Construction of the Downtown Bellevue Link station. (Credit: Anton Babadjanov)

The timing of Sound Transit 2 Link light rail and streetcar extension openings is still very much in flux. Sound Transit had hoped to see 2023 as a banner year of openings. However, the agency has been mired in a series of construction challenges and delays that have meant rejiggering the sequence of extension openings. Agency staff provided an update on project statuses, risks, and potential openings. In short the latest on those schedules is:

  • Hilltop Extension of Tacoma T Line streetcar: Trending toward August 2023. Some minor delays related to vehicle procurement and testing. (Had been tabbed to open May 2022 prior to construction issues.)
  • East Link: Partial opening possible via Eastside starter line in 2024, fully open in 2025 after plinth issue fixed on I-90. (Previously been planned to open in 2023)
  • Downtown Redmond Link: Spring 2025.
  • Lynnwood Link: On course to open summer/fall 2024, as planned. However, this will be at reduced service levels due to lack of access to Bellevue base to store trains.
  • Federal Way Link: Late 2025 to 2026 due to construction issues in Kent. (Originally slated for 2024)

T Link slated to open this summer

The Hilltop Tacoma T Link extension is racing toward completion. Sound Transit is wrapping up construction and testing, including putting new streetcars through the paces. The agency is targeting an opening of the much-delayed extension this summer, somewhere between late July and early September with a trend toward late August. However, there are some risks to the project with certification of five new streetcars, completing staff training, and community engagement on safety.

Tacoma T Link light rail Hilltop segment construction.
Construction on a section of the Hilltop segment in 2022. (Credit: Stephen Fesler)

“To mitigate the risks on the system integration activities, we are working with our contractor and vehicle manufacturer to make sure we have adequate resources,” said Ron Lewis, a Sound Transit director of construction management. “They’ve upped their game, brought additional resources from their primary manufacturing plant in Brookville, Pennsylvania, to Tacoma to work on the remaining vehicles for commissioning and systems integration testing.”

Lewis also said that the agency had fully “mapped out” a schedule to meet the target opening, which involves work on weekends and nights.

Earlier issues related to a track switch installation connecting the existing system and extension as well as the track gauge and curve in the Stadium area have been resolved. However, Lewis said that there is a new issue with installed PVC fiber connections in traction power substations, but it won’t affect operations of the system.

East Link could partially open in 2024, fully open in 2025

The East Link starter line is still on the table and could mean partial opening of the 2 Line from South Bellevue to Redmond Technology Center as soon as spring 2024. Agency staff will bring more information on the idea in May and moving ahead with it will require approval from the agency board.

Across the extension, Sound Transit continues to conduct systems testing, including running light rail vehicles across live segment. Lewis said that construction activities are also focused on station finishes like installation of ORCA card readers and signage as well as safety enhancements along the at-grade portions of the extension.

View of Bellevue with the East Link light rail construction of a road crossing bridge.
Construction of East Link in Bellevue. (Credit: Anton Babadjanov)

However, there are some risks to the starter line. The Downtown Bellevue tunnel ventilation is perhaps the biggest one.

“We are working on the ventilation system that has been installed in the event that there is an emergency and which requires use of the ventilation system,” Lewis said. “The vendor is on-site…checking air flow, test parameters for the Downtown ventilation system. Our initial modeling run of the ventilation system did not meet our ventilation requirements, so we directed the vendor to come out and tweak/adjust the fans.” Lewis said recent modeling was looking better.

Another issue is the new passenger information management system (PIMS), which has been delayed by well over a year across the transit system. PIMS is supposed to include real-time arrival information signs and other information to riders at stations and onboard trains. Lewis said that the system was slated to be installed in July and was trending on-time, but it is an outstanding project item.

As for the I-90 segment of East Link, contractors are working through demolition and reconstruction activities of defective supportive rail plinths. Sound Transit is targeting a spring 2025 opening of the corridor, allowing full service from Redmond to Lynnwood via Mercer Island and Seattle. The big risk to opening is track reconstruction of the plinth, which Lewis said was trending slower than anticipated. That work, however, is expected to wrap up by the end of year and still allow for the target opening, but only if the pace of work improves. The contractor has made recent efforts to ramp up staffing to keep the work closer to schedule.

Downtown Redmond Link on schedule for spring 2025 opening

The Downtown Redmond Link Extension (DRLE) is still on schedule for a spring 2025 opening. The project even has extra slack in the schedule, so if work slows the opening target could still happen. Work continues on track installation, station finishes, and systems installation. Sound Transit still needs to complete operations and maintenance agreements with partner agencies and Microsoft. If the I-90 issues aren’t resolved prior to DRLE completion, Sound Transit could still open the DRLE on-time as a second phase of the East Link starter line.

Federal Way Link opening at least two years away

The Federal Way Link Extension has been a real sore point for Sound Transit as the project has faced one delay after another. A big impediment to the project more recently has been a 1,000-foot bridge span near S 259th Place in Kent. Unstable soils meant that the design had to be modified to construct the structure.

Fortunately, the redesign has been complete and the bridge is now under construction. Contractors are also deep into other civil construction as work progresses on other sections of guideway as well as tracks, traction power systems, stations, and parking garages. Opening of the extension could be somewhere between 2025 and 2026, but that is dependent upon pending contractor negotiations for construction schedules.

Lynnwood Link and NE 130th Street Station on the horizon

Overpass and station construction of the Lynwood Extension light rail.
Construction of the Lynnwood Extension guideway in 2022. (Credit: Stephen Fesler)

Both the Lynnwood Link Extension and NE 130th Street infill station projects are seeing good progress. That’s resulted in extra float in the project schedule and means that the extension could open in summer or fall 2024 with the infill station following in summer 2026. Work to install guideway, tracks, traction power systems, and station facilities continues on the extension, though a recently completed parking garage opened at the Lynnwood Transit Center earlier this month. Bids to complete the station finishes at the infill station also opened this month.

However, that initial Lynnwood Link opening will be at reduced service frequency due to constrained capacity until I-90 track is passable so trains can access the Operations and Maintenance Facility East (OMF East) facility in Bellevue. The agency’s contractor is in the process of replacing all the plinths on the I-90 track section. In an interview with The Urbanist Tuesday, Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said hopes of a base capacity workaround by setting up a temporary OMF base appear slim. Even if the opening is at reduced service levels, Timm stressed the agency intends to open Lynnwood Link as soon as possible.

Previously Sound Transit staff had said they’d like to space out light rail extension openings by six months to guarantee staff capacity during testing and prep work. On Tuesday, however, Timm said Lynnwood Link and East Link would proceed on their own timelines and pledged that one would not delay the other. This may indicate some willingness to open lines closer than six months together.

Light rail fleet expansion and refurbishment a critical piece

Sound Transit is expanding and updating its light rail vehicle (LRV) fleet. The Series 2 program involves acquisition of 152 LRV cars from Siemens. So far, the company has manufactured about 120 LRVs with 110 of those being delivered to Seattle. Of those, 74 Series 2 LRVs have been approved for service with the remainder assigned to the Seattle and Bellevue bases for commissioning work.

Kinkisharyo Series 1 trains are getting an update so that they can operate on the East Link at-grade sections. They’re being programmed with Automatic Train Protection software, which has already been tested out. The agency plans to outfit 21 of 62 Series 2 LRVs with the update by end of year. That same software is already operable for the at-grade Link sections in Seattle.

“Our risks related to our light rail vehicle fleet are having enough vehicles and vehicle storage to support planned service levels with the opening scenarios and timeframes that are being contemplated,” Lewis said.

Developing nimble operation management strategies, commissioning vehicles, and resolving warranty issues with vehicles will be important to offsetting the challenges that the agency faces. Some clarity should be coming on this all later this summer.

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.