The March 14th Seattle Times front page “Traffic Lab” article, “I-90 light-rail cost estimate takes a $225 million jump” is just the latest chapter in the saga dealing with an East Link problem that began nearly 12 years ago.
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 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. However they waited until August to announce plans to spend another $20 million to complete the design. While the Sound Transit board was reportedly “disappointed” with the recent design problems the WSDOT told them:
“We have not indentified any fatal flaws that would prevent light rail from being installed on this corridor”
Yet nine months later the March 24th 2016 Sound Transit board minutes included the following regarding the East Link extension:
“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 fact that ST spent $38M on a design that initially passed with “flying colors” but subsequently “crashed” suggests the problems are, if not “fatal”, surely “serious”. That more effort was still needed nearly 9 months after signing the contract extension "suggests" the serious nature of the problem.
Now, twelve months later and more than two years after ST told the Bellevue City Council what wasn’t a major problem has required adding $225 million to the $486 million construction cost. Nearly 18 months after “disappointment” in August 2015 about spending $20 million completing the design the board apparently had no problem spending more than ten times that amount to fix the "flaws".
And the FHWA apparently has yet to approve the design. It’s also not clear whether the FHWA has approved ST closing the I-90 center roadway without some demonstration the R-8A configuration, which add the fourth lane to the outer roadways, can accommodate all cross lake vehicles; refuting their 2004 ROD conclusion the center roadway was still needed for vehicles.
Assuming East Link is allowed to proceed, the added $225 million simply adds to the cost of a fatally flawed light rail system. The East Link share of the DSTT capacity will provide about half the current peak bus capacity. That the only access to this limited capacity for I-90 corridor commuters will be the South Bellevue P&R doing nothing to ease the current congestion along that corridor. And East Link’s confiscation of center roadway will “likely” lead to increased outer roadway congestion. ST refuses to add the thousands of parking stalls needed to allow more commuters to use transit to even reach South Belllevue.
The bottom line is the vast majority of cross-lake commuters will never be able to use East Link leaving them the choice between paying very expensive fees on HOT lane or frequent gridlock on GP lanes. And now they're going to be required to pay even more.
That surely qualifies as a debacle.