NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

Sound Transit considers delivering NE 130th light rail station years ahead of schedule

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.

Map of NE 130th infill station

A map show­ing the loca­tion of the planned new sta­tion (Cour­tesy of Sound Transit)

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.

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