by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board

Probably Central Link O&M Groundbreaking
Probably Central Link O&M Groundbreaking

After the passage of Sound Move on November 5, 1996 it was time to get to work. The RTA needed to ramp up from a 22 person planning staff to an entity capable of building a multi-billion dollar capital program and operating multiple modes of transit service. This is a step virtually every new transit agency struggles with and leads to a phenomenon known as “growing pains”!

The Board began to make dozens of decisions (PDF), from rebranding the agency as “Sound Transit” to vehicle purchases to route decisions. Environmental Impact Statements were begun, policies were developed, fares with other transit agencies were “integrated”, ground was broken and hearings were held.

In September 1997 the first Regional Express bus service began, in June 1998 I led the Board’s effort to identify Union Station as Sound Transit’s permanent headquarters and Sounder commuter rail between Tacoma and Seattle debuted in September, 2000. Tacoma’s Link streetcar began service in August, 2003.

Due to its size, federal funding and all new right-of-way; the most complicated aspect of the program was Link Light Rail. A very difficult period began toward the end of 2000 as tensions mounted and the Board ordered a halt to negotiations over a contract to build a very long, deep light rail tunnel under Portage Bay. The Board was concerned that the cost and risk of the proposed contract was unacceptably high and a reassessment was in order. This led to staff changes (Joni Earl became Executive Director) and eventually a reengineering of the project (splitting it into the initial Airport segment and the University segment extension) to reduce the risks.

Extraordinary political drama ensued including the last minute signing of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) on the final evening of the Clinton administration and light rail becoming the focus of the very close 2001 Seattle Mayor’s race. But the Board persevered, Joni restored confidence in the agency and eventually the project was back on track. In fact in February, 2003 Link’s initial segment received the highest rating of any project in the nation from the Federal Transit Administration. This was repeated recently with the University Link extension. Ground was finally broken for the initial Link light rail segment on November 8, 2003.

16 Replies to “Guest Post Series: Rough Seas, But Finally Righted”

  1. Hah. Central Link really was cost-effective. And the feds don’t even account for upzoning and such around the stations!

      1. In the article – it got the FTA’s highest rating, and those ratings are based on risk and cost-effectiveness.

  2. Hopefully, there will be a bunch more Greg Nickels-style politicians in Seattle’s political future.

    1. Hopefully, there will be a mayor that is Greg Nickels in Seattle’s political future.

      1. I don’t think there’s any way you can blame a mayor for a building boom. It happens every time there’s an upswing. If you think development would have looked any different with any of the mayoral candidates we see today, I think you’re kidding yourself. Just *different* buildings might have been torn down that other people would have cared about.

    2. I miss Charlie Chong.

      And, let us never forget that Seattle has Nickels as mayor due to WTO’99. Which was brought to this fine hamlet by Pat Davis and her huge insatiable ego.

  3. For the record, another view of Link Initial Segment’s “highly recommended” rating from 2003 is posted in a research-based essay I prepared, now published at .

    The “highly recommended” rating under Federal New Starts rules noted by Mayor Nickels was based on fiddling the time-saving forecast for future riders who would be using the Initial Segment train. It’s all described in my essay, with references.

    Here’s how the official time-saving forecast for Link train riders came out in the final justification, quoting the Federal Transit Administrator in a July 11, 2003 letter to members of Congress: “the daily travel time savings for the projected 42,000 daily light rail commuters will be equivalent to nearly three work-weeks each year.”

    That’s 22 minutes time saving per Link rider per one-way trip! Think about that.

    As I wrote in 2003 following my close look at the documented record, “In 1999, before multi-billion dollar light rail cost overruns were revealed, Sound Transit calculated that average travel time savings would be at most seven minutes per trip for light rail versus an all-bus system. However, by 2001, when a more affordable and lower performing light rail initial segment was selected, Sound Transit downgraded the design and performance of the all-bus alternative. The scaled-down Initial Segment rail plan still came out looking good compared with a low-performing all-bus alternative. This makes light rail appear more attractive in the federal project rating.”

    The actual daily Link ridership to be revealed soon will be an indication of how much traveler time is saved in real life by riding the new train.

    1. John, you had doomsday scenario predictions for Sounder as well – and you used such creative accounting as amortizing the equipment and BNSF costs over only the operational years to date, not over their lifetimes.

      The Administrator’s comments are based on 2020 ridership statistics that will be superseded by University Link. They’re not 2009 ridership statistics. Characterizing them as such simply marginalizes your opinion when people point out your attempt to mislead.

      I think it’s funny that you have to add things like ‘research-based’ to describe your work, as it’s so widely accepted to be biased.

      If you want to go after New Starts, that’s one thing – but all transit agencies have the same rules for FTA rankings. Central Link came out ahead, no matter how you want to talk about New Starts.

    2. First year ridership is 21,000 daily by December and 26,600 daily by December 2010, John.

      Either your misrepresentation is deliberate or there’s something flawed in your entire process.

  4. Well I hope that the Mayor is paying close attention to the mess out at the sewage treatment plant. Both tunneling machines are currently broken and 120 people laid off waiting for months for them to be fixed!

    I don’t remember any such problems digging the I-90 tunnel, or the Downtown Tunnel or the more recent Sound transit Tunnel. What did the county do wrong here that the city digging the new waterfront tunnel could learn from? And that Sound Transit should keep an eye on digging the Capital Hill/Montlake tunnel?

    1. I’m guessing since two out of the 4 machines broke down within a short time of each other there might be a problem with the contractor who is actually doing the tunnel boring.

      For the new 99 tunnel I’m told it will mostly be bored through rock. Not that there aren’t issues with trying to use a TBM to go through granite, just that they are different than tunneling through clay or sand and gravel.

      Tunnel boring machines are incredibly complex pieces of heavy machinery. Even when everything possible is done to ensure reliability they still can break down like any other machine.

      In any case I do hope the Sound Transit contractors follow best practices to minimize potential problems with boring the U-Link tunnels.

  5. It’s too bad that the Mayor couldn’t have but this much focus into fixing the Green Line Monorail project. If he had, we would be looking at two city wide systems that interconnect at the King Street Station with much higher ridership on each.

    And yeah, yeah, yeah, monorail is dead, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for rapid transit in those corridors. The Green line team had the land and a tax base. Slightly more funds and there would have been a line. All this blather about accelerating the LINK project could have been done then.

    Wouldn’t you all have loved to read, “Mayor Nickles proposes consolidation of Monorail team with Sound Transit!”… “New transit team builds both lines using something, elevated Light Rail, Monorail whatever…” But nope, he helped kill the project and now we’ll wait at least 10 more years before anyone even considers voting in the funding again.

    1. I think you need to re-read your history. The monorail killed itself. The mayor didn’t step in until the end when it was clear what a huge boondoggle had been created. The monorail started out as a good idea, but quickly turned into a huge joke. Not a single person on the board had any experience building a large transit project. They had a single bidder for construction/operation. They had to single track most secttions and build short platforms. The line from Ballard didn’t even have enough capacity to replace the bus service on 15th. Oh, and they had no money! Please, please, please get over the monorail.

      1. The monorail true believers are convinced there was a conspiracy by Sound Transit, elected officials, development interests, NIMBY’s, and the local business community to kill the monorail.

        Never mind that no matter what the transit technology the project had some serious flaws. Also the fixation on a particular technology wasn’t healthy either. The paranoia and unwillingness to play well with others of the monorail project backers didn’t help.

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