I sent the following to the Times in response to Sunday’s editorial page letters on the pros and cons of the Metro funding increase. I posted it since they were unlikely to "print" it.
Dear Seattle Times,
The Sunday Times editorial page “Opinions” on the pros and cons of the providing additional funding for Metro prompted me to submit the following Special to the Times. The problems associated with the purported $75 million Metro shortfall are dwarfed by the debacle the area faces if Sound Transit is allowed to proceed with their Prop 1 extensions. I hope you will consider it for your editorial pages.
Special to the Times,
Sound Transits Prop 1 Debacle
The “public” has no idea of the devastating affects of Sound Transit’s $18.7 billion (2007$) Prop 1 extensions on the area’s commuters. The ST East Link plan to confiscate the I-90 Bridge center roadway and attempt to use light rail trains to replace all cross-lake bus routes will gridlock the outer bridge roadways. Their Central Link extensions to Federal Way and Lynnwood will result in billions spent on a light rail system far too expensive to operate for any rational predicted ridership.
Sound Transit made a major blunder by failing to recognize the only way to meet future cross-lake transit requirements was to convert the I-90 Bridge center roadway to two-way, bus-only operation. They apparently didn’t realize the impact of the Seattle tunnel on light rail capacity. Any light rail system here is limited to one track in each direction through the tunnel. The existing station lengths there restrict each train to only four 148-passenger cars.
Puget Sound Regional Council guidelines require 4-minute intervals (headways) between trains giving a maximum capacity of 8880 riders per hour (RPH) in each direction. If half of that capacity is used for cross-lake commuters, East Link light rail service will consist of, at best, a 4-car train every 8 minutes or 4440 RPH in each direction.
ST promoted East Link with claims of up to 12,000 RPH in each direction with plans to replace all I-90 bus routes with light rail trains. 40,000 of their projected 50,000 daily riders would come from terminating existing I-90 buses. Since nearly all of the bus riders are eastside commuters, 20,000 will presumably need to commute in to and out of Seattle every weekday on East Link. However its clear East Link won’t have sufficient capacity since doing so would take 4½ hours. The end result will undoubtedly be most 1-90 buses will still be routed across the bridge adding to congestion on the outer roadway.
Its ironic Sound Transits other major blunder, their decision to extend Central Link to Lynnwood and Federal Way results in exactly the opposite problem: capacity that dwarfs any rational predicted ridership. While both extensions have excess capacity, the Lynnwood extension is particularly “problematic” since presumably both East Link and Central Link trains will be routed there. ST could have avoided the overcapacity problem by terminating Central Link at a T/C near the University Station, improving access to Tukwila station to attract more riders, and eliminating extensions past SeaTac. Doing so would save close to $20 billion in construction and start-up costs.
The cost benefits from avoiding the construction and start-up of the extensions pale in comparison to the savings from avoiding the long-term costs of operating them. The 12.8-mile Lynnwood extension, in combination with current light-rail operating costs of nearly $23.00 per mile per car (excluding depreciation) would add $2350 to a round trip for an East Link 4-car train.
With 8-minute headways, the Lynnwood portion of the East Link route would add over $17,650 per hour of operation. If Central Link trains to Lynnwood from Federal Way were limited to 2-cars, the total added operating costs for the extension would be nearly $26,500 per hour. Assuming 6 hrs per day at peak frequencies and 8 hrs at half that level the daily operating costs would be $265,000 per day.
ST projections for an additional 15,000 riders using the extension assume they “persuade” Metro to cancel their current competing bus routes. Even this “optimistic” assumption results in operating costs per rider nearly 3 times current light rail costs. Even more absurd, a more realistic assumption for ridership would probably double or triple that cost since light rail commute times will be longer than competing bus routes if commuters were given that option.
ST could reduce the daily operating costs to by limiting East Link to 2-car trains (ST used 2-car trains in last years test confirming the I-90 bridge could support light rail trains). However, the costs would still be prohibitive and the loss of half of an already inadequate light rail capacity would create even more gridlock on the I-90 Bridge. (Obviously ST attempts to reduce I-90 congestion with more frequent trains would exacerbate Lynnwood operating cost problem)
The Federal Way extension operating costs are less due to shorter length (9.2 miles) and presumably only 2-cars per train ($423 per round trip or $31,700 for 75 trips a day). However, the cost per rider will likely be similar to Lynnwood extension because of fewer riders since light rail commutes will take 25-30 minutes longer than the current bus routes between Federal Way T/C and 4th and Union in Seattle.
The bottom line is ST is on a path to do something truly “remarkable”. In an area with purportedly the “4th worst congestion in the country”, they plan to spend nearly $20 billion over the next ten years on Prop 1 extensions that will do absolutely nothing to reduce the problem.
Their $2.8 billion East Link extension will not only devastate a beautiful part of Bellevue and violate federal environmental law, its confiscation of the I-90 Bridge center roadway will inevitable lead to gridlock on the bridge outer roadways. While the $15-20 billion Central Link extensions to Federal Way and Lynnwood won’t increase congestion, they will do very little to reduce it since both extensions have longer commute times than existing or easily available bus routes.
If allowed to proceed ST will spend billions they don’t have on construction and start-up costs for Central Link extensions with very expensive capacity that dwarfs any rational predictions for added commuters. The combination of the limited ridership along with high light rail train operating costs will create a huge “black hole” for the areas transportation funds.
There is still time to stop this debacle. ST needs to be “persuaded” to implement two-way bus-only lanes on the I-90 bridge center roadway instead of light rail trains. The bus lanes could provide direct bus rapid transit (BRT) connections from every eastside P&R easing congestion throughout the area at a fraction of light rail cost.
ST also needs to be “persuaded” to terminate Central Link at a T/C at the University Station and to improve access to the Tukwila T/C. The University T/C would provide thousands of 520 commuters from both sides of the lake with easy connections to light rail.
The U/W T/C terminus, in combination with ending Central Link at SeaTac will shorten trip lengths to where 4-car trains could be efficiently used to meet peak commute demands. Doing so will truly transform light rail from a “pig's ear” into a “silk purse” for the areas commuters. The sooner the better!