Photo depicting pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South as cars speed in front of them and a light rail train takes off behind them.

Sound Transit Eliminates Design That Made South End Light Rail Most Dangerous Stretch

by Lizz Giordano

Sound Transit plans to elevate or bury future light rail routes rather than run them along the street. This design choice comes 20 years after the transit agency laid down track in the middle of 4.5 miles of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, making that segment the most dangerous in the system.

“In general, future projects are to be designed as aerial or tunnel guideways,” said John Gallagher, a spokesperson for Sound Transit, in an email. “For projects not currently under construction or in planning, Link light rail crossings will be grade separated moving forward.”

He later clarified that new design guidelines would dictate that “Pedestrian track crossings should be avoided wherever possible, however under some circumstances with required studies they may be allowed at Sound Transit’s discretion.”

On the current line, trains operate in the street, mixing with cars, pedestrians, and cyclists in two stretches — one is in SoDo, the other in Rainier Valley. The latter is the longest section by far, where tracks run along MLK from the Mount Baker Station to the city’s southern limits, crossing dozens of streets. 

On average, every 45 days, light rail trains collide with a vehicle along the MLK corridor since operations began in 2009, according to crash data. About 80% of collisions happen in the South End, and most collisions are a result of a vehicle making an unauthorized left turn across the track as a train is approaching. 

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

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

“I’ve said several times in the past, in meetings with community and with Sound Transit, that the agency needs to take responsibility for Link in the South End, and not just use us as a ‘learning opportunity’ for what not to do going forward,” said Seattle Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents the South End of the city, in a statement. “There needs to be some accountability from Sound Transit, and frankly, from the City, about safety on MLK. …”

Photo depicting Martin Luther King Jr. Way south as cars and a light rail train head down the street. Mt. Rainier lit up by a sunset looms in the background.
A light rail train heads south along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South as the sun sets in late January, highlighting a majestic Mt. Rainier. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

During budget discussions last year, Morales made a request to the Seattle Department of Transportation asking the agency to provide a written plan by September for making MLK safer for people and how it will be implemented.

The decision to avoid at-grade crossings came after the couple was killed at the Columbia City Station, Gallagaher said, as discussions were already underway before the fatalities. The agency disclosed this decision at 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 pedestrian track crossings for optimal passenger experience” during a presentation to the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board last fall.

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

Safety upgrades are ongoing, including studying separating the current at-grade sections of track along MLK. The agency is considering any safety enhancement, including lowering train speeds and adding overpasses, Gallagher said. 

A draft of a 2021 safety review done along the corridor recommends the agency consider adding vehicle and pedestrian gates to some intersections, using traffic enforcement cameras to ticket cars that make unauthorized left turns, and stationing safety ambassadors at stations and intersections to educate riders.

These follow recommendations from a 2019 risk assessment that also included reducing light rail speeds along the busy arterial to meet current vehicle limits of 25 mph.

“It is expected that such a reduction in operating speed will reduce both the frequency and severity of grade crossing collisions and near misses,” the report read. 

In 2020, Seattle lowered vehicle speed limits on most arterials as part of its Vision Zero plan to improve safety and eventually eliminate traffic deaths. A reduction in train speeds was also proposed by the internal Safety and Security Operations Committee in 2020. 

When the deaths occurred at the Columbia City Station last year, Sound Transit was in the middle of implementing several safety upgrades in the South End. The number of collisions and near misses at several at-grade intersections had hit a risk level the agency deemed “unacceptable,” according to a 2017 study. The agency added more signs, including “look both ways” and second train warning blinking signs, and pavement striping. Reducing light rail speeds was also recommended by this study.

This decision to build tracks without grade crossings will apply only to projects not already in the design or construction phase. This leaves a long-criticized grade crossing at the future Judkins Park Station, which will connect downtown and the Eastside in 2023. To access the station, located along Interstate 90, will require riders to navigate a track crossing to access the platform when entering from the western entrance. 

Light rail tracks run along the road in several sections in the line to Bellevue and Redmond, so the track crossing at Judkins Park Station won’t be the only one in the eastern Link system. Plans for Snohomish County’s first extension as well as Federal Way’s light rail project do not contain any grade crossings, according to Gallagher.

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

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

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