Photo by WSDOT (2008 mudslide)

The Washington State Department of Transportation has some good news for the rail corridors plagued with mudslides, but the project won’t be finished until late 2015.

Early Wednesday morning, a mudslide between Mukilteo and Everett, caused cancellation of Sounder and Amtrak Cascades service for 48 hours*. WSDOT’s $16.1m Corridor Reliability Slide Management Project will review problematic locations and reduce mudslides along the route.

In 2011, over 100 Sounder and Amtrak trains were cancelled due to mudslides. While this project will not eliminate all mudslide dangers, it is a step in the right direction to minimize service disruptions. Anytime a mudslide occurs, BNSF Railway (owner of the tracks in our region) imposes a 48-hour restriction on passenger trains. WSDOT and BNSF are working together to reduce and/or eliminate this rule, depending on the severity of the slide.

This is positive and much needed relief on what plagues on-time performance and reliability of our trains.

*Empire Builder service will be truncated in Everett and passengers bused to Edmonds and Seattle. Eastbound passengers will be bused to Everett and board the train there.

24 Replies to “Tis the Season …. for Mudslides”

  1. They need to finish the double tracking ASAP. This alone would help in getting a smoother commute aboard a Sounder. So freakin’ much revenue traffic now that it’s like the freeway sometimes, jumping from Main 1 to 2 and back trying to get around all the freights in the hole. Add the recent slow orders and we have a very impatient crowd aboard sometimes.

    I’m glad they are working on the slide issue, once its permanently fixed we can finally stop using them as fodder for killing the Northline.

    1. Heavy civil work on the double track in Edmonds is done. It’s up to BNSF at this point to lay the rails. I posted some construction pics of the Edmonds project in the STB Flickr a while back. That annoying slow, equilateral turnout at MP16 will go away too! But the effectiveness of double tracking cannot be denied. The Interbay and Golden Gardens DT projects shaved about 4 minutes off the travel time.

      Even after spending 3 years commuting on the north Sounder, the cost of moving so few passengers (690/day north, 6200/day south) is rather absurd. Even more absurd is Mukilteo Station Phase 2. $11.1 million could buy a nice parking garage at Lynnwood TC or Mount Lake Terrace TC* where it’s badly needed. Or more buses for the 510/511 corridor. Or improving CT’s service. I don’t think the north line death calls are or should go away any time soon.

      *Went there around 10am in Jan on a weekday and had to park on the top level. About ~30 spots left in the entire 890 spot facility. You guys here may loathe parking, but it keeps ~860 cars off the highways and local CT service has become increasingly difficult to rely upon. And with ST’s I5 corridor greatly improving, demand will only increase.

      1. Or you could look at it as ~860 cars it put on the highway. They didn’t fly there. Structured parking is $30-40k per stall. That means there’s a direct subsidy of $8-9/day for each commuter to pay off the construction bonds. If they had to pay that out of pocket people would be much more inclined to live closer to work and/or somewhere they could access transit without driving. How many vehicles were SUVs instead of a high milage car since they don’t have to drive as far?

      2. ST should maybe consider selling monthly passes for the garage stalls to pay for the construction. If they’re sitting in a paid parking garage and not clogging I5, the road really is 860 or so lighter. For people who work in downtown Seattle, I doubt many of them could afford condos in downtown/pioneer square.

        That being said, with mudslides being a problem forever, its surprising they haven’t dealt with the problem in any substantial way sooner.

      3. So, the numbers game. The total cost has to be spread over the useful life of the building, not just the time between construction and bond retirement (engineering economics in action). For the sake of simplicity, I’m assuming the useful life of the facilities to be 50 years. Off we go!

        The MLTTC garage cost + refurb cost about $40M, and we’ll add $10M* for construction bonds. So with $50M, that’s about $56180 per spot at fixed number of 890 spots. Over 50 years (@7 days/week), that drives the subsidy down to $3.08/spot/day. The bus is about $7/passenger and runs 7 days/week to be enjoyed by all. Infrastructure costs of freeways, etc are ignored because that just gets monstrous, ridiculous, and impossible to measure. $10/day is a lot of money! Realistically, this is probably lower than $10 because people carpool to transit centers, or take the bus.
        [Side note: the garage itself cost $18M+$5M and has 600 spots. That translates into $38k/spot and $2.94/day over the useful life of the structure. I’d pay $3/day to park there.]

        But wait…

        The cost of the Mukilteo Station Phase 1&2 is around $27.2M (adding $5M* in bonds to ST’s estimated $22.2M) and serves 300 people/day (guessing ~30% of the north line ridership). That’s $107000/person. So that drives the subsidy down to $8.23/person/day over 50 years (@5 days/week with 2 days/week seeing zero utilization). Doubling to 600 people/day, we’re below the garage + refurb at $54k/person but still at a high $4.12/person/day. Additionally, the Sounder costs $13/boarding to operate and runs a fixed 4 trains/day over 5 days/week for commuters only until ~2090 as per BNSF contract. Infrastructure costs of track, signals, etc are ignored for the same reason as above. Mukilteo commuter rail currently costs $21/person/day.

        Doesn’t look too good for the commuter train. Even if we looked at the time between construction and bond retirement, the Muk station would still look bad.

        I understand your overall point though: reduce driving and encourage transit usage. But isn’t a parking structure one way to help achieve that goal if it leads to more people use transit? The ultimate goal of transit is to move people from point A to point B efficiently while best utilizing existing resources. If we can encourage transit ridership and make best use of our existing resources, IMO, it’s a plus for everybody. In a perfect world, CT would run buses every 10 minutes to everywhere, have signal priority, and wisk us right into a TOD facility where we catch the Link. But we don’t live in a perfect world and neither does every person want to be part of TOD. If we dropped or had never built the north end Sounder, and spent that money instead on more parking structures, improved local & express transit service, and better TC’s on the north end, we could easily blow by the pathetic 960 daily riders that utilize the north Sounder. For some reason, we’ve decided that spending $21/passenger/day going from Muk to Sea is more cost effective than the $10/pass/day from a new MLTTC user going to Sea, or Eve, or Lyn, or the U Dist. So, 1x $50 million Mountlake Terrace TC with its parking garage takes 1000 cars off I5 a day**. It also is usable 18/7, fits in a compact space, and makes the best use of existing roads, houses, and businesses. Lynnwood has 1380 spots. I bet if we doubled that tomorrow with a garage and cut the surface lot size in half, they’d be gobbled up faster than the spots at MLTTC and somebody would start building TOD. Best of both worlds. Yes, it still involves some driving, but people are now driving 1-3 miles, not 10-30. And that’s the point of transit: moving people and making best use of our existing resources.

        *I’m totally pulling this number out of my butt and I really don’t want to keep digging though these dull ST financial documents to figure this out. ~20% bond interest over time seems reasonable to the engineer in me.
        ** To give you an idea of that volume, stand at nearly any I5 overpass and watch the north or south lanes. Assuming it’s not gridlocked, you’ll see that many cars move by you after about 15 to 20 minutes.

      4. Speaking of the I5 corridor, since they’re building LINK rail along it, wouldn’t that also be the perfect time to add in heavy rail lines for freight, Sounder, Amtrak and HSR?

        Why not get that whole line off the edge of the water entirely…get Warren Buffet & BNSF to pay for it as well.

      5. The ultimate goal of transit is to move people from point A to point B efficiently while best utilizing existing resources.

        Well, then if it’s efficent it shouldn’t require a subside. Really what CT has done is subsidize sprawl. The agency is very little about moving people in county and almost exclusively about getting people to move there and commute to jobs in King County.

        As for the numbers game I took the middle range price per stall and amortized over 30 years. Maybe the structure lasts 50 years but there are going to be substantial maintenance costs I didn’t even bother to figure in. P&R “customers” with the bus service subsidy are getting getting around $15-25 a day reward for moving to Snohomish County when you figure in the bus service. That’s like a $5k a year bonus. You can lease a pretty nice car for that. Then figure in your mortage or rent savings and the second car is virtually free thanks to transit.

      6. $56180 per spot at fixed number of 890 spots. Over 50 years (@7 days/week),

        Yikes, that’s upward of what the article for adding parking in South Lake Union was quoting. And no, it’s not 7 days per week. The structured parking is for weekday demand. Weekends it’s mostly empty and a surface lot would have been fine. The real cost is building for peak demand; just like the “free”ways. I’d say the weekends are a freebie but the low ridership actually make it an added cost.

      7. Another way to look at the structured parking is to compare the cost with adding lanes. At 2,000 cars per hour and say a three hour peak commute you’d need 7 garages to equal one lane; an investment of $280 million plus all the additional buses. The high end of cost per lane mile is $7 million and it’s 14 miles from Montlake Terrance to DT Seattle; $100 million. Of course there’s going to be the small matter of bridging the Ship Canal and the fact that we built a convention center straddling the freeway. Neither option is really sustainable though because both are subject to induced demand. The only real fix is to let the cost of commuting, in both time and money rise. Otherwise it’s an endless battle to try and subsidize.

      8. “Really what CT has done is subsidize sprawl. The agency is very little about moving people in county and almost exclusively about getting people to move there and commute to jobs in King County.”

        Or you could say that CT gave Snohomish County residents what they wanted, or that CT residents successfully taxed themselves to get what they wanted. I find it hard to believe that CT could have made a system with all in-county routes and little or no commuter service, with council and voter approval. Snohomish County has a strong commuting nature, but CT’s routes are the effect not the cause.

        Also, if the Interurban were still running when those routes were established, or Link or I-5 commuter rail had existed, those routes would have never been started in the first place. There was a void when the freeway was built: car mobility speed doubled but transit didn’t, so people’s natural reaction was, “Let’s put buses on the freeway!” Metro did the same with the old 340, which was a silly C-shaped route from Shoreline P&R to Burien whose obvious purpose was to travel on 405. Also, there really did need to be some kind of transit from Snohomish County to UW, especially when UW-Bothell didn’t exist. Did you want all those people to drive, or not go to college, or move to the dorms? (One, there weren’t enough dorm spaces, and two, people couldn’t afford it or they had families back home.)

      9. Did you want all those people to drive, or not go to college

        The State constituion establishes the roll of government in education. Nowhere does it guarantee “a free ride” for people that live 25 miles from campus. But a van pool would certainly be the most cost effective method.

      10. I know. The fare plus the subside plus the cost of living at home works out to the same cost it would be to live in the dorm and be part of campus life instead of sitting on a bus for hours a day. Maybe they might even find out that living in a dense area like the U District isn’t so bad after all and not aspire to their own spread after they graduate ;-)

      11. You really think most students have an extra $5000 lying around for a year in the dorms? The “subsidy” of living at home does not translate to cash that can be used for a dorm bill.

  2. $16.1m won’t even dent the problem. As long as the only north south rail line runs below miles and miles of slide prone bluffs this problem will continue….

    1. Yes. I don’t understand why we continue to invest anything at all into this corridor. We need a new corridor between Seattle and Vancouver that will ultimately be able to support HSR (even if the economics don’t play out today, which frankly I think they would but whatever). Just like any true HSR, it needs to be capable of supporting average speeds of ~200mph, which means that along the shoreline of the Sound is unacceptable (unless you want to cut inland a bunch or build a bunch of bridges to reduce the radius of all of those turns). Either way, the existing track is essentially useless long term. Luckily, this isn’t true for south of Seattle… the pt defiance bypass corridor clearly should be able to support HSR eventually. However, North of Seattle another solution is needed.

      1. Actually, WSDOT is not investing a lot in the northern corridor. There are plenty of other bottlenecks that prevent speeds up to 79 MPH, let alone 200 MPH. Investing some $ to improve reliability is worth it though. After all, Vancouver is the largest close city to Seattle and reliable rail service between the two cities even at highway speeds would be good.

      2. The analysis I have read of the Seattle-Vancouver, BC corridor said that in the long run, a new inland route would be needed in the area north of Seattle….

        ….but that there was no point to doing it until there was a decent route from north of the border to Vancouver. That section is just awful from an HSR point of view; and neither Canada nor BC nor Vancouver has been willing to put in a single dollar. Until that happens, Washington State is putting in essentially minimal “keep it running” investments into Cascades north.

  3. Yes the 48 hour rule is incredibly frustrating for all and whilst I hear what the BNSF has to say about running slowly through slide areas, I think once a slide has been cleared on the level some reasonable efforts could be made to get passenger trains running through earlier and faster.

    The sldies are currently just playing into the hands of our transit opponents such as Eyman and others. If rail is this unstable they’ll ask why we need it at all.

    Of course we need it and if anything we need even more trips on the north line and more stations – Broad and Ballard for example.

    I hope WSDOT and the BNSF can come to some compromise here. I am sure Brian, you will keep us posted.

    1. Frustrating, yes.

      I was scheduled to take a trip to Portland and back on Amtrak but when I read the weather reports, I decided it would be smarter to drive (I’ve done one bus substitution–never again). Sure enough, I got the message from Amtrak: service disruption on train 516, alternate transportation provided. Luckily I was in my car. I would love to have reliable train service between Seattle and Portland, I take that trip frequently. But I’m only willing to take the train when I can be sure that the service won’t be disrupted by mudslides.

  4. The Lawton Clay pools the water seeping through the Vashon Till (slope stability is halved if the water height doubles). Add to that “damn trees blocking my view” humans and it’s no wonder the slopes have to be stabilized by shoveling greenbacks onto them.

  5. Out of couriosity, is there a map showing where these slides have occured allong this coridor over say the last 10 years?

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