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.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Seattle's Real "Tunnel Boondoggle"

The 9/25/14 post explained the $3.1 billion Seattle tunnel project the U.S Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) listed as the top "highway boondoggle” was “dwarfed” by Sound Transit’s East Link.  This post explains that Seattle does have a true “Tunnel Boondoggle”; the 3.6 mile tunnel portion of ST’s $2.1 billion 4.3 mile light rail extension from UW to Northgate.  As currently planned by Sound Transit, it’s not only “valueless”, it will also result in a huge operating deficit.  

What’s “unfortunate” is ST has already starting boring the tunnel, supposedly a two-year project, even though the extension isn’t scheduled to begin operation until 2021.  Particularly since their 2014 budget, which already had a projected $180 million deficit, included the following description of scheduled Northgate activities: 

      "Completing the design of the Link extension to Northgate and 
site work at U District and Roosevelt Station locations".

When it does begin operation, it will replace the existing bus routes connecting Northgate and Seattle.  A $2.1 billion "valueless investment" since moving transit riders from buses to trains will have a minimal if any effect on I-5 congestion.  The Northgate T/C already has excellent bus service.  During the peak morning commute twelve Metro Route 41 buses an hour leave Lake City, stop at Northgate, and then continue into Seattle, taking 17-18 minutes to reach University St.   The peak return M41 service in the afternoon also has 12 departures an hour and takes the 17-18 minutes to reach Northgate. 

Assuming ST maintains the current Central Link schedule, 2-car light rail trains will depart Northgate T/C every 7-8 minutes providing 15-17 cars per hour for what ST estimates will take 14 minutes to reach downtown Seattle.  (it’s not clear what happens to Lake City commuters.)

The Northgate light rail trains will have substantially more capacity since the 15-17 cars can each carry 150 riders compared to the current twelve ~90 passenger M41 buses per hour.  However the extra capacity is only useful if it's needed.   Presumably more frequent buses could also be easily added if necessary.  

The increased light rail capacity comes at a cost.  Each light rail car costs ST $22.48 per mile compared to $9.75 for each bus mile.  The round trip mileage is about 14 miles so the 15-17 cars will cost ST $4720 to $5350 per hour.  The comparable bus costs would be ~$1650 for the 12 buses per hour.   Thus, they could easily double frequency and capacity whenever it's needed and still have far less operating costs than light rail. 

When East Link begins service in 2023, ST also intends to route its 30 light rail cars per hour to and from Northgate.  Transit service, which currently consists of 12 buses per hour, will increase to 45-47 light rail cars, more than the 30 cars serving the entire east side.  The end result will be light rail service to Northgate costing more than $15,000 an hour to operate, nearly 10 times the cost of bus service its replacing. 

Unfortunately ST’s decision to expedite boring the tunnel makes it more difficult to stop.  However, the resulting operating deficit can be alleviated.  Eliminate East Link and stop sending 30 unneeded light rail cars per hour to Northgate.  If any additional light rail capacity is ever needed they can easily increase number of Central Link cars by more frequent trains or 3 or 4 cars in each train.   “Reconsider” the 7 mile extension to Lynnwood since the added riders could never justify the increased costs with doubling the route length.  Drop the 2040 plans for an Everett extension since the ~10 miles would again double operating costs.  (I thought that’s why they had the Everett Sounder) 

A far better option is to replace the Northgate extension with a T/C near the UW light rail station. The T/C would provide an interface between thousands of 520 transit riders and light rail connections into Seattle.  East side residents could have direct bus connections between P&R lots and the UW station for fast reliable light rail connections into Seattle.  Seattleites could use the return routes for the buses for direct bus connections to Bellevue T/C and other eastside work locations.  The routes would be reversed in the afternoon benefitting large numbers of commuters in both directions.  

The T/C would allow Central Link to take maximum advantage of light rail capacity for up to 60 cars an hour and go a long ways towards meeting ST promised ridership and financial viability.  It’s the only way that’s ever going to happen. The fact the Northgate extension adds 8.6 miles to the route for all 60 cars makes it prohibitively expensive.

The bottom line is ST, rather than terminate Central Link at a T/C near the UW where it could have attracted thousands of 520 commuters from both sides of the lake, has expedited boring the tunnel portion of the $2.1 billion Northgate extension.  When the extension begins operation in 2021 it will have absolutely no effect on I-5 congestion and its operating costs will create a financial “black hole” for the area’s transportation funds.  That surely qualifies as a boondoggle.

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