Questions: Seattle, Light Rail, and Increasing The Standard of Life in the City?

The Negative

I’ve given Seattle (specifically Metro and Sound Transit) a lot of crap over the years. Overall they do an ok job, I do think they spend WAY too much money on what they’re building. For whatever reason Sound Transit just keeps on suggesting these cut and cover, dig and cover, elevated, and tunnel bore type routes which are insanely expensive. They’re building light rail like it is heavy rail, which puts light rail in the heavy rail price range without the carrying capacity. This leaves me perplexed. This also leaves the Seattle area with very little light rail that could be serving hundreds of thousands of riders by now if it didnt’ get stuck every time it is up for vote or pulled off the “build queue” because it is so blasted expensive.

As I’ve said before, there are prime examples of how to use light rail to our south and north of the city. Vancouver BC carries more people on light rail than the entire Seattle Metro System, and it is only a couple of lines. Portland carries over a hundred thousand people a day on its line, with a per ride cost that is vastly lower than Sound Transit Link Light Rails costs now or will ever cost even with additions. All of this amounts to a lot of scary budget problems and other concerns that I have about Sound Transit.

Overall, it looks more like this whole light rail effort of Sound Transit’s is somewhat misplaced, overpriced, and won’t actually serve to create or expand town centers in core areas that it will serve.

The Positive

Looking at the east side line provides a glimpse into an amazing service potential. Uninterrupted by traffic, unencumbered by the inefficiencies of diesel, hybrid power, or even rubber on road concerns Bellevue could be connected 365 days a year through almost any conditions. Cold weather concerns in this area wouldn’t even bother light rail, the destructive nature of chained tires on buses goes away for this route. Increased capacity to move people between Bellevue and Seattle increases by a substantial percent.

Over a period of 30 years of operation, the net cost of light rail, even with some of the above mentioned design cost concerns, would be equivalent to that of similar bus operations with lower capacity.  (Keep in mind this is in comparison to the usual 18-22 years it usually takes for light rail to recoup and become cheaper than equivalent bus service, after which light rail only becomes a smaller and smaller cost compared to equivalent bus service)

Additionally the amount of “choice” riders will increase based on empirical ridership numbers. The town centers that are served (Bellevue and Seattle) will gain foot traffic that, some realize, is vastly more valuable and less costly to service than auto based traffic. The Overlake Transit Center area, pending Microsoft maintains itself as a dominant employer in the area, will become even more intensely utilized. In addition Microsoft itself could probably even woo additional talent from downtown (which it often desperately wants to do – re: Connector).

The Questions

In the end though, will this work? Will Seattle be able to provide the funds for this? Will Seattle get enough support from the Federal Government? Is the potential payoff even worth it compared to a cheaper implementation of light rail? Why is Seattle, at least by action, ignoring lessons learned in Denver, Portland, San Francisco, and Vancouver? Will people really use the system in enough numbers to validate its massive cost per mile? Already auto based transportation is draining this country of monetary resources, inefficiencies, and now we continue to fall into hock to support it. But can we do better with well built transit services? Will we recoup enough efficiencies from this to save so much of our decaying standard of life? Will Seattle’s (via Sound Transit) ongoing attempts to build out light rail actually build up the town centers within this city?

What’s your take? I’d love to know. Please comment!  Cheers  🙂

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24 Comments

    1. They dig & cover, or raise every inch of the system. Looks like they’re planning for that on the new stretch too. That easily makes the cost 10x what it is, and considering what we could get with light rail without doing that it seems uncalled for. Technically, that isn’t really an opinion. Just looking at the build costs of existing systems, labor and materials, the only reasons Sound Transit is blowing so much money are these grand attempts to keep the light rail off of existing ground (for various reasons, some good reasons and some bad reasons).

      Reply

      1. Dig: So what’s your plan for U-Link? Run it at-grade up Eastlake?
        Cover/Raise: Keeps it flat and straight so the speedometer hits the peg. Also prevents stuff like this.

        What are these “good reasons” for an at-grade alignment? (other than cost)

  1. 1. What light-rail are you referring to in Vancouver, BC?
    2. For all of MAX’s hype, we have higher transit mode share and lower SOV mode share for the work trip, even when all we had was buses stuck in traffic.
    3. A lot of the routing decisions aren’t the fault of Sound Transit, but rather parochial local governments. Witness the nonsensical routing through Tukwila (where ST wanted an at-grade alignment along International Boulevard) and the shenanigans in Bellevue. I’m told politics also played a role in siting the OMF in SODO, which required tunneling under Beacon Hill.
    4. Frankly I don’t have a problem with building Link more like a metro than a traditional light-rail system.

    Reply

    1. 1. The Skytrain, I understand it isn’t “light rail” from a marketing perspective, but the equipment is for all practical purposes the same albeit automated. It can be used as comparison easily, all the stats and functionality are there. Everyday the city proves what can be done with such a system.
      2. Mode share? Lower SOV? Can you point me to some links on that? I haven’t seen evidence of this over the last few years. I’m becoming less and less convinced the Urban area of Seattle has anywhere near the ridership. But I’ve not seen numbers on that either. Unless you add every transit system in the region together plus all the car share and other services. If you take that into account Seattle does well, but that’s some serious cost and effort that Portland never spent a penny on. Don’t even bring bikes into the equation it gets crazy out of favor then – for whatever odd reason.
      3. Politics or not, politicians make horrible decision makers when it comes to the functional purpose of transit systems. But I doubt many would disagree with that, if they do, I just say look at the evidence (in almost every major city in existence) of the bad decision making that politics makes when building transit, rarely do we users get a good ideal system.
      4. I don’t either, except if Seattle ever wants a true metro/heavy rail system they’ll have to tear up the whole light rail system. Otherwise it is fine. 🙂

      Reply

      1. Great post, Adron. But I disagree with your cynicism over Link’s high cost. It’s cost are in line with other grade-separated systems. It’s a case of “you get what you pay for.” I have ridden heavy rail and light rail side by side in Boston. The only difference is the width of the car. Heavy rail feels more spacious. If in 30 years when Link’s cars wear out, and more capacity is needed, “heavy rail” cars can be ordered. The boarding height could be different, but custom cars could be ordered or the platforms could be raised.

        Long term the weak “link” is the at-grade Rainier Valley segment. I understand that traffic control requirements limit te headway to 5 minutes – which barely qualifies as rapid transit.

      2. 1. SkyTrain? Really? You’re going to lambast Sound Transit for building light rail with tunnels and bridges and then compare us to a fully grade-separated automated rapid-transit system? Really? Also, Vancouver, BC doesn’t have a highway in its downtown.
        2. It appears the source I had for the transit mode share only considered the city itself and not the metropolitan area. I’ll see if I can find a better source for this comparison.
        3. Show me a city where engineers and service planners make the decisions, and I’ll move there in a heartbeat.
        4. I challenge that. The thing that really matters for a true metro system is grade separation. In 10 years we will have a fully grade-separated rail system connecting Northgate with Mercer Island via the U-District and downtown Seattle (and the highest demand is between Northgate and downtown anyway).

        If you’re talking about the rolling stock, we could increase capacity by about 50% with the existing platforms by using heavy-rail cars. The thing that really matters there is that such cars, unlike light-rail rolling stock, are not designed to collide with automobiles. The OMF is separated from the DSTT by 3 grade crossings with full gates. Someone once told me that the Chicago El has one such crossing (I’m not sure if that’s true), but it’s possible that using heavy-rail cars on trips that turn back at Stadium would be acceptable.

        If there’s one thing that Link proves, it’s that the difference between light rail and a metro is not black-and-white. There is a spectrum. Mayor McGinn likes to refer to Link as Cadillac light rail, I prefer to call it a Geo Metro. *rimshot*

  2. Tim :

    Dig: So what’s your plan for U-Link? Run it at-grade up Eastlake?
    Cover/Raise: Keeps it flat and straight so the speedometer hits the peg. Also prevents stuff like this.

    What are these “good reasons” for an at-grade alignment? (other than cost)

    In Texas. People in TExas are “special”. That barely happens at all in Portland and there is a LOT of in street running. I understand the need for it, but it also costs 10x as much as any light rail system in the country, and so far has yet to prove that it will even carry as many people…

    …thus my complaint. Let’s seriously get to building some light rail and getting what’s considered by planners to be a higher grade/quality transit system to get people riding again. I’ve fine with the plans as is, but we could have a LOT more already than we have.

    Reply

    1. In response to Matthew Loar’s #7:
      1) Seth Meyers in the house!
      3) Oh they “make the decisions” but the politicians and common folk override them because those people have “no idea how things work” because they’re stuck “at a desk”!

      Reply

  3. Adron :
    Ok, compare the Green Line.
    1/10th the cost, very similar ridership.

    Few property acquisitions. No tunnel. LACMTA already had a light rail infrastructure. We had to build an OMF from scratch.

    Reply

    1. Yup, all valid concerns, still the cost is there. Which means there is that much LESS being built to attain ridership with and get people out of cars. I’ll have to write an entry to outline the consequences, which is what I really want to know how the city and Sound Transit intend to mitigate. The city doesn’t have endless money, the the money available is shrinking rapidly. As inflation continues to devalue the currency and what we can get with our dollars, it is starting to be very doubtful Sound Transit will be able to build even a small percentage of what it has promised. The system is at threat, and these very high costs aren’t helping the situation.

      …it appears Sound Transit has few if any solutions that require less extensive and costly work to be done. Because in the end, all that matters is if a system gets built or not.

      Reply

      1. ???

        Theirs was cheaper because they didn’t have to build as much. What do you mean by “still the cost is there”?

        Also, have you heard of this thing called “interest”?

      2. Wait, I just realized you meant Portland’s Green Line, not the one in LA. I have no idea what ridership is on LA’s lines, but I find it hard to believe that any line in LA would have 22k a day.

  4. I think your way under-estimating the North Line (Thru Seattle). Since I live up this way, I can shed some light for you. First, I think if you compare the light rail path North Tunneling blah blah as if TriMet tried to run Light Rail thru inner SE, or inner NE, Tunneling would be the ONLY option, no one is going to want that thing rolling by their front yard. Its just too dense to run it at grade, or even elevated thru the area its headed. Secondly, I honestly think the Northline to at least Northgate should have got built first. The South Line as it is replaced the 194, which was packed, but ran at 15-30min headways, I think it was 10 during rush hour. As it stands, the 41 runs as close as 4 min apart during rush hour and almost every bus is packed solid. The 71-74 routes are busy, almost any day, any time (74 during peak direction only). The north line i am confident will not disappoint. You can have feeder buses from 65th in both directions (Wedgwood and Greenlake areas) for example, and Northgate TC will feed on itself, but will have routes serving it as well. Like Tim mentioned, your comparing systems built in the 80’s to systems built in the late 2000’s. Its Apples to Watermelons, those systems have had time to grow. Calgary Transit (Which I just visited) runs 3 car trains, which are busy almost anytime of day, but most of those lines are 20-30 years old now, they are established. The Green Line in Portland has ridership because of the I-84 segment, but if you want to compare, the Yellow Line as it is now is a complete and utter failure. I know it has high hopes of Vancouver WA someday, but its been open what, nearly 10 years, and ridership is still low on it. It really goes where no one needs it. I do think there are a lot of people that would rather have MAX go into East Vancouver, where people actually live over DT Vancouver.

    I do however, think that STs grand glassy stations are over doing it. Why cant we have SF BART entrances, or NY Subway style entrances, simple, low street level foot print, even Vancouver BCs stations below ground are minimal on the surface (BTW The Canada Line is all underground in Vancouver City Limits except Marine Drive for good comparisons, and cut/cover outside Downtown). They all have one entrance, most the size of a Starbucks.

    So in my summary, The North Line will have ridership, between Northgate, and UW riders, I think it will do well. I just don’t know how aware you were of how busy those routes really are right now. The only downside is travel times will be a bit longer, but keeping it off the streets helps it be more reliable in the end. =)

    Reply

    1. punkrawker4783 :
      Why cant we have SF BART entrances, or NY Subway style entrances, simple, low street level foot print, even Vancouver BCs stations below ground are minimal on the surface

      Can’t see it? Can’t ride it.

      TIBS is a good example of something that seems overbuilt. But if you look at the geography, there’s not much else you can do.
      1) The tracks have to pass no less than 12 feet above the surface of the road for truck clearance, and I’m sure there’s some law that makes it even higher than that. So the bottom edge of the guideway is 15+ feet off the ground, and the guideway is some 4 feet thick. So the tracks enter the station at 20 feet above the level of the roadway.
      2) The ground slopes down as does the freeway that runs parallel. So on the “airport side” we’re already at least 20 feet above the ground, and unless we want a sloping platform, the whole thing needs to be level. That means that the “non airport side” is going to be ridiculously high off the ground. And, there’s a huge bank off International Blvd, so the station footings make it sit even higher off the ground.
      The result is that we end up with this huge above ground station, all because we need trucks to pass under and a platform that’s level.

      Reply

      1. I meant in regards to the underground stations, I’m sorry, I should have been more clear. The above ground stations ST builds are comparable to most elevated stations, its the massive entrances to underground stations they are planning. While I get your can’t see it dilemma, its not like a clothing store, were not trying to sell anything here to the impulse shopper, either you know its there, or you dont.

  5. punkrawker4783 :
    I meant in regards to the underground stations, I’m sorry, I should have been more clear. The above ground stations ST builds are comparable to most elevated stations, its the massive entrances to underground stations they are planning. While I get your can’t see it dilemma, its not like a clothing store, were not trying to sell anything here to the impulse shopper, either you know its there, or you dont.

    A hypothetical conversation that has likely taken place by two people passing by a visible station:
    Person 1: “There’s that light rail station. I’ve still never been on it”
    Person 2: “You should, it’s really nice!”

    Reply

  6. Okay, I looked up the statistics from the 2009 American Community Survey.

    For the cities themselves:
    Seattle SOV: 53.8%
    Seattle Transit: 18.6%
    Portland SOV: 61.1%
    Portland Transit: 12.4%

    For the Metropolitan Statistical Areas:
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue SOV: 70.0%
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Transit: 8.0%
    Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton SOV: 71.5%
    Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton Transit: 6.3%

    There’s a lot of good data in the Census and ACS. I think this may end up an ATN post.

    Reply

    1. I’m perplexed by those numbers, as the actual ridership + population doesn’t add up to that at all. :/

      …blagh, that’s means I’m gonna have to sit down to figure out WTF the Census did vs. the actual city stats vs. fed stats vs. TriMet/Metro/ST stats…

      …sometimes having an interest/hobby in transit is a total pain in the ass. 😦

      Reply

  7. Tim :
    Wait, I just realized you meant Portland’s Green Line, not the one in LA. I have no idea what ridership is on LA’s lines, but I find it hard to believe that any line in LA would have 22k a day.

    L.A. has a dozen or so bus lines that get more than 22,000 a day — apiece.

    L.A.’s Green Line is carrying about 40,000 today. Blue Line is 80,000. Gold Line is 33,000 and growing, and the subway is 145,000.

    Reply

    1. I was just using the Green Line, as it is more modern construction comparable to that of Sound Transit’s Link. But yeah, both the PDX and SEA light rail lines aren’t much for ridership compared to a lot of those lines in LA. The Blue Line was awesome when I was down last (when we met). The subway, at 145k, could still increase in ridership in a massive way – but I gotta say it is one of the nicest subways in the country. At least IMHO. 🙂

      Reply

  8. Thanks for the good words, Adron. And the meet-up was very much fun. I had hoped to go to tour the Northwest this year, but finances (namely medical bills and mandatory work furloughs) put those plans on hold. 😦

    The subway has been in a slump this year — 145,000 is still tremendous. Considering that it travels on bits and pieces of Wilshire, Vermont and Hollywood, the subway carries more passengers than the combined ridership of the bus lines above it, covering the entire length of those streets. If you were to combine bus and rail, you’d have 200,000 Metro riders along Wilshire and about 190,000 on Vermont.

    For the Northwest, you might not see L.A. numbers because the population isn’t that large. With Seattle’s system, in particular, you may see very good productivity when Link is built out. Seattle has the advantage of geographical constraints, which concentrates ridership. The moonshot is coming when the University District extension is built.

    Reply

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