Monday, April 4, 2011

Is North Link Alignment Decided from the Get-Go?

SeaShore Transportation Forum: April 1, 2011

Last Friday, the SeaShore Transportation Forum met at Shoreline City Hall to discuss Sound Transit’s North Corridor Transit Project and a few other issues. First, Kenmore Mayor David Baker expressed concern that transportation earmarks like TIGER are being cancelled or delayed by congress, noting that Washington State is not slated to receive any federal transit funding this year. Baker also pointed out that many small cities depend on earmarks to fund road work and other transportation projects.

Then Sound Transit Government Relations Director Patrice Hardy and Capitol Hill Station/TOD lead Michelle Ginder presented their North Corridor Transit Project update. The project will connect Lynnwood to Northgate, at its eventual Link station. Sound Transit has already proposed a North Link light rail extension. However, to obtain a full federal grant, they must submit a thorough analysis comparing their plan to other alternatives. Sound Transit surveyed local residents, who expressed a preference for light rail over Bus Rapid Transit as well as an alignment along I5 or SR99 rather than along 15th Ave.

Sound Transit will analyze a light rail alignment along I5 and one along SR99 and decide in the Fall which is best. The I-5 option, their preferred alignment, goes straight to Lynnwood. It's the fastest, most cost effective route by their account. The SR99 route involves laying extra track west to 99 and then back to I5 in Lynnwood, which means it would be slower and more expensive. The upside is that it there is more opportunity for development along that corridor. Light rail could not run at-grade along 99 because there are too many traffic lights, while an elevated or underground line would be expensive. The main purpose is to connect Lynnwood to Northgate, so they prefer I5 because it does so more efficiently. North Link is intended to be a "backbone," and feeder lines can be considered later.

Councilmember Rasmussen warned that many of his constituents feel Central Link is too slow due to its at-grade segment in Rainier Valley. He encouraged Sound Transit to pick the fastest alignment, arguing that the main benefit of light rail is that it's faster, so slowing it down diminishes its value. He said that many of his constituents resent the light rail's detour through Rainier Valley, where it runs more slowly and has to deal with traffic lights (it couldn't have been elevated because Rainier Valley values its views of Rainier immensely and tunneling would have been very expensive).

King County Executive Alternate Chris Arkills defended the alignment, pointing out that the slower speed through Rainier Valley (for only 4 miles) only slows the trip to the airport by 4 minutes. He believes that ridership is more dependent on reliability than speed. "People don't care if it takes 33 minutes to get the airport instead of 29 minutes as long as the trains run often enough." He also said that ridership would have been low had Central Link bypassed Rainier Valley since few people would board along the Duwamish and there was less potential for development there, in contrast to the great potential for development in Rainier Valley. Thus, Arkills argued, efficiency must be balanced with reliability and potential for development. However, he supports the I5 alignment for the north corridor. Rasmussen acknowledged Arkills's points, clarifying that he was only referring to voter perceptions while implying that those perceptions should still be addressed.

Finally, they discussed Seattle’s upcoming commercial parking tax increases and UW’s bid to be exempted in order to fund their U-Pass program. While some agree with this, it has prompted other schools and hospitals to apply for exemptions as well, greatly complicating the situation.

Patrice from Sound Transit called me to let me know that they don't have a preferred alignment yet because they are still in the middle of the alternatives analysis process. The I-5 alignment is the "presumed alignment" in original the ST2 plan.

I initially attributed comments by Chris Arkills to Chris Eggen.


  1. If the City is that concerned with Link's speed in the Rainier Valley, they can change city law so the 35mph speed limit for cars on MLK doesn't also apply to rail.

    I-5 would be a disaster for climate change, TOD, and efficient system operation. It would mean stations surrounded by seas (if not above-ground garages) of parking. It would mean low ridership at each station, almost entirely concentrated in the a.m. and p.m. rush hours--southbound in the morning, northbound in the afternoon. Which then means we're paying the same amount of labor and fuel to run a whole lot of empty trains north in the morning and south in the afternoon. That's a recipe for low fare recovery ratio. If riders get to these suburban stations by car, all environmental benefit of North Link is wiped out. Fewer people can live within walking distance of Link. More people overspend on housing and transportation. Development potential around stations and capital investments in stations, trains, and track are squandered.

    This region has a knack for being penny-wise, pound-foolish. The residential and employment centers are on SR-99. The TOD development potential is on 99. ST may be able to build the I-5 alignment for less up front, but they'll get a far smaller return on their investment in the long run if they do. Just look at the Fairfax vs. Arlington segments of DC's Orange Line. Must we repeat the same mistake Fairfax County made 30 years ago? I hoped we'd learned something since I was a toddler.


    "In related news: a new study of transit-oriented development finds that transit lines spur tremendous amounts of new residential and commercial development. The only major exceptions are transit lines that run along or near highways, where auto-oriented transportation patterns 'limit…the amount of land that is truly transit-accessible…encourage…driving and necessitate…the provision of a large amount of parking, which limits both development density and the potential for a vibrant pedestrian-scaled environment.'"

    The I-5 alignment also throws away most of the potential for huge increases in tax revenue to municipalities.

  3. In general, I agree with Joe. Re: trains on the surface in the Rainier Valley, Mr. Eggen is part right, but reliability is, last I saw, in the 70% range due to train/vehicle, train/pedestrian, and mechanical breakdowns. Those are pretty high odds for someone need to catch a plane/be there 2 hours in advance of. Re: North Link, Mr. Eggen himself won't be able to take a bus to connect to a Link station at 145th, for the Park n' Ride lot there is small, NE 145th has been overcrowded for at least 30 years, and the only buses that dare ply those streets are during peak hours, weekdays, 4x-5x in each peak. Compare this to SR-99, which is loaded with regional destinations attractive to more than downtown Seattle commuters, and in both directions: Central Market, Shoreline Community College, the State Department of Transportation, the future Shoreline town center, Shoreline District Court, Aurora Village, Swedish Hospital-Edmonds, and Premera Blue Cross, the latter three connecting to Swift BRT. Street-level is the big issue, but the Interurban Trail runs nearby SR-99, and Sound Transit is supposedly researching how practical it is to run Link above that. It's interesting that speed is more of a concern for that segment.

  4. I-5 alignment being preferred is about two things before ridership:
    A. right of way is nearly free (credits exchanged with the state)
    B. how to get light rail to the fringes of the ST boundary the soonest (think both actual travel time as well as which year)

    At the technical level, also consider that ridership modelling tends to slightly over-value transit speed, over-represent transfer time penalty, and under-represent ridership in new markets and non-commute (e.g. 'outbound' commutes from seattle to lynnwood in the a.m. or the numerous commercial, recreational, shopping trips that occur due to the land uses along 99). All of this leads to the I-5 alignment having a slightly higher ridership projection. I don't buy it, just saying that's what I've seen in early data results.

  5. A minor correction: North Link is the name of the project which will connect University of Washington Station to Northgate. Northgate to Lynnwood is known as the "North Corridor Transit Project"

  6. The I-5 alignment might as well be called Sprawl Transit.