The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Tuesday, June 5, 2001

Please don't let light rail ``go south'', and steer clear of I-5

June 5, 2001

Honorable Paul Schell
Mayor, City of Seattle

Dear Mayor Schell,

My name is Jonathan Dubman. I am an active member of the Montlake Community Club and I have been closely following Sound Transit and other regional transportation issues and engaging many others in discussions on these important topics. I have generally supported your agenda from early on, but I was recently very disappointed to hear of your enthusiasm for "going South" with Link, if we assume the entire system can't be built at once.

Furthermore, I understand you have expressed some degree of support - and please correct me if I'm wrong - for an eventual alignment north of downtown close to I-5.

There are a great many reasons why that is an inadvisable approach.

Simply put, the University Link segment would be an enormous boon to the transportation infrastructure to the region, a belated success. The segments to the south, if built first, would be so ineffective, and manufacture such a coalition of enemies, as to doom future phases of this important system.

Transit must first go where the lion's share of the people and the jobs are: First Hill, Capitol Hill, the University District, Northgate, and of course, downtown. There are the designated urban hubs of the region. These are the areas that have been accepting growth, and all the attendant traffic, with the expectation that light rail was going to come and solve some of our mobility problems. These are the areas with land use that best supports light rail.

Southeast Seattle has a transit-dependent population with high Metro ridership, but let's be frank about it - it's the redevelopment potential that would give that region the density to justify the large expense of constructing light rail. And that could take a long time to develop, at the possible expense of affordable housing there. Why not start light rail where the existing density is, and build a system that will convince the region that even the starter light rail is a big success, and higher density can afford a high quality of life, and we're serious about transportation concurrency?

Many within Rainier Valley have been very vocal against at-grade light rail through their community. I respect both sides of this issue. Whether or not their fears are justified, a lot of people there really don't want it. Tukwila doesn't want it down route 99. The airport won't be ready for light rail for years, and even if we did build light rail to the airport, Metro express route 194 would still be faster from downtown. Sound Transit's own operating plan calls for half the frequency south of downtown than north of downtown, and that is because north is where the ridership is. The Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement was made for the north segment first because that's the segment that's easiest to justify.

Those arguments seem to make a strong case for University Link as the first segment of light rail in the region, if cost weren't an issue. But is University Link the most cost effective segment? The answer is a resounding "yes"!

The Executive Summary of the recently released Central Link Board Workbook bears this out. University Link is by far the most cost effective segment of the Central Link light rail system. While it's admittedly easy to oversimplify here, let's take a quick look at the numbers, straight from this document:

* University Link: Cost of $2,250 million (today's estimate) for ridership of 85,000, or $26,000 per daily rider.
* CPS to Henderson: Cost of $1,580 million (conservatively using the low estimate) for ridership of 27,000, or $58,000 per daily rider.
* CPS to South 200th: Cost of $2,250 million (again, using the low estimate) for ridership of 51,000, or $44,000 per daily rider.
* Capitol Hill to Henderson: $2,150 (again, using the low estimate) for ridership of 60,000, or $35,000 per daily rider.

These are construction costs, not including operating expenses, but operating expenses should not vary that greatly among these various routes.

While the projected revenue service dates vary, they do not vary by much. University Link is projected to open Fall 2009. The earliest projected opening date is mid 2008 for CPS to Henderson, perhaps 15 months earlier, but that system has less than half the cost-effectiveness of University Link by the straightforward calculations above.

In the interim, Southeast Seattle can be served reasonably well with a new in-city express bus route or routes - call them "7X" and "9X" - that run frequently, with few stops, from downtown or Capitol Hill along MLK with traffic signal priority. This could be done in the relatively short term to provide improved service for Southeast Seattle much faster than with Link, and feed into University Link when that is complete. With this plan, Southeast Seattle could see big improvements sooner than anyone else, and there won't be any injury statistics or lawsuits related to at-grade rail down MLK.

There are those who support the "Ride Free Express" or some other solution involving buses. The biggest problem is, in the north direction there is no uncongested right of way for buses to travel on, and I-5 doesn't even have two-way HOV operation. Where would these buses go?. How do we expect to handle transit north of downtown if we don't build Link? If you think another technology could be the answer here, I'm happy to consider that, but it seems clear that buses aren't going to cut it.

There are those who think that Capitol Hill has good bus service now, so why is Link necessary? While Capitol Hill may have excellent bus service to downtown and decent bus service to the University District, try getting from Capitol Hill to downtown Bellevue, or to Northgate. Even to the University District, buses snake through a lot of congestion. Capitol Hill transit service is not as great as it's cracked up to be.

Next to University Link, Capitol Hill to Henderson is the segment under consideration that makes the most sense (except for well-publicized reservations about at-grade operation in the Rainier Valley). But this would make sense only as a very interim solution. It seems like folly to construct a hugely expensive rail system that doesn't cross the biggest bottleneck in the city, the ship canal. We would still need generous bus service from the University to Capitol Hill. Direct service downtown would also be required. Downtown is the place that's already the easiest to get to from Capitol Hill, and route 9 does directly serve First Hill and Rainier Valley from Capitol Hill.

And of course, the place we really want to end up is Northgate, itself an urban hub, but also within shot of rapidly growing south Snohomish County, which generates a lot of the traffic south into Seattle. It is going to be much harder to effectively serve South King County than North King County with light rail any time in the foreseeable future, given that it's 7 miles from Northgate to downtown, with just a handful of stops, and about 15 miles just to get to Sea-Tac, which will still be 40 minutes away from downtown by light rail. We may want to build great infrastructure everywhere, but we have to start where it's going to be most effective.

There are those who support an I-5 alignment for north Seattle. I used to think the same myself, until I realized that between downtown and Northgate, this alignment would service not one major center of activity. How will Eastlake and Portage Bay / Roanoke Park feel about more transportation infrastructure, and another huge bridge, in front of their doors? They strongly oppose the idea. A station stop at Campus Parkway instead of Pacific Street has lower ridership and requires disruptive cut-and-cover construction in the already suffering University District. And a station stop near I-5 makes no sense at all. It would be the death knell for the University District as we know it today. How many transit users want to visit the Blue Moon Tavern on 45th near I-5, versus the University and the Ave? How would we shuttle everyone to where they are going? With more buses that travel down traffic-choked arteries? Are we planning to redevelop the station areas near I-5 with high rises to justify light rail? Imagine the effects on I-5 of all the light-rail related pedestrian and vehicle traffic next to the exits. The topography, the comparatively low density of the built environment, the dominance of low-density zoning (much of it single-family), the high levels of traffic and noise, and the limited pedestrian crossings in the vicinity of I-5, to say nothing of the complexity and costs of constructing a light rail system in this overburdened corridor, all point to the fact that I-5 is not only not the best but perhaps the worst choice for an alignment north of downtown. Can we build adjacent to I-5 while keeping I-5 open the whole time? Can we visualize the effect of closing part of I-5 and the bus tunnel at the same time? That would be a good time to get out of town.

I encourage you to consider very seriously the possibility of routing University Link under the Montlake Cut to save $50 million and raise the level of the stations in the University District. A station could be built near Rainier Vista, the UW Medical Center and Husky Stadium, and would service the University population very well. Moreover, such a station would interface much more readily with transit across SR-520, the forgotten stepchild of Seattle's transportation infrastructure, which is considering a tunnel connecting the Eastside directly with this very spot. If we could intercept buses from the Eastside at a University District station, perhaps we could get them off the downtown streets, off of congestion on I-5, and make up for the fact that they are no longer in the tunnel.

Please forgive me if there's a critical piece I'm missing here, but with all this in favor of University Link, why would you support another segment of this crucial piece of our transportation infrastructure in the region?

The only reason I can see to postpone the segment north of Capitol Hill is to refine the alignment, perform the necessary study for the Montlake Cut alignment, and coordinate with the Trans-Lake Washington Project. If that is your motive, I strongly respect that, and support Capitol Hill to Henderson as the next best way to get started on this important north-south artery. Please let me know your reasons for your current stance, how strongly you take that stance, and if you might be willing to reconsider in light of the arguments above.

Thank you,

Jonathan Dubman

2014 E Calhoun Stre

The articles are posted solely for educational purposes to raise awareness of transportation issues. I claim no authorship, nor do I profit from this website. Where known, all original authors and/or source publisher have been noted in the post. As this is a knowledge base, rather than a blog, I have reproduced the articles in full to allow for complete reader understanding and allow for comprehensive text searching...see custom google search engine at the top of the page. If you have concerns about the inclusion of a specific article, please email for a speedy resolution.