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.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sound Transit never open to light rail on 520

Rail: Visualize the '80s, not '50s


Local leaders and Sound Transit are making transportation plans that threaten to take us back to our distant past (Tuesday P-I). Apparently, in designing the replacement for the 520 Bridge, they are all but killing any chance that light rail will ever cross it.

We're told this is because we won't need light rail on state Route 520 in our lifetime, if we have bus rapid transit on that route and light rail on the I-90 Bridge.

But the prospect of bus transit on SR-520 apparently has also led to a "new buzz" for bus rapid transit in the I-90 corridor, particularly as a short-term substitute for the more expensive light rail. Rail might be built across I-90, but someday in the future, when voters' attitude toward it is "more clear." In the meantime, it's proposed that I-90 could be used for more express buses and single-occupancy vehicles in tolled "zip lanes."

Our leaders seem to have forgotten that Seattle made decisions just like this in the 1950s, and they crippled our current efforts to build rail transit. When I-5 was being planned, the city's Transit Commission proposed reserving a 50-foot right of way in the freeway median for future rail transit. But as HistoryLink's Moving Washington Timeline puts it, "The state was only willing to consider express bus service." This intransigence led I-5 to be built with reversible express lanes only, "frustrat(ing) future transit planners."

In the 1980s, in contrast, we planned the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for our future rail transit needs. It was designed from the start to be used by a rail system, even though we didn't know whether we'd actually build one. Because of that foresighted decision, Link light rail will run the length of downtown Seattle next year.

If you walk by Convention Place Station, though, you can still see where our smart planning in the '80s ground to a halt against our poor planning from the '50s. The '80s rail tracks come out of the transit tunnel, run through the station, curve hopefully to the north -- and then stop dead, just short of I-5's reversible express lanes. We could have left a path for the tracks to go to Northgate, but we decided not to. The billions we'll spend fixing that mistake could instead have been spent adding rail lines to all the other parts of our region that need light rail service.

Today, we can't afford to plan as badly as we did when we built I-5. We've made a massive regional investment to build a light rail system, which is finally about to start paying off. For the foreseeable future, rail transit will be critical in keeping our economy and environment healthy.

When we plan any major transportation project, such as SR 520, we should include the capacity for future rail if there is any reasonable chance we'll need it -- just like we managed to do in the '80s. And across I-90, we should stop fiddling around with the warmed-over traffic strategies of the '50s and get a rail line to the Eastside built. It'll be good for all of us.
Darwin P. Roberts lives in Seattle.

Readers Comments

Posted by Concerned_Citizen at 3/19/08 5:41 p.m.

In the 1980s, in contrast, we planned the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for our future rail transit needs. It was designed from the start to be used by a rail system

Did you forget that we just spent more than $30 million to 'fix' the tunnel for rail?

Posted by skeptical at 3/19/08 7:08 p.m.

Seattle plan - are you kidding?

They could not even decide to use the rail line for rail -
going to make a trail out of it. So they can spend Billions later for rail.

Posted by John N at 3/19/08 7:23 p.m.

Sound Transit is in charge of light rail in this region. The systems design for light rail has been locked down for over ten years.

Read the Sound Transit long-range plan from 2006.

Read the Master Plan from the 1990s.

The Sound Transit light rail design has NEVER been open to the possibility of light rail on the SR 520 bridge.

Sound Transit's tunnel and track design does not have the capacity to aborb the predicted ridership load from Northgate, plus from the Eastside, in the University Link tunnel that is planned between U of W and Pine Street.

The Eastside light rail ridership MUST come in to the Seattle downtown from the south of Seattle's downtown, across I-90, in the ST design.

To have changed the design at any point in this current century would have jeopardized the $750 million Federal grant that ST hopes to achieve later this year.

Hi John N,

While it is true that ST never planned to take Eastside commuters over 520, why should we propagate their shortsightedness from 15 years ago?

Things change in 10 years, much less 50 years. And we are talking about a 50-100 year system lifespan. Why should we lock in future planners because of today's short sighted thinking? Remember, we will have an additional 1,000,000 people on the Eastside in 20 years. Bellevue will surpass Seattle as the state's largest city.

Unfortunatly, Ron Sims is responsible for much of this now outdated transportation thinking. I can see his dirty fingerprints all over this decision making process.

Remember how, just a few months ago, he was absolutely adamant about permanently blocking future Eastside rail with a stupid bicycle trail on the BNSF right of way? He even wrote threatening letters to POS board members. Good thing the county council and the Port of Seattle pulled him up by his jock strap. That stupid jerk was going to tear up the tracks immediately. The heck with the next 1,000,000 people moving to the Eastside in the next 20 years.

I have a sneaking suspicion that another rail crossing may be needed to accommodate that future growth. Unless, of course, Seattle is willing to tear out the Burke-Gillman trail....

Posted by BenSchiendelman at 3/20/08 1:03 a.m.

Wow. Possibly the only time I've ever (kind of) agreed with John Niles.

It would be pointless to build light rail capability into this bridge, because we have so much other light rail construction to worry about before we'll ever want to do 520.

The capacity argument isn't exactly true, as light rail trains in the future can run with very tight headways (as little as 2 minutes), just like other mature systems. It would just be extremely expensive and frankly, silly, to build an underground connection to rail over 520 when we already have the infrastructure built to build it over 90. Interlining does work perfectly over 90 as well.

This explains the issue simply and well:
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Posted by Soul not sold to Road Warriors at 3/20/08 1:23 a.m.

For one of the few times in his life, JNiles actually applies some real world logic to his axe-grinding jihad. Niles references ST's long range plan, thus acknowledging the value of following some semblence of a blueprint-driven planning over the decades. Don't worry? Though. Niles will find something monorail/technobabble/ new to pursue soon. Since he works for tv Discovery Institute, look for a submerged vacuum tube footferry tlcing m n

btw, the author of this half-sane guest column wins the transportation Darwin award.

When he said "skip LRT on I-90, and do Buses Stuck in Traffic (BrT) instead of light rail, do you think Mr. Darwin Award even took a peek at what it would take to do short headway buses once the coaches leave I-90?

Of course he didn't.

And do you think Mr. Darwin Award ever examined the 35 year planning history behind converting the center lanes to light rail ?

Of course not.

Why on God's green earth would you build light rail on a bridge which was designed for light rail

Hands down, many rabid anti-rail nuts have seized on this520 rail concept, because they also know 520 ISNT ready for rail any time soon. Delay is a good thing for the crank-ideologue.

What a joke: transit opponents doing what transit opponents do best: propose sure losers. Look at Shilo's string of ideas. (two long)

Mr. Darwin Awards, what axe are you grinding today? NIMBy axe? Grudge axe ? Maybe somebody told you about Will Knedlik's free and easy BNSF crazy train?
Your guest column was convoluted an confused...the sure sign of a grudge-based secondary agenda. You're in good company with that.
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Posted by rwb77 at 3/20/08 6:35 a.m.

We could solve this problem on the proverbial cheap by people living on the side of the lake on which they work, but that would be too much to ask of Americans, wouldn't it?
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Posted by shilos dog house at 3/20/08 7:57 a.m.

Hey Soul,

I am not against mass transit in any form, other than extremely expensive holes in the ground.

What I am against is designing a transit system that creates built-in expansion restrictions.

Bellevue will be larger than Seattle in just a few years. There is no doubt about it. One only needs to look at the population history of Seattle to realize that it has only grown 10% in 50 years. Bellevue, on the otherhand has grown 1,000% in 20.

Transit planners like Ron Sims some how cannot envision this gargantuan poplulation and power shift that will occure in the near future. By constantly focusing on a Seattle centric system they obscure the much larger picture of the whole county all the while asking the whole county to pay for it.

If we do not plan for this future growth I am afraid we will have BIG Issaquah popping up all over the Eastside with no infrastructure to accomodate it. Are we ready for a Hobart with a population base of 50,000?
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Posted by hparks_3 at 3/20/08 8:26 a.m.

As has been proven (and rejected at the polls repeatedly) in the past, rail is too expensive and inflexible. But it makes the Left feeeeeel good.
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Posted by gettingreal at 3/20/08 9:06 a.m.

What we need is to have rational people plan this without their own agenda. Local planning is dominated by people who have little vision, but lots of personal agenda. Ron Sims envisions 1/2 of the population taking the bus. It is well known that buses are expensive to operate, 73 cents/passenger-mile.
king county metro government statistics

His plan won't work, because that's $15 to travel 20 miles. No matter, king Ron won't give up his fantasies. All we need to keep light rail alive is to build the 520 pontoons wide enough to handle 8 lanes, and hope future generations have better leaders.
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Posted by shilos dog house at 3/20/08 10:12 a.m.

One thing to keep in mind. Short-sightedness is inherent in all planning.

John N. talks about the plans from 10-15 years ago, and how rail on 520 was not in the plan. Ron Sims was the driver in that planning group.

I met Ron about that time at a meeting in Bothell on Brightwater. His first comment was "Wow, you guys in Bothell live way out in the country!"

Ron Sims' horizon for planning was his constituency base in the central area of Seattle. Guess where all the rail transit was/is focused? Thinking much beyond the city limits was out of his grasp at the time. Having served multiple terms now as the county Executive has broadened his scope somewhat. However, Bellevue is apparently still far off "way over there". Issaquah might as well be Denver as far as he can see.

There are 1,000,000 new people coming our way. They won't be settling inside the Seattle city limits. They will be in Hobart, Carnation, Duval, Covington, Ravensdail, Black Diamond, or Maple Valley.

For the last 30 years Seattle has been diminishing as the economic and population center of our region. That has steadily been moving east, across the lake. Microsoft is not in Redmond/Bellevue just for the view. They have located in the center of the growth pattern. We need to refocus our transportation planning for that reality. Ron Sims is not the man to do it. I don't know who is, but I know who it ain't.

To preclude future transportation planners from using 520 or any other current open corridor is just silly, to the point of being criminal. Just because a short sighted man set the plan 15 years ago is no reason at all for refusing to review that plan today.
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Posted by frustrated at 3/20/08 11:00 a.m.

I think the posts about the future importance of the eastside are correct. The eastside seems to have a lot more of the tech jobs that drive a region, and people who are leaving Microsoft or other established ventures to start something new are more likely to start them close to where they live. Often this is the eastside.

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