The U.S Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) recently concluded the $3.1 Seattle tunnel project had earned a dubious new distinction atop the list of 11 "highway boondoggles" that shouldn't be built. Apparently neither the PIRG nor the local media covering that story are aware of Sound Transit's current plans for East Link. Anyone who was would surely conclude East Link dwarfs the Big Bertha boondoggle.
Both will cost about $3 billion, but any similarity ends there. Tunnel construction will have a minimal impact on commuters or downtown Seattle. East Link construction will force all I-90 vehicles onto the outer roadways, increasing congestion there despite ST claims the added 4th lanes can make up for the loss of center roadway. It will also wreck havoc on downtown Bellevue and disrupt those living or commuting along the route.
When complete, the 2-mile (3.2 km) tunnel will provide SR 99 commuters with four lanes of highway under downtown Seattle from the SoDo neighborhood to South Lake Union in the north. East Link operation will consist of one 4-car train every 8 minutes, or 30 cars per hour, crossing into and out of Seattle. Assuming 150 riders in each of the four 74-seat cars gives a total capacity of 4500 riders per hour (RPH), about a third of the 12,000 riders ST promised voters in 2008.
Instead of “the equivalent of up to ten lanes of freeway” in the DEIS, ST now promises 50,000 riders daily by 2030, with 40,000 coming from terminating all cross-lake bus routes at South Bellevue or Mercer Island light rail stations. Every morning and afternoon ~10,000 transit commuters will be required to transfer to and from trains at each of the two stations.
Those designing the stations were apparently unaware of this transfer. ST presentations at the 90% design status open houses indicate the Bellevue station was designed for 4500 boarders. Presumably at least 1500 would come from the expanded parking facility there. Similarly, the Mercer Island station was designed for 2000, presumable many of who would be Mercer Island residents. The resulting “crowd” from the 10,000 bus riders inundating each of the two stations is hardly an attraction for anyone!
The station “crowding” will be exacerbated by the lack of light rail capacity. At 4500 RPH it will take nearly 4 ½ hours every morning and afternoon to accommodate all 20,000. ST apparently has its own definition of “peak-commute hours”. Mercer Island residents and the ~10,000 bus transferees there will have an especially difficult access since all the light rail cars will likely be full well before they get to the station. As a result East Link will force cross-lake commuters to choose between driving into Seattle on a heavily congested (gridlocked?) outer roadway or riding a bus to a light rail station and attempt to get on an overcrowded light rail car.
Not only is East Link a disaster for cross-lake commuters and those living along the route into Bellevue, its operating costs will create a “financial black hole” for the entire area's transportation funds. The problem is each light rail car costs $22.48 per mile to operate (per 2014 ST budget), or $90.00 per mile for a 4-car train. The 77-mile circuit from Redmond to Lynnwood and back will cost nearly $7000. ST plans call for 121 such trips each weekday costing ~$840,000.
Presumable the 40,000 bus riders will not be forced to also pay for East Link. Thus the only fare box revenue for the day will be from the 10,000 “non-transferees” or ~$30,000. As a result ST will be required to subsidize East Link with $810,000 to cover the shortfall. Assuming required weekend subsidies are half those level, East Link will cost $4.86 million weekly or $252 million annually. If the sixty ~$5 million light rail cars East Link will need are assumed to last 10 years, depreciation will add another $30 million annually.
The bottom line is ST is planning to spend $3 billion on a transportation project that will gridlock I-90, devastate parts of Bellevue, and require an annual subsidy of ~$285 million to cover the short fall in far box revenue. All in hopes of increasing the number of transit riders from 40 to 50,000 daily. The reality is the hassle associated with transferring to and from trains at the two stations, and the lack of light rail capacity, will likely result in fewer rather than more riders.
The PIRG article concluded Seattle had little choice but to allow the tunnel boondoggle to continue. However there is still time to stop light rail and initiate cross-lake transportation that easily meets the area’s future commuting needs. Move non-transit HOV traffic to 4th lanes on the I-90 Bridge outer roadway and divide the center roadway into two-way bus only lanes. Both could be done in a year. The 4th lanes will ease congestion for all cross-lake commuters, especially reverse commuters. The bus lanes will allow existing bus routes to be supplemented during peak commute by express bus connections between eastside P&R’s and downtown Seattle. The costs will be minimal and the additional riders attracted will reduce congestion throughout the east side.
In conclusion, it’s way past time for those responsible for the area's transportation policies and the local media to recognize East Link gives a whole new meaning to the term “boondoggle”. Instead, the Sound Transit Board and the WSDOT show no intentions of doing so, the Puget Sound Regional Council continues to provide tens of millions each year to support East Link construction, the Seattle, Mercer Island, and Bellevue city councils are well on the way to approving the permits ST needs for construction, and the Seattle Times and Bellevue Reporter continue to ignore the many references to posts on this blog detailing the problems.
The entire area will pay a heavy price if this continues.