Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Talking Points on Sound Transitís Central Link Light Rail
By John Niles, Co-Founder, Public Interest Transportation Forum

Published in 2004, a bit of history

Central Link Light Rail from Sound Transit costs too much, does too little, and is dangerous.  This urban railroad is inappropriate technology for the central Puget Sound region, and it should not be built. There are better alternatives, as described in the consensus alternative package of the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA) posted at

Here are some specific concerns about the Central Link Light Rail project, as first described in comments I submitted on behalf of CETA in reaction to the North Link Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement:

  1. Initial Segment is likely to be the final segment, resulting in a short "train to nowhere." This reality emerges despite the Sound Transit Board's commitment to building Central Link Light Rail from Northgate to South 200th Street in City of SeaTac. However, even without the threat to Sound Transit revenue from pending court cases, the local sources of funding for Initial Segment, North Link, and Airport Link in combination are insufficient. CETA calculates that Sound Transitís local tax receipts would somehow have to be doubled to build light rail beyond the Initial Segment.  Such an increase is not within the realm of possibility for voter approval.

  2. Sound Transit in 2001 promised downtown Seattle leaders that closure of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) for reconstruction to accommodate light rail would not begin until after the funding for North Link is achieved all the way to a portal north of the University District (presumably, Northgate) and construction is scheduled to begin. (See the Sound Transit letter to Seattle Chamber of Commerce dated November 26, 2001, affirmed in Sound Transit Resolution R2001-16.) Despite that promise, Sound Transit has now announced that the DSTT will be closed in September 2005 for light rail conversion without regard to the commitment of waiting for funding to construct the tracks beyond the University District.

  3. This closure will put hundreds of buses onto the streets of downtown Seattle while construction is underway, followed by mixed train and bus operations in the DSTT that will introduce new delays for suburban express bus service.
  4. Despite Sound Transitís hopes for a less drastic outcome, there is a distinct possibility that the implementation of Initiative 776 could cause Sound Transitís MVET revenue to be zeroed out as a result of litigation. This case is still active in King County Superior Court, and will undoubtedly be appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court no matter what the final decision at the County level.  If the MVET were completely eliminated, Sound Transit would be forced to change the level and timing of its bonding for light rail construction, and would lack enough funding to finish constructing the Initial Segment by the promised completion date in 2009.

  5. Link Light Rail has never been compared to a strong all-bus alternative, in accordance with Federal Transit Administration and Congressional interest in the cost-effectiveness of rapid bus alternatives to light rail. For example, the No-Build Alternative for North Link offers no plan or even a description of an express bus service that emulates light rail to Northgate, a real potential alternative. Transportation professionals could design a bus-based service to achieve reasonable capacity, travel speed, reliability, and geographic coverage of the North Link corridor, yielding strong ridership commensurate with cost-effective levels of investment.

  6. The 14 mile Light Rail Initial Segment offers insignificant transit performance gains compared to the billions being spent and the size of the mobility problem in the I-5 corridor. Light rail will mostly move former bus riders. Even if light rail to Northgate were to be running in 2010 (an impossible dream), Puget Sound Regional Council has estimated the rail peak period mode share across the Ship Canal would be 6%, while the bus and carpool mode share combined would be 48% (Destination 2030, Appendix 8, Table 8-13). Yet all of the North King Subarea spending of Sound Transit (all of Seattle's and Shoreline's and Lake Forest Park's share of the budget) must go to light rail under the Sound Transit vision of the future. At the same time there is a backlog of I-5 corridor HOV speed and reliability enhancements studied by Washington State DOT that could be built with Sound Transitís revenue instead of light rail.

  7. Extending the Initial Segment would increase the hazard at Seattle grade-level street crossings beyond the danger levels from 272 trains per day at the opening of light rail. Light rail extension would increase the number of light rail trains per day and per peak hour in the Initial Segment's 14 miles, which includes 23 at-grade road crossings where train tracks intersect the roadway for buses, cars, or trucks. Two of these grade-level crossings are in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), three are on the E-3 Busway in the Seattle Duwamish industrial district, and 18 are in the Rainier Valley. North Link would also cause the length, weight, and stopping distance of trains to increase as the number of cars in the trains is increased from two to three or four. Link Initial Segmentís four mile alignment of unfenced track along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way is an unacceptable safety hazard as defined in published guidelines from Federal Transit Administration, American Public Transportation Association, and Volpe Transportation Center.

In conclusion, Central Link Initial Segment and its unaffordable extensions represent billions of dollars for an unnecessary, wasteful transit mode that does far less for sustainable transportation and for improving the environment than alternative uses of the money, such as enhancing the infrastructure for Bus Rapid Transit, Transportation Systems Management, van pools, car pools, and the extension of the Seattle Monorail, as described at, the CETA website.

Sound Transit or higher authority should cancel Central Link Light Rail immediately in order to limit damage and stop the waste that is growing day by day.

Some would see Sound Transitís strategy as "you wonít dare stop us now that we are digging a deep hole."  I recommend Sound Transit stop digging before the hole gets any deeper.

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