Sound Transit eliminates design that made southern light rail’s most dangerous stretch

by Lizz Giordano

Sound Transit plans to raise or bury future light rail lines rather than running them along the street. The design choice comes 20 years after the transit agency established a lane in the middle of 4.5 miles of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, making this segment the most dangerous in the system.

“In general, future projects should be designed as overhead or tunnel guideways,” Sound Transit spokesman John Gallagher said in an email. “For projects that are not currently under construction or in the planning stages, Link light rail crossings will be grade graded in the future.”

He later clarified that the new design guidelines would dictate that “pedestrian level crossings should be avoided where possible, but in certain circumstances, with the required studies, they may be permitted at the discretion of Sound Transit” .

On the current line, trains run on the street, mingling with cars, pedestrians and cyclists on two sections, one in SoDo, the other in Rainier Valley. The latter is by far the longest stretch, where tracks run along MLK from Mount Baker station to the southern city limits, traversing dozens of streets.

On average, every 45 days, light rail trains have collided with a vehicle along the MLK corridor since operations began in 2009, according to accident data. Around 80% of collisions occur in the South End, and most collisions are the result of a vehicle making an unauthorized left turn onto the track as a train approaches.

Since the line opened, 10 people, including nine along MLK, have been killed in a collision with a light rail. More recently, a couple were killed last July after they failed to see an approaching train at the Columbia City station.

Rainier Valley residents and elected officials have long criticized the decision to run the light rail in the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, while it was buried or elevated in other areas.

“I’ve said many times in the past, in meetings with the community and with Sound Transit, that the agency needs to take responsibility for Link in the South End, not just use us as a ‘learning opportunity. “for what not to do moving forward,” Seattle council member Tammy Morales, who represents the city’s south, said in a statement. “There must be some accountability from Sound Transit, and frankly, the City, when it comes to safety on MLK. …”

A light rail travels south along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South as the sun sets in late January, highlighting a majestic Mount Rainier. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

In last year’s budget discussions, Morales applied for to the Seattle Department of Transportation asking the agency to provide a written plan by September to make MLK safer for people and how it will be implemented.

The decision to avoid the crossings came after the couple were killed at the Columbia City train station, Gallagaher said, as discussions were already underway before the deaths. The agency disclosed this decision during a Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board committee in late 2021.

On a slide titled “Lessons Learned for Future Alignments,” the agency said it plans to “avoid crosswalks for optimal passenger experience” during a presentation to the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board last fall.

“It’s great to hear that they’re learning from their past mistakes,” Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, said in an email. “Hopefully they can also make the Rainier Valley line safer by improving safety along MLK Way South.”

Safety upgrades are underway, including studies separating the current upgraded sections of track along MLK. The agency is considering any safety improvements, including reducing train speeds and adding overpasses, Gallagher said.

A draft of a Safety report 2021 along the corridor recommends that the agency consider adding vehicular and pedestrian gates at some intersections, using traffic control cameras to tag cars making unauthorized left turns, and place safety ambassadors at stations and intersections to educate users.

These follow the recommendations of a 2019 Risk Assessment this also included reducing the speed of light rail along the busy thoroughfare to meet current vehicle limits of 25 mph.

“Such a reduction in operating speed is expected to reduce both the frequency and severity of collisions and near-misses at grade crossings,” the report said.

In 2020, Seattle lowered vehicle speed limits on most thoroughfares as part of its Vision Zero plan to improve safety and eventually eliminate road deaths. Reduced train speed was also offered by the Internal Safety and Security Operational Committee in 2020.

When the deaths occurred at the Columbia City station last year, Sound Transit was in the process of implementing several safety improvements in the South End. The number of collisions and near-misses at several at-grade intersections had reached a level of risk the agency deemed ‘unacceptable’, according to a study 2017. The agency added more signs, including “look both ways” and flashing signs warning of the second train, and pavement stripes. Reducing the speed of light trains was also recommended by this study.

This decision to build tracks without level crossings will only apply to projects that are not already in the design or construction phase. This leaves a long-criticized crossing in the future Judkins Park Stationwhich will link downtown and the Eastside in 2023. To access the station, located along Interstate 90, riders will need to take a level crossing to access the platform by entering through the west entrance .

Light rail tracks run alongside the route in several sections of the line to Bellevue and Redmond, so the level crossing at Judkins Park Station will not be the only one in the Eastern Link system. Plans for Snohomish County’s first expansion as well as Federal Way’s light rail project contain no crossings, according to Gallagher.

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, specializing in public transportation and housing. It can be reached here and more of his work can be found here.

📸 The featured image: Trains and cars pass by as people wait to cross Martin Luther King Jr. Way at Othello Station. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists navigate these crossings along the 4.5 mile light rail section through the South End. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!

Jose P. Rogers