Seattle Dips Into Reserves to Cover a Bridge Retrofit

Plus, railway experts say Taiwan tram-train is a waste of money, and more in our weekly New Starts.

Seattle bridges crossing Lake Washington (Photo by Joe Mabel)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Sound Transit Raids Piggy Bank for Floating Bridge
The East Link extension of Sound Transit’s light-rail network, which will connect downtown Seattle with Bellevue, Washington, and other communities on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, includes a unique engineering challenge that has led the agency to dip into a reserve fund set aside for project cost overruns to the tune of $225 million.

According to news reports from KING5 and The Seattle Times, the extra money is required in order to properly retrofit the floating bridge that the trains will use to cross Lake Washington. The tracks in both directions will be installed on the inside of the westbound span, outboard of the bridge piers, in what are currently reversible express lanes for cars. The added weight of the trains and tracks will necessitate strengthening and reinforcement of the bridge’s pontoons and increasing their rigidity while still allowing the bridge to rise and fall with the water level in Lake Washington.

Project contractor Kiewit-Hoffman plans to do this by inserting steel frames in the pontoons that will then be connected to one another by steel cables threaded through them. This “post-tensioning” will tie the pontoons together to form a single rigid structure that still floats on the water.

The East Link Lake Washington crossing is the first that will run a railroad across a pontoon bridge. The issue has been studied and tests conducted for 12 years, the Times reports.

Critics of the project point to this fund drawdown as yet another example of Sound Transit getting things wrong. “This is just too significant of an issue and just calls too much into question, what we’ve been told by Sound Transit,” David Thompson, an attorney who lives on Mercer Island, told KING5. Mercer Island residents have also voiced objections to the rail line’s takeover of the bridge’s express lanes.

The additional money brings the total cost of the East Link project to $712 million for the 7-mile East Link segment from International District/Chinatown station to South Bellevue, a critical piece of the route that will run to Overlake and ultimately Redmond via downtown Bellevue. The drawdown leaves $147 million in the East Link project’s contingency fund. The fund and the rest of the project’s cost is covered by increased car license fees and sales taxes Seattle-area voters approved in the ST2 transportation package in 2008. An additional tax hike approved last fall is to cover the cost of the extension from Overlake to Redmond. The route to Overlake is set to begin service in 2023, with service to Redmond beginning the following year.

Critics Blast Taiwan Tram-Train Proposal
“The people want subways.” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen didn’t use this phrase that the late mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, used to justify the cancellation of a network of light-rail lines, but she channeled his spirit in defending her commitment to build a “tram-train” line connecting the port city of Keelung in the island’s northeast to the Taipei rapid transit system. Still, the Taipei Times reports that critics of the project are arguing that the money could be better spent on a number of projects, including beefing up service on the existing commuter rail line serving the city.

“Keelung residents have been expecting a mass rapid transit [MRT] system for decades and none of the previous administrations could provide it. I want to tell everyone in Keelung that we will definitely deliver it. The Democratic Progressive Party administration has the will and determination to ensure that Keelung gets an MRT,” Tsai is quoted in the article as saying.

But Chen Yen-liang, secretary-general of Taiwan’s Society of Railway and National Planning, said that “tram-trains” like the one Tsai plans to build usually serve areas of relatively light traffic, which the Keelung-to-Nangang corridor these trains would serve isn’t.

He also criticized the fact that passengers would have to change trains at Badu station in Keelung in order to reach the central railway station in Taipei. “Rather than building a light railway whose trains run only slightly faster than TRA trains, the government should use the earmarked funds to buy new commuter trains,” he said.

A former Keelung resident quoted in the story also stated that residents of the area could travel to central Taipei faster by bus.

Chen said that the proposed line was being pushed merely to fulfill a campaign promise of Tsai’s.

Los Angeles to Tunnel for Subway Extension?
Plans to extend the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line eastward to Whittier could lead to the construction of another Southern California subway tunnel, this time in East L.A., Los Angeles magazine reports.

Los Angeles Metro Gold Line train at the Little Tokyo station (Photo by Tim Adams)

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is currently in the midst of a technical study to identify the best alignment for the proposed Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension, which would take the light-rail line from its current East L.A. terminus to the suburbs of Whittier and El Monte. Both routes may follow a stretch of the Pomona Freeway (State Route 60), with one continuing along the freeway to El Monte and the other heading south, then east, to Whittier, but one of the Whittier options would involve a subway tunnel from the freeway to Washington Boulevard, while the other would avoid the freeway completely but might also include a subway along one of two thoroughfares between the current terminus and Washington. According to the magazine, either of these last two options would also include putting the current end-of-line station at Atlantic and Pomona boulevards underground as well.

Together, the two extensions are projected to cost $6 billion; both of them would be paid for from tax revenues generated by the Measure M ballot question voters approved last fall.

The magazine waxed ecstatic over the prospect of a quicker ride to Santa Monica via a subway: “Exciting times,” it said.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: transportation spendinglight railsubwaysbridges

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