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.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sound Transit I-90 Debacle

The Sound Transit approach to I-90 cross-lake transit typifies their incompetence in dealing with the area’s transportation crisis.  Fifteen years ago they could have added a 4th lane to each I-90 Bridge outer roadway. It would have benefited commuters from both sides of the lake but particularly “reverse” commuters. 

They could have also moved non-transit HOV to the outer roadway 4th lanes and initiated two-way Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on center roadway capable of more than 1000 buses an hour.  Each east side P&R could have had direct bus service to dedicated drop off and pick up points along 4th and 2nd Aves.  Thousands of commuters would have been able to leave their cars near where they live rather than where they work, reducing congestion throughout east side.

Instead, ST still hasn’t added the 4th lanes and never considered two-way bus routes on I-90 center roadway as the “no-build” option in the 2008 DEIS.  Their claim East Link would provide up to 12,000 riders per hour in each direction was shear fantasy.   They recently conceded East Link will provide, at best, the equivalent of one 74-seat car every two minutes. 

They told a judge the 4th lane when (finally) added to I-90 Bridge outer roadway would enable it to accommodate all cross-lake vehicles. They knew (or should have known) allowing car pools on bus lanes dramatically reduces capacity.  This may be why they’re planning to force all cross lake bus riders to transfer to light rail at South Bellevue or Mercer Island stations. 

It’s bad enough thousands of bus riders will be forced to go through the hassle of transferring to and from light rail trains as part of their morning and afternoon commute.  It’s even worse East Link won’t have nearly the capacity needed to accommodate them.

Perhaps the most egregious example of ST incompetence is their failure to appreciate the problems of installing light rail on a “floating bridge”.   They were the first attempt to do so with the primary problem being assuring the “expansion joints” connecting the floating and fixed portions of the bridge could withstand the loads from light rail trains.

ST initially recognized the problem and had the WSDOT attempt to demonstrate the I-90 Bridge could withstand the loads using flat bed trucks to simulate light rail cars in Sept 2005. The WSDOT concluded “results of the test confirmed previous findings that the bridge can be structurally retrofitted to carry the loads associated with the light rail system under consideration, in addition to general traffic on the roadway”.

Apparently the Washington Sate Legislature Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) was not satisfied with WSDOT tests because they commissioned an independent review team (IRT) to evaluate the bridge design with light rail.  The results of the IRT evaluation were documented in the “I-90 Homer Hadley Floating Bridge Independent Review Team Light Rail Train Impacts, Final Report, Sept 2008”.  It includes the following “Conclusion”:

Based on extensive study, analysis, and discussions with Sound Transit and WSDOT the IRT has concluded that all issues associated with the installation of LRT on the Homer Hadley floating Bridge and approach spans can be addressed or mitigated providing that the IRT resolutions and recommendation are incorporated.

However, several issues could affect project cost estimates and schedules and therefore should be resolved at the earliest states of the project design.  One issue deals with a required design element (LRT Expansion Joint Tract Bridge) has no history of use on floating bridges, and therefore requires careful study and testing in the early stages of the project.

Since many of the issues require additional study, analysis, and design the IRT recommends that an independent review or peer review panel be organized to provide oversight throughout the LRT East Link design process.

Three months later the ST Dec 2008 DEIS included the following statement regarding floating bridge/light rail compatibility

The Washington State Legislature Joint Transportation Committee commissioned an independent review team (IRT) to evaluate the bridge design with light rail. The IRT concluded that all issues identified as potentially affecting feasibility can be addressed.

The ST DEIS simply ignored the “However” portion of the IRT report. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration had similar concerns. Paragraph 5 of a February 25, 2009 letter, HRW-WA/WA624 responding to Sound Transits 2008 DEIS for the East Link Project included the following:

“We do not agree that there has been enough work done to justify the conclusion that it is feasible to design a light rail track system to accommodate the movements of the I-90 floating bridge” and “there is additional work to be done to determine if it is feasible to design an expansion joint to accommodate light rail”.

One would have thought the ST would quickly respond to IRT and FHWA concerns.  Instead more than two-years later, and having done no additional testing, ST 2011 FEIS included the same confident response as the 2008 DEIS.

Finally, five years after the IRT recommended “careful study and testing in the early stages of the project”, ST decided to demonstrate their “expansion joint design” at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colo.  The tests, conducted during the summer and fall of 2013, were initially reported to be a success with claims their design passed with “flying colors”.

It wasn’t until the Jan 16th 2015 meeting with Bellevue City Council ST admitted they had not yet completed the I-90 Bridge design. They followed that with a Feb 9th admission they hadn’t even completed a risk assessment.  Presumably the ST failure to provide the promised “completed risk assessment" prompted a BCC April 4th comment suggesting there may not be light rail across the I-90 bridge.

Again it’s not clear what the caused the “problem”.  One potential reason may be the fact that, typical of ST, they chose to do the Pueblo testing with two-car trains rather than the four they’re current proposing for East Link.  Another may be concern the Pueblo testing didn’t adequately simulate the floating bridge motion.   Whatever the reason the fact ST, as of the Feb 9th meeting, still didn’t have an acceptable bridge design nearly 10 years after recognizing the problem, sets a new standard for incompetence. 

Even if they do manage to develop an acceptable bridge design, East Link will never have the capacity needed to meet cross-lake demands.  With East Link, “never” having an acceptable bridge design is far better than being “late”.  The “never” result is they’ll have wasted nearly a billion dollars on a light rail system that won’t be built.  (The 5/20/15 post details the utter stupidity of East Link without the "Link") “Late” means they will be allowed to continue spending additional billions on a light rail system that will devastate the route into Bellevue, gridlock traffic on the I-90 Bridge, and create financial black hole for the entire area’s transportation funding.

In conclusion, ST needs to recognize the only way to meet cross-lake commuting demand is to divide the I-90 center roadway into inbound and outbound bus-only lanes.  It's something they could do in 6 months and a few million rather than the 6-7 years spending billions installing light rail tracks.  Failure to do so should rate high on anybody's list of debacles. 

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