Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Sound Transit light rail segment to the airport will never work.

This fourteen mile piece of light rail is one of the worst designed, least thoughtful and just all around horrible transit projects ever conceived. Most transit projects have a few problems here and there; this mess has a major problem every mile.

It is supposed to ‘go to the airport’. It does not even do that. The station at the airport is, in fact, over 1,000 feet from the nearest concourse door and some people will have to walk over a half mile to access the airport from where the train lets them off. The port commissioners who run the airport had promised to install a moving sidewalk, but the path goes through the parking garage and the seven foot high headroom will not allow for a moving sidewalk to be built.

The light rail was never intended to move air travelers from the city to the airport; it was always designed to move employees of the airport—mostly very low paid employees—from parking lots to the airport. A major transit hub like the SeaTac International Airport has upwards of ten thousand employees. The airport management does not want these people parking in their garages, even if they could afford it. The garages are for the airline passengers and the parking fees are a good source of revenue. But the light rail train is not for airline passengers, it is for the employees of the airport.

The airport management is so confident that almost no airline passengers would be willing to schlep their bags and themselves the 1,200 feet average walk to the train station that they are planning to build a $400 million garage for car rentals off of the airport site, spend $17 million buying a fleet of buses and spending another $17 million a year operating the garage and bus fleet to ferry car renters from the concourse to the off-site parking garage rather than ask them to walk to the train and take it to a parking garage.

The train will leave the airport station and head to downtown Seattle, twelve miles as the crow flies, to the north. But instead, it heads due east for some five miles to the southern end of the Rainier Valley. This was done to deliver service to the most economically disadvantaged parts of the city. This may have been done for admirable purposes, but it means that the train is scheduled to take fifty minutes to get from downtown to the airport and the real time will be more like sixty minutes and more. Part of this due to the fact that through most of the Valley, the train is running on the surface down the middle of the street. Nationwide, surface urban light rail moves at an average of 14 mph—one mph better than buses. Sound Transit will install fences on both sides of the track but that will not noticeably speed up the trains. Trains on the surface do not have to slow for the cars, buses and people who are literally in the way. Urban surface light rail must slow because there may be cars, buses and people in the way. If there is a car waiting at the traffic light, the operator of the light rail must slow, in case that car moves. Once the car actually moves from the intersection onto the tracks, it will probably be too late to begin slowing for the train. In fact, light rail has a terrible record for accidents. After all, trains do not stop very quickly and they cannot swerve at all.

Then, the train turns eastward and enters a tunnel under Beacon Hill. There is no rhyme or reason for this. Beacon Hill is misnamed; it more properly should have been named Beacon Ridge, for that is what it is. It is a five-to-seven mile long north-to-south ridge from near downtown Seattle to the south end of the city. It is steep, tall and sandy. It is lousy for tunnels. But that is where Sound Transit built a one mile long, three hundred feet deep tunnel. Which is a little strange since the ridge is only about a quarter mile wide. The planners actually had to make the tunnel diagonal to make it a mile long. And when it gets through the tunnel and to the other side, it arrives at the maintenance and storage yards. Here, the train turns ninety degrees and heads north into the city. Now, there is a perfectly feasible and available route around the north end of Beacon Hill which would lead the train right into the downtown. This route would necessitate the building of a spur line from downtown to the storage and maintenance yard of about three miles in length, but that is a lot less expensive than a one mile, very deep tunnel through sandy soil.

But that is not the worst of it. They saved the worst for last.

While the nearly the entire route, design and building of the fourteen mile Sound Transit light rail train is flawed, the truly horrifying part is the attempt to convert the Downtown Bus Tunnel into a bus-and-light-rail combined tunnel.

Back in 1983, the city of Seattle, with substantial help from the federal government, built a one-mile tunnel under the downtown streets to accommodate buses and eventually, light rail trains.

The premise of the tunnel was that buses, by being separated from the hustle and bustle of traffic, could come off of the freeway and go into the tunnel where five stops within the one mile underground would free the buses to move quickly and efficiently through the downtown core.

Nice theory. In practice, much was left to be desired:

--There was no way to build a simple straight ramp from the tunnel to the freeway and vice versa. At certain times of the day, from the north, the buses had five traffic lights between the off ramp and the tunnel.

--Because of the noise of the diesel engines, the buses had to ‘switch’ to overhead electric wires. Thus, the bus that went in the tunnel had two propulsion systems, they weighed more than any other vehicle on the road (over 100,000 pounds), and they had twice as many breakdowns as other buses. They were built by an Italian company that promptly went out of business. Replacements were impossible, spare parts scarce and technical help non-existent.

--The pedestrian route from the front of the bus to the sidewalk upstairs was, for a number of reasons, almost never a ‘straight shot’. The average time for an average person to get from upstairs down to the bus or vice versa was three minutes. In some stations, it took nearly five minutes to get from the station platform to the outside.

--Recently, while converting the downtown tunnel to light rail use, the buses were rerouted to the surface streets above. Third Avenue was effectively converted to a transit mall during rush hour. The buses using this transit mall were able to get through the one mile of downtown three minutes faster than the buses that had previously used the tunnel.

--And worst of all, the train tracks were installed incorrectly. They simply neglected to ‘ground’ the rails. Stray electrical current from the eventual operation of the trains would seek out the path of least resistance. This path of least resistance would be the rebar steel reinforcing in the surrounding concrete and would corrode that steel until it was weak and worthless.

This final mistake meant that when the light rail came, the track had to be ripped up and replaced (and since it was imbedded in concrete, that surrounding concrete had to be ripped up and replaced).

Now the track has been replaced and Sound Transit says that they will open the rail line including the bus/rail tunnel under the downtown in 2009.

--Sound Transit’s new light rail vehicles have a higher floor than the buses that had previously used the tunnel. They were faced with a choice of raising the platforms or lowering the floor. Though the cost for lowering the rail bed at the bottom of the tunnel was more, the board followed the recommendation of the staff and opted to dig out the bottom of the station floors.

Tunnels are not static structures. The circle of a tunnel is a series of stresses playing dynamically on one another. One cannot simply cut a substantial piece out of a circular tunnel and expect all to be well. Some on the staff warned of possible collapse if the bottom were cut out of the stations. They chose to ignore these warnings and proceed with lowering the floors of all of the stations.

But they have even worse problems in the tunnel and these are insurmountable.

Midway in the tunnel is a ninety degree turn under the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street. The tunnel route goes from east-to-west and turns to travel north-to-south. The buses, about sixty-five feet long, had a bit of trouble making this turn. The light rail vehicles are ninety feet long and each train consists of four of these cars. Sound Transit has a study from an engineer that says that they can make it. The engineer says that they have an inch or two clearance. They have pushed through one car, at three miles an hour. But four cars, going at normal speeds, will not consistently make this turn. They will scrape, hit and maybe jam in the tunnel. Maybe not the first day or even the first year, but someday, sometime, someone will go a little faster than posted, rock the train just an inch too far that way or this way and it won’t get through.

At best, they wreck a train. At worse, we don’t want to think about it.

As bad as that is, there is an even worse problem at the southern end of the bus/rail tunnel. Towards the southern portal, the tunnel goes under the freight tunnel built in 1905. The bus/rail tunnel heading south goes down a short but steep incline. The slope is 5.25 degrees, which means that it falls five-and-a-quarter feet for every hundred feet of horizontal distance. (The steepest non-cogged railroad in the world has a 5.5 degree slope.) Then it levels out for eighty-five feet and then continues up a short incline of 5.4 degrees. Sound Transit has also pushed a single car of ninety feet length through this stretch, again at three miles per hour. Again, it won’t be able to consistently get a four car train through at even reduced speed. Eventually, there will be a reckoning as Sound transit tries to force a square peg through the round hole of physics.

Neither of these problems is solvable. There is no way that the bus/rail downtown tunnel will be able to handle the new light rail train. At best, this will be obvious. At worst, it will be catastrophic. Knowing Sound Transit, I hope for the best and expect the worst. There will be a day when the train becomes a train wreck, wedged deep in the tunnel, underground and fatal.

When that happens, I would hope that the entire board of the Sound Transit resigns. They have been warned by better than me that this project was misdesigned, mismanaged and badly built. They should have done due diligence to avoid problems that will come their way. They should have taken care that things were done right. Instead, they ignored the warnings, turned a blind eye to the obvious and relied on staff recommendations—from a staff with a proven record of failure. They should resign as a matter of course. Then, they should resign from further public service, for they have shown that theirs’ is no service at all but a failure to meet even the minimum of standards. They should resign and hope to God that will be enough.

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