Seattle’s appetite for light rail is virtually insatiable at the moment. Sound Transit announced its plans for a $50 billion light rail expansion over 25 years and more rush-hour trains starting next week. Still, transit riders want more.
As the light rail line heads into its first full weekend serving the nightlife hubs of around Capitol Hill and University of Washington, a campaign is underway to get Sound Transit to extend its late night hours to safely shuttle crowds back home.
A MoveOn.org petition is calling on the Sound Transit board to extend Link light rail service by nine hours a week to 2:30 AM on Fridays and Saturdays and to 1:30 AM on other days. More than 2,000 people have signed the petition in three days. Currently, the last southbound Link train leaves Capitol Hill Station at 12:38 AM. The last northbound train leaves Capitol Hill at 12:46 AM.
Matthew Powell, who created the petition, said light rail’s current closing times rob bar crowds and late night workers from a safe and easy option of getting home. “There were a lot of people who expected to be open later,” Powell said. “It has really limited the ability to maximize the benefit.”
It’s not the first time Sound Transit has been approached about extending late night service. The regional transit agency has a page to explain how crews have a small window to do required daily maintenance on the tracks. Still, late night service is not completely out of the question.
— Alex Garland (@AGarlandPhoto) March 19, 2016
“There are scenarios, but right now our focus is on getting the line up and running smoothing,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray. “We’ll assess down the road.”
Those scenarios would require further investment in the system and time to plan. Starting a compact late night service through central Seattle in the short term is also unlikely and would still require overhauling the line’s maintenance plans, Gray said. Since the stations are only served by one set of tracks, the maintenance work would have to be done in a shorter window. Here is a list of some of that work:
- Signals, switches, track, overhead power and wayside equipment are inspected, tested and maintained.
- Required system maintenance that can’t be done during operating hours (like when special equipment needs to be brought out on the tracks.)
- Preventative maintenance on the rail systems. A walking or riding inspection along the entire line is performed weekly to check for frayed cables, broken connections to rails etc.
- The maintenance window allows crews time to repair defects.
- Performance testing of light rail vehicles and moving vehicles in/out of maintenance.
There is also, of course, the question of budget. Sound Transit’s 2016 spending plan included a call for $264.3 million to fund ongoing “transit services” —
The proposed 2016 operating budget is $359.8 million, 13.3 percent higher than 2015. The increase includes the addition of 23 positions in 2016 and the full year’s cost of 31 positions added in 2015. Nearly 85 percent of the operating budget increase is due to increased transit service levels. We will open two new Link segments and propose additional service hours on ST Express to address passenger overloads and on-time performance issues. The addition of 19,750 service hours in 2016 equates to an annualized amount of 32,000 hours in 2017, which will meet the full commitment to ST Express bus service made in the ST2 transit plan. An additional round trip will also be added on Sounder between Seattle and Lakewood. Our transit services operating budget for the year is $264.3 million to provide 988,000 service hours.
We’re assuming it’s not as easy as multiplying the additional light rail hours by the $267/service hour rate.
As a physician at Virginia Mason, Powell said he initially wanted to see extended night train service out of public health concerns: less drunk driving, reduced street crowds, fewer people walking home alone at night.
“People will do dumb things unless you make it easy for them not to,” he said. “If you provide the safe easy option, people will take it.”
A last train at 2:30 AM could also help usher out the weekend crowds that frequently spill into Pike/Pine streets, Powell said.
Since starting the petition Powell said he has heard a wide range of reasons why people want later weekend service, including the ability catch and return home from red-eye flights and workers who want to use it for their early morning commutes.
The Sound Transit Board, which would need to approve extended service hours, is comprised of elected officials from around the region including Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson.
Meanwhile, Metro bus route changes begin Saturday to better serve light rail. CHS outlined the changes for Capitol Hill service here. Next month, Sound Transit will be breaking ground on the Bellevue light rail station. In 2023, the fully-funded and almost completely designed East Link light rail line is planned to connect Bellevue, Redmond, and Seattle across the I-90 bridge. It will also include one stop in Seattle smack-dab in the middle of I-90 just south of Judkins Park. Construction on Judkins Park Station is slated to begin by mid-2017. Later this year, voters will decide the fate of the massive, $50 billion Sound Transit 3 funding plan. And work is ongoing to open 4.3 miles of light rail north of UW by 2021 with stations at the U-District, Roosevelt, and Northgate.