Seattle LINK Light Rail

From nycsubway.org


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

(This page incorporates text and photos from the former "Seattle Metro Tunnel" page.)


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 SeaTac 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 SeaTac 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 dual-mode Breda ETB/diesel buses, and tunneling under First Hill, Capitol Hill, and Beacon Hill, as well as 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 was 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 Kinki-Sharyo 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. Eventually, the entire option order was exercised.

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 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 SeaTac 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.

The Original Metro Tunnel

The new LINK Light Rail incorporates a tunnel built earlier for dual-mode bus and trolleybus operation. Opened in 1990, after nearly four years of construction at a cost of $466 million, the Metro Tunnel is 1.3 miles long and has five stations. [Four of these stations: Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square, and International District/Chinatown have been fully incorporated to the LINK Light Rail plan described above.] All tunnel stations have elevators and are fully ADA compliant. The Metro Tunnel was the first underground busway built in the United States.

The dual-powered buses have both diesel engines and poles that allow buses to connect to electric power from overhead catenary wires. In the Metro Tunnel, buses run in electric mode to avoid diesel fumes and reduce noise. Outside the tunnel, these same buses revert to diesel power. Buses in the tunnel run nearly three times faster than buses on Downtown Seattle streets. Although Seattle is notorious for its traffic congestion, the Metro Tunnel has contributed positively to traffic flow by providing an alternate route for many buses that would otherwise clog surface streets.

Shortly after the Metro Tunnel's opening, a ground level extension of the tunnel's busway opened immediately south of International District, the tunnel's southernmost station. This extension, the Metro Busway, extends approximately two miles south of Downtown Seattle in the largely industrial SODO (South of Downtown) neighborhood, following right-of-way formerly owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. The Metro Busway has four stations. In the early 1990s, plans to extend the Metro Busway further south to the 1st Avenue South Bridge, a major traffic artery across the Duwamish Waterway, were under discussion. This proposed expansion was, however, never built.

From 1983, when the Metro Council voted to build the tunnel, to the present day, the Metro Tunnel has always been viewed as a potential conduit for light rail. Underscoring these plans, the Metro Council voted to lay light rail tracks the entire length of the tunnel for easy future conversion from buses to trains.

Light rail tracks, lain in 1989 and 1990, are clearly visible throughout the Metro Tunnel. When the region's voters approved a plan to build a light rail system, in 1996, it was expected that these tracks would be used by the proposed system. Unfortunately, it was discovered, in 1998, that the rails are useless. While the tunnel was still under construction, Metro Transit was given a $5 million budget to install rails, but the actual work was found to cost an extra $1.7 million, according to an engineering estimate. Thus, as a budget cutting measure, Metro reduced the amount of insulation required to keep electric current from straying. In addition, the amount of cushioning for the rails was reduced.

Station By Station

As of 2023, the northernmost station on the LINK Light Rail is at Northgate (opened 10/2/2021). This station is elevated on concrete structure, with two tracks and an island platform. The northward extension to Lynwood (scheduled to open in 2024) is visible at the north end.

Roosevelt (opened 10/2/2021). Tunnel station with two tracks and island platform, with north and south entrances to along 12th Avenue Northeast at Northeast 65th and 67th streets respectively.

U District (opened 10/2/2021). Tunnel station with two tracks and island platform, with north and south entrances along Brooklyn Avenue Northeast at 43rd and 45th streets.

University of Washington (opened 3/19/2016).

Capitol Hill (opened 3/19/2016). Two side tracks along one island platform. Transfer can be made here via the south exit to the First Hill Streetcar.

Westlake (opened 9/15/1990). Two platforms on opposite sides of the trackway. Perhaps the most beautiful Metro Tunnel station, Westlake is distinguished by its muted black, beige, light brown, reddish brown, brownish tan, and green color scheme; its Italian marble fixtures; and its elegant overhead lighting. In pleasant contrast to the station's muted color scheme are the bright and lively wall murals of comic-book style artwork along both platforms. One level above the platforms is a single, long mezzanine that extends nearly the entire length of the station. In addition to two street entrances, there are several entrances into retail establishments around Westlake Center. Westlake station is the Metro Tunnel's transfer point to the Seattle Monorail. The monorail's southern terminus is accessible through Westlake Center.

University Street (opened 9/15/1990). Two platforms on opposite sides of the trackway, with north and south mezzanines. The north mezzanine has two entrances while the south mezzanine has one entrance. The most attractive entrance to the station is the northwest entrance at 2nd Avenue and University Street. Located at the ground floor of Benaroya Hall, one of Seattle's two classical music venues, the entrance is adjacent to the Garden of Remembrance, Seattle's World War II memorial. The entrance leads to the north mezzanine. The station's color scheme is black, gray, reddish brown, red, and white. The mezzanines feature electric light art - Saccadascopoeia, by Bill Bell, in the north mezzanine, and Electric Lascaux, by Robert Teeple, in the south mezzanine.

Pioneer Square (opened 9/15/1990). Pioneer Square is the last of the Metro Tunnel's true underground stations. There are two platforms on opposite sides of the trackway. The station has a reddish brown, beige, and gray color scheme. Pioneer Square has north and south mezzanines and northeast and southeast entrances. Of the two entrances, the southeast, at 3rd Avenue and Yesler Way, is by far the most interesting. Topped with a clear glass paneled headhouse, the 3rd and Yesler entrance is connected to the south mezzanine by stairs that pass by beautiful tile murals reflecting Seattle's maritime heritage. The entrance's gates feature unique, stylized metal images of a crowd of people.

The south mezzanine has a surprising link to an earlier era of Seattle's mass transit history. Beside the mezzanine's east wall is an enormous 11 foot diameter cast-iron grooved wheel, which was once part of Seattle's now defunct cable car system. The wheel, discovered in January 1990 while Yesler Way's pavement was being resurfaced in connection with the Metro Tunnel's construction, was found in a concrete vault. Cast in sections and bolted together in the vault, the wheel was free of rust and covered with dirt and a layer of dry lubricating oil. The wheel's new home, in Pioneer Square's south mezzanine, is only yards from where it was found. The wheel once served as the terminal sheave for the Yesler Way cable car line, which operated from 1888 to 1940. Until the wheel stopped turning, on August 9, 1940, it reversed the direction of the 22,900 foot cable that pulled Yesler Way's cable cars. The vault where the wheel was found was built in 1920 when the cable car line's westbound track was moved three blocks north from South Jackson Street to Yesler Way. It is unknown if the wheel was new, in 1920, or if it was moved to Yesler Way from another cable car line.

International District/Chinatown (opened 9/15/1990). Two platforms on either side of the trackway, with a middle staging track and small platform for employee use in the center. The station has four entrances, located at its northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest corners. There is no mezzanine. The station is in a partially-covered open cut, and was formerly the Union Station-Union Pacific platform area. (All main line railroad service has since moved to King Street.)

Reflecting the Asian heritage of the surrounding neighborhood, which includes Chinatown and the remnants of pre-World War II Japantown, the walls of the northbound side of the station are adorned with sculptures representing Japanese origami figures in various stages of completion.

International District/Chinatown station is the transfer point to the First Hill Streetcar, the Sounder commuter rail line, and Amtrak. West of the station is historic, old Union Station, which once served Union Pacific passenger trains. Union Station is now the headquarters of Sound Transit.

South of the station is a large, dark area used by the former dual-mode buses. This 12-lane staging area was used by northbound buses to switch from diesel to overhead wire, and by southbound buses to drop their poles and start their diesel engines. Adjacent is the Metro Tunnel's control center.

Stadium. South of International District, the tracks emerge under the I-5 elevated highway overpasses, cross Royal Brougham Way, and enter Stadium Station, serving the adjacent stadiums of the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners. Center island platform and two tracks, with a single street level entryway leading to Royal Brougham Way.

SODO. The line parallels the SODO Busway as far as S. Lander Street. Center island platform and two tracks, with a single street level entryway leading to S. Lander Street. Between Stadium and SODO can be seen many street art murals decorating sides of warehouses and other industrial buildings in this district. After crossing Lander at grade, the tracks rise and curve eastward, passing the junction for the Sound Transit Link Central Maintenance Facility and yard. Directly past the yard area the tracks enter the mile-long Beacon Hill Tunnel.

Beacon Hill. A subterranean station with two deep-bored trackways with separate platforms, with a connecting tunnel between them. Located in the connection are a bank of elevators to the surface headhouse.

Mt. Baker. After emerging from the tunnel onto an elevated structure, the tracks turn south at S. McClellan and Rainier Ave. S., reaching Mt. Baker station. This is 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 distances between the stations are quite long, with an especially long distance between Rainier Beach and the next station. Some provision for infill stations has been made, or at least suggested, one being at Boeing Access Road (for Boeing Field). The route then parallels I-5 for a fair distance, then turns west to the station at Tukwila International Blvd..

SeaTac International Airport. Island platform with two side trackways. A mezzanine level under the platform level connects to one of the SeaTac parking structures, through which is a long corridor leading to the terminals at the north end (C/D/N gates). (The airport itself features three automated peoplemovers connecting the gates.)

Angle Lake. Island platform with two tracks. The extension to Federal Way is well underway visible at the south end of the station.

Former Stations

Two busway stations have not been integrated into the LINK Light Rail plan.

Convention Place (opened 9/15/1990). North of Westlake, the northbound and southbound lanes of the busway ran side by side in one single, wide tunnel, to Convention Place, the Metro Tunnel's only open cut station. The tunnel's north terminus, Convention Place featured the most complex layout of any Metro Tunnel station. Several bus bays served inbound and outbound bus traffic. At the bays, the buses would connect or disconnect from the overhead wire. Pedestrians enter the station from street level by descending one of four staircases. At the east end of the platforms is a crosswalk over the bus lanes. This crosswalk was the only point in the Metro Tunnel where pedestrians were allowed to cross the transit right-of-way.

After leaving the northbound platform, Interstate 5 express buses proceed straight ahead, beneath a flying junction and out of the station onto Interstate 5's express lanes. Eastbound buses and non-express northbound buses keep to the right of the busway and exit from the Interstate 5-bound lanes onto the flying junction, which leads to an exit at Olive Way and Terry Avenue. Southbound buses enter Convention Place through a portal at Olive Way and 9th Avenue. From there buses enter a large, open air staging area with 12 lanes, but do not switch to electric power until they stop at their designated boarding platforms.

Under a 2001 proposal, Convention Place would remain open to the public and the Metro Tunnel would be jointly used by light rail and buses. In this scenario, the station would temporarily serve as the northern terminus for the light rail line until funding could be found for a northern leg of the route to the University District. Ultimately, the station was not incorporated into the LINK Light Rail tunnel north of Westlake, as it was built at the same level as Interstate 5, making a tunnel connection east to Capitol Hill difficult to construct without disrupting Interstate 5's traffic flow.

Royal Brougham Way. Located in the shadow of approach ramps to Interstate 90, the northbound and southbound shelters, identical to those of the other Metro Busway stations, are located south of the busway's grade crossing at Royal Brougham Way. West of the station is Metro Transit's Ryerson Base where numerous out-of-service buses are parked and plainly visible from the station. Beyond Ryerson Base is a terrific view of the Seattle professional baseball and football stadiums. Functionally, this station was replaced by the Stadium station of LINK Light Rail.

Busway Stations

The following three stations were built as part of the Metro Tunnel busway project, and are included here for reference.

South Spokane Street. The Metro Busway begins its northward course at South Spokane Street station. The station, located just north of South Spokane Street, consists of two curbside bus shelters on opposite sides of the busway, serving northbound and southbound buses, entering and leaving South Spokane Street. Surrounded by low-rise industrial buildings in the shadow of the elevated Spokane Street Viaduct, the station is ground level and located next to a little used Union Pacific freight track, running just west of the busway, built on right-of-way once shared by the Union Pacific and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific Railroad, which ran electric locomotives on this route until 1968. Just north of the station, another spur line branches off from Union Pacific track, crossing the busway at grade before turning north and running east alongside the busway.

The station's otherwise drab and unremarkable surroundings are enlivened by a series of colorful wall murals. Created by young artists, similar murals and other artwork extend for the length of the Metro Busway. Known as the SODO Urban Art Corridor, this beautification project is the result of Seattle's "one percent for the arts" law, which mandates that all city public works projects earmark one percent of their budgets for art work.

South Lander Street. This station features curbside bus shelters identical to those at South Spokane Street. However, the layout of the station is different from South Spokane Street, where the northbound and southbound bus shelters are located across from each other north of the busway's outlet to South Spokane Street. In contrast, South Lander Street station's southbound shelter is south of the busway's grade crossing at South Lander Street, while the northbound shelter is north of the crossing. As with all Metro Busway grade crossings, the South Lander crossing is regulated by a traffic light. The SODO Station of the LINK Light Rail is located just north of S. Lander Street crossing.

South Holgate Street. This station, in its configuration, is an identical twin of South Lander Street. The southbound shelter is south of the busway's grade crossing with South Holgate Street while the northbound shelter is north of the crossing.

Photo Gallery

Five Random Images

Image 18675

(73k, 580x396)
Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Convention Place (Busway)

Image 93185

(339k, 698x1050)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Pioneer Square

Image 105313

(222k, 930x618)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Forest Street Shops/Yard

Image 105328

(183k, 930x618)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich

Image 160717

(377k, 820x1220)
Photo by: David Pirmann
Location: International District/Chinatown

More Images: 1-50 51-100 101-150 151-200 201-250 251-300 301-302

Photos By Location

Photo locations: Lynnwood City Center, Mountlake Terrace, Shoreline North/185th, Shoreline South/148th, Northgate, Roosevelt, U District, University of Washington, Capitol Hill, Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square, International District/Chinatown, Stadium, SODO, Forest Street Shops/Yard, Beacon Hill Tunnel West Portal, Beacon Hill, Beacon Hill Tunnel East Portal, Mount Baker, Columbia City, Othello, Rainier Beach, King County Metro South Base, BNSF/Sounder Line Overpass, Tukwila International Blvd., SeaTac Airport, Angle Lake, Kent Des Moines, Star Lake, Federal Way, Convention Place (Busway), Royal Brougham Way (Busway), South Spokane Street (Busway), South Lander Street (Busway), South Holgate Street (Busway), (Misc/Unknown)


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Page Credits

By Peter Ehrlich, Paul Schlienz, and David Pirmann.

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