While West Seattle and Ballard (and Eastside BRT!) have been getting all the media attention, Sound Transit continues to refine Tacoma Dome Link extension, a 4 station, ~10 mile connection that will complete the southern end of the light rail spine by 2030.
The Tacoma Dome Link extension is not to be confused with the extension of Tacoma Links, the streetcar operated by Sound Transit through Downtown Tacoma. ST even includes a little diagram in case you get confused:
Sound Transit has provided a wide array of options, which as always carry a similar set of tradeoffs: car access vs. bus transfers, TOD opportunities vs. business impacts, ridership vs. capital costs. Sometimes the geography presents a win-win, other times hard decisions must be made.
Although we are early in the ST3 program, some observers are already looking forward to extending Link light rail lines into the suburbs and adding more lines in Seattle. The ST3 plan funds severalstudies of suburban extensions. Current taxes do not support further expansions at the pace of ST3, however. Unless Sound Transit secures another large tax increase, capital spending beyond ST3 will be mostly squeezed out by the costs of managing what has already been built and financing the bonds accumulated in ST3.
The budget for future projects is constrained by Sound Transit’s tax authority. Sound Transit levies nearly all the taxes currently permitted by the Legislature; the only unused authority is a small rental car tax. Any prospect of further authority is hard to forecast. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine today’s Legislature granting more tax authority. Many legislators were unhappy about how the ST3 program far outran the smaller 15-year program they anticipated in 2015, and high car tabs remain unpopular. On the other hand, fifteen years is a long time in politics, and a new generation of legislators in the 2030s may take a sunnier view.
But let’s suppose we are limited by current law, or equivalently that voters resist new taxes. In that scenario, Sound Transit might ask voters in the waning years of the ST3 program to authorize more projects with an extension of current taxes. How much could Sound Transit build with voter approval if they just roll the current law taxes forward indefinitely? Less than you might expect. It turns out that a capital program extended to 2060 would have a run rate perhaps only a third as large as the 2016-2041 program.
In a letter addressed to elected officials, Port of Seattle Executive Director Stephen Metruck and Northwest Seaport Alliance CEO John Wolfe announced that the Port opposes both a movable Ship Canal bridge, and an Occidental Avenue alignment for the West Seattle extension.
Ship Canal and Duwamish crossings
“Moveable bridges across the ship canal should be eliminated as alternatives as they will not work for transit and could impede maritime mobility,” the cosigned letter says. The letter aligns the port with transit advocates who oppose a movable Ballard bridge, citing reliability and travel time concerns.
The Port cautiously endorsed building “a 15th Avenue-aligned Tunnel under Fishermen’s Terminal,” as long as ST does not build a ventilator shaft in a shipyard named Fishing Vessel Owners (FVO.) According to the Port, FVO has operated from its current site for 99 years.
The Port also opposes aerial crossings through Fisherman’s Terminal “because of impacts to terminal operations and repercussions of the fishing industry. [sic]” The leaders also argued against aligning the extension on 20th Avenue West.
The leaders also asked Sound Transit to “evaluate” a Duwamish crossing to the south of the West Seattle Bridge, at the “far southern tip of Harbor Island,” in the hope that the agency can find “ways to further reduce impacts to existing businesses.” The Port categorically opposes building the line to the north of the West Seattle Bridge.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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”
On Thursday, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s (PSRC) Transportation Policy Board (TPB) recommended that five transit projects receive additional Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) funding in 2021-22.
The projects were part of a larger disbursement of federal transportation funds, including highway funding, which must be approved in a meeting of the PSRC’s Executive Board on July 26. Area agencies submitted proposals for a competitive bid process earlier this year.
PSRC staff selected the five projects from that group of proposals, and created an additional list of projects, including Rainier RapidRide and Colman Dock, that could receive funding should additional federal funds become available.
Three of the five projects did not get as much funding as they initially requested. Four of the five projects are for BRT, and East Link also got a boost. According to PSRC spokesperson Rick Olson, that’s because the funding competition was remarkably popular. Bidding agencies worked together to make sure that funding dollars could be used to the furthest possible extent.
“The projects that got less funding than requested this round voluntarily took cuts in order to get more projects funded,” Olson says. “We had far more funding requested than was available.”
The completion of the Sound Transit 2 plan will more than double Sound Transit’s ridership from about 150 thousand today to 350 thousand, and ST3 will nearly double that again to between 561 and 695 thousand daily riders.
The ST3 plan would result in 657 to 797 thousand daily transit riders in the region in 2040. Bench-marked against a ‘no-build’ alternative, however, only 9% of those would be new to transit. Opponents of the measure repeat this factoid to argue ST3 will be ineffective in increasing transit mode share in the region, that it’s a poor value for money, and that it will not relieve congestion. Torture the data point enough, and it seems to yield a ludicrously high cost per added transit rider. But it’s a misleading number in several ways.
‘Cost per new rider’ is recognized as a terrible measure of value. The FTA discarded the measure in 2003 for a more comprehensive measure of system user benefits that includes travel time saved by all users. ‘Cost per new rider’ devalues the experience of existing riders and the time-saving and other benefits that accrue to them. Hundreds of thousands of riders will have a faster, more comfortable and more reliable journey.
Would anybody assess the value of a new highway only by counting new drivers? No. Any analysis of highway benefits would include time and money savings for all users, and so it is with transit. A focus on new riders also penalizes investments in core transit corridors (exactly where high-capacity transit needs to be). Providing alternatives to driving are important, but getting some people out of cars is not the only benefit of ST3.
Less obviously, the ‘no-build’ alternative is not the status quo. It is a highly optimistic 2040 scenario that incorporates all the long range plans of other transportation agencies and regional planners. The PSRC, WSDOT, Metro, and other transit provider plans are all completed whether currently funded or not. In this alternative world, bus service is far more ubiquitous and faster than today, and traffic is better managed to keep those buses moving reliably.
Why construct the ‘no-build’ this way? It maintains consistency between Sound Transit planning assumptions and the plans of all other agencies. But the assumptions underlying the ‘no-build’ scenario set a high benchmark that make rail benefits look smaller:
In the ‘no-build’ alternative, drivers face per-mile fees across the region to manage traffic levels. With better-managed traffic levels, buses move faster.
Travel times in HOV lanes are well-managed by raising HOV requirements as high as necessary for reliable transit speeds, or converting HOV lanes to bus only lanes. The political will to make these changes is uncertain, and not currently in evidence.
The ‘no-build’ alternative also assumes the complete build-out of WSDOT plans, many of which are currently unfunded.
Other transit agencies are assumed to complete their long range plans. Concurrent with the PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan, the ‘no-build’ includes a doubling of local transit service. Those are only partly funded. The funding gap grows if ST3 is not completed and local agencies have to pick up the workload of the ST3 rail network.
In short, the no-build alternative isn’t free. It assumes large unfunded investments by other agencies, and those costs will grow if Sound Transit cannot build out the rail network after 2023.
Play out, if you will, an alternative where ST3 does not pass. Suppose other transit agencies are incompletely funded, or the political will for tolling and per-mile driver fees falters. In this very plausible scenario, failure to pass ST3 will reduce transit ridership by much more than 9%. In a world where buses are not faster or more reliable than today, the advantages of grade-separated rail are greater, and ridership gains are correspondingly larger.
A couple of days ago there was a great deal of discussion about the merits and costs of a Sand Point crossing. There are two things that a study would find out that everybody would like to know; the monetary cost of the crossing and the potential ridership over the connection. Unfortunately I can’t give any insight into those things. What I can to do is provide some tangible benefits based on travel time using Seattle Subway’s previous posts about the Crossing, Ballard Spur and Better Eastside rail.
Sound Transit is reporting that their nighttime rail grinding project in Tukwila has been extended through tonight (01JUL).
From 10PM to 1AM Link will operate every 20-25 minutes instead of the normal 10-15 minutes. Additional signage will be posted directing passengers at affected stations if any station platforms are closed due to this work.
Starting on Monday, June 28 and lasting until Wednesday, June 30, from 10 p.m. – 1 a.m. each night, Central Link light rail will operate every 20-25 minutes instead of every 10-15 minutes due to track maintenance.
The work will also temporarily close one platform at Columbia City Station Monday night from 10 p.m. – 1 a.m. Riders boarding at Columbia City may be directed to the opposite platform.
See my previous post on the topic. Full press release (including stops for the free bus shuttle) below:
Central Link light rail will not operate between Westlake and SODO stations all day Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13, due to Safety System testing in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel as well as modifications to the OCS wires at Stadium Station.
Sound Transit will run a free bus shuttle between SODO Station and Westlake all weekend. The free shuttle will be marked King County Metro Route 97 and will stop at the following locations:
Central Link light rail will not operate between Westlake and SODO stations all day Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13, due to engineering work in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.
According to Bruce Gray at Sound Transit, Metro/Sound Transit are updating the fire/life/safety system software and running it through comprehensive testing as requested by Seattle Fire Department. SoundTransit is also raising the OCS wires by about a foot from Stadium to Royal Brougham. They were lowered during the WSDOT work on their new ramp.
Sound Transit will run a free bus shuttle between SODO Station and Westlake all weekend.
The shuttle will run every 5-7 minutes during normal Link hours.
Additionally, all King County Metro and ST Express buses that normally operate in the tunnel will also be rerouted to surface streets.
Link light rail will operate every 10 minutes between SeaTac/Airport and SODO stations on Saturday, June 12 from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. and every 10 minutes on Sunday, June 13, from 6 a.m. to midnight.