Hear That Noisy Light Rail Go

In Tukwila, Sound Transit prepares to buffer its train noise. In Seattle, a citizen monitor finds decibels well above legal limits.

By Eric Scigliano July 16, 2009

“Train noise is hardly noticeable in Rainier Valley, where most of the Link light-rail line’s neighbors live,” the Seattle Times reported
on July 5, echoing the official view at Sound Transit, which operates the line (due to start carrying passengers this Saturday after months of test runs). In fact, depending on train speed and time of day, the screeching of metal wheels on metal tracks down the middle of MLK Jr. Way can be noticeable indeed—a cross between grinding gears and blackboard fingernails. The bells warning of approaching trains are less noxious but even more penetrating.

Sound Transit earlier found only “moderate” noise impact in Tukwila, where Link runs on elevated tracks rather than at grade. So residents there got out and measured decibels themselves. According to a Times followup, they measured 80-decibel peaks where Sound Transit had registered only 73. So the agency returned—and measured 83 decibels, twice the noise level of 73. Now the agency concedes it may have to erect noise walls or soundproof nearby homes. (Neighbors of Sea-Tac Airport’s third runway, who’ve battled the Port of Seattle for years to get similar mitigation, only wish it would be so responsive.)

Perhaps Sound Transit should get ready to do the same along MLK, where it already soundproofed about 135 homes during the line’s noisy, years-long construction. “We’re going to be taking noise readings along the MLK line in August,” says Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray. “I don’t think we’ve had meters out there yet.” Rainier Valley businessperson and activist Pat Murakami has. She says she’s measured 90 decibels from homes along the corridor. That’s way above the 60-decibel maximum allowed to reach residences under the Seattle Municipal Code, and the 65 decibels permitted on commercial property.

The Times also noted, in a recent wrapup on the new South Link line, that rail boosters “guessed correctly the south line would help whet the public appetite for more” lines to the North End and Eastside. If so, it’s also bolstered those areas’ determination to get their rail underground—out of sight and out of earshot.

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