Sound Transit has other future-proof maintenance and repair projects planned for this year and next. In a briefing, agency staff outlined planned work and lessons learned from previous work.
Julie Timm, Sound Transit’s new CEO, essentially gave the agency a mea culpa for the Columbia City tile replacement kerfuffle and said the agency had a new approach to completing such work.
“Some of these projects were supposed to be done about now, I believe in the February to March timeframe, and what I found was when we were reviewing these important projects. But internal coordination and communication with our drivers was often rushed,” said Timm. “While the work done was good work, its implementation, its consolidation, the communication with our staff, the ability to communicate with King County Metro to set up these bus bridges were some of the assumptions we made about our rider preferences we have used our best judgement, but I think there are ways we can do it better, more effectively and more efficiently.”
Sound Transit’s Executive Director of Operations, Suraj Shetty, outlined the upcoming work and changes to improve the driver experience during construction. He outlined seven planned projects, including four newly announced ones. Some of the projects are expected to overlap in order to gain efficiencies or carry out multiple jobs with completion. Work is expected to begin in late spring or early summer.
Three projects that are likely to merge are all located in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. One of the three projects is a short rail replacement section.
“As you ride the train between University Street and Westlake Station, you’ll find that the train shakes and jerks on right turns and the ride quality is poor,” Shetty said. “It’s a very tight 90 degree turn in just a few hundred feet and the track there is suffering from defects and accelerated wear. We intend to rip it out, replace it with a new track with the correct geometry, and the result for passengers should be a smoother ride through this section.” Replacing the track also helps reduce wear and tear on the agency’s equipment reduce.
A second tunnel project is the replacement of bond boxes that house signal connections to the tracks. A total of 60 bond boxes need to be replaced as they were damaged during shared bus operations in the tunnel between 2007 and 2019. Damage to this equipment has resulted in occasional dropouts, so repairing it will improve system reliability and the new bondboxes should last a very long time. This requires work from east of Westlake Station to south of the International District/Chinatown Station.
And a third tunnel project is a high-voltage system assessment, which is only possible when the electrical system is completely switched off. This allows the agency to verify the integrity of the system to ensure it is in good working order and avoid future service disruptions, whether unplanned or otherwise.
A recent project Shetty has mentioned is repairing a level crossing. “Currently, passengers are experiencing reduced speeds through the stadium and International District/Chinatown stations due to water over the rails and track saturation at the Royal Brougham level crossing,” he said.
In late February, an emergency repair was required at this intersection, resulting in an unplanned single lane time. Shetty said a permanent solution will involve track replacement and drainage improvements that will allow normal speeds to be restored. At the moment, the agency has a “slow order” for this section, limiting trains to 10mph.
According to claims from a Reddit user posing as the link operator, a second slow order also applies to the southbound route between Pioneer Square and the International District/Chinatown stations. Trains are said to be limited to 10 mph there due to a track defect. Shetty did not mention this issue during the presentation and The Urbanist reached out to Sound Transit for confirmation and clarification.
Like last summer, Sound Transit is once again doing platform repairs in Rainier Valley, this time at Othello and Rainier Beach stations. “The grout at the edge of the platform isn’t working as it should and so the ADA tiles at the top are coming off and could be a hazard,” Shetty said. “We would be doing this work at these two stations simultaneously and the effects of the single track would be less intrusive than last year because the crossing locations are in a better position.”
Also like last fall, the agency plans to replace additional overhead lines between Tukwila International Boulevard and Rainier Beach stations. “Over time, the components of this system wear out and need to be replaced,” Shetty said. “So the project will replace a section of contact wire before it reaches a condition where it will be degraded.”
Several projects relate to the extension of the link system. Shetty said plans for these are still final and work is expected to take place between spring and early next year. Sound Transit has several tasks to complete before the northern extension opens, including: replacement of roadway railings at Northgate Station for platform security, corrective work on electromagnetic cables to prevent future Apple Cup-like outages, and finishing work to connect catenary power systems to the Lynnwood link extension.
Shetty also noted that an East Link connectivity project is also forthcoming. “The latest system expansion work that we have on radar right now that will impact service is related to our 1 and 2 line connection for East Link,” he said. “This would include connection activities related to system testing as well as repairs to the sockets for the rail supports installed in the route. We anticipate that this project will have a significant impact on the service, but the overall plan is not fully developed.”
This work is expected to be completed in early 2024 and will require several weeks of disruption to service with only one track between Stadium and Westlake stations.
Going forward, Sound Transit plans to minimize the impact as much as possible and communicate the impact early on in planned maintenance and repair work. Shetty highlighted how the agency is committed to providing a better driver experience during planned outages.
“For any service disruption, we allow more lead time to develop a passenger care plan that serves as a coordinated planning process to improve the passenger experience, manage service impact, improve overall communications, reduce confusion and visible resources in our system to help passengers on their transit journey,” Shetty said.
Service disruptions will be accompanied by ambassadors to assist drivers and information will be communicated in multiple languages. Digital feeds for trip planning tools are also loaded with revised schedules and information to help drivers make better decisions on the fly.
More details on the exact schedule of the next round of Future Ready projects will be announced in the coming months. Luckily for drivers, Sound Transit has committed to a more driver-centric approach to carrying out scheduled maintenance and repairs that should make them more tolerable.
Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable and diverse cities. He is particularly interested in how policies, regulations and programs can foster positive outcomes for communities. With stints in major cities such as Bellingham and Cork, Stephen is currently based in Seattle. He mainly works on land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.