Sound Transit eyes phasing of ST3 projects

The Sound Transit Board on Thursday received several illustrative scenarios for prioritizing ST3 projects through the realignment required this summer because of tax shortfalls and cost overruns. The scenarios bookend the range of possibilities with delays on individual projects ranging from 1 to 14 years.

Among the scenarios is a phasing approach which would keep delays on the highest priority projects within the range of 2 to 4 years. Due to subarea constraints on Board action, some variation of the phasing approach seems the most likely to emerge from the realignment process.

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Northgate LRVs on schedule, but risks remain

Siemens and Kinkisharyo vehicles in Bellevue last weekend (image by author)

The Sound Transit System Expansion Committee received an update yesterday on the availability of new Siemens vehicles to support the beginning of service to Northgate this Fall. Significant risks remain, but progress has been made since a previous report in November. CEO Peter Rogoff expressed confidence that Northgate Link will open on the intended schedule.

A minimum of 30 cars must be available to open Northgate service with the full complement of four car trains at eight minute headways.

Sound Transit had baselined the Northgate project with 40 cars being available by end of 2020. That plan was knocked off track by a series of early supply chain holdups and later testing issues, and further complicated by COVID. Manufacturing is now on schedule and on budget. Commissioning, the lengthy series of steps between manufacturing and putting cars in service, remains behind schedule. When we last reported on this in November, Sound Transit was pursing a ‘recovery schedule’ to get the needed minimum of 30 cars ready by the opening of Northgate in September 2021.

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Sound Transit committee gets a closer look at West Seattle & Ballard cost increases

Sound Transit’s System Expansion Committee heard a deeper dive on the recent increase in costs for Seattle Link projects at their meeting Thursday. A long list of revisions to property costs and construction plans contributed to a more than $4 billion increase in the overall cost of the project just since last year.

The incremental cost of tunnel alternatives, however, are now much closer to elevated alternatives, though only because the representative elevated alternatives are so much more expensive. Board members gave no hint of how they would respond to the affordability gap on the project, though there was enthusiasm for adding tunnels as they would not make the needed delays so much greater.

In 2019 dollar terms, the West Seattle-Ballard Link Extension (WSBLE) had an estimated capital cost of $7.1 billion in the ST3 plan. By 2019, that had been revised upwards to $7.9 billion, reflecting some mix of the preferred alternative choices made by the Board and underlying inflation in costs. The most recent estimates, with the benefit of more detailed investigation since the Board selected preferred alternatives for the EIS, raises this to a range of $12.1 billion to $12.6 billion. The lower number is for an elevated Fauntleroy terminus in West Seattle, the higher for an elevated station on 41st/42nd in West Seattle.

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West Seattle-Ballard Link costs revised more than $4 billion higher

This potential station site in West Seattle was a strip mall when the ST3 plan estimates were being developed. (image: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit has revealed sharply higher capital cost estimates for several ST3 projects that are in development but not yet baselined (i.e. the Board has not yet selected the alternative to be built or finalized the cost and schedule estimates). The worst news is in Seattle. The West Seattle to Ballard Link extension (WSBLE) is now expected to come in at $12.1 to $12.6 billion for the preferred elevated alignments, $5.0 to $5.5 billion higher than projected in ST3 (all 2019 $). $4 billion of that cost increase has emerged in just the last year as the initial alternatives selected for the EIS have been fleshed out.

The news was delivered to the Sound Transit Executive Committee earlier today, and further detailed in a memo released after the meeting. Cumulatively, the cost estimate increases across all projects run to $7.9 billion in 2019 dollars. That would be about $12 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars on current project schedules, though those schedules will be inevitably extended.

If realized, such costs would make it very difficult for Sound Transit to complete Link extensions to both West Seattle and Ballard anywhere close to the ST3 timeframe, even if Seattle forgoes more expensive tunneling and other options that could add up to $1.7 billion more to the price tag (though the relative cost of below-ground vs above-ground shifts in favor of tunnels as above-ground land acquisition becomes more expensive).

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Updating Metro’s service guidelines

An equity-led service prioritization would put the largest investments in these routes (image: KC Metro, click to enlarge)

Metro’s Service Guidelines, enacted in 2011 and updated in 2016, were intended to depoliticize the allocation of bus service, replacing Council and Executive micromanagement with a set of objective standards distributing Metro resources across the County against consistent metrics. Since last year, Metro and the County have been working on revisions to the guidelines that will increase the emphasis on social equity in those standards.

The proposed changes are complex, but the detail has not obscured from politicians how the revisions will advantage some areas over others, mostly shifting service in the general direction of South King County. While the expected revisions to the Guidelines raise target service levels nearly everywhere, that’s only meaningful with a less constrained budget. Absent more funding, changes in priorities are a nearly zero-sum game. There are substantive concerns about what is being traded off with the increased focus on equity.

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Updating Metro Connects

‘Interim RapidRide network (image: KC Metro, click to enlarge)

Metro Connects, the long-range plan for King County Metro, is being updated. The revised plan will describe an ‘interim network’ in place of the 2025 map and extends the 2040 horizon of the current plan through 2050. Perhaps the most notable change from the existing plan is the less extensive RapidRide network. Priorities for investment shift too as service is redirected to address equity gaps with a correspondingly reduced emphasis on productivity and geographic values.

Metro’s key policy documents will be updated together. Metro Connects is the long-term vision, first adopted in 2017. The Service Guidelines define the path for nearer term adjustments in services. Both need to align with each other and with the Strategic Plan that outlines Metro’s goals and performance measures.

After the jump, we’ll delve into the new Metro Connects map, with a future post examining updates to the service guidelines.

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Sound Transit expects better revenue recovery, but still lengthy project delays

The latest financial plan anticipates a moderate recession scenario requiring a four year average delay to future projects (image: Sound Transit).

Sound Transit’s latest financial plan is much more optimistic about a recovery in tax revenues than forecasts of a few months ago. But predictions of project delays have not improved so much. The more favorable revenue outlook is offset by operating cost pressures. Ahead of the ST3 realignment decisions next summer, staff are still talking in terms of a four to six year delay in projects depending on how revenue forecasts evolve.

As economic activity declined sharply in the early months of the COVID pandemic, Sound Transit hypothesized it might be in for an $8 billion to $12 billion reduction in tax revenues through 2041. That would translate to an average five-year delay in all projects not already in construction.

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Elevators & escalators add $500 million to Sound Transit’s 20 year plan

This DSTT escalator broke when misaligned steps crashed into the comb segments (image: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit is preparing a multi-year effort to replace aged escalators in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. Poor conditions in the DSTT and escalator reliability problems at UW station have prompted an extensive evaluation of Sound Transit’s planning for vertical conveyances. The latest financial plan adds $555 million to State of Good Repair, anticipating more robust expenditures on maintaining and replacing this equipment through 2041.

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Link service levels at risk when Northgate opens as LRVs delayed

New Siemens S700 railcar alongside older Kinkisharyo model at the OMF-E in Bellevue (image: Sound Transit)

{Sound Transit contacted us to clarify that they will be able to support 8 minute peak headways with 30+ qualified vehicles in Fall 2021 if the recovery schedule proceeds as planned. Clarifications in text below with new commentary in bold.}

Sound Transit has contracted to acquire 152 new light rail vehicles to support network expansions through 2024. Of those, 40 were to have been available ahead of the opening of Northgate Link in Fall 2021. must be available to enable the planned 8-minute headways to Northgate opening Fall 2021. Just 12 are mainline-ready at this time. That number is expected to rise to over 30 before Northgate opens, less than planned but enough to operate 8 minute service if no further delays are encountered. ,still 10 vehicles short of what is needed.

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Metro restructures in 2021

With Northgate Link opening in Fall 2021, route 41 will no longer go downtown and the hours saved will be available for service elsewhere (image: Oran Viriyincy)

Metro has sketched the outlines of service restructures in 2021 and 2022 in budget discussions with the King County Council. The proposals include a reduction in bus service in north Seattle after Northgate Link opens, and a rebalancing of bus service throughout the County to conform with the new equity framework.

The largest change in service levels is in northeast Seattle. Nominally, the budget anticipates a total reduction of 170,000 service hours, of which 47,000 are deleted Metro hours annually as Route 41 is truncated. The balance are funded by the Seattle Transportation Benefit District. The budget assumes those hours will go away too with the expiration of the STBD taxes this year. After last week’s voter approval of new STBD taxes, the reduction in bus service will be less.

The new STBD taxes are expected to support only 170,000 hours citywide, not enough to replace most of the 121,000 STBD-funded hours in northeast Seattle, and anyway the focus of STBD efforts will shift somewhat to support more routes elsewhere. The new STBD legislation makes “any King County Metro route serving historically low-income communities in Seattle” eligible for support however many stops it serves outside of the city, and that will favor routes in the south of the city.

Metro staff indicated the level of STBD funding wouldn’t affect the map of service in northeast Seattle. Instead, the new STBD taxes would pay for increased frequency and span of service on the same network.

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Metro’s fleet will be all-electric, also much smaller

A long-range battery-powered bus that Metro has recently been testing (image: King County Metro)

Metro’s proposed budget greatly reduces most capital outlays over the next several years. The RapidRide expansion has shrunk to just three funded lines, and base expansion plans have been mostly suspended. But there remains a $270 million investment in battery buses and associated charging infrastructure, $93 million of that by 2022.

Into the budget debate comes a remarkable report from Metro, laying out the steep opportunity costs of a transition to all-electric. Under the most likely assumptions, battery electric buses and infrastructure are 53% more expensive than a diesel hybrid fleet. Even with societal benefits including emissions priced in, it’s 42% more expensive. The added cost of a 100% transition from hybrid to battery is enough to buy 237,000 service hours annually through 2040.

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Streetcar service may be cut again, as Center City Connector remains on hold

Streetcar in South Lake Union (image: SounderBruce)

The Mayor’s budget proposal funds streetcar service in 2021 at current levels, with about 10% fewer service hours than before COVID. The Seattle Council however appears to be looking at further reductions, eyeing about $700,000 in operating savings for every 10% further reduction in service. Prospects for restarting the paused Center City Connector appear dim.

Overall, the City’s streetcar operations budget for 2021 is flat vs the original enacted 2020 budget. Cost increases nearly offset the 10% reduction in service.

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Metro prepares for end of cash fares

Riders line up to pay (image: Lizz Giordano)

King County Metro is embarking on a process to phase out on-board cash payments.

Details are so far limited, pending discusssions with stakeholders. A briefing to the King County Council Budget and Fiscal Management Committee noted the discontinuation of on-board cash fares would happen in concert with the launch of the subsidized annual pass program and the planned launch of Next Generation ORCA by early 2023. Metro will engage with community stakeholders later this year and early next year to develop a plan.

The subsidized annual pass program offers free fares on all Metro services but Vanpool, and is available to recipients of several means-tested programs. The full launch of that program was announced yesterday. (Sound Transit is running a similar program on a pilot basis). It’s favorable to reducing cash use because lower income riders have historically preferred not to prepay for ORCA media.

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Sound Transit’s boardings struggle to recover

Monthly boardings on Sound Transit (data: Sound Transit)

Second quarter ridership data from Sound Transit shows, as expected, a collapse in ridership after COVID. There was a meaningful recovery in June as the lockdown eased, but ridership more recently seems to have stabilized at just under one-fourth of normal levels.

Pre-pandemic system ridership was about 4 million riders per month. At the bottom, in April, Link and ST Express ridership were at 18% of normal. There was some slight recovery in May, and more in June.

Ridership on ST Express and on Link has hovered around 22% of normal since June. (‘Normal’ here being the 2019 average). The commuter-heavy Sounder trains are carrying just 10% of their regular passenger loads. Tacoma Link is a relative bright spot, with 35% of normal ridership in August because it’s ridership is less commute-oriented. Overall system ridership remains just short of 900,000 monthly.

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UW escalator issues resolved, but DSTT repair costs mount

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.

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Metro plans for a lower ridership system

The proposed budget for King County Metro released last month indicates an agency preparing for a prolonged and deep decline in ridership. Fare revenue projections have been lowered by at least one third through at least the middle of the decade. While the budget authorizes the restoration of most suspended service if ridership does return, capital investments are ramped sharply downwards and will constrain Metro’s capacity to serve more customers.

In a comparison of the current budget proposal with the adopted budget of two years ago, the decline in expected fare revenue is striking. The forecast for the 2021-22 biennium is reduced by half. Even in the 2023-24 biennium, fare revenue is anticipated to be 34% less than the earlier projection. It grows just 7% in the biennium after that. Metro’s view appears to be that, after an initial rebound as pandemic fears ease, bus ridership is on a permanently much lower path.*

The shortfalls in fare revenue over the next six years are larger than the loss of tax revenues. County sales tax revenues are expected to be off 10% in the 2021-22 biennium, and off 7% in 2023-24, relative to the projections of two years ago. That seems manageable, but because sales taxes make up more than half of Metro’s revenues, the dollar impact is nevertheless large; a $142 million shortfall in the next biennium, and $102 million in the biennium after that.

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Metro budget cuts RapidRide expansions

A RapidRide at Bellevue Transit Center (Image: Oran Viriyincy)

Yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted the proposed Metro budget for 2021-2022. The budget eliminates several planned RapidRide expansions. Metro will dig into reserves to fund service, and will defer a planned increase in fares. The budget also funds a significant expansion of the electric battery bus fleet. The depletion of reserves sets Metro up for future service cuts unless new revenues can be found by 2024.


Metro will fund just three RapidRide expansions. The Metro Connects plan had suggested 13 lines by 2025, and this had already been reduced to seven by 2027. The still-funded expansions are the H line on Delridge, opening 2021; the G line on Madison, opening 2024; and the I line connecting Renton, Kent and Auburn in 2023.

The K line in Bellevue/Kirkland is cancelled, apparently having come up short against Renton on an equity analysis. Another line in East or South King County that had been scheduled for 2027 is also dropped.

Metro is cutting funding for the J line (to Roosevelt via Eastlake). But SDOT suggested Tuesday that they would attempt a scaled-back version of the project where the line would terminate to U District station instead.

Also unfunded is the R line on Rainier Ave, previously scheduled for 2024. The Executive indicated there would be a future effort to secure federal funds for this line, but didn’t say when that might happen.

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Near-term decisions offer clues to ST3 realignment

A contract with WSDOT to build a BRT station in Kirkland will remain paused until at least 2021.

On Thursday, two Sound Transit committees heard staff recommendations for proceeding with paused actions this year. The seven project actions staff are recommending come to just $76 million, though they relate to some $7 billion of larger projects. Along the way, there were tantalizing clues to staff intentions about the larger realignment process to come next summer, perhaps including a phased approach to some rail and BRT projects.

When the pandemic and recession hit in March, it immediately imperiled Sound Transit’s already finely balanced financial plan. The most current projections show the agency running up against constitutional debt limits by 2028 unless spending plans are adjusted or new revenue sources found. The Board decided early on to proceed with projects that are already in active construction, and would consider later how to ‘realign’ timelines and priorities for those further in the future. A comprehensive realignment of future projects is now scheduled for July 2021.

Between the ongoing projects where construction is continuing, and the future projects whose fate will be decided next year, are a set of mostly smaller project actions that were briefly paused in March. Staff are now recommending to move some of these forward, and to delay others until the broader realignment is decided. More details by mode after the jump.

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