ST3: How to Get the Best Value Amid a Budget Crunch

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The new Northgate Station where light rail vehicles are being tested for a fall opening. (Sound Transit)
The new Northgate Station where light rail vehicles are being tested for a fall opening. (Sound Transit)

With an $11.5 billion funding crunch and cost escalations in the Sound Transit 3 program, it’s clear that some cutbacks and delays may be inevitable to allow projects to move forward. However, many of the stakeholders seem to think that all of the other projects should take the cuts and their projects ought to be prioritized. This is a regional program though, and as such every part of the region needs to benefit and all regions need to share in the pain a bit to make this work. Here are a few ideas on how each subarea could trim their costs and produce better projects in the process.

Snohomish County

Alternatives for the Everett Link Extension, including the Paine Field Spur which is the third option from the left and is higher performing and less expensive. (Sound Transit)
Alternatives for the Everett Link Extension, including the Paine Field Spur which is the third option from the left and is higher performing and less expensive. (Sound Transit)

In Snohomish County, the diversion to Paine Field only really makes sense from the perspective of developing the industrial area around Paine Field. The Paine Field Spur proposed by Sound Transit can achieve the same goal while providing better overall service for riders and for a much, much more affordable price.

Ballard

A view of the Ballard Bridge from the Seattle Maritime Academy. (Joel Mabel from Wikipedia)

Building tunnels everywhere is a very expensive prospect. The original plans called for a high or medium-high bridge for light rail across Salmon Bay in Ballard. That has been opposed by industrial businesses because of potential disruptions in the remaining industrial land. It’s important to protect industrial space, but perhaps a more mutually beneficial solution could be reached. The Ballard Bridge is in need of replacement and its drawbridge frequently gets stuck.

If we could combine the Ballard Bridge replacement with a transit component and make the bridge a medium-high drawbridge, it could potentially improve outcomes for both bits of infrastructure. In addition, a transit-supporting bridge replacement is much more likely to get funding from current federal investment plans. As an added bonus, extending elevated rail would make future projects a lot cheaper to build while still being grade-separated.

West Seattle

A view of the West Seattle Bridge. (SounderBruce from Wikipedia)

Two bridges and two tunnels is a very pricey endeavor for three stops in West Seattle. The most obvious potential money-saving solution is to have light rail built into the new West Seattle bridge if and when rebuilding begins — though Seattle has opted for repair — and have the center lanes built for rail-only use. Since the West Seattle bridge acts as an uninterrupted freeway up until 35th Ave SW in West Seattle, there would be no cross streets to worry about until that point and an elevated alignment or cut-and-cover tunnel would be much easier to build past it. The major drawback of this kind of plan is it relies on the West Seattle Bridge being rebuilt, and as it may permanently take lanes from the bridge, there may be push back from some West Seattle residents. For faster-to-build discount options, it could be worth taking another look at the original light rail corridor study for West Seattle.

The West Seattle corridor study for alternatives in 2018. (Sound Transit)
The West Seattle corridor study for alternatives in 2018. (Sound Transit)

The study presented two cheaper low bridge solutions that might be worth looking at: The orange (A3) line and turquoise line (B4). Both of these lines are cheaper and quicker to build than the current proposed Junction-bound line, though both lines would need to be elevated for their whole route and the turquoise line specifically would need to turn due west at South Park to serve the White Center and Delridge area (and RapidRide H Line) before turning South again.

While neither line reaches the Junction, recent advocates have discussed having an aerial gondola to connect the Junction to Downtown. The idea of an aerial gondola that long — especially one that makes 90 degree turns and has lots of stations — seems pretty unrealistic to anyone who has ridden a lot of aerial gondolas. Aerial gondola stations are not like train stations: riders either have to quickly depart moving gondolas at midpoint stations or get off one gondola and walk to another gondola at terminal stations.

A short aerial gondola line with three stations total (two in West Seattle, one at the target transfer station) could work if the terminus were built directly into the transfer light rail station. This could potentially work for a Delridge station at A3 or the Georgetown station on B4. The lower station would have an aerial gondola on its roof that would use stairs, escalators, and elevators to reach the tracks below.

These options are cheaper and could be built faster than merging light rail with the new West Seattle Bridge, but rebuilding the bridge is probably the best choice as it comes closer to the outcome selected by voters when they voted for Sound Transit 3 in 2016 and presents future extension options deeper in West Seattle.

Pierce County

Sounder regional rail trains at King Street Station in Seattle. (Joe Mabel from Wikipedia)

Pierce County has fewer options for still building the light rail spine while reducing their budget. The most likely areas for savings come from reducing garages, and slower implementation of some Sounder regional rail improvements. Sounder improvements should prioritize improved service for riders: frequency and station access. If possible, South Sound projects should seek to combine resources with future projects to expand Amtrak to reduce costs to both projects. Additionally, new stations could start off as simple, accessible platforms with not a lot of extra infrastructure for level boarding. The better station amenities can come as funds become available.

Cut Back the Parking

Construction workers and heavy equipment at the light rail station near Microsoft's Redmond headquarters.
A large parking garage being built at Redmond Technology Center, an East Link station funded through ST2. Progress as of November 2019. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

As has been stated here and elsewhere, the easiest way to save money in Sound Transit 3 is delay the building of parking garages until after rail is built. Policymakers should choose to reduce costs by prioritizing bus connections over parking options. Parking garages can be added later as necessary, but are very expensive ways to add ridership.

Suggestions such as those listed above should be seriously considered in reducing costs to achieved the promised goals in the original Sound Transit 3 project. Where possible, we should avoid taking the most lavish and expensive options possible. There simply isn’t enough money to build Cadillac versions of projects and in any case many of these cheaper options could improve overall rider experience, ridership, and access to new future stations. If we play our cards wisely, a cheaper Sound Transit 3 could end up being better than the project we set out to build in the first place.

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Charles is an avid cyclist that uses his bike as his primary mode of transportation. He grew up in the Puget Sound, but is currently overseas living in Japan. He covers a range of topics like cycling, transit, and land use. His time in Tokyo really opened his eyes to what urbanism offers people and has a strong desire to see growth happen in Seattle.

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Unsound Transit

I keep seeing gondolas coming up in discussions about West Seattle, but as far as I can tell they’re unsuited to commuter traffic patterns – as explained in these comments (and several times before this!) by some who understand it better than I.

Can somebody who knows more than the Wikipedia page about gondolas AND thinks they’re a good fit for Seattle point to a similar application where they have worked, or a feasible plan (by a professional, not an enthusiastic hobbyist) for how they would work in Seattle.

Otherwise, can we please file away gondolas in the same science fiction collection as hyperloop, personal helicopters, and the underwater tunnel to Bainbridge Island. Fanciful but impractical ideas distract from the real options that should be considered within the current scope, schedule and budget.

TransitRider

CEO Peter Rogoff, in a presentation to the Everett City Council last night, strongly implied that the voters approved the maps, and that’s what will be built (though, in reality, a majority of the voters approved a majority of the entire region’s proposals, not necessarily any single project). Therefore, it’s wishful thinking to believe that this public sector agency will alter course to reflect changing conditions other than changing when some parts of it are built and whether to split up the projects into smaller-sized bites. I would agree with him if the voters or even a representative sampling of transit riders were, as they should have been, presented with a concept, such as “build high capacity transit to West Seattle,” for instance, with a map labeled “representative map,” and either then or after approval given/studying multiple choices as to the technology (e.g., light rail, BRT), ridership estimates, and timeline, and they came up with the same choices that was on the map that was voted on. However, that was not the case. This plan was decided upon by the three County Executives and perhaps an influential politician or two in each county, none of whom likely is-or ever has been-or remembers the experiences of if they ever were-a regular transit rider. That’s why, for Everett Link, the option that would have gotten built the quickest, is billions less in total costs, is delivered 10 years sooner(!), and delivers the most riders was shelved in favor of a 2, maybe 3 station alternative centered around a large employer in an area that has a low density for rail, with nothing made public that indicates that dramatically changing. Further, the extra mileage and time from the Paine Field diversion will cost the average Everett (and northward) to Seattle commuter 2 weeks per year on the train and reportedly will cost them higher fares due to Link’s fares being distance-based.

There are other vulnerabilities of an “all or nothing” vote, such as inflexible to changes in the operating environment. In the private sector, Boeing, reacting to changes in their industry, recently announced plans to cut back real estate holdings by 30% and are reportedly on the verge of transferring the lease of its Dreamlifter Operations Center at Paine Field to FedEx. Conversely, in the public sector, ST continues on the same path based on what the voters approved 5 years ago, despite Boeing’s continued semi-exodus from Snohomish County since. It’s also why the agency continues to operate Sounder North, which is the most-heavily subsidized transit mode in the area and which offers no station locations unique from what express buses already serve. If this was a private sector operation, it either never would have been started or dropped due to its significant cost/benefit proposition years ago. ST’s current financial woes are a golden opportunity to transfer this investment where it will get the most bang for the public bucks as well as demonstrating that as part of ST’s interest. By doing so, they could give Everett voters, who are part of the so-called “spine,” something ASAP: completing Lynnwood to Mariner, a segment similar to Northgate’s and Federal Way’s, separately, which would connect to existing BRT to/from Paine Field and Boeing there; in the interim, complete the north direct access ramps at 164th/Ash Way to remove lane weaving with bus traffic increasing substantially there in 2024 when downtown-bound bus routes are truncated at Lynnwood instead; and when light rail reaches Mariner, subsidize extending BRT from Boeing to downtown Everett until Link reaches downtown Everett.

DaveisDave

An easy way to save money on ST3 is to remove the West Seattle Ballard light rail line entirely. A much cheaper and purposeful transit investment would be to expand the monorail- have it run essentially the same route as the proposed Seattle center connector tram through downtown before connecting to with the new West Seattle bridge while running north from Seattle center to Discovery park in Magnolia. It’s on a separate grade, it does not compete with vehicle traffic and is cheaper to build than light rail.

Unsound Transit

Didn’t we already try the monorail idea? It might have been right for Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, but it didn’t pencil out for Seattle and went belly-up in 2008 with nothing to show for the $125M of public money it cost.

Caleb

Great ideas here. I always thought replacing the West Seattle Bridge and incorporating light rail would be the wisest and most fiscally responsible choice, although it would make for some rough times in the more immediate term for West Seattle residents. I don’t live in West Seattle, so it’s a bit hypocritical for me to tell citizens to just tough it out for an extra six years, but I can’t believe the city is repairing rather than replacing. Shortsighted. (And I’m not sold on the Gondola system at all). I think your Ballard suggestion is an excellent one as well.

I agree that a spur to Paine Field is better in Paine Field’s current form. But hasn’t the region been searching for a new, larger airport location to take some pressure off SeaTac and to facilitate growth? I believe Paine Field was on the list of locations (Is that still in the cards?). If Paine Field were expanded, a spur might not be enough and it might be better to curve the spine over to a (hypothetically) expanded airport.

Thanks for all of this! It’s nice as a citizen to feel the tiniest bit invested and involved.

Unsound Transit

I agree with everything you’ve written here. We’ll need a new West Seattle road bridge – even if repaired it’s only a matter of time – but can’t currently afford it. We want a new West Seattle rail bridge but can’t currently afford it. They both go roughly to and from the same places. Crucially, since we don’t have enough money for either, the ‘time’ constraint on each project is rather artificial: however much we want a bridge, we cannot build it until we have the money.

We should decouple Ballard from West Seattle and move the former ahead quickly. In parallel, select a West Seattle solution that solves for both road and rail. Pool available road and rail funds (after funding a sensible Ballard design) then seek federal funding to fill the gap. Move ahead with the West Seattle road and rail line as soon as that money is raised.

The state is scheduled to recommend a location for a second major airport in western Washington by 1/1/2022 – https://wsdot.wa.gov/aviation/commission/home.htm. Paine Field was originally intended to have this role, way back before WW2, Korea, and then Boeing took it in a different direction for 80 years. If the recommendation is Paine Field, then I agree a spur might not be enough and the line should curve to serve it.

Paul William

The bus commute from West Seattle has (when the bridge was open) one major choke point going from eastbound WSB to northbound 99. Build a transit only flyover overpass to let go directly from the transit lane on the WSB to the transit only bus land on NB 99, instead of having them be stuck in the cloverleaf turn with all the other traffic.
No only would that be a cheaper and quicker solution, but probably a faster commute for most West Seattleites who would otherwise have to take a bus to the link station and then transfer to light rail.

RossB

Exactly. That would avoid the weave, and the congestion. It wouldn’t be that expensive either. Another alternative is to build an extra lane so that the buses could continue on the Spokane Street viaduct. Then add ramps so that they could connect to the SoDo busway.

The big project would be to build another bus tunnel. It could be built with the same stations as the proposed rail tunnel. It could be built so that it could be converted eventually to rail. That would dramatically improve transit times from West Seattle, and as you wrote, most West Seattle riders would come out ahead, as they would avoid the transfer. Those in the tunnel would come out ahead as well. Instead of a train coming every 6 to 10 minutes, there would be frequent buses, making a trip to Uptown or South Lake Union much faster.

The only folks that could come out behind are those in Ballard. But given the big problems with the Ballard section of the line, and extremely long timetable, that isn’t a big loss. Folks in Ballard would have a big improvement in transit (much faster travel times for D) while they wait for a train that would hopefully go to the middle of Ballard, instead of West Woodland. Throw in some relatively cheap improvements (at Dravus, and the approaches to the bridge) and everyone comes out ahead. Rail could still be built eventually, but the first stage would be to build something that adds tremendous value while we wait.

Martin Pagel

WestSeattleSkyLink.org provides a detailed plan for a more cost effective connection of West Seattle with the Link spine. Gondolas allow for midstations, even at 90degree angle, but that’s not even a requirement in West Seattle. The SkyLink proposal has been reviewed by industry expert engineers, though a detailed feasibility study (such as station and tower locations) has not been done yet, but a similar line has been inaugurated this month in Mexico City: Cablebús « The Gondola Project

Chris Burke

Putting light rail on a new car/train Ballard bridge is an excellent idea, and maybe it can overcome institutional inertia. I remember when the mayor of Seattle tried and failed to get light rail onto the new 520 bridge. Neither WDOT nor ST wanted to do it, for reasons that seem pretty short-sighted.

As for putting light rail on a new West Seattle bridge, my understanding is the current plan is to repair that bridge, not rebuild it.

Martin Pagel

Yes, it may take a bit longer to coordinate Sound Transit and city efforts for a Ballard bridge, but it can work like it did for I-90. I think this would be a prudent solution. In fact, while a combined bridge is being designed, you could run light rail to Interbay and use a gondola to connect it with downtown Ballard which is a much better solution than having to take a bus to SE 14th St as currently planned.

Henry R

The Paine Field spur is an excellent idea and branch service is something that sound transit seems to have been needlessly avoiding up to this point. Would it be feasible to run service to the spur as alternating service from the line already planned to run to Everett, or would that run too infrequently due to capacity limitations at the core? A service similar to branch lines you see in other transit systems would be much more useful than a two-stop line that simply connected Paine Field to the spine.

Martin Pagel

Instead of a light rail spur, you could build a gondola line connecting with a Link station. It would have the advantage of continuous service (no wait, simple transfer), could serve Seaway Transit Center directly and the split off to serve Payne Field and Mukilteo ferry terminal. And all this for considerable less than a light rail spur.

Henry

A three-stage gondola would result in a very long ride and be more expensive than you would expect, but more importantly gondola transit isn’t really well fit for the peak-commuter type of travel that you would see to access a significant job center, as well as two terminals with relatively low frequencies. The gondola would be overutilized during peak hours, and could cause significant waits, as there would be large quantities of people trying to use it when ferries arrive or light rail trains arrive. Gondolas are fit for some situations, but this isn’t really one of them. Certainly something that might be worth studying though, a shorter alignment might work better.

Martin Pagel

The Mexico City line I mentioned above was built for $157m to give you an idea, though i expect higher construction cost in Seattle. Sound Transit expects 25,000 to 27,000 trips per day in 2040, a gondola can handle about twice as much (spread out over peak and non-peak) and has the same capacity as 40 articulated buses, about double the number of buses currently running, that should be plenty for the foreseeable future. If demand goes through the roof, you can build a second line serving Westwood and White Center so these residents don’t need to take the bus to the Delridge station.

Henry

You’re so clearly obsessed with blocking West Seattle light rail that you forgot that we were talking about Paine Field. I really don’t understand why NIMBYs spend so much of their time on blogs and websites about improving cities and transit.

RossB

Yeah, I’m afraid I’m with Henry on this. The problem is that you have a huge load coming off the train (or you don’t, in which case it means that you wasted your money on a spur). A gondola works best with destination to destination travel. Paine Field may be a destination, but the freeway station won’t be. There is nothing there, nor will there ever be anything there (similar stations around the country have lead to nothing). At best you have some housing, at worst you have a big parking lot (chances are there would be a mix, similar to Ash Way). If the vast majority of trips involve getting off the train, then demand will spike every time the train goes by, and the gondola won’t be able to handle the load.

Nor will you be able to take full advantage of a gondola. The main advantage of a gondola is not speed (it is typically slower than a bus) but headways measured in seconds, not minutes. For a trip to Paine Field, the bus would be waiting for the train. The other direction the bus would get there a couple minutes before (minimizing the wait period). The gondola just doesn’t make much sense there.