Over the lifetime of the ST3 program, Sound Transit now expects a revenue shortfall on the order of $8-12 billion. Without adjusting expenditures, the agency will run out of available debt capacity by 2028. On Wednesday afternoon, a Board workshop learned more about the depth of the financial crisis and began to review options for responding. On average, according to one board member, the financial outlook suggests a five-year delay to projects not already in construction.
Generally, staff are suggesting extended project timelines. (They were careful not to couch this as a recommendation). In this scenario, environmental and preliminary engineering (E/PE) work might begin on the original schedule, but detailed design and construction work would follow over a longer window than currently projected. E/PE work is relatively inexpensive, typically about 10% of project costs. Getting it done on schedule preserves flexibility in case new revenue or grant options present themselves.
A number of board members raised the possibility of asking voters to raise the debt limit. Similar to municipalities, Sound Transit can borrow up to 1.5% of the assessed value of properties within the RTA. That could be raised to 5% of assessed value with the approval of 60% of voters. There was interest too among some board members in raising taxes or changing the mix of taxes supporting the agency. For now it would be unsafe to rely on that. Any such ballot measure is further in the future than Sound Transit should wait before acting.
A series of meetings this week will select criteria for Sound Transit’s program realignment. A Board workshop will be held on Wednesday. On Thursday the Executive Committee expects to recommend evaluation criteria for projects to be altered or delayed. On June 25, the full Board is to approve those criteria before a further series of meetings evaluates what is to be done with each project.
The most current recession scenarios, shared with the Board last Thursday, predict a sales tax loss of 26%-31% this year and 27%-35% in 2021. That’s compounded by lost fare revenue, but also offset partly by $166 million in CARES Act assistance.
Added up, the current revenue loss expectation is for $743-$953 million through the end of next year alone. The model appears to anticipate a long recession with revenues persistently below past projections after the pandemic has passed.
The original genius (or sin, if you prefer) of the legislation that created Sound Transit was that it yoked together the region’s high capacity transit needs. The suburbs and the cities had to work together to get what they wanted, or no one would get anything, like a municipal prisoner’s dilemma.
The West Seattle – Ballard link extension (“WSBLE” in Sound Transit’s lingo) is pushing that 25-year-old decision to its limits. Pierce and Snohomish County reps want WSBLE to be fast and cheap, lest it jeopardize the extensions to Tacoma and Everett (to some of them, WSBLE it isn’t part of the “spine,” so the whole thing is a kind of agency scope creep anyway). Seattle reps, meanwhile, are hearing an earful from their voters and maritime interests about elevated alignments at the termini. These reps also know that without the votes from Seattle’s west side neighborhoods, there might not have been enough support to get ST3 over the finish line to begin with, and certainly not enough money to support Snohomish’s speculative and expensive detour to Paine Field.
The draft ST3 plan in March 2016 extended rail beyond Lynnwood in two steps. The first, in 2036, would bring service to North Lynnwood, serving stations at West Alderwood Mall, Ash Way, and Mariner. The second, in 2041, extended around the SW Everett Industrial Center (Paine Field) and north to Everett Station.
When the plan was finalized two months later, the extensions were combined so the Paine Field and Everett stations would open five years earlier. It was a telling decision that all the extra financial resources of the final plan were put into the northern segment. This looks like an error. While all parts of Everett Link have their value, the immediate rider needs are mostly between Lynnwood and Mariner.
The Sound Transit board will likely vote on Thursday not to include a controversial Federal Way Kent site on its short list for a South Sound maintenance base. The system expansion committee voted unanimously on May 9 to remove the site, which hosts several auto-oriented retail businesses including a newly-opened Dick’s Drive-In. It was controversial not only because of the popular fast food chain, but because it would have limited transit-oriented development (TOD) opportunities within the walk shed of a future Link station at Highline Community College.
We wrote about the site and the challenges of another controversial site, the nearby Midway landfill, back in January. Since then, ST has been narrowing sites for consideration. The Kent Reporter, which has had excellent coverage of the maintenance base issue, notes that we’re down to three sites:
Midway Landfill, west of Interstate 5, which has been closed since the 1980s and is owned by Seattle Public Utilities. Estimated cost: $1.3 billion
South 336th Street near I-5, which is the location of the Christian Faith Center church in Federal Way. Estimated cost: $750 million
South 344th Street near I-5, which is an industrial area in Federal Way, includes several businesses: Garage Town, which offers private custom storage facility; an RV storage facility; and Ellenos Yogurt Factory. Estimated cost: $800 million
At the time of the 2016 ballot, ST has assumed that the OMF would be located “in the Federal Way to Tacoma corridor.” Last spring, however, the agency came to realize that the facility would be needed in service by 2026 in order to be ready for the West Seattle link extension, per Scott Thompson, a ST spokesperson. That means placing it further north, either within the Federal Way extension (opening 2024) or very close by, in such a way as to “avoid pre-determining the location of the South Federal Way station.”
The decision to remove the Dick’s site was a good one. While it’s hard to imagine a more anti-TOD business than a drive in restaurant, politics makes strange bedfellows. If the presence of Dick’s today makes it easier to protect a future TOD development site down the road, so be it.
Of the sites remaining, Midway is estimated to cost half a billion more than the other two sites (for context, a West Seattle tunnel is pegged at $700m). While it may seem convenient to raid ST’s bank account to pay for toxic clean up (as Federal Way’s mayor has suggested), surely that money could be used more wisely for actual transit. I’m no expert on brownfield redevelopment, but reading the EPA’s Superfund page about the landfill makes me want to think twice about locating an employment center there.
Fortunately, there seems like an obvious solution. The site at 344th & I-5 scores the best on Sound Transit’s scorecard (see p. 53 of this technical analysis). A collection of low slung auto-oriented buildings across the street from a Walmart, it’s far enough from a station not to interfere with future TOD opportunities. And the price is right, too.
Letters from businesses, government agencies, and community groups show a citywide desire for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions to be almost entirely tunnels.
Troublingly for Sound Transit, businesses on the Duwamish Waterway made conflicting demands about where to build the bridge that will cross the river mouth, which means a costly legal fight to acquire right of way is likely.
That cost could come from several scenarios that would drive expensive litigation and mitigation. The first is a contentious Duwamish crossing, with legal and condemnation battles fought against the Port, maritime businesses, and industrial concerns. The second is a similar fight over land and right of way with neighborhood groups and residents, if their tunneling preferences are ignored.
On the third hand, if the agency does follow public opinion and put trains underground, engineering costs could spike dramatically. In that scenario, Sound Transit would need to either find new sources of revenue (such as the City of Seattle or the Port), find significant cost savings (as occurred with U-Link), or some combination of both.
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.
Mayor Jenny Durkan retained Anne Fennessy, of public affairs firm Cocker Fennessy, to represent the City of Seattle in planning for the final alignment of ST3’s West Seattle and Ballard Link segments. Durkan’s office also told STB that the search for a new, permanent SDOT director is “underway,” started “earlier this fall,” and that the hire should be announced soon.
Durkan spokesperson Chelsea Kellogg says that the search is similarly to the recruitment of new City Light CEO Debra Smith, who was hired in April:
A week ago, the Everett Herald carried an Op-Ed by three Sound Transit Board members from Snohomish County. The authors, Paul Roberts, Dave Earling and Dave Somers, criticize Sound Transit for not completing the light rail spine as quickly as possible. They go on to argue the strict subarea equity policy, where Sound Transit investments go to the subareas that pay for them, should be changed. The end goal, of course, is earlier delivery of rail to Everett at the expense of projects in other areas.
The three board members argue that the transportation needs of the region are not contained within subarea boundaries. They may have particularly in mind the enormous daily flow of Snohomish County residents to jobs in King County. This burden is amplified by expensive housing in Seattle and the Eastside that pushes more households to commute from relatively affordable places in Snohomish and Pierce Counties. Lower income communities also generate less revenues, meaning the areas with the greatest socio-economic needs have the least ability to fund local transit improvements.
The crux of the issue for Snohomish County is that their subarea is small, contributing just 13% of Sound Transit revenues. Their major ST3 investment, a 16.3 mile rail extension from Lynnwood to Everett, is disproportionately expensive at just over $3 billion in 2014 constant dollars. (In actual year-of-expenditure dollars, Snohomish will spend $6.2 billion on light rail capital, including a ridership-based contribution to the downtown tunnel).
In the design of the ST3 plan, Snohomish’ demands stretched available resources and the political consensus. Any plan had to finish the spine, and also serve Paine Field, whatever the needed subsidies from taxpayers in other subareas. Lengthening ST3 from 15 to 25 years made it possible to meet those demands more or less within Snohomish’ tax capacity. The stretching of Sound Transit debt capacity accelerated timelines so Everett service was moved up from 2041 to 2036.
Currently, car owners pay several different fees depending on where they live when renewing vehicle tabs. The Department of Licensing provides a calculator to estimate vehicle tab fees.
Everyone in the state pays a standard fee of $38.75 plus a weight fee which helps fund highway maintenance and construction projects, the Washington State Patrol and the Washington State Ferries.
Local jurisdictions have the option of charging car owners an additional fee by forming a transportation benefit district. These districts are allowed to collect up to $20 a year without voter approval, or up to $100 if approved by voters. Approximately 50 cities have established transportation benefit districts around the state. Seattle collects an $80 fee to expand bus services and distribute bus passes to middle and high school students through the Youth ORCA program.
Car owners living in the Sound Transit taxing district pay an additional fee. With the approval of the ST3 package, the MVET rate increased from 0.3% to 1.1% of the assessed value of the car.
If I-947 passes it would roll back the standard fee to $30 and eliminate all MVET. It would end weight fees imposed by the state government, transportation benefit districts fees and all car tab taxes helping to fund Sound Transit, according to the initiative’s website. Under the initiative, car owners would pay a $30 annual fee. Weight fees and TBDs could be restored by voter approval.
The initiative would also eliminate a 0.3% tax on retail car sales that funds the state’s multimodal account. This account provides grants for regional mobility, rural mobility, special needs, and vanpools.
Although I-947 eliminates the only MVET in the state, it also requires any future MVET to use the Kelley Blue Book value to compute the tax. As Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon explained on STB, this technique cannot be bonded against and effectively rules it out as a funding tool for major capital projects.
The ST3 program is widely viewed as disappointing for Kirkland. The city wasn’t quite passed over: I-405 BRT will serve Totem Lake and NE 85th St in 2024, and rail will extend to South Kirkland in 2041. But most observers focus on the missed opportunity to connect Downtown Kirkland via the Eastside Rail Corridor. Why did this happen, and what are the implications?
It’s instructive to start at the beginning. In mid-2015, ST3 was anticipated as a 15-year package including rail to Redmond and BRT on I-405. Other Eastside rail investments would follow in ST4. Recognizing the risks of waiting, Kirkland developed a Bus Rapid Transit proposal with Sound Transit and Metro buses running in largely exclusive right-of-way along the ERC. The reduced capital costs, it was hoped, could fit within a 15-year program.
As a 25-year program came into view, the calculus shifted to potentially include a rail line between Kirkland and Issaquah. But Kirkland’s study highlighted several advantages of a busway. It could serve more destinations including Seattle (with four times the demand of a Bellevue-Kirkland service). It connected more activity centers within Kirkland, and eased the challenge of serving Downtown Kirkland. A busway might better balance trail uses, though not enough to appease South Kirkland neighbors who were determined not to have any transit passing their homes.
Kirkland was convinced of the advantages of BRT on the Corridor, but other stakeholders were less supportive. Sound Transit, improbably, estimated only about as many riders on the BRT in 2040 as the corresponding Metro routes today, emphasizing time penalties of deviating off the corridor to serve denser areas. The tortured history of BRT “alternatives” to rail on the Eastside ensured transit lobby groups would be skeptical. Issaquah worried about the implications of Kirkland BRT for its own rail plans. Even Bellevue placed a greater emphasis on I-405 BRT as a major north-south connection.
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.
The debate leading up to the adoption of the ST3 draft system plan on March 24 was politically fraught on the Eastside. After Sound Transit and the City of Kirkland failed to reach agreement on use of the Eastside Rail Corridor, the Board elected to build neither rail nor BRT on the corridor in Kirkland. Since then, however, Kirkland has worked with Board Members on a rail extension from Bellevue to South Kirkland. The ST3 program also includes a study of future high-capacity transit through Kirkland, leading to a record of decision.
Rail to South Kirkland has changed the calculus around future transit in Kirkland. The environmental study is, strictly speaking, flexible with respect to both mode and alignment. But the starting point of a rail station at South Kirkland makes it almost inevitable that ST4 will include a rail extension into Kirkland and onward to Totem Lake.
With light rail to Kirkland more inevitable than ever, why stop short in ST3? A mere two-mile extension would bring rail to 6th St, serving the fast-growing Google campus which is expected to grow to several thousand employees. It would be within walking distance of other fast-growing employers in downtown Kirkland.
Sound Transit must add a provisional project on the Eastside to extend the rail line into Kirkland.
Some have pointed out, accurately, that the ST3 package includes significant investments in Kirkland. Nevertheless, transit users are understandably unenthusiastic. South Kirkland falls short of the major centers in Kirkland where most riders access transit.
Won’t Save-our-Trail challenge a rail extension? Save-our-Trail is opposed to the South Kirkland station and any environmental study of transit on the corridor. So their opposition is inevitable either way. Meanwhile, the narrowness of their support has become obvious. Public comment on the draft plan from Kirkland was overwhelmingly pro-rail, and Save-our-Trail were unable to solicit more than a dozen opposing comments despite an intensivecampaign.
Neighbors and users of the trail are not well-served by political uncertainty or delays in extending transit. The earliest possible design work on compatible transit will deliver certainty, allowing the trail to be developed without the risk of later relocation or disruption.
Kirkland has a successful urban core that is the envy of many growth centers that will see transit investments in ST3. Had the political process played out more agreeably, Kirkland would have been connected to the high-capacity transit network in ST3.
Please let the Sound Transit Board and your Council members know they must finish the rail line to Kirkland.
Sound Transit and Kirkland are considering a possible light rail station at the South Kirkland Park-and-Ride. After the draft system plan was released on March 24 without the hoped-for service to Kirkland on the Eastside Rail Corridor, the Eastside Board members wrote the city suggesting study of a short rail extension to South Kirkland. Staff analysis on both sides is underway.
Preliminary analysis envisions extending the planned Issaquah line from Wilburton to South Kirkland along the ERC. The travel time to Bellevue would be 7 minutes. The extension would cost $307 million, serving 2,500 daily riders, perhaps truncating some Metro routes. A 500-stall parking structure would add another $28 million to the capital cost.
The symbolic relevance of the proposed station is obvious. For Sound Transit, it suggests the Issaquah-Totem Lake rail line will be completed in ST4 (the draft plan also includes an environmental study of transit on the corridor). For Kirkland too, it’s an affirmation the city will finally see high-capacity transit in ST4, though rail rather than the BRT which the City expects would be more productive. For homeowners who opposed transit “on the trail” in ST3, it means transit plans were not defeated, only deferred.
Pending a future transit package, how would the spur line fit in the network? After all, this could be the terminus of the rail line for a long time. There are some obvious questions:
Is South Kirkland a viable destination? The planned station mostly targets riders arriving via Metro routes from the north, along with drivers to the expanded parking facility. Current local land use is primarily office with extensive surface parking and little near-term redevelopment in the pipeline. On the other hand, proximity to Bellevue will surely help redevelopment before rail service begins (anticipated at the very end of the ST3 program in 2041). Zoned heights on the Kirkland side of the station max out at 65′. But, with few residential neighbors and an adjacent highway, the path to more aggressive zoning may not be difficult.
Added parking comes with well-understood trade-offs, but replacing some of the existing surface lot with a 500-stall garage would hardly be decisive. Both Kirkland and Bellevue (the P&R is mostly within Bellevue city limits) should be having a land use conversation, even if Sound Transit’s immediate analysis must rely on current PSRC projections.
What does the transit network map around a South Kirkland rail station look like? Most riders to Seattle would prefer a cross-lake bus to UW station in any scenario. Kirkland-Bellevue riders will be served by Rapid Ride (by 2025 per the Metro LRP). Would that be improved upon by having riders exit the bus to a train, with the associated transfer penalty? Continue reading “Extending Rail to South Kirkland”
On Tuesday evening, the Kirkland City Council approved a letter to the Sound Transit Board offering a compromise to resolve the impasse over transit on the Cross-Kirkland Corridor (CKC). The letter (significantly revised from the draft Zach reported on Saturday) seeks an investment in trail access from Kirkland to the Wilburton Link Station and Kingsgate BRT station. These trails would be designed to accommodate transit, carefully signaling the integration of transit and other uses on the corridor. At the same time, ST3 would fund planning and development for high-capacity transit on the corridor, leading to a record of decision for transit in the next regional package.
The “Kirkland Compromise” includes:
A Regional Trail connection from Sound Transit’s Totem Lake terminus to Sound Transit’s Wilburton Station in Bellevue along the CKC and ERC. This would be a fully developed permanent trail built to the specifications of the Cross-Kirkland Corridor Master Plan in Kirkland and King County’s ERC Regional Trail Master Plan in Bellevue.
Trail planning aligned with transit planning to clearly define a future transit envelope in the CKC and ERC in Bellevue. Planning the trail and transit together ensure the trail would not be disrupted in the future.
Design money allocated for transit design on the CKC/ERC to achieve a record of decision.
BRT on I-405 to include an inline station at NE 85th along with transit service directly connecting downtown Kirkland to Redmond along NE 85th in exclusive lanes.
This summary of ST3 feedback from East King County (including North King other than Seattle) is the fifth in a series of ST3 feedback summaries. See our previous coverage of Pierce County, Seattle, South King County, and Snohomish County. A future installment will look at other Stakeholder Organizations.
The Eastside’s ST3 input is well coordinated. As happened last July, several Eastside cities signed a joint letter describing shared goals. Cities along the SR 522 corridor also submitted their own joint letter endorsing BRT on SR 522 and NE 145th St. Read together with the cities own letters, there’s an impressive consensus about what an Eastside ST3 package needs to look like.
Joint Letter of the Eastside Cities
The Eastside cities introduce their priorities by noting how they are “reshaping our regional growth centers and downtowns into dense, mixed-use, urban centers that need frequent and reliable transit service to sustain economic growth and viability. ST3 has the potential to create transit connections within the Eastside, and provide connections between the Eastside and the rest of the region”. The letter goes on to remind the Board that “the Eastside will be making a significant tax investment into the package” and looks forward to seeing commensurate investments back into the Eastside.
The Eastside’s five priorities in ST3 are:
E-01: Completing the East Link spine to Downtown Redmond. This is so uncontroversial that no explanation was apparently necessary.
E-02: Fully implement Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on I-405, from Lynnwood to SeaTac. A version of I-405 BRT between the low and intensive capital versions is recommended. The scope needs to “provide sufficient access for the line to operate as an efficient BRT facility”. That means an inline station at NE 85th Street in Kirkland, direct access to Tukwila Sounder Station, at least one additional location south of I-90, and a dedicated transitway with inline flyer stops. The latter implies a significant investment in South Snohomish County where the BRT would otherwise run in mixed traffic north of SR 522.
E-03: Light rail from Totem Lake to Issaquah via Bellevue. In an acknowledgment that BRT may have advantages in Kirkland, the joint letter caveats that “this project must provide flexibility and be scalable to meet ridership demand and the needs of the communities served”.
E-04: A new transit center in Renton at Rainier Ave S and S Grady Way. This project would replace the downtown transit center.
N-09 and N-10: BRT on 145th Street and SR 522 to connect with North Link.
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.
Not so long ago, prospects for an ST3 investment in rail from Totem Lake to Issaquah seemed remote. There were too many competing priorities within a 15-year ST3 program, making a deferral to ST4 likely, and motivating examination of BRT between Bellevue and Kirkland. In an extended program, it’s suddenly feasible, but the proposed alignment has weak connections to the most important destinations.
The project is a 17.5 mile rail line from Totem Lake to Central Issaquah connecting nine stations. From the north, the line generally follows the Eastside Rail Corridor, briefly interlining with East Link near Wilburton station. This is also a transfer point to East Link trains serving downtown Bellevue or Seattle. Near the historic Wilburton trestle, the line transitions to the east side of I-405 and then to I-90 in Factoria. Beyond Factoria, the line generally follows the I-90 median to a terminus in Central Issaquah.
There are eight new stations, four each on Segment A (Totem Lake – Wilburton) and Segment B (Wilburton – Issaquah).
Segment A serves four stops in the Kirkland area. An added stop at NE 112th St means this is one more than the previous studies, improving access within the southern part of the Totem Lake neighborhood. Other Kirkland stops are at NE 128th St (adjacent to the freeway BRT station), at NE 6th St (southeast of downtown), and at the South Kirkland P&R.
Segment B also serves four stations (after Wilburton); in Factoria, at Eastgate, at Lakemont Blvd, and in Central Issaquah. The Factoria and Lakemont stops are new to this study. The Factoria station, near Richards Rd on the north side of I-90, will improve access along the Eastgate/I-90 corridor which seems too sprawling to be well served via Eastgate alone. While the location isn’t ideal for Factoria riders, it’s perhaps as close to Factoria as the line can get while avoiding the environmental and engineering challenges of Mercer Slough and the I-405 interchange. The added stop at Lakemont would be a park-and-ride facility.
Kirkland may not be impressed by a Kirkland-Bellevue rail segment lacking walkable access to the downtown of either city. Issaquah, on the other hand, intends to concentrate future growth within the Central Issaquah area adjacent to the planned station. Travel from Issaquah to Seattle via Wilburton may appear circuitous, but no more so than express buses terminating into Bellevue Transit Center.
There has long been a regional consensus that I-405 Bus Rapid Transit would be a part of the ST3 program. But that general agreement has hidden a fuzziness about the form it would take. The December 4 workshop saw a range of options presented. The studies make a compelling case for a low-cost version of I-405 BRT, but complicate the case for doing much more. The eye-popping conclusion is that a range of investment levels between $340 million and $2.3 billion all produce the same ridership.
Staff presented “low capital” and “intensive capital” representative models. In between are a long list of a la carte options. There are two alternatives for a southern terminus; one at Angle Lake, the other at Burien TC. The “low capital” model leans heavily on existing infrastructure, and is less ambitious than any of the options examined in the previous set of studies in 2014.
Low Capital BRT
Staff analysis helpfully breaks out cost and performance by segment. Segment A, Lynnwood TC to Bellevue TC, is the most productive with up to 10,000 riders, about 60% of all the ridership on the BRT. 10 of the 19 miles are served via general purpose lanes on I-5 and I-405 (other than limited shoulder-running southbound on I-405). Only the portion between Brickyard and Bellevue can be served via HOT lanes. Segment B, Bellevue to Renton, runs entirely in HOT lanes, but achieves fewer than 1,500 riders. That would include a deferred project to build HOV direct access ramps at N 8th St in Renton.
Beyond Renton, there is little new investment. Segment C, Renton to Tukwila International Boulevard Link Station, would run in HOT lanes on I-405 and general purpose lanes on SR 518, achieving a respectable 3,500 riders with little cost other than vehicles. From TIBS, the service could continue to Angle Lake via BAT lanes on SR 99 (Segment D1), or to Burien Transit Center via general purpose lanes on SR 518 (Segment D2).
The total capital cost under $350 million is modest for the ridership, mostly because the highway infrastructure is largely existing or funded through WSDOT. 28% of the cost is for parking.
Intensive Capital BRT
The ‘intensive capital’ option adds several stations and upgrades others. It eliminates much of the interaction with general purpose lanes via added ramps in the north and BAT lanes in the south.
The corridor BRT is well-integrated with regional services. It would connect to I-405 BRT at Kingsgate/NE 128th, to East Link LRT at Wilburton Station, and to regional bus services at the Bellevue Transit Center. An alternative configuration at Wilburton might have an elevated station.
The study acknowledges the need to accommodate the existing trail on the Cross-Kirkland Corridor, and a future trail on the Eastside Rail Corridor in Bellevue. It specifies that the rail would be on the east of the corridor with trail uses to the west.