After nearly three decades of delays and inaction, the State of Washington’s largest city is now embarking on a ‘big bang’ light rail expansion that will transform the region.
A little over 160km (100 miles) south of the Canadian border, Seattle is the largest city in the State of Washington. Although not the state capital, that honour falling to Olympia some 100km (60 miles) to the south, its location on Puget Sound at the eastern end of a direct sea corridor from the Pacific Ocean has enabled the city to develop into one of the biggest ports in the US. However, this location has proved both a positive and negative function in the city’s development due to prime real estate prices and limited surface room for dedicated transit lines.
With a population of just over 600 000, Seattle’s position on an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington has constrained freeway construction with only I-5 running north-south through the city; the I-405 city bypass is on the eastern side of Lake Washington. The Metropolitan area has a population of around 3.5 million – and is growing rapidly. In fact, Seattle as a whole is one of the fastest growing in the whole of North America according to the latest census figures.
Seattle was founded in 1851 and incorporated as a city in 1869. Local businessman Frank Osgood introduced horse-drawn streetcars in 1884 and, after a brief flirtation with cable-operation, launched an electric operation in 1889. That made Seattle the first city on the west coast to offer a fully electric streetcar service. Vested interests, lack of finance and a lack of investment led to their complete demise by 1940 when trolleybuses took over.
Today there are 15 trolleybus routes operating across a 109km (68-mile) system; motorbuses provided the remaining transport provision until the arrival of light rail. Hydroelectric power supplies the system, generated from dams in the adjoining mountains.
In the early 1970s it became obvious that public transport provision was inadequate, although it would be almost 30 years before light rail construction would begin. Some progress was made inbetween, however, as in 1990 the first dual-mode articulated trolleybuses started running through the 2.1km (1.3-mile) transit tunnel under
3rd Avenue between International District and the Westlake Center. Here a connection to the Seattle Monorail, built in 1962 for the World’s Fair and still in operation over a slightly shorter 1.6km (one-mile) guideway today, was later established. The tunnel then turned east to reach the surface at a large bus turning area at the Convention Center.
Rail tracks were laid in anticipation of the arrival of light rail service and articulated trolleybuses were purchased to operate through the tunnel in electric mode, drawing current from the overhead before switching to diesel power after leaving the tunnel.
Following voter approval in 1996, Sound Transit was formed by the State of Washington as the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA), responsible for public transport provision in the three counties in its service area, Pierce, King and Snohomish.
Forging the Link
After many years of debate and indecision, a USD500m Federal Transit Administration grant was received in 2003 that allowed construction of the first part of the link from the Downtown Transit tunnel at Westlake to SeaTac International Airport to begin.
The original tracks laid in 1990 were unsuitable for the LRVs planned to operate the service, however, and needed to be replaced. At the same time the decision was taken to remove the trolleybus overhead and purchase hybrid diesel buses for operation through the tunnel once it reopened.
Light rail service began in mid-2009 from Westlake to Tukwila International Boulevard, extending to the airport at the end of the year. The 27.8km (17.4-mile) route has 13 stations and operates on a mix of grade, elevated and tunnel alignments, with another underground station at Beacon Hill. The first four stations are also underground using the transit tunnel, the last being at International District/Chinatown which is located less than 50m from King Street Amtrak and Sounder stations.
The alignment emerges just north of Stadium and runs parallel with the south busway as far as SODO station. The line then turns east, passing the main storage and maintenance facility to the south, before entering the Beacon Hill tunnel. It emerges again just north of the Mount Baker station onto an elevated alignment. After this stop the alignment descends to the median of Martin Luther King Jr Way South where there are a further three stations. Leaving the most southerly at Rainier station the line returns to the elevated route for the remaining two stations at Tukwila International Boulevard and SeaTac Airport. At Tukwila there is a large 600-space park-and-ride facility and bus connections. Whilst the airport station is close to the terminal, it still requires a short walk through a car park.
Construction is underway on two extensions and an eastern branch: the first is a 2.6km (1.6-mile) continuation of the elevated alignment south from the airport to the Angle Lake Station at 200th Street in the city of SeaTac. Scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2016, the project is expected to cost USD383m. A further extension to Kent/Des Moines is planned to open in 2023. There is a further aspiration to continue the alignment southwards to Federal Way and on to Tacoma – although this is still at the initial planning stage so no costs, funding allocation or timescales are currently available.
The second extension looks northward to Lynnwood. The first 5km (three-mile) segment is entirely underground, taking the route to the University of Washington with one intermediate station at Capitol Hill where there will be an interchange with the under-construction First Hill streetcar (scheduled to open before the end of 2015). This is budgeted to cost USD1.9bn. The next 6.9km (4.3 miles) will take the alignment to Northgate in 2021, again largely underground before emerging on to an elevated trackway just south of the Northgate Transit Center. The budgeted cost for this second phase is USD2.1bn.
As the majority of this line is underground, this is one of the most expensive light rail projects in the US at USD4bn for just under 12km (7.45 miles) or just over USD333m/km
(almost USD537m/mile). The high cost is a consequence of geography and the need to put more than 90% of the alignment underground. The final 13.7km (8.5-mile) extension to Lynwood has just gone into the final design stage, with no finalised costs but with an aspiration to open in 2023.
The planned eastern branch is a 22.4km (14-mile) ten-station route from downtown Seattle through Bellevue to the Overlake Transit Center in Redmond. The alignment will leave the current route just north of the Stadium station to join the I-90 median across Lake Washington. Now at the stage of final design, a budget of USD2.8bn has been set, alongside a planned opening of 2023. With the other new routes, this will be another transformational year for the region.
Fleet and services
The Link is currently operated by 62 six-axle, double-ended articulated LRVs built under a contract with the Kinkisharyo/Mitsui joint venture and delivered between 2006 and 2014. Each 70% low-floor vehicle is 29m long, 2.65m wide and 3.75m tall with four doors
on each side drawing overhead power at 1500V dc – the higher voltage allows fewer substations, reduces wire heating and line loss leading to life extension of the overhead. There is a maximum operational running speed of 88km/h (55mph).
Whilst the car frames and bodyshells were built in Japan, final assembly took place inside a Boeing aircraft hangar in Seattle and thus the vehicles complied with Buy America provisions.
The LRVs can operate in up to four-car trains although two-car trains are currently the norm with plans to use four-car trains by 2021. The current fleet is sufficient for the new lines opening in 2016, but will need to be expanded for the 2021 and 2023 extensions. All vehicles are maintained at a large facility just off the current route between the SODO station and the Beacon Hill station and the yard has capacity for 104 LRVs. When the fleet expands from its current level to an expected 184 by 2030 a new facility will be needed and Sound Transit has recently selected a site on the planned eastern branch between Bellevue and Redmond. This is expected to cost USD380m and is scheduled to open in 2020.
Until recently there was little fare integration as each operator has a different fare structure. The rechargeable ORCA (One Regional Card for All) smartcard immediately changed that upon its launch in 2009. Initially costing USD5, it can be charged for single or multiple tickets or for monthly passes on a calendar basis. Day passes can be purchased using an ORCA card, but are only valid on the card issuers’ own services. The card is valid on all public transport services across the three counties , including ferries, providing seamless transfer between modes.
Sound Transit operates a distance-based fare system with the minimum base fare
(in October 2015) of USD2.25, rising in 25 cent increments to a USD3 maximum; there are the usual concessions for the young, old and those with restricted mobility. Light rail tickets are available from ticket machines at all stations or online. It should be noted that King County Metro, the main bus operator in the area, uses a differential system for peak and off-peak services.
Link begins operations at around 05.00 on weekdays and generally provides ten-minute headways with the last service completing its journey at 01.00; frequency is enhanced to every six minutes in the peak and is reduced to every 15 minutes in the evenings and at weekends.
Some 65km (approx. 40 miles) south of Seattle at the foot of Puget Sound is the city of Tacoma. Here Sound Transit operates a 2.6km (1.6-mile) single-track LRT line from Tacoma Dome, location of the main transit centre, and the Amtrak station to the city’s Theatre District. Opened in 2003, the line is fare-free until 2016 when fares of USD1.50 will be introduced, USD0.75 for youths, seniors and riders with disabilities. Service is provided every 12 minutes by a pair of Škoda 10T three-section double-ended streetcars
similar to those in use in Portland, and operating at 750V dc.
Plans are in place for a 3.9km (2.4-mile) six-station extension from the Theatre District to the Stadium and Hilltop district. Although still at only 30% design stage, the USD175m project has already received a funding contribution of USD75m from the Federal Government and the city of Tacoma has already received USD33m of its USD40m local requirement. The remaining USD50m is planned to come from Sound Transit local tax income. It is hoped the line can open in 2018.
South Lake and First Hill
Seattle has one operating streetcar line with another under construction. The South Lake Union Streetcar opened in 2007 and is a short 2.1km (1.3-mile) seven-stop line starting outside the Westlake Center and continuing north to its terminus on Fairview Avenue at Campus Drive where there is a stub end buffer stop in the centre of the street. It is operated by three Inekon 12 Trio double-ended three-section streetcars (two required for service), based at a small depot on Husky Street on a short spur to the east of the route.
The First Hill line is a 4km (2.5-mile) route starting at the Occidental Mall on South Jackson Street near its junction with 1st Avenue. Expected to open in 2016, the USD135m ten-stop alignment runs north on South Jackson to 14th Street where it loops on 14th and Yesler Way to Broadway before turning north to the Broadway Denny Capitol Hill intersection where there will be a new station on the Link University extension.
New streetcars have been ordered from Inekon and will be operated from a new depot and control centre, already open, on Dearborn Street and 7th Avenue. The new 20m long and 2.4m-wide vehicles, whilst similar in appearance to the existing South Lake cars, have a 50% low-floor centre section and will have off-wire operating capability. The eastbound/northbound track has an overhead line whilst streetcars in the reverse direction, mostly on downhill sections, will run on power from two large battery packs (supplied by ABB and Saft) installed on the roof of each car. As the cars also feature regenerative braking, the batteries will be recharged from both this source and the overhead.
It was originally set to open in 2014, and Ethan Melone, Rail Transit Manager, from Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) clarified to TAUT that the delays were due to late delivery of the cars as everything else is ready. Although all of the streetcars are in Seattle, the City has yet to accept them – five of the six cars will be required for day-to-day operations – and contractual liquidated damages have reached USD750 000 (as of mid-September). Melone added that once the acceptance process is complete, there will be two weeks of trial running before revenue service can start. A total of ten cars are in the current order; six for First Hill with one for South Lake Union and three for system expansion. Melone explained that another seven would be needed to complete the current planned system. The service is to be operated by King County Metro under a separate contract with the SDOT, owners of the new line.
Two extensions are already on the drawing board: a further two stops from Capitol Hill to the junction of Broadway and Roy Street by 2017, and a final link section with a Central City Connector from Westlake to South Jackson by 2020, completing a currently planned 8.8km (5.5-mile) horseshoe-shaped system.
Looking to the future
Sound Transit provides regional service in a three-county area. Apart from a minor involvement in a supervisory capacity, service and operations are undertaken by the county transport administrations in the area they serve under an operating contract. Link is operated by King County Metro, while King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties operate local buses and long-distance services to Seattle and other destinations. Sound Transit sets the long-distance service levels and those for light rail, but not for most intercounty local bus routes.
‘Sound Transit 3’ is a package of improvement schemes being put to the voters in the November 2016 ballot from a long list of candidate schemes. Whilst more than 60 schemes are listed, many are alternatives for a single scheme. As well as the already described
light rail extensions to Federal Way and Tacoma there is also a proposal for a light rail service to Ballard in the north-west of Seattle. The ballot will contain taxation proposals to cover expansion costs and the Sound Transit board will make its final recommendations as to which projects to include in the ballot measure in the summer of 2016.
The other form of rail-based transit is the Sounder commuter rail service; this runs in two portions northbound from Seattle King Street to Everett and southbound to Tacoma and on to Lakewood. The service is limited to inbound to Seattle in the morning and outbound in evening peak, although there are a couple of journeys in both peaks which operate against the peak flow on the Tacoma service. Service is operated by BNSF (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway) on behalf of Sound Transit using standard US commuter rail push-pull loco-hauled stock. There are aspirations to enhance the service, but expanding freight services will limit this without the provision of extra tracks, which may prove cost-prohibitive.
Kevin Desmond, General Manager of King County Metro, explained the complicated funding arrangements for service operation. Sound Transit pays all Link operating costs incurred, while the Seattle Department of Transportation, as owners of the South Lake Union streetcar service, only pays half of the operating cost with the remainder coming from internal sources. The city will support the First Hill Streetcar operation using funds provided by Sound Transit.
Following 2014 voter approval, Desmond felt bullish about the future with a 10% increase in bus service now implemented, also hailing the introduction of the ORCA smartcard as a great success with around 65% customer take-up. This is just the beginning, he added, as the Puget Sound Regional Council forecasts that public transport demand in the area will double by 2040. When asked about the future of the trolleybus network, he responded that a new electric fleet is being brought into service with an expected life of 16-20 years.
Mike Harbour, acting CEO for Sound Transit (former FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff was appointed as CEO on 19 November, replacing the long-standing and well respected Joni Earl who is retiring on medical grounds), emphasised to TAUT just how important the next 12 months are for the agency, with the University and 200th Street projects coming to fruition.
Northgate in 2021 and Bellevue in 2023 mark key milestones, and he explained that he expected the one-station extension to Kent/Des Moines will naturally follow as there had been voter approval for the funding but he could not yet put a completion date on it. Harbour went on to describe the significance of the Federal Way and Tacoma extensions, stating that this would not conflict with Sounder which operates on a completely different alignment on the other side of the valley to that of the proposed Link alignment.
After raising a question around the region’s limited park-and-ride facilities, Harbour clarified the position of Sound Transit in encouraging greater bus interchange to light rail rather than providing car parks. Due to land constraints this is deemed more suitable for housing developments. As such, two high-frequency trolleybus routes have been extended to connect with the LRT at Mount Baker and Othello stations. The lack of parking has put pressure on the existing facility at Tukwila, but in 2016 Sound Transit is to introduce a permit system to give regular travellers more chance of finding a space.
On farebox recovery, Harbour said the agency estimated fare evasion to be a maximum of 4%, with lower levels on the bus network as all tickets are checked upon boarding.
It is clear the region’s public transportation is nearing capacity. The express bus services are running full at most times of day, but the agency’s oversight role is helping to change the travelling habits of the region by making transit more reliable and less expensive. There is no doubt that the various agencies are doing a good job, as both geographical and financial constraints are limiting the scope of expansion; hence the hugely expensive underground extensions due to lack of suitable surface alignments.
Yet with the immediate Seattle area proving such an attractive place to live and do business, will the agencies be able to keep up with soaring demand and will local politicians be far-sighted enough to learn from the inaction of the 1990s and early 2000s? Only time will tell.