Light rail looks good for I-90

By Jeff Switzer

Reprinted from the King County Journal

Light rail would be cheaper and carry more transit passengers across Interstate 90 than a monorail system, according to a report released last Wednesday.

Farther east, though, it's a mixed bag. No single transit system -- buses, light rail or monorail -- won out as the best choice to serve the Eastside, according to the Sound Transit technical report.

The new report begins to lay the groundwork for an Eastside high-capacity transit system, and gives fresh figures on a decades-old debate.

The results favor using buses, light rail and monorail, depending on what is built and where.

Building a light-rail system from Bellevue to Seattle would allow a Bellevue student to go to class at the University of Washington in one trip, said Paul Matsuoka, Sound Transit's policy and planning officer.

``They could get on a train and never leave their seat,'' he said. An I-90 train could merge onto the tracks being planned from Seattle to Northgate.

Any one of the transit systems might run in the BNSF Railway from Bellevue to Totem Lake, and could require rebuilding the historic Wilburton Trestle.

The Sound Transit Board discussed the report at a workshop last week.

``The purpose of this study is to help the board decide how it wants to strengthen connections to the regional transit system on the Eastside,'' said Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit communications director.

The first go-round, the Eastside put all of its Sound Transit money into express buses.

As the transit agency considers its next request to voters -- possibly in 2006 -- officials and engineers want to know what projects to put on the ballot.

Sound Transit is already building a light-rail system in Seattle, and Tacoma light rail is already running. Seattle is also building a monorail system.

Using different transit technologies means transfers and stations, and Sound Transit board members are expected to weigh that as they plan to extend systems across Lake Washington to the Eastside.

Cost and ridership weren't the only challenges put to monorail -- which has a suburban advocacy group that has pushed for equal analysis.

To make a monorail system work on the floating I-90 bridge, it would have to shed a lot of weight, Sound Transit and consultants said.

The monorail couldn't be elevated on the bridge, and must run on a lighter-weight steel beam -- not a traditional concrete beam like other monorail systems.

It gets worse: The monorail cars built by the two manufacturers are too big to fit in the Mount Baker Tunnel between Seattle and Lake Washington, Sound Transit planners said. One car, produced by Bombardier, would fit only if the tunnel was excavated by four feet.

The Seattle monorail system is expected to use a Hitachi car, not Bombardier, creating another barrier to the goal of a seamless system.

Ed Stone said his group, Citizens for King County Monorail, will scrutinize the report to make sure monorail got a fair shake.

``I applaud Sound Transit for appearing to give monorail serious consideration,'' Stone said.

In the past, the group has gathered signatures to force a ballot measure and advocated for a possible $5 billion, 59-mile suburban system.

The report shows that light rail, monorail and buses all could operate on the floating I-90 bridge. Now the agency board must debate the merits of each transit type.

``These are the ones that are feasible on the floating bridge,'' said Bellevue Mayor Connie Marshall, a Sound Transit board member. ``We can as a community now concentrate on those three.''

She said the board can focus on system performance and economic development as it weighs the different transit options.

``I want what the community wants,'' Marshall said. ``The community is wise. It's their money.''

Mercer Island Mayor Alan Merkle said he was glad Sound Transit looked at all of the options.

Merkle added that the Sound Transit report confirms what studies have shown in some fashion in the last 10 to 15 years: That light rail in high-use corridors is the best cost-efficient option.

``My guess is that when there is a funding package voted on by the people, I would guess the technical plan is rail across the Island to Bellevue and some combination of buses,'' he said.

If and when rail comes, Merkle said that Mercer Island is well positioned to be accommodated. Merkle went on to say those accommodations includes solo access to new HOV lanes on the I-90 bridge if technically able. Dedicated parking at the Park and Ride lot for Mercer Island residents and better bus service on the Island would be needed for those ready to take the train, he continued.


Transit Report

A Sound Transit report compares cost and ridership between buses, light rail and monorail on Interstate 90 and throughout the Eastside.

The figures are based on 2030 ridership and very little engineering. Ridership and cost figures from each segment should not be added because some riders might be double-counted, and costs do not include systemwide costs. Costs are in 2005 dollars.

Eastside transit types

HOV buses: Uses the freeway HOV lanes and rebuilds major interchanges. Cost: $4.4 billion-$5.8 billion.

Light rail: Includes tracks built at ground level, in the air and underground, and along railroad property. Cost: $4.6 billion-$6.2 billion.

Monorail: Includes concrete and steel beams at-grade and above ground, and includes the railroad land. Cost: $5 billion-$6.8 billion.

Bus rapid transit busway: A separate busway in the I-90 center lanes, and then a road off of the freeway for buses only, including the railroad land. Cost: $3.1 billion-$4.2 billion.

South Bellevue to Seattle Park & Ride

Best scenario: Light rail for ridership and seamless trip.

Light rail: 48,000 riders; $300 million-$410 million (plus $128 million to squeeze HOV lanes onto the outside of the I-90 floating bridges).

Monorail: 31,000 riders; $720 million-$990 million (includes excavation of Mount Baker Tunnel to make tall monorail cars fit).

Bus rapid transit busway: 29,000 riders; $250 million-$340 million.

HOV buses: 30,000 riders; $10 million (plus $128 million for HOV lanes on I-90)

South Bellevue Park & Ride to Downtown Bellevue

Best scenario: Monorail

Light rail: 37,000 passengers; $780 million to $1.1 billion (for a tunnel); $410 million to $560 million (for an aerial structure).

Monorail: 26,000 riders; $400 million-$540 million.

Bus rapid transit busway: 16,000 riders; $510 million-$700 million.

HOV buses: 15,000 riders; $1.8 billion-$2.5 billion (including rebuilt freeway interchanges).

Downtown Bellevue to Overlake (Northeast 40th Street)

Best scenario: Unclear.

Light rail: 15,000 riders; $540 million-$740 million.

Monorail: 12,000 riders; $640 million-$870 million.

Bus rapid transit busway: 13,000 riders; $430 million-$590 million.

HOV buses: 13,000 riders; $1.6 billion-$2.2 billion.

Downtown Bellevue to Totem Lake

Best scenario: Buses.

Light rail: 6,000 riders; $810 million-$1.1 billion*

Monorail: 4,000 riders; $1 billion-$1.4 billion*

Bus rapid transit busway: 21,000 riders; $780 million to $1 billion.

HOV buses: 19,000 riders; $260 million-$360 million.

* 15,000 transit riders on Interstate 405 are potential riders, depending on where Sound Transit connects light rail or monorail to the I-405 bus system.

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