How to Improve Seattle Light Rail

January 18, 2010

If you live in Seattle, you’ve heard of, and possibly grumbled at, the Light Rail line that’s running from SEATAC (more recently only Tukwila) to downtown Seattle. Due to its hefty price tag (often cited at 4.3 billion dollars), its invasion into communities, and its lack of effectiveness, many in the greater Puget Sound area have expressed dismay at its construction.

If you’re not happy with Light Rail now, you’ll have to wait 6 years (barring no setbacks) to be more unhappy, as the University Link will connect downtown with the UW campus in 2016. Construction of Light Rail between SEATAC and Tacoma is also being discussed, mainly to keep other Puget Sound residents happy.

So, why exactly is the cost so high (sometimes three times the cost per mile of other US Light Rail systems)? I believe there are two reasons:

  1. It was built to use federal tax dollars. This led to trying to create a plan that made it appear it would be better than rapid bus transit and thus getting it federally funded. Unfortunately, the numbers were kind of fudged. It would have been more helpful than rapid bus transit if it was planned with the intent to help commuters.
  2. Seattle is hilly. There’s no way around this. Drilling is expensive and time consuming.

I don’t intend to imply that Light Rail is unnecessary and that rapid bus transit, or promoting car pooling, is the wave of the future. Those are good ideas, but I do believe mass transit is necessary in the Sound, as between Seattle, Tacoma, and the Eastside, there are over three million people, many of which work in the three major urban centers. I also will admit to being a little biased when it comes to Seattle Light Rail as it has probably added a few minutes to my daily commute. This annoys me greatly.

But instead of ranting about the turd King County Metro dropped on the Sound in the form of Seattle Light Rail (sorry, had to let some frustration out), I will offer suggestions for improvements. These improvements are guided by what I think should have been the goals of Light Rail to begin with:

  1. Cheap
  2. Gets cars off the road
  3. Useful to tax payers
  4. Environmentally efficient

With those goals in mind, here are some suggestions:

  1. Copy others. **This is obvious. You know, the whole learn from others/don’t repeat history line. While I appreciate Seattle’s independent spirit, it pains me to think there’s a much better Light Rail system a few hours south in Portland, a town that has a comparable if smaller metropolitan population. While it’s probably too late, it’s also possible Light Rail wasn’t the answer for mass transit in Seattle. **
  2. Change the way fares are paid. **So why exactly must random police officers and metro officials hop on trains and ask people for their passes? Not only is this annoying as a rider, it hopelessly inefficient, hard to understand (I get asked how you pay a couple times a week), will not scale with greater size, and is needlessly expensive. Seeing as how Light Rail doesn’t take or give transfers, stations should be pay to get in. Very simple, easy to understand, easy to implement, and more efficient. Also, the fact that many people get free rides only lessens the great investment by Puget Sound taxpayers. **
  3. Parking. This might be the biggest complaint and most necessary change. Why will people, who have never been interested in riding your buses, take your train if they can’t get to the station? While no one expects parking downtown, many of the outlying stations have no reason not to provide more parking, at economical costs, especially Tukwila. I have no doubts that building a few parking garages would increase ridership.** **
  4. Make the tunnels light rail only. **Why why why do buses share the tunnel with light rail. All they manage to do is back each other up. Why can’t Light Rail just operate between downtown stations, and use International District and Westlake as connection points for buses? If the problem is fares, just make the downtown tunnel free, all the time. Is there cost to this? Yes, unless you follow my next point of advice. **
  5. Automate cars where possible. Are operators necessary? This is supposed to be a futuristic town. One that was able to build the Monorail in a year for a couple million for the 1962 World’s fair. Unfortunately, it’s over 40 years later and mass transit is just being implemented. To be fair, it has its own share of problems, is less than a mile long, and is elevated. Why not spark the imagination of the world by implementing autonomous rail (okay, they exist, but not in the US)? Sure, it could be costly, but it could just operate in the downtown tunnel. Which brings me to my next point…
  6. Service downtown areas independently and more frequently. People are constantly trying to get to, from, and around downtown. The free ride zone is helpful, but wouldn’t it be more cost effective to have constantly running autonomous trains in the downtown tunnel? There could be a train every minute at every stop during peak hours. No more 10 bus pile ups only to not see another bus/train for 10 minutes. Also, being autonomous allows the trains to run all day, even if at longer intervals. ****
  7. Add express trains (hopefully not light rail). The fact is the majority of people use light rail to get to and from the airport from downtown Seattle. While I understand people live between those two locations and need to be serviced, waits at each stop take way too long considering the trains’ sluggishness. The 194 can take me from ID to SEATAC in 20 minutes. I often have to spend an extra five to ten minutes on Light Rail (longer when it was stopping at Tukwila). The answer? Add express trains between the tunnel and SEATAC. Yes, you’ll need an extra rail, but they can run less frequently, and you’re guaranteed they’ll be used. And please, don’t use light rail. There’s about 15 miles to cover, which could probably take 10 minutes on a modern train system.****
  8. Worry about Seattle. **So I understand Sound Transit operates Light Rail, and you have to make all taxpayers happy. Unfortunately they’re failing, and if certain taxpayers don’t believe they need mass transit, that’s fine. Seattle should be sure it provides the world class transit its residents deserve. I don’t want to promote creating yet another separate transit system, but as long as you operate the same technology, integration can happen down the road. **
  9. **Lay tracks on grass. **This is more an aesthetic touch, but being Seattle, you’d think making mass transit nature friendly and visually appealing would be a priority. Why not lay tracks on grass? Making it more a natural part of life allows for better integration. And hey, if you’re worry about cutting the grass, I’m sure the goats want some larger territory than the park above I-5.

  1. Expand quickly, even at cost. We’re in a rough economic situation where people are in need of jobs. While I’m not promoting New Deal era programs, I don’t see a reason why the University Link should take 6 more years. If you have workers, expanding quickly should be a priority. It creates jobs as well as promotes business and commerce and quickly connects much of the city. While gas is cheap, it will begin to rise as the economy gets better, and you’ll quickly see commuters garage their SUVs if they have valid mass transit options.****

While I’m sure I’ve left a few key improvements out, I think this would be a good start.