsoft?”

So, for the answer: They can’t right now, and it’s not really a choice for them because of subarea equity.

You may have heard of this, but for those who aren’t entirely clear on it, let me explain. Subarea equity is part of the state law that created Sound Transit. It requires that Sound Transit collect the same level of taxes in each subarea (of which there are five), and spend the money collected in a given subarea in that same subarea.

It’s a very good thing – Pierce and Snohomish portions of the Sound Transit district wouldn’t vote for their packages if they weren’t assured money collected there would be spent there!

The downside, and the reason Sound Transit can’t “just build to Microsoft,” is simple. If they got more money from the East King subarea, as in, collected a higher tax in that subarea to build that project, they would also have to collect a higher tax in every other subarea. We already know where that goes – post-election polling showed that Proposition 1 failed primarily due to its size. Sound Transit is also prohibited by state law from putting an identical measure (I suspect even one too close) to what they last submitted on the ballot, so changing things really is necessary.

So, before we get all riled up about Sound Transit building to the hospital, let’s step back. Do we want the agency to fail at the ballot again? No, so it can’t be so big that people kill it. Do we want light rail to Microsoft, ever? Yes, and it’s trivial to build an extension the next time around. We’re at least ten years out from opening East Link, so we can probably do it in the meantime – but if we don’t have an East Link to extend, what will we get? Nothing at all.

PS: With a new 520 bridge, there will be HOV lanes the whole way from I-5 to Microsoft. 60-minute 545 commutes will be a thing of the past long before East Link would open anyway.

Gregoire’s 520 Plan: Interesting Positives

As I’m looking over the recently announced 520 plan and discussing it with other transit supporters, something very unlikely seems to come out: Positive effects on future cross-lake transit.

The original 6-lane alternative for 520 would have been built to support light rail later. This really only means making the pontoons wide enough to handle more weight, but the effect it’s had on the cross-lake transit discussion in the wake of Proposition 1’s defeat has been to create sudden interest in building transit across 520 instead of across I-90. This is bad for several reasons – 520 would be much more expensive to engineer, it would be hard to serve both Bellevue and Redmond, and a train transfer at Husky Stadium would reduce ridership and cause commuters into downtown to endure crush loads. I-90 is built to handle rail transit, and because Eastside commuters would come into Seattle from the south, they wouldn’t be forced to cram onto trains already packed with people from North Seattle.

The design change proposed as part of this plan would cut $400 million from the cost of the 520 project. It would narrow the bridge and pontoons: Each lane would go from 12 feet to 11 feet, and future support for light rail would be eliminated. But light rail over 520 isn’t anywhere in near-term planning, and won’t be until well after we build rail to Northgate, the East Link extension and likely a project in the Ballard-West Seattle corridor. By the time we talk about putting rail on 520, any new bridge could already be halfway through its operating lifetime.

Bus transit across 520 to several major destinations already exists. Many daily commuters use these routes for only some of the week – but with tolling going into effect, some of these commuters who have the option of transit can ride more often, possibly reducing congestion. This small shift combined with those who choose to switch from their cars to a cheaper transit trip will also boost cross-lake transit use, making potential ridership for the East Link project higher and more likely to receive Federal Transit Administration grants – and votes here at home.

RTID did have a plan for 520, Viaduct is expensive

Read about the 520 plan here. It’s what they told me earlier this month, but I didn’t completely believe them. It’s basically a lot of tolls and the expectation that the viaduct won’t use much of the state’s special project money.

On the subject of the viaduct, you probably have already heard that Seattle’s Council approved $8.1 million for the study of a surface/transit option. Hopefully Light Rail could be part of the surface transit option, since the cost of a light rail system around there through West Seattle could be comparable to the difference in cost of the surface transit from the rebuild. The difference from the tunnel could pay for a new subway practically .

Project Cost (in millions)
Tunnel $3,600 to $4,100
Rebuild $3,200 to $3,500
Surface Roads ~$1,600
East Link Light Rail to Downtown Bellevue $1,465.2 to $1,684.9
Light Rail from University of Washington to Northgate* $1,126.6 to $1,239.3

*Includes about 3 miles of cut-and-cover bored subway.

If they can build rail from Seattle to Bellevue for less than $2 billion and imagine what they can do with the difference from the surface roads improvments and either the tunnel or the rebuild. They could connect light rail from Burien to West Seattle to Sodo and build a subway through Belltown to Seattle Center and maybe even connect rail through Ballard for the $3.5 potential difference between a tunnel and surface roads. I bet that plus the roads option would get more total people through than either the rebuild or the tunnel, and with the state’s new definition of capacity, that’s what should be done.

Update: someone wanted links to the numbers, so here they are for Sound Transit. Click on the project and a pdf will open with the cost estimate. For the Viaduct, I got the numbers from Wikipedia.

What Seattle Gets out of ST2

Over at Slog, people were upset with the “Cross-base Highway” included in the RTID plan that goes to the ballot with Sound Transit’s ST2 package. One major complaint was that RTID does almost nothing for Seattle, and that ST2 does a smaller portion for the city than ST1 one did, and Seattlites should vote against it. If you look at Sound Transit’s ST2 page, Seattle is getting a lot out of that transit package (more on that below).

As for RTID, it is true that only three projects take place within the city limits. The first is the widening of Mercer street near I-5. The second are a bunch of improvements in the southern industrial area of the city, which includes a transit-only ramp off I-5 at South Industrial Way. The last is an replacement for 520 which is partially funded by RTID. The 520 replacement is as useful for the Eastside as it is for Seattle, so that only counts for half a project for the city. The industrial improvements are mostly for freight and shipping, which benefits the whole region (there’s no Port of Kirkland, for example). So Seattle is definitely getting the short end of the stick in terms of RTID spending. For $5 billion in spending, less than half-a-billion is going to Seattle-only projects, and about $1.1 billion is going to half-Seattle, half-Eastside project.

Sound Transit will benefit Seattle much more than RTID. There will be two more subway stations added to the north end of the Link Rail, where it extends past Montlake/University of Washington. The 43rd & Brooklyn Station will be especially useful. This part of ST2 alone will cost $1.126 billion to $1.239 billion. Then, there will be a Northgate elevated station and a station on 145th at the city limits. This adds another $300 million or so, though it will be as useful for Shoreline as it is for Seattle.

For the East Link, there will be an at-grade station on Rainer and about 23rd Ave. That won’t be incredibly useful since that area is mostly well-served by the “Central Link” that already goes through the South End, but it definitely will get a lot of use, possibly even just from Amazon employees coming from the Eastside. Also, the East Link in general will help Seattlites who are commuting East (like me), and Eastsiders who commute into the city. Plus it will be paid entirely out of the Eastside’s Sound Transit money. Finally, there will be the First Hill street car. This costs $150 million and will greatly expand the “network effect” of the Capitol Hill station.

In addition there is an $8 million study of a Burien-West Seattle-Downtown rail (that’s technically getting paid partially out of the South King County budget), and a $5 million study of a Downtown-Ballard-Wallingford-UW line. That’s the one which would have made my childhood growing up in Wallingford/Green Lake so much different. I think that red line in the image actually goes right through the house I grew up in. Finally, there’s a $5 million study of HCT across 520. Let’s hope these don’t take until 2050 or something.

So, RTID is not a good deal for Seattle. But Sound Transit is a great deal for Seattle, so it’s a trade-off. Since ST2 is paid for by a .5% sales tax increase and RTID is paid for by a .1% sales tax increase and a $80 per $10,000 assessed value MVET, if you don’t own a car, you won’t pay much for RTID. At least that makes its payment scheme more fair than any other highway project ever attempted in this state. My only complaint about ST2 is the time frames discussed. 2027 to Overlake TC? Will I still make that commute in 20 years?

Meeting with Sound Transit Yesterday

Sound Transit and someone from WashDot came to work yesterday and talked about the RTID ballot for next year. The first guy talked about all the road work, which is about $7bn worth of improvements on choke points. He made a point to say that they were looking at SR-520 more than the press has been giving them credit for.

After him a rather polite and knowledgeable guy talked about the East Link rail for about 20 minutes before giving over to someone who explained the flexibility of light rail and it’s advantages over heavy rail. Basically, more flexibility when it comes to at-grade sections.

We then had a question and answer, where I asked the most unpopular question, “Vancouver is building the Canada Line in 7 years with $2billion USD, if Light Rail is so great, why does it cost so much and take so long?” The gentleman answered that the environmental rules were less strict in Canada, which I believe. The other differences were the Skytrains’ routes will be smaller and they won’t have to build across a lake. He said the date could be moved to as soon as 2018 (it’s 2027 now) if Sound Transit only had more money. I think if they would put ST2 on the ballot after the central link is finished, people would see its usefulness and be willing to fork over the cash.

Someone asked why the line is not gauranteed to go all the way to downtown Redmond and instead is only slated to go to Overlake Transit Center? Apparently if a tunnel is built through Bellevue it’ll cost about $250~$400 million a mile compared to $150 million for elevated and only $80 million for at grade. That’s a lot of money, and with that it would be difficult to get the train all the way to downtown Redmond. Also, Downtown Redmond is not a major employment center, but there is a major push to get the train to Redmond because parking around Overlake is already nasty and anyone taking the train into Bellevue or the city would have no where to park.

So my question is does Bellevue really need a tunnel? I know that they no longer consider themselves a suburb and want to be a real city with a subway and high-rises, but they are limiting the usefulness of their own train line by insisting on a tunnel. We’ll see how this goes, but I think if we have at grade stations in the city, they can handle at grade stations in Bellevue.

Finally, someone asked if there was any possibility of new park and rides in the city. The answer was, “No, the city of Seattle is against new parking lots, and areas around train stations will be for dense mixed-use developments.” That was my expectation, too. I think Nickels and Sims are planning on putting a lot of buses toward the stations, so park and rides won’t be very necessary.

San Francisco Transit

I read this crazy comment over at Slog and it got me thinking that if Seattle is aiming to have transit like the San Francisco Bay Area does, it is not aiming all that high. I lived in San Francisco for years, and I can sum up the transit systems pretty simply.


BART serves primarily the East Bay, those (especially from the East Bay) who commute from the suburbs into the city, and those going to SFO airport. That’s about it. Click the left link for a map. It does serve as a single subway line within the city along Mission toward Daly City, but it is a subway line that is mostly covered by Muni trains as well. When the Link Rail line is built, it will be about like BART is now, and when the East Link line is built, it will actually cover a greater portion of the region because BART doesn’t cover the South Bay at all, and doesn’t go into Marin county either. The most southern stop is Fremont. Sure it goes all the way to Pittsburgh, but that is the middle of no where. BART = Central Link


MUNI can basically be divided into two parts, MUNI rail and MUNI buses. There is also the cable car, but that is mostly for tourists and costs $5 to ride just up Nob Hill. MUNI metro rail (see the map at the right) serves mostly the South and West parts of the city, bringing them into the downtown shopping and Financial District. Note that only Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center, Van Ness, Church, Castro, West Portal and Balboa Park stations are underground. The first four are actually shared with BART, so they are not unique subway stations. The rest of the stops are all above ground, making them like the South Lake Union Street Car. These lines are all much better than buses, but they only serve to bring people from the outskirt-neighborhoods into the employment centers downtown, and they don’t even serve most of the city. There is no Muni line to North Beach or Richmond District for example. There is one line missing on the map, the Historic F line, but that is mostly for tourists and basically goes along the embarcadero to Fishermans Wharf from Market. Muni Rail = More extensive version of Capitol Hill/SLU street cars

Muni bus (map to left) is pretty great as far as bus systems go, but it still is a bus. According to ratings, Muni is average or below average. One of the reasons buses seem good in San Francisco is because they are going very short distances. San Francisco is only 47 square miles (Seattle by contrast, is 83 square miles of land plus another 59 square miles of water), so a ride on the 38 from Downtown all the way out to the Richmond is only about four miles long. And it still takes 30 minutes on the local. Buses are definitely better than those in Seattle, but they are working with an easier city: smaller, with no large lakes in the middle, and denser. Also, since it is a city-run operation, not a county-run operation (San Francisco is its own county as well as city), it has a much smaller area to deal with.


Finally, there is Caltrain. Caltrain is a commuter rail from the city down the penninsula and eventually into the South Bay. I used to takes it nearly everyday from the city to San Jose. It is wonderful as far as commuter rails go, a 50 mile trip from San Francisco to San Jose only take 55 minutes on the “baby bullet” super express trains. However, it is essentially useless for anything other than commuting, because outside of the commuting times of day, all the trains are local, and the trip to the south bay would take literally hours. Caltrain = (faster) Sounder

What I haven’t Covered

I am missing “Golden Gate Transit” which serves the Marin, sort of like Community Transit serves Snohomish, and SAMtrans, which serves San Mateo sort of like Metro serves the ‘burbs but I have never ridden those, so I can’t comment on them. Also, Santa Clara County has it’s own street car, which serves some neighborhoods in the South Bay, but there’s not much to that, since the South Bay is so vast and sparse relative to the city, its difficult to build mass transit down there that serves most neighborhoods.


In all, the Bay Area has better transit infrastructure, and MUCH better road/highway infrastructre (that’s a whole other post). But I think with a few more Street Car lines and the Central and East Link built, Seattle will have a similar level of transit service to the Bay. That’s when we need to shoot higher, maybe looking at Boston or Chicago… My dream though I guess.