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The Jefferson Street Funicular

Sep 23, 2023

The latest idea for ST3 station placement in Downtown has the planned Midtown Station on the chopping block in favor of an expanded station at Pioneer Square where transfers between lines will be made. This is not a great idea for efficient Link transfers. But I started thinking about the possibilities of what an expanded Pioneer Square Station could be.

As luck would have it, there are other amazing transit use cases for a redeveloped King County Administration Building. Uses that mitigate a lost station at Midtown and support The One Tunnel option. Uses that would serve a dense neighborhood and large employers adjacent to the station.

Let’s start with an idea, a first principle if you will, that rider experience matters. Rider experience should always be our #1 assumption for station and network design. Stations should be built as close to the surface as possible, with easy-to-understand wayfinding, built with properly sized and redundant conveyances to the platform, allow platform-to-platform transfers in as short a distance as possible, and station exits should be positioned to seamlessly connect to other modes. I would use a station that did all of that, wouldn’t you?

With this in mind, I propose a two-station funicular train in an elevated alignment in the Jefferson Street right of way. The entire length of track is about 450 meters (~1500 ft). The downtown terminus will be in the mezzanine of a rebuilt administration building at 4rd and Jefferson, and the upper terminus at street level on the NW corner of 9th and Jefferson at Harborview. A bridge or overpass will carry the train over I-5. To get to the lower terminus from Pioneer Square Station, passageways will be cut on the east side of the mezzanines under 3rd to 4th avenue and into the new structure. There should also be additional street entrances to Pioneer Square Station on the west side of 4th and the east side of 3rd between Jefferson and James.

More below the fold.

It’s like a horizontal elevator. Typical funiculars have two counterbalanced carriages attached to opposite ends of a cable, which is looped over a pulley at the upper end of the track. An electric motor pulls on the cable to put the carriages in motion, as one ascends the other descends at an equal speed.

Funiculars are used everywhere, Hong Kong, UK, and Portugal to name a few. Some of these systems have been in use for decades, are quite long, and have multiple stations giving them the feel of a typical rail system. The unobservant rider might not be able to tell they are in a counterbalanced carriage.

It’s important to note that funiculars are not an every day transit mode. You wouldn’t use them on a steep hill at street level like a cable car, for example, when a trolley bus would do the job just fine. But on a steep grade over difficult or impassable terrain, an elevated funicular seems purpose-built for the job.

Funiculars have other advantages that make them ideal for this application:

Adding a station level with the sidewalk at Harborview on First Hill would be pretty exciting and finally right a decades-long wrong. A rail station east of I-5 at 9th and Jefferson next to a major employer and a population that really needs accessible transit seems to check all of the boxes. It would also increase the Link walk shed by a significant amount, and begin to serve a dense neighborhood that really deserves to be on the transit spine. If someone could diagram a proper walk shed map for this location, I’ll include it with this post.

A single tracked rail bridge is an obvious way to get across the freeway at Jefferson. A bridge similar in design to the pedestrian bridge at Northgate but structurally capable of supporting two fully loaded carriages could be a possibility, we already know it works over a freeway. An elevated railway might also be an option if there is road space for the piers. The passing loop for a single tracked two-stop funicular always occurs in the middle of the line, and this would happen above the Spring Street onramp to I-5 south.

The line continues in an elevated fashion above Jefferson Street to the terminus at 4th. If possible, the platform should be located within the new building at the mezzanine level rather than on the exterior. In other words, nothing like the Westlake Monorail Station. Multiple escalators and elevators would deliver passengers to the street level or the underground walkway that leads to the Link station platform.

On paper there seem to be some benefits to this transit addition, let’s review:

I’d also have to argue there are some challenges with this approach. There would be significant disruption at Harborview because there isn’t enough road space to add a surface funicular to Jefferson between 8th and 9th . So the street will need to be excavated for a shallow tunnel, which is a bummer but not without precedent.

On top of all that, Harborview might lose the north end of their parking lot near 8th and Jefferson. I thought maybe you could terminate the funicular at the parking lot on 8th and save on construction costs, but you’d still have to tear up Jefferson to 9th to widen the pedestrian environment, which might not even be practical given the ambulance traffic on that road. And this decision doesn’t play well with our first principles of rider experience. Even though a tunnel will be more expensive, it really would be the right thing to do.

Also, Jefferson St. is pretty far south so this line ultimately doesn’t serve the entirety of First Hill all that well, but the Rapid G will help. The funicular will eliminate some ridership on Metro routes 3 and 4, but a reroute has been on the drawing board for a while.

Finally, only transit nerds like funiculars. The general public will need to be convinced this is a practical and responsible idea.

That’s the real question I think. If the technical, construction, and funding issues could be resolved, would we have the courage to build it? A funicular is not Link nor a Streetcar and exists outside of how we think about rail today. I would like my transit agencies be empowered to invest in sustainable, purpose-built transit to solve our most difficult intra-city mobility challenges. In some cases this means overcoming bias and taking measured risks, particularly when obstacles make construction of other transit modes risky and expensive.

If we could overcome these challenges the payoff could be transformative. Connecting First Hill directly to the transit spine has been a goal since the first draft of ST1. The accessibility of a funicular is ideally suited for this alignment, particularly when you consider the mobility challenges of the population who would frequent the line. With a travel time of only about 90 seconds between stations it would be far superior than taking the 3 or 4 from 3rd Avenue up the hill at James Street.