The April 29th Times article and all the fanfare about Sound Transit’s decision to begin drilling the tunnel connecting the UW and Northgate raises some questions. The most obvious is why is ST referring to the $18.7 billion (2007$) Prop 1 proposal voters approved in 2008 as "Sound Transit's $11 billion light rail network". Does it reflect an ST recognition of the "impracticality" of some of the extensions? If so, it makes the second question even more relevant. Why the rush to start a tunnel in 2014, that will take two years to complete, for a light rail system that won’t begin operation until 2021?
The ST 2014 budget included the following projected funding for the Northgate extension:
$138.6 million to advance final design of the light rail extension north to Northgate, start tunnel-boring activities, and continue work at station locations.
It’s “unlikely” that the portion of the $138.6 billion budget dedicated to “start tunnel-boring activities” would be sufficient to cover the “tunnel boring” costs for the 6-7 months in 2014. It's clear Dow Constantine and the rest of the board including the Mayor of Seattle and 4 King County Council members have decided to spend hundreds of millions over the next two years to “expedite” the Northgate tunnel. The fact they would chose to do so at a time when those riding Metro buses are facing devastating cuts in service because of a $75 million shortfall gives a whole new meaning to the term "incompetent".
Their decision “may” reflect concern the “public” will sooner rather than later “recognize” the total absurdity of the Northgate extension. ST made a major blunder when they agreed with the UW to extend light rail to Northgate rather than terminate it at a T/C near the University station. (Second only to their decision to install light rail on the I-90 center roadway rather than two-way BRT).
Doing so eliminated the ability to use a University Station T/C as an interface between 520 bus riders and light rail. Eastside commuters could combine express BRT rides from a P&R near where they live to fast reliable light rail connections into Seattle. Seattleites could have used light rail and BRT to work locations on east side. The loss of thousands of daily riders in both directions is the primary reason Central Link will never approach the 100,000 daily riders initially promised by 2010.
Instead, both East Link and Central Link trains will be routed to Northgate (and beyond to Lynnwood?). ST will have to choose between 2 or 4-car trains for East Link. Neither will have the needed capacity for cross-lake commuters, but both will have operating costs that dwarf fare box revenue for the Northgate and beyond portion of the route. The result will be gridlock on I-90 and a financial “black hole” from Northgate. All to replace a far less expensive Metro bus route 41 which currently leaves Northgate T/C every 4-5 minutes during peak commute and takes 18 minutes to reach Seattle Tunnel University St station.
Also "questionable" is the comment in the article concerning UW worries that tunnel vibrations from light rail would disrupt experiments on the campus. The idea the use of “rubber-tired vehicles” during construction will eliminate any subsequent problem is belied by a “Master Implementation Agreement with Sound Transit” (MIA) dealing with UW requirements for Central Link.
The concerns with the MIA agreement are detailed in the 4/10/13 post “ST High Risk/No Reward Northgate Extension”. They include the fact the tunnel vibration risks have resulted in ST and UW agreeing to a lump sum payment of $20,000,000 by ST to the University. In order to minimize vibration Sound Transit will also have a continuing obligation to employ, over the term of this Agreement, the most current and effective design and material.
Even with these probably expensive design features the completed tunnel light rail must still demonstrate compliance during “pre-Revenue Service Testing." ST won’t be allowed to commence Revenue Service on University Properties if (Vibration and MF) Thresholds are exceeded. (Presumably 4-car trains would make vibration levels even more problematic.)
The MIA assures any disputes regarding these issues will likely be resolved in favor of the University since the Board of Regents has ultimate approval authority on design, mitigation and monitoring plans required of ST.
If the UW official believes using rubber-wheeled vehicles during construction eliminates the vibration risk with light rail trains, have them set aside the requirements in the MIA. If not, ST could delay any Northgate drilling until they have measurements from the existing Central Link tunnel or the UW extension when completed in 2016 confirming acceptable vibration levels. There would still be plenty of time to complete the tunnel to meet the 2021 light rail operating date.
ST’s current approach will result in a light rail system they either won’t be able to operate because of excessive vibration levels or a light rail system with operating costs that drain the areas transportation funds. They should recognize neither option is acceptable and insist on terminating Central Link at a University T/C. The other "option" is to stop East Link, allow Northgate service to better match local demand and minimize operating cost problems. Since that's not likely to happen their decision to “expedite” the tunnel is more justification for their membership in the Light Rail Hall of Shame.