A page 3 article in the Fall/Winter edition of the "Bellevue, It’s your City” news letter, “January start anticipated for East Link construction in south Bellevue” provides the first clear indication of what East Link construction will be like for east side residents. (I’ll leave it to others to decide whether Bellevue City Council choosing that venue rather than the more widely read Bellevue Reporter was due to the council's ST3 support)
It clarifies that Sound Transit has simply ignored their MOU agreement to provide replacement parking and connecting bus routes for those using the P&R. Their solutions, “incentives that encourage transit as a commute option, advertising alternate P&R lots and providing transit route information” will surely result in all the remaining east side P&R lots being full well before many arrive.
Most of the article deals with the impact from the construction along Bellevue Way from the P&R lot to 112th Ave. The planned closures will create a nightmare for those who live in or commute in the area. The proposed solution, “a traffic committee has proposed mitigation tools (e.g. turn restrictions) to be in place during East Link construction” seems “less than sufficient”.
Clearly, transit commuters and those living or commuting along the route into Bellevue deserve a second look at East Link. They are not alone! Anyone who commutes across the I-90 Bridge should be aware of the potential impact from Sound Transit’s I-90 Bridge center roadway closure next year. They will be able to close the roadway because they convinced a federal judge (Freeman litigation) that it wasn’t needed for vehicles once the 4th lanes (R-8A) were added to the outer bridge roadways for HOV. Yet the document they cited, a Sept. 2004 FHWA ROD, stipulated the center roadway lanes were still needed for vehicles.
Sound Transit surely needs to demonstrate the outer roadways will have the needed capacity by temporarily closing the center roadway once they finish adding the outer roadway lanes. Yet they currently have no plans to do so. The outer roadway capacity is particularly critical since Sound Transit has yet to explain how their schedule for East Link operation, one four car train every 8 minutes, has more than about half the current I-90 transit capacity. The remaining buses will only add to the outer roadway congestion.
An even more fundamental concern is the ability of the I-90 Bridge to withstand the loads from light rail trains. (No one else has every attempted to install light rail on a “floating bridge”.) Last August, a Seattle Times article indicated Sound Transit had signed a $20 million contract to complete the design, an extension to an earlier $38 million contract. As of a March Sound Transit Board meeting update they were at 90% completion. They may have finished the design though don’t recall seeing anything in the media. If not they surely need to do so before their January actions in Bellevue.
All of the above concerns apply if ST3 is approved. Rejection raises a whole new level of concern: the financial viability of not only East Link but all of Sound Transits Prop 1 extensions. The additional $1.7 billion they were able to obtain in 2015 via loans and bonds will likely fund at least part of their future needs.
They need to explain what additional funds they need and how they intend to get them. They also need to explain if they do get the added funds, how they intend to pay them off given the huge increase in operating costs with four to five times the number of high-operating-cost-per-mile light rail cars and the added 60 miles of track.
Their July 13, 2015 Expert Review Panel presentation made the rather “optimistic” assessment that fare box revenue would provide 40% of the increased operating costs. Their predicted fare box revenue for 2016 was 28.5% of operating costs with ~17 miles of track. The major reason for the "optimistic" fare box revenue increase is the even more dubious (optimistic?) assessment in Sound Transit’s June 2015 Financial Planning document that light rail ridership would increase from 24 million in 2020 to 84.1 million in 2030.
Someone other than Sound Transit should be selected by the State Auditor to make an independent estimate of both fare box recovery with the longer route lengths and ridership projections reflecting the limits imposed on light rail by the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and Sound Transit's failure to spend the hundreds of millions required for parking and buses needed to provide access to light rail stations and even this limited capacity.
The bottom line is resolving all of the above concerns will take some time. However, it’s unlikely the required delays would significantly affect the completion dates of any of the projects. East side residents surely deserve to have them resolved before Sound Transit is allowed to proceed with their plans for January. (They've delayed adding the 4th lanes for 10 years, something that would have benefitted commuters from both sides of the lake.) Forcing them to delay East Link is the only way to do so.