Tuesday, 19 January, 2021
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Sound Transit Reveals Big Jump in Cost Estimates for Ballard and West Seattle Link

Elevated light rail with pylons next to a street in Northgate.
In 2024, Link will extend to Lynnwood on elevated guideway similar to the Northgate approach. (Photo by author)

Sound Transit is projecting an additional $4 billion in costs for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. The projected cost of the two lines jumped from $7.9 billion in 2019 to $12.1 billion–a jump exceeding 50%. The agency revealed the bad news at the Sound Transit Board meeting yesterday and blamed skyrocketing costs for land acquisition, labor, and construction materials. In fact, property costs alone jumped $2.13 billion–a 263% increase.

While the Ballard and West Seattle light rail extension numbers were the most dramatic, all Sound Transit 3 light rail lines are seeing cost escalations. The Tacoma Dome Link Extension costs have climbed from $2.4 billion in 2015 to $3.3 billion as of the update yesterday. The culprit there is the agency’s determination that an extra three miles of elevated rather than at-grade rail will be needed due to concerns about drainage and disrupting indigenous burial sites as the route passes through the Puyallup Reservation.

The presentation didn’t detail Everett Link or Issaquah Link cost projections, but noted they had taken a hit as well. On a positive note, Sound Transit 2 remains on track with 62 miles of light rail expected to be open by 2024, with Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link opening then and East Link a year earlier in 2023. Northgate Link will open later this year, and revolutionize transit in North Seattle, even if King County Metro’s bus restructure fell victim to budget cuts.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff tried to assure the board. “While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” he said, suggesting the plan could be fine-tuned and scope adjusted to control costs.

Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley cited transit project examples from San Francisco, San José, and Los Angeles to show rapidly escalating construction costs are an issue regionwide. In a official memo, Farley described how Sound Transit arrived at the new estimates and laid out next steps.

“Given this cost growth, I have initiated an independent assessment of Sound Transit’s updated cost estimates and underlying methodologies,” Farley said. “It will include a focus on what actions Sound Transit can take to reduce costs and update its estimating approaches going forward. The independent assessment will be completed in sufficient time to inform the upcoming capital program realignment process.”

Over-engineering is partially to blame

Some of Sound Transit’s cost escalation is unavoidable; the agency can’t control how much building materials cost or construction contractors charge. They can’t prevent Trump from starting a trade war and increasing the cost of steel with his tariffs. Nonetheless, a portion of the spiking costs seems to be attributable to Sound Transit over-engineering stations and guideway to require greater, more expensive property acquisition than is really necessary.

The presentation’s prime example with West Seattle Link illustrates the point. The agency says they expect they’ll need to acquire three brand new apartment buildings on Fauntleroy Way to site the station and track for the Alaska Junction Station. Doing so is projected to cost approximately $250 million and require relocating 306 households, the agency said.

The planned path of West Seattle Link is mapped onto a satellite image of the intersection of Fauntleroy Way SW and SW Alaska St.
The planned path of West Seattle Link is mapped onto a satellite image of the intersection of Fauntleroy Way SW and SW Alaska St. (Sound Transit)

However, better contouring the alignment to Fauntleroy Way SW would likely avoid demolishing these new apartments and save upwards $250 million. Fitting the guideway and station into the Fauntleroy right-of-way and the lower-value properties to the north–a Shell gas station and Les Schwab tire center–appears doable. Since it’s near a station, trains would not be moving quickly at this point.

Seven story apartments abut the busy 80-foot arterial Fauntleroy Way.
Sound Transit had hoped these parcels would remain cheap and low-slung, but they have redeveloped to seven-story apartment complexes totally 306 homes in all due to high housing demand. (Credit: Sound Transit)

A station needs to have straight track, so, if this can’t be arranged at the SW Alaska St intersection, a simple fix would be to site just to the south or north along (or straddling) Fauntleroy Way, avoiding the kink. Fauntleroy Way right-of-way is 90 feet wide north of Alaska Street and 80 feet south of it. It’s a wide street that can accommodate elevated rail in its envelope and a station too–though Sound Transit will need to acquire property for staging regardless.

A satellite image of West Seattle Junction at the Fauntleroy "kink" at Alaska Street.
This is the turn that is causing Sound Transit’s headaches as engineers insist on plowing through 306 apartments to make the turn. (Google Maps)

The Urbanist has reached out to Sound Transit to inquire why the agency isn’t avoiding these three costly properties by tightening the turn. Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick did offer a general statement, but a full response is still pending.

“The Board has selected preferred alternatives for much of the alignment, other alternatives are also being studied as part of the current work to publish a Draft Environmental Impact Statement,” Patrick said in an email. “And the Board won’t select the final alternative to be built until after publishing a Final Environmental Impact Statement. Those three parcels are in play because of the specific alternative that intersects with that location.”

“We always try to minimize impacts to property,” public information officer Rachelle Cunningham added.

While $250 million is only 6% of the $4 billion cost escalation, if this is a pattern and other stations and guideway have been over-engineered to require expensive property acquisition, then it could add up. Like Alaska Junction, Ballard is booming and the station area imagined near 14th Avenue NW and NW Market Street has seen large buildings go in too, as has Interbay near W Dravus Street. It’s a good problem to have to know that light rail will serve a dense and growing neighborhood, but it does make property acquisition more expensive and fraught.

Property costs and construction costs have continued to spike in Seattle right through the recession, so it’s hard to imagine a respite any time soon. Prime properties won’t be getting any cheaper, as King County Executive Dow Constantine argued, saying we must forge ahead.

Fodder for opponents of elevated light rail

Some West Seattleites’ dream of tunneling the light rail line to reduce the “eyesore” and noise. Others are pushing to replace rail with a gondola to lower costs and add whimsy. Elevated rail remains the more expandable and best fit, especially if the land acquisition pickle can be solved. That said, obviously $4 billion in added costs will bolster the case for alternatives, as the West Seattle SkyLink group was quick to note.

Kirkland Proposal Could Bring 300-foot Towers to 85th Street Station Area

A rendering of the NE 85th Street interchange with lots of lanes and concrete.
NE 85th Street approaches the convoluted, twisting I-405 interchange (WSDOT)

The high-growth alternative, though focused on office towers, could also bring 9,000 homes to Kirkland’s NE 85th Street station area.

It’s almost hard to grasp that Sound Transit 3 (ST3) was passed over four years ago. Time flies ever faster, and with Covid still raging it seems our days are drifting away. Something else that seems to have been drifting off is the Stride bus rapid transit (BRT)–opening dates for several lines (there’s three) have been delayed a year to 2025 and only a few bits and pieces of the system have been built.

But once Stride is complete–whenever that may be–it’ll almost certainly shape how we travel and how our cities grow. BRT is fast, frequent, and creates important opportunities for transit-oriented development (TOD) not unlike that of light rail. In fact, with strong investments and smart policies, cities can often get more TOD per dollar from BRT than light rail since the former is much cheaper to build.

While we haven’t seen a wave of dramatic TOD projects centered around BRT yet in our region, Kirkland is wasting no time in its bid to become the first. Plans are calling for the complete redevelopment of about 700 acres of land near the NE 85th Street Stride station into mixed-use residential, commercial, and office space. It’s a far cry from the strip malls and auto row that dominate the station’s landscape.

The station

The NE 85th Street Stride BRT station, looking north. (Sound Transit)
The NE 85th Street Stride BRT station, looking north. (Sound Transit)

Spoiler alert: the station itself is underwhelming–smack dab in the middle of a major car sewer junction. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Sound Transit’s preferred design has three levels of traffic, with NE 85th Street through traffic on the bottom and the Lexus lane ramps and BRT stops in the middle. It seems like the traffic engineers forgot that the BRT existed until after they were halfway done because its position smacked between 18 lanes of traffic is a terrible afterthought. Also strangely, the I-405 mainline runs atop the highest level of the interchange–the place where it can spew the absolute most noise and pollution possible. Adding tree cover would shield some of the freeway from its surroundings, but it would still be a massive eyesore and unpleasant place to wait for a bus–and one that steals a lot of valuable land.

Regardless, the station isn’t expected to get too much ridership in its current state. Estimates from the City of Kirkland puts ridership at just 250 to 300 daily once BRT service begins in 2025 (for perspective, Rainier Beach got around 2,200 each day in 2019). As Seattle Transit Blog touched on before, it’s rather ironic that a station with such low ridership would account for almost 30% of the I-405 BRT program cost. Currently, there isn’t a good transit market that the station would serve; most potential users live too far away and the immediate vicinity is too car-centric to be a transit destination.

January Urbanist Meetup to Highlight the Push to Lid I-5

A rendering of what a future I-5 lid could look like. (Credit: Central Hills Triangle Collaborative)

So much of 2020 was about just holding on, so let’s start 2021 with a big, bold idea like healing the giant rift in out city and covering the I-5 freeway that cuts it in two! If that sound interesting to you, then please join us at our January 12th meetup from 6:15pm to 7:30pm where we will be joined by Lid I-5, a grassroots organization dedicated to reclaiming space from freeway trenches starting with I-5 in Downtown Seattle.

The group is run by working people who are volunteering their time because they believe in creating a more livable, equitable, and sustainable Seattle. Among them is Natalie Bicknell, senior reporter at The Urbanist, and Scott Bonjukian, my predecessor as programming director who also wrote his planning school thesis on lidding I-5.

Beyond reconnecting our city, Lid I-5 has many reasons for advocating to cover the freeway: Downtown, Capitol Hill, and First Hill are 3.5% of Seattle’s land area but are absorbing 29% of population growth. Lidding I-5 is likely the only opportunity to catch up on much-needed affordable housing sites, public open space, civic facilities like schools and community centers, and other public and private infrastructure.

The I-5 freeway is a major environmental issue, with significant noise, air pollution, and visual impacts to people who live and work nearby–lids reduce these impacts. Lids will also enable more people to live, work, shop, and play in walkable urban neighborhoods and drive less, contributing to Seattle’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal. Lidding the freeway will also create much needed land in our central city to support more parks, housing, and jobs.

Dubicki: Do Not Make Seattle Its Own County

Shoreline-Seattle Boundary
Seattle and Shoreline meet at 145th Street. On the ground, it is impossible to tell which side is which city. Should this be a county line? (Photo by Ray Dubicki)

Seattle’s boundaries are ridiculous. In the north, the city is separated from its neighbors by the width of a street. In the south, the errant wiggles and tight bends of the boundary work to cut neighbor from neighbor while scooping up shreds of parkland.

Politically, the city lines are exactly wrong. For some issues–building transit, responding to climate change and homelessness–the city’s tax pool and effectiveness are not expansive enough to make significant change. For other issues–getting sidewalks built, responsive public education, police accountability–the bureaucracy and the space the city covers are just too sprawling.

The way we cut up our land segregates communities, divides neighborhoods, and ignores the harsh truth: city and county political boundaries are worthless in tackling modern problems. At best they are convenient excuses to exclude. At worst, they create the cracks through which people and neighborhoods fall. 

Entrenching the boundaries further, making the walls bigger and the moats wider by pulling Seattle out of King County and establishing it as a county, is the last thing that’s needed right now. Seattle should not be its own county.

Lessons from elsewhere

The first thing to remember about counties is that it’s old language. In European tradition, you have ranking members of the imperial military who were given ownership and administrative responsibility to some portion of the emperor’s domain. That person was a count, like Dracula or Monte Cristo, and their territory was a county. 

The 11th century Normans transferred the idea to England, who got county wrapped up with their territorial name, a shire. That’s why the wife of a British Earl is a Countess and the administrator of a county is a shire-reeve or sheriff. Long story short, Robin Hood got in trouble with the Sheriff of Nottingham for thievery in Sherwood Forest because it was in the administrative county of Nottinghamshire

Unlike some political subdivisions, counties are completely steeped in feudalism, paternalistic land ownership, AND British accents. (Men In Tights, 1993)
Unlike some political subdivisions, counties are completely steeped in feudalism, paternalistic land ownership, AND British accents. (Men In Tights, 1993)

That little trip into history is because, of course, it rubbed off on us. During its founding in the 17th century, shires were set up in Virginia. These evolved into counties fairly quickly, and in the process we imported sheriffs. Virginia’s counties were established to put a state courthouse and sheriff within a day’s travel of every person in the state.

Cities had more specific charges–provide urban services like police, water, and eventually sewer. The cities were taken out of the counties so their taxes could be directed to these services. The cities could expand into the county, annexing land and extending services. This made independent cities the political equals to the counties, but had the competitive effect of removing tax base from the surrounding jurisdiction.

What We’re Reading: Missing the Commute, Top 4, and Spawning Again

Grand Coulee Dam
The Grand Coulee Dam, built under the New Deal, today powers over 4.2 million homes ("Grand Coulee Dam" by wonder_al is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Missing the commute: If you’re working from home and missing your commute, you’re probably not alone ($).

Doubling down: Germany is planning to align railway schedules across the country for faster journey times and new high-speed rail lines.

Clean water: With rollbacks of the Clean Water Act by the Trump administration, Arizona is considering new water protections at the state level.

Next PULSE: Could Richmond, Virginia get a new north-south bus rapid transit line to compliment the existing east-west one?

Ridership breaks: BART opened a new extension in the South Bay Area last year, but ridership has been disappointing due to the pandemic.

WA’s active plan: Washington has a new statewide Active Transportation Plan that is open for public comment.

Top 4: How could a top four primary in Washington be better than the status quo?

Smart growth: From the perspective of Montréal, Todd Litman highlights how smart growth can be good.

Missed deadline: The United Census Bureau has missed the end-of-year deadline for reporting preliminary numbers on the 2020 Census, which may be a good thing given the fascist president’s attempts to exclude certain groups of people from the count.

Cancelled: Legal disputes have led the last ferry service on the Potomac River to shut down.

Network growth: What will 2021 mean for expansion and improvement of the Seattle bike network?

Pedestrianized: Ocean Drive in Miami Beach could be permanently pedestrianized.

McGauley: The Case for Seattle County

Seattle skyline. (Doug Trumm)

Growing up in the Old Northwest, I was used to townships and counties being small, arbitrary but generally orderly boxes that operate as the base unit of rural government. Around Indianapolis, the suburbs grew such that school districts, municipalities, and townships were generally contiguous, imbuing place into previously meaningless squares on a map. Indianapolis, the largest city, outgrew Central township and merged with Marion county in 1970.

King County is enormous, the twelfth most populous county in the United States despite roughly a third of the county being uninhabitable mountains. Large counties make good sense when public services need economies of scale in the sparsely populated Columbia plateau, or when a county can fully capture an urban area like Thurston, Whatcom, or Spokane. King County, however, sprawls while failing to encompass Greater Seattle.

A map of US counties and county equivalents, with the 100 most populous counties highlighted.  Clear difference in county size in Western vs Eastern US states, due to different organizing principles when created. (Wikimedia Commons).
A map of US counties and county equivalents, with the 100 most populous counties highlighted. Clear difference in county size in Western vs Eastern US states, due to different organizing principles when created. (Wikimedia Commons).

The City of Seattle, which is well on the way toward 800,000 residents, would be the fourth most populous county in Washington all by itself. With my experience in Indiana, I have wondered why Seattle wasn’t already a standalone entity, particularly as Seattle already operates independent of King County in many ways by virtue of being both large and old, providing its own electricity (Seattle City Light or SCL), libraries (SPL rather than KCLS), and parks (King County manages no facilities within city of Seattle, though the current parks levy does invest in Seattle alongside the rest of the county). Interestingly, SCL and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) boundaries are not contiguous with the municipal boundaries, but neither are the King County water treatment boundaries, which highlights how we optimize rather than align jurisdictional boundaries.

Why change?

Seattle is the clear center of the region, but we are not a monocentric agglomeration (think Chicago). Our regional vision is for Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton to be metropolitan cities alongside Seattle. Separating Seattle would structure our political subdivisions to better reflect this vision. 

Elevating the Seattle mayor to be coequal to county executives would should right-size our regional discourse and better place Seattle to interact with its immediate neighbors to the north, south, and east. For example, population, a crude measure of proportionality, would be more balanced four ways rather than three (Snohomish and Seattle at about 800,000, Pierce at 900,000, and King excluding Seattle at 1.5 million). Rather than one dominant entity surrounded by economic supplicants, giving Seattle and King coequal seats at the table both shift power away from a single entity while also elevating Seattle and King in our regional structures.

Metro’s Battery Bus Plan Hinges on Need to Grow Service and Revenue

A battery-powered bus during a press event.
Battery buses like this one are supposed to replace Metro's diesel hybrids within 20 years. (Photo by Ned Ahrens / King County)

In September, King County Metro filed a report on their battery bus implementation plan. Like the Kenmore water taxi report, this paper is the result of a proviso within the 2019-2020 King County budget. The County wanted Metro to discuss major milestones for the 2021-2022 biennium, procurement plans and infrastructure schedules through 2040, cost projections, study and evaluation of battery bus implementation, and a preliminary high-level financing planning in the battery bus plan.

Metro’s battery electric bus (BEB) evaluations began with a 2016 purchase and operation of three short-range BEBs in Bellevue. The short range buses have a 25-mile range and 10-minute charge. The agency’s electric bus program currently exists with 174 trolleybuses, a small fleet of 11 short-range Proterra BEBs—expanded from three—recently concluded testing of 10 long-range but slow-charging BEBs, and an order of 40 long-range (140-mile range) BEBs from New Flyer. Today, 12% of Metro’s fleet is zero-emission buses.

Buses at the Eastgate park-and-ride charging. (Courtesy of King County Metro)

The new buses will be supported by a new South Base Test Facility that will open in January 2022, roughly when the buses will begin operation. Close by, a new interim base at the south campus will be electrified in 2025 and be able to support 105 more battery buses. South King County will host this fleet first as the region is worst effected by air pollution, as discovered by a 2017 study. The study also provided the basis of Metro’s 2040 target for a zero-emission fleet, which the analysis showed would be attainable.

Testing completed in 2020 showed expected and above-expectation performances from the 40-foot buses for range, and a 60-foot New Flyer bus was able to outperform current diesel hybrid buses in snow due to a multi-axle configuration. Cold weather is where performance struggled for the BEBs. Drivers were also happy driving the BEBs. Study on electric base conceptual design found that a “Bridge/Gantry” designed base performed the best overall, and was dominant in future-proofing and efficiency.

The current fleet and fleet to electrify considering a fixed fleet, not including trolley buses (Courtesy of King County Metro)

The implementation plan was developed with all of Metro’s findings in mind, but also with Covid impacts and no additional funding sources in mind. In Metro’s assumed trajectory for the report, service reduction will occur in 2021 exacerbated by expiration of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District—thankfully that’s been renewed and augmented with a $20 car tab fee passed by City Council. Impact from the pandemic will result in service reduction between 2024 and 2027. A countywide transportation ballot measure was supposed to give Metro the resources to grow their fleet to 1,800 zero-emission buses in 2040, pandemic uncertainty pushed the County Council to delay the effort. Worryingly, with Metro’s gloomy outlook its 1,187-bus diesel-hybrid fleet would shrink to 940 battery buses by 2040. That’s a loss of more than 200 buses from today’s fleet. The electric trolley fleet would grow from 174 to 204 for a total of 1,144 Metro coaches in all. Light rail expansion will pick up some of the slack, but buses will still be essential for feeder and local service–not to mention RapidRide expansion plans–so shrinking the fleet hardly seems wise.

Metro Shelves Rainier RapidRide, and Some Route 7 Riders Like It That Way

A Route 7 trolleybus in Downtown headed south to Rainier Beach. (Doug Trumm)

Joe Mayes waited at the Route 7 bus stop on Rainier Avenue S and Mt. Baker Boulevard on New Year’s Day, casually greeting people as they crossed the street in his direction. Mayes, 54, grew up in the Central Area before his family moved to Skyway, an unincorporated part of King County just south of Seattle–he knows everybody.

Mayes takes the 7 practically every day, as do roughly 11,000 daily riders by Metro’s tally from last year. He travels south through the “Prentice Loop,” a square that bends down South Prentice Street past a single-family home festooned with plastic pink flamingos, up 64th Avenue S and around Waters Avenue S.

It’s more reliable than Route 106, which runs down Renton Avenue S, Mayes said.

However, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Route 7 and its Prentice loop were not long for this world. 

King County Metro planned to eliminate the route–which connects the core of Seattle to the South End–in favor of RapidRide R, a streamlined route that was part of a planned extension of the RapidRide system. Metro was forced to backtrack on plans, cutting the proposed expansion down to four routes: Delridge (H), Madison (G), and Eastlake (J) and RapidRide I, a line connecting Renton, Kent, and Auburn. Of the seven RapidRide lines promised in Seattle’s 2015 Move Seattle Levy only three remain, all are on delayed timelines, and Eastlake’s Route 70 upgrade is in an abridged form, no longer reaching Roosevelt. RapidRide R was only the latest cut.

Metro's route map shows the 7 running down Rainier Avenue S through Columbia City and Rainier Beach and doing the Prentice loop at its southern terminus.
Metro’s route map shows the 7’s prentice loop south of Rainier Beach. (King County Metro)

For Mayes and other Route 7 loyalists, the cut was no loss at all.

“It’s a historic landmark, they should keep that bus forever,” Mayes said.

The plan to replace the 7 with RapidRide R is outlined in Metro Connects, a long-term vision for the future of transit in King County first adopted in 2017. The plan is being revised and is expected to be transmitted to the King County Council this summer for action in the fall, according to Metro. However, changes to Route 7 require money, a commodity that the county is finding in short supply. Sales tax revenues bottomed out as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and associated shutdowns. In budget documents, King County estimated that it would bring in $200 million less in sales tax revenues over two years, jeopardizing spending priorities like transit. To make matters worse, federal grants for transit (for which RapidRide projects compete) slowed to a trickle under the Trump administration.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is moving ahead with other corridor improvements, including some northbound business access and transit (BAT) lanes. SDOT is also upgrading some Rainier Avenue sidewalks after advocates pushed back against cuts in the latest budget.

Metro placed RapidRide R on an indefinite hold in fall 2020, although the agency said in a presentation that it expects to resume development when revenue rebounds. The design is at the “preferred concept” phase, and the final design for the proposed route has not been approved.