An out of service escalator at Westlake Station (image: Bruce Englehardt)

Escalators at UW station, after failing spectacularly on several occasions in 2018, are now working well. After a series of changes to improve maintenance, downtime has been greatly reduced and Sound Transit is now comfortable postponing a full replacement of the escalators. The good news at UW allows Sound Transit to turn its attention to the planned takeover of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel in 2021. There, the agency is anticipating an unexpectedly steep bill to replace nearly all of the elevators and escalators.

The opening of the back stairs at UW station in March 2019 relieved loads at peak times. There is a new contractor for maintenance, with technicians on-site weekdays. A pre-positioned inventory of spare parts is available to to quickly bring escalators back on line when an outage occurs. This year, work was completed on a public passage between the sub-mezzanines.

While Sound Transit acknowledges the upgrades have not been stress-tested with higher ridership, escalator availability at UW this year has been 98.5% and elevators at 99.5%. Availability has remained high even as Sound Transit took advantage of low traffic to accelerate repairs requiring planned outages.

Elevator availability is now meeting the 97% goal at all Sound Transit stations but Beacon Hill (at 91% this year). Escalator availability is also generally meeting the 95% goal, and is over 92% at every station managed by Sound Transit.

Escalator availability at Link stations (Slide: Sound Transit)

The escalator problems at UW started with cost-cutting on the original installation. In 2018, Sound Transit figured it would be necessary to replace the installed escalators with more robust ‘transit grade’ escalators. Having achieved such high availability recently at UW, that now seems unneeded. Instead, it is pausing work at UW and turning its attention to the greater challenges in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT).

Sound Transit is now anticipated to take ownership of the DSTT in 2021, after some delays. When it does so, it will inherit a system of 36 escalators and 22 elevators across four stations, virtually all of which are beyond their useful service life (ordinarily 25 years). The challenges with older conveyances in these stations have long vexed Metro. Westlake and University St, in particular, have seen elevator and escalator availability this year hover in the 80% range. As of last week, 12 of the 36 escalators were out of service.

Despite having been fired by Sound Transit, KONE remains the vendor for DSTT conveyances. Sound Transit contracts with Schindler Elevator for maintenance inside their stations. Sound Transit has estimated $8.7 million in deferred elevator and escalator maintenance repairs in 2021 just to get them “to a baseline of safety and performance”, but is also planning a larger multi-year capital replacement plan for vertical conveyances in the DSTT.

CEO Peter Rogoff was blunt in his assessment of the historic maintenance in the DSTT:

The elevators and escalators we’re taking over from King County Metro in those four DSTT stations … are considerably older and have really suffered from, I’m not going to call it neglect, but inadequate repair regimes to keep them up and running. There’s one escalator at University St that has been down and ripped open for two years and seemingly no progress has been made to even address it until we take it over.

How large is the cost of remediating the issues in the DSTT? Rogoff didn’t cite a number, but indicated the “resources to do very intensive work on those four stations” would be material to this Fall’s new financial plan and next year’s discussions about realigning projects. It seems likely to exceed the $52 million capital replacement estimate shared with the Citizen Oversight Panel last Fall.

Elevator availability at Link stations (Slide: Sound Transit)

34 Replies to “UW escalator issues resolved, but DSTT repair costs mount”

  1. I have a question about the 95 percent standard. Is it an average of all station escalators in that station, or does it reflect when any has a problem? It appears to be the former based on Rogoff’s account at University Street Station’s long-term escalator failure.

    If so, the measure should not averaged for all escalators in a station and instead be per station or per level change by direction. Right now, how many escalators exist that connect a Link platform with the street is not reflected in the standard. It seems reasonable to have an escalator out of service for 18 days a year if a second one is available, and terrible if there isn’t.

    The measure needs to be changed to be more reflective of a rider’s reality.

    1. “The measure needs to be changed…”


      I’m also concerned about the reversal on the UW escalators. I posted a comment about this just last Sunday on the open thread:

      Here’s a direct quote of ST from Oct 2018:

      “We have determined that even with intensive repairs and maintenance on the current escalators, the costs would be unsustainable, the current units still wouldn’t meet our performance standards, and we would need to replace them anyway in 2025.

      “So we’re going to bite the bullet now and replace all 13 escalators at UW between 2019-2022.”

      Very interesting.

  2. Thanks for the opener, Al S. “Rider’s Reality” could win prizes on Netflix! But meantime.

    Can we please have a posting by someone who understands the machinery of elevators and escalators to explain why a regional transit system, in an un-impoverished part of the world, can’t make the damned things work in twenty years?

    And more than that, if Sound Transit cannot make a couple-stories-high lift-car, or a one-story flight of stairs work….why should riders trust us with a whole region-full of electric railcars? Is it just luck we haven’t had a mass-casualty crash?

    Well, maybe just prejudice because Dupont is so close to where I live and so far from Jackson and Fifth, but no I won’t shut up about it. It’s the mindset that’s cost liberal democrats the country since Newt Gingrich took charge. If it’s too hard to fix, the casualties aren’t our fault.

    The chief casualty here could be the survival of the regional transit system I’ve been supporting since the days when my fellow drivers called me a management stooge for threatening bus with rail.
    Lucky that Public Comment is people-free right now.

    Because what are we going to do when a pro-Trump escalator technician reads us both the riot act and the repair manual in front of TV cameras? Or worse…Mercer Islanders start claiming it’s not buses they fear, but the threat they could bring escalators?

    Action plan? Since Atlantic Base and ST maintenance daily prove the quality of their own work, let Buyout options include retraining on elevators and escalators. And have Lake Washington Tech provide classroom space for a certification program. Can Funeral Services get a tax credit for helping out?

    And in the meantime, with construction elevator rental pages full to bursting, next time an ST 574 passenger needs to get a half-dozen suitcases onto Link, make the rental really long-term. And if you can’t find an Operator to run it, get an Ambassador.

    Before rush hour tonight.

    Mark Dublin

  3. Is the Beacon Hill station just closed the 9% of the time the elevators aren’t working? That seems bad

    1. Also for the love of god could we reprogram them so people can access more than one elevator at a time when deboarding?

      1. I agree. There just needs to be one waiting at the street level.

        Having only one at a time available in the tunnel doesn’t just slow passenger departures down by multiple minutes, it encourages passengers to ignore social distancing.

        Speaking of which, I wonder why there isn’t a sign showing the pandemic capacity of the elevators.

    2. Beacon Hill has more elevators than other stations do, which provides redundancy. It’s unlikely that they would all choose to stop working at the same time.

      1. It would be unlikely but it has happened. If 3 out of the 4 elevators are broken then they close the station. It happened once last fall.

  4. What pot of money in ST3 funds DSTT station upgrades?

    I’ll note that when San Mateo County bought into BART, that operator made the county improve things in Downtown San Francisco’s stations as part of the SFO extension package. That came about because staff recognized the impact before funding agreements were determined; ST seems to not study or consider this.

    Because these are regionally significant stations at the other end of trips from every subarea , it would seem that all subareas should pony up to fix the stations, and not just North King. The “surpluses” from projects like East Link should go to help pay fix them.

    1. Well, since ST has been forecasting that Northgate Link will come in at about $50M under budget (after moving contingency over from U-Link), then that should provide them with a good chunk of change to address the capital funding needs for the replacement of the DSTT vertical conveyances.

    2. The four other ST subareas are scheduled to pay 1/2 of the second transit tunnel through Seattle that is estimated to cost $2.2 billion. In fact a big part of ST 3 was to refund the North King Co. subarea (Seattle) with its 1/2 of the tunnel’s cost (Seattle is insisting on a tunnel rather than a surface line).

      Furthermore the eastside subarea is paying 100% of the ST buses west-east until East Link opens even though a significant portion of riders are going from west to east (or did before Covid). The estimated cost to the eastside subarea is just under $1 billion. With the loss of tunnel access the 550 has become much less attractive to eastside riders and commuters because they don’t like waiting on 2nd Ave. to catch the bus back east.

      It was Bellevue that insisted on ST equity when ST was being formed, (I think Rob McKenna or Reagan Dunn) and I doubt Pierce or Snohomish Co. would have joined without subarea equity. ST did approach Snohomish Co. about “lending” Seattle funds to get the line to Snohomish Co. considering Snohomish Co. has no service until the line reaches it, but Snohomish Co. declined.

      Even though it would be contested in court, if ST proposed abrogating ST subarea equity the four other subareas would pull out immediately. Instead ST “borrows” funding from other subareas for Seattle, like the express buses, or requiring the eastside subarea to pay 100% of East Link beginning east of the Mt. Baker Tunnel.

      The issue I raised was not so much the lack of revenue in the North King Co. subarea, although it has the greatest costs to run rail to its disparate neighborhoods with challenging topography and a line to Snohomish Co., (considering the South King Co. subarea has little revenue but few costs) but the fact the eastside subarea will have so much revenue from ST 2 and 3 without effective ways to spend it.

      If working from home becomes permanent that really questions running rail all over the eastside, because really transit on the eastside is mostly for the work commute when the roads are congested. But the money still has to be spent in the eastside subarea, and every city on the eastside thinks it needs a rail line to be a player, which is why Renton wants rail, not buses. Ego, and too much ST revenue, plus a population disinterested in transit, especially buses.

      1. Rather than assign funding by subarea, I’d suggest assigning funding by project. Each upcoming major project opening — Northgate, Lynnwood, East Link, Downtown Redmond, Federal Way — should have a line item called “core station upgrades” to be eligible to partially pay this. Too many ST project elements are costed incrementally to keep the project budgets lower — and the system suffers as a result. If 2019 Link riders will only be something like 20-25 percent of the users of these escalators in 2026, shouldn’t the other 75-80 percent be coming from these new projects opening?

      2. @Daniel P. Thompson: Seattle doesn’t have a choice to build surface, building surface is functionally equivalent to not building High Capacity Rapid Transit at all, basically just setting a ton of money on fire continously for the next 30+ years. That doesn’t mean I ST’s PDAFT under 5th Ave is a good idea. Not when I-5 is a better alignment.

      3. Daniel, the whole reason for my decades-long willingness to share the blame and seek a cure for Sound Transit’s every mistake and shortcoming is the result I intend for it to deliver:


        Mark Dublin

    3. “What pot of money in ST3 funds DSTT station upgrades?”

      It’s probably in ST2. Lynnwood Link and East Link are predicated on ST buying the tunnel from King County and having only trains in it. Previously ST paid a proportional amount of the tunnel’s debt for its runs. ST said it has money in reserve for improvements once it takes posession of the tunnel. That’s primarily escalators and elevators, which have long been unreliable.

      1. Yes, it’s covered under the SOGR ‘fund.’ I suppose that would mean ST2, since that was the first plan to assume the DSTT would become bus only.

    4. I believe it’s part of project #400116 in the agency’s capital plan. The last adopted 6-year TIP (2020-2025) showed some $96.4M (YOE$) in total in this bucket. Here’s how the narrative was laid out in the report:

      “DSTT Capital Improvements

      “Assess and identify facility issues in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel that negatively affect the customer experience, are not compliant with current building codes, or present safety and security hazards. Design and perform improvements to address identified issues.
      Changes to authorized project allocation since 2019: Increase by $86.4 million for tunnel improvements [ed., bringing the total to $96.4 million].
      Budget year activities: Address the vertical conveyance systems, lighting retrofits, and ingress and egress improvements.”

      In regard to this budget item, for 2019, the agency had budgeted $8,500,000 but the actuals came in at less than 10% of that ($809,000). For 2020, the agency had proposed a budget of $24,160,000 but the adopted budget included a much lower amount of $4,510,000*. The Q2 financials show they’ve spent just 33% of the YTD budget of $1,830,000 with the YTD actuals coming in at $605,000 thru June.

      *2020 Budget Changes:
      Proposed- $24,160
      Revised- $4,510
      Change- $(19,650)
      Explanation- Project activities planned for 2020 delayed.
      [Ed., this was a pre-Covid decision.]

  5. “Vast amounts of pee” are causing escalators to break down in Mexico City.

    I know it’s a disgusting and non-pc topic, and we prefer to talk about transit vs commercial grade equipment, and maintenance, but could using our elevators and escalators as urinals be part of the problem?

    BTW, if you ever listen to a Metro radio scanner, you will frequently hear them talk about a “hazardous spill” in this or that elevator. They are referring to urine.

    1. Well, for what it’s worth, Sam, I’ve noticed that in Europe, the places with the best electric transit also have the cleanest, best maintained, and most intensively-policed public toilets.

      Which nobody complains about paying cash for- though by now they’re probably on your smart-phone. Locations like major train stations also, by way of a receipt, give you a towel and a key to your own shower-room.

      Kind of beneficial in a way, though, that, much like the old Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, transit and sanitary waste still share the same CEO. Removing any excuse for not just doing it.

      Mark Dublin

    2. What broke the DSTT escalators is the weight of hundreds of thousands of people using them, and they’re past the end of their lifetime. A few dozen people peeing is unlikely to make a difference. And most peeing is in elevators. American cities are too cheap to have staffed restrooms so people pee elsewhere. And homeless people don’t have their own toilets.

  6. At least the DSTT has actual stairs, not stairs hidden behind a fire door. So despite Rogoff’s statement that seems to imply ST is taking over a lemon, that lemon actually performs better because it was designed with stair redundancy from the beginning. I’ll take the Metro designed tunnel over the ST tunnels anyday.

    1. I agree. Elevators break down. It is to be expected. But not planning for that failure by providing stair access is mind boggling.

    2. Passing the blame/buck is just a variation on the feigned helplessness theme.

      Ridership will be way down for months to come. This was and still is the opportune time to do repairs while impacting the fewest riders.

      Find the money. Do it now. Worry about fault later.

      1. “Find the money. Do it now.”

        Agreed. I also think ST should stick with their original plan, i.e., do another flip-flop back, and start replacing the UW Station escalators now as announced previously.

      2. The point is, they will break again. Escalators break. Yes, ST screwed up with the escalators at the UW, but *all* of the escalators have problems. This is inevitable.

        The only way this can be “fixed” is by designing the stations correctly in the first place, which is with (additional) stairs.

  7. Metro KC has really dropped the ball with DSTT escalator maintenance. Unfortunately ST will be left holding the bag and paying the repair bill.

    However, in the end the region will be better off once ST takes over and gets the DSTT back in shipshape. Critics of ST will pile on and claim all the problems are ST’s fault, but in the end we will all be better off.

    Transfer of the DSTT to ST should have already occurred. Hopefully It happens soon.

    1. Is there any reason ST can’t proceed immediately to fix or replace the DSTT escalators? I realize ST has a hard enough time getting the vertical conveyances they already own back up in a reasonable amount of time when they break. But this is the time to catch up as much of the backlog as possible before the riders return.

      Don’t blame. Organize. Get stuff fixed.

      1. ST doesn’t have the legal authority to take over maintenance of a facility that is currently owned, maintained and operated by Metro.

        And ST can’t legally remove the contractor who is currently under contract to do Metro escalator maintenance and install their own contractor. It just doesn’t work that way.

        Now Metro could always just transfer ownership and completely get out of ST’s way, but, you know, they just don’t want to.

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