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Cutting costs…at what cost?

Posted by Shefali Ranganathan at Jul 31, 2012 01:20 PM |
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Some East Link cost cutting measures seem to undermine light rail.

The following is a guest post by Hester Serebrin

Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue are currently locked in negotiations that will ultimately determine Bellevue’s financial contribution to the East Link light rail project that is projected to serve upwards of 50,000 Bellevue residents daily by 2030. Some of the cost-savings measures under consideration, however, seem to undermine the spirit of this highly anticipated (and controversial) mass transit project.

The East Link line, when completed in 2023, will connect Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond's Overlake area. The $2.8 billion project was approved in 2008 by Puget Sound voters, and in 2011, the Sound Transit board selected – from several alternatives laid out in the Environmental Impact Statement – an alignment that included a tunnel in downtown Bellevue. That is, a $320 million tunnel that wasn’t part of the plan approved by voters.

In November 2011, the City of Bellevue and Sound Transit entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, in which Bellevue committed to providing up to $160 million towards the cost of the tunnel. $100 million of the contributions are “up-front” and due regardless of the final cost of the project, whereas the remaining $60 million are “contingent” – meaning that any cost reductions in the project will go towards the reduction of the contingent contribution. The MOU also committed Sound Transit and Bellevue to review and consider such cost-saving design changes.

Which brings us to the current negotiations. The general areas considered for cost-saving include tunnel design optimization, tunnel station design optimization, elevated guideway design, and expedited construction (through additional temporary road closures). Each of the specific cost-saving ideas will then be evaluated on operations, potential for savings, access & ridership, traffic mobility, noise, appearance, environmental factors, and schedule risk. On June 28th, Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue agreed on a set of cost savings recommendations to advance for further study. The final cost-savings ideas are slated to be selected no earlier than 2013.

Some of the ideas have garnered support in the community, while others should raise concerns for transit fans. The following proposals stand out as particularly worrisome:

Adding a road lane for light rail?

Shift Bellevue Way West; estimated savings: $6-10 million
The portion on the table is a stretch of Bellevue Way West that passes by the historic Winters House, Bellevue’s only public building on the National Historic Register and the home of the Bellevue Historical Society. Under the current plan, the rail line runs in a trench in front of the building, but this City-backed cost-saving idea would move the rail out of the trench and onto the surface, shifting the tracks and roadway to the west, simultaneously adding a southbound HOV lane.  The HOV lane is not part of the cost-saving measure. For years, prominent downtown developers and light rail opponents Kemper Freeman and Kevin Wallace (current Bellevue City Council member) along with the Bellevue Chamber have advocated to expand Bellevue Way. The City now sees an opportunity to slip in the expansion, endorsing the idea in a recent meeting, where they praised the potential “synergy” and “efficiencies” of coordinating the shift west with the addition of the HOV lane.

Not everyone sees the synergy. The Downtown Bellevue Association and community group Move Bellevue Forward have questioned the proposal.  Further, the city has not had any sort of public process to vet this addition especially with Enatai neighborhood that will be most impacted by the increased traffic on Bellevue Way.

Moving the station away from where the people are?

Relocate the downtown station to NE 6th; estimated savings: $10-18 million OR relocate the downtown station to City Hall/Metro Site; estimated savings $14-23 million

Currently the Bellevue Downtown station is slated to be a cut-and-cover tunnel below 110th Ave NE and NE 4th Street, with access points on both sides of NE 4th Street. The first idea moves the station to NE 6th St. with above-grade station access, while the 2nd idea would relocate the station to the City Hall Plaza in a shallower tunnel.

Cost-savings for both alternatives come from the potential to shorten construction duration and reduce construction risk, but otherwise these changes create more problems than they solve. One of the most striking statistics shows that under the current plan, 14% of “2030 Downtown residents” would be within a 5-minute walk of the station. That number drops to 7% under Idea 3d and only 4% under Idea 3c.

In this letter to Sound Transit and the Bellevue City Council, the Bellevue Downtown Association speaks out against the proposed relocations, citing the reduced ridership, reduced train speeds, and lack of protection from the elements all as reasons not to relocate:

The Cost Savings Report says options 3c and 3d would reduce ridership due to the loss of a second entrance serving riders south of NE 4th Street. […] In addition, the visuals show a minimal degree of weather protection for an outdoor station. If implemented, this minimal treatment could affect ridership even more at what should be the most productive light rail station on the Eastside.

This approach may be a suitable for a lower‐density area, but Downtown Bellevue will be East Link’s highest ridership access point. […] When factoring in costs to make this station, its ridership potential and its environs acceptable, we question whether any cost savings will result.

While the cost-saving efforts are laudable, cutting costs simply for the purpose of cutting cost is short-sighted. Good, lasting infrastructure takes both time and a decent investment – if we’re going to sell future riders short for a proportionally small chunk of change, is the project is worth doing at all? Perhaps everyone needs a refresher of the Memorandum of Understanding:

[E]limination of other Project elements that have a direct, substantial negative impact on East Link Project ridership or operations and maintenance shall not count towards a reduction in the City Contingency.

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