Why light rail was predestined for MLK Way

The Bogue Plan, defeated in 1911 by voters, lived on in many ways, one of which was creating a route that would prove ideal for rail. Now, 98 years later, it's happening.
Martin Luther King Jr. Way: destined for rail

Martin Luther King Jr. Way: destined for rail Rob Ketcherside

In the late 1990s as Sound Transit prepared to build light rail, transportation planners and community members struggled to decide where to run tracks in the Rainier Valley. Community activists fought at length for a subway route which would reduce impacts on businesses, and they raised complaints of social injustice when Sound Transit decided to run surface trains on MLK yet nowhere else in the city.

But what if the answer to the rail-alignment question were actually written before any of us was born?

Through 1997, Rainier Avenue was the clear front runner because of the density of residences, and number of businesses and stores. There was a legible imprint from streetcars which ran down Rainier until the 1930s. But Rainier burst at the seams through its busiest parts. Sidewalks seemed too narrow and traffic lanes and parked cars jammed the roadway which at one time easily carried both horses and trolleys. Adding light rail to the mix made no sense to residents or business owners.

By 1998, the emphasis was on MLK, and costs were compared for on-the-street, above- and below-grade configurations. If we look back at the origins of MLK, though, it's clear that the street itself was perfect. It wasn't intended to carry rail, but unintentionally met rail's requirements. This was a road purposefully built without the size constraints of Rainier, and on a gentle cut of the hill.

The popular history of MLK starts in 1913, when City of Seattle legislation dedicated a new road named Empire Way roughly paralleling Rainier Avenue. We hear about this each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, reminded that Empire Way was renamed to MLK in 1982. Previously, it honored the "Empire Builder" James J. Hill, president of the first transcontinental railroad to Seattle.

The surprising story of MLK's preparation for light rail can be found back in 1910. That's when it was first drawn byVirgil Bogue, at the apex of his life's work. He started as a surveyor, later becoming a railroad engineer, railroad executive, and finally city planning consultant. Bogue was hired in 1910 by Seattle to write our first city plan, and he was expected to draw a blueprint for decades of metropolitan growth and development in a comprehensive look at port facilities, roads, rails, and a new civic center.

Put to a vote in 1911, the Bogue Plan failed as an amendment to the city charter. These days it's taken for granted that it was then summarily placed in the circular file. The web of roads on the planned map, for sure, doesn't much resemble our roads system today. Remarkably though, at a conference in 1915 Bogue took pride in his roads work, saying that "a considerable beginning has been made in carrying out the 'Plan', especially in the south part of the city."

Indeed, a close comparison of the plan with maps of today and 1909 shows that there are several roads in West and Southeast Seattle which are direct descendents. Bogue thought Fauntleroy, which he called Highway 41, should be taken all the way to Spokane Street. He suggested extending Admiral Way from there to Alki. Both were approved by the city council shortly after the plan failed at the polls. The Mount Baker Tunnel and Battery Street Tunnel were detailed by Bogue under different names, and built several decades later. And fortunately for Sound Transit, MLK south to Othello Street was described precisely by Bogue as "Highway 24." Considering that legislation was ready with property acquisition details a short year after the plan was published, city officials may have been preparing to build Empire Way even before voters said No.

So what made Highway 24, now MLK, perfect for light rail? Bogue made a strong distinction between park-like boulevards and arterial highways. Think of leafy, curvaceous Lake Washington Boulevard as the contrast to Highway 24. On highways, trees would be allowed alongside houses but not between the street and sidewalk. The roadway would be wide enough to "exceed, by a good deal, the needs of the present." The paved street in the roadway would be narrow initially, but as an "elastic street" it would be widened on demand over time.

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Posted Wed, Jul 8, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Robert, you are Wrong to assume MLK was destined bla bla bla.
I'd be glad to fill you in on the detals as to how it got there and not the real proposed route, down E. Marginal Way and the First Ave. Bridge to 99.

Arthur M. skolnik FAIA

Posted Wed, Jul 8, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Be very careful driving/walking/biking around light rail tracks. Year after year, the accidental fatality rate per passenger mile in America for light rail is up to three times greater than the fatality rate for urban driving.

U.S. Government statistics reveal this inherent danger. See the new chart at http://tinyurl.com/kmac9o. This reveals empirical probabilities of a fatal accident for two modes. There's something about train tracks in an urban setting ...

I hope Sound Transit's efforts to supplement their at-grade light rail track design along MLK Jr. Way with signals, bells, and safety education pay off in a better accident experience in City of Seattle than what our country has seen to date with the addition of this mode to the urban scene.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Robert, I am charmed by your interest in history in this history-is-dead age.
Art, as amateur politician, is correct, but so are you.

Politicians are into the next history--the troublesome past is enemy--or at least full of wrongs and lost battles/opportunities.Politicians also have a bad habit of inventing too many meanings for words such as "rail" and using such words indiscriminately.

That's how we have come to have heavy rail called light rail running on the surface down a highway that someday might become a pedestrianized boulevard. For some history on the consequences of being so muddled see "Fast Wheels Slow Traffic" by Charles Wright, 1992.

Amateur politicians (I don't mean Art here) lamenting over stupid Seattle voting down "light rail" in the 1970s, always starts me thinking about what it really would be like now if we had indeed reinstalled the streetcar network that was on the ballot then. Back in the days when hard copy records abounded, I came across the following text from the City's 1976 PR prepared by TDA (Seattle-Denver), accompanied an ink sketch that records for all posterity exactly what version of rail was intended--think SLUG.

"Although not as efficient as a grade-separated system, surface operation in the CBD would be lower in capital cost and would provide better pedestrian orientation. This surface operation would depend on manual, not automated, control..."

That I have no idea how to find this once public document today, makes your interest all the more amazing to me.

Thanks for a delightful read.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Art, whatever the "real" proposed route was, a First/Marginal route would have serious ridership issues, because while heavier on jobs it wouldn't have been close to residents. Further, because much of the route will always be commercial (and not dense commercial), it wouldn't have supported densification of station areas.

If the #1 function of rail is to take people from home to work, and the rail is mostly around workplaces, where do the residents go to catch it? Basically they treat someone else's job locale as a park-n-ride or take the bus there.

With the three major spokes existing or coming, other routes such as First/Marginal make more sense as additions. It's easy to imagine that route plus a West Seattle line, with a junction at First & Spokane. Of couse that's way off. And adding more rail would mean another Downtown tunnel...Second or Fourth seem like good candidates (not Alaskan, which is too far and too downhill).


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

jniles, there were 11 fatalaties due to light rail in the US in 2006, and 37 for all forms of rail transit. Compare that to 41,000 deaths per year due to car/truck accidents. Which should we worry more about? http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2008/html/table_02_32.html

Light rail's accident stats are so low that its ratio of fatalities per 100,000,000 vehicle miles fluctuates wildly year to year, in some years taking it below other transit modes -- but that's vehicle miles. Vanpools and buses don't look so safe when you realize they carry a lot fewer passengers per vehicle.

In 2006, "vehicles" had a fatality rate of 1.4 per 100,000,000 vehicle miles. Light rail was 15.3. However, light rail carried many times the number of passengers per vehicle mile. http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2008/html/table_02_17.html

I've found "advocate" statements that light rail is 10x as safe as driving per passenger mile, which seems to jibe with the stats above. However, "advocate" stats aren't reliable.

Do you have government stats per passenger mile? Would love to see them.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an interesting article as are others that trace and track the evolution of the city. But I don’t believe that it makes the case described in the last couple of sentences about the wisdom of, “transforming a fast, wide-shouldered highway into a transit-centric, leafy boulevard.”

The mission of the DOT and the SDOT is still to move powered, rubber-tired, privately-owned vehicles around the area as efficiently as they can. Whether they like it or not, they are charged with doing this because over 90% of the people who live in this area elect to use them for their transportation. It is currently the will of the people and I expect will remain so for decades. This obsession with creating multi-billion dollar conduits to slurry people back and forth into the downtown core area is puzzling. It would be interesting to see a study of the frequency of people who travel downtown. I think the number of those who seldom or never visit is larger than our urban planning hobbyists would have you believe.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Found it. Here are passenger miles in 2006. http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_37.html

Light rail had 13 fatalities in 1,866,000,000 passenger miles (or 11 fatalities per another table on the same site, but I'll compute based on 13). That's 143,500,000 passenger miles per fatality. I don't see a breakout of whether the 11/13 are in the rail or not.

Passenger cars had 2,658,621,000,000 passenger miles and 17,925 fatalities to occupants, plus about 5,500 pedestrians and cyclists fatally struck. That's 113,500,000 miles per fatality. But only 148,300,000 passenger miles if you forget the pedestrians and cyclists!

All vehicles (including intercity buses, motorcycles, etc) 4,933,689,000,000 passenger miles. I'm being lazy and not adding the various categories of fatalities that apply.

You said "urban" so it's fair to wonder if the urban subset has better numbers than overall passenger cars.

The numbers don't break out whether the 11 or 13 light rail deaths were passengers or run into by rail.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Great piece, and I love the links directly to Bogue's plan at Google Books. I regret not having seen your blog before, but it's going directly in my RSS reader.

Posted Wed, Jul 8, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

John Niles distorts the truth when he uses endless fear tactics around rail fatalities.

But, then again, he's paid to misinform by two local right wing think tanks.

Car and highway apologists like Niles LOVE to toss out fatality rates, and exclude suicides in their calculations. How many times do you hear about suicidal people flinging themselves in front of a car or bus?

Secondly, since Niles has always advocated for an all-bus transit system for Seattle, it's useful to note the fatality rate is higher as compared to cities which depend on rail, instead.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry - scroll down to page 29 for the stats and charts.

Posted Wed, Jul 8, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

In this article, Art Skolnik is revealed as somebody who bases his views on pure speculation:


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

Art again.

I was the South Corridor Manager for the Regional Transit Project back in the 90's. The debate between serving points of origin vs. destination was a a wash.
MLK and Rainier have (had) the best transit service in all of Seattle. No need to replace it with rail, just improve the ROW so traffic and buses could move more efficiently and conveniently. By using the MLK route, all that is done is move bus riders onto rail, for no net gain of ridership The only gain would be to increase density which is what the corridor community DID NOT WANT.

That is why we recommended E. Marginal Way as the best solution. It would have served the Duwamish employment base, Boeing etc and would have attract future employment. And, by encouraging more dense station areas, new residential communities would be encouraged without trampling any existing neighborhood. Developers could assemble larger affordable tracts of land to accomodate this density and would have been able to include the multitude of government requirements such as
affordable housing, openspace, small business promotion etc.

The line would have been cheaper to build (no tunneling) and generated more tax base along the way.

It was certain City Councilmembers, at that time, who blackmailed the RTP into the MLK corridor because they used a arguement that was not based on the best solution for all. They wanted a system that served the community that was already there (current voters) as opposed to where the future communities should be encouragedto maximize the cost benefit ration between rail and new community development.

I could go on, but you'll have to take my word since I was at the scene of the crime and it will have negative impact along the MLK corridor out into the future.

For example, we did not want to increase density it the corridor and now that is what the City and Sound Transit are promoting.
Shame on them!


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 7:53 p.m. Inappropriate

I bow to your greater knowledge. However, many people have the goals of encouraging densification of urban villages and key corrdors in Seattle, and maintaining industrial uses in much of the SoDO/Dumwamish area (vs. growing urban villages there), and the alignment you're talking about seems to conflict with that.

PS, I get to play the same card on the Seattle Commons if that comes up! Though not as manager of anything.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 7:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Forgot to mention... It seems that the MLK move was about "serving the densest routes" over "adding the most riders", with the latter based upon a growth model that would have been problematic in some key ways. I believe the correct alignment decision was made.


Posted Wed, Jul 8, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

I think Art is missing the point here, which was to look at the past and see how things seemingly unconnected could have paved the way for what we are doing today. The article doesn't claim to explain how the decision was made, it just shows a historical context that could conceivably have help push things one way or another.

The choice of MLK was also chosen because of a regional preference for a rail system oriented to long distance commuters, creating the need to get to points far south in a hurry rather than meandering to Renton, for example (as the 1960's Forward Thrust proposal would have). Trying to serve the Rainier Valley on a surface route and also to provide a fast enough trip to Tacoma to compete with buses in HOV lanes created a tension that could only be (poorly) resolved by a trip down a wide and lightly settled and traveled boulevard like MLK Way,

It's great to see articles like this one that stimulate the curiosity and remind us we are living in a historical continuum, and that our actions are shaped by those before us and shape what will come after. Crosscut, please, more of these!

Posted Wed, Jul 8, 11:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Madison Ave, I have never been paid by a think tank or by any organization for my research on light rail hazard analysis. It's a personal cause brought on by discovering six years ago the documented details of how the light rail industry and sponsoring governments avoid responsibility for the hazards in the track design that they build along city streets.

Many people think the benefits of light rail are worth the hazard. Others, including myself, don't. I would go so far as to say that the hazard level of light rail running in a street median through ungated grade-level crossings is so high that no benefit makes it worthwhile. Sound Transit and City of Seattle disagree, and in fact claim that the street is now safer based on doing things that could have been done without light rail in the mix.

My findings are at http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/linksafetycertification.htm

The fatality rates I recently added to the top of that page are from U.S. Government statistics. I had to do the calculation from several different sources, mostly at Bureau of Transportation Statistics, because the U.S. Government does not do the long division of fatalities by passenger miles, and especially does not compare them between modes. The light rail fatality rate across America is what I'd call a dirty little secret.

Here is the summary I posted with the chart I calculated: "In 2007, two trillion passenger miles of urban driving resulted in 17,467 deaths. Light rail experienced 32 deaths in 1.9 billion passenger miles, not including suicides. Year after year, the accidental light rail fatality rate per passenger mile has always been higher than the urban driving rate, suggesting that light rail is a dangerous addition to city streets. Most light rail deaths are people struck by trains, not rail passengers.
Data source: U.S. Department of Transportation. Light rail data from

Mhays, the U.S. Govt separately reports urban and rural driving, and urban driving is safer per passenger mile than rural driving. It seems fair and reasonable to compare light rail to urban driving, not to all driving.

In any event, Sound Transit has built grade-level light rail along MLK Jr. Way, and it's now the responsibility of citizens to avoid getting hit by the train. Sound Transit has put out signs and signals, put a bell and lights on the trains, and done a big education campaign. If anybody gets hit, ST will "charge" the person who didn't see the train coming.

Thus, at this stage of light rail development, avoiding being hit by a train is the responsibility of the people who are in a position to be hit, not Sound Transit, as long as the bells and signals are working.

To one and all, be very careful around the tracks.


Posted Thu, Jul 9, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for all of the comments!

@Arties4453: That's back before my time, so I tried digging for Sound Transit documents online. I was amazed that I couldn't find any historic documents, even their original EIS. Shame on me for not going to the library, but honestly my point was that once planners looked at the Rainier Valley, there really was only one logical choice. Regarding the SODO alignment, are there any documents you can point to for more info? I've read the same comments from you on other articles, but I don't know where to look for more.

@afreeman: Thanks for your comments! I think it would be very interesting to create an online repository of the most important transportation and urban planning documents in our regional history. A secondary goal might be to put them in context of what was going on nationally, and what actually happened as a result of the plan. It would also be amazing to put them into some sort of continuum, so that we can see what each built off of and what ideas repeatedly come up.

@jniles: I'm definitely concerned about safety. (Drawing from my knowledge well...) Tokyo's JR is in the middle of raising a trainline right now (Chuo or Central Line) in order to reduce accidents and thereby save lives and improve train reliability. It's managed as is for a hundred years, though. The real problem is the modern 2-minute headways in each direction which cause people trying to cross to get impatient and either get in accidents with each other or try to beat the train. It's not a complete parallel to Link, though. The Arakawa streetcar line has the same street conditions as Link. It was on the other side of Tokyo from me so I don't know much about it... I'll try and dig up stats for it at some point and see how it fits into your arguments. Back to your points, though, honestly the biggest ding against you is that I've heard you and a few others vocally speaking out against light rail for a number of years, but you haven't been able to gather more people to your cause. I haven't reviewed your supporting data yet, but why haven't the folks who have? Do you have any ideas about what's not resonating with people?

@mhays: I'm with you. Freight transportation needs to link industry. Passenger transportation needs to link homes, businesses and destinations. Sound Transit won't be able to make money at night running coal, lumber and mail like the old streetcars did. And it's so much cheaper to build out existing neighborhoods... imagine if all of the stops through SODO were one massive South Lake Union. Rents double the rest of the city, new business owners taking wild stabs at what residents want or need, an entire swath of our city with no character trying to find a soul.

@jmrolls: I recommend that you read Fighting Traffic. Disclaimer, I'm only partway through, but it will make you rethink your "transportation means cars" mindset. Here's something that will blow your mind: not all roads are managed by SDOT. Some of our roads are parks. Why should our parks have a priority of moving cars around as efficiently as they can? Even if your point is accurate, I believe you've built some extra meaning into "efficient". In my mind, efficient means with the least energy, or maybe the most number of cars possible. But Aurora, for example, is not built to perform that task. It's built to move cars as fast as possible when there is no traffic. Once there's congestion, everyone is screwed: cars and buses can't move, and you still have to walk down a gravel shoulder and "jaywalk" to get to the other side if you don't want to walk a mile.

@Benjamin: Thank you for the flattery! Now I'm going to have to put more energy back into my site. Flickr and Facebook have been sucking my time away (thanks for adding me as a contact on Flickr!)

@Rob: Thank you!!

Rob K

Posted Thu, Jul 9, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Art for the final time

There was a comprehensive article in the Seattle Times a couple of years ago which explained how the MLK route was decided. You'll have to go in and scan several to find it.


Posted Thu, Jul 9, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Very nice work on the history, though the headline is pretty sensationalist. :)

(By the way, the Cascade part of South Lake Union has a soul, and had it long before Vulcan.)


Posted Thu, Jul 9, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Rob K:

Until I was 35 years old, I simply would not have listened to any of the arguments that colleagues and I make today about the impact of light rail on Seattle.

In Washington, DC, as a younger man, I knew vaguely about people who talked like I do now about the problems with rail. I wouldn't give them the time of day back then.

MetroRail in the era of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford was the obvious next thing to build, and I even scoffed at the suburban bus riders around the National Capitol Area who said their commute trip became slower with the train.

Topping this all off, I worked in a government office back in that time where a colleague did quantitative forecasts 30 years ago of the financial problems that Washington DC's Metro is having today.

If I had lived in King County in 1968 and 70, I would have voted "yes" for the heavy rail subway proposed then.

A change of heart with age is a characteristic of many close colleagues I work with on this issue today.

Arties4453: the article you may be referring to is from the July 16, 2001 Seattle Times, "Distorted facts led to Rainier rail route" by Susan Kelleher. It is the same one referred to by MadisonAve above with a link given.


Posted Thu, Jul 9, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

@art&jniles;: Thanks for the pointers to the Seattle Times article. I didn't run across it when I was looking for material. By the way, the link didn't work, but searching on the Seattle Times for the title John left got me there. It provides interesting back story, but isn't really relevant to this article. The thesis is: MLK on the surface was the most economically sensible Rainier Valley route, because of the way it was originally designed. An interesting alternate article might profile the communities of the Duwamish valley, their transportation pasts, and how light rail might have changed them. Maybe I'll do that next??

Also, John, thank you for your personal story.

@joshuadf: I guess the title served its purpose since you read it! Originally I proposed the bland/non-offensive "Was MLK predestined for light rail?" Along those lines, I meant no offense to the Cascade neighborhood, even though I directly offended it. I hope you'll forgive a long reply. I see two neighborhoods within the physical boundaries of Cascade. There is the real, old Cascade with awesome scarecrows, community festivals, a pea-patch, nice historic brick apartments, kickball, and weathered bars and restaurants. And then there are the big, new apartment and senior-living buildings, built on trendy retail, each trying to be their own enclosed community - and largely succeeding. South Lake Union, in my mind as a year resident, is a series of massive, coherent buildings aspiring to build a neighborhood but still too new to present a legible identity. It sits on top of and around several real neighborhoods which took root slowly with age and character in the corner of the industrial area, or refused to die when the freeway and highways cut them off from the rest of the copse of trees. So that's my faux-artistic perspective. The reality is that the new residents and apartment managers are not integrated into the broader community. It's the same problem that each of the new condo and apartment buildings pose to the rest of the city (and seem to fail to overcome as a whole). In South Lake Union, though, the ratio of new units to old seems to have outpaced the communities' ability to absorb new friends.

Rob K

Posted Fri, Jul 10, 10:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Rob K,
No rest for the inquisitive, it's one pitfall!
Keep 'em coming.


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