Slow Train Coming

Will light rail actually save transit commuters time?

MY LOVE AFFAIR with light rail ended the day I received mail outlining the proposed nuts and bolts of service for my Rainier Valley neighborhood. The first bit of data I took in was the location of the station nearest me: Martin Luther King Way and South Edmunds Street. Not too far, but about five minutes farther away than the closest bus stop. The real shocker, though, came when I looked at anticipated travel times. From the Edmunds station, it would take as long as 18 minutes to get downtown, depending on which station I was going to. That's about what it takes me now to get there by bus. When I added the extra walking time to get to the Edmunds station, I began to wonder whether my light-rail commute might actually be slower than my current trip on the bus.

Previously, I couldn't wait for light rail. While the Rainier Valley is perceived as generally opposed to the new system, given the high-profile "Save Our Valley" campaign, a number of people I talked to in the neighborhood believed light rail would be a boon. "It's kind of a shame we're selling now," said the owner of the house I bought a few years back, echoing a common sentiment that light rail would send real estate values (at least for property not directly sitting on light rail's MLK line) skyward. Anyway, as a former denizen of New York, I happily recalled swooshing across great, congested distances in five, 10, 15 minutes on the subway.

Suddenly, I realized my stupid mistake, which had mystifyingly gone uncorrected despite my listening to the light-rail debate for years. Light rail is called "light" for a reason; it is not a subway, or what transportation wonks refer to as "heavy" rail. The crucial difference, Sound Transit project manager Leonard McGhee explains, is not in the trains themselves but in the infrastructure of the system. Subways tend to rely on tunnels, hence the word, whereas light rail usually runs at street grade. This city is actually supposed to get a hybrid system, which makes use of tunnels and elevated tracks in addition to street-level lines. In the elevated portions, on Beacon Hill and in Tukwila, the trains can run as fast as 55 mph, approaching the speed of heavy rail. In the downtown bus tunnel, the only tunnel in the 14-mile starter-track plan recently adopted by Sound Transit, the trains would crawl along at 25 mph. At street level, where my and many other people's commutes will mostly take place, the system will dawdle along at the regularly posted speed limit, that is 30 or 35 mph on most arterials.

"I try to stay away from using the word faster," Sound Transit's McGhee says, when asked whether light rail will have any time advantage over buses or cars. He does, however, offer a glimmer of hope. Unlike buses and cars, light rail will run on a dedicated line completely free of other traffic—and traffic lights. The system will be coordinated so that a train will only stop to pick up passengers. When the train is ready to go again, it will send a signal to the light ahead that will make it turn green immediately.

And all that will get to be more and more important as traffic here continues to worsen, McGhee argues, envisioning a train speeding a commuter past a two-hour jam endured by those poor suckers in cars. True enough, I think, until I remember my own current, speedy commute on Martin Luther King Way, which, while busy, is almost never jammed. Ah, yes, counters McGhee, but think of the future. The light-rail system is based on traffic projections that reach to the year 2020.

Well, I won't quite be retired by then, but 2020 is a long way away. Right now, I'm worried about my options narrowing if light rail displaces my local bus route on Martin Luther King Way, the 42-a bus that constantly amazes me in its efficiency and helps make the Rainier Valley one of the neighborhoods best served by Metro. And the 42 is marked for likely extinction, concedes Matt Shelden, a senior transit planner at Metro. Though he stresses that no final decisions have been made, Shelden notes that there is a general disinclination toward buses duplicating light-rail routes. Sound Transit, in fact, is counting on bus riders switching to light rail, making critics question how many new mass transit riders this huge investment will actually draw in.

YET, METRO WILL NOT be widely dismantling bus routes, Shelden claims, even if a portion of a route overlaps a light-rail line. The 48, which runs on MLK for a while before heading to the University District, is likely to stay. And so is the popular 7, despite its close proximity to the light-rail line along a stretch on Rainier Avenue South, though the bus route may turn west at Henderson Street to hook up with a light-rail station rather than continue south

There's a silver lining, too, to the disappearance of some bus lines, Shelden suggests. He says the money saved will be reinvested in affected communities to offer new bus service (though he admits there's no guarantee that the money will stay local, and current pressure from suburban cities to get a bigger share of the transit pie makes one wonder whether such funds might drift out of Seattle). In the Rainier Valley, as elsewhere, new bus service could mean much-needed east-west lines to supplement the north-south light-rail route.

I wonder: Could it also mean more service at night and on weekends? At this point, I learn a little-hailed benefit of light rail. The system is intended to run an impressive 20 hours a day Monday through Saturday, from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., and 18 hours a day on Sundays, from 6 a.m. to midnight. What's more, at all times trains will run far more frequently than buses do now: A train will arrive at each station every six minutes during peak hours, every 10 minutes otherwise. Compare that with the hour or more wait that sometimes faces a weekend or late-night bus traveler.

So I'm not exactly writing off light rail. But I'm still left wondering about a question that is vital for commuters like me: Will light rail save me any time or not?

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