October 2, 2007
One of the reasons that is repeatedly cited by opponents of utilizing the Eastside railroad for a transit service is that it has grade crossings (i.e., tracks crossing streets "at grade" instead of going on bridges above them or in cuts below them). But is this really a valid objection?
The answer is clearly "No!" Nearly all railroads that are used for commuter service in the U.S. and abroad have grade crossings, and it has rarely proved to be a serious problem. In fact, there are even many grade crossings on the BNSF tracks used by Sound Transit's Sounder commuter train service from Seattle to Tacoma and Everett. Sound Transit never said "We don't want to use the BNSF main line through Seattle because it has grade crossings."
Even brand new light rail systems, including that currently under construction in Seattle by Sound Transit, typically have numerous grade crossings. Among the only railroads that do not have grade crossings are high speed bullet trains, such as those in Japan and France, and subway lines. (Well, actually there is one grade crossing on the Tokyo subway system, but that's beside the point.)
The Eastside railroad has been in use for more than a century and there has never been any serious concern raised about its grade crossings -- until now. This is despite the fact that years ago there was much more traffic on the railroad than there is today. Why is this such a big issue all of a sudden?
The disruptions to road traffic by BNSF's main line through Seattle are already far greater than they would ever be on the Eastside railroad because that line is used daily by numerous very long freight trains in addition to a growing number of moderately long passenger trains. In sharp contrast, the Eastside railroad would be used by only relatively short and infrequent (initially several times per day or hourly) commuter trains as well as by occasional freight trains.
Moreover, any effects on road traffic from trains crossing the roads could be minimized or eliminated by synchronizing the rail-road crossing signals with those of nearby road-road intersection signals. For example, when trains come through the crossing with NE 8th Street near downtown Bellevue, the signals on the nearby intersection of NE 8th with 116th Street could turn green for the latter, thus allowing traffic on that usually busy street to continue to flow. This could be compensated for after the train passes by slightly longer green lights for traffic on NE 8th.
In addition, as the frequency of trains on the railroad increases in the future, it would be a fairly simple matter to construct overpasses or underpasses as replacements for the busiest grade crossings, such as at NE 8th Street and in the Totem Lake area. Although such projects would cost several million dollars each, this is almost insignificant in contrast to the roughly $325 million that Sound Transit hopes to spend for each mile of its proposed East Link light rail line between Seattle and Bellevue.
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