ST's Preferred Alternative

Scott Gutierrez has the story:

[The] opening date [is] now pegged in early 2022 or 2023, Sound Transit’s governing board was informed Thursday.

The extension of light rail from Seattle to the Eastside was planned to open in 2021.  It would open at the latest completion date if Sound Transit opts to tunnel through downtown Bellevue instead of running trains at-grade, project manager Don Billen said.

There’s temptation to put all the weight of this on the Bellevue City Council, but in fact Mr. Billen told me that “it was the decisions in late 2009 and early 2010 to study 4 new alternatives in downtown Bellevue and then 6 design options on 112th that delayed in the EIS process, which is now rippling into revenue service.”

The city is hardly being helpful, but ST itself was dissatisfied with the options coming out of the original EIS.

Mr. Billen added that “There maybe opportunities to shorten the construction schedule but those opportunities are being overwhelmed by the risk of further delays in the decision making process.”

59 Replies to “East Link Slips to 2022 or Later”

  1. An interesting article–one that relates to East Link–surfaced this weekend in The Toronto Globe and Mail. The article investigates transit oriented development in Toronto and Vancouver along the light rail lines in those cities. The article reports that some suburban stations have a great amount of TOD, but many major urban hubs are devoid of TOD and serve very little other than as a place to get off/on a train. The reason is that zoning laws are very difficult to change and that commercial developers are reluctant to build in situations that are uncertain.

    Link to article:

    The 2nd to last paragraph, referring to Vancouver, reads:
    “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to rezone in single family areas,” … “With the Expo line, the areas they put it through, they’re still single-family homes 25 years later.”

    Kemper Freeman will be 81 years old in 2022, it looks like there’s a long fight ahead.

  2. Slippage in the schedule works to ST’s favor, and if the media is going to place all the blame on local electeds, as Scott’s headline says, then so much the better.
    For each year of delay, ST will collect roughly 150 million in additional sub-area taxes, and in the later years of the project, that equates to about $200+ mil/yr.
    Add to that about $25 mil/yr in operating costs saved, and the 2-year delay just saved the budget by over $400 mil.
    Mr. Billen probably LOL every time Bellevue has a council meeting or Kemper meets with his attorney.

    1. Well, I’m wondering if being able to collect the extra revenue up front will be offset by rising costs down the line. How much interest can ST conceivably make, versus the cost of work if the economy starts picking up steam again?

      Construction seems to be doing well in Seattle recently. Lots of apartments going up.

      1. The interest is minuscule compared to the revenue generated each year from the East Sub-Area. Each year of delay generates 100’s of millions in additional revenue, while operating nothing. It’s a time game.
        Promise them almost anything, start building it, then time the opening to coincide with available revenues and debt load. 2020, 2025, what’s the difference?

      2. Actually I think the figure for the East Subarea is a net +$80 million after you take out current expenses. I think there’s a little less than $400 million in the kitty so ST needs 10 years just to meet it’s own standard of paying for 1/2 the initial capital costs up front.

    2. This post reminds me of that scene in All That Jazz where the producers bet the director will die, netting them a $500,000 insurance payout and making a profit on a show that never opens.

    3. How is it $200 million “extra”? ST can tax only for the amount required to complete ST2. If the money comes in one year or another year, it doesn’t change the total, it just changes the completion date. If ST ends up with extra money at the end it’ll either have to roll back the tax early or save it for ST3.

      1. If I understand the premise, then you’re correct. There are lots of things that can extend the schedule.
        Less revenue each year(current situation), add more years of collection.
        Higher construction costs add more years of collection.
        Less federal contribution than forecast,
        Higher bond rates, cost of existing service, etc all add time.
        My point is that time is in their favor, and tax collections cure a lot of problems.
        Getting others to take the blame is a real risk. So far the east side is doing it’s best to be the fall guys.

  3. I hope my 3 year old will be able to take East Link to Bellevue Square when she’s in high school. I sorta promised her she would be able to take the train out there and get her ears pierced when she gets mad at Daddy.

      1. China will have a man on the Moon or even Mars before LOOT rail to Bell-Square is runnning

  4. About East Link, I had an idea yesterday of running the B and D segments on grass instead of standard concrete? It might help in the negotiation and really goes with Bellevue’s image as the city in the park.

    1. It’s an interesting idea, but I see a couple of problems.

      The first is that most of the examples I’ve seen have been unballasted track, i.e. track laid directly on concrete (with grass mats laid over the top), not the packed rock used in ballasted track. This matters because ballasted track causes less noise and vibration, and fear of noise issues are one of the main neighborhood concerns; ST might prefer ballasted track in the at-grade sections away from roads.

      The other is that I suspect that, short of making the train invisible, inaudible and intangible, nothing would make the Surrey Downs people from screaming the house down at this point. What’s going on in Bellevue now is no longer an exercise in rational persuasion; it’s a political pose-off.

      That the Arup report failed to show any significant flaw’s in ST’s EIS work suggests that ST will win if anyone tries to go to the mat with them over this alignment choice. Further money spent on B7 is just being lit on fire — a fact that some of the smarter of the B7 crew must be aware of — but having dug themselves in this deep, they can’t just go quietly.

      1. You don’t think they could just lay an inch of soil down on top of the gravel and hydroseed it?

        Lawn technology has progressed to the point where you can pretty much grow grass on anything nowadays.

      2. Well, you don’t need to do anything fancy to get grass to grow on ballast — look at any abandoned rail line :-)

        Nonetheless, tracks require periodic inspection and maintenance. It seems like growing grass in the ballast would make that hard. If you lay it on concrete, you can scrape it all off in a few minutes with a Bobcat.

      3. About East Link, I had an idea yesterday of running the B and D segments on grass instead of standard concrete?

        Absolutely horrible idea. Tracks require a ballast section to drain away precipitation; retaining water within the track structure will only create significant issues with the support bed: Particulate matter gets trapped, becomes saturated with water and creates pockets of mud which can’t support the weight of trains, leading to “pumping” in which the tracks flex vertically as a train passes over, resulting in even worse subgrade conditions. Train speeds are slowed down to reduce further damage to the track structure and prevent rider discomfort, spoiling schedules. If the conditions aren’t fixed, eventually you get a front-page photo with one of your trains on its side surrounded by emergency response personnel.

        A prime example of this occurred in the Powder River Basin coal field a couple years ago: BNSF and UP didn’t keep the ballast clean of coal fines blown off of loaded cars, heavy spring rains saturated the track structure and created weak zones, which caused a spate of derailments that almost completely shut down a region which produces some 400 million tons of coal annually. Oops.

      4. They’ve been running streetcars in New Orleans on grass track for over a century and I can think of at least a dozen tram lines in Europe that have grass track sections. I don’t think it’s as big a deal as you suggest, coal trains and LRVs aren’t exactly comparable.

      5. DWHonan, the problem with your comparison of several thousand, 125-ton rail car going 60 mph every day is not similar to a 100, 50-ton Link LRV going 35mph. The Link can’t even GO 60 as its built today. The Alstom Citidas tram used on their ROWs weights more than a Link LRV and sees similar speeds over grass ROWs. There have been few issues with that line and it has been adapted for many other lines in Europe. Granted, I have no idea what the Xsec is so I cannot say if it’s ballasted or not.

        IMO grass seems like a reasonable idea for urban tram systems. At 35mph with light weight vehicles, it may not be a problem. Europe has had success creating grass ROW’s for modern trams. If designed properly, then I fail to see how it would not be an issue. Especially with the need to reduce urban runoff, less paved area is always a good thing. And it looks a hell of a lot better than MLK or a freight line.

      6. 2 years ago I presented a video of the design, construction and operation of the Paris T3 tram line, which features a grassed trackway. It is technically feasible and sound. The whole thing is worth another watch. Around the 5 minute mark, they lay the turf on top of soil, which is filling the gaps between the tracks. The tied tracks are placed on top of a concrete base with drainage. It’s different from how Link’s MLK segment was constructed, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

      7. I admit my primary area of expertise is with freight- and commuter-rail design, where the guiding principle is “drainage, drainage, drainage,” and not LRT/streetcar, where clearly other options are feasible. Thanks for the enlightenment.

      8. I’ll let you know if they are studying it when I hear back from Sound Transit or the City of Bellevue, depending on whom I talk with first. It’s certainly worth having experts study.

    2. Oh, and it’s nice.

      I think it won’t be done, though. Most likely because of the non-zero landscaping maintenance costs.

      Also because it would encourage people to walk on the tracks.

      1. Well, Surrey Downs did want ST to extend the park to act as a buffer for the ROW… aesthetically, it might work to cover the line in grass and give the perception of a much larger park than actually exists.

  5. When will we hear any of these projects moving up instead of back.
    Lets get started on the streetcar network within Seattle. Let the suburbia folks fight it over in traffic. lol

    1. We’ll hear of these projects moving up when we organize and demand state funding to accelerate them.

    2. I am extremely pro transit but the streetcar network is a complete waste of time and money. The city needs grade separated transit, not more vehicles clogging up the already clogged up roadways. Transit will never be taken seriously as long as it is slower than personal cars.

      Now, if the city wanted to implement a trolley system that ran completely independent of roads, that is another story.

  6. What Sound Transit should do is tell the City of Bellevue to propose an accepatble solution to the ST Board within say 2 months, and if they fail to do that then ST will focus their energies into North and South Links

    1. ST can’t take money from the Eastside and spend it elsewhere; that’s the point of the subarea equity rule built into ST’s enabling legislation. This money has to be spent on the Eastside, and the only people who’ll suffer due to this delay are people who live or work on the Eastside.

      1. Bruce – there is actually an option here.

        Sound Transit can *borrow* money from one subarea to spend in another. They’d just have to pay it back.

        I think that’s going to be the board’s best choice if Bellevue actually tries to block light rail.

      2. Yes, but I believe it has to be repaid with interest from the borrowing subarea. In the long run, that would cost South King even more, and it would put ST smack in the middle of a huge intra-county political food fight — really not what they need right now.

        Honestly, I think ST’s chances of winning are so good if it goes to the growth board or to court that they might as well just stay the course. Stay focused on costs, construction risk and technical work — try to avoid political drama.

      3. So how does/did it work when money is borrowed from the Eastside? Is interest paid on what could be earned by investing at market rates (<1%) or at what the borrowing subarea would have to pay on issued bonds (~6%). I can see somewhere close to the minimum friends and family rate required by the IRS on loans to relatives (so it's not a tax free gift in disguise) but the lending sub area would really be taking it in the shorts if the money isn't repaid in full before the "lender" wants to use the money (i.e. lend out at a bargain rate and then have to borrow at market rate). Since there is no assurance that the South Subarea would be able to make good on this balloon payment I can't see this happening. In fact, even at the lowest short term rate allowed I can't see it being an option since the South Subarea is already so leveraged that they are cutting capital projects and service hours to make current payments.

      4. @Bernie, according to the 2009 Subarea Equity Report, interest on subarea loans is calculated “at the actual rate of inflation according to the U.S. Department of Labor website (not seasonally adjusted) Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton, WA area CPI-U.”

        So basically they pay back the same amount in real dollars.

      5. Hmm, so essentially a 0% loan. Still, I think it would unwise for ST to let this turn into an Eastside vs. South King fight. Whichever one might win, ST will lose.

      6. An investment that’s guaranteed to pay back the rate of inflation is a pretty good deal actually. Current interest rate payments on Certificates of Deposit are well below inflation. From the insurance standpoint alone it would be a great deal for the Eastside to place reserve funds in a subarea equity pool. But that doesn’t change the fact that the South subarea is broke. All borrowing would do is finance preliminary engineering to 272nd and move construction farther out into for-n-ever and cost service hours or delay other capital projects. It’s like using a credit card to pay the hotel bill for a trip you know you’ll never be able to take. Might as well study a monorail; at least it’s a futuristic fantasy.

    2. If East Link is blocked, then ST will have to continue on north and south Link and rethink the Eastside. In that case, south King could borrow a small amount of money for its two cheap stations. Then there’s the 320th Street hurdle which is beyond ST2. After that, Pierce would pay for any further extensions, and south King won’t have anything more to ask for except east-west service.

      North King could presumably borrow some to accelerate north Link, but we’d have to consider whether that would postpone other extensions (the westside line or 45th line). There’s only so much money available for future work.

      The Eastside would have a ton of money it would have to spend on something or refund. I’m sure some of it would go to ST Express routes, but I don’t know about the rest. Link on 520 or north-south Link would be pretty doubtful if they can’t build Link on I-90.

      1. East Link isn’t going to get blocked, and even if it does, ST isn’t going to start dishing out the Eastside’s money like free beer. That’s politically insane.

        Not going to happen.

  7. Why isn’t East Link broken up into sub-segments like the north-south line? We’re adding 3 stations at a time to the north, or just one at a time to the south, but we’re delaying the entire east line because the Bellevue city council can’t get their act together?

    It would cancel out the budget savings, but I think we should build out the first 3 or 4 stations of East link as a separate project, in order to start service before 2023. I know ridership will be small until downtown Bellevue opens, but how many passengers do we really think S. 200th Street will add on it’s own?

  8. Could Eastlink be opend in a staged maner,
    Stage 1
    Raineer Station, Mercer Island Station & South Bellevue Station
    Stage 2
    All DT Bellevue Stations
    Stage 3
    All remaining stations

    And would this allow for on time ( or early) delivery of at least Stage 1

    1. My thought exactly. We never seem to hear about phased opening options. Why can’t they just work from Seattle out and add stations as they are built? Build as far as they can and not delay the whole project because it has to open in one fell swoop.

      They did it with the airport, so they can certainly do it elsewhere.

      1. Yes, but Beacon Hill wasn’t going ape and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and jawbone ST into a different alignment.

        If you can’t build at least as far as Bellevue TC, it’s not worth bothering with.

      2. I seem to recall that they did raise the possibility of a phased opening, but that the first phase would go to segment D.

      3. “If you can’t build at least as far as Bellevue TC, it’s not worth bothering with.”

        A lot of people who would benefit from a partial line would disagree with you.

      4. They can disagree all they want but would they be willing to pay the $10+ cost of boarding that operating such a stub line would incurred? I doubt it, which would jeopardize the ultimate completion of the project. Remember, “revenue service” doesn’t mean the agency makes money. The completed system will at best in some starry eyed projection operate at only a 50% loss. Open a short segment and all revenue gets funneled off to operations with nothing left for capital construction. Sort of the hole the South subarea has dug for it’s self with funding Sounder.

      5. Not exactly about Sounder. Sounder is a separate line, and it’s doing just what ST2 voters wanted it to do. If it were a second Link line you wouldn’t say that we should defund one line to build another. The problem in South King is that they have too many needs and too little money. (That fact that lower-income people are moving to an area that has only skeletal transit is the cause of this.) The problem in Bellevue is that money is going down the drain rather than bringing any tangible benefit. Or in other words, the perfect has become the enemy of the good in Bellevue.

        I personally would stop improving Sounder and instead extend Link as fast as possible and add east-west buses to it. But the voters of South King thought otherwise.

    2. The South Bellevue is part of the conflict with the city council. An early stage for East Link would consist of Raineer and Mercer.

      1. Sound Transit can over-ride Bellevue’s preferred routing. The only reason Sound Transit needs Bellevue to cooperate with the downtown route is that a tunnel is only possible if Bellevue offers to share the costs. Because of that, Sound Transit can (and should) just build out it’s preferred south Bellevue alternative regardless of the Surrey Downs crowd. It’s politically risky to finalize south Bellevue before downtown, however. If the NIMBYs were reasonable, taking B7 off the table would allow debate (and funds) to focus on the downtown tunnel, but because the opponents aren’t reasonable, they would probably oppose any funding contribution for a downtown tunnel to try to force their preference onto Sound Transit.

      2. The companies in Overlake and Redmond (read Microsoft, et al) should be exerting pressure on Bellevue to stop blocking movement on this line. It is completely unacceptable that we would have to wait 12 years for completion of track that won’t even make it to downtown Redmond at that time.

      3. Didn’t those companies, and others write an open letter to the Bellevue City Council telling them to stop being obstructionist?

      4. Daniel, did you see the letter from Microsoft and others that we posted two weeks ago?

  9. A conversation for another day, but one worth hashing over the logic, or un-logic if you prefer.
    Seattle, or the N. Subarea gets a free ride on a lot of O&M and capital costs. For example:
    1. South pays 1/3 of LInk O&M but only has 2 stops, and proportionately less than 1/3 the riders. What happens when U-link comes on board. Radically higher percentages allocated to Seattle?
    2. East pays for all of ST2 costs, except the i-90 flyer stop, which is minimal. Why isn’t Seattle paying for all the guideway costs out to the city limit and how much of the O&M cost will they pick up? 50/50 seems fair.
    3. South and Pierce Co pay for all the Sounder and STEX bus costs, yet there are reverse commute trips. Why does Seattle get a free ride?
    Those are just 3 I can think of, but as these timelines start to stretch out, I think we’ll start to see some real wrangling over ‘who pays what’.

  10. Why the heck are there so many at-grade crossings, such as at the SE 8th and 130th stations? We only get one chance to this, let’s build this correctly!

    1. Because we don’t have serious funding from, say, the state government to build this stuff. We have to make do with small local taxes. So basically: Because you’re not involved in heavily lobbying your legislators yet. :)

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