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City of Seattle

April 9, 1:42 PM click here to comment > 10

Light rail is possible on 520…and why we want it

A number of issues have been raised by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the City Council since I released the Nelson\Nygaard report on light rail on 520 earlier this week. I want to take a minute to address them.

SR 520 and the vision for a better regional light rail system

It has been stated that there is currently no plan at all for light rail in the 520 corridor. Using this as an excuse for not including light rail on 520 represents a lack of vision – pure and simple. Twenty years ago there was no plan and no funding for light rail in Seattle. Sound Transit didn’t even exist. Today, we have built a light rail line that connects Seattle neighborhoods to downtown and SeaTac international airport. Construction is underway to extend the line to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington. We have a fully funded plan to go all the way to Northgate and east to Bellevue. We have shown we are capable of thinking big about our future—a future that includes a transportation system that all the residents of our region can afford. The public sees and supports this larger vision. It is time for the elected leadership to catch up.

The cost of making SR 520 light rail ready

Some concerns have been raised over added costs to the project. Making the bridge stable enough for light rail means adding more pontoons under the mid-span of the bridge. That would cost more money, but it does not mean the project as a whole would be more expensive. First, the pontoons are coming in under budget ($150 million under budget, in fact). Second, by adding light rail, we can reduce the number of auto lanes from Union Bay to I-5, which will reduce the size of the footprint of 520 through most of the Seattle section. That could save a significant amount of money. And here’s the kicker — trying to retrofit the bridge for light rail after it is constructed is likely to be prohibitively expensive. The west end approach, which goes through the Arboretum and residential neighborhoods, is not engineered to incorporate light rail in the current state plan. Making the bridge light rail ready from the start is possible to do, and it will save us money over attempting to add it later.

The time it will take to design for light rail

Objections have been raised over delaying the project to plan properly for light rail. Nelson\Nygaard estimates that it will take an extra six months to a year to incorporate light rail into the plans for 520. That’s not very long. We are building a bridge for the next 75 to 100 years. We have one chance. It makes sense to take a little extra time to get it right.

We have seen that when it matters politically, elected leaders can take bold action on major transportation projects. For example, elected leaders chose a deep-bore tunnel for the waterfront after a lengthy stakeholder process resulted in two alternatives—an elevated rebuild and a surface, transit, and I-5 design—that did not suit them. We know that it is technically possible to design the bridge to accommodate light rail from the start. The question now is whether the leadership exists to make this critical investment in our region’s future.

Building light rail and how it impacts the number of lanes

The current State plan has six lanes of traffic going all the way from I-5 to Medina. The width of this existing plan could allow the shoulders to be narrowed and the lanes restriped to accommodate 8 lanes of traffic across the entire span. The plan I am proposing would prevent that by making SR 520 smaller where it counts – through Seattle’s neighborhoods. By dedicating the two new lanes to high capacity transit and connecting those lanes to the light rail station at the University of Washington, we can also ensure that there are only four lanes of traffic going from roughly Foster Island through to I-5. This will result in a significant reduction in the overall footprint of the bridge as it lands in Seattle. Moreover, by dedicating two of the six lanes to transit and future light rail, we will make it impossible to turn 520 into an eight lane highway because the additional lane width would be required to be used for light rail. Our city must act now, as we have in the past, to stop an expanded highway from degrading our neighborhoods and natural areas.

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Posted by: Mayor Mike McGinn


Comment from Matt the Engineer
Time April 9, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Thanks for this. It’s encouraging that our new mayor is willing to stand up against the state and local politicians to achieve a long-term vision. This can’t be an easy stance politically, but it’s the type of action I hoped for when voting for you.

Comment from Wilbur Watson
Time April 9, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Light rail moves at speeds of ~20 miles per hour (i.e., 37 minutes from Downtown to the Airport). It is not a sensible regional solution for long distance commutes in Puget Sound. Why take a bus to the station only to travel at a slower speed than an express bus? If the mayor wanted to put a fully fledged commuter train on SR520 I would support that.

Comment from Jeff Dubrule
Time April 9, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Is 520 really the optimal corridor for Light rail? It’s nice for driving on because the corridor it follows skirts the dense neighbourhoods/cities of Capitol Hill, U-District, Bellevue and Kirkland.

However, for light rail, you want as direct a route right through as many urban centers as you can.

Instead of building rail over 520, how about building a two-track light-rail-only bridge from Sand Point directly to Kirkland? The route would therefore go from Ballard, along Market/45th through the U-district (connecting with Central/North Link at the Brooklyn station), then up along Sand Point Way, across to Kirkland, then on to Redmond?

Comment from JB
Time April 9, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Mike McGinn – Talking out of both sides of your mouth again.

Using public safety as an issue to get the seawall done as opposed to the already approved viaduct plan. But not thinking about expediency and public safety in the event of an earthquake when talking about 520.

Convenient, eh?

Comment from MIKE
Time April 9, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Forget light rail. It is a big waist of money and does not reduce traffic. Why can’t all the light rail proponents admit this? What is in it for them?

Just biuld the bridge already andf make it eight lanes so it actually does imporve traffic.

Comment from Dan
Time April 10, 2010 at 7:55 am

This is leadership! Thank you.

Comment from Michael
Time April 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm

LOL @ some of the comments. The relative speed of light rail (even using the useless calculations of “Wilbur”) is still much faster than traffic at rush hour.

And re: Mike, “reducing traffic” is not the goal (and would never happen anyway, even if they put the entire Sound Transit budget into roads).

The goal is to give smart people an option to get to work much easier, with much less impact, and in the end (depending on how many people wise up and use it) lower costs all around.

That said, 520 looks like a poor use of City funds, considering ST has no plans to use it in the foreseeable future. It might be more cost-effective to tunnel under the lake a la BART (and save up for the 15-20+ years before that corridor is even considered) – but I understand the Mayor is philosophically against things that go under the ground.

Comment from Michael H. Wilson
Time April 10, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Have you considered looking at alternatives such as opening the market to private providers of transit services? According to an article from the Journal of Law and Economics that I came across some time ago, in 1915 the city of Seattle had 518 jitneys that in February of that year provided 49,000 passengers with transportation daily.

Cities such as Stockholm and Helsinki are using private providers and in Curitiba, Brazil, which may have one of the best transportation systems in the world, private companies provide the services.

I could go on but I think you get the picture. The citizens deserve to be told why and how it is that the government came to be the provider of urban transit.

What is the history of laws relating to private operators?

Comment from Matt
Time April 16, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I support mass transit including light rail. It seems to me that light rail would have a snowball effect. Once people use it, they’ll like it, and more people will want it. Buses are fine but the way it currently works to get to the East side, you have to either start from a transit center, downtown, or deal with a transfer at Montlake that might be 20 minutes. This is something we need to do. I’ve been to cities like Berlin that have ridiculously good transit despite that those European cities were laid out centuries ago. If they can do it and reduce the car traffic, so can we.

Comment from Carroll
Time April 26, 2010 at 11:07 pm

I think it would be great. It will cut down on congestion and parking problems. If there is a special event downtown, it will make it easier to get around.