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Sound Transit rolls forward with ST3 projects while Legislature dithers on state budget

Early this afternoon, Sound Transit’s elected leadership held a press conference to announce a series of strategic initiatives aimed at streamlining and accelerating the implementation of our voter-approved ST3 system expansion plan.

Following that press conference, the agency’s board of directors held a business meeting in Union Station’s Ruth Fisher Boardroom and approved motions authorizing the acquisition of property (real estate) and equipment (new light rail vehicles) for new light rail extensions running north, south, and east.

“Today we’re pushing the ‘go’ button on critical infrastructure expansions to serve the people of our region,” said Sound Transit Board Chair and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. “These projects will help keep commuters, freight, and our economy moving as our population grows and our congestion worsens. It’s imperative we deliver the projects voters have approved with an eye towards saving money and being as efficient as possible.”

Somers was joined for the press conference by Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff and Board Vice Chairs Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma and John Marchione of Redmond. Strickland noted they’d been to a Puget Sound Regional Council meeting that morning where it was highlighted that Sound Transit is the fastest growing transit agency in the United States, thanks to the University Link-sparked ridership boom.

The three kept their remarks focused on the need for the projects Sound Transit is working on, and did not comment on any state legislative matters.

But they didn’t need to. Actions speak louder than words, and Sound Transit’s leadership demonstrated today that they’re all about action.

While the Legislature dithers and procrastinates on getting a budget together, Sound Transit is rolling forward, working hard to figure out how to get more light rail, commuter rail, and bus service (including bus rapid transit) to the people. The agency is determined to speed up project delivery, and is realigning its people and processes in order to get more service to more neighborhoods more quickly.

Sound Transit explains:

To meet the expedited timelines in the final Sound Transit 3 package, the agency will start projects sooner and collaborate with cities, stakeholders and private citizens earlier and more intensively.

The greatest potential for improvements falls in the planning, environmental and permitting phases of projects. The agency will focus on identifying preferred routes and station locations earlier, streamlining the number of alternatives studied, acquiring real estate sooner, and developing early permitting plans with partner agencies.

The plan will also guide significant internal process improvements. Project teams will include all disciplines, with a focus on integrating work functions across departments, eliminating departmental hand-offs between project phases. Co-location of staff for each project in the same work space will increase efficiency.

The excerpt above contains some familiar buzzwords, to be sure, but essentially what Sound Transit is saying is, we’re not satisfied with the status quo. We think we can do better, so we’re reorganizing internally to become more effective at delivering projects, and we want to become a model partner to our cities too.

Sound Transit’s commitment to reforming itself to better serve taxpayers and riders is admirable. Contrast that with how the Legislature has been conducting its business lately (which is supposed to be the people’s business).

When you compare the two institutions, the differences are stark.

Sound Transit operates in a businesslike, inventive fashion; the Legislature, meanwhile, has become known for political theater and gridlock, especially during the last four years, thanks to Republicans’ grip on the state Senate.

The elected leaders and public servants at Sound Transit see gridlock as something that needs to be fought, not embraced for self-serving ends. Liberating commuters from traffic congestion is a mission they are passionate about.

“Through the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, our region did not invest in enough in public transit options,” lamented Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff in his remarks. “And during that period, leading all the way up to the current day, congestion on our roads has continued to deteriorate.”

“In fact, it’s more than doubled in just the last five years. What that means is not just automobile drivers, but even our bus riders are seeing deteriorating performance… in their on-time arrivals, in the amount of time they have to lay aside just to get from home to work, to their stops on a given day. And that, more than any other reason, is why voters in this region adopted a $54 billion ballot measure — to really give themselves a congestion-free option [for getting around].”

It’s particularly nice to see Sound Transit acting decisively to lock in low prices for new light rail vehicles. ST’s board has authorized staff to procure an additional thirty LRVs from Siemens to ensure smooth service to Federal Way and downtown Redmond, NPI’s hometown. ST previously placed an order with Siemens for new LRVs last fall, opting to go with a new manufacturer for its second generation of LRVs. (The first generation was manufactured by Kinkisharyo of Japan.)

What benefits will the new LRVs offer over the current fleet? Sound Transit says:

Manufactured in Sacramento, California, the new light rail vehicles will feature several improvements in on-board systems and passenger experience over the current fleet of 62 cars.

Each of the new LRVs will provide 74 seats, with larger windows, extra standing room in the center aisle, more space under seats to stow luggage, and four bicycle hooks — twice as many as provided currently. Each car will come equipped with dynamic passenger information displays and LED destination signs will also be included.

“Ordering more Link cars earlier than planned is just one example of how we’re moving aggressively forward to build a light rail network that will serve up to 188 million riders a year by 2040,” said Rogoff.

“By the time pre-revenue testing begins in 2024 on the first two Link extensions approved by voters last November, we’ll be ready.”

Rendering of a Siemens-made LRV

Rendering of a Siemens-made LRV in Sound Transit livery

The ST3 plan explicitly included funding for the purchase of new LRVs.

Sound Transit doesn’t want to waste time putting our dollars to work, especially if it means securing savings for taxpayers. That’s really great to see.

NPI congratulates Sound Transit on moving one step closer to implementation of the ST3 package. We will continue to vigorously defend the plan that voters approved so that we’re not at the mercy of ever-worsening traffic congestion.