» 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