About this blog

My name is Bill Hirt and I'm a candidate to be a Representative from the 48th district in the Washington State legislature. My candidacy stems from concern the legislature is not properly overseeing the WSDOT and Sound Transit East Link light rail program. I believe East Link will be a disaster for the entire eastside. ST will spend 5-6 billion on a transportation project that will increase, not decrease cross-lake congestion, violates federal environmental laws, devastates a beautiful part of residential Bellevue, creates havoc in Bellevue's central business district, and does absolutely nothing to alleviate congestion on 1-90 and 405. The only winners with East Link are the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington and their labor unions.

This blog is an attempt to get more public awareness of these concerns. Many of the articles are from 3 years of failed efforts to persuade the Bellevue City Council, King County Council, east side legislators, media, and other organizations to stop this debacle. I have no illusions about being elected. My hope is voters from throughout the east side will read of my candidacy and visit this Web site. If they don't find them persuasive I know at least I tried.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

ST Board Needs New Leadership

Boards of Directors in the private sector normally consist of members the company has selected because of a demonstrated ability to assist in making the critical decisions regarding the company’s future activities.   Those owning stock in the company have the opportunity to vote to reaffirm their selection or to vote to replace them with their own choices if not satisfied.  

With Sound Transit, the King County Council Executive appoints other “like-minded”, normally elected officials, to serve as the organizations “directors”.  While all of the appointees are presumably well respected, there is no requirement they have the qualifications needed to properly guide transportation decisions.   The public has no say as to who serves on the board and very little say on what the board does.  

Sound Transit’s inability to deal with the area’s mass transit problem likely reflects the board's lack of transportation "experience".   For starters, their decision to emulate Portland light rail suggests the board may not have recognized the limitations the tunnel imposes on light rail operation in Seattle.   It not only limits Seattle light rail to one track in each direction, the length of the tunnel stations limit each train to 4 cars.   Since trains require 4 minute  headways and each 74-seat car can only carry 148 riders, the maximum capacity for light rail in Seattle was 8880 riders per hour in each direction.

Whatever the tunnel limitations, a competent board would have recognized the best way to use this capacity was to expedite the University extension. The 70,000 daily riders projected for the extension made up 2/3 of the total 100-110,000 riders Central Link originally predicted for 2010.  The predicted ridership undoubtedly assumed large numbers of 520 transit commuters from both sides of the lake accessing light rail at the University.  Instead they allowed Sound Transit to delay the extension and approved Sound Transit’s decision not to provide light rail access for 520 commuters; making a mockery of the 70,000-rider prediction.

A competent board would have recognized the adverse affects of Sound Transits high light rail car operating costs on the Prop 1 extensions to Lynnwood and Federal Way.  The conventional justification for light rail is the high costs of construction and other start-up costs are offset by greater capacity and lower operating costs.  Light rail train capacity far exceeds what's needed for either extension and light rail cars cost 2 ½ times what buses cost  ($25.00 per mile vs. $9.50 per mile),

Extending light rail 9.2 miles from SeaTac to Federal Way adds more than $1800 to the round trip cost or nearly $14,000 per hour for 4-car trains every 8 minutes.  Even more ludicrous, the 13 mile Lynnwood extension, with twice as many trains per hour, would cost Sound Transit $39,000 per hour.  Even 2-car trains on both extensions would require huge subsidies to cover operating costs.   Unfortunately, limiting light rail trains to 2 cars also halves the limited light rail capacity through the tunnel.

A competent board would have concluded neither extension could justify the high operating cost nor the $20 billion needed for construction.   Limiting Central Link to a “trunk” line between University and SeaTac would allow 4-car trains during peak hours to maximize tunnel capacity   Requiring Sound Transit implement a T/C at the University for 520 commuters would allow riders to take advantage of the capacity and make light rail financially viable.

The board’s oversight of Sound Transit East Link program is even more “inadequate”.  An example is their response to ST plans to add 4th lanes to the I-90 Bridge outer roadways.  The lanes, originally proposed in the ‘90’s, would have been a relatively inexpensive modification that could have quickly reduced cross-lake congestion in both directions, particularly for reverse commuters.  (They also would have eased recent congestion from those avoiding 520 tolls) 

Instead the board allowed the lane proposal to languish for years until it was resurrected as the 2016 “R8A” modification ST claimed allowed them to confiscate the center roadway for light rail.  A lane that wasn’t worth adding was somehow considered to provide the outer roadway capacity needed for all current and future cross-lake vehicles. (The board should have recognized the R8A configuration the FHWA approved required keeping the center roadway available for vehicles.)

A competent transportation board would have known (or easily determined) two-way bus-only lanes were far superior to light rail for cross-lake mass transit.  Instead they allowed Sound Transit to ignore that option as the “no-build“ alternative in their EIS documentation.  The board should have realized ST claims East Link had capacity for “24,000 riders per hour, the equivalent of 10 lanes of freeway” were sheer “fantasy”.

These board “inadequacies” have already allowed Sound Transit to spend billions on totally flawed light rail extensions.  Cross-lake commuters have endured needless congestion for years.  However it’s not until 2016 that the proverbial “s**t hits the fan”. Cross-lake commuting will change forever when they shut down the center roadway for light rail construction.  Despite their claims for 4th lane capacity outer roadway congestion will likely dramatically increase   

Those living or commuting along the route into Bellevue will have their lives disrupted for several years during construction only to end up with many residents facing a future of light rail noise once service begins.  The start of light rail service will also mark the end of cross-lake bus service with riders forced to transfer to trains at either the South Bellevue or Mercer Island light rail stations.  Yet light rail will never have the capacity needed during peak commute hours.  

It’s also difficult to believe anyone, let alone transportation board members, wouldn’t recognize forcing commuters to transfer back and forth between buses and trains would be a huge disincentive for public transit.  Particularly with the limited capacity of East Link trains.  The likely result will be many riders opting out of public transit adding to the vehicle congestion on bridge outer roadways.

In conclusion, the Sound Transit Boards plans for light rail are a far cry from what was promised voters in the Prop 1 initiative.  Their claims for East Link in the EIS were sheer fantasy.  What was hailed as a “gift to our grandchildren” will result in $20 billion being spent on Central Link extensions too expensive to operate and an East Link that will increase congestion on I-90 Bridge and devastate a beautiful part of Bellevue to create a light rail system with very little capacity that no one will want to ride no matter what its capacity.

The boards’ failure to recognize these realities has already resulted in billions “invested” in a fatally flawed light rail system.  They still have time to prevent this “nightmare prediction” from becoming a reality.  Unfortunately the board members with the most “credibility” on transportation, the Director of the WSDOT, Lynn Peterson, and the head of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transportation Policy Board, Claudia Balducci, are inexplicably (to put it mildly) actively supporting Sound Transit’s current plans.  It’s way past time for new leadership.

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