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Notes from Seattle: The subway

Several GGW editors and contributors are in Seattle this week for the Railvolution conference. While there, they'll offer a series of short posts about their experiences.

Seattle has a lot of interesting transportation infrastructure. Among the most interesting is the Seattle Transit Tunnel, a 5-station subway that forms the core of the city's transit network.

It started off as a bus-only subway, but became a joint bus/rail tunnel when Seattle's Central Link light rail line opened in 2009. Each station is different, but one, Pioneer Square, would look particularly at home in DC:

Pioneer Square station. Photo by BeyondDC.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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Pioneer Square - maybe they were going for covered wagons?

by BTA on Oct 21, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

I've heard that train speeds (and bus speeds, I guess) in the tunnel are shockingly low -- like, 15 mph. Is this the case? I've taken the Seattle Link in other parts of town and found it suprisingly fast in the sections when it runs in the middle of MLK, not grade separated but in its own lane and with signal priority.

by jfruh on Oct 21, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

I love Seattle's light rail. SEA-TAC airport is quite removed from downtown Seattle and I've always hated having to rent a car or have family/friends pick me up. A quick ride into downtown and you're there. And I'm looking forward to what new development it spurs in the some of the areas is serves.

And when it gets to the U District, Northgate, and the east side it'll be great.

by RDHD on Oct 21, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

Seattle would have had their own Metro system had they been more willing to put up local funds in the 60's. Instead the federal funding went to Marta in Atlanta, and we all know how that turned out. Very depressing when you think about what Seattle could be like today (Atlanta, on the other hand, would be exactly the same without Marta).

by nbluth on Oct 21, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

Joint bus/rail operations cause issues for Link as longer-than-expected bus dwell times can cause backups in the tunnel. A free ride area downtown sped bus loading times but a financial crunch caused King County Metro to eliminate, as they needed the revenue. Somewhere around the time when Link is extended to or past the University of Washington (via Capitol Hill) in a few years, train frequency will increase to the point where all bus operations will move to the surface.

King County does have an extensive bus system, including dozens of miles of electric trolleybuses (I'm sure we'll see a post about that this week), a relic from the streetcar era.

On the failed Seattle votes, it's really sad, because they would have had a full heavy rail system built out by the 1990s had it passed. Instead they are just built their starter line in 2009, and the most promising line won't open until 2016. Other extensions won't open until 2023.

Here's a map of the '67 Forward Thrust plan:

by Jonathan P on Oct 21, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

Spent about a week in Seattle this summer, right on top of the Pioneer Square station, which really did remind me of a Metro station right away Speeds in the tunnel did indeed seem fairly low - I think some of the surface buses we took on 3rd Avenue were quicker! Still, it seems like the future is promising for this system. I know it's doing quite well against projects (though I have no idea how aggressive or conservative those estimates were).

One observation that I was struck by, which also reminded me of DC (though less so now than in, say, 2005) - it doesn't seem like too many people live on top of the Tunnel. That entire downtown Seattle area was quite empty on the weekend - even most of the Starbucks were closed (!). Very different from the workweek. Like I said, probably not all that different from the Farragut/McPherson/Metro Center/Federal Triangle/Smithsonian/L'Enfant/Federal Center SW stretch, but some more residential on top of the core transit area would likely be a good idea.

by Dizzy on Oct 21, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

Knock out half the lights and replace those new trains with old Metro stock and you could be at L'Enfant.

So this is how the other half lives...

by MJ on Oct 21, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

So this is how the other half lives...

LOL have you ever been in the transit tunnel? It's not as nice as a Metro station. For one thing, all of the ventilation (because of bus exhaust) makes it LOUD.

by MLD on Oct 21, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

Pioneer Square was the original skid row. Logs would be skidded down the hill that now is topped by Harborview Hospital.

the service tunnel is dark and full of fumes, much like the bus "terminal" by the Bethesda Metro station.

The idea that the current line is a "starter" neglects the distance to SEA-tac that it covers.

Downtown Seattle proper has few residents and the residential tends to abut mixed use neighborhoods like Belltown. OTOH, Capitol Hill which has its own self contained neighborhood shopping district and an interesting boutique area is adjacent, across the freeway, and Queen Anne Hill, which is more residential, is on the other side of the World's Fair site. there's potential for more residential density, but part of the appeal is that you can be in very neighborhood-y places and be very close to downtown.

by Rich on Oct 21, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

I lived in Seattle in the early 1990s and rode the buses in the tunnel frequently. I also voted in several of the referenda on various rail systems - votes which failed before this plan was approved - so would be very interested in vistiing and trying out the Central Link, some day.

One real drawback of the tunnel bus service was the dual-power system - the majority of the buses ran via diesel above ground but all (in those days) switched to electric when entering the tunnel; it was supposed to be an automatic connection overhead via an apparatus on the roof (I don't know what the connector is called) but it missed frequently which then required the driver to get out and adjust it manually. Not a lot of time taken, but enough when you were on a crowded bus, tryin gto get to work.

From some of the earlier comments about exhaust fumes in the stations, it sounds as if Metro now allows diesel operations in the tunnel; is this true? If so, the lack of adequate ventilation might be traced to the initial construction with electric power in mind.

The tunnel also was used to sell the public on the light rail system. Rails had been installed in the tunnel's initial construction, which made it seem that the insertion of light rail service would be relatively easy and inexpensive. However, it turned out that the tunnel required extensive work to accommodate the rail service, at substantial cost.

by DC20009 on Oct 21, 2013 3:54 pm • linkreport

What are those bright shiny things hanging from the ceiling? Doesn't all that bright lighting cause UV exposure?

by Mikeindc on Oct 21, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

Oh my goodness--forget the lights--what are those wire things hanging from the ceiling?! How can the alt-Washingtonians see with those horrid things blocking up their viewsheds?!

by Steven H on Oct 21, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

They also have the 1.3 mile streetcar SLUT.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 21, 2013 4:58 pm • linkreport

Grew up just across the water from Seattle and lived there for 6 years. I wish that we had a developed rail-based transit system, but sadly Seattle spent millions of dollars on a complicated urban freeway that never got finished instead of investing in rail. The 1000 series metro cars were originally sold to Seattle but after they canceled the rail project - DC got to pick them up cheap.
If the Seattle area didn't have a habit for sinking bridges (3 so far) maybe we'd have had enough money to build light rail faster.

Kidding aside - the real crime in the latest expansion of light rail is that urban developers in Bellevue (Kemper Freeman) have sued multiple times, and likely will continue to sue, to block the expansion. This raises the costs of the entire project, which in a hilly, marine environment that is prone to major earthquakes is already crazy expensive.

by andy2 on Oct 22, 2013 10:07 am • linkreport

@nbluth You've got to be kidding me if you think that Marta had no affect on Atlanta. Midtown and buckhead as we know it probably would not have developed the way it did. And the easy connection with the airport has boosted the cities convention and tourism industry.

You could also argue that Atlanta would not have gotten the Olympics had it not been for Marta.

While it was a shame Seattle didn't get their system, the money was well spent in Atlanta.

by Joey on Oct 24, 2013 3:18 pm • linkreport

Clearly MARTA is worthless, I mean it's only the 9th most ridden transit system in the country! Or the 4th biggest transit system that isn't in the Northeast Corridor! Terrible!

by MLD on Oct 24, 2013 4:19 pm • linkreport

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