Eastside Rail Now!1 has developed a plan for a truly comprehensive regional rail system that would provide vastly greater benefits and the possibility of substantially reduced costs as compared with Sound Transit's current and previous (i.e., Proposition 1) plans.2 These benefits include many more new route miles of high quality rail service (95 or more miles versus as few as 17 miles for Sound Transit's truncated system) and a much quicker startup of service.
This plan represents a fundamental shift in philosophy for rail transit planning for the region. Whereas, until recently the focus has been on implementing extremely costly new rail projects that would serve relatively small numbers of people while scrapping important existing infrastructure,3 Eastside Rail Now! proposes constructing new infrastructure designed to serve the largest possible number of people in all three counties but at the lowest practical cost consistent with a high quality of service while retaining and upgrading existing infrastructure.
Key components of this new plan are:
1) North-south light rail: Extend, in modified form, the light rail line that is currently under construction from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport all the way to Tacoma in the south and all the way to Everett in the north in order to form a new regional trunk, or spine, rail line. This contrasts with the extensions in Sound Transit's current proposals of only to Northgate in the north and only to South 200th Street (with a 0.4 percent tax increase) or Highline Community College (0.5 percent increase) in the south.
Construction costs, which to date have been well in excess of four times those for most other light rail systems in the U.S., at more than $173 million per mile and which are projected to be even higher for the new sections4, should and can be drastically reduced. Ways in which this can be accomplished include:
a) Laying track at grade where practical, as it is far cheaper than constructing viaducts and tunnels. This, in turn, allows much simpler and cheaper stations to be constructed. To this end, the ability to run mostly at grade should be made a key consideration in routing decisions, as was not done for the line currently under construction. Although there is justification for the extensive use of tunneling and elevated sections between Sea-Tac Airport and Northgate due to the uneven topography and high population density, the situation is quite different in outlying areas because of the generally flatter topography and lower densities.5
b) Initially constructing only a single track, with strategically located passing sidings, on the sections south of Sea-Tac Airport and north of Northgate.6 This could contribute to a speeding up of the start of rail service, while still providing a high quality of service (e.g., trains every 15 minutes in each direction). However, sufficient right of way should be purchased for two tracks, and consideration should be given to the acquisition of space for an additional two tracks at some stations to permit an eventual express service or for pocket tracks to allow increased operational flexibility. Single-track sections could subsequently be double tracked to accommodate greater frequencies as ridership grows and as funding permits.
c) Not electrifying these extensions.7 This could likewise result in a substantial reduction in construction cost and a speeding up of the start of service with little, if any, negative effect on performance and operating costs. Instead, self-powered vehicles similar to conventional light rail vehicles but which utilize advanced diesel engines (i.e., DMUs), hydrogen fuel cells, or hybrid power systems (e.g., diesel-battery) could be employed.8 Such vehicles can and should be designed so that they can also operate freely on the electrified portions of the system, including through the downtown Seattle transit tunnel, as well as on conventional rail lines (e.g., the Lakewood and Eastside lines).9
Moreover, these extensions should be planned to facilitate a possible eventual upgrading from light rail to true rapid transit. This includes the avoidance of street running and circuitous routing such as characterizes the so-called Central Link (i.e., the Rainier Valley line).10 It also includes the future acquisition of rail vehicles that can go faster than the sluggish 55 mph maximum of the fleet that Sound Transit is currently acquiring and closer to the 79 mph of its Sounder commuter trains.11
2) Eastside commuter rail: Upgrade the Eastside railroad12, which runs from Renton to Snohomish, and launch a regional commuter rail service on it, thereby almost immediately adding roughly 42 route miles of rail transit and connecting most major destinations on the Eastside.
Although the Sound Transit board has briefly discussed a $50 million "demonstration" project for passenger service on this line, its web site currently includes only $16 million for a study.13 However, even the former is far from adequate for several reasons, including (a) the huge potential ridership14, (b) the strong public desire for commuter service in this corridor, as clearly shown in surveys commissioned by Sound Transit15, (c) the fact that it is just a drop in the bucket in the huge amount of revenue that would accrue from the proposed tax increase (well under one percent), (d) the likely difficulty of obtaining additional funds for at least a decade were this tax increase to be approved by the electorate and (e) the need to spend more on the Eastside as required by sub-area equity16.
Consideration should also be given to constructing several extensions of the Eastside railroad, thereby (a) adding greatly to the convenience of the railroad for users and thus to its traffic potential, (b) providing a lower cost and far quicker alternative for much of Sound Transit's proposed East Link, (c) helping reduce the great disparity in investment in north-south rail transit between the Eastside and other sub-areas17 and (d) further reducing the large gap between Sound Transit's tax collections and its expenditures in the East King County sub-area. These extensions include:
a) A new line through the soon-to-be-redeveloped Overlake corridor18 and via Microsoft's headquarters to downtown Redmond, where it would connect with the existing Willows Road line. This route would follow an alignment similar to that of the eastern portion of Sound Transit's proposed East Link light rail line, including utilizing an existing right of way along the eastern edge of the SR-520 freeway for much of its distance. However, it could be constructed a decade or more sooner, and at a greatly reduced cost (because of its initial single track construction, not electrifying it, simpler stations, etc.). Should a light (or heavy) rail line eventually be built between Seattle and Bellevue, this line could be upgraded to accommodate such service quickly and at relatively little cost.
b) A short extension of the existing spur northwest from downtown Woodinville to the UW/Bothell campus and perhaps beyond.
c) A relatively short section of track in Tukwila to Sound Transit's new viaduct to allow either a cross-platform transfer or direct running into Sea-Tac Airport.
d) New track between the City of Snohomish and downtown Everett -- possibly utilizing an existing, abandoned trackbed -- in order to allow direct service into the latter, and perhaps eventually beyond, without having to use the parallel Burlington Northern main line.19
3) East Link light rail: Suspend construction of the 10.8 miles of Sound Transit's proposed light rail line between Seattle and downtown Bellevue. This is not only an extraordinarily costly segment, at roughly $222 million per mile (or $42,000 per foot) based on Sound Transit's most recent published projections20, but also one for which there remain a number of important, unanswered questions, including (a) technical and safety issues regarding operation over the I-90 floating bridge21, (b) whether this line would significantly increase capacity and speed in the I-90 corridor despite its massive cost and (c) whether this is really the most urgent corridor for providing rail transit on the Eastside.22 In fact, a preliminary benefit cost analysis conducted by Eastside Rail Now! indicates that the costs would greatly exceed the benefits; that is, the line would fall far short of meeting the most basic economic criteria.23 The question also remains as to whether, even in the unlikely event that it were found that there was a net benefit to constructing such rail line, it would be better to wait until the completion of the replacement SR-520 bridge with its promised increase in cross-lake capacity to offset the (at-least temporary during construction) loss of capacity on the I-90 bridge. Thus, it would make much more sense to instead (a) continue to study this corridor, (b) study alternative routes and modes, (c) immediately begin to improve existing bus service between Bellevue and Seattle and (d) implement (2) above.
4) BNSF commuter rail: First conclude negotiations with BNSF for increased trackage rights with reasonable compensation for capacity upgrades before making public commitments for expanded service on the 40 mile Seattle-to-Tacoma route. No increase should be considered for the 35 mile Seattle-to-Everett line, except in the unlikely event that a way is found to dramatically reduce costs.24
The longer term goal should be to concentrate growth in north-south commuter traffic on the new light rail spine between Tacoma and Everett. This would have several important advantages, including eliminating the need for still more massive payments to BNSF for trackage rights, permitting far more frequent service, and allowing the BNSF tracks to be used to accommodate growing freight and interregional passenger traffic (i.e., Amtrak).
5) Airport high speed line: Consideration should be given to the eventual (i.e., after all other major projects have been completed and sufficient demand has been demonstrated) construction of a high speed, direct rail line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport, in part via the Duwamish Valley. A major step towards the long-term goal of upgrading the meandering light rail system to true rapid transit, this would enable operation of a north-south semi-express service all the way to Tacoma and thus provide a much better alternative for many commuters than the increasingly congested I-5 freeway. The ultimate destiny of the currently-under-construction line through the Rainier Valley, which will be slower than the present bus service between Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport,25 is as a local, branch line, perhaps with a short extension that allows direct service to Southcenter. The viaduct from the southern end of the valley to Sea-Tac Airport could be shared by DMUs or fuel cell-powered vehicles from the Eastside line.
6) Local streetcar lines: Lines such as the proposed First Hill streetcar in Seattle and streetcar-type extensions of Tacoma Link should be locally financed because (a) they are local rather than regional lines, (b) are not as critical to regional mobility as are regional lines and (c) the relevant urban areas would already be receiving substantial investment in rail transit.
The advantages of this plan as compared with Sound Transit's plans are immense. They include:
1) Much larger rail system: Sound Transit's current plans call for the construction, exclusive of the length from Sea-Tac Airport to the University of Washington (UW), of 17.1 additional route miles (4.3 miles north, 2 miles south and 10.8 miles east) with a 0.4 percent tax increase and 22.9 additional route miles (4.3, 4.3 and 14.3 miles, respectively) with a 0.5 percent tax increase, some streetcar construction, and the possibility of some sort of study of passenger service on the Eastside railroad. In contrast to this very truncated system, Eastside Rail Now's plan proposes a comprehensive regional rail system consisting of 95 additional route miles (or 108 miles inclusive of the longer-term airport high-speed line), with the same or lower rate of tax increase: 27 miles north, 19 miles south, 7 miles east and 42 miles north-south (i.e., a full-fledged upgrading of the Eastside railroad). This much larger geographical coverage would make rail travel both practical and the mode of choice for a far larger number of trips than would Sound Transit's plan.
2) Much quicker startup of service: The Eastside could see the start of a simple pilot commuter rail service in a matter of months and full-fledged service (i.e., higher speeds, smoother rides and a greater frequency of service made possible by an extensive track upgrade) within as little as two years because the basic rail infrastructure already exists, as contrasted with the 2027 target originally proposed for East Link in Proposition 1. And service from downtown Bellevue to Redmond via the Overlake Corridor and Microsoft -- and on to Woodinville and beyond over existing track -- could begin in as little as five years, in sharp contrast to Proposition 1's vague promise of "sometime after 2027" just to downtown Redmond.
Snohomish County, which has also been severely shortchanged in past and present Sound Transit rail transit plans, could likewise see a greatly accelerated start of rail transit. This would occur in several ways. The first would be the (a) launching of a commuter service over the existing tracks from the City of Snohomish to the Eastside. A second is that (b) engineering would begin immediately for the entire distance of light rail line extension from the UW to Everett, instead of just for a limited section north of Northgate, and (c) priority could be given to completing the Everett portion thereof in order to quickly start a local service.26 In addition, (d) some commitment could be made to begin planning for extending the service on the Eastside railroad to Everett.
Tacoma and South King County would see a much quicker arrival of benefits for similar reasons. That is, (a) the entire distance of the light rail line from Seattle south to Tacoma would be constructed, (b) the Tacoma-to-Federal Way section could be scheduled to be completed first and (c) a passenger service on the Eastside railroad could provide a faster and more convenient alternative for some commuters from Renton and points south than would car or bus travel on the chronically and increasingly congested I-405.
3) Greater net environmental benefit: This is because of the faster startup of more rail mileage and the consequent (a) slower growth of automobile use, (b) reduction in pressure for constructing more highway lanes, (c) facilitating implementing user charges on highways and (d) accelerated start of construction of high density neighborhoods around planned stations with consequent reduced pressure for more sprawl.
4) Large reductions in cost: The cost per mile of route construction and per passenger mile are greatly reduced, and the total cost could also be substantially lower. This is due mainly to (a) the elimination of East Link, which is by far the most costly -- and likewise by far the least beneficial -- of the proposed new projects and (b) cutting the construction cost of the other light rail lines, as described above. (The possibilities for cost reduction are looked at in more detail in the below section).
5) More politically acceptable: This is because of (a) the much greater geographic coverage by rail, (b) the faster startup of service and (c) possibly a lower rate of tax increase. The increases in public support would be particularly great in Snohomish and Pierce Counties as well as in South King County. There would also be strong support throughout the region for launching a passenger service on the Eastside railroad, as confirmed by Sound Transit's recent public opinion survey. Although some people would undoubtedly be disappointed by the suspension of light rail construction in the I-90 corridor, many others would be delighted.27
6) More amenable to future expansion: This is because of (a) the increased demand for extensions that typically follows the start of new rail services, (b) the realization that rail lines can be constructed at reasonable cost even in this region and (c) a new confidence in Sound Transit -- that is, that it is now capable of launching new rail services at a low cost, quickly and where they make the most sense.
7) Greater freight mobility: Road freight mobility would be improved by (a) diverting some north-south passenger traffic to the new north-south light rail line and to the Eastside railroad, thereby helping to lessen congestion on the I-5 and I-405 freeways. And it would be protected by (b) eliminating Sound Transit's plan to remove the two center lanes on the I-90 floating bridge and narrow the remaining lanes, with consequent reduced speed limits, a higher accident rate, and restrictions on types of traffic allowed (e.g., flammable materials and wide loads). Rail freight mobility would be enhanced because (c) upgrading the Eastside railroad for passenger use would enhance its role as an emergency bypass for the vital but vulnerable BNSF line through downtown Seattle and along the coast to Everett and (d) focusing regional north-south passenger traffic to and from Seattle on the new light rail trunk line instead of on Burlington Northern's heavily used main line would facilitate the use of the latter for the expected growth in rail freight traffic. In addition, (e) the existence of a new north-south rail line from Tacoma to Everett built initially for transit could have ultimate potential for local freight service south of Sea-Tac and north of Northgate in the event that fuel prices in the U.S. rise to current European levels, or higher, and thus it becomes more economical to serve some large retail and commercial facilities by rail than by truck.28
8) Enhanced regional security: Eastside Rail Now's plan would (a) quickly create a viable alternative, low energy consumption, intra-regional transit system that could help cope with a sudden reduction in available fuel supplies due to military action, natural disaster etc. It would also (b) facilitate emergency freight redundancy as discussed above. Moreover, a comprehensive, integrated rail system connected with the national rail network could (c) be invaluable in the unlikely, but still not inconceivable, event of a major disaster for facilitating the quick evacuation of population and the bringing in of relief supplies.
Sound Transit has stated that the capital costs in current dollars for the projects in its two current proposals would be $6.8 billion with the 0.4 percent tax increase and $7.8 billion with the 0.5 percent increase. Most of this is for light rail, at $4.2 and $5.4 billion, respectively. The sum of operating and maintenance costs for these two alternatives for the period from 2008 through 2020 is $0.7 and $0.8 billion, respectively.
The longest and most costly light rail segment is the 10.8 mile East Link section from downtown Seattle to Overlake Hospital, which is currently stated to be somewhere in the range of $1.7 to $1.9 billion with an elevated alignment through downtown Bellevue and $2.1 to $2.4 billion with an approximately one mile underground section through downtown Bellevue. As it is highly unlikely that Bellevue would permit construction of an elevated rail line through its downtown core, the actual cost is likely to be much closer to the latter. The projected construction cost for the 3.5 mile segment from Overlake Hospital to Overlake Transit Center ranges from $0.7 to $0.8 billion. Thus, the total cost for East Link with 14.3 miles of construction (but still about 3.7 miles short of downtown Redmond) and a 0.5 percent tax increase would range from $2.8 to $3.2 billion.
That is, this one line would be receiving up to about 57 percent of the light rail funds with the 0.4 percent tax increase and up to about 60 percent with the 0.5 percent increase. The absurdity becomes particularly apparent when it is realized that the benefits of this line are highly dubious, particularly as compared with Sound Transit's proposed northward extension, and that this line has by far the greatest probability that there will be severe delays in starting construction.
Were East Link as proposed by Sound Transit to be removed from the package, this would provide roughly $3 billion to use on other rail transit projects in the region. Were the construction cost of new light rail lines to be slashed to an extremely generous $100 million per mile, which is well above the industry average but below Sound Transit's average to date, this would allow construction of 30 additional miles, which would be sufficient for 15 miles of track beyond what is called for in the 0.5 percent plan to get all the way to Tacoma plus 15 of the 23 miles north to Everett beyond the section called for in the 0.5 percent plan.
Were the construction cost of new light rail lines to be cut to a still very generous $50 million per mile, this would allow construction of about 60 additional miles. This would be more than sufficient for 15 miles of track to Tacoma plus 23 miles all the way to Everett as well as the full 7.1 miles extension of the Eastside railroad from downtown Bellevue through the Overlake corridor to downtown Redmond.
Were the average construction cost of new light rail lines to be cut to $40 million per mile, which is at the upper end of the range for most systems and still substantially more than for many systems, this would allow construction of about 75 additional miles. This would be sufficient for the roughly 45 route miles to Tacoma, Everett and Redmond as well as a $200 million first-class upgrading of the Eastside railroad, with $1 billion to spare.
But there is more. That is, there is no reason that the cost per mile has to be at the upper end of the industry cost range. With single tracking, using non-electric vehicles and the construction of very simple stations, substantial further reductions could be attained. Moreover, total region-wide costs could be even further reduced because this extensive rail system would allow a major reduction in capital and operating expenditures for Sound Transit's express bus service on parallel roads without reducing (and actually increasing) the overall quality of service.
It is clear that there are tremendous opportunities for improving transportation planning in the Puget Sound region. There is absolutely no reason why the existing infrastructure cannot be used more efficiently (e.g., the express lanes in the I-90 corridor and the Eastside railroad) instead of being ripped out and replaced by other modes at exorbitant cost. There is no good reason that the region has to continue to spend more than four times per mile what other regions are spending for light rail. There is no good reason that it has to wait decades for a truly comprehensive regional rail transit system. And there is no good reason why the region that The Economist magazine named as having the worst transport planning in North America29 cannot change and now have some of the best.
1Eastside Rail Now! (www.eastsiderailnow.org) is a grassroots organization that was formed in early January 2007 by a group of Bellevue residents for the purposes of (a) stopping plans to scrap the Eastside railroad and to replace it with a bicycle trail, (b) promoting use of the railroad as the core of a low-cost and environmentally-beneficial regional commuter rail system, (c) ensuring that the railroad's full, mostly 100 foot, right of way is preserved and (d) promoting use of the right of way adjacent to the tracks as a linear nature preserve.
2Sound Transit (www.soundtransit.org), officially the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, has posted a summary of its most recent long-term transportation plan as of June 2008 at future.soundtransit.org/proposed.aspx, and a list of links to detailed information about individual projects was located at future.soundtransit.org/projects.aspx. For information on Proposition 1, which was soundly rejected by the voters on November 6, 2007, see Roads & Transit and 23 Reasons to Vote "No" on Proposition 1.
3The official strategy for the Eastside has been, at least until recently, to dismantle the existing public transportation infrastructure in the two main travel corridors. In the north-south corridor, the political establishment had been attempting to scrap the existing, well-located railroad while constructing a "bus rapid transit" route on the roughly parallel I-405 freeway at massive cost. In east-west corridor, it is attempting to do just the opposite by replacing the existing "bus rapid transit" infrastructure (which consists of HOV and exclusive transit lanes most of the way) with a light rail line at enormous cost. Even worse is the fact that such policy would result in little, if any, net gain in passenger capacity in each corridor -- and could even reduce it!
4The total cost of basic, at-grade light rail currently ranges from $20-40 million per mile (including all capital costs, maintenance facilities and rail cars), according to a variety of sources, including data published by organizations developing light rail systems. However, Sound Transit is spending roughly $173 million per mile (exclusive of the cost of the downtown transit tunnel) for its Central Link light rail that is currently under construction between Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport. The official explanation for this extraordinarily high expenditure is that it has been unavoidable because of the difficult tunneling required though Beacon Hill and the extensive section of viaduct required on the southern portion of the route. However, critics respond that the more fundamental reason is that the selection of route was based on political considerations rather than on the basis of costs and region-wide benefits.
Sound Transit's projected maximum costs for the other sections proposed in its most recent plan are $334 million per mile for the 4.3 miles from the UW to Northgate, $168 million per mile for the 2 miles from Sea-Tac to South 200th Street and $176 million per mile for the 2.3 miles from South 200th to South 240th Street.
5Although some might argue that at-grade running is not suitable for this region, it should be kept in mind that all existing railway lines in the region run mostly, or entirely, at grade. The same is true of former rail lines, including the Interurban, an inter-city electric passenger railway that ran all the way from Tacoma to Everett and used a technology very similar to that of modern light rail systems. Moreover, Sound Transit has found at-grade operation to be satisfactory for Tacoma Link and its Rainier Valley line as well as for its high-speed Sounder trains. Even in Japan, there is extensive at-grade running by high capacity rail lines in suburban areas of Tokyo, Osaka and other major cities, despite the much higher population densities. Thus it appears that there is no overwhelming reason that light rail extensions in outlying areas need to have costly elevated structures over most of their lengths.
6Constructing transit lines initially with only a single track plus strategically placed passing sidings has long been a common practice in the U.S. and abroad. Modern, West Coast examples include the first line of the highly successful San Diego Trolley light rail system and parts of the Sacramento light rail system. In fact, even Sound Transit's Tacoma Link light rail line consists largely of a single track.
7Some may question the use of the term light rail in this context, because it is almost always used to refer to electrified transit services. However, the term will be used here to describe this line because at least the central -- and most heavily trafficked -- section (i.e., from Sea-Tac to Northgate) will be conventional light rail for some time to come. There are numerous examples of one type of rail transit gradually being converted into another over time, so it would not be all that unusual here. For example, streetcar lines have been converted into light rail, conventional rail has been converted into light rail and light rail has been converted into rapid transit. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be diesel light rail or fuel cell light rail.
8Electrification, which includes not only the erecting of the visible overhead wires and poles but also substations and other infrastructure, represents a large portion of the cost of constructing light rail lines. The past several years have seen great progress in improving DMU performance. Moreover, substantial advances are being made on the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power rail vehicles, particularly in Japan and Europe. The Seattle metropolitan area should consider taking a leading role in utilizing such technology, as it is possible that fuel cell vehicles could become commercially available by the time substantial sections of light rail track extensions have been completed. For example, see BNSF Railway and Vehicle Projects Develop Experimental Hydrogen Fuel Cell Switch Locomotive, Development of the World's First Fuel Cell Hybrid Railcar and Hydrogen on Track.
9This would represent an important step towards an eventual integration of the region's rail system, with a variety of consequent benefits, including operational flexibility, passenger convenience and cost minimization.
10For example, the distance by freeway between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport is about 13 miles, according to WSDOT data, whereas the distance via the Rainier Valley line is 15.7 miles.
11Colorado Railcar, the leading U.S. manufacturer of DMUs, offers a maximum operating speed of 90 mph for its vehicles. See www.coloradorailcar.com/dmu-brochure-2005.pdf.
12The most commonly used name has been the BNSF rail line. However, the term Eastside railroad is used here because (a) it is more descriptive, (b) Burlington Northern has a number of rail lines in the region and (c) Burlington Northern is selling the line to the Port of Seattle.
13See HCT: Planning Study of BNSF Corridor from Renton to Snohomish (E. King County and Snohomish County) on the Sound Transit website.
14Predicting the ridership of new rail transit lines is notoriously difficult and the results are often highly inaccurate. However, there are several criteria that are good indicators of a large potential demand, all of which exist for the Eastside railroad. They include connecting major destinations, a moderate to high population density, a growing population, traffic congestion on parallel roads, high fuel prices and public policies that favor transit-oriented development (TOD). See The Excellent Location of the Eastside Railroad for Commuter Rail Service, Eastside Rail Now!, January 2008.
15See ST2 Update, First Quarter 2008 Public Involvement, pp. 20-25, Sound Transit, March 13, 2008. Starting a demonstration commuter rail service on the Eastside railroad was shown to consistently rate as one of the most desired rail transit projects in the region. This survey found that for the region as a whole, it ranks just behind East Link, and in some sub-areas it ranks ahead of East Link. Moreover, an Eastside commuter rail service could even rank higher if (a) it were full-fledged rather than just a demonstration, (b) several key extensions as outlined above were constructed and (c) its vastly lower cost of implementation as compared with East Link taken into consideration by the public.
16Sub-area equity is a legally mandated mechanism for attempting to ensure that the tax revenues collected by Sound Transit within each of the five sub-areas are used for capital projects and operations that directly benefit those areas. These sub-areas are East King County, Snohomish County, South King County, North King County (which includes Seattle) and Pierce County. Critics of Sound Transit's policies claim that this principle has been violated because the many hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues already collected in the East King County sub-area have been used to fund cost overruns on rail transit projects that center on Seattle and provide little benefit to the Eastside.
17Seattle currently has two commuter rail lines and one operating streetcar line (plus another dormant streetcar line). Construction of one light rail line is nearing completion and construction of a second is scheduled to begin in 2009. Sound Transit's current proposal calls for further extensions of the light rail system, the addition of more commuter trains and the construction of another streetcar line in Seattle. But the only rail that it provides for the entire Eastside, whose population and level of economic activity are coming to rival that of Seattle, is a line that will do little if anything to improve mobility and the possibility of a modest "demonstration" project on the existing railroad.
18This corridor is to be redeveloped into a high density commercial and residential area. Thus, it would likely become a substantial traffic generator for the railroad. The study area includes about 900 acres, which is more than twice the current size of downtown Bellevue. See Bel-Red Area Transformation on the City of Bellevue website.
19The existing BNSF rail line between Everett and Snohomish is single tracked and already heavily used, mainly for eastbound container traffic. BNSF would likely be reluctant to allow commuter rail on it without a very large payment for capacity increases, as was the case with its Seattle-to-Everett line.
20Sound Transit currently projects its total monetary cost for the 10.8 miles at up to $2.4 billion assuming that it is compelled to build a mile of tunnel though downtown Bellevue. However, the real cost to the region would be far larger because of the great externalities from the years of construction (e.g., the disruptions to neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Bellevue and the temporary loss of much capacity on the I-405 bridge) as well as the possible permanent negative effect on bridge capacity and reduced bridge life expectancy.
21These issues include potential problems with operating over the I-90 floating bridge, such as (1) reduced safety and longevity of the bridge due to the added weight of steel rails and trains, (2) reduced bridge lifespan due to corrosion of the rebar reinforcing rods by stray current from the 1500V power supply, (3) reduced traffic capacity of the bridge due to the loss of the two center lanes, (4) reduced speeds due to narrowing of existing lanes and (5) a predicted increased accident rate due to narrower lanes. They also include routing problems through Bellevue, particularly the intense opposition from established residential neighborhoods and the immense cost of tunneling through downtown Bellevue.
22Sound Transit's own data show that traffic demand is expected to increase by more in the I-405 corridor than in the I-90 corridor. (See What is Sound Transit and why should you care? on the Sound Transit website.) And this is only common sense, as more of the growth in the workforce for Bellevue's booming downtown is coming areas to the south and north, where housing costs are considerably cheaper than on the Eastside than in Seattle. Also, the biggest traffic bottlenecks are on I-405 rather than I-90, and they will continue to be despite repeated rounds of massive investments in the further widening of the former. Yet, Sound Transit continues to insist on spending a vast sum on converting the HOV lanes on I-90, which have considerable excess capacity and provide the basis for an unusually effective "bus rapid transit" system, into a light rail line that would do little to increase capacity or speed -- and which could actually reduce both in the corridor. At the same time, it persists in promoting "bus rapid transit" on the I-405 corridor despite its increasingly severe congestion and lack of excess capacity during much of the day on the HOV lanes, while doing little more than "study" the parallel rail line with its tremendous unused capacity.
23This May 2007 study found that the costs of East Link would likely be well in excess of double the benefits! If Sound Transit has made a benefit cost analysis of this route, it has not published it, possibly because the result would destroy any rationale for constructing the line. In 2007 a Sound Transit spokesperson told Eastside Rail Now! that such a study would be conducted after securing funds for it from the passage of Proposition 1. This is clearly inappropriate: benefit cost analysis of projects, not only their entirety by also of major, optional components, should be conducted before project decisions are made and submitted to the voters. Better yet, least cost planning, an enhanced form of benefit cost analysis, should be used, as required by Washington state law.
In 2007 Sound Transit commissioned a benefit cost study for its proposed ST2 light rail system as a whole, Sound Transit 2 Benefit-Cost Analysis Methodology Report with Analysis Results. However, it appears that there are some serious problems with the methodology, including the failure to analyze individual sections -- and most important, East Link -- independently.
Interestingly, whereas Sound Transit has failed to produce an economic analysis of East Link separate from the rest of the system, it is conducting a separate environmental analysis for this route, and it has already released a preliminary study East Link Project, Environmental Scoping Information Report, Seattle to Bellevue to Redmond. While environmental effects are certainly an important consideration in any project, they would be just a small part of the overall costs and benefits of this project.
24Sound Transit paid Burlington Northern $258 million (out of a total cost of $385 million expenditure for the route) for the right to operate four round trips per weekday between Seattle and Everett. Problems with further increases in the number of trains include the likely necessity for additional large payments to Burlington Northern and an underlying weak demand. Currently ridership is only about 1000 passenger boardings (or 500 round trips) per day, and there is little prospect for a big increase. Demand is weaker than for typical commuter rail routes largely because of the small number of intermediate stations -- only two -- and the fact that both serve limited potential markets because they are in relatively small coastal communities rather than in the more heavily populated and more accessible inland areas. In addition, the express bus service between Everett and downtown Seattle is far more frequent, covers more locations (both intermediate and in downtown Seattle), is faster for most riders, and is priced substantially lower.
25Sound Transit states that the trip time for the 15.7 mile ride between "the heart of Downtown Seattle" and Sea-Tac will be 34 minutes (www.soundtransit.org/x3637.xml). The scheduled trip time for King County Metro's well patronized 194 bus line between the same points is only 28 minutes.
26Because it would be constructed as a more or less conventional, non-electrified rail line with an initially modest traffic volume, maintenance and storage facilities could be far simpler and less costly than those constructed for the light rail line in Seattle.
27That is, because of the very high ranking of commuter rail service on the Eastside railroad, it is logical to assume that many people would prefer that service over East Link. This is consistent with the fact that vast numbers of people have to endure severe congestion on I-405 daily and have no good alternative, whereas there is the alternative of express bus service in peak directions that is relatively immune to traffic congestion on most of the route between Bellevue and Seattle.
28The trend for manufacturing, distribution and large retailers to move away from rail lines that occurred most conspicuously during the latter decades of the 20th century was largely the result of the rapid improvement in roads, advances in trucking technology, suburbanization and low fuel prices. Now, however, there are indications that this trend could come to an end and even begin a gradual reversal. Most important is the rapid rise in fuel prices, which will make rail shipment more attractive relative to truck shipment in an increasing number of cases. It will also lead to greater growth of population and economic activity in urban areas relative to distant suburbs, which would mean more centralization of manufacturing, distribution, the labor force and consumers, all of which favors rail shipment. These trends could be accelerated by serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
29"It is home to Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft (as well as to Ichiro Suzuki, the hippest baseball player in the world). But Seattle's other, lesser boast is that it probably has the worst transport planning in North America," The Economist, June 30, 2005.
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