The story in the Aug 16th Times about the need for an additional $20M to complete the I-90 Bridge design for East Link is just the latest example of Sound Transit, Sound Transit Board, and WSDOT monumental incompetence. It began more than 15 years ago when the selected light rail rather than two- way bus only (BRT) on the bridge center roadway for cross-lake transit.
East Link was the first attempt to put light rail on a “floating bridge”. The problem was assuring the “expansion joints” connecting the floating and fixed portions of the bridge could withstand the loads from light rail trains. In Sept 2005, the WSDOT thought they'd demonstrated the I-90 Bridge/light rail compatibility using flat bed trucks to simulate light rail cars. They claimed the “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 because they commissioned an independent review team (IRT) to evaluate the bridge design with light rail. The results of the IRT study included the following:
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.
In response to these IRT concerns ST, three months later in the Dec 2008 DEIS included the following statement regarding floating bridge/light rail compatibility:
The IRT concluded that all issues identified as potentially affecting feasibility can be addressed.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration had similar concerns in a February 2009 letter 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”.
Yet, two years later the ST 2011 FEIS included the same confident response as the 2008 DEIS.
Finally in 2012, four years after the IRT recommended “careful study and testing in the early stages of the project” ST signed a $28M (later $36M) contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) to finish the design. It was presumably their expansion joint (tract bridge in article) design ST demonstrated 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”.
Later, in a Jan 16th 2015 meeting with Bellevue City Council, ST claimed that, while they had not completed the bridge design, they still didn’t think it was a major problem. Even the Aug 16th story quoted a WSDOT official telling the board:
“we have not indentified any fatal flaws that would prevent light rail from being installed on this corridor”
The fact that ST has spent $38M on a design that initially passed with “flying colors” but subsequently “crashed” suggests the problems are, “if not “fatal”, surely “serious”. One wonders why ST is so confident another $20M will fix the problem. Also since the WSDOT has been involved in this, so far. failed design process from the start, why are they given responsibility for approving the final design?
What is truly absurd is the Sound Transit Boards “disappointment” about the recent bridge design problems. They should have been aware of them 7 years ago. Instead of responding to the IRT and FHWA concerns they allowed ST to spend hundreds of millions promoting light rail on the east side with detailed depictions of light rail tracks and stations on the eastside without confirming they could put light rail on the bridge. Since ST is closing down the center roadway in 2017, it’s a little late to say “preparation now reduces risk down the road”.
Of course the real debacle is the fact that none of the three seem to recognize the insanity of spending $3.7B for East Link’s one light rail train every 8 minutes. Particularly since doing so will devastate the route into Bellevue and gridlock I-90 Bridge outer roadway.