The Sound Transit Board approved a $10 million settlement agreement with Mercer Island after residents lost special access to Interstate 90 due to the expansion of light rail. Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a Sound Transit board member, cast the only dissenting vote during the board’s June 22 meeting.
“As a fiduciary of this organization I’m not going to be able to support this today,” Strickland said. “We have to look at things such as equity and fairness.”
“Some of this agreement does include the mitigations we would make, but it’s not a $2 million settlement, it’s not a $4 million settlement, it’s not a $6 million settlement, it’s a $10 million settlement,” she added. “In the world of Sound Transit maybe that’s budget dust, but we are setting a precedent. It’s not about the amount, it’s about setting a precedent, despite the fact that we, Sound Transit, keep winning in court.”
In February the Mercer Island City Council voted to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) after the town lost special access to I-90’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to make room for light rail. Mercer Island drivers would now have to abide by the HOV-2 standards. Mercer Island argued that a 1976 agreement provided them with lasting rights to HOV lanes, while WSDOT said that single-occupant vehicle (SOV) access to HOV lanes was intended to be temporary, and allowing continued SOV use of HOV lanes would violate federal law and jeopardize funding agreements.
The City of Renton is proposing to relocate its transit center as part of ST3. The new center would be located at Rainier Avenue South and Grady Way, just north of the intersection of I-405 and SR 167. It would replace a smaller downtown transit center, adding much more parking and easing access for park-and-ride commuters from the south and east. However, it is likely to eventually reduce service for Renton’s downtown and developing North Renton neighborhoods.
The new center would be more accessible for buses or drivers approaching from SR 167, and could include 1,500-2,000 parking stalls, potentially the largest transit parking facility in King County (Eastgate has 1,614 stalls). It would be funded, in part, by giving up a deferred ST2 project to build HOV ramps from N 8th St. The property is a disused former auto dealership, and is adjacent to an existing 370-stall Metro park-and-ride. Renton officials perceive potential for transit-oriented development, though that would require a far-reaching overhaul of the area’s current development pattern.
Commuters who drive to buses would prefer a transit facility closer to highways and with more available parking. The current center is perceived as having an adverse effect on downtown. Buses and drivers to the transit center parking add to downtown traffic (Metro leases 150 stalls in a city-owned structure). When the downtown transit center was opened in 2000, the hope was that it would draw commuters to downtown businesses, but few stay long in the area. Now Renton is studying a festival street on S 3rd St, and restoring two-way traffic on S 2nd and S 3rd, making them arguably less suited to commuter bus service.
The downtown transit center is served by two ST Express routes (560, 566), Rapid Ride F, and a dozen other Metro routes. How many of those routes would continue to serve that area? Renton believes it can maintain local Metro service through downtown, but would prefer the primary location for transfers be elsewhere. It’s unlikely Metro or Sound Transit would wish to serve downtown so intensively once the transit center is relocated. Indeed, Metro opposed locating a transit center in downtown when it was first built, not wanting to have buses navigating downtown streets. Many commuters who would rely on the new transit center will view downtown Renton as a detour and will prefer their buses get on the highway as promptly as possible.
Routing buses through downtown Renton supports service to growing mixed use neighborhoods in North Renton such as The Landing. Just last week, construction started on Southport, a large new office complex near Boeing and The Landing. The N 8th St HOV access project was supposed to ease their access from The Landing to I-405. With an expanded transit center south of downtown and easy highway access there, it’s likely that future service will skip downtown and the growing northern neighborhoods.
I-405 BRT is not intended to serve downtown Renton. The recently published templates described local access to the BRT only via the N 8th St HOV ramps. Moving the access point further south would require more out-of-direction travel for riders from downtown/north Renton to Bellevue. The connection would, at least, be frequent as long as Rapid Ride F continues to serve North Renton. Sound Transit staff indicated at the January 7th meeting that the idea is being studied in conjunction with I-405 BRT. The move was endorsed by several Eastside cities in a joint letter to Sound Transit last week. Local comments, responding to the comprehensivecoverage by the Renton Reporter, have been mostly positive too, despite concerns for downtown access.
Much current transit access in Renton is oriented around park-and-rides, and the change will be well received by commuters from south and east of I-405. Nevertheless, this looks like a doubling down on Renton’s sprawling current land use. Renton is proposing an enormous investment in parking at the expense of service to the city’s few dense (or, at least, densifying) neighborhoods. Within a ST3 package that looks some decades into the future, one hopes that Renton will thoroughly consider the implications for the city’s development.
Over the weekend Mike Lindblom had an in depth piece discussing East Link’s need for an additional $20m for engineering the I-90 bridge section of East Link, the world’s first floating bridge featuring rail transit. The contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff will be expanded – from $36M to $56M – to solve the final 8 (of 23) technical issues that WSDOT raised in a 2008 letter. The $20M will be paid out of $97M in unspent surplus engineering funds at Sound Transit’s disposal.
While there was some disappointment on the Board at the additional cost, and some admittal of inefficient workflows and delayed problem solving of some East Link’s unique challenges, there is no scandal here. ST is spending 21% of a reserve fund, for a total that amounts to 0.7% of the project budget, to take a conservative approach and ensure due diligence on the safety of the design. It’s an entirely sensible course to take, and indeed the scandal would be if they failed to spend the necessary funds to ensure the safety of the project.
But while Lindblom’s reliably even-handed and fact filled article only once descended into sensationalism – painting a scene of a derailed train joining the fossil forest at the bottom of Lake Washington – SeattleTimes Publisher Frank Blethen responded to the news of the $20M addition by stoking inaccurate fears about the East Link project. In a series of tweets last Saturday, Blethen’s accused Sound Transit of incompetence and implored future East Link riders to ‘carry a life jacket’.
To hear more about the bridge design, I attended a Sound Transit presentation to the Citizens Oversight Panel on Thursday about the interface between the bridge deck and the rails. I came away with the impression that, if anything, Sound Transit is being excessively conservative with their failure thresholds for the bridge design, giving me more confidence than ever in East Link’s safety.
Back in 2009, in order to reduce risk to the bridge deck and extend its useful life, an Independent Review Team asked Sound Transit to minimize any drilling or penetration of the bridge deck when securing the concrete blocks used in lieu of rail ties, and WSDOT later went on to ask them to eliminate drilling entirely if possible. So Sound Transit went back and successfully tested securing lighter weight concrete blocks (125lb per cu. ft. instead of the standard 150lb) with epoxy, and by all accounts those tests went swimmingly well. Prior to reinforcement, the concrete only cracked at 200% of its max design load, yet ST still decided to add circumreferential rebar to strengthen it further (obtaining about 400% above the design load). The threshold for failure is now so high that the rails and the clips that attach them would twist off well before the concrete itself would fail, which wouldn’t occur even if you ran freight trains on East Link in a severe windstorm. This is massive redundancy.
In addition, fears about uncaptured electrical current – causing corrosion in the obviously wet environment of a lake bridge – have likewise been solved. ST has tested and proven a wet system that meets WSDOT requirements on the floating structure, which is 5-10x the normal resistance required in other systems when they are dry.
So while the engineering is impressive and difficult, it’s well within our capabilities. In any case, while it is theoretically possible that some yet unseen engineering hurdle could scuttle the project, the likelihood of Sound Transit attempting to operate an unsafe system is effectively zero. Sound Transit’s Bruce Gray told me afterward that, “It is not a question of if we can do it, it’s a matter of how soon can we get started.” You can leave the lifejacket at home.