East Link and I-90
East Link and I-90

Over the weekend Mike Lindblom had an in depth piece discussing East Link’s need for an additional $20m for engineering the I-90 bridge section of East Link, the world’s first floating bridge featuring rail transit. The contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff will be expanded – from $36M to $56M – to solve the final 8 (of 23) technical issues that WSDOT raised in a 2008 letter. The $20M will be paid out of $97M in unspent surplus engineering funds at Sound Transit’s disposal.

While there was some disappointment on the Board at the additional cost, and some admittal of inefficient workflows and delayed problem solving of some East Link’s unique challenges, there is no scandal here. ST is spending 21% of a reserve fund, for a total that amounts to 0.7% of the project budget, to take a conservative approach and ensure due diligence on the safety of the design. It’s an entirely sensible course to take, and indeed the scandal would be if they failed to spend the necessary funds to ensure the safety of the project.

BlethenBut while Lindblom’s reliably even-handed and fact filled article only once descended into sensationalism – painting a scene of a derailed train joining the fossil forest at the bottom of Lake Washington – Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen responded to the news of the $20M addition by stoking inaccurate fears about the East Link project. In a series of tweets last Saturday, Blethen’s accused Sound Transit of incompetence and implored future East Link riders to ‘carry a life jacket’.

To hear more about the bridge design, I attended a Sound Transit presentation to the Citizens Oversight Panel on Thursday about the interface between the bridge deck and the rails. I came away with the impression that, if anything, Sound Transit is being excessively conservative with their failure thresholds for the bridge design, giving me more confidence than ever in East Link’s safety.

Back in 2009, in order to reduce risk to the bridge deck and extend its useful life, an Independent Review Team asked Sound Transit to minimize any drilling or penetration of the bridge deck when securing the concrete blocks used in lieu of rail ties, and WSDOT later went on to ask them to eliminate drilling entirely if possible. So Sound Transit went back and successfully tested securing lighter weight concrete blocks (125lb per cu. ft. instead of the standard 150lb) with epoxy, and by all accounts those tests went swimmingly well. Prior to reinforcement, the concrete only cracked at 200% of its max design load, yet ST still decided to add circumreferential rebar to strengthen it further (obtaining about 400% above the design load). The threshold for failure is now so high that the rails and the clips that attach them would twist off well before the concrete itself would fail, which wouldn’t occur even if you ran freight trains on East Link in a severe windstorm. This is massive redundancy.

In addition, fears about uncaptured electrical current – causing corrosion in the obviously wet environment of a lake bridge – have likewise been solved. ST has tested and proven a wet system that meets WSDOT requirements on the floating structure, which is 5-10x the normal resistance required in other systems when they are dry.

So while the engineering is impressive and difficult, it’s well within our capabilities. In any case, while it is theoretically possible that some yet unseen engineering hurdle could scuttle the project, the likelihood of Sound Transit attempting to operate an unsafe system is effectively zero. Sound Transit’s Bruce Gray told me afterward that, “It is not a question of if we can do it, it’s a matter of how soon can we get started.”  You can leave the lifejacket at home.

53 Replies to “Don’t Listen to the Times: East Link Will Be Safe”

  1. The larger safety issue anyway is WSDOT’s doing. 8 11′ wide lanes and no shoulders greater than 6′ between MI and Seattle? It’ll be the most constipated (and dangerous) stretch of interstate highway in the country.

    1. All the more reason to leave the car at home and take the train. A car is convenient while you are getting where you are going, but a liability when you arrive there – especially in dense areas like downtown Seattle and – I’ll say it – downtown Bellevue.

  2. The times is reliably anti-government and anti-progress. Back in the 30’s, they ran regular screaming headlines about how the dams at the Skagit hydroelectric project were doomed to collapse before they could even generate their first kilowatt-hour. Of course the Blethen in charge at that time was good friends with the folks at Stone & Webster, the Boston conglomerate that owned what is now PSE. And Frank Blethen is good friends with Kemper Freeman, who opposes the light rail expansion, in part because of the “sort of people” it might bring to his beloved Bellevue.

    It’s obvious that both Mr. Blethen and Mr. Freeman don’t get out much – especially during rush hour. When you’re wealthy, you have things brought to you. And when you are old, you want things to stay the way they are.

    There’s a reason why the Seattle Times is such a light paper these days, and it’s not just because of the internet.

    1. I agree on this. For crying out loud, their editorial board features Brier Dudley. Westneat pens some good stuff from time to time but otherwise it’s garbage. I will never pay them a cent.

    2. Blethen and his pet editorial board [ah] supported light rail and Link all the way up to the day Sound Transit chose an alignment north that did NOT pass right by their Eastlake HQ. Look it up.

      These people are THAT petty.

  3. So if these rails can handle freight… should we lease some of the night time usage to freight companies?

    1. AWESOME. Let’s charge BNSF $50+ million per time slot they want for short trains, and more for longer ones, or in the case of N.Sounder, a bargain – 4 for $300m..

    2. As witness ride quality on Sounder, freight trains are a lot harder on rails and roadbed than passenger. Worldwide, really high speed rail carries passengers only, on tracks specifically designed for the trains of the line.

      However, there’s a considerable history of local freight and passenger service on same streetcar tracks.

      Just to bug the Waterfront Project about its sneaky murder of the George Benson line, I’ve been proposing a joint-use electric railway all the way around Elliott Bay.

      With the restored Central Waterfront line as its crown achievement. No kidding, with the Victoria Clipper at one end and International District Station, this line would provide worldwide car-free passenger service.

      Truly the monument Seattle City Councilman George Benson deserves. As an example to….name the candidate you’re going to vote for.


      1. Yes.

        There is still time to comment on the waterfront Seattle Draft EIS and its lack of a streetcar route to replace the GBenson -so rudely abandoned and removed. I don’t understand why first ave is the chosen corridor for the center city connector instead of the rebuilt Alaskan way. I assume the connection to the slut at westlake center was held as a primary project requirement for the CCC. If instead the CCC used the current 99 corridor up the waterfront, through the repurposed battery tunnel and terminated or interlined with the slut at westlake and John it would have much less mixing with car traffic and connect to the future Ballard link station at Denny park. With the SDoT preferred Ballard link stations, westlake to Denny park will have light rail and the slut can be abandoned between John and Stewart.

      2. Because it’s the “Center” City Connector. The concentration of transit passengers is between 1st and 6th Avenues, not Alaskan Way. Alaskan Way is more of an optional side destination like upper Queen Anne or Madrona. The waterfront will be more used in the future, but mostly for recreation and tourism where time is not the primary factor. In contrast, time is often the primary factor for commuting, visiting businesses, and transferring to other routes as occurs in the actual city center. A streetcar on Alaskan Way can maybe be justified as a tourist attraction and notstalgia, but not as a replacement for downtown circulation.

  4. It would be far easier, and safer, and not add that much time to go the long way around Lake Washington, through Renton and up to Bellevue.

    This would not only be a better engineering decision but it would build a Renton connector as a by-product, one that could be used by South King County commuters who want to travel direct to the Eastside. Just extend LINK from

    Using Google Maps, Seattle-Renton-Bellevue is 22 miles and Seattle to Bellevue via Mercer is 11 miles. But if you have a train with an unobstructed right of way, who cares. That additional 10 miles is trivial and adds just a few minutes to the trip.

    1. There is NO safety issue with LR on the I-90 bridge. Don’t fall for or repeat Seattle Times’ garbage/FOD/lies.

      1. Famous last words about Washington State Infrastructure:

        There is NO safety issue with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge
        There is NO safety issue with the Husky Stadium
        There is NO safety issue with DBT
        There is NO safety issue with Oso hill
        There is NO safety issue with Skagit River Bridge
        There is NO safety issue with …

    2. People who drive around the lake would not say “it doesn’t add much time”. They do it only when one of the bridges is closed (so there’s a severe traffic jam on the other bridge), or when their origin or destination is close to the ends of the lake. Renton needs frequent regional transit but that doesn’t mean East Link should go through Renton. That decision was made in the 1940s when the first bridge was built, and in the 1980s when the third bridge was designed upgradeable to rail, and in 2008 when East Link was approved.

      Meanwhile, there is an alternative in ST’s long-range plan for a line on Northgate-Lake City-Bothell-Totem Lake, so that goes around the north end of the lake, but it was never intended to replace East Link; only to serve the areas that East Link doesn’t. Kirkland asked for this line, but some of us are not fully convinced this U shape is a good idea or would be well ridden for Kirkland-UW and Kirkland-downtown trips.

      1. It they built a skybridge with a Hyperloop on it that went right from my front door to the Space Needle, I would take it.

        I might even base my whole life around having that technology.

        But the question can be raised of whether overall is it of that great a benefit?

        For example, imagine if you would, a Puget Sound with no floating bridges.

        Would it be unthinkable? Somethings may be “harder” but only if you presume that such structures should be be there.

  5. I know the train has left the station, but East side densities and lollipop neighborhoods are better served by real BRT than an expensive fixed rail line.

    1. Though I’ve come around to the merits of East Link after initial BRT-first sensibilities, this article was purposefully agnostic about the utility of the project, but rather strictly about its feasibility and safety.

    2. Mark, Channel Tunnel bullet trains doubtless daily leave stations from which trains departed in Charles Dickens’ day, and the Paris one out of “The Human Beast” (La Bete Humaine, a great book about a psychotic French locomotive engineer in the 1800’s.

      I still think that we should have started the I-90 transitway with buses, to begin passenger service years before we got trains- like with the DSTT.

      But reason we’re not going to do that now is that because of the following distances buses need, creating a long platoon most of whose space is empty, they’d reduce capacity.

      Other places maybe. I-90. Now, reason no buses is that if they were there, both trains and buses would leave stations a lot slower.

      Mark Dublin

    3. The drawing still shows a westbound Metro bus. The presumption must be that the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce will succeed in shooting itself in the foot.

    4. The 550 is almost BRT and its breaking down at peaks with overcrowding and bus bunching, which are two of the indications for rail. Its ridership has been going up and it’s expected (and hoped) to continue going up, so that by the time rail is absolutely necessary East Link will be opening or have opened. You have to anticipate demand 15 years ahead because of the lead time to build a subway.

      The cases for Everett, Tacoma, and Kirkland Link are not so clear.

      1. Everett bus ridership isn’t a complete indication of potential Everett Link ridership, by any stretch. Link will be popular for peak-hour trips to and from Everett because the train will simply be faster than the freeway traffic, unless the train has to do a loop-de-loop around Paine Field.

        Tacoma Link ridership has already been sabotaged by South Link simply not being anything close to a “spine”. The ridership is there, but not for the line that has so far been built and is being planned.

  6. Ron, you’re observation is only [OT] if Frank Blethen actually shot the dog.

    But not if he was responsibly using his wilderness survival training to alert a Search and Rescue helicopter to save an animal drowning after its floating dog-run sank due to ST negligence.

    And thanks for the report, Zach, though I’m going to have to buy a printer and six reams of paper.

    There is a chance that across the bottom of both Lake Washington and the Hood Canal, LINK could use submerged bridges to frame out tubes like BART under SF Bay.

    But right now the whole region has both the right and the duty to remember those tugboats with engines full reverse securing the westbound section as the one EastLINK is going to use sank.

    Especially us project advocates.Am I right that we’re creating the longest floating railroad in world history? With the best skill and experience in the world, every single structure with with an age-long lifespan carrying countless numbers of people has an excellent chance of a mass-casualty demise. Sooner or later.

    Curious how much the attached report says about the thousands of people attached to the project…any of whom could either cause or prevent a fatal mistake?

    Any working reader real-world instead of virtual, like first-line transit workers: What’s the chance there’ll be no life-threatening failures of logistics or communications, let alone construction and manufacture?

    A detailed history of the actual construction of the DSTT is very long overdue, and mandatory reading for both the public and LINK team from bottom to top. Many lessons as to (fake German accent) what Those Fools Didn’t Realize, and What Mankind Never Wants to Know But Had Better Learn!

    http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/brooklynbridge/ required watching. ST should do public screenings of this one, and take attendance for their whole team.

    Especially the part where Chief Engineer John Roebling, paralyzed by working conditions on-site, insisted that wire-rope samples be brought to his bedside every shift. Luckily. Too bad 1880’s elevators couldn’t lift a Breda.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Point of order.The one East Link is going to be using is not the one that sank. That one – the eastbound – sank and was replaced. East Link is on the westbound.

      1. You’re right, Jeff. And factual accuracy carries a lot more weight than a point of order. My apologies.

        But should also note the very source I pointed to, the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, is an excellent response to my cautions over combative enthusiasm.

        The bridge- an enormous structure for a time when New York City’s tallest buildings were church steeples-was widely criticized for its huge expense and seemingly eternal lack of demand.

        Built in a time when accepted political finance was prototype for Citizens United.

        Meaning it took guts for an engineer to daily examine specification- compliant product quality from a well-known crook, let alone nail him for it.

        Term “workplace fatality” was a redundancy. Roebling himself was permanently paralyzed with “caisson disease”, or “The Bends” from too-fast exit from compressed air. As common a killer as fire, cave-ins, and drowning.

        It turned out that where one tower had to stand, mandatory bed-rock had thirty feet of sand on top of it.

        So Roebling’s calculations now included the additional number of workers whom standard practice would kill. Though no budget column for that item.

        But fossils in the soil samples told him this layer had not shifted since the beginning of the world. Incidentally, the Channel Tunnel boring machine had a fossil-collector drill in the hub of its cutter.

        Hence a command decision that Risk Management and Legal Divisions Woulda Had Da Boys Feed ‘Im to Da Fishes for, then and now.

        I personally think that what’s considered the strongest bridge on the river owes its quality to a boss who thought an illiterate worker’s life mattered.

        And who had enough knowledge and skill to also know that hundreds of thousands more lives would be safe with the results.

        Also to his wife, who was the project’s on-site fore-woman whose office was her husband’s sick-room.

        Also great that the Seattle Times would definitely see an example of ST-level budget-busting politically correct sentimentality.

        Mark Dublin

  7. I have three quick points.

    1) I disagree with the idea behind this post. I think it’s important to listen to arguments you disagree with. So, listen to the Seattle Times. Listen to Frank Blethen. Listen to the Seattle Transit Blog. Then, do a little research and some critical thinking, and make up your own mind. At least that’s how I was educated.

    I just forgot my last two points.

    1. If by “research”, you mean take a Thursday afternoon off to go listen to experts talk about the issue, then I believe Zach has already followed your advice.

      And answered your second and third point.

  8. Today we learn that Frank Blethen is literally Kemper Freeman. Remind me why anyone in the city of Seattle gives them the time of day? Or why I still follow the Times on Twitter even though I don’t even live near Seattle anymore?

    1. Nobody should take the Seattle Times seriously. This article was less than informative and lacked any real merit. My presumption is that they got bored with bashing Amazon and thought it was time to train their guns on something else, hence this article on LR.

      But the train has left the station. The more successful Link becomes the more shrill the voices of the anti’s become. A Link train derailing and sinking to the bottom of the lake 200 ft below and disappearing into the silt? You’d have to be an idiot to believe that, which apparently is what the Times thinks their readers are.

      1. Frank is probably annoyed he won’t be able to drive his Porsche in the center lanes of I-90 once construction starts. (Brethren is a Mercer Island resident)

      2. @Chris Bingo. I think there’s still a lot of Eastside residents who don’t realize the Express Lane is going away, and when they find out they’ll be “passed.” Luckily this story was in the Seattle Times Editorial section, and not a space people actually read.

    2. Morgan, I don’t use Twitter, though I know would-be terrorists often use it in advance to tell everybody whom they’re going to kill and where, and who all their accomplices are. Rendering torture obsolete and unnecessary.

      So maybe the Times now finally has some fresh journalism. I still read Dilbert every paper I pick up. Office wisdom that never gets old.


  9. Moreover, that bridge was, as was the whole I-90 corridor between Bellevue and Seattle, expressly designed so as to allow eventual use by rail transit.

    1. +1

      How is it that we in the northwest got stuck with such awful and backward newspapers? Of all the things that are going on with Link (say, the Federal Way Drunken Blunder) they complain about a non-issue like this?

  10. If built on the floating I-90 bridge, and after passing its acceptance tests, East Link light rail won’t be dangerous. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars on design and construction, Sound Transit will promise that it won’t be, and what more do we need?

    I assume that mitigation for the unlikely case of a 55 mph train derailment along the starboard rail of the bridge will be thought through, just like it’s already been thought through for the now-operational light rail bridge through Tukwila.

    But some of us in the civic arena are focusing on the associated additional safety risks to be created in the I-90 motor vehicle tunnels that are having a lane added within the existing constrained right-of-way because of the requirement to keep the same number of vehicle lanes open starting in 2017 when the center roadway is taken over for rail construction.

    Letting gasoline-filled tanker trucks routinely pass through the I-90 eastbound, southernmost, one-lane tube of today may not be a good idea when it is forced to become two lane. As an analogy, once the SR 99 Bertha Tunnel is open under downtown Seattle, gasoline tankers will not be allowed through it because of its narrow lanes. http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Viaduct/Contents/Item/Display/156

    1. John, if you’re concerned about risks to life on the I-90 corridor, campaign to close the freeway, not the light rail line. That’s what’s killing people.

      1. John Niles doesn’t get paid to incessantly complain about all the death and mayhem caused by roads and rubber tire transportation. As such, you won’t see him mention the 20k people who have already lost their lives on US roads the first 6 months of 2015, up significantly from last year.

        Even worse, Niles has been preaching for years about all the tech wonders which were to have “revolutionized” the private vehicle experience: what we got was a whole bunch of technology that revolutionized distracted driving, instead.

        A self-styled futurist, Niles has failed with virtually all his dire, doom & gloom transit predictions; however, he never fails to hook his cart to the wrong horse.

    2. “Letting gasoline-filled tanker trucks routinely pass through the I-90 eastbound, southernmost, one-lane tube of today may not be a good idea when it is forced to become two lane.”

      The tunnels that now carry eastbound traffic originally contained two lanes each. It was only after construction of the new bridge that the southernmost tube was reduced to one lane. The northern eastbound tube still has two lanes and routinely serves truck traffic without any issues.

  11. If you have driven I-90 from Seattle to Mercer Island in the last 20 years, you have already driven on a section of road in the Mt Baker tunnel with 11 foot lanes and two foot shoulders. And somehow you survived?

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