Puget Sound Transportation Projects
Analysis of the Roads and Transit Plan
Disclaimer: I am not a transportation engineer nor do I work for any of the involved parties. However, I have lived in the areas affected for over 30 years, including living and working in the areas most affected, and am currently a commuter in the RTID. I have based my analysis below upon having studied the projects for the past few years and my documentation of current and completed projects on this site. Please use the links at the end of this page for more official information.
In a couple weeks, voters in Pierce, Snohomish and King counties will be able to vote on a MAJOR transit and transportation infrastructure package called the Roads and Transit plan. This plan would implement many projects around the area, including completing some freeways planned over 30 years ago, replacing some critical bridges at the end of their design life and a major expansion of transit via light rail.
The package would be funded by a 0.1% sales tax increase and a 0.8% increase in car tab taxes, known as the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. These taxes should last about 30 years. It would also extend the current Sound Transit taxes. It also assumes matching funds from the Federal Government.
This package has been extremely controversial from the start for many reasons. It is very expensive and yes, it does raise taxes. It doesn't do enough to solve traffic, has too many pet projects. Costs will increase, it didn't work the last time. It focuses too much on roads, focuses too much on transit. We won't need it, it isn't soon enough. Polls show about 50% support at best.
So why am I voting yes on this package? For many reasons. In the ten years that I have been in the job market, one thing has been obvious. The job growth in the state, the location of the most lucrative, most forward-looking jobs, has been in the Eastside area. Unfortunately, this area has the least effective transportation and transit systems, and the smallest amount of buildable land for housing. This causes people to move out, to Seattle, to Tacoma, to Everett. Seattle has always been the king of the Northwest, many major companies and the regions airport are located there. Yet Everett has began to grow as a major population center and Tacoma, besides also becoming a major population center, has the state's largest port and is a major center of finance. We badly need a way to connect all of these areas together effectively.
Is this the best possible package? No. But given the many political issues in the area this is a good compromise. It fixes some of the worst problems and sets a base for expansion in the future. If we wait it will just cost much more…and we may not need to worry. Major employers such as Microsoft are on record as saying that if something is not done about congestion soon they will either be looking at moving out of the area or outsourcing more work outside of the United States.
How about the failures of both Sound Transit and WSDOT? Many of Sound Transit's failures can be attributed to the rapid growth of the area. Yes, there was bad planning. Delays in the start of Sounder service were drawn more from the fact that the government does *not* own the rail lines and there were initial issues working with Burlington Northern. Delays with light rail came more from the protests of the Rainier Valley community and mismanagement of the human aspect of construction. Again, this should have been accounted for in initial planning. Cost estimates didn't seem to take these delays into account or the phenomenal growth in property values in recent years. I believe these issues to be much improved with the current Sound Transit.
As to WSDOT, one of the few positive outcomes of Initiative 695/$30 car tabs was it forced the agency to plan better and to review all projects, before, during, and after completion. While issues do still arise, as one would expect with any major construction project, WSDOT has had a much better track record recently in finishing projects within or under budget and deadline. Plus, they are more willing to work with alternate ways of doing business, as was seen in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge design-build project.
Granted, it will take a long time for the projects to be completed. Yes it is hard to vote to increase my taxes for something that I may never get to use. However, you must look at the bigger picture. Firstly, for those who have or may have children, this may give them a reason and the opportunity to stay in the state in the future. It will persuade current businesses to stay and may convince other businesses to come. It will allow more opportunities than the current limited option of spending way too much of your income to live or not working. Finally, it gives what is rapidly becoming a world-class area a world-class transportation system.
As for those who still say no, let's look at the options. Say you or your kids work in one of these Eastside jobs. Are they willing and able to spend the money for that "affordable" house, or is their workday going to be 12 or more hours…with only 8 of that paid?
So you have a job close to home not in the Seattle area. Fine. Do you have suppliers or vendors located in that area? Do you have clients that need to come in or out of SeaTac? When you are out of state do people recognize your city or business, or do they say, "isn't that near Seattle/Microsoft/Boeing?" What if we lost all of this? What if your clients tired of sitting in traffic for hours going from the airport to your place of business?
You don't work. OK, you do realize that many of those benefits you get come directly from taxes paid by these major employers. If you need to go to the hospital or some sort of specialist (keeping in mind that many of them are located in Seattle), you now would have alternate transit options. Even if you continue to drive, the people who use transit combined with the road improvements would make your drive a speed limit or near speed limit commute. If we don't do something not only will those drives continue to worsen, but as employers leave, or don't expand, or don't come/start here we may need to even cut services as tax revenues fall.
Finally, there are people who say, well we should be putting our time into making sustainable communities. I agree. And I think having a decent transit system is a large part of that. Many people in New York City don't even own a car as you can go anywhere on the subway. Cities in this area such as Portland and Vancouver, BC already have the option of living along the line and riding the train into work. But it takes a long time to build those communities and even longer to shift people to that way of thinking. And keep in mind: while more roads may mean more traffic, they also mean more options for carpools, vanpools and buses. Almost all the road projects include some sort of HOV option and in many cases, are the major part of the project.
This plan has received many years of analysis and compromise by all affected parties. While it doesn't solve everything I believe it will make a significant impact, in a reasonable timeframe, for a reasonable cost. That is why I am voting yes.
Let’s examine the individual projects:
167 Extension | 509 Extension | I-5/SR-18 Interchange | Cross Base Highway (SR 704) | 520 bridge replacement/expansion | I-90 two way transit | I-405 Bellevue to Renton | I-405/SR-167 Direct Interchange | I-5 North Expansions | SR 99 North Expansion | SR 522 Expansion | SR 167 HOV/HOT
This would extend the Seattle Link system to the Eastside and to Overlake with a potential extension to downtown Redmond. Would utilize the Express Lanes on the I-90 floating bridge, probable aerial or possible tunnel in Bellevue, Operations and Maintenance Base in Overlake.
Reasonability: Critically needed. The vast majority of job growth in the state is on the Eastside, as are virtually all the high-paying jobs. The area was originally logging and farming towns, and was envisioned as a bedroom community for Seattle. Therefore the main freeways are 3 lanes, with 1 being HOV. The topography along with land values makes any sort of expansion of these roads very difficult and expensive. Due to the rapid grown and lack of land to expand into, property values increase in excess of 10% per year and an “average” price is $4-600k for a house.
Building this extension would allow for a couple of things. Firstly, the people who now live in Seattle and work on the Eastside (primarily young tech workers) would now have a quick way to work besides their vehicles, which by being removed from the roads would dramatically decrease traffic and pollution. Secondly, Seattle isn’t that hard to get to. The Sounder trains from both Everett and Tacoma terminate there, as do multiple express bus routes. From personal experience as a SOV driver I can even get to Seattle in 30-45 minutes consistently, much less than that as a carpool. What blocks us, however, is getting from Seattle to the Eastside. Currently that is via a very slow bus, constrained to the same overloaded bridges as the rest of the traffic. This connection now makes taking the Sounder, a bus, or even driving to an outlying Link station more reasonable, therefore taking us off of the heavily overloaded 405 corridor.
Cost/Issues: Fairly high cost, especially as you would need to go aerial or tunnel to avoid congestion in Bellevue. High demand for service, but high property values to purchase right of way from. Expect mission creep on the I-90 portion as the Mercer Island community is still angry over I-90 expansion, which is why the Express Lanes now serve as a private access to the island (they are HOV only past the island). This will require the budgeting and finishing of the Two Way Transit project on I-90 to work.
Need: Definite and immediate.
Extends Link from the airport through Burien, Federal Way and Fife to connect with the current Link system in Tacoma. Runs down highway 99. Probably aerial.
Reasonability: Mixed. This stretch of Highway 99 is very densely populated and near I-5. Even if you don’t pick up riders along the line it may be accessed from surrounding communities. Tacoma already has a great transit hub and Pierce County is rapidly becoming an overflow community for Seattle. Personally, I currently live within a mile of where the Fife station would potentially be sited. It also becomes a point of pride to be connected to Seattle and the Airport via train.
However, this extension would duplicate in essence the Sounder routing between Tacoma and Seattle, and may therefore not be the best use of limited funds.
Alternate: Extend Sounder to say the SR 518 vicinity with a heavily upgraded interchange and direct HOV with I-5, plus a very large (8-10k car) garage and bus links. Use this as a route into Seattle and to the Eastside. Extend Tacoma Link to the Federal Way Transit Center with stops in Fife and along the way. Use this as a back route into Tacoma and to connect with the Sounder station there.
Cost/Issues: Potentially high if route is aerial. Source of pride to connect Pierce County/Tacoma with the airport and Seattle. Potential NIMBY issues along Highway 99 routing.
Need: Extension to South 200th allows another access point into the city.
*Please note: the extension to the U District has been budgeted and will break ground in 2009.
Would extend Link from the underground U District station to Northgate, and from there to the Ash Way Park and Ride in Lynwood, just North of the I-5/405 interchange. The routing appears to be aerial along I-5 between Northgate and Ash Way, with a mix of aerial, tunnels and at grade between Northgate and the U District. There would be interim stops along the way.
Reasonability: The stretch to Northgate is sorely needed as often the backups begin/end there and it is already a major bus transfer point. This would allow another major end point outside of downtown to transfer to the train at to head into downtown. This would also eliminate some of the bus routes between Northgate and Seattle, freeing up that capacity on I-5.
As for the rest of the routing, I initially was going to decline it based on similar reasons to the Tacoma/Seattle extension (parallels a Sounder route). However, unlike the South end, the Sounder routing in the North is along the water. There is very limited access to the train. Furthermore, while stated I can make it to Seattle in 45 minutes or so; the same route from Everett takes over an hour. Therefore, this extension actually makes more sense.
Cost/Issues: With aerial, quite expensive. Utilizing the I-5 corridor can eliminate many NIMBY issues.
Need: Fairly necessary to have a North access into downtown Seattle.
Streetcar runs between Broadway/Capitol Hill, First Hill and the International District. Connects between Sound Transit hub at Union Station and Capitol Hill light rail station.
Reasonability: This was designed to take the place of the planned First Hill Link station, dropped due to engineering issues. As First Hill is densely packed, contains most of Seattle’s hospitals and Seattle University, plus a large amount of residential units, this is needed, at least as a connector to the main Link line. This also could be extended in the future.
Cost/Issues: Streetcar lines are fairly inexpensive and we do have local experience in them. May be hard to make the room in the densely populated First/Capitol Hill communities.
Need: Potentially necessary if Link is built.
Multiple studies for future light rail/Sounder/BRT connections and projects.
Expansion of Sounder service and access/garage spaces, especially at temporary stations such as Tukwila and Puyallup.
Increased express bus service; expansion of Park and Ride lots
All of the above: The express buses are always packed; adding more of them would help this and possibly increase ridership as does increasing parking opportunities. Same thing applies to Sounder service increases.
Extends highway 167 (Valley Freeway) from its end in Puyallup to I-5; continues to Tacoma along 509 alignment. Includes interchanges including full stack plus HOV at I-5.
Reasonability: This is a major missing link in the freeway system. Would allow for more movement of freight from Port of Tacoma (2nd busiest port on the West Coast) to warehouse space in Kent/Auburn. Allows for alternate access to the Eastside/405 from Tacoma, alternate access to downtown Tacoma via I-5 to 509.
Cost/Issues: Fairly costly, at several billion currently. Some NIMBY issues passing through Fife.
Need: Fairly high. The Port of Tacoma is growing rapidly and giving freight alternate access to the Kent Valley would help traffic. The interchange at I-5 allows multiple alternate routes both in and out of Tacoma.
Extends Highway 509 from its current end at the end of SeaTac to I-5; includes interchange and major I-5 improvements between this area and South 320th in Federal Way.
Reasonability: Allows a back road into Seattle via 509/99; allows for more freight access both directions.
Cost/Issues: Somewhat costly; requires acquisition of lots of property.
Need: The airport is growing and Seattle could use an alternate freight route.
Converts cloverleaf interchange at I-5/SR 18 to full stack with flyover ramps.
Reasonability: NECESSARY. This is an absolute mess in the AM and PM. Expansion in Federal Way at the end of 18 adds traffic, plus highway 18 is now serving as an alternate to I-405 to access the Eastside.
Cost/Issues: Always costly to build ramps. Project is currently designed to be constructed in phases.
Need: Critical. This interchange is horribly overloaded.
Connect I-5 to South Pierce County via new freeway between Fort Lewis and McChord AFB to highway 7; improve 176th street to access Meridian/SR 181.
Reasonability: Very necessary. Puyallup/Meridian area is dramatically growing with no real access alternatives. Spanaway along SR 7 is also growing. Once you pass highway 512 you can’t access I-5 again until Olympia from the other side of the bases.
Cost/Issues: Somewhat costly; very contentious issues regarding endangered species, encroachment on the military bases: both major employers in Pierce County.
Need: Critical. Meridian (SR 181) is horribly backed up on the weekends, as is SR 7. At that point you are out of routes to get out of South Pierce County.
Replace 520 bridge plus add HOV both directions (6 lanes total). Improve 520 6 lanes between bridge and I 405, also between bridge and I-5.
Reasonability: CRITICAL project. Bridge is at end of design life and will almost certainly fail in major earthquake or windstorm. We are overdue for the quake and windstorms are picking up. Plus, the bridge is grossly overloaded primarily due to Eastside employment traffic. Granted, transit expansion may reduce traffic on the bridge but it doesn’t solve the necessary replacement.
Cost/Reasonability: Into the billions, will require tolls. NIMBY issues with expansion on Eastside, potential environmental issues on the Seattle side. However, this MUST be done.
Need: CRITICAL. See all the notes above. Loss of this bridge would result in instant gridlock, possible loss of employers depending on length of time to replace. And yes, this would we replaced, guaranteed as an emergency project with no community input. We need to do it right NOW.
Builds HOV lanes both directions between Seattle and Bellevue. Includes direct access ramps.
Reasonability: Work is already underway, Even if center roadway isn’t taken by light rail it is unidirectional, so lanes are needed bidirectionally. Direct access HOV ramps work.
Cost/Issues: Somewhat costly; requires shrinking lane widths on the bridges. Potential NIMBY issues on Mercer Island.
Need: Required to support light rail in the express lanes; could alleviate traffic across the I-90 bridge.
Multiple projects; includes adding lanes and interchanges, improving existing interchanges, direct HOV ramps.
Reasonability: Needed. 405 in this stretch is only 6 lanes (2+HOV each direction). It is GROSSLY overloaded in the mornings, being backed up the entire way. Again, expansion of transit, especially the Link extensions, may reduce the need for this work but.
Cost/Issues: Costly. 405 is 6 lanes here primarily because it is sandwiched between Lake Washington and the foothills. Expanding it will not be easy. May require removal of very expensive houses.
Need: ASAP. This is a major corridor for the area and the direct, and pretty much only, route to employers on the Eastside.
Involves direct HOV connection between I-405 and SR 167. Possibly involves converting the current interchange from a cloverleaf to a stack configuration.
Reasonability: Needed. Much of the backups along 405 exist due to the large amount of traffic entering and exiting at this interchange. 167 is an important freeway that sees lots of traffic due to the large amount of industry and warehousing in the Green River valley, primarily in Kent. Furthermore, this whole area has been extensively developed and provides some of the only affordable housing in King County. Finally, 167 is, or has the potential to be, a major connection between Pierce County and the Eastside.
Cost/Issues: Ramps are always costly. Not lots of room to expand in the area. Some of the work however is underway or has been completed.
Need: Immediate. SR 167 is a major connector out of South King and Pierce counties. The current cloverleaf interchange is unable to cope with the extra traffic demands.
Various congestion relief projects along I-5 between Everett and the county line. Most improve interchanges.
Reasonability: I-5 between Everett and Seattle is heavily overloaded, especially in the mornings. Much of this is due to rapid growth in Snohomish County, more than in Pierce County until recently. No real alternates: 405 is already overloaded as is 522.
Cost/Issues: Probably low cost and few issues as the vast majority of work should be within the current I-5 ROW.
Need: Fairly high. Average commute times out of the North end are now at a hour or more (versus 45 minutes for a similar commute from the South end). Link extension may alleviate some of the problems.
Add Bus lanes, improve intersections between Everett and Shoreline, connecting with previous projects.
Reasonability: Highway 99 still serves as an important connector and alternate from Fife to Everett. Especially with the lack of alternate freeways in Snohomish County this project should help provide a back door into Seattle. Similar projects on 99 in the South end have already improved traffic.
Cost/Issues: Some cost in expanding ROW (South end projects resulted in 6 lanes plus a turn lane or median). Possibly NIMBYism if more land is required.
Need: Again, commute times out of the North end are worsening by the day. SR 99 is an important alternate to I-5. Increasing transit options may remove more vehicles from the road. And this has worked well with similar projects in the South end.
Finish expansion from 2 to 4 median separated lanes from 405 to highway 2. Complete interchanges along the way. This completes a multiyear project to convert the original 2 lane road to a 4 lane median separated freeway from Woodinville to Monroe. Supports growth of housing in Monroe.
Reasonability: Needed. Similar to SR 18 which was also originally a 2 lane road, this road suffers from horrible safety issues due to incredible traffic growth and a non-median separated alignment. Various projects have completed substantial portions of this work, with increased traffic flow and decreased head-on accidents.
Cost/Issues: Costly to expand freeways although the affected section, the last time I was through it, appeared to already have the necessary ROW. Understood as a definite need but would move backups to interchange problems with Highway 2 in Monroe.
Need: Monroe is becoming an important bedroom community for the Eastside and to some extent Seattle. The current SR 522 was never designed to deal with these traffic volumes. Furthermore, non median separated freeways are deadly.
Expand HOV lanes both directions to Auburn and past to Pacific. Set up HOT lanes in the HOV lanes from Pacific to Renton.
Reasonability: 167 is a very important freeway for several reasons. It allows an alternate between Pierce County and Redmond, where one can then either head to the Eastside via 405 or Seattle via I-5. It also connects the region's ports with warehouses and manufacturing in Kent and Auburn. The Kent area especially has seen dramatic growth in housing, both single and multifamily. Adding capacity to the HOV lanes, especially extending them past Auburn will help commuters in the area. Opening the lanes to solo drivers who pay a toll as HOT lanes will add more transportation choices.
Cost/Issues: Fairly low in both cases. This end of the valley has lots of room to expand. Work is already underway on HOT lanes from Auburn to Renton.
Need: HOV lanes would help improve this important alternate route to Seattle and the Eastside. Making the lanes HOT lanes would increase transportation options.