After commiserating happily about Tacoma Link’s anniversary, the Sound Transit (ST) board yesterday afternoon focused primarily on status reports. Ongoing project status briefs focused on two main projects: University Link and I-90 Two Way Transit and HOV lanes.

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The I-90 project (R8A) team submitted its 60% design on May 8, 2013 for stage 3, which will establish HOV outside lanes in both directions from Mercer Island to Seattle. STB has previously covered precisely why R8A is important.

“R8A literally paves the way for East Link to move over to east side. Last year…we were facing a number of very tough questions, primarily safety concerns,” the project manager stated. “We hired a team of experts, whose key findings were the ventilation design is key, solid for 60%, very thorough and comprehensive at this stage.”

He added that given the nature of the project, it was important to verify coordination between cost estimation and scheduling and develop a detailed system commissioning plan. Independent constructability and cost review will hopefully finish in November, while the 90% design will finish by October.

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R8A has obtained letters of concurrence on fire and life safety issues from the Federal Highway Administration and the Seattle and Mercer Island fire departments. However, the cost estimate has increased $6.5 million, or 3%. More breakdown and details are in the R8A Board Briefing; one important thing to note is currently the project has a $14.1 million shortfall. There was little to no reaction regarding the shortfall; this indicated that ST and WSDOT will simply commit additional funding beyond what’s already been committed.

The vagueness of the term “solid” was noted by several board members, so I followed up with Bruce Gray from Sound Transit public relations. He stated that basically the fire departments were satisfied with current preparations enough to issue a stamp of approval at this stage of the project.

For Mercer Island residents’ access to I-90, overlap between East Link’s construction and the completion of the HOV lanes is important. The board expressed concern, and was reassured that R8A and East Link will continue to coordinate schedules.

The U-Link Board Briefing restated the familiar figures; to briefly recap, it’s a 3.15 mile extension of Central Link with twin-bored tunnels, with a budget of $1.948 billion and a projected schedule of construction from 2009-2016, six months of system testing, and a service opening in fall 2016 (with a precise service milestone of September 24, 2016).

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A brief financial snapshot was included, with $1.569 billion committed and $1.191 billion incurred in costs, as of July 2013. Awarded construction contracts exceed $909 million, currently. The estimated final cost is currently $107 million under the project budget, with an estimated 75% of the project completed thus far. The project schedule also contains 169 days of project-wide float.

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That 75% quoted above also applies to the curving track between Pine Street and the Capitol Hill Station, as well as the 2.1 miles between the CHS and Husky Stadium. According to the briefing, the Montlake pedestrian and bike bridge pictured in highlighted blue to the left is also 75% complete, while the pedestrian concourse underneath Broadway will begin construction in January 2014.

“It’s very carefully planned with Seattle, utility owners in Broadway, and King County Metro, as it’ll require closures,” Christy Sanders-Meena, the U-Link principal construction manager, reported.

Staff also reported on installation of permanent track and signaling, and noted that U Link is right on schedule. Commenters have previously noted issues regarding headways in University Link; Gray assured me that next week a report will be released addressing the issue.

Various motions, all available here, were also discussed. Motion 63, a 3-year contract with EnviroIssues, Inc. for public involvement consultation, and motion 65, which increased contingency for the Northgate Link Extension to the tune of $6.25 million, were most notable, and also passed. Finally, the CEO report mainly dwelt on second quarter ridership numbers; an online copy of the report will hopefully be available soon.

36 Replies to “Sound Transit Board Meeting: I-90 HOV Lanes and ULink Progress”

  1. Thanks for this thorough report Garrett, and for all the work you’ve done for the blog, as well as the service you put in at the Daily.

    I noticed at ST’s East Link page that travel time between *South* Bellevue and the airport is expected to be 50 minutes on Link. It still compares pretty decently to the 560, which is scheduled to take 35-50 minutes for that segment, depending on time of day. It appears ST is expecting the transfer at IDS to take about 10 minutes on average. That transfer time could be the tipping point between Link and the 560 being faster average wait+travel time for that segment.

    Did talk of IDS, or construction of the turn-back track (in particular, the schedule) come up in discussion? Thanks!

      1. And Link costs the taxpayer infinity times as much (not really, road wear and all that, but almost infinity times as much), so there :). Fortunately for us all Link isn’t just an airport shuttle!

        FWIW, I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t think the primary, secondary, or tertiary measure of transit effectiveness is whether people from the eastside (or north end, or even SLU for that matter) take transit to go to the airport. It’s not going to put taxis, shuttles, or even the 560 out of business, and that’s OK with me.

      2. I’ve heard myriad horror stories of non-negotiable Shuttle Express drop-off itineraries that involved labyrinthine detours and extensive backtracking, and that cost the final customer three hours of their time.

        Shuttle Express is more or less a scam.

      3. “Link costs the taxpayer infinity times as much”

        Nobody complains about the capital costs of I-5 or I-90 per trip, yet somehow Link is egregious. The government should have installed trunk transit at the same time as the freeways, but they didn’t, so now we’re filling in the gap. If you just throw down the hammer now and say no more infrastructure can be built, then you end up perpetuating the current situation forever, with cars having far better infrastructure than transit, and then you wonder why ridership is low and why we’re using three times as much energy as the rest of the world?

      4. I think what people are whining about is that a trip to the airport via Link is slow. As Al said, so what? Yes, maybe we could have made it faster (by avoiding the zigzag or the sections on the surface) or maybe we can make it faster in our lifetime (by reducing the time at several of the stops) but so what? For the most part, it serves people who work at the airport and folks who would prefer to take a train to or from the airport, even if it is slow. I think the former is really nice (and a big surprise). As for the latter — I’m with Al — so what?

        Generally speaking, the line isn’t that important. Or at least, it was important only because it showed that we could build big transit in this city. At some point, obviously, some of the stations will fill in, and the area will be popular. But as for now, it really isn’t that great (for the money).

        On the other hand, the biggest improvement to transit in Seattle since George Benson and friends built the Transit Tunnel is about 3 years away. A light rail line linking (to quote Sound Transit) the “three largest urban centers in the state of Washington” is a really big deal. I can’t wait.

      5. Haha, I was just being silly with the “infinity” comment. Carry on.

        Maybe we should have built Central Link to Southcenter and Kent instead of the airport just so people that rarely otherwise go south of I-90 wouldn’t complain about how slow it is.

      6. Eastside – airport trips were never a Link priority. The Eastside priority was a one-seat ride to downtown and north Seattle. The airport priority was to downtown and UW. The Eastside has the most cultural affinity with downtown and the north end, so that’s where the travel demand is greatest. The main airport markets are downtown visitors and UW-related people, because they are both large groups who disproportionately choose transit. For Eastside – airport trips, Link’s main features are frequency, and an easy-to-understand regional subway map. These are not necessarily superior to the 560, so I suspect the 560 will continue running like the 545.

        For Lynnwood, a couple different factors emerge. The north end is further from the airport and has no chance for a 560-like alternative. So Link will vastly improve airport access for Lynnwood and the north end. At the same time, Lynnwood/Mountlake Terrace/Shoreline are culturally similar to the Eastside, so that will attract some ridership between them.

    1. Did talk of IDS, or construction of the turn-back track (in particular, the schedule) come up in discussion? Thanks!

      I doubt we’ll hear anything about it, beyond that one is operationally needed, until after U-link comes on line and the engineers start penciling out the switching. Just a hunch on my part. I

    2. Hey Brent,

      Actually that did not come up, which I thought was a tad odd; it appears the board isn’t concerned about the turnback at all. The only concern seemed to be for MI residents’ access and egress…perhaps because they’ve been making the most noise about the station’s construction? I was most focused on the reported headways at U-Link…which Bruce Gray from ST assured me would be addressed during last week, in a report. I guess that could be affected by the turnback as well, so did anything tip your radar on that?

  2. It looks like these lanes will run at the center of the roadway. Does anyone know if the project will add ramps to access Mercer Island from these lanes directly- or if buses will have to cross traffic?

    If these ramps aren’t included, it’s worth a major amount of pressure to get them. There’s a reason the 145th Street “flyer stop” on I-5 is inaccessible during rush hour.

    Fact of following distance is reason why bus transit, however rapid, can’t permanently substitute for rail. Everybody can check my math, but I think that a platoon of six buses occupies a third of a mile at 60. Equivalent rail passenger capacity takes 4 X 90=360 feet.

    This following-distance mandate is an excellent reason to reserve these lanes to transit at least at rush hour. A two-seat car requires exactly as much open space behind it as a double or triple articulated bus, which in turn requires either less capacity or slower speed per lane, or both.

    As a former driver and present full-time regional passenger, these lanes presently make rush hour travel a lot faster and much more relaxing and comfortable than driving my own car. Cheaper too, re: maintenance.

    But for busway design in general, design prime directive should be fast, easy conversion to rail when load finally demands.

    Mark Dublin

    As a former driver and present heavy-duty passenger, I think these lanes provide good service while we’re building rail.

    1. ST is already over budget for the lane conversion. If additional ramps are built, the state will probably expect ST to pay for them. Once built, their primary purpose would only be for four years. Plus, planning and building such ramps would likely push back the opening of East Link a few more years. New ramps aren’t built in a day.

      ST will need to restructure Bellevue/Mercer-Island/Seattle service when the future Link lanes cease to be HOV lanes. I can foresee the 550 skipping Mercer Island, and having new (temporary) ST Express routes going from Bellevue to Mercer Island and from Mercer Island to Seattle. Additional buses and platform hours for this temporary restructure will likely cost orders of magnitude less than building new ramps.

      Having mercy on the Bellevue-Seattle riders is a far cheaper and faster path. Maybe it should even happen sooner rather than later.

    2. When they did R8A Phase I and II, they added HOV access ramps to where the HOV lanes now end/begin. I expect that for Phase III they’ll convert the ramps that currently access the reversible lanes so that they’ll be able to access the HOV lanes. That will make operations through MI P&R a little more streamlined in the reverse peak direction.

      1. Mercer island traffic to the HOV lanes towards Seattle is adequately served by the ICW exit [As I understand it an eastbound HOV to ICW _is_ in the plans] so we’d really just be building the ramps for buses. Currently, they are used by the 550, the 554, the 216 and the morning 111.

        The 111 won’t need them any more, it only uses them when it can’t get over to the center lanes quickly enough after entering from 405-N. It gets off on Mercer Island (but doesn’t stop) to switch from the main line to the center lanes. With HOV lanes in the main roadway all the way into Seattle it’s needs are met.

        The 550 won’t need them once Link comes along.

        The 545 and the 216 combine for 4 trips an hour in the peaks, and 3 off peak. I think it would be pretty hard to justify the expense of a new ramp for the Eastbound HOV lane, or even a re-jiggering of the Westbound ramp so that it serves the mainline rather than the HOV lanes.

      2. South Bellevue Station was mentioned by staff as a major bus transfer location at the previous ST Board meeting. I assume, for starters, that means the 554. The difficulties getting from the HOV lane to Mercer Island Station might have impacted that projection. But then, will it be easy for the 554 to get to South Bellevue Station?

  3. When is the “big reveal” of the East Link baseline budget going to be? I know it’s been pushed back, but the date as well as the numbers are fuzzy now.

  4. How is the construction of these additional lanes going to impact the safety and comfort of trail users on the I-90 bridge. The width of the roadway is fixed, so the only way space for an extra lane can come from is to get rid of the shoulders. Which means people are going to be expected to bike with 60mph traffic a mere 3 feet or so over. Even with a concrete barrier, this is nuts. Everyone biking is going to feel the wind every time a car passes, and the noise is going to be worse, similar to the experience of biking on the Aurora bridge today. There is a also a very real safety issue of debris falling off the back of a truck sending a biker to the hospital.

    1. Everyone biking is going to feel the wind every time a car passes, and the noise is going to be worse, similar to the experience of biking on the Aurora bridge today.

      It’s not going to be as bad as Aurora. The (northbound) bridge deck is wide enough to retain a good sized right-hand shoulder, and the barriers are solid jersey barriers which provide a reasonably tall windbreak, unlike the Aurora bridge with no shoulders and half-height railing-top barriers. Also, the path itself is quite a bit wider. But otherwise yeah, highways are generally lousy to be near. That’s the compromise you make when you piggyback a trail on a freeway bridge.

      There is a also a very real safety issue of debris falling off the back of a truck sending a biker to the hospital.

      Not as big as the safety issue of debris falling off the back of a truck and killing a motorist or bus driver. Stuff that falls off of trucks tends to end up in the vehicle lane, or flying through a windshield.

    2. The shoulder between the traffic lane and the bike path’s barrier is being reduced from 10 feet to 2 feet. That’s a pretty lousy deal. Wind and spray from the traffic are already miserable when it rains. Both will get worse. Unless we’re going to build bridges across Lake Washington for slow traffic, freeway bridges are the only places to build trails in these sorts of corridors. At least every cyclist that uses the I-90 trail knows where to catch a bus on Mercer Island if the weather is bad (because the signed bike route on Mercer Island takes you on a sidewalk behind the bus stop. Bike facilities in the I-90 corridor are a cruel joke, gold-plated and excessive in every way that doesn’t matter; deficient, inconvenient, and miserable in the ways that do).

      Meanwhile the other side of the westbound span will keep its 6-foot shoulder. This between the lane with the lowest vehicle volume (the HOV lane) and a maintenance road that will only be used occasionally. That seems backwards.

      I’d like to see a transparent shield considered between the path and the roadway to block the spray and wind if the shoulder is going to be diminished so much. Maybe even if it wasn’t.

      1. That is an extremely lousy deal. 10 feet vs. 2 feet is a huge difference in terms of noise, wind, and debris. A transparent wall, at least 6 feet tall, is going to be needed to make this bearable. All I can say is I hope the new 520 bridge will be finished before this happens, so I can adjust my riding patterns to use 520.

        Doing 10-foot shoulders on the left, but only 2-foot shoulders on the right seems extremely backwards. Almost all freeways have wider shoulders on the right than on the left. I’m actually amazed the road is wide enough to leave any room for shoulder space as well. It’s almost as if they are deliberately trying to spite trail users.

    3. It’ll be great having high-frequency trains with more bike-carrying capacity crossing the lake. Has anyone seen the latest off-peak and peak frequency projections?

      1. Sort of. Bike capacity isn’t really the problem on I-90 it is on 520 for various reasons.

        I don’t think the future presence of the train justifies cutting shoulder space here, and I think some mitigation is in order for cutting the distance between 25 MPH bike traffic (srsly — people haul ass on that trail) and 60 MPH freeway traffic by 80%.

      2. And, of course, the two-way HOV project isn’t really about the trains as much as the buses, and the new lanes will be a huge benefit! We need HOV lanes in more places, and I’d never support killing this project. I’m just not sure why it has to come at the expense of exposed trail users.

        I’m sort of skeptical of the idea that shoulders should just be removed to add more lanes to a freeway. Need an HOV lane? Take a GP lane.

      3. This whole things makes me a bit suspicious of the 520 project, as I can’t help wondering if the widening to add shoulders and an HOV lane is actually part of a new plan to add more GP lanes in stealth. The way it works is something like this (with each
        step being about 10-20 years apart).

        1) Use the need for shoulders and HOV lanes as an excuse to widen the freeway
        2) Restripe, turning the HOV and shoulder space into additional GP lanes, in a bid to alleviate congestion.
        3) When more congestion happens anyway due to induced demand, decide you need and HOV lane and shoulder space after all, and use this as an excuse to widen the freeway again! And, repeat.

  5. Does Capitol Hill Station seriously have a mezzanine? I thought we would have learned…

      1. That still doesn’t justify the urge to put the street-level portals laterally as far as humanly possible from the location of the platforms.

        At least one cross-section has implied that the southeastern entrance will be built to discourage egress (no escalator, bare concrete stairwell hidden behind fire doors), while wayfinding sends passengers to the southwestern headhouse, many hundreds of feet from the trains.

        Meanwhile, the platform for the First Hill Streetcar terminus was poured last week. You would not believe how far away this thing is from its “connections”.

  6. What your “R8A Stage 3 Base Cost” chart does not show is that the Fire and Life Safety cost estimate has ballooned from $65.9 million in 2007 to to the current $151.5 million estimate, a 130% increase. It’s no wonder the remainder of East Link’s budget has been under such severe pressure given this fact.

    1. Maybe if they prohibited gasoline and diesel powered vehicles from this section if I-90 it would make the fire and life safety budget lower.


  7. I’m *really* looking forward to seeing continuous HOV lanes across I-90, especially westbound from Mercer Island to Seattle. Traffic is pretty much always backed up eastward from the point where the HOV lanes have to merge in. Continuing that HOV lane all the way across the bridge will have huge immediate benefits for buses, carpoolers, and motorcyclists, and I bet eliminating the merge will also make traffic in the general lanes flow more smoothly.

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