At the end of last month, a Sound Transit light-rail train collided with a man outside of Rainier Beach Station in Rainier Valley. He was trapped beneath the train, which was stopped for an hour while he was freed and moved to intensive care.
Going back through The Seattle Times archives, you can find a trail of other such collisions: May 2019 — police car struck at Columbia City; February 2018 — woman struck at Sodo; January 2017 — man struck and killed near Othello Station.
Cross the tracks at your peril.
The Rainier Valley stretch of the Link light-rail network opened in July of 2009. According to a Seattle Times article on the July 27 collision, the Link has struck more than 21 pedestrians in the 10 years since. Over the same period of time, the Link has also struck more than 54 vehicles. It’s a pattern, and it’s a problem.
In 2015, I volunteered as a K-12 after-school tutor a few blocks away from Columbia City Station. There, as it does throughout Rainier Valley, the Link runs at street level, right down the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Every week, I walked past a Boys & Girls Club, several low-income apartment complexes and the Umoja PEACE Center. All of these serve the families and children of Columbia City’s large immigrant and low-income populations. All of them face the tracks: a light-rail train passes through every six minutes.
To the north and the south of Rainier Valley, light-rail trains travel through tunnels or on elevated tracks. Downtown, it has taken over the former bus tunnel and expelled the bus lines that used to run there. Accidental vehicle and pedestrian collisions are nearly impossible along those stretches of track.
Back in 1999, The Seattle Times reported local residents’ protest against the plan for ground-level tracks in Rainier Valley. The Save Our Valley organization campaigned for a tunnel instead. A tunnel would have been safer, and it would have had less impact on the valley’s communities.
Where the Link is separate from the road and free of the risk of collision, it can run faster. On MLK Jr. Way, trains are forced to slow down. One of Sound Transit’s long-term goals for light rail is to reduce traffic. But in Rainier Valley, it actually makes car traffic worse instead. The light-rail track blocks cross streets. Where there are four-way intersections, they form a bottleneck. Then, when a car or truck tries to cross the tracks on a red light, often enough it ends in another collision. Every crash costs public funds in the form of emergency response, cleanup, repairs and delays for light-rail passengers.
The only advantage to the street-level track? Its comparatively lower build cost. The 1999 Times article quoted the cost of digging a tunnel in South Seattle then at $300 million dollars; the flatter topography made a tunnel less feasible than in hilly Central Seattle. But there’s another factor. Rainier Valley’s population is less wealthy and less white than further north, and it has a large immigrant population. Whether racism influenced the final decision or not, it is a fact that the street-level tracks represent a case of environmental racism, and they do not reflect King County’s stated commitment to social equity.
A tunnel may be unfeasible, but an elevated track is not. To be sure, lifting the tracks off the ground now would be expensive, and construction would interfere with Link service.
We cannot forget, however, that the street-level tracks in Rainier Valley cause additional injuries and deaths every year. Competition with car traffic throttles the speed of Link’s entire central line. Eventually the tracks must be elevated, and Sound Transit and the city need to be prepared to pay the cost: for the construction and for every drop of blood spilled while it waits.