Seattle: Your Rapid Transit System Now Has a Core!

Reposted from January 26, in honor today’s big event.

The Seattle region’s rapidly growing rail transit system crosses a major milestone today  The segment between downtown and the University of Washington, via a station in tMAP_Draft1_U-Linkhe dense Capitol Hill neighborhood, opens today.  And if you vaguely associate Seattle with vast delays and cost overruns on tunneling projects, give Sound Transit credit:  This one is 6 months early and $150m under budget.

However far the region’s rail transit network expands, this will probably always be its busiest segment.  It’s not just that the link between a robust downtown and a major university is the biggest transit market in many comparable cities.    It’s also that a good 40% of the region — northeast Seattle, all the northern suburbs and some eastern ones — will eventually end up on trains through this segment to get downtown.

This year will be another milestone for Sound Transit: the 20th anniversary of the passage of its first ballot measure, which funded the now-existing line between the airport and downtown.  Through its next successful measure, Sound Transit 2 (ST 2) in 2008, the agency is now funded for long extensions north to Lynnwood and east through Bellevue to Redmond.  Meanwhile, they are starting a lively public discussion about the next ballot measure, ST 3, which will probably include an additional rail transit line in Seattle as well as several possible suburban extensions.  City of Seattle voters last year also passed Move Seattle, a measure that among other things greatly expands bus service in the city.  All in all, a great year for one of America’s most ambitious transit cities.


22 Responses to Seattle: Your Rapid Transit System Now Has a Core!

  1. RossB January 31, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Great post, Jarrett. I agree, this is a very exciting time for Seattle transit. We finally get to connect the area that people have wanted to connect for fifty years. In 1968 voters rejected Forward Thrust, which would have connected the University of Washington with downtown Seattle. We will finally do it next year.

    Unfortunately, unlike the plans for Forward Thrust, we won’t get much in the way of stations. The UW, Capitol Hill* (a densely populated area) and downtown Seattle are by far the best three areas in the state to connect via rapid transit. But they left out some stops along the way. They decided to skip First Hill, which is a densely populated area with big office towers and huge hospitals (nicknamed Pill Hill) because of soil concerns. Worse yet, they didn’t seem to consider how this will connect to buses. There is no stop on 23rd, which means connecting to the historically African American (and not so coincidentally densely populated) area known as the Central District will be difficult to impossible. Likewise, suburban commuters coming in from SR 520, one of the major crossings of Lake Washington, will be out of luck. This is a major freeway, carrying folks not only headed to downtown, but also to tech jobs (such as those in Microsoft headquarters) the other direction. The light rail line manages to go right under the freeway — which is coincidentally being rebuilt — without a station. This means that buses will have to slog through traffic to get to the nearest station. Oops.

    * The station in Capitol Hill is right next to South Seattle Community College, which was the college mentioned in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s classic, Posse on Broadway.

    • JohnS February 15, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

      Ross, my only comment would be that it was Seattle Central Community College, and is now just Seattle Central College. What is now South Seattle College is in West Seattle.

  2. Gary Mark February 2, 2016 at 2:20 pm #

    What are your thoughts of the lack of stations? It seems that length of tunnel through a relatively dense area should have 3-6 stations, not just the single one in Capitol Hill. Was there any provision for later additions? (As we know here in NYC, adding them after the line is open is going to be very expensive.)

    • RossB February 15, 2016 at 9:14 am #

      The lack of stations was a huge mistake, and there were no provisions made for adding them later. The tunnel doesn’t cross the logical stop locations, and even when it does (e. g. it crosses state route 520) adding a station would be very difficult because the tracks are on a slope.

  3. Jarrett February 10, 2016 at 8:20 pm #

    Guys, this is not a local transit line. This line is meant to be extended all the way to Lynnwood, and maybe eventually Everett. To be useful over those distances you can’t have that many stations, and besides, in deep-bore tunnels stations are just massively expensive. Frequent surface transit, with exclusive lanes, is a different part of the conversation, one on which KC Metro and Seattle DOT are showing a lot of leadership.

    I agree that First Hill is a major loss, but overall, one of the great success stories of Sound Transit is their ability to hold the line on excess stations so that they can keep travel times competitive over the long distances that they are ultimately tasked with serving.

    • mic February 14, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

      Completing a light rail spine (Everett to Tacoma) with heavy rail characteristics works well during commute hours in one direction only. Those long and frequent trains will be running nearly empty the rest of the day for many years to come. Operating costs, when averaged out, will forever be a drain on transits ability to deploy low capacity transit in those areas not well served by the spine.

    • David Miller February 14, 2016 at 6:25 pm #

      Jarrett, I’m surprised at your comment here. I know (and respect) that you take pride in excising value judgments from your explanations — that you attempt to neutrally examine the service trade-offs inherent in geometric determinations, and to help drivers of the political process to understand how differing service characteristics will necessarily reflect differing priorities and their own subjective assessments of value.

      But sometimes, you just might have to slice through the cautious wording, and to bluntly tell an “ambitious transit city” what they may not want to hear: that what they are choosing to prioritize will so completely and predictably fail to become “mass” transit, that it will effect little-to-none of the intended paradigmatic shift in the city or region’s mobility freedom.

      So let us be clear about what Sound Transit intends its “spine” to be: a single, 72-mile, mid-speed interurban rail line to relative nowheres, passing through vast swaths of even more abject nowheres, and providing hobbled walksheds and astoundingly bad intermodal connections to the tiny handful of anywheres it deigns to touch. It is expected to cost upwards of $40-$50 billion dollars when all is said and done — more than L.A.’s Measure R but in an area 4x less populous, many times less dense, and with few all-day demand generators to speak of — and will rely on an electoral strategy that leverages urban desperation (and intentionally-sewn ignorance of access penalties) to ensure that heavily regressive sales taxes are imposed upon the multiple subareas in which the ballot proposition is likely to fail.

      A built-out spine as envisioned by the agency, to un-dense endpoint cities of small stature and middling economic health, and via a string of park-and-rides and industrial areas and strip malls with vaguely-defined edge-city-transformation ambitions unlikely to come true (or to be transit-able by more than a piddling minority even if they do), will make the far outer fringes of the BART network or the disastrous DART airport line look like the Lexington Avenue subway by comparison. That hasn’t stopped the know-nothing boosters from predicting a future of trains too “packed” to permit branching even where demand patterns might be well-advised to consider a branching approach (i.e. outbound from the segment you cite). And it hasn’t stopped the agency from promising 10-minute all-day service over the entire 72-mile line, an unprecedented overservice for such a distance anywhere in the world, even in megacities that boast significant radii of unbroken, built-up, high-density urbanity.

      In a town whose growth and self-regard are driven by an industry famous for bubble behavior, for faith in fertile money trees, and for the desire to “disrupt” basic common sense, shouldn’t all of the above be treated with at least a modicum of skepticism and a demand for dreamer-planners to show their evidence?

      First Hill is indeed a major loss. But Sound Transit’s total lack of interest in enabling or even understanding “mobility freedom”, with its mere handful of difficult-to-access stations to show for billions of dollars and decades of work, along with its pathological anti-urban biases and its habit of plugging garbage growth numbers into its algorithms in order to make the parking lot behind King Tut Mediterranean Restaurant in Lynnwood into one of the highest-ridership future rail stations in North America, cumulatively point to problems that run much deeper than First Hill.

      Sometimes “polite deference to others’ values” is just “acquiescence to terrible outcomes” by another name.

      • mic February 14, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

        Well said. You’re not related to d.p., are you? Talk about a lone voice in the woods.

        • Morgan Wick March 19, 2016 at 11:37 am #

          As I was reading this I wondered if I had just discovered d.p.’s real name.

      • brads June 16, 2016 at 1:21 am #

        Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more with the points you’ve made here with regard to Sound Transit’s misguided overall design strategy. One minor correction: the revised draft plan for ST3 just approved by ST’s board will carry a price tag of US$54 billion to be funded by federal grants, agency bonding capacity and several new tax sources. These include an additional .5% increase in sales tax (currently at .9% dedicated to ST from the first two phases), an additional .8% in annual motor vehicle excise tax (additional US$80 annually for a vehicle valued at $10,000) and a totally new property tax of US$.25 per $1,000 of assessed valuation (properties in WA state are assessed at full market value by statute).

  4. Mark Dublin February 14, 2016 at 11:10 pm #

    Just curious, Mic, since haven’t been in NYC in forty years. But I don’t seem to remember them having trouble filling trains all directions, all hours.

    Though our most compressed-into-canned-dogfood passenger loads would make their planners turn sheet-white with fear over plunging ridership.

    Another consideration is that with our size and population, in New York our station spacing between Sea-Tac and Husky Stadium would bring a lot of pressure to get service up to speed by removing all but two stops. Meaning standard NYC spacing for a local train.

    Don’t think either NYC or LA freeways have ever been wastefully empty outside rush hours. I-5 is developing a steroid problem from panicked attempt to catch up. Better for transit to imitate success instead of complain about it, don’t you think?


    • mic February 15, 2016 at 11:05 am #

      It’s an interesting question on how far forward you want to lean. Building transit to NYC or LAX standards in SEA assumes a whole lot of everything’s urban. I’m sure we can agree why so many express buses only run in one direction along the spine, one peak period at a time. If the demand was there, transit would have met it long ago, like the all-day Bellevue to Seattle buses do now. Off peak there are 4 buses per hour, say 200 seats each direction. Rail will replace that with up to 1,800 seats, and 1,800 more standees if needed -which won’t be needed for many years to come.

  5. RossB February 15, 2016 at 9:11 am #

    I can’t help but think, Jarrett, that you failed to examine the city before you assumed that service times out to Lynnwood (and possibly Everett) should be a priority. You have been to Seattle many times, but probably haven’t walked around much, or looked at the data. Here is the key thing: Seattle is not Phoenix. The city sprawls, but the central area — the area that has only one station — has many times the population density and many times the job density than any place outside the city. Furthermore, the city proper is growing much faster than the suburbs in both percentages and absolute number. The second fact is especially impressive given the relative size of the suburbs compared to the city. Furthermore, Seattle is growing fastest in areas like the central area.

    This is like running a subway line to the far end of Long Island from Manhattan, but adding only one stop in Brooklyn or Queens because you don’t want to slow down the folks coming from the Hamptons. Except it is worse than that. Such a line, built right now, would at least be able to tie into a transit system that is very good. This is like building the Long Island subway (with only a couple stops in the city) instead of building the NYC subway system.

    This is a key point: This line is not the second or third line in the city. It is the only one. The central area — the most densely populated contiguous area in the state — has only one station, and no plans for a second subway line. If there were plans (or a subway already built) then I could understand why an “express” might make sense. But Seattle (because of the taxing mechanism) is paying 100% of this system, despite the fact that is does so little for them.

    Seattle does not have a great transit system. As you have stated previously, Seattle has a lot of bottlenecks. This makes it very difficult to produce the type of transit grid you rightfully support. There are only so many things you can do without digging a tunnel. It would have been cheaper to just skip the central area, and follow the freeway the entire way, but we spent the money to build a more useful system. Stations to deep bore tunnels are expensive, but cheap compared to the actual tunnel. It is as if we bought a Ferrari, but then put cheap tires on it.

    It gets worse. The one station is a good station, but it is terrible from a bus integration standpoint. There was no consideration of how buses would interact with it until after it was built. The results were predictably disastrous, with the head of a local transit blog suggesting that the local transit agency (Metro) suffer “draconian cuts”, so as to force a restructure (

    Meanwhile, you are absolutely right — the city of Seattle is busy trying to grab right of way in order to produce a series of fast, frequent buses traveling on key corridors. The problem is, it is happening in isolation. The first corridor they are focused on is right in this neck of the woods. but it won’t intersect the new light rail line! It will likely carry more people than the one station, despite covering the same area, and costing billions less. But no one will travel from one to the other, since they are separated by ten blocks. To get from one place to another (e. g. UW to anywhere on 23rd) folks will do what they’ve always done — take the local bus (the 48). The 48, by the way, carries 12,000 per day, despite being stuck in traffic quite often (even in the middle of the day). This is more than the entire suite of commuter buses from Lynnwood!

    Why force thousands of riders to spend an extra fifteen minutes a day taking transit so that a few hundred can save a couple minutes? This also implies that no one from Lynnwood is trying to get to the Central Area? That simply isn’t the case. The best thing about Link for someone in Lynnwood is the fact that they will be able to get to Northgate, or the UW, or Capitol Hill very quickly. The express to downtown (traveling in HOV lanes) was fairly fast to downtown. It was just very slow to everywhere else (which is why the freeway is clogged with people not heading downtown). Link will make this situation better, but the decisions to leave out major employment centers (like First Hill) or major transit crossroads will make it very difficult for someone to get to the rest of the city. Despite the best efforts of the city, they simply don’t have the budget that Sound Transit has because of limitations mandated by the state legislature. The city can’t spend billions digging tunnels — only Sound Transit can, and they blew it.

    The Sound Transit light rail system was built on a set of assumptions that we know now are ridiculous. Bus integration (as part of stop placement) doesn’t matter. The suburbs will grow much faster than the city. Those assumptions are wrong, and transit will likely be hampered in Seattle for a very long time as a result.

    • Andrew Brick February 15, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

      It seems people might be downplaying the political situation a bit too much. ST is not a Seattle-only entity; it’s a regional special-purpose government whose purpose is to provide *regional* transit service. Because its political boundaries cross county lines and include relatively far-flung and low-density places like Issaquah, ST has to spread the love to ensure ballot measures pass. It lost its first vote, and it lost its first expansion vote. The ST district has a population of around 3 million, while Seattle is just north of 650,000; Seattle alone can’t carry the vote. (And it does *not* carry 100% of ST’s bill, either.)

      In essence, I agree with Jarrett in that ST light rail is not intended to be an intra-city mobility solution, but rather an intra-region mobility solution. It is intended to facilitate the “string of pearls” style of regional development that has occurred elsewhere, enable more people to access the highest-density places in the region without having to get into their cars, and help realize the centers-based strategy of the MPO. King County Metro (the bus service that primarily serves Seattle and those who commute to it) will continue to carry the lion’s share of transit riders in the region, even out to 2040 planning horizons, and even assuming the completion of ST3.

      All that said, ST and Metro have not done a good job integrating. Both of the two new stations cited in this piece have pretty bad transfer environments. The City of Seattle, Metro, and ST are doing a decent job of reconfiguring stops around the UW station to make it more of a transit hub, but it was an afterthought, as other commenters have pointed out. Capitol Hill has been more of a mess. Hopefully this will change, as the head of Metro and the Chairman of the ST board (one in the same person) has directed both agencies to integrate better. Unfortunately, the directive came too late to do a great job of integrating transfer environments into the planning of two of the next three stations to open to the north. We can only hope ST removes its blinders and broadens its focus to include more than just building its own system. Metro seems to be doing a better job of late in communicating to ST that the key to its success is a high-quality feeder system and that a key part of that is station planning that includes accommodation for buses.

      • David Miller February 15, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

        Where has such a “string of pearls” style of rail connection, over gargantuan distances but with urban levels of service promised, “occurred elsewhere” as you claim?

        Seriously, where?

        Vancouver is the common go-to example, except that city’s success has far more to do with intermodal integration and a surprisingly high density baseline across the built area than it has to do with the handful of Le Corbusian eyesores to which people lazily point.

        European suburban and regional rail will often connect walkable and self-sufficient pre-modern centers, antitheses of the places Sound Transit wishes to go, but it usually does so on legacy rights-of-way that cost paltry amounts to reactivate or maintain, compared to the tens of billions Sound Transit proposes to spend on from-scratch infrastructure to reach places of specious value. And even in a place as bustling as central Dortmund (population 5.5x Everett’s, Innenstadt districts order of magnitude denser), you’re looking at scheduled (rather than spontaneous-frequency) intercity service to Essen, less than 20 miles away.

        What Sound Transit is attempting simply has no successful precedents, no matter how hard you squint. The only analogues are American projects from Dallas to Denver to the East Bay to the distant reaches of Fairfax County, which only rank as “success stories” if you think 2% uni-directional commuter shares and totally empty trains at all other times are something to crow about.

        Again, Jarrett is correct to describe the U-Link segment as the future location of Seattle’s peak subway loads, now and forever. And there are, of course, some notable use cases that will see travel times reduced as dramatically as “ease” is increased.

        But those predicting blockbuster usage numbers and “big city”-feeling passenger volumes, simply because a tunnel now expresses beneath Capitol Hill, fundamentally misunderstand why the trains in big cities get so busy; they are bound to be disappointed. Far too many potential trips continue to suffer punitive access penalties and will remain easier to accomplish by virtually any other method of travel. The aforementioned intangible and universal “ease” of access and movement is why great city subway systems become the all-day defaults the boosters envision, and Sound Transit offers virtually no such ease for 99% of use cases. This is the direct result of the paucity of stops that Jarrett, inexplicably, has chosen to endorse above.

        • Hal O'Brien March 22, 2016 at 10:05 am #

          Hong Kong.

          MTR (the transit authority in Hong Kong) is in many ways a property developer that happens to own a subway. The stations themselves are largely malls, and in outlying areas, it’s MTR that’s building both apartment housing and substantial retail.

          In the US, DC Metro comes to mind. The before and after at Silver Spring, MD, is astounding.

          I look at the residential development along MLK Blvd., and it’s pretty obvious to me what’s going to happen – development close to transit is going to boom. It’s already happening.

      • RossB February 15, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

        Oh, and as far as Metro (the bus company) integrating better with Sound Transit (the rail company) it is too late. There is only so much Metro can do. The stops are not designed with bus integration in mind. You would have to move the rail line to make it work. Even the stops that are on major intersections, with crossing bus routes, are designed so poorly as to make a transfer miserable. The number of people who ride the 7, for example, is over 13,000. But less than 2,000 people use Link where the bus line crosses the rail line, despite the fact that it guarantees a much faster ride to downtown. It is just not worth the effort. Here is what one of the biggest proponents of Sound Transit said about that station:

        Basically it is the city of Seattle that is doing the heavy lifting. They are reconfiguring the streets in that area, and the result will be a little less awful transfer. They are spending millions on BRT that will be more effective than the billions Sound Transit will spend. I sure wish Sound Transit would change their ways and figure out how to build a system that served the region effectively — by serving the inner city well. Unfortunately they seem more interested in symbolic victories (e. g. more miles of track) than real improvements in transit mobility in the region.

    • brads June 16, 2016 at 1:41 am #

      I agree with most of your comments except the one claiming that Seattle is paying 100% of the taxes for the system. As you know, one of the financial principles that guides ST since its taxing authority was granted by the state legislature, and one that is often controversial in transit circles, is the subarea equity doctrine. There are five subareas within the regionwide transit agency’s jurisdiction.

  6. RossB February 15, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Seattle does pay 100% of the *Seattle* portion of light rail. Snohomish County (to the north of Seattle) pays 100% of its rail as well. It is called subarea equity.

    As for Sound Transit, you are most certainly right. It is a regional entity, and they have failed at the ballot box several times. Usually when they have focused on extending light rail to far flung suburbs. The first time it passed, the head of the group essentially said it had just enough rail for the city and just enough bus service to the suburbs to be popular (

    But all of that is politics. Who knows what people will vote for. Traffic is bad, and they may see this as the way out. Lots of drivers may think that the other guy will take the train, and they can continue to drive, because of course this won’t work for them.

    Because it never has before. There has never been a successful “string of pearls” system like this. Long, commuter rail systems usually have a backbone of solid inner-city transit. Rarely do they build the former without the latter. When the do, it is usually a failure. Again, I could see it working in Phoenix — a sprawling area with no real center. But even then, Phoenix has the good sense to not spend a fortune on their line.

    This is essentially the opposite of what works. Miles and miles of rail to very low density areas with no service in the inner city. It is the opposite of Toronto (a much bigger city). This will have more miles of track than Toronto, and provide a lot less. But the best comparison is Vancouver. Again, this will have way more miles of track (and cost a bunch more), but provide less. There just aren’t that many pearls outside the city, and despite spending billions to dig a hole, we managed to miss a few closer in.

    Just to be clear, I think a regional transit entity for the greater Seattle area makes sense. There are cross-jurisdictional issues. There are some very good BRT lines that end at the county border and they should be extended. Other express, city to city bus service also makes sense (and is quite popular). It also makes sense, in many cases, to extend the light rail line a bit beyond the sudden drop off in density that is evident in this case (really, it is striking — I encourage everyone to look at the census maps — you can see the city border just by looking at the change in color). Extending a subway line a bit into the suburbs so that it can better interact with express buses or commuter rail makes a lot of sense. But not at the expense of inner city rail service. That will hurt everyone. Not only the folks that live in the city, but those traveling from the suburbs.

  7. Jack Whisner February 24, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    There is still time for ST3 to be improved before it goes to the ballot. The spine in north Snohomish County, South King County, and Pierce County need not be costly Link. Under subarea equity, those areas could be provided a robust network of regional express bus and BRT lines. Sound Move already funded center access ramps in Lynnwood and Federal Way. Seattle, ST, and Metro had a prolonged struggle over the Mt. Baker design. Seattle is smarter now. Seattle, ST, and Metro had two prolonged struggles over the Northgate design; there is an acceptable one being built.

  8. Elle door May 4, 2016 at 12:42 am #

    glam rock

  9. brads June 16, 2016 at 2:09 am #

    I’m sorry, but I have to laugh when I see or hear people regurgitating Sound Transit talking points about the U-District link being completed 6 months early and US$150 million under budget. This section of light rail was part of Sound Move, the ten-year plan passed by voters back in 1996. This section of rail is ten years late and billions of dollars over budget. And, the line still doesn’t reach the original north terminus of NE 45th Street in the U-District.

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