For the next ten weeks, Link riders will have to contend with infrequent trains, a forced transfer in Pioneer Square, and weekend closures to prepare for Northgate and East Link Expansions. These delays and closures could have been avoided by building for future expansion originally rather than planning and authorizing the system piecemeal. This time, the costs and impacts of the rework are relatively minor, but the consequences of this approach will be severe for future expansions unless the course is corrected.
Before Link opened in July of 2009, Sound Transit closed the tunnel to install tracks, power, and systems in preparation for bus/train operations. Plans were considered for expansions to Northgate and east to Bellevue, but the ballot measure to authorize that expansion, ST2, didn’t pass until November of 2008. Not enough time to plan and execute changes to future-proof the tunnel for expansion.
With daily ridership just over 80,000 of which about 30,000 are expected to transfer at Pioneer Square, the annoyance of these ten weeks will likely pass quickly and be replaced by excitement for Northgate Link opening next year. The costs of this rework are relatively low and it’s reasonable and possible to make these changes.
Lack of foresight won’t come so cheap for the new downtown tunnel authorized in ST3. Retrofitting a tunnel for expansion or a tunnel station to handle transfers is exorbitantly expensive, massively disruptive, and sometimes simply impossible. You can’t easily mine into an existing tunnel to create a junction. You can’t easily change a tunnel’s curve and elevation. You can’t easily add capacity to a tunnel station so it can handle transfers after it’s built. The easiest way to avoid costly retrofit projects is to plan for expansion before we build ST3’s new downtown tunnel. Or we can assume Seattle will just stop growing jobs and population, but we believe that unrealistic and foolish. Therefore, the time to plan for expansion is now.
Our massive investment in a purpose-built train tunnel in downtown Seattle could forever fall far short of its potential and could completely fail our future needs, unless we do it right the first time.
We’ve focused on expandability throughout our ST3 feedback but there is a big hitch: Sound Transit can’t build for expansion. We haven’t authorized them to even consider it. That’s one reason passing ST4 in Seattle in 2024 is so critical. With one vote, we will have the opportunity to both make sure ST3 is built right while authorizing critically needed expansion.
For those who think it’s too soon to think about expanding our transit system beyond ST3, we obviously disagree. But please consider this: do you want Sound Transit to paint itself into a corner? Do you want the choices we make now to put a near-permanent stopper on high quality, sustainable, rapid transit expansion in Seattle? Even if you are skeptical of further transit expansion it’s hard to argue in favor of shortsighted design.
Failing to correct course could mean never connecting the two densest residential neighborhoods, First Hill and Belltown, via Link. It would mean missing out on our city’s best opportunity for transit oriented development on the Aurora corridor. It could mean never connecting the dense neighborhoods where transit riders suffer on King County Metro’s route 8 every day. It could mean spending billions in the future to correct mistakes that would cost a fraction of that if we do it right in the first place.
It’s time to plan for an entire system, not just one part at a time in isolation. Seattle voters have proven, repeatedly, we want more transit and are willing to pay for it. Join us in urging your representatives to clear a path for Seattle to plan and fund a complete rapid transit system.