Now that it’s much more certain that the entirety of the 2-Line will not open in 2023, Sound Transit has an excellent opportunity to consider still starting Eastside-only service on time: a proposal first publicly voiced by King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci and endorsed by transit geeks across the region.
It’s easy enough to demand that Sound Transit only run trains between Mercer Island and Redmond, but putting it into practice is another thing entirely. I don’t know if ST staff have backup maintenance and operating plans for this exact scenario, but there are very crucial operational considerations that need to be made, particularly for transfers.
Marketplace, an NPR program, ran an exposé on our local transit recovery, featuring yours truly. Although I wouldn’t necessarily dichotomize myself into the choice rider camp (per Jarrett Walker’s analysis on the subject), the segment does a reasonably balanced job highlighting different aspects of transit ridership. I especially appreciated the renewed focus on all-day travel, in particular Link’s recovery:
Local bus systems are adjusting to shifting commuter patterns. Express commuter routes from richer suburbs have been trimmed, and transit managers are trying not to touch routes in lower-income areas. … Ridership on Link is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels… That’s mostly thanks to riders like Cantero hitting up sporting events or restaurants or running errands throughout the day. There are fewer commuters, but more all-day travel.
It’s what gives local transit enthusiasts hope that the region can still be a model for transportation success. There are plans to triple the mileage Link covers in the coming years.
King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci recently penned an op-ed to the Seattle Times arguing for East Link to meet its commitment of a 2023 opening, but only on the Eastside.
But what if we opened an Eastside-only light rail line connecting Redmond to Bellevue, or even to Mercer Island, in 2023? Could we provide high-quality transit service to thousands of riders while repairs are completed on the rest of the line? In short, we can and should. … On-time opening of an Eastside-only starter light rail line would honor the preparations that Eastside cities have been making for years, with complementary investments in transportation, trails and transit-oriented land use planning. Bellevue alone is investing more than $230 million to fast-track 12 transportation projects to match the 2023 deadline.
King County has worked tirelessly alongside several cities and communities to make progress on Eastrail, a 42-mile trail that will connect Eastside light rail and businesses like never before. And Bellevue has also partnered with Sound Transit to build up to 500 units of affordable housing with direct access to light rail in the Spring District. Both Redmond and Bellevue have been busy planning for additional transit-oriented development, including affordable housing, at most light rail stations along the East Link Corridor.
As was previously reported, Link expansions are delayed across the board but the Eastside extension has been pummeled by construction mishaps, pushing service start to 2024 at the earliest. The construction rework is primarily taking place between Seattle and Mercer Island, raising the prospect that the rest of what will be the 2-Line may finish on time.
We’ve always been supportive of early openings when projects are completed ahead of time, and it makes sense that a massive project like East Link stands to benefit from incremental openings. That said, Sound Transit would likely need to draft a thorough maintenance and operations plan, which should consider things like maintenance capabilities at the Bellevue OMF (Operations & Maintenance Facility) and service operations based on intra-Eastside ridership patterns.
Whether the Sound Transit Board will take this up remains to be seen. At minimum, the high-level calls to mitigate frustrating delays is an encouraging sign.
However, on both the east and west sides of the bridge, the contractor’s work to fix problems with cast-in-place concrete plinths supporting the tracks has led to the identification of further challenges. These include issues with mortar pads, rebar placements and track fasteners, which the contractor has agreed to fix by re-casting the plinths to ensure the long-term reliability and safety of the extension. Details of the East Link issues can be found in the below-linked memo.
Continuing work is required to identify new project opening timelines for the four projects, which must include time for activation work once construction is complete. While the East Link extension was planned to open in mid-2023, construction challenges are currently projected to delay the completion by at least a year. An upcoming programmatic review will assess rail activation sequencing and time requirements to support the identification of new opening timeframes.
This confirms what we heard back in May, but without any new update on the actual opening schedule. You can see some images of the cracking in the agency’s presentation to the board. Landslide issues have cropped up in Federal Way as well. The Times has more.
The youth fare is abolished effective Sept. 1st. This year’s transportation package in Olympia sends transit agencies a bunch of money in return for getting rid of the fare, neatly solving the dilemma of encouraging ridership by either cutting fares or using the money to improve service. Agencies across the state quickly fell into line.
Personally, I say good riddance. Youth ORCA is a pain to get, and if you have a few kids (as I do) round trips get expensive fast. There are also benefits to creating a broadly shared generational experience with transit, and in avoiding interactions with fare enforcement. With a state subsidy, there is no downside, unless it causes transit facilities to become (more of?) a place to hang out and behave anti-socially.
“We are now hearing many community members questioning whether there needs to be a new station in the community at all – and as a matter of good government we need to answer that question. “To be clear, looking at alternative location options in addition to those currently proposed does not mean we don’t expand transit capacity downtown – it just means we assess a broader range of options. Let’s let the process figure that out, with the community fully at the table.”
Sound Transit is planning for service changes in 2023, and has just released its 2023 Service Plan for public comment. This plan outlines the changes to Sound Transit service that is anticipated for 2023. And the outlook is… bleak.
For some background, you may recall that there were significant improvements in transit service planned in Sound Transit’s 2022 Service Plan. As it turns out, none of the changes outlined in the 2022 plan ended up happening except the restoration of S Line service. This is almost singularly due to the labor shortage (with other contributing factors also to blame for the slip of the Hilltop extension of the T-Line into 2023), which has showed no signs of letting up. In its more detailed draft Transit Development Plan, Sound Transit reports that in October 2021, labor shortages have caused a reduction of 5% of ST service operated by King County Metro, 10% of ST service operated by Community Transit, and 20% of service operated by Pierce Transit. Mitigations included a sudden reduction of ST Express service, and the transfer of route 566 from Pierce Transit to King County Metro. With the labor shortage being persistent through today, there has been no perceptible improvement so far, completely blocking the proposed ST Express improvements.
The service plan
The 2023 Service Plan anticipates more of the same, detailing the mitigation efforts made in 2021 and 2022. The plan tempers expectations of any service increases in 2023, noting that the agency will continue to implement two service changes a year. Service increases are not off the table (seeming to refer to the planned 2022 increases), but this won’t happen until staffing levels are sufficient to deliver on current transit service reliably and without cancellations.
The plan goes into detail about routes with current service reduction, in comparison to the service they would have had with sufficient service levels. This includes routes 577/578/590/594. which have the steepest reductions (running every 30 minutes midday and weekends instead of 15). Routes 566 and 592 are also seeing frequency reductions during peak hours (which is the only time they operate), and the 580 is getting unspecified reductions in favor of route 400 (which parallels route 580 in Puyallup). Also, the portion of route 580 from Lakewood to Puyallup (currently “temporarily” suspended) will be eliminated, leaving SR 512 for the exclusive use of cars once again.
No mention of East Link
One notable omission in the service plan is literally anything about East Link. While we already knew that East Link is likely to slip into 2024, the fact that Sound Transit isn’t even tentatively including it in the service plan says a lot about when the agency is anticipating opening the line. To this, I will say that I hope Sound Transit will break the news as soon as it is certain (starting with the official project page), rather than waiting until just a few months before people think it will open. Delaying the announcement will only frustrate riders and voters more, and is less honest to future riders who may be beginning to plan around the start of East Link service.
The service plan is open for public comment until August 9. So if you have feedback, be sure to fill out the survey before then.
Seattle (July 27, 2022) – Today, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he will appoint Greg Spotts to be the next Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), pending confirmation by the Seattle City Council.
Spotts currently serves as the Executive Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer at the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, which oversees 1,500 staff positions, an annual budget of $230 million, and a capital program of more than $350 million. He has led the delivery of over $600 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects as well as efforts to make Los Angeles more walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly and sustainable.
Danny Westneat’s latest column in The Seattle Times asks a bold question:
Why are we continuing with the same transit planning — such as for Sound Transit’s future light-rail segments — without factoring that a third or more of the workforce may not be commuting to a downtown core, or commuting at all?
Westneat is knee-jerk reacting to Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to pause work on its Bellevue office expansion: a total of six towers encompassing some 3 million square feet. The implication is that if a corporate behemoth like Amazon can’t be bothered to continue building office towers, then transit – as we know it – might as well be dead:
This sea change, if it continues, may cause cities over time to “untransit” — to unwind their transit-oriented, spoke-and-hub development patterns, Stern predicts. Cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit lines, she wrote, and shift to infrastructure to support remote work (such as municipal broadband, or small “remote work” centers away from the old business core). Cities may adopt more mixed-use zoning everywhere to bring a taste of the old commercial downtown out to residential neighborhoods (where so many are now “going” to work).
I’ll first acknowledge what is true in this assessment. There is already broad consensus in the transit and urbanist community that the new normal for remote work will undoubtedly impact future land use: central business districts will no longer have a regular weekday “swell” of workers. Super-tall office-only skyscrapers are likely a thing of the past. And mixed-use upzoning is undoubtedly on the planning menu for non-CBD neighborhoods.
What I find much more questionable is this notion that “cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit.” I’m not sure there is a planner out there who actually believes this. Regardless how commute patterns change, expanding buildable TOD maximizes the return on transit investment. Housing and transit can never be divorced, whatever remote work world we live in. If anything, it’s the massive suburban park-and-rides at outlying stations that should be converted into developable uses rather than sit empty.
Westneat furthers this line of argument by suggesting that remote work blunts the merits of continued Link expansion. I find this thinking to be bizarre – Link was not and never has been planned to be a commuter-centric system. If you look at a map of ST2 and ST3 extensions, it’s clear that the long-term plan is to connect all the PSRC regional growth centers by either rail or BRT. There’s nothing about the plan that screams commuter-heavy downtown-centricity.
I’ve also previously mentioned that the new remote work normal also means less emphasis on expensive commuter peak-only services and more investment in all-day cross-town routes. Paired with a frequent regional rail network, a system like that would actually be well served by “mixed-use zoning everywhere.”
Seattle Subway has 5 fundamental pillars of rider experience: speed, reliability, accessibility, expandability, and safety.
Ensuring expandability, and the financial and operational feasibility of future expansion, is fundamental to making sure ST3 is a good transit investment, and Sound Transit seems to have forgotten that. We need your help to remind the Sound Transit Board at their meetings on July 7th, July 14th, and July 28th. Sign up to testify or send an email today with links below.
ST3 can be a fantastic expansion of our regional system, but it will not be the end of light rail expansion for our region. As the Seattle Transit Blog Editorial Board wrotein 2018, ST3 must be built for the future. Light rail lines must be designed so that future expansion can happen without high cost reconstruction of the lines we’re planning today, or future service disruptions during construction. When ST3 is complete, 13 of 30 Seattle’s “urban villages” and “urban centers” will be connected, but completing our vision map would connect 27 of 30 urban villages and centers in Seattle. There are four areas where Sound Transit needs to explicitly future-proof the system as part of ST3 so future expansion remains financially and operationally feasible, saving money and reducing operational impacts long term:
The Sound Transit Board failed to advance 20th Avenue NW in Ballard to Draft Environmental Impact Statement Study. Sound Transit must study a Ballard station in the heart of Ballard.
Seattle Subway has 5 fundamental pillars of rider experience: speed, reliability, accessibility, expandability, and safety.
For many reasons that Seattle Subway has laid out previously, Sound Transit must reopen study of a Ballard station that serves the heart of Ballard. Both Sound Transit’s proposed 15th and 14th Avenue NW station options fail to serve the heart of Ballard and Sound Transit’s prior study of a station at 20th Avenue NW confirmed that it would serve more people and have better transfers. Providing accessibility for the most visitors, workers and residents is fundamental to a good transit investment, and Sound Transit seems to have forgotten. We need your help to remind the Sound Transit Board of this at their upcoming meetings on July 7th, 14th, and 28th.
“Placing the station to the east undermines our city’s work to create a densely connected community,” Strauss said. “This is infrastructure that will last 100 years, and we can’t afford to get it wrong.”
Moreover, Seattle’s preferred alternative presentation contains a lot of good advice for Sound Transit, particularly in the all-important tunnel north of Chinatown. Seattle Subway has written previously about the best choices for future riders. Though I don’t agree with 100% of either document, I invite you to compare results.
Elsewhere in old friend Lizz Giordano’s report for Publicola, there’s less exciting news. Lisa Herbold is extensively quoted about “impacts” without much apparent regard for future riders. Maybe Sound Transit should just build the Gray Line and no one would be impacted at all. Most notably in her district, Seattle requests a Delridge station by the steel plant to keep it away from neighborhoods, and thus from potential riders.
I don’t like this framework for thinking about the project, but at least there’s a recommended decision that can move us forward! That’s more that can be said about the City’s Chinatown advice: