The April 29th Bellevue Reporter front-page article heralding the East Link light rail extension “breaking ground” as a “cause for celebration” may be “premature”. According to the paper, the Bellevue tunnel construction currently underway, will be followed by work on most of the other portions later this year with work along 112th Ave beginning by mid-2017.
It’s not clear why the early start since East Link is not scheduled to begin service until 2023. Especially since Sound Transit has apparently yet to come up with a satisfactory design for installing light rail tracks on the I-90 Bridge. That’s the conclusion one would get from the latest update from Ron Lewis, East Link Project Manager, in the March 24th Sound Transit board minutes.
East Link Extension Briefing
In the I-90 corridor the system design is at 90% and civil design is advancing to 90%. The independent review team (IRT) identified 23 issues as part of the preliminary engineering. Twenty-two issues have been closed and the staff is working to close the final issue. The contractor is working on constructability reviews and a construction schedule is under development.
The IRT report Lewis was presumably referring to was documented in the “I-90 Homer Hadley Floating Bridge Independent Review Team Light Rail Train Impacts, Final Report, Sept 2008”. It included the following conclusion regarding the bridge 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.
The fact that Sound Transit has still not completed “preliminary engineering” on an issue identified nearly 8 years ago as requiring early “careful study and testing” can only charitably be classified as “misplaced priorities”. Even more telling, Lewis’s comments are essentially the same as what he told the Bellevue City Council at a February 9th presentation last year.
Yet Sound Transit waited until August to sign another $20 million contract to complete the design they’d already spent $38 million on earlier. The Aug 16th Seattle Times article about the new contract 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 nearly 9 months later they still apparently haven’t completed the design suggests the flaws if not “fatal” are surely “serious”. Thus, unless Sound Transit is considering an East Link without the “Link” their decision to begin spending hundreds of millions installing light rail tracks on the east side 7 years before they’re needed is hardly a reason to celebrate.
Even if Sound Transit manages to arrive at an acceptable bridge design the “ground breaking ceremony” is more an attempt to generate east side support for their ST3 funding this fall rather than a cause for eastsiders to "celebrate". They’ve still been unable to come up with a viable plan to accommodate those who use the South Bellevue P&R despite the fact they’ve delayed the closure beyond their original March date. They’ll likely go ahead later this year (after fall vote?) despite their MOU with Bellevue to provide a plan to accommodate affected commuters three months before doing so. As a result transit commuters will need an “early bird gets the worm” approach to parking at the remaining P&R lots, leaving many without access to transit. Hardly a cause for transit commuter celebration!
Next year cross-lake commuters are also not likely to “celebrate” Sound Transit’s closure of the I-90 Bridge center roadway. Their delay in completing the 4th lanes on the outer roadways has made it impossible to demonstrate the modified outer roadways could accommodate all the vehicles prior to the closure. The fact Sound Transit chose to ask voters to approve ST3 funds later this year “may” reflect concern those encountering the congestion might be less inclined to support ST3 in 2017.
The editorial page in the April 29th edition also included a Commentary by Sound Transit Board Chairman, Dow Constantine, and board member and former Bellevue mayor, Claudia Balducci. They urge “residents to speak up about transit” opining the “ground-breaking” ceremony provides an “exiting glimpse of the future of transportation in our region” with East Link “providing high capacity light rail that whisks commuters over, under and around some of the worst traffic in the U.S”.
Their “vision” of East Link’s benefits for eastside commuters is depicted in the East Link Extension website video. The narrative details how East Link will provide a three or four car train running every eight to ten minutes that, according to the video, transforms the current cross-lake congestion into a wide open commute for everyone. The reality is a four-car train every eight minutes hardly qualifies as “high capacity transit”. Assuming each of the four 74-seat cars can accommodate an average of 150 riders the total capacity is 4500 riders per hour, a fraction of the 16,000-riders they claim for light rail capacity, and far short of what’s needed to reduce congestion The video is sheer fantasy!
Their original projection for 50,000 riders by 2030 assumed 40,000 were obtained by terminating all the cross-lake buses at South Bellevue and Mercer Island light rail stations. They subsequently abandoned plans to use Mercer Island station to transfer. It’s not clear how many if any bus riders they’ll transfer to and from light rail at the South Bellevue station. Again, the limited capacity means East Link, at least during peak commute, can’t meet current transit demand, let alone future growth requirements.
While Dow Constantine rightfully claims, “light rail is reliable, fast, and on time”, East Link’s limited capacity means the vast majority of eastside commuters won’t be able to use it during peak commute. The end result will be the billions and years spent on East Link will increase not decrease travel times for most of cross-lake commuters. Hardly anything to “celebrate” or “speak up” about!
The real absurdity is the duo's claim “the board has proposed these investments because no other option can add the kind of capacity we need”. Anyone with a modicum of transportation knowledge recognizes that BRT capacity could dwarf light rail in far less time and at a fraction of the cost. While East Link would be limited by the Seattle tunnel to 4-car trains every 8 minutes the only BRT limitation would be the number of parking spaces available, the number of buses, and the need to restrict a lane of traffic to buses and +3 riders. Even Sound Transit has belatedly recognized BRT capacity advantages for I-405. However, even there, they fail to recognize the need to provide the thousands of parking spaces needed to make use of the capacity.
Again, Sound Transit’s breaking ground ceremony for East Link is hardly a “cause for celebration”. All the pronouncements about work starting on all the sections is more an attempt to make East Link a fait accompli than a need to meet a 2023 completion date. Even worse ST3 will do nothing to ease the congestion thousands face every day on their commutes into and out of Seattle and Bellevue. That East Link construction on the I-90 Bridge will add to the congestion on the bridge and that East Link completion will result in a light rail line that the vast majority won’t be able to use.
The Constantine and Balducci proposals do nothing to reduce that congestion. The link to downtown Redmond was something voters were promised from Prop 1. Their promise of a separate light rail line between Issaquah and Bellevue, with a 2041 completion date, is practically laughable as a reason for eastside residents to pay hundreds if not thousands annually for the next 25 years.
In conclusion the “ground breaking” and editorial Commentary are likely just the start of a several month effort to convince eastside residents to approve ST3 funding this fall. Again, ST3 provides nothing for eastside residents to “celebrate or speak up about” (at least favorably). A large eastside “no” vote would jeopardize ST3 approval and likely even end East Link’s status as a fait accompli.
That would be a “cause for celebration” for the entire east side.