Rail Thin: Ideas For Beefing Up Seattle’s Transit Network

For a city its size, Seattle has a puny rail network. It has just one light rail line, The Link, running from the airport to downtown.  That line will be extended into University District via Capitol Hill in 2016. Tacoma is connected via the Sounder (heavy rail), as is Everett, but with a sparse schedule with a huge hole in the middle of the day and at night. The East Link (funded thanks to ST2) will connect Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond in 2023, if all goes according to plan. Note that downtown bound East Siders have deigned to stop in Judkins Park, as Sound Transit has planned a station there. New lines will require further funding via the passage of 15 billion dollar ST3 package or the development of some other funding mechanism.

I’ve been grappling with Seattle’s struggles with maintaining and building more affordable housing and the issue is a bit of a quagmire with plenty of theories but no clear path forward. At least with transportation there is a clear path forward: passing ST3 to get 15 billion dollars in funding and then hopefully selecting the most useful projects.

Orange Line: Ballard to U District

I sketched out a dream map for a Seattle rail transit map and I favor as the highest priority project the Ballard Spur, my Orange Line, which connects Ballard to UW campus and Seattle Children’s Hospital in Laurelhurst. The reason I favor it is not just because I live near the line, but also because east-west movements in Seattle are particularly gridlocked and building a subway along this corridor would provide an enormous time savings and have a huge catchment. Thus it would have a huge ridership despite being a relatively short line. Plus it would feed into the new Link station in the University District where you could make a connection on the speedy ride to Capitol Hill and Downtown. That’s how Seattle’s fledgling system starts turning in a real system with big utility.

Seattle Rail Map of the Future

My hypothetical Seattle rail map includes the already under construction main truck line (the blue line) plus some proposed additions discussed as part of ST3. The fuchsia line is my own creation and roughly follows Highway 99.

My hypothetical Seattle rail map includes the already built Link Light Rail with the extension planned or under construction as the blue line plus some proposed additions discussed as part of ST3. The fuchsia line is my own creation and roughly follows Highway 99.

Some of the projects are extremely unlikely to be included in ST3 because they haven’t even been formally studied by Sound Transit. On that list is the Green Line and the Fuchsia Line in my color scheme.

Green Line: Metro 8 Subway

The Green Line would follow the #8 Metro bus route and greatly upgrade it by moving it underground to provide grade separation. The multi-billion-dollar expense of building a subway line make it unlikely to survive ST3 sausage making process in which the suburbs will demand their cut. However, this subway would be elegant solution to mobility woes in this highly congested corridor; it seems inexorable that this line is built, given the rapid job and residential growth in the South Lake Union (as I’ve documented in an earlier post).

Fuchsia Line: Riding along 99

The Fuchsia Line would connect South Lake, Queen Anne, Lower Fremont, Phinney, Green Lake and Bitter Lake and provide a faster and more direct route to the airport via Georgetown. A line like this in the Highway 99 corridor hasn’t been widely discussed but I think makes a lot of sense. Highway 99 is already a focus point of what little density North Seattle offers so it seems a logical place to expand. However, Sound Transit appears to be very focused “on building out the spine” (the present day Link light rail) far out into the suburbs and likely won’t be interested in adding a competing “spine” in Seattle as part of ST3. Crossing the ship canal will also be an expensive proposition best accomplished with a tunnel. The line would likely remain a subway south of the canal and perhaps transition to at grade or elevated in North Seattle.

Purple Line: West Seattle to Ballard… to Lake City and Beyond?

The Purple Line may end up getting built for political expediency since it appeases West Seattle, but it’s not without its own problems, such as high cost due to crossing the Duwamish. I sketched the Seattle Subway suggested routing which would continue to Ballard via Interbay and a ship canal tunnel and continue to Crown Hill before cutting east to Greenwood, Northgate, Pinehurst and Lake City. More than likely if ST3 ends going in this direction, they wouldn’t be able to afford the whole line so they’d perhaps terminate it in Ballard.

Why Rail?

Plenty of budget hawks and rail skeptics say why not instead rely on buses to improve transit? Buses don’t require such a large capital investment and their routes are flexible. The big problem with buses in Seattle is that they  routinely stuck in traffic at one of the cities many choke points. The lack of grade separation greatly reduces the speed and efficiency of the transit system. Grade separated rail immediately provides a dependable speedy alternative to the clogged city streets and highways. The best solution in the downtown core and really until after you cross the ship canal is building subways.

Long term, I think these three north-south lines and two east-west light rail lines would provide the city of Seattle with solid and dependable transit access which is going to be crucial to meeting the mobility needs of a highly congested city where Metro buses wallow in heavy traffic during rush hours.

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