Link Plans Part 3: West Seattle

C Line at the Junction. Credit: Shane in the City.

This is the third and final post in our series about the latest designs for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions. This post covers West Seattle.

On September 5th, Sound Transit released its latest concept work on the West Seattle and Ballard light rail extensions. We’re examining each segment in-depth, from north to south, station by station.

More detailed information, including Sound Transit’s score of each station site and track segment, can be found here. Sound Transit’s new outreach website has visualizations and other information. Here’s where you can read Part One (Ballard) and Part Two (Downtown & SLU).

Since the Level 1 analysis, ST eliminated the Delridge station options that were well off of Delridge Way, leaving only alignments that continue west on Genesee Street. Nearly all alignments that point west at Alaska Junction are also gone, as they mesh poorly with vague future plans to continue to White Center (the west-pointing ST3 representative project remains). The majority of surviving options tunnel under the Junction.  All have a potential ridership of between 10,000 and 12,500 within the station walksheds.

Staff continue to make it clear that a tunnel will add costs.  The three tunnel options here increase the overall project costs by anywhere from $500M to $1.2B, in addition to creating increased schedule risk. If a tunnel were to be selected, supplemental funding from the City would be required.

Credit: Sound Transit.

Duwamish Crossing

ST presented three alignments of the water crossing: a bridge north of the West Seattle Bridge, a bridge adjacent to the south edge of the West Seattle Bridge, and a bridge south of Harbor Island with a tunnel through Pigeon Hill.

The Pigeon Hill alignment seems likely to be eliminated. It would be the most complicated feat of engineering, and therefore the most expensive option at $1.2B more than the representative project; the river crossing would be the widest, and the tunnel would have to be a deep bore through the hill. ST staff seemed lukewarm about the alignment.  

Continue reading “Link Plans Part 3: West Seattle”

Link Plans Part 2: Uptown, South Lake Union, Downtown, and Sodo

Westlake Avenue. Credit: SolDuc Photography.

This is the second of three posts in our series about the latest designs for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions. This post covers Uptown and South Lake Union.

Last Wednesday, September 5th, Sound Transit released its latest concept work on the West Seattle and Ballard light rail extensions. We’re examining each segment in-depth, from north to south, station by station.

More detailed information, including Sound Transit’s score of each station site and track segment, can be found here. Sound Transit’s new outreach website has visualizations and other information. Read Part One here.

Since the Level 1 alternatives, there have been a few changes. The all-Mercer St. alignment, the 8th Avenue First Hill Stop, and the idea of having only one stop in South Lake Union have disappeared.

Uptown (Seattle Center)

Credit: Sound Transit. Click to enlarge.

The underground Uptown station will sit in a neighborhood dense with jobs, residents, and events ridership. The station will lie on an east-west, tunneled track segment roughly on the axis of 1st Avenue N. The question is whether the station will be built on Harrison, Republican, Mercer, or Roy.

Sound Transit identified four factors in the ultimate decision: tunnel and portal alignment, service for Key Arena & Seattle Center, bus integration, and TOD potential.

Roy scores the lowest by those metrics. Bus integration and Seattle Center service would be poor, though there is more upzoning potential near the station site. Continue reading “Link Plans Part 2: Uptown, South Lake Union, Downtown, and Sodo”

North 130th Station moves closer to early construction

Credit: brewbooks

The Sound Transit Board’s capital committee on Thursday made the early construction of the North 130th St. more likely. The agency’s staff and elected leadership also continued to express concerns about the Trump administration’s hostility to transit projects.

The committee also voted to elevate Downtown Redmond’s new Link station, change the Federal Way Link federal grant proposal, study improvements to Seattle RapidRide, and install new diagnostic units on light rail vehicles.

N 130th Street Station preliminary engineering

As we predicted Wednesday, the North 130th St. Link station got one step closer to opening at the same time as the Lynnwood Link Extension in 2024, instead of 2031. The Sound Transit Board’s Capital Committee encouraged (but did not formally vote to recommend) a plan for ST staff to begin preliminary engineering on the station.

Until today, the board’s Snohomish County officials opposed building the station before Everett got Link service. Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, the only Snohomish County official on the committee, supported the move to begin engineering work. Earling’s cautious endorsement of the move was a victory for Seattle officials, especially City Councilmember Debora Juarez, who campaigned on the issue.

Continue reading “North 130th Station moves closer to early construction”

Link Plans Part 1: Ballard and Interbay

The other rail bridge to Ballard. Credit: Eric Nguyen.

This is the first of three posts in our series about the latest designs for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions. This post covers Ballard and Interbay.

Last Wednesday, September 5th, Sound Transit released its latest concept work on the West Seattle and Ballard light rail extensions. We’re examining each segment in-depth, from north to south, station by station.

More detailed information, including Sound Transit’s score of each station site and track segment, can be found here. Sound Transit’s new outreach website has visualizations and other information.

Ballard Station & Ship Canal Crossing

Credit: Sound Transit.

Sound Transit still has a  variety of options for the most crucial segment of the Ballard line: the Market Street station that will serve Ballard’s urban village. Continue reading “Link Plans Part 1: Ballard and Interbay”

Takeaways from the latest West Seattle & Ballard stakeholder meeting

Credit: Oran Viriyincy

On Wednesday, Sound Transit released the latest design work on the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions. We’ll have more detailed analysis of each segment next week, but here are the major takeaways from the presentation.

More cost concerns

ST staff opened the meeting with a warning about cost control, which is an increasingly common refrain from agency leaders. ST has drawn bad press and scrutiny from the legislature for growing project budgets.

“A note about cost constraints,” Cathal Ridge, ST’s central corridor director, said at the beginning of the meeting. “We’re getting this on some of our other projects, where we’re feeling cost pressures, and I want to head this off—the ST3 plan was back in 2014, and we have seen a lot of recent escalation in construction costs and real estate costs. That has affected the estimates for some of our other projects. That’s a real thing, and I don’t expect it will surprise anyone.”

How those concerns might affect West Seattle and Ballard aren’t clear. Agency staff presented a slide deck with some dollar amounts that indicate an increase in cost (i.e. +$100 million) or cost savings (-$100 million) for the alignment the dollar amount describes.

Ridge said that those figures are provisional, do not represent the final cost of any project. Ridge said that the numbers listed for each alternative alignment only compare the alternative to the representative alignment, which is based on the ST3 plan presented to voters.

In short: the dollar amounts do not represent projections of cost overruns or savings on a line. They only compare West Seattle Station A’s construction costs to West Seattle Station B’s, and are not final projections of the total project cost. Estimates of that figure will become available when Sound Transit settles on a locally preferred alternative.

Continue reading “Takeaways from the latest West Seattle & Ballard stakeholder meeting”

Chinatown Leader Hopes for 4th Avenue Link Alignment

The gate to Chinatown on 5th Avenue. Credit: SolDuc Photography

Sound Transit will brief the public and stakeholders on the latest West Seattle-Ballard concepts tonight, and what it shows could make a ruckus. So far, ST has tipped a preference for siting the Chinatown station and segment on 5th Avenue South. But a coalition of neighborhood groups and transit advocates is rooting for a 4th Avenue station and alignment.

Maiko Winkler-Chin, the executive director of the Chinatown/International District Public Development authority (SCIDPDA), is one of the community leaders arguing for the 4th Avenue alignment. The First Hill streetcar project made the neighborhood’s businesses and residents wary of rosy government agency claims about construction impacts.

“For me, my responsibility in the neighborhood is to make sure that we don’t suffer big impacts, or we don’t suffer impacts at all,” Winkler-Chin says. “This neighborhood has dealt with a lot of transportation impacts. I don’t know if people know how bad it was to have the First Hill streetcar built in this neighborhood. I was told that was going to be like a paving project. That as a paving project that never seemed to end.”

“We had an electrical cutoff in the neighborhood, for 15 or 16 hours. We had multiple water cutoff notices—attempts at water cutoffs, and actual water cutoffs. The timing and coordination of doing that sort of work is really difficult because of the unique nature of the businesses down here.”

Winkler-Chin says that some restaurants in the neighborhood were surprised when their water and electricity went out, and says that retailers suffered major drop offs in business due to sidewalk and street closures.

Winkler-Chin says that Little Saigon’s retailers were hit particularly hard. Construction crews closed the 12th and Jackson intersection during the lunar New Year. That’s one of the Vietnamese diaspora’s most cherished holidays, and the neighborhood’s busiest shopping season. According to Winkler-Chin, Little Saigon merchants didn’t know that the closure was coming, and the closure depressed customer traffic and disrupted deliveries.

No street level retailers or apartment buildings occupy the superblock between Jackson and Seattle Boulevard South on 4th. The parallel stretch of 5th features several large apartment buildings, street-level retailers and restaurants, and the west side of the Uwajimaya complex. As a result, Winkler-Chin says, the 5th Avenue project would be much more disruptive.

Winkler-Chin also points out that the 4th Avenue alignment could reactivate Union Station as a public space and multimodal hub. Transit advocates, neighborhood groups and downtown leaders have long wanted to better integrate Union and King Street stations into the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I’m trying to minimize impacts to this neighborhood,” Winkler-Chin says. “Other people want a vibrant and functioning Union Station. If we could do both, that’s great.”

Sound Transit & Link ridership continues to grow

Credit: Sound Transit

Sound Transit systemwide ridership went up 2.9 percent in Q2 of 2018, when compared to Q2 of 2017, according to the latest ST ridership report.

Riders boarded ST vehicles 12,442,840 times. The average weekday saw 163,681 boardings, a 2.4 percent increase from Q2 2017.

Link (6.2 percent more boardings) and Sounder (5.1 percent) both saw substantial ridership growth. Link’s average weekday ridership grew by 5.4 percent over Q2 2017. Westlake (11,827 boardings on an average weekday) and Husky Stadium (10,263 boardings) stations were first and second in Link ridership. Rainier Beach’s ridership grew the most, with a 14.6 percent increase in weekday ridership.

ST Express bus boardings went down a marginal 1.2 percent, which the agency says is “partially due to park-and-ride closures for East Link contruction [sic].”

The only bad news comes from Tacoma. Tacoma Link ridership is down 9 percent from Q2 2017. ST says “the total ridership decline was related to fewer special events and the temporary closure of 200 parking stalls at Tacoma Dome Station for renovation work started in June.” So, we can safely blame the drop (among other things) on Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, who played their respective May 22 and August 25 shows at CenturyLink Field, rather than the Tacoma Dome.

The region’s dramatic, sustained transit ridership growth defies the national trend. ST meets a need that STB readers have collectively seen for decades. Or, as ST more prosaically put it:

“As the region continues to grow, Link is perceived to be a good choice for commuting.”

Sound Transit Board plays hooky, plans to study fare enforcement

Summer school. Credit: David Seater

Thursday’s Sound Transit Board meeting didn’t have any Earth-shattering news, but it did feel a lot like summer school. Agency staff presented some updates on ongoing projects, but the board didn’t do much: too many elected officials cut class to move along the day’s most substantial agenda item.

Fare enforcement

Metro rolled out a new fare enforcement policy a few weeks ago. (Expect an in-depth look soon.) The transit and social justice activists who worked with Metro are excited about the Metro policy, which will reduce fines and hopefully prevent escalation.

The same coalition approached Sound Transit to make similar changes, but the agency is moving more slowly; on Thursday, the board approved a staff proposal to study fare enforcement policy and come up with recommendations.

Capitol Hill affordable housing

The board formalized ST staff’s laudable work on several affordable housing projects on Broadway, which we covered in depth here. The board approved the requisite land transfers with Seattle Central College and affordable housing developers.

Seattle Mayor and ST board member Jenny Durkan praised the projects, and said that the city would try to get the buildings open sooner by expediting permitting and construction.

Northgate Link construction update

The Northgate extension is humming along. ST staff said that construction is on schedule. Most of the major structural work on the stations is done, and the right of way is nearly ready for guideway system installation.

Northgate Link’s budget allocated about $223 million to handle contingencies and cost overruns. The board voted on Thursday to allocate $3.7 million from that pool to complete final design work.

Federal Way Link land transfers

After ST builds the Federal Way Link extension, the agency will have some leftover land. The agency needs to hold staging sites and the land under the future guideway during construction, but not after. When the project is finished, ST plans to transfer some of the surplus land to WSDOT, which will build an extension of SR 509.

The board was supposed to approve the baseline budget for the project on Thursday, but needed a supermajority vote to do it. However, the board didn’t have a the votes necessary for the supermajority, so the vote couldn’t go ahead. (The board did approve the land transfer.) Early in the meeting, the board stalled votes because a quorum of members was not present.

Claudia Balducci compounded the embarrassment by pointing out that the project’s baseline budget had not yet been studied by the ST Board’s capital committee.

“Because we’re not going to take action on this, can this go through capital committee like it should have in the first place?” Balducci said.

The board sent the land transfer back to committee, after a wisecrack by Durkan (who skipped the last board meeting):

“Who knew so much could be done by people not showing up?”

This post has been corrected. According to ST spokesperson Scott Thompson, the board approved the eventual land transfer, but not the Federal Way baseline budget. An earlier version of the post said that the land transfer was not approved.

Procurement Woes for Madison BRT


Madison BRT, also known as RapidRide G, is running into problems with bus procurement. Although the Trump Administration’s foot-dragging isn’t good for any transit project, it is these procurement delays that threaten to delay opening. At the moment, is unclear if these problems will actually delay the planned 2021 delivery.

RapidRide G will use special buses with doors on both the left and right side of the vehicle. The initial plan selected trolleybuses that may have off-wire capability.

According to a source at SDOT, the vehicles intended for the corridor—60 foot, BRT-optimized Xcelsior trolleybuses from New Flyer—can’t handle the steep grades of Madison Street. The source added that New Flyer intends to discontinue trolleybus manufacturing after an ongoing order for San Francisco is finished. Neither SFMTA nor New Flyer responded to requests for comment. Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer referred STB to SDOT for comment on the trolleybus grade issue.

SDOT spokesperson Mafara Hobson:

Continue reading “Procurement Woes for Madison BRT”

Metro and Rob Gannon move up a notch

Credit: 19adam99

On Monday, the King County Council unanimously voted to separate Metro from the Department of Transportation and make the agency an autonomous, cabinet-level department. In the same meeting, the council unanimously voted to keep Rob Gannon as the director of the agency; as an autonomous department, the Metro director is now a political appointee, rather than a civil service position.

Since its inception, Metro has long been a part of King County’s Department of Transportation. KCDOT administers Boeing Field, the West Seattle Water Taxi, county roads, and the county’s vehicle fleet. Metro has run more or less autonomously for years, but was still supervised by the KCDOT director.

“It’s organizational authority and flexibility,” says King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci. “It gives you more ability to set your own destiny. That extra layer of bureaucracy might not sound like much, but it’s a real thing. I say that as someone who ran a department here.”

Balducci ran the county’s jails from 2010-14. She said that, while she held that position, Metro’s head always sat in on cabinet meetings with the King County executive. That arrangement created awkward conflicts of interest, since the director of KCDOT—the Metro director’s boss—was also in on the meetings.

Continue reading “Metro and Rob Gannon move up a notch”

I-90 bridge’s Link retrofit almost finished

A worker inspects a reaction frame inside a pontoon. Credit: Sound Transit

Sound Transit announced on Wednesday that construction crews are nearly done with their work retrofitting the I-90 bridge for East Link. Crews have worked for more than a year to post-tension the bridge’s pontoons.

ST reinforced the bridge to help it carry the load of Link’s tracks, overhead lines, and vehicles. The retrofit also improves the integrity of the bridge in heavy wind and an attendant storm surge, the likes of which sank the eastbound span in 1990.

All the Lake Washington floating bridges use a system of tensioned steel cables to hold the span in place. Construction crews installed additional cables in the pontoons of the I-90 span. The cables, which crews stressed and winched, pull the pontoons closer together, which creates greater load bearing capacity. Altogether, according to Sound Transit’s Zach Ambrose, “crews installed and stressed 1,080,000 feet of steel strand and applied 41,000 pounds of pressure.”

Steel cable and the frame that anchors it. Credit: Sound Transit

Giant steel structures, called reaction frames, anchor the new cables at both ends. They absorb the force from winching the steel cables, and whatever event that might stress the structure. Each of the ten reaction frames weigh about 17,500 pounds.

The structural work is finished. Crews are removing equipment from the pontoons and grouting the housing of the cables, to prevent water corrosion. After that work is done, construction of the guideway can start.

A diagram of the retrofit. Credit: Sound Transit

Rogoff: Sound Transit faces headwinds for on time and on cost project delivery

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. Credit: Atomic Taco

The big news from the July 26 Sound Transit Board meeting was that the Federal Way Link extension will cost about $460m more than originally planned. It may not be the last project to cost more than expected: at the meeting, CEO Peter Rogoff briefed the board about mounting challenges in delivering capital projects on time and on cost.

“Sound Transit has the financial strength,” Rogoff said, “to withstand increased project costs, or lower than anticipated federal funding or tax revenues, or a recession, but a combination of any two or more of these factors would put considerable stress on the agency’s ability to deliver projects on schedule.

Sound Transit can’t make any difference in a competitive labor market, or the increasing cost of real estate, or prevent a recession, but it is able to exercise control over design, alignment, and the like:

“We have already discussed that, first and foremost, controlling our work to reduce project costs will be critical for delivering our projects,” Rogoff said. “This includes the discipline to not expand the scope of projects.

Notably, agency-perceived expanded scope is one of the reasons First Hill station didn’t make it through the ongoing ST3 planning process, although cost-increasing alternatives in West Seattle and Ballard did advance.

Meanwhile, the federal funding picture is completely opaque. The Trump administration, like most Republican administrations, is hostile to transit projects. Trump transportation officials are doing their best to kill off projects that were thought to have the go ahead. In Albuquerque, for example, local officials constructed a BRT line under the assumption that they had $75 million in Federal Transit Authority (FTA) funds on the way. As of July 18, the administration hadn’t ponied up.

Continue reading “Rogoff: Sound Transit faces headwinds for on time and on cost project delivery”

Updated: Link to run entirely on renewable energy

A wind farm in Idaho. Credit: US DOE

On Thursday, August 2, the Sound Transit Board’s Executive Committee approved a plan to power Link almost entirely from renewable energy resources, as part of a program ST developed with regional governments and Puget Sound Energy (PSE.)

By July 2019, Sound Transit will lower its emissions by 71 percent, with renewable energy generated by a new wind farm, which will come online that month. In 2021, PSE will finish construction on a new solar array in central Washington which will allow Link to operate on 100 percent renewable energy. Systemwide, 96 percent of Sound Transit’s energy will be generated by renewables.

The contract also locks in Sound Transit’s PSE electricity rates at agreed levels for the next ten years, which could save the agency some operations cost. Sound Transit staff said that they intend to negotiate similar green energy deals with relevant utilities as the Link system expands. 

The 4 percent of the energy that is not renewable will be purchased on the open energy market. Utilities use fossil fuel capacity when renewable generation is not possible or is suboptimal, or when demand exceeds renewable capacity. Solar plants can’t generate at night, for example, and wind plants can’t generate if air is stagnant.

The program is part of PSE’s Green Direct initiative, which the utility developed at the behest of regional governments and major corporate partners. According to King County Executive and ST board member Dow Constantine, the ST move is part of a larger regional push to cut carbon emissions.

“King County’s signing on to [Green Direct] reduced and is reducing our climate impact, our carbon emissions, by 20 percent,” Constantine said. “These are not really incremental steps—these are big steps forward.”

“In committing to creating electric, high capacity rail, our conversion to an all electric bus system, and our insistence that our vendor provide us with the kind of power we want, we are changing the [energy] market.”

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Link itself will be powered entirely by renewables, while Sound Transit’s overall energy supply will be 96 percent renewable.

Sound Transit incubating three additional affordable housing projects on Capitol Hill

Across Broadway from the First Hill site. Credit: SolDuc Photography

On Thursday, August 3, Sound Transit staff briefed the ST board’s Executive Committee on the agency’s goals for two TOD projects near the Capitol Hill Link station.

Both projects will feature ground floor retail and affordable housing, and will build to the maximum density that their zoning allows. The First Hill site, near the intersection of Broadway and Madison, is zoned to allow for up to 13 stories in construction. The second site, which ST will procure through a land swap with Seattle Central College, will allow for seven stories.

First Hill site

According to Sarah Lovell, ST’s TOD Planning Manager, the First Hill site will have:

  • A minimum of 12 stories
  • At least 250 housing units
  • Affordable housing standards
    • At least 80 percent of units occupied by residents at or below 80 percent AMI
    • The buildingwide average income at or below 60 percent AMI
    • At least 80 units at or below 30 percent AMI
  • At least 8 percent of units will have 2+ bedrooms, for families
  • 4000 square feet of active storefront
  • Meets Washington State Evergreen Standard
  • Minimal auto-oriented design features

Sound Transit is in the late stages of negotiations with Bellweather Housing and Plymouth Housing Group. Staff hope to present the board with final contracts in August or September. ST does not plan to spend any funds on the project.

Pike/Pine site

The Pike/Pine site is midway up the block on the left. Credit: Gordon Werner

Lovell also briefed the Executive Committee on a more complicated project to be built on Broadway between Pike and Pine. The site is in a historic auto repair shop (the Eldrige Tire Building) between Neighbours and a mixed use building with Rite Aid on the ground floor.

According to Lovell, this project will have:

  • At least 7 floors, though with MHA it could have 8
  • Target 78 housing units
  • 100 percent of residents earning 60 percent AMI or below
  • 23 percent of units 2+ bedrooms, for families
  • At least 4,500 square feet of commercial space
  • Meets the Evergreen Standard
  • Restoration and inclusion of the Eldrige Tire facade

Lovell said that the income requirements will be locked in for 40 to 50 years, as part of a covenant typical to most private affordable housing developments. ST plans to work with Capitol Hill Housing to develop the project.

Sound Transit doesn’t yet own the plot. It will acquire the land through a swap with Seattle Central College, which currently owns the building. SCC will gain access to a lot on the west side of Broadway, next to the SCC portal to the Capitol Hill Link station.

According to Lovell, SCC intends to develop that project into its own mixed commercial and affordable housing TOD project. So, in a sense, Sound Transit will incubate two affordable housing developments when it makes the land swap later this year.

Sound Transit has clearly learned from the long-delayed projects above the Capitol Hill Link station. The agency’s thoughtful approach to these three projects, and its close collaboration with community partners, bodes well for its ambitious TOD program.

Seattle City Council votes to expand bike share & speed bike network construction

Lime bikes at Husky Stadium station. Credit: Bruce Engelhardt.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council voted in favor of two major expansions of public bike infrastructure, though one is a nonbinding resolution, and does not carry the force of law.

The meaningful vote authorizes the expansion of dockless bike share to a potential 20,000 vehicles, provided SDOT develops a bikeshare parking enforcement regime and improves the pedestrian experience of people with disabilities.

The other vote, a unanimously approved nonbinding resolution, is a rebuke towards SDOT for not building downtown’s bike network fast enough for the council’s liking. (We’ll have more information on that issue later.)

The council moved to allow SDOT to expand dockless bike share to at least 20,000 bikes, spread among up to 4 companies. Companies could pay up to $250,000 in fees to the city (one current provider, Ofo recently announced that it would be exiting the Seattle market due to the new fee structure).  

Some critics of bikeshare have argued, with scant evidence, that poorly parked bikes aren’t just a nuisance or eyesore, but rather that they’re bad for business or other civic virtues.

More importantly, several blind and vision-impaired Seattle residents pointed out that unpredictably parked bikes are dangerous for them—and encouraged the construction of the basic bike network to keep bikers off sidewalks.

“Blind, disabled, and all other pedestrians are being severely impacted by the bicycles that are littered on the sidewalks that we try to walk on,” says Marci Carpenter, president of the Washington chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

“There needs to be direct parking enforcement and management of the right of way. I support the basic bike network because the more cyclists feel comfortable riding in bike lanes on the streets, the less likely they are to run into us on the sidewalks.

In response to the comments and lobbying of Carpenter and other people with disabilities, Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien added unanimously approved amendments to the bike share ordinance. Herbold’s amendment will allow bikeshare contractors to add 1,000 additional bikes to their fleet if they make major investments in vehicles that can serve people with disabilities, and O’Brien’s mandates parking enforcement.

We’ll report on the bike parking enforcement program when more information becomes available.

Mayor raises dubious engineering concerns for Center City Connector

Center City Connector Route
Center City Connector Route

The fate of the Center City Connector (CCC) is still undecided, but Mayor Jenny Durkan may have tipped her hand towards canceling the project.

A release sent out by Durkan’s office last week explained why the mayor’s decision has been delayed. An analysis of the project by consulting firm KPMG has yet to be completed, despite an initial deadline for delivery in late June. The release follows a similarly skeptical note written by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a longtime CCC critic, in her weekly constituent letter. 

“In August, it is hoped that KPMG will finalize their report to provide their independent analysis of the project,” the release said. The mayor will presumably make a final decision at that point. The release also suggests that the mayor could reopen the yearslong Center City Connector project design phase that selected a streetcar in the first place:

“Mayor Durkan believes we need better transit options along First Avenue and is committed to transit mobility and connectivity in this critical corridor. She has also asked SDOT to evaluate additional mobility alternatives in order to understand the transportation benefits that would accrue from either a streetcar or an alternative mode of transit.”

The release raised several critiques of the streetcar project, most notably about the size and operability of the tram vehicles that SDOT intends to procure for the project.

The mayor’s office wrote in a release that the much delayed, still unseen audit of the project by consulting firm KPMG “was much more complex than initially expected” as it required “the review of thousands of estimates, design materials and correspondence.”

At the same time, the release says that “concurrently with KPMG’s review, the Durkan Administration has also learned that the streetcar vehicles procured for the C3 are heavier, longer and wider than the existing SLU and First Hill streetcars.”

A low floor tram in service in Helsinki. Credit: LHOON.

However, the size of the vehicles is easily explained: they’re low floor vehicles designed to help people with disabilities load. That feature makes vehicles them inherently heavier than the vehicles currently on the streetcar network; the vehicles are increasingly common rolling stock for tram systems across the world. The release also raises the question of whether the vehicles have the correct gauge. As best as anyone can tell from the contracts SDOT executed for the vehicles, the vehicles should fit the track.

SDOT’s Director of Transit and Mobility, Andrew Glass Hastings, declined to comment on the mayor’s concerns.

Downtown groups who supported the mayor during her election campaign, like the Downtown Seattle Association and Alliance for Pioneer Square, are growing increasingly restive over the delayed project.

Transit and streetcar advocates have said that the concerns raised in the release are overblown. They argue that the questions about vehicle size are routine concerns that are typically addressed in the engineering phase of construction, and that the mayor is essentially engaging in concern trolling. 

“A connected streetcar network remains a critical investment for our center city—which in the last year alone absorbed 20% of all business district development in the United States and continues to absorb the lion’s share of Seattle’s new residents,” said Don Blakeney, the Downtown Seattle Association’s VP of advocacy.

“We’ve heard concerns from the Mayor about streetcar hardware and project costs. These are issues that call out for engineering solutions and not shelving the streetcar altogether. As a part of a coalition of community leaders, we remain committed to helping the Mayor find solutions to get this critical connection completed.”

Federal Way Link cost estimate to increase by $460.3 million

Guideway for the Angle Lake extension under construction in 2014. Credit: Atomic Taco

Sound Transit staff will inform the agency’s board today that the Federal Way Link extension’s official cost estimate will increase from $2.088 billion to $2.549 billion. The notice comes a year after the agency announced similar budgeting problems for the Lynnwood Link extension.

According to Sound Transit spokesperson Scott Thompson, the Federal Way cost increase is driven by the same issues that drove up Lynnwood’s budget. The Puget Sound region’s gobsmacking real estate market has increased the price of land acquisition. Right of way, stations, and parking garages are all much more expensive than the agency’s 2015-16 cost estimates predicted.

Construction is similarly pricey, as the development boom has created a hypercompetitive contracting bid market, especially for technically sophisticated projects like light rail. According to construction firm RLB, the U.S. average for construction costs increased from 2017 to 2018. Seattle had one of the highest local cost increases, trailing only Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles among major markets.

Cost reduction and mitigation

Fortunately, ST was able to reduce the Lynnwood cost increases by $200 million to $500 million. Cost cutting measures included removing down escalators, changing the concrete used to build stations and guideways, and shrinking platforms. Similar mitigation could presumably happen for the Federal Way project.

ST will also introduce a new cost cutting method: combining the design and build contracts for Federal Way into a single bid. According to Thompson, ST is confident that the new bid method will reduce costs, but said it was too premature to say how much money the new bidding process will save.

If current real estate and construction trends continue, more cost increase announcements are likely to follow.

Correction: The Lynnwood project’s cost increase was decreased by $200 million, not to $200 million.

Big oil is already spending almost $1m to oppose carbon pricing

The Andeavor refinery in Anacortes. Credit: Backbone Campaign.

Several of the world’s largest oil companies have committed nearly a million dollars to defeating Washington Initiative 1631, which would institute a carbon emission fee on the state’s largest polluters in order to fund affordable housing and green energy projects.

Two “against” campaigns have been organized to oppose I-1631. One was organized by the Association of Washington Business (AWB), and the other was created by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). The WSPA is an oil industry group whose membership includes Exxon, Shell, Andeavor, and BP.

According to the latest campaign finance filings with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), two campaigns will spend at least $992,006.19 to defeat I-1631. The vast majority of that spending–$916,974.88–comes from out of state oil producers. The campaign will probably raise more money. Initiative campaigns can raise funds until election day, and there is no cap on contributions for PACs working on initiative votes.

Five multinational oil companies have pledged to contribute the following to the oil industry’s campaign:

  • $396,031.40, BP
  • $201,186.54, Phillips 66
  • $162,827.17, Andeavor
  • $60,067.84, Chevron
  • $56,826.50, Shell

The AWB campaign is, so far, much smaller than the WSPA campaign. The Washington lobbying group has only raised $14,500 so far. Washington businesses and trade groups have spent or pledged $75,031.31 across both “against” campaigns. Washington-based donors include a trade group for general contractors and a Tacoma oil refinery.

Continue reading “Big oil is already spending almost $1m to oppose carbon pricing”

Link Advisory Group Reviews Chinatown, Sodo, Water Crossing Issues

The railroad stations and 4th Avenue viaduct from above. Credit: Bruce Englehardt

On Monday, the Sound Transit West Seattle and Ballard Link stakeholder advisory group, which includes transit advocates, prominent community members, and business and labor leaders, moved further along the process of selecting alignments and station locations for the West Seattle and Ballard light rail lines.

In Monday’s meeting in Union Station’s Sound Transit boardroom, agency staff briefed the group on siting and alignments in Sodo and Chinatown. They also briefed the group on water crossings at Salmon Bay and the mouth of the Duwamish river.

The advisory group will eventually pass recommendations to a subcommittee of the Sound Transit board, which in turn will recommend the ultimate preferred alternative to the board as a whole.

A breakout group at work. Credit: Peter Johnson

In breakout sessions conducted over pad thai, the advisory group discussed the alignment and station locations of the new West Seattle line’s Sodo station. The advisory group also discussed the location of the new Chinatown/ID station, which will have far-reaching impacts on the future of the light rail system.

The Chinatown station, and the segment of the new line closest to it, was the subject of intense discussion, with good reason. It’s the centerpiece of the project, and it could have the most disruptive construction impacts of any Link project so far.

Tough choices for Chinatown/ID station and alignment

Concept map of the alignments. Credit: Sound Transit

The future Chinatown station is one of the most critical elements of the new Link line. It will be the southern terminus of the new downtown tunnel, the site of hundreds of thousands of intra-Link transfers every day, and the light rail network’s busiest multimodal hub, with connections to Sounder, Amtrak, public and private buses, and the Seattle streetcar.

The station and alignment’s siting and design will have permanent impact on Link’s capacity, headways, and expansion potential. Sound Transit is committed to making the Chinatown station a central transfer hub, so it has to be built adjacent to the existing Chinatown/International District Link stop next to Union Station.

Construction in Chinatown and Pioneer Square is complicated. Much of the area is infilled tideland, which would liquefy during an earthquake. Liquefaction aside, the loose soil requires deep foundations for newer construction, and would force Sound Transit to make a deep bore tunnel even deeper than in most areas of the city.

Plus, many of the buildings in the area are built on pilings, since the neighborhoods are the city’s oldest. Those pilings could be obstacles for any alignment, and might not be replaceable with a new foundation. Demolition isn’t a way out of that problem: a large slice of the area—and King Street and Union Station themselves—are historic landmarks, or in historic districts.

4th Avenue vs. 5th Avenue

Sound Transit’s “representative alignment” is under 5th Avenue, with a station perpendicular to King and Jackson streets and parallel to the current Chinatown/ID station. During the first round of outreach with the Chinatown and Pioneer Square neighborhoods, there was strong demand for siting the line and station on 4th Avenue, or under Union Station. Continue reading “Link Advisory Group Reviews Chinatown, Sodo, Water Crossing Issues”