Sound Transit, Puget Sound’s provider of high capacity transit service, is on the verge of accelerating the opening of a planned new light rail station by six years.
This Thursday, the Sound Transit Board of Directors will vote on whether to give the go-ahead to advance construction for the NE 130th St station either incrementally or fully, or to stick to the slower, original construction schedule that was envisioned when ST3 was presented to voters in 2016.
This follows a unanimous vote by the System Expansion Committee to adopt a motion urging a faster schedule for station construction. Currently, the station is slated to open in 2031. The station site is located at the intersection of NE 130th St and Interstate 5 in North Seattle, between Lake City and Bitter Lake.
The station would provide access light rail to riders north of Northgate but south of NE 145th St in Shoreline (where bus rapid transit from Bothell will terminate).
Construction is currently in progress on both Northgate Link and Lynnwood Link. The latter project will bring light rail service into Snohomish County for the first time. The three-station extension terminating in Northgate will open next year. The four-station extension north of Northgate, past the NE 130th site and beyond to Lynnwood City Center, has a targeted completion date in 2024.
There are a few benefits to moving up the timetable for construction of this infill station. First, two important North Seattle neighborhoods would be connected to light rail more than half a decade earlier than planned.
Lake City and Bitter Lake, both a short bus trip away along NE 130th St, could be better integrated into the regional transit network sooner under the new plan.
These are also some of the most diverse and underserved neighborhoods in Seattle, with the area around the station 34% minority and 11% low-income.
Second, the proposals are cost-effective. An early partial build will only add $7 million to the station construction budget, while an early full build would add only $33 million — a bargain to open a station six years early.
Third, the advancement minimizes future service disruptions along the entire light rail network. The previous plan called for construction to begin the same year that the Lynnwood Link Extension is scheduled to open for revenue service.
Building the foundation, guideway, platform, and canopy by 2023 — before Lynnwood Link even enters service — will allow any further construction to occur while minimizing service disruption for other stations.
While riders have dealt with the Connect 2020 closures between SoDo and Capitol Hill stations reasonably well, service disruptions after 2024 will come after the opening of a number of more than a dozen new Link stations.
By that point, trains will be running south to Federal Way, east to Downtown Redmond, and north to Lynnwood. (Also, take a moment to contemplate that light rail will serve all these places in just four years. There’s a thought!)
While infill stations like NE 130th unquestionably add value to a high capacity transit system, building them causes disruptions to existing service.
Sound Transit actually has two other infill stations currently planned — one at South Graham Street and another at Boeing Access Road. Both stations would add stops to the Rainier Valley segment of Central Link.
With the NE 130th Station, however, Sound Transit has a unique opportunity to start building what was going to be an infill station before surrounding stations open. Given the obvious upside, the proposal is likely to be approved by the Board.
The measure has wide-ranging support from local organizations and politicians. The 32nd LD Democrats have issued a statement in support.
Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez and Mayor Jenny Durkan are both on the Board of Directors for Sound Transit. Each has voiced support for the motion.
There are two options for acceleration currently being discussed.
Construction of the station has been separated into three “packages”: foundation & gateway, platform & canopy, and plaza & finishes. Construction of the first two packages is being considered in both options, as those are the elements of construction that would cause disruption if left too late.
If the Board were to vote to “advance incrementally”, it would authorize construction of the foundation & gateway, while preparing the platform & canopy’s build to be authorized next year.
While this option doesn’t rule out a station opening by 2025, it gives the agency more flexibility to delay NE 130th St if economic conditions change.
A vote to “advance fully” would allow the Board to authorize both the platform & canopy and plaza & finishes during the first quarter of next year.
Such a vote would clear the station to be ready for use by 2025.
The financial analysis prepared by agency staff shows what boardmembers are concerned about. There is a limit to how much debt Sound Transit can incur, and the agency is keen to leave space in their budget to respond to any change in economic conditions.
If a recession happens in the near-term, Sound Transit’s cost of borrowing would go up, making projects like NE 130th St acceleration more difficult to execute.
It is important to note, however, that the cost is minuscule. In the motion that the System Expansion Committee passed last week, Sound Transit itself agrees:
A decision to advance incrementally or advance fully construction of the NE 130th Street Infill Station is affordable within the ST 3 Financial Plan and will not delay or render other projects unaffordable.
A vote to “advance incrementally” gives the Board the option to pause progress in the future, despite the fact that this project only impacts overall debt capacity by 0.2%. This option would put the fundamental infrastructure for NE 130th St in place by 2024, but potentially keep the station inoperable for another seven years — an inefficient scenario that could be easily avoided with a vote to advance fully.
The Sound Transit Board of Directors will meet on Thursday, February 27th, at 1:30 PM at Union Station in Seattle, in part to vote on these proposals.
NPI supports a vote to advance fully, and to open NE 130th St station by 2025.