For the last few days, we’ve all been reading about the earthquake in China – tens of thousands dead, many more homeless, whole towns destroyed.

There’s speculation that this quake could have been caused by the massive shift in weight caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the addition of millions of tons of water (175 meters, eventually) to an area near the Jiuwanxi and Zigui–Badong fault lines. It is, so far, unclear which fault line caused this quake, and it may not be either of these.

Regardless, though, of what caused the quake, one line about a collapsed school in a horribly depressing (take that as a warning) New York Times article today caught my attention:

One man said officials built two additional stories on the Xinjian school even though it had failed a safety inspection two years ago — allegations that could not be verified.

There are two problems here. One is the obvious – two additional stories on a structure that failed a safety inspection? The other problem is far more insidious – you can’t even check. The result? Hundreds of kids crushed to death.

Every time I tell someone that Link Light Rail will get to Husky Stadium around 2016, I know to expect the immediate response – a complaint that it takes too long. I have a new answer:

In eight years, I’ll probably have a child of my own. Some of my good friends here have kids already who could be going to school on Link. And inevitably, we will wake up to an earthquake one morning – maybe a 7, maybe an 8, but it could devastate our city. As emergency crews are cut off by collapsed fifty year old bridges, and I am running down the street to pull people out of a hundred year old apartment building, the one thing I do not want to worry about is kids on their way to Roosevelt or Franklin on our brand new light rail system.

I don’t feel a need to “speed up” the processes through which we build infrastructure. Public meetings, design reviews, these are all time in which people with knowledge can speak up. The real answer is the same answer to a lot of our problems: We must learn to plan ahead.

Update: I want to add something to this. I know that much of the time taken between, say, now and when U Link opens has to do with the way money is collected. I am not writing about that – I’m writing about the public comment periods, the design reviews, everything that makes more people aware of what’s being built and able to say something. Don’t you suppose that if we were building a Three Gorges Dam here, a group of USGS seismologists might have had something to say? I’m saying that while I’d rather not see East Link delayed or cost more because people in Beaux Arts are NIMBYs, I’m happy to let them complain to the Sound Transit board when it means that someone with a real issue can bring that forward as well.

14 Replies to “Our Slow Construction Will Save Thousands.”

  1. This feels more like an appeal to emotion than a reasoned argument. I think you’d be unlikely to find someone who wants transit fast in lieu of safety. I do think that you can find people who want transit fast in lieu of financial constraints or excessive bureaucracy.

  2. I agree with Jonathan, and I don’t buy you’re argument Ben. Your posts are always intelligent and well thought out, but years of ST progress could be shaved if they were to get money up-front — that has nothing to do with safety. Design review meetings, community outreach, etc. all don’t related to safety in any way.

  3. Ah, but defining which bureaucracies are excessive is the tricky part. My guess is that building, fire/life safety, or ventilation codes do not fall into this category. But how about energy codes? Or community review? Or the iterative process of engineering? Or land surveying? Environmental review?

  4. Matt, it’s true. There’s very little we really can shave off of our timelines. These public reviews? While Sound Transit is (as far as I’ve heard) quite good at working with landowners to ensure that everyone’s getting what they need, some agencies aren’t.

    Surveying and environmental review? Soil stability is a big deal. Public comment? What if someone knows about a buried diesel tank at a site and can notify the agency before a crew hits it? And those engineering processes do sometimes find fault. One of the freeway stations cracked – what if not triple-checking led to something like that on the guideway?

    The same processes that have resulted in our getting design reviews and public comment get us exhaustive engineering review and safety planning. It takes real people in public meetings pointing out problems to create these processes we use today.

  5. Having done a lot of business in China … let me just say that it is no surprise that this much damage was done.

    Life is very cheap there and the only thing that most officials there are really interested in right now is $$$$$$

  6. The fundamental problem isn’t exhaustive public comment or technical review. In fact, I think we should have even more of it. The problem is doing the projects sequentially rather than simultaneously. We could take 10 years of design, comment and construction for a light rail system, but let’s discuss the whole system, like I-90 + SR-520, and West Seattle, and Ballard, and 99, and Shohomish and Everett and Tacoma all at the same time. This is just a matter of multiplying the number of staff and having a different group take on each project. The current system, we build the initial segment and don’t even start university link until the initial segment is done, and we don’t start working on whatever will be in ST3 until ST2 is done.

    Yes, I do understand that there are reasons we don’t do it all at once. I understand that if we financed the project, we would have to pay interest, but people don’t seem to mind paying interest to buy a house. They don’t build a house one room at a time over 20 years to save the interest payments. Why should we do it differently with Link?

    ST2 failed for a number of reasons, but one of them was definitely how long the project would take. We want it sooner than 20 years.

    Now Sound Transit is beginning to look at a 12 year plan, but they still are not considering abandoning their pay-as-you-go policy, thus the 12 year plan is really just the first 12 years of the 20 year plan, the question they are asking in public comment is not: would you be willing to pay extra to finance the project and get more light rail sooner? The question instead is would you prefer to commit to a 20 year pay-as-you-go plan or just do the first 12 years of that same plan and then vote again on the last 8.

    The frustrating thing is ST has really already decided what light rail should look like, they are just repackaging the same idea.

    Maybe this idea is unworkable. Maybe the people really do prefer pay-as-you-go rather than a financed project that we could finish sooner. but with global warming, rising gas prices, increasing congestion, the rise of the new urbanism movement in architecture, and a generational shift in attitudes about transportation, perhaps the time has come to open that discussion again.

  7. Terrible logic in this article, the speed of construction has nothing to do with safety, unless you think in 7 years we will have a leap in safety regs… I doubt it.

  8. I think you’ve missed the point. I’m just pointing out that we’re safer because of all this public input.

  9. I’m with you [tony]. Have the option be to build more, just as fast, using more construction teams. This may cost more, but the voters will have the option of picking the cheaper option.

  10. tony and matt – the construction WAS up front. The only reason we had to wait 20 years was for the original sound move bonds to be paid off, so that new bonds could be issued based on the sound move sales tax income.

    They’re already doing what you want them to do…

  11. Er, sorry. That alexa comment was me, after someone else had checked their email on my computer.

  12. Yes light rail has never EVER been built in a earthquake area, maybe we should wait 100 MORE years before starting, then it would be even safer!

  13. What a laff riot! If you put up a post about a specific route or mode, two-thirds of the commenters would be all “That’s wrong! It should go here! We need more buses!” But put up a post about the process of commenting and it’s like “We don’t have time to discuss it”.

    Back in the early 60s the highway department started building I-90 across Mercer Island. They held public hearings, kept the comments they liked, threw out the comments they didn’t like, condemned the land, and started bulldozing and scraping.

    The people affected took the evidence they had craftily retained of their comments in the hearings to a judge, who ruled that the highway department had to start the entire process over from the beginning. By now, of course, Mercer Island was about as friendly to the highway department as a bag of hungry wildcats. It took about a decade for the state to reach agreement with the Town of Mercer Island, the City of Mercer Island, and the numerous neighborhood groups.

    In Seattle the state did much the same thing for the R.H.Thompson, condemning the properties and starting construction, and the voters responded with an initiative to ban any freeway on that route.

    Where I-5 goes through downtown the state got its way. A group of Seattle architects and engineers did a study, and found that a cut-and-cover, making the road much flatter, would be cheaper to build than the state design. The state just ignored them, and that’s why you go up and down and all around when you drive past downtown.

    Not to mention Galloping Gertie and the Hood Canal bridge. My gawd, how many lessons do we need?

    So you might say we’ve been there and done that when it comes to ignoring public comment or engineering judgement, or proposing grandiose schemes to a skeptical public.

    For 40 years the great fortunes in this region were made from suburban development, the newspapers lived on car and real estate advertising, and the public was regularly bombarded with anti-transit propaganda. That, in a nutshell, is why it’s taken so long.

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