Sound Transit 3 picking up speed

Sound Transit 3, the latest phase of planning for the regional mass transit system, is moving forward at an accelerated pace, as the City Council heard this morning.

Rick Elgenfritz, the Director of Planning and Project Development of Sound Transit, presented at this morning’s Council Briefing on the current options being weighed and the timeline for Sound Transit 3 advancement this year.

The timeline is rapid: local municipalities are currently drafting their input (Council member Mike O’Brien is drafting a letter this week on behalf of the Council) for submission to the Sound Transit staff and board.  In March, the Sound Transit Board will issue a draft recommendation for what should be included in Sound Transit 3; April and May will be devoted to gathering public input, and in June the Board will vote on a final proposal to submit for the November 2016 ballot.

At this point, the Sound Transit staff is looking at a variety of projects. The core is further extension of the light rail lines: north to Everett, south to Tacoma, east to Redmond, and west to Ballard and West Seattle.  On top of that is an a la carte menu of smaller projects that would enhance the value of the light rail investments.

One of the options under consideration would dig a second light rail tunnel through the downtown core, which would extend the capacity beyond the limits of the existing single tunnel — not a limit today, but it will be once the various extensions and spurs start to come online.

Speaking of those spurs, Sound Transit is also looking at the operational constraints of having multiple lines running simultaneously — a requirement once light rail stops being a single vertical line. A single train line running from Everett to Tacoma would take two hours end-to-end, which creates issues for crewing trains as well as for provisioning. They have looked at several options for how to subdivide into separate lines, and their preferred option looks like this:

ST3's preferred option for subdividing light rail lines
ST3’s preferred option for subdividing light rail lines

This also balances expected traffic on the various lines, reducing overcrowding where possible. It means that there will likely be more transfers between lines — particularly for people headed to the airport from other parts of the region — but having a second tunnel downtown will make that fairly painless, particularly at peak times when trains will run every four minutes.

Several Council members raised concerns that various constituents felt that they hadn’t been given sufficient opportunity to provide input so far; in particular Council member Herbold relayed a desire from her West Seattle district for more conversations, and Council members Gonzalez and Juarez observed that immigrant and low socioeconomic status residents are critically reliant on mass transit and need to have deeper input into the plans.

The most significant policy decision for the Sound Transit Board (of which Council member Johnson is now a member) is to weigh the timeframe for both tax levies and construction: a longer timeframe — potentially as long as 30 years — allows for a more comprehensive plan for the region (and raising more money) though it might need additional revising along the way as regional needs change. Voters might also get spooked by a larger dollar figure.

We can expect Council member O’Brien to bring his draft letter to Sound Transit to next Monday’s Council briefing for discussion. In the meantime, you can watch this morning’s presentation here (and read their slides here).