Public Interest Transportation Forum - http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf
20 Oct 2000
Dear Ms. Cameron:
In your October 8 editorial you asked for a "Plan B" in case the Sound
Transit Lake Union tunnel project collapses. I would like to submit the
following in answer to that invitation.
All parties involved in the Boston Harbor tunnel fiasco ($10 billion over
budget) agree that the overruns were caused by unexpected geological
problems and numerous design changes. Looking at the history of Sound
Transit's proposed tunnel to downtown Seattle I find that it too has had
unexpected geological problems and many design changes. At this point, the
community is looking at a massive redesign of the entire project aimed at
saving upwards of $500 million dollars on the project. This is to be
accomplished in four to six weeks. I think anyone viewing at recent events
objectively would call that a recipe for disaster. To salvage anything from
this will require not just a redesign of the tunnel, but a much more
radical rethinking of the entire project.
First, the route selected by the Sound Transit planners has some serious
problems. The water table of Lake Union proved far deeper than the nominal
bottom of the lake and is one of the major obstacles needing to be dealt
with. To do so requires an understanding of some of the basic principles of
railroad design. Anyone using the Burke-Gilman trail will notice the lack
of any steep hills along the path. It runs along an old railroad bed and
strict attention was paid to grade when the rail line was built. Reducing
and minimizing the slope of any section of a railroad is the most important
factor in choosing a route. It seems Sound Transit has forgotten both this
and the axiom that "the map is not the terrain." As far as I can tell they
planned their route into downtown by simply connecting a couple of dots on
a map, and telling some consultants "Here is where we want it, punch up
A better idea is to listen to what the geology is saying and design a
route which responds to both the geologic and the technical limitations of
rail transport. Tunneling deep under Lake Union is on a par with getting a
railroad from one side of Mount Rainier to the other by trying to go
straight over the top. Anyone presented with that problem would immediately
decide to go around the mountain instead. While the scale of Lake Union may
differ and the obstacle itself is inverted, the principle is the same.
Instead of digging deep under the lake, it is much more sensible to go
around it. Rather than tunnel along the west side of the University of
Washington and then under the lake, the Plan B route would follow under
45th St. along the north edge of campus. From there, there would be a
surface station at the UW Montlake parking lot, and a shallow tunnel would
lead south. This route would cross Montlake Cut at its narrowest with a
pre-cast tunnel section. Simple, cheap, and close to the surface. It also
has the advantage of allowing future connections along Sand Point Way or
across Lake Washington to be made far more easily. Additionally, it reduces
the impact of the tunneling on UW research and the added tens of millions
of dollars in mitigation costs.
Once across the cut, the stickiest point is crossing under 520. But even
with that, a station at the 520 junction would ease transfers for
cross-lake transit riders. As one who rides a commuter bus daily, I know
the effect transfers have on planning my day. Keeping them to a minimum is
what drives my own choice of bus. I can only assume my fellow riders feel
Part two of my Plan B is an even harsher judgement of the choices Sound
Transit has made. It can be summed up as "Why light rail at all?" The most
effective element of Seattle's transit operations (again from the point of
view of a user, and not a planner) is the downtown bus tunnel. Whenever I
do go downtown my usual 71, 72 or 73 Express bus pulls up to Convention
Place, lets its contact arms loose, and zips along under the city, no muss,
no fuss. The system works, so if it is not broken, why fix it? Sound
Transit not only wants to substitute a model which costs a lot more, but
will break what we have by sending the busses up onto Third Street and
abandoning the quarter of the existing tunnel which runs from Convention
Place to Westlake Center. Perhaps the city could open that part of the
tunnel to the Tent City homeless, and give literal meaning to the term
Utilizing a system of tunnels under or around choke points and electric
busses as we do now would be far cheaper and just as effective as what
Sound Transit proposes. There would be no need of a dedicated rail line or
a duplicate maintenance system for the rolling stock, and route choices
would be far more flexible. Rainier Valley would not be split in two and
subject to the very real risk of fatalities from rail/vehicle or
rail/pedestrian accidents. (Quite frankly, I think anyone who finds a high,
nearly certain, risk of deadly crashes an acceptable cost to the community
for "progress" has a much bigger problem than getting people from here to
there.) The use of busses would also allow the downtown outlet of the
tunnel to surface at any point convenient for connecting to Convention
Place along existing streets. Downtown Seattle could keep the bus tunnel
and Third Street as they are. I am sorry, I have no idea how to help the
So there it is. Plan B re-routes the U-district to downtown tunnel around
the underground barrier of Lake Union and uses the current system of
combination diesel/electric busses instead of light rail. This works for
Seattle already. Why change?
Michael J. Furr
May 10, 2000
I can think of a way bus and rail can play together in the Tunnel. Bus platoons would load and unload at Convention Center and International Station and proceed non-stop to the other end as part of true express service using I-5 and the abandoned railroad right of way south of the Tunnel. Actually, I don't mean unloading everybody, only those passengers who need to exit at stops within the Tunnel. The buses would continue as an express in platoons. Each bus platoon would be followed by a rail train of novel design that would spread these riders throughout the intermediate stops of the tunnel. The rail vehicle would make a sort of milk-run, collecting and distributing between the two ends of the Tunnel. By novel design I mean something between the Disney parking lot shuttle train and Seattle's old open platform cable car exhibited in the Museum of History and Industry. Massively parallel loading and unloading with running boards. Open air windows--the cars would rarely venture south of the stadium area. They wouldn't have solid axles either. The squeal of steel trying to follow paths of differing distance is something Leonardo DaVinci dispensed with when he invented the differential. Too high-tech for LRT zealots, who apparently prefer to rebuild the tunnel with a wider Westlake turn to meet minimum radii reqs. I've seen a Burlington Northern Railroad dual-mode maintenance rig that could be dragged by a bus through the tunnel tomorrow. I'd like to be one of the dozen folks standing in the bed of this pickup applauding that the technology exists today.
June 10, 1998
I've just read your 'zine for the first time, and enjoyed it greatly.
One thing that does seem to be missing is the vital (despite some misleading statistical "evidence" to the contrary) connection between transit use and land use. The relationship isn't a simple one here in Seattle given the pervasive influence of the automobile and our general lack of secondary urban centers, but transit villages are a reality in other parts of the country where transit has been used as a catalyst for development, and where that development has in turn improved transit utilization. I suggest you read Transit Villages in the 21st Century by Bernick & Cervero (both at UC-Berkeley's National Transit Access Center) and The Urban Oasis: Guideways and Greenways in the Human Environment by Roxanne Warren.
A related question: the SEPA/EIS process for RTA, as is often the case, understates the positive benefits of the options while attempting to find minimum "impacts". There's no straightforward way to challenge general routing, station location, etc., from the viewpoint of creating a more efficient, livable urban form. For example, there seems to be no direct method of suggesting that the alternative of routing light rail (another subject completely) west of Capital Hill, avoiding the need for a costly, high-risk tunnel that may itself be an impediment to system use, and providing Capital Hill residents with access to a "lowland" station via a PRT loop. This sort of loop would provide walking distance access to a much larger population, use a technology more appropriate to both the terrain and rider density, and greatly reduce capitalized cost per trip. Was there at any point in the RTA process, going back to legislative enabling act, an opportunity for citizen interaction in the choice of transit modes or for interaction with the land use/trip generation/trip distribution/modal split process?
Keep up the good work!
Editor's response: Thank you. Two of the editors are studying transit - land use interactions; check out this work here. The route alternatives studied for light rail did include a non-tunnel alternative passing west of Capital Hill. You can get the Sound Transit report here.
From a Forum reader:
February 12, 1997
Subject: Why not HOV lanes during commute hours only?
Has anybody started a campaign to have HOV lanes restricted only during peak commute hours? Why are we restricted from those lanes during non-commute hours? Why not adopt a system that only has restrictions from 6:00 to 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.? Is there any campaign to change the current 24 hour 7 day a week HOV restriction? And if not, how do I start a campaign to get this heard? Thanks.
Response comment from Dick Nelson, Co-Editor, Public Interest Transit Forum, and former Washington State Representative who co-authored legislation establishing the HOV system.
A little history. Over the years, some Puget Sound legislators have tried many times to "take back" the HOV lanes for general purpose traffic during non-peak hours. The WashDOT and a few of us (myself included) successfully resisted. The concern is that once SOV drivers are allowed in the lanes, they will want them for longer periods -- probably for all hours.
It was also never clear what the purpose of non-commute hour use was other than a strategy to begin HOV lane dismantling. By definition, one assumes that the general purpose lanes are operating in free-flow conditions in off-peak periods. So how then do drivers benefit? Perhaps only if there is nonrecurring congestion (i.e. incident or accident). In that case, drivers will use the HOV lanes as appropriate regardless of the rules.
Comment from James MacIsaac, P.E., Forum Contributing Editor
I agree with Dick. Furthermore, non-work trips tend to have a higher average vehicle occupancy. I would suspect that the HOV lanes could be filled with 2+ occupant vehicles outside the traditional home-work peak periods -- if there were sufficient demand for their capacity need. If you watch weekend travel, I believe you would find the HOV lanes as equally well utilized as the general traffic lanes.
Invited response comment from Rob Fellows, Washington State Department of Transportation, Office of Urban Mobility
Here are some rationale for 24 hour lanes:
(1) HOV is a long term strategy, that is, the point is to allow for growth in the future, knowing that we won't be able to provide enough general purpose capacity to get ahead of congestion. The duration of the peak is lengthening, and differs from one place to another. I don't believe that congestion is going to be considered a peak hour phenomenon for long into the future, and those who use I-5 southbound at the Ship Canal know that well today. If we turn HOV lanes into peak-only HOV lanes, we will not be able to get them back in the future, and we will have lost our only reserve capacity and thrown away our long term mobility strategy for personal transportation.
(2) We are expecting a lot from public transportation. If HOV lanes were to revert in the future to general purpose use during congested off-peak periods, we would be asking public transit users to sit in the same traffic as others, providing no incentive to get more intensive use from our freeway system.
(3) The State Patrol has stated that they don't believe they could enforce HOV restrictions effectively if limited to the peak; tickets given within an hour of the beginning or end of the restriction would be thrown out.
(4) On SR-520, which may be the place Mr. Talbot commutes, allowing any general purpose use of the HOV lane would be dangerous (because it is not up to standards for high volumes of traffic, being a converted shoulder), and would cause tremendous delay for everyone (because we would be bringing three full lanes of cars into the bottleneck at the bridge). We've also modeled the effect of going to 2+ there, and the resulting queues would extend all the way to Redmond.
(5) The places around the country that have peak period HOV lanes have them on isolated routes; places that have developed a system of HOV lanes are generally 24-hour HOV facilities. To work as a system, consistency helps, both in increasing usage, avoiding accidents and irritation, and in enforcement.
Those are most important reasons, I think. -- Rob