Seattle’s East Link: I-90 or SR520?

Seattle East Link Alignment Map

» A shift to SR520 could be a big step back, but Mayoral candidate McGinn wants both, starting with I-90. Is he promising too much?

In a Wednesday night mayoral debate, candidates for the post of Mayor of Seattle Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan debated the future of the SR520 bridge, which connects Seattle and Bellevue over Lake Washington. Mr. McGinn, who has run a strong pro-transit campaign, suggested running light rail over the bridge, instead of expanding the number of car lanes, a position that Mr. Mallahan endorsed and which is currently in planning. According to Mr. McGinn, light rail over the bridge would complement the planned East Link line that will connect downtown and Bellevue in the I-90 right of way several miles south — but his statement could have the negative effect of adding fire to the controversy over that latter project.

Mr. McGinn’s statement comes in the context of opposition to the I-90 plan by a group led by Kemper Freeman, who has suggested that all light rail services to the east side be shifted to SR520. That argument has convinced candidate for King County Executive Susan Hutchinson, who claims that road tolls on I-90, part of the financial package for East Link, cannot be used for non-road improvements — a line of reasoning that’s not correct. Nonetheless, the growth of opposition against the construction of East Link along I-90 could put that project in peril, or at least delay its construction for several years. Mr. McGinn’s statement seems to imply that SR520 is an acceptable alternative, which isn’t the message the potential future Mayor of Seattle should be pushing.

The primary problem with an SR520 light rail alignment is that it would overload the downtown transit tunnel, which would need to handle twice as many trains from the north (including from the east side) as from the south. The I-90 alignment would promote a relatively equitable distribution of transit passengers, with about the same number of people heading north to the University of Washington as south (and east) to Bellevue. One way to solve this problem would be simply not to run east side trains into downtown at all and to terminate them at the University of Washington instead, but that would require a large number of passengers to transfer and pack the Central Link/University Link trains heading downtown.

Because of the need to serve areas both east and south of SR520, the alignment in Bellevue would have to be split into two services — one heading towards Overlake and the other towards South Bellevue — halving the number of trains heading in each destination. Alternative, it would involve a massive u-turn, going south into Bellevue first and then heading back north towards Overlake, slowing down everyone heading to the ends of the route. The I-90 route, as shown in the map above, is far more direct. That is, except to the University of Washington, which will be a major destination.

The other issue is that millions of dollars have already been spent on designing East Link along I-90; starting over with SR520 would mean no service to the east side for many more years.

Mr. McGinn’s statement in favor of SR520 light rail is all well and good, but I-90 should come first; implementation there would be easier and service would be more satisfactory for a larger percentage of the clientele. In addition, it’s hard to argue that the state or city should be spending money on two lines across Lake Washington when areas like Fremont and Ballard have yet to be included in any major light rail plan, though admittedly Mr. McGinn wants that as well. The candidate is clearly optimistic about the future of light rail for the Seattle region, but he needs to be more clear in his prioritization of projects.

Update: After speaking with Ben Schiendelman of Seattle Transit Blog, I’d like to clarify what I wrote above. For one, McGinn has made very clear his support of the entire Sound Transit 2 package, including the I-90 light rail alignment. His statements in favor of an SR520 light rail leg are only in the context of also building the I-90 stretch.

Schiendelman also pointed out that the SR520 line could be connected to an east-west University of Washington-Fremont-Ballard line, which could then loop back around towards downtown. If McGinn is able to push forward the West Seattle new line running from downtown to Ballard as part of a Sound Transit 3 package in 2012, the transit agency might see a new SR520 connection over Lake Washington as a valuable new constructable asset… after I-90 light rail.

I should note, however, that the recent statements in support of SR520 light rail could put into question the importance of the I-90 line, which is the political problem: the next mayor needs to be a very strong proponent of the East Link project as currently designed, or opponents could gain the upper hand.

Image above: East Link alignment map, from Sound Transit

9 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Rob

    Ultimately, they’ll need both links and I hope they recognize this fact. As DC’s Metro has matured the tunnel under the Potomac is now at capacity. They’ll be adding a new line to the airport, but there are no plans to add routes across the river. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, but another issue that comes up in DC is redundancy. If both links are built in Seattle the city will also have redundancy in the event of a broken down train or some other unforeseen event.

  • Whoa there. We do need both links eventually. McGinn knows I-90 needs to come first, and he’ll be supporting that, but 520 is a different project entirely, and it’s a good idea to step back and look at a rail alternative there as well.

    McGinn has called for an additional light rail funding vote in the next two years – this is something we’d look to that vote for, not something that would be part of Sound Transit 2.

  • Allison

    In the meantime, can we get a bike lane across the SR520?

    The only way across Lake Washington for bikes is the I-90 Bridge – I live near the U-District, that’s super far out of my way.

    Hopefully that’d be included in any attempt to put LRT across the 520 bridge.

  • Eric G.

    Seattle is extremely challenged by geography, topology and geology, which makes the fact that we are constructing any rail at all, very impressive. It’s incredibly expensive, but the lasting infrastucture will create substantial benefits with the growth of a reliable regional network. The faster that network expands over all our major travel corridors, the better we will be able to meet our goals for livability.
    Hutchison is out of her mind. She is expressing the view that her contributers want to hear but, if elected, will have no power to actually change the alignment. McGinn is doing everything he can to please everyone (or not piss them off) now that he figured out his opposition to the Alaskan Way replacement tunnel was a good primary strategy and a horrible general election liabilty. I think it’s probably too late for him, and it’s sad for people seriously concerned with transit and environment that we let the campaign be defined by opposition rather than promoting a real positive vision of the city’s future.
    The 520 bridge is a monstrosity, built in the wrong place across valuable views and wetlands to split the difference between serving downtown or the university. Kirkland to Sand Point would have made more sense from the auto-network standpoint, but obviously would have destroyed some other neighborhoods and I’m glad that’s not the situation. Assuming the alignment of the road won’t change, the state should at least discuss tunneling the western portion of 520 (from 1/2 way across the lake to I-5) so we could regain the marsh for quiet contemplative paddling, restore property values at Montlake, Portage Bay and Union Bay, and open up navigation a little more on lake washington. I agree 100% with LRT on that 520 alignment at a later date, and that I-90 needs to be first. Work has already started on the I-90 bridge so don’t think all the election lip-flapping will have any real impact on the project. Sound Transit did a lot of homework picking the route that has the best ridership and connections. The only portion still up to debate is downtown Bellvue. It does stink for eastsiders trying to get to the U, but they have and will continue to have good bus service there.
    As for voting for more rail, I wish, but don’t believe we’ll get additional voter support, until more of the ST2 package is in service. If we want to really boost transit here, then we need to buy another tunneling machine to finish U-link earlier than 2016. Considering what China is doing, this wait is ridiculous. The money spent on an additional boring platform would easily be recaptured by moving up the other ST2 projects. In this economy all the bids are coming in low, so we should be moving up our schedules. If not, inflation will drive up the cost of projects while we are sitting on our hands waiting for one digger to slowly chew it’s way north to the U. With 2 or 3 machines going, and additional crews working on the Northgate and Lynnwood sections we could have all of that built by 2016. We can bond the dedicated revenue stream and pay an interest rate lower than future inflation if we lock it in now and put all that capital to work immediately. Design-Build contracting can secure a low price on all the projects while contractors are desperate for work.
    Seattle seems to have a history of revisiting and reneging on every decision it publicly makes. No wonder people don’t have any confidence in the plans, or any compunction about challenging them. For all his faults, at least Greg Nickels started to get things done in this city. Maybe he’ll run for Governor.!?

  • EngineerScotty

    The recession has driven the price of instrastructure projects down somewhat, as both real estate and labor has gotten a bit cheaper. China enjoys many political advantages for building infrastructure (no EIS process, easy to steamroll landowners who are in the way) that I’m not that we want to emulate in the US–as that’s how we USED to do infrastructure projects (ie freeways), with the result of neighborhoods being devastated.

    Obviously, a LRT is less disruptive than a freeway–unless its your house it goes through. :)

  • alexjonlin

    Just a little correction. It looks like you crossed out West Seattle but that proposed line would go from West Seattle to Downtown to Ballard. I’m glad there’s all this coverage of Seattle here, we have a lot of exciting things coming up in the next decade or two and I can’t wait to see our light rail network extend to neighborhoods throughout Seattle and the region!

  • aw

    Yonah – I think you have one thing wrong here. You say

    candidate for King County Executive Susan Hutchinson, who claims that road tolls on I-90, part of the financial package for East Link, cannot be used for non-road improvements

    The argument is actually that state gas taxes which paid of a portion of financing the new bridge cannot be used for transit. The state of Washington has a constitutional amendment that requires gas tax revenue to be used only on roads. Sound Transit projects are financed only by sales tax and a motor vehicle excise tax.

    If there is any tolling on I-90, it will only be used to load-balance demand between the two bridges when SR-520 is tolled to finance its rebuild.

  • K

    If we have both an I-90 and SR520 East Link (North East Link and South East Link?) then we would have to have a north-south Link on the Eastside as well (maybe that old train track line that the county bought would do!) to connect them.

    With the T-shaped single north-south and single east-west line design, a lot of growing or established communities are getting left out: Bothell, Renton, Kent, Maple Valley, Issaquah. The rail transit mentality is stuck in a commuter-oriented focus as if there was no other reason to take a metropolitan train.

    I don’t object to two East Links. The I-90 one should serve Bellevue out to Crossroads and maybe continue to Issaquah. The SR520 oen should serve Kirkland and Redmond. This way the I-90 Link doesn’t have to swing up through Overlake to get to Redmond.

    But then, an Eastside Link would be beneficial, perhaps running from Bothell, through Kirkland and Bellevue, then Newcastle and Renton and perhaps even Kent, Covington, and Maple Valley.

  • Yonah’s explanation is correct that we can’t operate a parallel east-west line in the 520 corridor with only one north-south line. Basically, if you think of the initial network as paralleling I-5 and I-90, you need a second north-south line paralleling I-405 in order to support and distribute trips to/from a second east-west line across 520. I think that will happen eventually, and strongly support it. ST2 included money to study a C-shaped line from Kirkland to UW, Fremont, Ballard, downtown, West Seattle, Burien, and Renton. I like that idea in part because it serves neighborhoods and corridors that need rail transit but aren’t getting it yet, and because it would create two additional transfer points with Central Link rather than forcing everyone to xfer downtown like in DC (which has resulted in major congestion problems in the core of their system).

    The vote Mayor McGinn wants will basically be for a fast streetcar line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle, and it would be funded solely by Seattle; not Sound Transit or its whole 3-county district (bloody sub-area “equity”). Hopefully it will also include substantial investment in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, which are badly needed and would be likely to win votes from people who wouldn’t benefit directly from the Ballard-West Seattle line.

    Based on political support, studies being done in ST2, and the sub-area equity policy, this is roughly what I expect the ST3 proposal to be when it’s sent to the ballot:
    the C-shaped light rail line mentioned above, an east/southeast LRT extension from Bellevue to Issaquah, and completing light rail north to Everett and south to the existing Link line in Tacoma. I’m also hopeful that commuter rail will be expanded and improved, including weekend operations, trains running through Seattle rather than starting or ending there, and an extension south to Olympia.

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