Bringing Better Transit To The West Side

[ The West Seattle Bridge ]

(Editor’s note:  In the comments on Cary Moon’s tunnel post there was much discussion about options for transit service and McGinn’s proposal for light rail to West Seattle, and Joel Horn, former executive director of the Seattle Monorail Project, was asked to weigh in these questions:  So what options ARE technically viable for better mass transit to the west side? And what would have to change politically for transit that requires taking a car lane to succeed—like a true BRT system or light-rail?)

First off, I want to start by acknowledging that many good folks have worked on this for quite a few years.  And this isn’t the venue for a voluminous thesis, but there are a few points that I will make to continue the discussion:

1)  The quickest and least expensive way to add high capacity transit to West Seattle is to use the West Seattle Bridge (WSB). The Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) worked with a number of the world’s best engineers and construction companies, and with the City engineers, to determine the load carrying capacity of the WSB. SMP also worked with SDOT and had many public workshops about how to add high capacity transit and not remove any traffic lanes. The best way to achieve that is to use the airspace above the bridge. This airspace is a public resource that has significant capacity for grade-separated transit. There was a limitation as to how much weight can be added to the WSB. I do not know if it could handle the weight of an elevated light rail solution similar to the elevated system that Sound Transit is using to go to the airport.

2)  When SMP was coordinating its construction schedule with other major projects downtown we were instructed that Sound Transit would get first priority to complete light rail in the 3rd Avenue bus tunnel. Then the Green Line would be built on 2nd Avenue and then the viaduct would be taken down. SMP ran their ridership model to determine the potential impact on the Green Line during the period that the viaduct was not available. The model showed that SMP would need to add 4 additional trains to the Green Line to accommodate the additional ridership (running every 6 minutes to West Seattle). One of the relevant pieces of information from this ridership analysis was how many people would give up their cars and switch to the Monorail. The question was what would happen when the car capacity was replaced. At the time ridership experts advised the SMP that much of the ridership would permanently switch to mass transit, thereby reducing the need for capacity replacement with the viaduct project.

3)  One additional piece of information that came out of the ridership studies was that there is excess capacity on the downtown streets today. This is easy to observe if you go downtown on a “normal” day i.e. no construction and no Mariners game. The street system works well and can absorb additional demand for travel. In fact, even though the Monorail Green Line would have taken out a lane on 2nd Avenue there was still adequate capacity to handle the existing load. Ridership studies involve many variables and can be manipulated to make an argument for one alternative or another, but it was clear during the SMP analysis that taking a lane out of 2nd Avenue would not have an adverse impact on Downtown traffic if the lane was used for a transit solution that would actually be competitive enough (time savings by using grade separated transit and money saved by not needing to pay for parking) to get people to give up their car.

There are many additional topics to add to the mix, and these are only starting points to consider when thinking about how to best serve West Seattle with transit.

35 Responses to “Bringing Better Transit To The West Side”

  1. Ben Schiendelman

    1) Axle load of the Hitachi monorail vehicles is between 8.6 and 11 tons per axle:
    Our light rail vehicles have a nearly identical load – 6 axles for 105,000 pounds translates to 8.75 tons per axle.
    The weight issue that limited SMP was for the monorail guideway more than the vehicles itself – only one track could be supported by the bridge. The final SMP designs were limited to a single track bridge crossing as a result.

    It’s more likely light rail would cross the lower bridge (out of frame to the left).

  2. Ben Schiendelman

    My point being – either we’ll build a new rail bridge (expensive and unlikely), or we’ll go at grade on the lower bridge (Spokane St.), where we can take a lane. Horn’s dig at light rail at the end of (1) creates a false dilemma.

  3. Joel Horn

    Hi Ben, you are correct. It is the lower weight of the monorail beam, not the trains themselves, that would have allowed it to fit within the seismic envelope of the WSB. And, I did not mean the last sentence of #1 as a dig at all, merely a weight issue relating to the amount of concrete and steel the two systems require. Two additional points: 1) I love watching the light rail trains going to and from the airport, beautiful actually, and 2) the single beam was a very controversial proposal with good arguments on both sides. We’ll never know if it would have been able to keep up with the growth in ridership over a 50-100 year period, that is more of question about how much West Seattle is going to grow. But it was going to bring substantial new grade separated transit to West Seattle that is not there today and will most likely not be there for years (decades) to come.

  4. Ben Schiendelman

    The “lower weight” of the monorail beam? The reason I call your argument a false dilemma is that you’re not comparing that to anything. You guys couldn’t afford to build your own bridge. Next step was to see if you could piggyback on the west seattle bridge. Then you had the gall to claim light rail piggybacked on the west seattle bridge would be heavier, based on the idea that light rail would be built on an elevated guideway ABOVE THE BRIDGE DECK. No, if someone were to use the high bridge for light rail, we’d run it in the middle of the existing deck with barriers. But we wouldn’t, because that would preclude getting people to work on harbor island.

    Of course you made a dig at light rail. Why else would you pull out the same fallacious argument you used to make five years ago, when we debunked it then?

  5. Mark

    The lower swing bridge opens for waterborne traffic for upwards of 20 minutes at a time with no priority for land-based traffic. The lower bridge would be infeasible, I believe.

    Why so grumpy, Ben? Speaking from a westside perspective, there were plenty of issues with the monorail, but I do know that, provided things would have moved forward, I would have had another great option for travel into the city, adding to my bike, the bus, and the occasional car.

  6. Cascadian

    I think that the supporters of rail from West Seattle to downtown share a lot of common ground and we should avoid refighting the monorail wars.

    The monorail agency did good work studying the technical options of the corridor, and a lot of that information is going to be relevant to light rail. I hope that Ben and Joel and others can focus on figuring out the best way to get light rail built as soon as possible.

    Ben’s analysis of the technical challenges of getting to West Seattle across the Duwamish seems to be more on target than Joel’s, but using phrases like “false dilemma,” “your bridge,” “gall,” “fallacious,” and “debunked” doesn’t help, nor does SHOUTING in text.

  7. Joel Horn

    Ben is right about the cost and complexity of building a new bridge and I share his skepticism that it’s a possible transit solution in the next several years (decades?). And, I agree with him that an at-grade solution for WSB is not feasible.

    My point about going above the WSB deck is that I think it’s an elegant solution because 1) it is technically possible, 2) the public already owns the right-of-way, 3) and it can be done with less public opposition because it does not take existing capacity away from cars, trucks, busses. In that context, my question about the weight of the current system was just that – a question – and truly not a dig. Sorry if it came across as such.

    To me, the big excitement – and challenge – around this issue is figuring out if we can substantially increase transit to West Seattle sooner rather than later so that we can reduce the capacity requirements on the viaduct project.

  8. MJH

    Given the challenges providing rail transit to West Seattle cited above, why not get behind a solution that is more feasible, flexible and doable in the near-term, which would be real BRT (not RapidRide). If there was fast, comfortable, and reliable bus service to West Seattle, wouldn’t taking away auto capacity on the WSB be more politically feasible? Given budget problems at Metro, I’m not sure about the status of their RapidRide plans, but perhaps the City and Metro could build on work that has been done for that, and share the costs of building a real BRT line to West Seattle. BRT would be much more financially feasible and would be a perfect showcase for how BRT actually makes a lot more sense than light rail in a place like Seattle.

  9. ktstine

    All I know is that it took me two buses (one express) and almost an hour to get to downtown from W Seattle this morning. I am not sure that BRT is the answer, certainly not the kind that was proposed – I had serious doubts that it would make up any time with the route is was to run on. It would be so great to have a rail option from WS. The STB has been great about covering this issue, and the funding realities of McGinn’s plan “within two years”.

  10. eldan

    @MJH: I think the problem with taking a lane on the high bridge is more that there’s no way to route it without causing a problematic road-tracks conflict at an important on/off ramp.

    @everyone else: what about BRT as a stopgap while a rail line is being built? Rail lines seem to take a very long time to build round here, the viaduct will almost certainly have to come down before a new rail line would be ready, and in the short term rail construction will take out road capacity before replacing it with train capacity. However unsatisfactory an interim BRT system would be, it does seem like a way to both soften the blow and entice some people to switch from driving before there’s a rail link in operation.

  11. Joel Horn

    Hi ktstine, I looked around in STB and then went to McGinn’s site but couldn’t find how he is going to get a rail option to WS. Figured it might be faster to just ask you if you know what he is considering? Thanks.

  12. Wells

    What Eldon said…

  13. ktstine

    Joel: I was speaking more of their coverage of the funding issues around extending rail out here, not specific engineering ideas, which I have enjoyed learning about in this post.

    Couple of links:

  14. MJH

    @ eldan: Could you be more specific about the problematic conflict you are talking about? Or point me to something that provides more details? Given the more flexible nature of BRT, I would be surprised that it is any more problematic than building a rail line?

    @ktstine: I was alluding to something a bit more elaborate than the proposed RapidRide. RapidRide has many of the characteristics of BRT, but the big one it is missing is a dedicated lane-BAT lanes don’t count. The fact of the matter is BRT costs half of what light rail costs and can provide a similar level of service. I understand people’s hestitation with embracing BRT, especially if all they have experienced are slow buses, but there is no shortage of examples of very effective BRT systems, e.g. Los Angeles, Eugene, Ottawa, Brisbane, Pittsburgh, Tehran…the list goes on and on.

  15. Chris Stefan

    Any idea what the feasibility and cost of a new transit bridge across the Duwamish would be?

    Also what kind of ridership should a West Seattle transit line expect?

  16. Chris Stefan

    Well done BRT is expensive and begins to approach the cost of rail. Even then BRT doesn’t have nearly the capacity of rail, costs more to operate, and provides a lower quality experience to passengers.

    You mention Los Angeles. While the Orange Line is an example of BRT done right, they’ve also hit a wall on capacity. They’re trying to get a wavier for double articulated buses and are running headways as tight as they can get away with using buses. Even with the new coaches demand is expected to continue to outstrip capacity during peak commute periods.

    As for the specific situation of West Seattle I think it would be easier to take lanes out for running rail than it would be to get them for BRT.

  17. Zef Wagner

    I would just like to add that even if it causes more public opposition, light rail should use an existing lane on the bridge. Removing a lane creates even more incentive for people in West Seattle to walk, bike, or bus to a station and take light rail downtown rather than driving. It also just makes sense because the train can carry way more people than a normal car lane. We should also toll the bridge and all other bridges and tunnels and use part of the money for transit. New York City has done this for a long time and people have gotten used to it.

  18. Mike R

    Zef: And for droves of people who are going from West Seattle to someplace other than downtown? That is the piece that many seem to ignore when talking about either mass transit to West Seattle or Viaduct replacement plans.

  19. David Sucher

    “And for droves of people who are going from West Seattle to someplace other than downtown?”

    They shouldn’t. They should stay in their own neighborhood or go downtown.

  20. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    We are already out of car capacity between neighborhoods. The only way to move more people is replacing solo drivers with transit, unless you want to pave more of your neighborhood. Seattle is a lot bigger than when the WSB was built. Big cities have more people.

  21. Zef Wagner

    Mike and David (I assume you’re being sarcastic in your response): Don’t you think lots of people riding light rail from West Seattle to downtown will free up space on the bridge for all those drivers going elsewhere?

  22. Joel Horn

    Chris Stefan: I do not have either of those numbers on my fingertips, sorry, would have to go back to the ridership analysis to give you a good number on the transit numbers for West Seattle. I do remember being surprised at how high they were. Some of the key factors were 1) time certainty (riders can know exactly when they will get to work; for example, traffic on the surface streets is not an issue), frequency of service (need under 10 min frequency during rush; every 6 minutes-avg wait 3 minutes and riders don’t feel the need for a schedule), and price per ride. I also remember that the SMP Green Line took substantial volumes off of the viaduct capacity requirements. So, a good transit system to WS would alter the viaduct analysis. That is why I feel that this is such an important topic.

  23. City Comforts

    I wouldn’t call it sarcasm as much as my weak attempt at humor.

  24. Chris Stefan

    Thanks for the response. If there is some way you could put the ridership analysis online that would be great. At the very least it would be appreciated if you could pull some general numbers and highlights.

    I’m also wondering if there was any study of building a new bridge over the Duwamish for the Green Line? I’m just trying to get a handle on feasibility and cost range.

  25. Joel Horn

    Hi Chris,

    All of the SMP documents are with the State Archivist.

    I do not have copies.

    I hope they are available to the public because they have a lot of great information in them.



  26. Weekend News Roundup - Seattle Transit Blog

    […] asks ex-monorail supremo Joel Horn about getting rail to West […]

  27. Chris Stefan

    Joel, thanks. I guess I’ll have to check with them and see if any documents are available. I’m guessing at least the things released to the public like the EIS should still be available.

    As to the question of building a transit bridge for West Seattle do you remember anything of feasibility or cost? I’m just looking for general ballpark numbers.

    As you can gather I’m very interested in at least advancing a study of possible routes. I think having some ballpark idea of the cost range from a MAX or streetcar like line on the low end to a 100% grade separated line with extensive tunneling on the high end is helpful for pushing the idea forward. Particularly when it comes to building the political will to find a way to finance it.

  28. Mike Lindblom

    An interesting topic!
    Full link trains were assumed to weigh 74 tons/car, for purposes of testing the I-90 floating bridge. The floating bridge will need to have some concrete removed and replaced with lighter pavement, to increase its buoyancy. That should give some clue about the potential stress on the high-level WSB.
    The low WS bridge is busy during the morning commute period with semi-trucks and bicycles, and the bridge swings open for marine traffic, all strikes against adding rail there.
    I suspect there is no free lunch. You might need to finance an expensive heavy-duty midlevel fixed bridge, find nonstandard lightweight trains, or build “real BRT.”

    Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times

  29. Al

    As a resident of West Seattle who works downtown, here are some opinions. Many of us really, really want frequent, reliable service to downtown. The buses are not so frequent and not that reliable. They get caught in traffic and the express buses only go downtown in the morning and go to West Seattle in the evening for a relatively short amount of time. I gave up on the bus and now cycle to work in a shorter amount of time than it takes for a 9 mile bus trip. That includes me observing all stops and hill climbing.

    The “Rapid Ride” route will take out a good reliable standard route 54, decreasing needed stops along California Ave to the south and requiring transfers to another bus if some of those stops disappear. There are no dedicated lanes proposed outside of the one already existing on the bridge, eastbound only, and “potential” lanes along a portion, just a portion, of Alaska and at the new proposed exits/entrances on the “tunnel approach” coming in oh, 2016. Rapid Ride will not be “rapid” in West Seattle.

    There is another rail bridge, only about 200 meters south of the low bridge – it runs to West Marginal to Marginal East. Probably privately owned though…I don’t see taking a lane on the low bridge. There’s only two lanes and one sidewalk as-is. And that bridge opens frequently and for long intervals. Take a lane on the upper bridge. Let people yell. Methinks most people will use it in the end.

  30. Chris Stefan

    Mike, thanks for the info. A few observations though:
    The high-level WS bridge isn’t the I-90 floating bridge. The challenges involved in using the WS bridge for rail are different than for I-90. I suspect the only practical way to use the WS bridge is likely by taking a traffic lane or two and attaching rail to the bridge deck. Then again the WS bridge might not be able to handle the weight and stress.

    I don’t see the low-level bridge as being a viable alternative for the reasons you cite. I believe the city rejected it as a potential streetcar route as well.

    I’m trying to get a sense of what the cost of a high-level rail bridge across the duwamish would cost. Though if the costs are high enough a tunnel might be the more attractive option.

    For lightweight cars the Inekon/Skoda/OIW cars like the SLU streetcar uses might be an option.

    I’m a bit of a skeptic BRT would work in the corridor since I don’t think it is likely buses will be able to get the ROW and traffic signal changes rail would.

  31. J

    As I know very little or nothing about the engineering involved, this may be a useless idea. But I wonder whether it might be possible to run rail suspended below the high-level bridge deck, like in Vancouver? Then you’d not have the auto-advocates opposing it, since they’d not be losing a lane and they’d be competing with fewer cars/trucks.

  32. eddiew

    the important aspects of McGinn’s proposal are raise Seattle funds earlier than ST3 and a willingness to convert lanes. transit capacity is not an attribute that attracts ridership, but inadequate capacity would deter riders. West Seattle demand does not merit Link capacity or cost. the openings of the lower bridge are an issue; the weight issues on the high bridge are an issue; the cost of a third bridge is an issue. Mayor McGinn could study several modes. perhaps another part of the Duwamish penisula should be considered: Delridge.

  33. Al

    “Mayor McGinn could study several modes. perhaps another part of the Duwamish penisula should be considered: Delridge.” What do you mean? The Delridge area connects to the same places the rest of West Seattle does – the lower bridge, upper bridge or through White Center. Having the trains route through White Center would be a huge delay and not really help matters. Build a new bridge along West Marginal? Is that what you mean?

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