The hidden costs of light rail across the I-90 bridge
Special to The Times
Before billions of tax dollars are devoted to any major transportation project, it makes sense to determine what is being replaced, the project's cost, its benefit, and whether it will reduce traffic congestion.
Most people think light rail would be an improvement over our existing modes of travel. However, light rail and/or transit are not a cure-all for our transportation ills.
Transit ridership in Central Puget Sound amounts to less than 3 percent of the total daily travel. Yet, the Puget Sound Regional Council's Metropolitan Transportation Plan for 2030 allocates half of total transportation expenditures to transit and hopes that transit's market share will increase to 4.5 percent of daily travel. Meanwhile, our roadway system, with the other half of funding, would serve the other 95 percent of travel. The disparity between ridership being served and proposed dollars should be apparent.
During the past 30 years, our state's population has doubled. This growth will continue. Unfortunately, Washington has failed to meet the rising demands for additional highway lanes, particularly in Central Puget Sound.
This leads to Sound Transit's proposed Interstate 90 corridor acquisition. Under its proposal, the I-90 center corridor would be acquired by Sound Transit exclusively for light rail between Seattle and the Eastside. Buses, vanpools, HOVs and all Mercer Island vehicular traffic now using this inner corridor would be rerouted to the outer lanes.
The result would be increased delays and congestion on all traffic moving between Seattle and the Eastside. The cost of building light rail to the Eastside would be $6 billion. The I-90 bridge would suffer a vehicle capacity loss of one-third compared with today. Even with an optimistic doubling of transit ridership, there would be a 9-percent loss of total (vehicle and transit) person trips.
Light rail would not give us either the flexibility or the capacity that rapid bus service offers at a small fraction of the cost. Bus rapid transit can share the center lanes, thus avoiding the one-third loss of vehicular traffic.
Seattle-Eastside light rail presents safety problems. A railroad has never been put on a floating bridge anywhere in the world. Even with major steps of grinding down the concrete surface, replacing concrete barriers with cable barriers and new transition sections to offset the extra weight, the sheer weight of the rails and equipment means that the bridge would be at 98 percent of its load-carrying capacity.
Our state has a sad record of floating bridges that sink. Remember the Mercer Island floating bridge going under in 1990, or the sinking of the Hood Canal floating bridge in 1979? A 2-percent safety factor hardly fills us with confidence for future bridge use.
Aside from the cost of converting the center corridor to light rail, one has to ask by what right would Sound Transit acquire this center corridor? This would constitute a "taking" of state highway property now belonging to all Washington taxpayers.
Utilizing the two center lanes exclusively for light rail would require compensating the state for such a taking. This would be in accordance with the provisions of the state constitution's 18th Amendment and involve the provisions of state law (RCW 47.12) requiring that the property is "no longer required for highway purposes" and "is in the public interest" before a transfer takes place.
A more seminal issue would be whether such taking would rise to the level of being in the public interest. Prior to the time of a taking, there should be a finding of public purpose, welfare and/or benefit. Such taking would require approval of both the Washington State Department of Transportation and the attorney general.
Compensation to the state should equate to the replacement cost of the center corridor, e.g., a new bridge across Lake Washington. Adding this replacement cost to the construction cost of light rail adds many billions of dollars to this already expensive light-rail project.
The proposed taking of the I-90 center corridor should be viewed for what it really is: an unwarranted, unnecessary, unproductive, wasteful and essentially disruptive use that would contribute to congestion, not alleviate it.
If Sound Transit desires to cross Lake Washington, let it undertake the cost of acquiring the necessary right of ways and building the necessary infrastructure to do so. Then we can see if the taxpaying public thinks this extremely expensive project is worth it.
George Kargianis is the former chief examiner of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, former member of the state Transportation Commission and currently a member of the Eastside Transportation Association. Phil Talmadge is a former state senator and former state Supreme Court justice.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company