I recently received a flyer from Puget Sound Energy describing how they’re “Preparing for Decades of Growth on the Eastside” from “70% increases in employment and more than a third increase in population” between 2012 and 2040. I mention this to contrast their ability to meet existing needs and to plan for the future with the total inability of those responsible for the areas transportation. Their policies have not only resulted in some of the worst congestion in the country, their current plans for the future do little to meet future growth.
For example, fifteen years ago Sound Transit and the WSDOT could have added a 4th lane to the I-90 Bridge outer roadways that would have immediately reduced congestion for commuters in both directions. Moving non-transit HOV traffic to the added lane would have allowed two-way lanes on the center roadway capable of accommodating nearly 1000 buses an hour in each direction. Bus rapid transit (BRT) service could have provided direct connections between every eastside P&R and one or two dedicated drop off and pick-up locations on 4th and 2nd Ave. Allowing eastside residents to leave their cars near where they live would have reduced congestion throughout the area.
Instead, the ST/WSDOT has delayed the 4th lane until 2016 when they plan to shut down the center roadway to install light rail as part of the $2.8 billion East Link program. When completed (2023?) their EIS claims East Link can carry up to “24,000 riders per hour” and “Meet growing transit and mobility demands by more than doubling person-moving capacity across Lake Washington on I-90.” Truly bizarre claims for a transit system with a single, four-74-seat-car train every seven minutes. (Although their selection of light rail over BRT for the center roadway gives a whole new meaning to “bizarre”.) After spending hundreds of millions and years promoting light rail on the eastside they have yet to confirm the I-90 Bridge can support any light rail system, let alone the four, 74-ton-car trains they are promising. (WSDOT/ST tests currently underway in Colorado may resolve this issue nearly 5 years after legislature and FHWA requested them.)
Whatever capacity light rail has will be of little use to I-90 commuters whose only access will be a South Bellevue P&R with limited capacity and difficult access. ST/WSDOT studies show those forced to drive, car pool, or bus, will face increased commute times on the outer roadways. Thus the $2.8 billion ST East Link program will increase cross-lake congestion and do nothing to relieve any of the entire area’s current congestion problems let alone deal with future growth. It also makes it impossible to initiate BRT, the only way to meet anticipated growth both cross-lake traffic and reduce congestion throughout the area.
While ST Central Link extensions won’t increase congestion, in most cases rail transit times will be longer than what are currently available or could easily be available with far less expensive buses. Also, the $20 billion they’ll spend over the next ten years will create a light rail system requiring huge subsidies to operate over the longer routes. The combination of the construction debt and subsides will result in a perpetual “black hole” for the areas transportation funds. Both Sound Transit and the WSDOT seem incapable of dealing with the area’s transportation needs.
The Sound Transit Board of Directors who is supposed to “oversee” its policies has obviously failed. The oversight responsibility for the WSDOT resides in the legislature, primarily with the Joint Transportation Committee (JTC). Members of that committee are currently conducting a 10-stop “listening tour” with forums throughout state. However, the only proposals they’re considering, a 10.5-cent-a -gallon gas tax and a car-tab tax increase, will do little to ease the areas congestion and funding problems.
The JTC needs to recognize the only way to meet the eastside congestion problems is to use their WSDOT oversight to “persuade” Sound Transit to stop East Link and use part of those funds to add the 4th lane to the outer roadways and initiate BRT operation on the center roadway. The remaining funds could be used for the 520 bridge and 405 and I-90 improvements that would ease congestion. They also need to recognize allowing Central Link extensions beyond SeaTac and the University will raise havoc with the entire areas transportation funding future. Those funds could be far better spent on the tunnel replacement for the viaduct and maintaining and improving metro bus service.
Fortunately, most of the serious East Link and Central Link funds have yet to be spent. However, very soon the $300-400 million spent each year will turn into $2-3 billion. Sound Transit and the WSDOT seem to have a “stranglehold” on the media and many of the legislators that keeps them from advocating real solutions. Time will tell whether they will be able to maintain their “grip” to the point where the policies needed to meet the area’s transportation needs are no longer feasible.