January 30 2014

Seattle on Track for New Transit Options

Seattle consistently ranks in the top ten worst cities for traffic. Mitigating this issue is a top priority, and plans are underway. Plans for light rail extensions are ambitious, but that is what is needed to make it effective. Within fifteen years, greater Seattle’s transportation profile will be completely redefined, having far-reaching implications for the future of the region.

Although the project’s budget causes some to shake their heads, many understand that investment in alternative transportation will pay dividends in the long-term. The greater Seattle area is expected to grow nearly 40% by 2030, and the region is working hard to build a transportation infrastructure that can keep up. As of now, 84% of households own a car, and 81% commute to work by driving.  Unfortunately, metro bus service is heading for more cuts, rather than expansion. The cost of the light rail are high, but it would be more costly to not accommodate future growth with alternatives modes of transportation.

The north-south extension will add over twenty miles to the existing track, creating a connection between Federal Way and Lynnwood, one of the worst traffic corridors in the country. The light rail will also be heading east, built over the 6,620 foot I-90 floating bridge, eventually reaching the neighboring economic hubs of Bellevue and Redmond. This is great news for Microsoft, located in Redmond, which is financially supporting a $33M pedestrian connection to the neighboring light rail station (concept picture below).

Pedestrian Connection to Microsoft in Overlake, Redmond

Most improvements are already approved or under construction, but some exciting options are still being proposed.  A connection between Downtown and the northwest Ballard neighborhood is in its “open house phase,” where ideas for underground tracks and street cars are being circulated. This exemplifies the precipitous evolution of the Seattle area. In just a couple of decades, Ballard has gone from a low-populated industrial area to a high-density urban center that is still quickly growing.

Light rail construction is expensive and bound to create winners and losers. Certain areas will benefit much more than others, as transit-oriented development will largely determine where economic growth takes place. For better or worse, this development could have major impacts on certain areas.  A new light rail station is already catalyzing significant redevelopment near the University of Washington, as well in Seattle’s more affordable south-east neighborhoods such as Columbia City and Rainier Beach.

Seattle light rail

The greater Seattle area is made up of unique neighborhoods and strong economic centers, but is missing the connections between them. The light rail’s average ridership is 28,000 per day, and is expected to reach 45,000 by 2020.  The expansion will reduce the collective costs of driving, encourage businesses to move to urban centers, and take a big step towards reducing some of the isolation of Seattle’s periphery.  The scale of these plans could make Seattle a leader in transit-oriented development, and new urbanism.

With all of this underway, Seattle has really subscribed to the saying, “if you’re going to think, think big.”  This is to prepare for what the region will look like in next generations, an uncommon planning horizon. However, better transportation options are already overdue.

What other far-reaching impacts could the light rail have on Seattle in decades to come?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Colin Poff

Colin Poff is a recent graduate from Western Washington University where he studied Political Science and Economics. He currently interns at the City of Redmond, where he is providing research and analysis for the long-range planning department. While traveling in Europe and in China Colin became a critical observer of modern cities, and curious about how policies can be crafted to facilitate economic development with community values in mind. In his career, he would like to make cities more dynamic and livable by encouraging mixed-use areas and people-focused design. Next fall, Colin intends to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning. When he is not in the city, you can find him in the mountains, skiing with his friends.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 30th, 2014 at 9:34 am and is filed under Colin Poff, Engineering, Infrastructure, Transportation, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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