Seattle and the Puget Sound: The Nation's Most Complicated Mass Transit

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Matthew H Fish

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In the Portland MAX and Transit thread, Seattle's various transit systems have come up a few times.

I think Seattle and the Puget Sound area deserve their own thread, because it is a very interesting area from a transit perspective. I am not particularly knowledgeable about this area, I have spent a lot of time in Seattle, ridden the buses and the light rail a few times, but I am not an expert. I am sure lots of people can explain the context behind these things.

First, Seattle and the Puget Sound. Seattle is a city of over 700,000 people in a county (King) of 2,000,000 people and a metro area of between 3-5 million people, depending on how it is counted. Seattle, and the other cities around it, lie along the Puget Sound, an inlet of salt water from the ocean. There are many channels of the ocean, as well as rivers and lakes, which can make infrastructure construction difficult in the Seattle area.

These are the transit options, rail and otherwise, for Seattle:

Amtrak: As most of you know, Seattle is served by the Empire Builder for long distance service to Chicago, and the Coast Starlight for long distance service to California. East of Seattle, the Cascade Mountains come up very quickly, and there are no appreciably sized cities for a while, so the Empire Builder has no "commuter" aspect to it (except between Seattle and Edmonds). Southwards, the Coast Starlight also doubles as a short and intermediate distance service to the rest of Washington and Oregon.
Of course, the main short distance service is the Amtrak Cascades, which runs around four trains a day, as well as thruway service, between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, Oregon. Although not all those routes are trains the entire way: if you want to go all the way to Eugene, you will probably need a bus.

The Sounder: this heavy commuter rail commenced service in 2000, and runs along the same train lines as the Amtrak Cascades. Like most commuter rail service, it runs only at peak hours, with a limited number of morning and evening trips. It is run by Sound Transit, the regional transit agency for part of the Puget Sound area. It serves Seattle to Everett (northbound) and Seattle to Tacoma/Lakewood (southbound). Although these are continuous tracks, I don't think it is currently possible to take a train from Everett to Tacoma.

Link Light Rail: Opened in 2003 (Tacoma) and 2009 (Seattle-Tukwila), this is two disconnected light rail systems, one serving a short route in Tacoma, more like a trolley, and the other going between Seattle and Tukwila, close to Sea-Tac International airport. As a Portlander, I have to point out that it took almost 25 years after completion of the Portland area MAX light rail for Seattle to get its own light rail, and that it is still much less busy than the Portland system (75,000 daily in Seattle versus 300,000 daily in Portland). What factors led to this, I don't know. Construction and engineering problems, jurisdictional disputes between municipalities, different demographics and attitudes...it is probably a complicated story. The good news, though, is the system is rapidly expanding. While the Portland MAX has grown as much as it can for a while, the Link Light Rail system will be extending both the Seattle and Tacoma portions, in three different sections, by 2023. There are, in all, 12 sections to be opened between now and 2041, which is a ways away. By 2030, the Seattle and Tacoma lines will be connected. I have read different news stories saying that the usual barriers to transit development have been in full effect in getting Link Light Rail going. Probably posters can fill me in on this.

Sound Transit Buses: Sound Transit runs the long-distance buses between Seattle and Everett, Seattle and Tacoma, etc. These are the mass transit option to go between cities during most of the day, when the Sounder Trains don't run. They are express articulated buses that travel by freeway between population centers.

Local Transit Agencies: Depending on how you count "The Puget Sound area", there are 11 counties around the Puget Sound. Each one of them has their own bus system. These are of very different sizes and service levels. King County Metro is the 8th largest transit agency in the country, with a fleet of 1500 buses. Island Transit, based in a largely rural area at the fringes of the Metro area, has 13 routes, has an annual ridership of under a million riders, and has no fares. There is some coordination between these services, especially the larger ones. but in general it is very patchwork: it is possible to go 150 miles from Bellingham to Olympia in a day, but you would need to have a large pile of schedules and exact change to do so.
Many of these transit agencies, including Sound Transit and the larger county transit agencies, use the ORCA contactless cards, which means a rider doesn't have to buy multiple transfers or mess with transfers.

Ferries: Remember that Puget Sound I mentioned? Most of the area's population lives on the East Side of the sound, but the west side has a sizeable population as well. 10 miles across from Seattle lies Kitsap County, with a population of a quarter million people. The ferry system across the Puget Sound is the busiest in the nation (and fourth busiest in the world). The ferries take both automobiles and pedestrians (and sometimes buses), and are like mini-floating cities. Along with being the most useful way to get between places, the ferries are also just fun! And, as I said, everything here is complicated, so there are both the Washington State Ferries, with passengers and vehicles, and the King County Water Taxi, operated by the county, and passenger only.


Okay. There is more to it then that. But that should be enough to get started.

I guess my executive summary is how diverse transit can be, and how that diversity can be caused by both terrain and demographics. And that while this diversity can help by allowing local governments to focus on what they want to get out of public transit, it also can lead a system as a patchwork that is very hard for outsiders to navigate.
Once, to get from Tacoma to Port Townsend, I took a Sound Transit express bus from Tacoma to Seattle, then took a Washington State Ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, got on a Kitsap County bus to Poulsbo, and then on a Jefferson Transit bus to Port Townsend. Four transit options, and I think it took me six hours, and it was fun for me, but it is not something that someone who wasn't savvy to such things would do.
 
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I visited the area a few weeks ago and ran into the same situation. When planning anything by public transport you would always need a combination of ferries and buses. Interesting area
 

jis

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Seattle and Puget Sound area Transit has its complexity, but it is nowhere near the most complicated in the US. That title surely goes to New York area covering a much much larger population and and many more systems with disperate inconsistent fares and fare instruments, stretching in the south all the way to Philadelphia, in the east to Montauk, New London and Hartford and in the north to beyond Poughkeepsie, Wassaic and Port Jervis
 

flitcraft

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Seattle public transit is complicated for the same reasons that its road systems are complicated--geography: with lakes, marine inlets, and mountains restricting direct access between point A and B. Sadly, back in 1968 and then in 1970, there were proposals to build a subway-based mass transit system where the Feds would have picked up lion's share of the costs. Both proposals got a majority vote, but missed the 60% needed for the local tax authority. Sure wish that had come to pass then. (As it turned out, the federal money ended up going to Atlanta instead.)

Since Link light rail opened stations in Capitol Hill and at the University of Washington, ridership has increased to the point where it's scrammed-in standing room only during the rush hour times. They've ordered more equipment, but it isn't scheduled to arrive till the next two northbound stations open in 2021.

Obligatory Amtrak info: You can now take the Link light rail from near King St Station to Seatac Airport. Or vice versa. And, if that isn't convenient enough, you can connect from the First Hill Streetcar to the Link light rail at Capitol Hill station. This is now my standard way to get to the airport. (Senior fares are $1, transfers included!)
 

Trogdor

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Seattle and Puget Sound area Transit has its complexity, but it is nowhere near the most complicated in the US. That title surely goes to New York area covering a much much larger population and and many more systems with disperate inconsistent fares and fare instruments, stretching in the south all the way to Philadelphia, in the east to Montauk, New London and Hartford and in the north to beyond Poughkeepsie, Wassaic and Port Jervis
Then there’s the Bay Area in California, with somewhere between two and three dozen transit agencies, many of which have overlapping service areas. Contra Costa County, as I recall, has three separate agencies within its borders.

There’s Muni, SamTrans, AC Transit, Golden Gate, VTA, Caltrain, BART, ACE, Marin Transit, Tri-Delta Transit, County Connection, SolTrans, SMART, two different ferry operators (or is it three?), etc. Plus Capitol Corridor, which loosely counts as a Bay Area transit service.

I find Seattle’s transit nowhere near as complicated as the Bay Area.
 

anumberone

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In the Portland MAX and Transit thread, Seattle's various transit systems have come up a few times.

I think Seattle and the Puget Sound area deserve their own thread, because it is a very interesting area from a transit perspective. I am not particularly knowledgeable about this area, I have spent a lot of time in Seattle, ridden the buses and the light rail a few times, but I am not an expert. I am sure lots of people can explain the context behind these things.

LFirst, Seattle and the Puget Sound. Seattle is a city of over 700,000 people in a county (King) of 2,000,000 people and a metro area of between 3-5 million people, depending on how it is counted. Seattle, and the other cities around it, lie along the Puget Sound, an inl.et of salt water from the ocean. There are many channels of the ocean, as well as rivers and lakes, which can make infrastructure construction difficult in the Seattle area.

These are the transit options, rail and otherwise, for Seattle:

Amtrak: As most of you know, Seattle is served by the Empire Builder for long distance service to Chicago, and the Coast Starlight for long distance service to California. East of Seattle, the Cascade Mountains come up very quickly, and there are no appreciably sized cities for a while, so the Empire Builder has no "commuter" aspect to it (except between Seattle and Edmonds). Southwards, the Coast Starlight also doubles as a short and intermediate distance service to the rest of Washington and Oregon.
Of course, the main short distance service is the Amtrak Cascades, which runs around four trains a day, as well as thruway service, between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, Oregon. Although not all those routes are trains the entire way: if you want to go all the way to Eugene, you will probably need a bus.

The Sounder: this heavy commuter rail commenced service in 2000, and runs along the same train lines as the Amtrak Cascades. Like most commuter rail service, it runs only at peak hours, with a limited number of morning and evening trips. It is run by Sound Transit, the regional transit agency for part of the Puget Sound area. It serves Seattle to Everett (northbound) and Seattle to Tacoma/Lakewood (southbound). Although these are continuous tracks, I don't think it is currently possible to take a train from Everett to Tacoma.

Link Light Rail: Opened in 2003 (Tacoma) and 2009 (Seattle-Tukwila), this is two disconnected light rail systems, one serving a short route in Tacoma, more like a trolley, and the other going between Seattle and Tukwila, close to Sea-Tac International airport. As a Portlander, I have to point out that it took almost 25 years after completion of the Portland area MAX light rail for Seattle to get its own light rail, and that it is still much less busy than the Portland system (75,000 daily in Seattle versus 300,000 daily in Portland). What factors led to this, I don't know. Construction and engineering problems, jurisdictional disputes between municipalities, different demographics and attitudes...it is probably a complicated story. The good news, though, is the system is rapidly expanding. While the Portland MAX has grown as much as it can for a while, the Link Light Rail system will be extending both the Seattle and Tacoma portions, in three different sections, by 2023. There are, in all, 12 sections to be opened between now and 2041, which is a ways away. By 2030, the Seattle and Tacoma lines will be connected. I have read different news stories saying that the usual barriers to transit development have been in full effect in getting Link Light Rail going. Probably posters can fill me in on this.

Sound Transit Buses: Sound Transit runs the long-distance buses between Seattle and Everett, Seattle and Tacoma, etc. These are the mass transit option to go between cities during most of the day, when the Sounder Trains don't run. They are express articulated buses that travel by freeway between population centers.

Local Transit Agencies: Depending on how you count "The Puget Sound area", there are 11 counties around the Puget Sound. Each one of them has their own bus system. These are of very different sizes and service levels. King County Metro is the 8th largest transit agency in the country, with a fleet of 1500 buses. Island Transit, based in a largely rural area at the fringes of the Metro area, has 13 routes, has an annual ridership of under a million riders, and has no fares. There is some coordination between these services, especially the larger ones. but in general it is very patchwork: it is possible to go 150 miles from Bellingham to Olympia in a day, but you would need to have a large pile of schedules and exact change to do so.
Many of these transit agencies, including Sound Transit and the larger county transit agencies, use the ORCA contactless cards, which means a rider doesn't have to buy multiple transfers or mess with transfers.

Ferries: Remember that Puget Sound I mentioned? Most of the area's population lives on the East Side of the sound, but the west side has a sizeable population as well. 10 miles across from Seattle lies Kitsap County, with a population of a quarter million people. The ferry system across the Puget Sound is the busiest in the nation (and fourth busiest in the world). The ferries take both automobiles and pedestrians (and sometimes buses), and are like mini-floating cities. Along with being the most useful way to get between places, the ferries are also just fun! And, as I said, everything here is complicated, so there are both the Washington State Ferries, with passengers and vehicles, and the King County Water Taxi, operated by the county, and passenger only.


Okay. There is more to it then that. But that should be enough to get started.

I guess my executive summary is how diverse transit can be, and how that diversity can be caused by both terrain and demographics. And that while this diversity can help by allowing local governments to focus on what they want to get out of public transit, it also can lead a system as a patchwork that is very hard for outsiders to navigate.
Once, to get from Tacoma to Port Townsend, I took a Sound Transit express bus from Tacoma to Seattle, then took a Washington State Ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, got on a Kitsap County bus to Poulsbo, and then on a Jefferson Transit bus to Port Townsend. Four transit options, and I think it took me six hours, and it was fun for me, but it is not something that someone who wasn't savvy to such things would do.
And you didn't even mention one of the original transportation services. Air service. Lots of small float planes have provided quite a service over the years dating way back.
 

Matthew H Fish

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Well, when I said "most complicated transit", I was using a bit of hyperbole, to draw attention to the thread...looks like it worked.

So maybe not the most complicated transit system, but certainly up there, especially considering that many of the cities with more complicated systems are a lot larger.
 

Matthew H Fish

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Click-baity thread titles are poor form.
Well, for a full explication, I was not trying to be misleading, I was just thinking of an interesting thread title. I wasn't trying to come up with a complete, objective answer to the subjective question of "the nation's most complicated mass transit system". I didn't specifically sit down to consider how Seattle stacked up against the San Francisco Bay or New York City areas, and I guess with a full rubric we could work it out. There are some aspects of Seattle that are more complicated than those two, but whether those aspects are the most meaningful ones is I guess just based on our judgement.

(For example: as far as I know, there is nowhere in San Francisco, New York, or anywhere else in the US, where someone would have to drive 95 miles/2 hours to reach a location that is reachable by ferry in 10 miles and a half hour.)
 

jis

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(For example: as far as I know, there is nowhere in San Francisco, New York, or anywhere else in the US, where someone would have to drive 95 miles/2 hours to reach a location that is reachable by ferry in 10 miles and a half hour.)
Port Jefferson to Bridgeport in the New York suburban system?
 

Willbridge

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Here are just a few illustrations of Seattle transit over the years. The first photo is in Portland, showing Pool Train 459 waiting for its power to head to Seattle. The excellent service offered by three companies cooperating helped maintain strong ties between rivals Portland and Seattle. DC officials tried to kill this service in 1971 and 1973, which would have left only the tri-weekly Coast Starlight on the 186-mile route.

---_0276.jpg .

DavidandDiane1960-Sep.jpg

Cascades 104.jpg

Sounder-047.jpg

Winter2004-05 059.jpg

Winter2004-05 108.jpg
Winter2004-05 144.jpg

003k Seattle tram.jpg
 

Big Green Chauvanist

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Matthew: Thank you for your original post. It did not mention directly two other transportation options, which many scoff at and even mock. But one has stood the test of time (nearly sixty years) and the other is sputtering to keep going. I speak of the monorail between downtown Seattle and the Seattle Center, site of the 1962 world's fair (Century 21). Traditionally a tourist vehicle (but that's transportation too!), as Seattle's housing density increases some who live close enough to the northern (Seattle Center) terminus are finding it a worthwhile means to commute to downtown. Also the ORCA card will from October 7 be accepted (for the first time ever), which should further enhance its use by commuters to downtown Seattle (even though separate, slightly higher Monorail fares will remain in effect). Then there is the struggling streetcar "system" which, due to poor planning, perhaps, does get occasionally stuck in traffic. There are currently two orphaned lines. One is from South Lake Union to downtown; the other, longer one from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square, via a circuitous route through First Hill, a bit of the Central District, Little Saigon and the International District/Chinatown. The idea, years in the making and years behind schedule, is to join them with a City Center Connector line along First Avenue, which would make the then-single system so much more viable. Stay tuned.

When I arrived in Seattle in 1976, there was the monorail and two or perhaps three Amtrak trips a day to Portland and the Empire Builder. Now there is so much more as your original post indicated. The opening of the Northgate Link extension in two years (to be renamed at that point the Red Line) will be a game changer for many and patronage will skyrocket. Not to mention the huge effect the East Link extension to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond will have on commuter travel come 2023. Who in their right mind would single-drive from the Eastside to Seattle and back in crushing traffic when one could "take the train"?

So yes, given light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak, monorail, streetcars, multiple bus systems, car ferries, and passenger-only ferries, I'd agree that our transportation mix is decidedly complex and even complicated. And it is only going to improve in the coming years.
 

seat38a

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Well, maybe not so much improvement.
Washington voters approved a referendum to slash "car tabs" (I presume this means annual vehicle registration fees) to $30, resulting in $4 billion less over 6 years for roads and transit.
https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2019/nov/10/agencies-lawmakers-scramble-to-fill-4-billion-hole/
Oh give it some time. California voters will probably follow. Newsom taking billions in gas tax money for other "global warming" projects after swearing that gas tax would be used for ONLY roads will come backfire the next time the State or any agencies need money for transit.
 

John Bredin

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To quote a LA Times editorial,
"Here’s the problem with that argument: Years ago, California voters explicitly gave the state the green light to spend gas tax money on public transit. They did so by approving a constitutional amendment on the June 1974 ballot (Proposition 5) that allowed fuel excise tax revenue to be spent on building and maintaining mass transportation systems. It also allowed the money to be used to lessen the environmental impact of highway and transit projects." https://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gas-tax-transit-20181027-story.html

Here's an article where the headline makes it clear some of the gas tax increase was intended for transit.
https://ktla.com/2019/07/01/state-gas-tax-hike-intended-to-raise-road-transit-funding-goes-into-effect-monday/

Or to quote an article from before the referendum, "Transit agencies around the state have been accordingly vocal about what cutting these funds would mean for their work."
https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/11/california-gas-tax-repeal-proposition-6-transit-infrastructure/574711/ That doesn't support an argument that it was somehow hidden from California voters that gas tax revenue had been and would continue to be spent partially on transit.
 

Maglev

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About the $30 car tab initiative that would devastate transportation funding in Washington... King County (Seattle) is suing, alleging the initiative is unconstitutional. The State Attorney General is tasked with defending the initiative as "will of the voters," yet at the same time is suing initiative sponsor Tim Eyman for campaign funding violations. Eyman is a known criminal, being caught on video stealing an office chair from Office Depot:

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/tim-eyman-under-investigation-in-theft-of-70-chair-from-office-depot/
 

seat38a

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To quote a LA Times editorial,
"Here’s the problem with that argument: Years ago, California voters explicitly gave the state the green light to spend gas tax money on public transit. They did so by approving a constitutional amendment on the June 1974 ballot (Proposition 5) that allowed fuel excise tax revenue to be spent on building and maintaining mass transportation systems. It also allowed the money to be used to lessen the environmental impact of highway and transit projects." https://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gas-tax-transit-20181027-story.html

Here's an article where the headline makes it clear some of the gas tax increase was intended for transit.
https://ktla.com/2019/07/01/state-gas-tax-hike-intended-to-raise-road-transit-funding-goes-into-effect-monday/

Or to quote an article from before the referendum, "Transit agencies around the state have been accordingly vocal about what cutting these funds would mean for their work."
https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/11/california-gas-tax-repeal-proposition-6-transit-infrastructure/574711/ That doesn't support an argument that it was somehow hidden from California voters that gas tax revenue had been and would continue to be spent partially on transit.
Well you sound like our Governor. :D Politicians including the Governor, Caltrans etc. went around the state "guaranteeing" voters gas tax for roads ONLY. They went around the state imploring voters to reject prop 6. Even the democrats in the State Legislature agree that what is being done is going to leave a bad taste in voters mouth for a long time and voters are going to see this as another bait and switch. The Governor decided to use executive order to pull off this shananigans after all the vocal guarantees. He didn't have to touch the money and could have kept his promises to the voters but he had to dip his hand into the tax.

In a state like California where taxes need a supermajority to pass, good luck ever asking voters for more money specific to transit. This is going to come back and bite transit in the ass in the long run with the voters. Between the CAHSR fiasco plus touching gas tax money for other things, I think long term it only hurts public transit in California. Look at LA Metro and how long it took them to recover trust with the voters after badly screwing up the Red Line in the 90's. California maybe a progressive state, but were also well known to repeal and recall with success.
 

seat38a

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About the $30 car tab initiative that would devastate transportation funding in Washington... King County (Seattle) is suing, alleging the initiative is unconstitutional. The State Attorney General is tasked with defending the initiative as "will of the voters," yet at the same time is suing initiative sponsor Tim Eyman for campaign funding violations. Eyman is a known criminal, being caught on video stealing an office chair from Office Depot:

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/tim-eyman-under-investigation-in-theft-of-70-chair-from-office-depot/
I see that Washington has the same issue of politicians going against the will of the voters like here in California.
 
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