Seattle LINK Light Rail

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SeattleLink LRV at SODO station, inbound. Photo by Peter Ehrlich, September 2009.


Seattle, the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, once had an extensive streetcar system, as well as electric interurban lines to Renton, Tacoma and Everett. All of this came to an end in 1940, when Seattle Transit System's antiquated streetcars (and three cable car lines) were all replaced by a network of electric trolley buses. (See Seattle Trolley Coaches section for a description of that network.)

Electric rail transport (save for the Milwaukee Road main line electrification) remained extinct until 1982, when Seattle City Councilman George Benson saw his dream of a Waterfront Streetcar line come true. In the meantime, neighboring Pacific Northwest cities like Portland, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary saw the successful installations of light rail systems. Seattle, though, watched from the sidelines and fumbled with efforts to get some form of rail service built.

Finally, in 1996, voters in the Sea-Tac region overwhelmingly approved a plan called Sound Move, which funded improvements to regional bus service and laid the groundwork for planning a regional light rail line which would link downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac International Airport. Startup of the Sounder Commuter Rail system was also part of this measure.

By 2000, planners were envisioning a 24-mile starter line from Northgate (above the University of Washington) to the airport. The cost estimate came in at $3.6 billion, or $172 million per mile. The reason for this high-end cost was because of the extensive tunneling that would be required, including conversion of the Seattle Downtown Transit Tunnel, which was being used then by duo-mode Breda ETB/ diesel buses (see Metro Tunnel section for images), and tunneling under First Hill, Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill and under the Portage Bay Ship Canal. In addition, environmental considerations, such as protecting Chinook salmon, were necessary.

By 2002, the north end had been lopped off, and the starter line would only run through the Rainier Valley. While this reduced the cost to $150 million per mile, extensive tunneling and some elevated structure would be needed, and the downtown tunnel would still have to be converted. The length owas now to be 14 miles. Despite this truncation, planners and engineers were still working on a northward extension, but getting the starter line up was the highest priority.

A referendum in 2002 threatened to throw a monkey wrench into Sound Transit's light rail project. By a razor-thin margin, voters approved a 14-mile "Green Line" monorail from Ballard to West Seattle, put forth by a monorail constructor at a very deflated price, and incorporating the existing 1962-era Monorail. Plans for this system started unraveling when much higher design costs than those fed to the voters, coupled with one of the system budders dropping out led to a revote in 2005. Monorail lost, and many Seattlans and transit planners breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, most of the contracts to build the starter LINK LRT came in considerably under budget; Sound Transit had set a $2.3 billion budget. As for the LRVs, Sound Transit selected a 1500v system, a radical departure from the 600v-750v systems used elsewhere (but some 20th Century streetcar and interurban lines did utilize 1500v). In January 2004, Sound Transit awarded a $131.8 million contract to KinkiSharyo for 31 LRVs with an option for up to 31 more. These will have the same chassis as the cars now running in San Jose, Newark and Hudson-Bergen, and new cars for Phoenix will be nearly identical. Evidently, at least part of the option order (9 cars) was exercised, as fleet numbers up to 136 were spotted in the Forest Yard.

Starting in September 2005, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel was closed to convert it for light rail. This entailed enlarging all of the tunnels between stations, laying new track, replacing the trolley bus wires with catenary, and other modifications. This work was completed two years later, and a new fleet of articulated electric/ diesel hybrid buses took over.

One of the first projects was the construction of the LINK Light Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility at S. Forest Street and Airport Way S. This 25-acre site in the SODO district of Seattle began construction in 2003 and was completed in 2007. The initial 40-car fleet will be based here, and there is potential for expansion to house 104 LRVs.

By November 2008, most segments of the LINK Light Rail Project were complete, or near comple. The north (inbound) bore of the 1-mile-long Beacon Hill Tunnel was bored through in March 2008. This included the Beacon Hill Station. Most other stations were completed by the end of 2008. Although at this writing a specific date has not been announced, Sound Transit plans to open LINK Light Rail from Tukwila International Blvd. Station to downtown Seattle sometime in Summer 2009. The one-station segment from Tukwila to Sea-Tac Airport will open by the end of 2009.

Construction of the all-underground 3.1-mile extension northward from Westlake Station is slated to begin in early 2009. Because it's entirely subterranean, this segment will be considerably more expensive -- $1.7 billion -- and will include one station at Capitol Hill. The line will end at Husky Stadium on the University of Washington campus. Service is expected to begin in 2016.

Meanwhile, expansion of LINK to other areas of the metro area was certain when voters approved a half-cent sailes tax increase in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties in the November 2008 election. One result will be a major LINK expansion eastward through Bellevue to Redmond and other cities. Other extensions will reach Lynnwood and Federal Way. A total of 34 miles of LINK light rail extensions are envisions. Sound Transit now has to work on the planning to make these reality, which could come as early as 2020. Stay tuned.

Station By Station

LINK Light Rail will begin in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel at Westlake Station. East of the station, there is a short stub at Pine Street for trains to reverse direction. For this reason, LINK will not serve the Convention Place Station. There are three other stations -- University Street, Pioneer Square and International District. From there, the line continues south and emerges into a surface station at oddly-named Royal Brougham Street. This station is Stadium, serving nearby SAFECO and Qwest Fields, and was built as a result of savings realized from award of contracts which came in under budget. The line parallels the SODO Busway as far as S. Lander Street and SODO Station. After crossing Lander at grade, the tracks rise and curve eastward. The Forest Yard Junction is also on elevated. The el crosses Airport Way S. and immediately plunges into the mile-long Beacon Hill Tunnel. Beacon Hill Station is a subterranean stop, located about a third of the way into the tunnel. After emerging from the tunnel, the tracks go elevated again, and turn south at S. McClellan and Rainier Ave. S., reaching Mt. Baker Station. Mt. Baker will be a major transfer point with King County Metro buses, including heavy trolley coach route 7-Rainier.

After passing over two streets, the line dips to grade level for the run through Rainier Valley, and travels in the median of M. L. King, Jr. Way S. There are three surface stations: Columbia City, Othello, and Rainier Beach. The line makes a southwest jog and crosses I-5, where a station at Boeing Access Road has been deferred until funding becomes available. The route then parallels I-5 for a fair distance, then tuns west to the station at Tukwila International Blvd. This will be the terminal until the extension to Sea-Tac International Airport opens later in 2009. In the interim, free shuttle buses will operate between the airport and Tukwila International Blvd. Station. The Airport station will be about 1000 feet from the main terminal. An elevated structure will carry the line into the airport.

Photo Gallery

Five Random Images

Image 102351

(265k, 1044x788)
Photo by: Roberto C. Tobar
Location: Pioneer Square

Image 105298

(194k, 930x618)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Mount Baker

Image 105304

(174k, 930x601)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Tukwila International Blvd.

Image 105345

(200k, 930x618)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: International District/Chinatown

Image 105358

(212k, 930x618)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Beacon Hill

More Images: 1-50 51-100 101-123

Photos By Location

University of Washington, Capitol Hill, Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square, International District/Chinatown, Stadium, SODO, Forest Street Shops/Yard, Airport Way, Beacon Hill Tunnel West Portal, Beacon Hill, Beacon Hill Tunnel East Portal, Mount Baker, Columbia City, M.L.King Way S., Othello, Rainier Beach, King County Metro South Base, BNSF/Sounder Line Overpass, Tukwila International Blvd., SeaTac Airport, (Misc/Unknown)


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Page Credits

By Peter Ehrlich.

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