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.

We reported last month how Sound Transit would focus on improving the poor state of vertical conveyances in the DSTT as it takes ownership in 2021, somewhat delaying efforts to remediate the UW station escalators which have recently been performing better. The latest budget sets aside $96 million for DSTT capital improvements through 2025, much of that for escalators, but also upgrading lighting, ingress and egress improvements, and general safety and security issues in the tunnel. There is another $45 million for escalator modernization at UW station, and upgrades to emergency egress stairs at UW and Capitol Hill.

A condition assessment of DSTT conveyances in late 2019 detailed problems facing Sound Transit as it took ownership of the tunnel. Elevators were in generally fair condition, but were 32-34 years old creating issues with future serviceability and acquisition of materials. Several elevators were out of service due to vandalism and misuse.

With a single exception, escalators in the tunnel stations are of similar age, and well past their optimal life. Their condition was assessed as poor with a high level of wear, and most require major repairs. The consultants called out that “there is a lack of repairs that is required for the escalators to maintain a level reliability for a transit station with high pedestrian traffic”.

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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.

There’s no single reason for the schedule slippage, more a cascading series of holdups each of which delayed the next step in getting vehicles ready for service. 68 new vehicles have been assembled by Siemens to date, and manufacturing is now on schedule and on budget. But there were earlier delays that rippled downstream. Those challenges included supply chain holdups and re-work on some cars due to unacceptable quality. A handful of vehicles received in Seattle were returned to Sacramento for repairs to exterior panels and those are now back in Seattle. 26 vehicles are now on-site in Seattle.

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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.

The report shows the costs of electrification within Metro’s latest fleet plan. The fleet plan itself is remarkable, making stark how Metro’s plans have shifted with COVID and the recession. The number of buses operated by Metro will fall by more than one-fourth through 2026, and no service expansion is projected beyond that.

With budgetary reductions to the fleet plan amplified by the costs of electrification, Metro service levels will be reduced unless higher revenues are forthcoming. As Executive Constantine warned when transmitting the budget proposal a month ago, “Additional investments in electrification of the fleet [beyond 2028] will require a new revenue source, significant increased revenue forecasts, or a reduction in service levels”.

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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.

Pre-pandemic ridership on the First Hill streetcar had reached up to 4,000 per day, with another 1,700 on the the South Lake Union streetcar. Recent ridership on First Hill had recovered from post-pandemic lows to about 2,000 per day. South Lake Union service, suspended for most of 2020, reopened on September 19.

Council Member Alex Pedersen, casting an eye at the empty office buildings in downtown, was skeptical last week about funding current operations levels on the SLU line in particular. There were several questions from Council about how much further savings could be wrangled by reducing service. Council President Lorena González cautioned against going too far. “If the cut is too deep, we’re signaling we’re abandoning the streetcar system entirely”. González sought further analysis of where a tipping point could be, warning “particularly on two lines that have already been built, and that are existing infrastructure in our city, I worry about whether we are setting them up for future failure”.

Meanwhile, the Center City Connector remains on hold.

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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.

Next Generation ORCA allows smart-phone payment and private bankcard payment, so that paying fares becomes easier for infrequent riders or those without a current balance on their ORCA accounts. The new ORCA cards will be available at a far greater number of retail locations.

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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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Bothell transit hub will connect SR 522 & I-405 BRT

Planned transit hub connecting Stride BRT routes in Bothell (image: Sound Transit)

A transit hub northwest of a rebuilt SR 522 and I-405 interchange will serve as the eastern terminus for Sound Transit’s planned SR 522 BRT. It will connect Stride BRT on SR 522 to Stride BRT on I-405. Sound Transit is dropping plans for some BRT buses to serve Woodinville, and replacing those with a Sound Transit Express branded connection.

These, and other updates to SR 522 BRT plans, are shared in a Sound Transit online open house that runs through August 23.

With expanded express toll lanes on I-405 between SR 522 and SR 527, the Stride BRT on I-405 will be accessible at SR 522 from BRT platforms on new direct access ramps. The SR 522 BRT, meanwhile, will terminate at a bus loop and layover area just to the northwest. That makes for a straightforward connection between the two services and to other buses operating in the area.

The transit hub resolves several other tricky issues in Bothell that Martin explored last year.

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Sound Transit & other agencies in push for federal assistance

Sound Transit and King County Metro, along with agencies in other major cities, are making a concerted effort for more federal assistance in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package. Yesterday, the leaders of 27 major agencies joined in calling for up to $36 billion in aid for transit to cover COVID-related expenses and replacing depleted local tax revenues in 2020 and 2021.

Transit operators face a variety of needs. For legacy systems, decreased farebox revenues have put extraordinary pressure on operations while costs related to COVID mitigation have increased. For newer systems that are growing, the recession will reduce local tax revenues for years, imperiling expansion timelines.

While King County Metro is reducing operations, Sound Transit is facing a delay to planned rail and BRT extensions. Current operations are a relative small part of the Sound Transit budget, but the long-term loss of sales tax revenues combines with statutory limits on debt to put the current planned system expansion timeline out of reach.

Among the various assistance measures being debated, the most valuable to Sound Transit could increase the federal share of existing Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) by 30%. A similar provision is in the Investing in America Act recently passed by the House.

In the current FFGAs, Lynnwood Link received a federal match of 36% or $1.17 billion. Federal Way Link received a 25% match for $790 million. A 30% increment to those FFGAs would mean $1.9 billion of additional federal support for Sound Transit.

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Sunday Open Thread: East Link in Bellevue

A recent view of the East Link alignment through Bellevue, courtesy of Bellevue Transportation Department. Heavy civil construction is expected to be substantially complete in Bellevue this Fall, except on the central Bellevue segment where it will complete early in 2021.

This is an open thread.

Decisions later this year on delayed projects

Projects in active construction (in green) have been prioritized while Sound Transit reprioritizes its longer term program (slide: Sound Transit)

With a comprehensive realignment of capital projects delayed until July 2021, Sound Transit turned its attention yesterday to current projects where advances through project stage gates have been on hold since March. The Board must decide in coming months how to proceed on many of these projects in 2021 pending decisions on the broader program.

Earlier this year, the Board decided to pause advancing projects not in construction. That meant planning and design could continue, but projects could not advance into project development, final design, or construction. Some of the largest ST3 projects are still too far away to be affected by a near-term pause, but the staff presentation detailed more than a dozen where some work or stage gate decisions are being delayed.

Projects affected by the pause include several in early development. These include Sounder platform extensions on the south line. Those platforms were to be extended to accommodate 10-car trains by 2028. An operations and maintenance facility for Everett Link was to have started work later this year. Environmental work on Sounder access projects has been delayed. These include parking in Edmonds and Mukilteo which are not being moved to environmental review. Contracts have been negotiated at South Tacoma and Lakewood station, but not brought to the Board. In North Sammamish, a 200-car park-and-ride is on hold. The bus on shoulder program has been screened to a short list of possible projects, but paused further development.

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A smaller Seattle TBD for the November ballot

The Seattle TBD funds more frequent service on Metro 120 (image: Zach Heistand)

A reduced Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD), extending the existing 0.1% sales tax but not replacing the lost vehicle licence fee revenues, appears headed to the November ballot. If approved, it will fund youth ORCA and low income programs at existing levels. But Seattle will purchase much less bus service than in previous years, and much of that will be directed to West Seattle while the West Seattle Bridge remains out of service.

The plan to take a measure to the November ballot was announced by Council Transportation Committee Chair Alex Pedersen at a Council meeting on Monday. Existing taxes expire in December, and a November ballot measure must be filed by August 4. Further details are expected within the next few days, and may be refined further by the Council, but the broad strokes spending plan has become clearer. Either a four- or six-year renewal is possible, perhaps because some favor a revived countywide measure in 2024.

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Sound Transit realignment process will extend another year

Although the overall realignment is punted until July 2021, several projects face decision points this year (image: Sound Transit)

The Sound Transit Board has given up on earlier plans to decide a capital program realignment this year, and will extend the process into the middle of next year. The new “path forward” is a comprehensive realignment plan and schedule for future project delivery by July 2021.

In the meantime, a more limited set of actions will be considered this year on projects that require urgent decisions. Projects already in construction will continue. The Board will continue to schedule design and environmental activities on other projects to maintain shovel-readiness. For baselining and construction decision points, the 2021 plan will proceed on a “placeholder assumption” that all future projects are delayed by about five years. Affected projects may encompass the Eastside BRT projects, some Sounder South improvements, the Link OMF South, Everett Link, and funding agreements for “early win” projects with local partners.

Sound Transit embarked on an effort to “realign” the capital program in April after the COVID pandemic and recession cratered revenue expectations. At the time, CEO Peter Rogoff pushed for prompt Board direction on resetting priorities: “Back in 2010, the board took some 18 months to arrive at what realignment decisions had to be made. We may not have the luxury of being able to wait 18 months to come to finality on these decisions given the sudden cliff that the economy may have jumped off.

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Center City Connector on hold again amid fresh funding gaps

Seattle Streetcar (image: Joe Kunzler)

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has paused work on the Center City Connector (CCC) and several other projects as the city wrangles a steep revenue deficit. The pause appears likely to further delay the start of service. But the recession also threatens the longer term future of the streetcar. Needed revenues from the rideshare tax are less likely to materialize, and there is sharpened competition for scarce general fund resources.

All told, the paused projects are expect to reduce SDOT spending this year by $58 million, or 8% of the $739 million budget. That roughly fills this year’s budget gap for SDOT. SDOT’s revenues are expected to fall short of plan by more than $50 million, including an expected loss of $13 million in general fund support, a $20 million shortfall on parking tax revenues; and at least $7 million less in street use fees. SDOT’s near term options are constrained as they are continuing projects already in construction. At the same time, the West Seattle Bridge is unexpectedly failing, setting SDOT up for a costly repair bill, or even more costly replacement.

The Center City Connector would connect the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars through downtown Seattle. The project was funded in the budget passed in 2017, but then placed on hold in April 2018. After identifying a series of design flaws and cost underestimates in the plan, an independent review added $88 million to the estimate in the budget, and potentially more if assumed FTA grant funding were to fall through. But the city nevertheless determined to get the project back on track, taking two steps to move the project ahead.

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