Urban Politics #95: Sound Transit, Sane Transit & The Monorail

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


Our Transit Future

Two recent events could dramatically reduce our congested streets in the not too distant future.

First of all, the voters of Seattle have approved Initiative 53, the Monorail Initiative, by over a 12% margin. The law now requires the City to re-establish and properly fund the independent ETC so that they can do their job and prepare a solid monorail proposed project to the voters in 2 years.

Being the only City Council Member to publicly endorse the initiative, I feel particularly responsible for making sure that the City does not ignore this second voter approved monorail initiative. I want to see something get done and have it done right, so that our tax dollars are not wasted on endless studies.

The second significant event occurred yesterday when the Sound Transit Board voted to suspend negotiations until December 14 with their tunnel contractor because projected costs were higher than expected.

Estimates for digging the 4 1/2-mile tunnel from downtown to the University District now range from $728 million to $777 million not including contingency money which generally runs from 15% to 30% of the cost. In addition Sound Transit was prepared to pick up an additional $54 million of third party costs, self-insurance for worker compensation, contingency for worst case tunneling conditions and “so forth”.

When the construction costs are totaled, digging under Capitol Hill and Portage Bay could run $1,064,000,000 if the high estimate is coupled with the higher contingency and the additional costs. Given how construction budgets for other regional transit systems have gone over budget I believe this is a more realistic projection than a lower one. And even the higher amount is not a guaranteed cap. The agency had originally budgeted the tunnel to cost $557 million.

Significantly the board said it no longer needed former Mayor Norm Rice to head an independent panel to review the tunnel contract. Sound Transit had recently asked Rice to create the panel after Sane Transit questioned the cost effectiveness of the proposed light rail plan and asked for the creation of an independent audit of the agency and its plan. Sane Transit is a body of community leaders and elected officials, including former Gov. Booth Gardner, County Council Members Maggie Fimia and Rob McKenna, City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck and me.

Our initial request was to review the costs and ridership projections for the entire link light rail project and not just the tunnel. This message was echoed by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) in a letter to Sound Transit. In it they wrote that the review should “include all aspects of the light rail project and include consideration of alternatives including different alignments as well as non rail solutions.” Unfortunately Sound Transit did not expand their scope to include a review of light rail’s financial feasibility or to investigate alternative modes of mass transit.

However, they have now said that during the next few weeks alternative light rail routes considered earlier in the project’s environmental-impact statement may be included. This could lead to trains running through the Eastlake neighborhood, either down a major arterial or hugging the freeway alongside Capitol Hill. There is even the possibility that a new route would avoid downtown and use the current Convention Center bus station across from the Paramount Theater as a departure for shuttles entering downtown. This last alternative would retain the existing downtown tunnel for buses and would certainly result in less congestion downtown since the current plan calls for pulling buses out of the tunnel and having them run on the streets.

Another original alternative to be studied would be to cross Portage Bay with a bridge instead of a tunnel. Such a bridge would have to be at least as high as the bottom level of I-5. Lastly, since all of these alternatives still would probably run over the projected budget, it is possible that the route would be cut in half, with either the northern or southern half being built to downtown.

A legal argument being made is that without another public vote Sound Transit will have to meet its obligation to the voters to build a regional transit system which includes rail. That system, as described to the voters, has three main elements: express buses, commuter rail and light rail. Sound Transit is now running 13 of the 18 express routes promised and the commuter rail is now also operating between Tacoma and Seattle with ridership of about 1,300 passengers daily. But there is no current light rail. Interestingly there is a small rail line between the Tacoma Dome and downtown Tacoma which is scheduled to be built in the near future, which might meet the ballot obligation and not break Sound Transit’s budget.

Lastly there is an opportunity now for Sound Transit and Sane Transit to finally move in the same direction. The Sound Transit Board passed a motion that directed its staff to design an open process for discussing alternatives and for ‘involving the public” in the discussion of alternatives. If this directive is interpreted broadly, Sane Transit could work with Sound Transit in a constructive manner. Meanwhile it appears that DSA and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce are talking about working together to set up a panel to review the entire proposed system. I hope that they would include Sane Transit participation and that the scope of the panel would cover finances, ridership projections and alternative transportation modes (e.g. monorail technology).

Dorothy Bullitt, Sane Transit Steering Committee Member, summed it up best when she said “It is time to stop the hand wringing and move on to consider practical alternatives.”

Sane Transit Chair Jarlath Hume added, “We should not only evaluate other alignments for Light Rail, but also study alternatives such as free buses and van pools, bike lanes, and both the freeway and in city monorail. Two to Three billion dollars, properly spent, can have a major impact on congestion. Our goal must be to provide real value for the taxpayer.”

Recently, Sane Transit’s steering committee adopted the following criteria to evaluate any transit plan: 1) how many new riders does the proposed system bring in; 2) what is the cost per rider; 3) what are the financial risks in implementing the system; and 4) what is the impact on the neighborhoods served by the system?

I am particularly concerned about the impact that the current rail plan has on the communities. Tearing up our neighborhoods, particularly evident on Capitol Hill’s business and First Hill’s residential districts, is becoming more and more difficult to justify. The tunnel has just not penciled out. It could cost billions and congestion could remain about the same.

With the passage of Initiative 53 and the re-evaluation of Sound Transit’s rail plans, we are on the verge of creating a cost effective mass transit system for Seattle residents and the greater metropolitan area. I look forward to working with others to meet this objective.

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