Light rail stirs safety worries on MLK Way

At the Rose Petals Restaurant and Lounge, the catfish is served with a 180-degree view of chaos.

Passing cars and trucks flout the speed limit, while people on foot scurry across five lanes of nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Way South whenever an opening presents itself. The road is a recipe for collisions.

"I can witness to four, that I know of," says restaurant owner Bettye Gray, who made the emergency call one time when a woman was killed by a hit-and-run driver right outside the dining-room window.

This is the setting where Sound Transit will add train tracks. A $141 million construction contract has been awarded, and within two months, builders will begin constructing the surface portion of Link light rail through four miles of MLK Way in Rainier Valley. When it's built, trains will pass every six minutes in each direction.

Safety experts once estimated that a train will hit a car 29 times a year and a pedestrian three times a year, based on crash rates in other cities.

Can trains and traffic share the same valley?

Sound Transit says they can, because of safety features such as warning lights that flash a train icon, new left-turn lanes, more stoplights and more crosswalks.

Politicians promise that the neighborhood will be safer when train service begins five years from now because the project will calm traffic. The train tracks, in their own median apart from the road lanes, will replace a two-way left-turn lane that breeds crashes.

"Every year we had a thing, some kids getting hit by a car," King County Executive Ron Sims, a transit board member, told Link safety director Hamid Qaasim at a briefing last year. "You, with this project, have done more to improve safety on Martin Luther King Way than we've seen in years."

The Rainier Valley surface route is the most controversial stretch of the 14-mile route from Westlake Center to Tukwila, to open in 2009.

To proponents, light rail will make this a more attractive place to live than the sprawling suburbs. Skeptics say surface tracks will cause bottlenecks in what voters intended to be a high-capacity regional system. The city could have made the streets safer without squandering a couple of billion dollars on rail, they say.

Save Our Valley, a citizens group, lost a civil-rights lawsuit that alleged racial discrimination because the ethnically mixed area was getting a surface line while transit officials were promoting a subway for the city's North End.

"People in this community are resigned to the fact there's nothing they can do to prevent putting this thing in," said George Curtis, a member of the group.

But John Niles, a transportation consultant and backer of bus rapid transit, is still trying to convince officials that surface tracks are an "inherent hazard" that violates federal safety regulations. An anti-Link initiative is expected to hit the streets later this month.

Houston's problem

Niles argues that fresh proof of light-rail dangers can be found in Houston, which has experienced 33 collisions on a new line since testing began last fall.

All were attributed to people who disobeyed signals or traffic laws. Those include an elderly woman accused of running a red light and a railroad freight-train crew that lifted a gate and motored into the path of a light-rail train.

Rail supporters blame Houston's culture of aggressive driving — a "motor vehicle Destruction Derby," fumes the national Light Rail Now Web site. In 2002, before any rail in Houston, there were 252 traffic deaths in the city, nearly triple the rate per capita in Seattle.

But even in safer areas, some collisions are inevitable. Last year, Salt Lake City reported eight injuries and 15 accidents total. Six people have died on light-rail tracks, including two suicides, since the first line opened in 1999. Portland's 39-mile system reported 48 collisions last year, many of them minor.

Light-rail trains are involved in more fatalities per mile traveled, and also per passenger mile, than commuter trains, buses or automobiles in urban areas, according to an analysis by rail critic John Semmens of the Arizona Department of Transportation. However, the numbers are skewed upward by the Blue Line in Los Angeles, where trains zip at freeway speeds through populated areas. Blue Line trains have killed more than 60 people since 1993.

Stephanie Vance, program manager of the pro-transit Center for Transportation Excellence in Washington, D.C., says the incidents should be considered auto wrecks, not train wrecks.

"You cannot make things foolproof. Fools are too damn ingenious," said Tom Rubin, a former Los Angeles transit executive and now a consultant.

Whose fault?

Light-rail design is typically regulated by the Federal Transit Administration, the same agency that funds the projects — and provided a $500 million grant for Sound Transit's $2.44 billion line from Westlake Center to Tukwila.

To win the grant, Sound Transit satisfied the FTA that its trains will cause fewer than one fatal crash every million operating hours, or 131 years for Link, to meet new federal hazard guidelines.

But there's a hitch. According to Sound Transit's Qaasim, the 131 years refers only to "chargeable" accidents that are caused by failures in the trains and signals, as opposed to "nonchargeable" collisions caused by others.

Niles counters that such a methodology amounts to blaming the victim. "Historical evidence proves accidents happen, and there is no reason to design a system to allow it to happen," he said.

"I'm not accusing them of ignoring safety. I'm saying light rail has a problem all over America, and Sound Transit is the latest manifestation of that. Any city that's got light rail in the street is on a path to killing people, and they shouldn't do more of this."

FTA officials declined to be interviewed but said through a spokeswoman's e-mail: "FTA regulations do not refer to a threshold number of collisions that is acceptable. Instead, FTA requires grantees to evaluate their systems to ensure that all potential hazards are mitigated to acceptable levels."

Asked why a plan with so many street crossings is permissible, the FTA reiterated Sound Transit's view that the project will make the road corridor safer. Link's environmental-impact statement, written five years ago, predicted a decline of 44 car wrecks and seven car collisions with bicycles or pedestrians a year.

Link's safety features

Sound Transit is incorporating what Qaasim called the best practices from other train lines.

So-called "Z-crossings" will funnel pedestrians so they turn toward (and presumably, notice) approaching trains while walking through the intersections. Concrete islands will let walkers can stop in midstreet, safe from tracks and road lanes. Uneven brickwork between the rails will deter joggers, while short fences at the stations will be intended to discourage anyone from crossing between the boarding platforms.

When trains approach, warning signs with a train icon will flash, as they already do along Sound Transit's new Tacoma streetcar line. Unlike Houston, which has many types of intersections, the Seattle route will use identical left-turn lanes at every intersection to try to avoid confusing drivers.

"The best thing you can do is make the system as safe as possible for a reasonable person," Qaasim said. "I don't believe you're going to have 29 collisions a year in the valley."

That estimate, by Korve Engineering of Oakland, Calif., was made before final design. Brent Ogden, vice president of Korve, said last week that when design improvements and relatively safe Northwest drivers are factored in, the frequency ought to be less.

Seattle trains will cruise at 35 mph in the valley segment. There are no plans there for gates, typically installed for higher speeds.

"If I had my druthers I would prefer to see a gate," said Jeff Schultz, Washington state rail-safety officer. But he added, "I believe that what they're proposing will meet the spirit of safety, and Sound Transit has every intention of making sure Central Link is as safe as possible."

His oversight authority does not start until the line opens.

'It's going to take death'

At the Rose Petals, the regulars are pretty sure the streets are intolerable today. They're less certain how things will go with light rail.

A new crosswalk built by Sound Transit will probably help Gray's customers survive the walk across MLK at South Willow Street, she said. On the other hand, folks at the restaurant said some people will walk between trains or drive through red lights.

New immigrants, unfamiliar with the streets, might be further confused by trains in the mix, they fear.

"I've been here for 15 years and I know. ... " Gray said. "It's going to take death for some people to pay attention to the train. It might be just a couple people, but a life is a life. I hope it's better, for everybody."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Related Web links:

Sound Transit,

Statements on alleged safety flaws, by light-rail opponent John Niles:

Light Rail Now!

Houston Chronicle coverage of light rail and accidents: