The Seattle Transit Blog is like catnip for those who think about Seattle’s transit future as well as its present. Check out this new post by Ben Schiendelman regarding potential Seattle subway routes. As Ben notes it’s about vision rather than specifics for now, but an exc
Grade separated rail, whether subway or elevated, is not on many radar screens. The City is focusing on streetcars. Metro is mostly about buses, and while stabilized and free of the 80/20 rule is still underserving routes that are bursting with riders. Sound Transit’s circa 2005 long range plan (Beyond the Phase II program we’ve funded) talks about some extensions within Seattle but is mostly about bus rapid transit and suburban Link extensions such as an Eastside route around I-405. But for all the benefits of what is being planned, we aren’t doing much to improve movement of people on a lot of key in-city routes, including places that are quickly densifying.
One reason is probably the volume of what we’re doing now. Metro bus funding is only temporarily saved. Sound Transit has $20 billion in work underway or coming soon, only recently won its bridge vote, and faces the typical issue of lower tax collections. We’re building the 99 tunnel and probably much of 520, with the rest a funding debate waiting to happen. Seattle needs to find a more popular way of funding street repair, sidewalks, and key bike routes. Our plate is full! But we need way more improvement than that.
Lots of big discussions are needed. Here are three, partially following discussions on the Seattle Transit Blog:
1. Another Downtown transit tunnel.
The existing Downtown Transit Tunnel is full and slow already, as Link has to wait for buses. It’ll eventually be full, and faster, with Link alone. The BN Tunnel mixes freight, Sounder, and Amtrak, and BN is primarily about freight. We could put new streetcar and/or light rail lines on our avenues, but real estate is limited, rail and buses don’t mix easily, we need to be judicious about preserving car capacity, and surface rail is slow. For example, would you hold up a 200-foot train until a bus on the next block moves out of the way?
Another tunnel would be a massive undertaking, perhaps under Second Avenue to Belltown (crossing above the new 99) but would bring a lot of capacity for fast service. It could serve a new subway system, or multiple streetcar or light rail routes that could be above-grade elsewhere. This is a wild guess, but what if it could be done for $1.5 billion, which is more than three times the original Bus Tunnel cost? Ignoring politics, debt capacity, voter mood, etc., would it be worth it? A shallow tunnel project on Second would be tough on those of us who live and work nearby, but Second is pretty wide and a rail tunnel can be narrower than the Bus Tunnel (omitting passing lanes at the stations); maybe they could keep a lane or two open the whole time, unlike Pine in the 80s.
2. City funding of bus service.
Washington State funds Amtrak. Why can’t Seattle, where many bus routes are beyond jammed at rush hour and annoyingly infrequent and full in off-hours, do the same with Metro?
Even as Link and streetcars grow (slowly…), buses will always be a large percentage of our system, and provide a vast spider web of service not possible with rail, close to most residents and jobs in Seattle. Metro’s operating budget for 2011 is $547 million. What if Seattle voted another $50 million per year to augment in-city routes? I won’t guess what this would buy in service hours, and it’s hard to guess about facility needs, rolling stock, staffing, etc. But with a focus on aiding busy and underserved routes, we could turn a lot of 30 minute headways (frequencies) into 20 minute headways, some 15 minute headways into 10, etc. This would attract more riders, and improve quality of life for those who already ride. Retail districts would have readier access to customers, slightly fewer cars would jam the streets, and the new riders might save a heck of a lot of money, good for them and good for whatever other things they spend that money on. Seattle’s urban village growth model would work much better for everyone. All of this could happen relatively quickly at a cost that’s less than our outstanding low income housing levy for example.
3. Alternate heavy rail route northward.
Today it’s happened again…Amtrak, Sounder, and freight northward are down due to a landslide along Puget Sound. We need to stabilize some slopes, and it would be nice to move the tracks 20 feet to make it easier, which is extremely difficult due to shoreline regulations that are important to protect Puget Sound. There’s also a federal waiting period after a landslide, which like all things rail+federal, is far more stringent than most countries’ requirements, making sure that rail accidents kill a handful of riders per year (not counting trespassers!) vs. the 35,000 or 40,000 deaths via cars. We save a few more lives, while encouraging sedentary lifestyles and car accidents. In the best of times we have a significant track-capacity issue, related to our minimal Sounder and Amtrak service northward.
The solution might parallel that subway discussion. If we build a subway to Ballard or anywhere northward, with either a high bridge or a deep tunnel under the Canal, how about a two-decker tunnel with local service above and long-distance passenger service below? Others will know more about the challenges, and it would be a very large tunnel, but might it work? Make it a tunnel through the core city with the option of the long-distance service becoming a shallow ditch, or elevated, north of the subway portion.
The cost would be massive, including the dual-use segment and the rest of the route north to existing track, whether that would be Carkeek Park or even Everett. Diesel-electric trains require big air handling systems in tunnels, not to mention fire control, periodic emergency egress points (to the surface, or other rail tunnels then the surface), etc. A true “subway” route will often have an electrified third rail, which will kill anyone who touches it, and therefore it needs to be separate. Projects that don’t directly benefit the people next to them (like a new long-distance route to Everett) tend to be unpopular. It’s possible that it would be easier and cheaper to serve long-distance trains with a separate tunnel or major capacity and reliability improvements along the waterfront route…the point is figuring this out. Even massive costs tend to sound much smaller in a few decades, and tend to be minor compared to the size of the local economy.
Either way, a solution allowing frequent, fast, reliable Amtrak and Sounder service would benefit freight (our economy), commuters, intercity travelers, drivers, and developers. A single train can hold as many people as a sizeable office tower parking garage or a big chunk of competing traffic. Some airports along the Cascadia corridor might not need to expand so quickly, as Amtrak gains market share vs. commuter planes. The region could grow, as it will surely keep doing, without jamming every transportation mode as much.
Nobody expects a heavy rail tunnel to be hot topic in 2012, but improved bus funding should be discussed soon, and the time is right to talk about getting light rail through the CBD. Funding will require more than the typical generosity of Seattle voters, except the bus additions. Most will agree that the transportation needs are far greater than this post discusses, with needs beyond transit. But 2040 will look a heck of a lot better if we plan.