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An update on Link projects in construction 

Publish Date

Julie Timm is the CEO of Sound Transit. 



With five Link extension projects currently in construction, Sound Transit is set to more than double your regional light rail network—from 26 miles to 62 miles—within the next few years.  

And that’s just part of the largest transit expansion in the country.  

But my job as Sound Transit’s new CEO also means sharing less-exciting news, and today is one of those days.  

While updating you on the challenges pushing out timelines on our current Link light rail construction projects isn’t something I enjoy, it’s the cornerstone of Sound Transit’s commitment for increased transparency on our progress – when it’s good news and when it’s not.  

Sound Transit remains deeply committed to delivering regional transit within reasonable timelines while providing that these services are planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained for safety and quality that will support our region for generations.  

T Line updates 

Sound Transit targeted opening the Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension by the end of the first quarter of 2023.  

Unfortunately, we are not going to meet that target. 

Over the past few months, our construction management and inspections teams identified and solved several quality issues on the Hilltop project. While successful, that work cumulatively depleted our schedule cushion.  

Then last week during systems testing and final inspections in preparation for service, we identified a new issue regarding the track geometry in one section of the extension. We’re bringing in track experts this week to provide an independent assessment of the issue and possible corrective actions for evaluation.  

This is an emerging concern, and we don’t have all the answers yet on how it will affect Hilltop’s opening timeline. But our commitment to transparency and “no surprises” means sharing what we know as soon as possible, and you can expect an update soon when we learn more.  

With this project’s location on city streets in Tacoma, construction impacts have been felt strongly by residents and businesses on the alignment. On behalf of everyone at Sound Transit, we share your feelings of urgency to complete construction.  

We pledge to you that we will work to open this project as soon as we can do so while maintaining quality and safety and will keep the lines of communication open on the progress toward start of service. 

1 Line and 2 Line project updates  

Today we also provided updates to the committee on our other Link projects in construction, outlining the continuing work ahead to reliably set new opening dates for our extensions to the Eastside, Lynnwood and Federal Way. 

We’ve seen delays caused by the pandemic and its ongoing effects on the labor market and global supply chain, a regional concrete delivery strike, and design and construction quality issues on some projects. 

As we discussed in briefing the Board in August, and again in November, project construction challenges will push back East Link’s opening. On the Federal Way Link Extension, we are developing a new long-span bridge design over an unstable soil area, but we’re continuing to work with the design-build contractor on an agreed schedule.  

We’ve done a deep dive into risk analysis over the past several months to start zeroing in on how we can limit delays and welcome you aboard as soon as possible.  

Our best opportunity for launching new service the soonest will be to open projects in the order they finish construction: Lynnwood Link Extension first, then the East Link and Downtown Redmond extensions simultaneously, and then the Federal Way Link Extension.  

In addition, it may be possible to open a portion of the East Link Extension earlier, between South Bellevue Station and Redmond Technology Station. We’ve been studying the feasibility of this “East Link Starter Line” service.  

This afternoon we outlined these two possible scenarios to Board members for their consideration, and we’ll be back to seek their direction in January. 

How did we get here? 

Our original plan to open the Link projects approved by our region’s voters assumed this order: 

  1. The East Link Extension, officially launching the 2 Line, in mid-2023. (14 miles and 10 new stations, connecting downtown Seattle, Judkins Park, Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond’s tech core.) 

  1. The Lynnwood Link Extension, expanding service on the 1 and 2 Lines, in mid-2024. (8.5 miles and four new stations in Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood.)  

  1. The Federal Way Link Extension, lengthening the 1 Line, in late 2024. (7.8 miles and three new stations serving Kent/Des Moines and Federal Way.) 

  1. The Downtown Redmond Link Extension, further expanding the 2 Line, in late 2024. (3.4 miles and two new stations.) 

As Sound Transit staff briefed the Board this past summer and fall, however, our contractors are correcting construction quality issues that will delay East Link’s opening.  

In addition, the Federal Way Link Extension team discovered unstable ground conditions during construction that required a new long-span bridge approach, which will take extra time to design and build and will delay Federal Way Link’s opening.  

These realities meant we had to analyze and update our project opening time frames and sequencing. In addition to re-sequencing openings to align with new targeted construction completion windows, we also needed to fully assess the resources needed for each opening independently, as well as systemwide. 

The East Link delay means the other project openings won’t have access to the new Operations and Maintenance Facility East in Bellevue. Without access to OMF East, all service west of Lake Washington will be solely supported by our OMF Central in Seattle. That means we won’t have enough maintenance and storage capacity for all the new train cars we’ve ordered to provide planned opening service on the Lynnwood and Federal Way extensions.  

The Downtown Redmond Link Extension also depends on the completion of East Link to provide OMF East access, since it doesn’t have access to OMF Central. 

Project openings rely on other shared resources, too. This includes Sound Transit staff, staff needs from our partners in recruiting operators and maintenance personnel, local emergency responders for trainings, staff from state and federal oversight agencies, and more. Given all these shared resources, opening extensions in too close of a sequence jeopardizes our ability to maintain our highest standards for quality and safety. 

Through the programmatic risk assessment and lessons learned from our past successful Link openings, we’ve determined that a window of at least six months between openings is essential to safely and reliably activate new service on each extension. 

This period includes roughly two months for staff to fully dial-in service performance, troubleshoot any issues with new stations or equipment, and address our passengers’ new needs and feedback. This window for reactive and reflective work is critical before we shift into preparation mode for the next project opening.  

The next approximately four months of “pre-revenue service” includes operator and maintenance staff training and intensive testing to make sure that stations, tracks, signals, communications, utilities, escalators, elevators, systems and vehicles all work together as expected before we welcome new passengers to the opening of the next extension. 

Finding the best new scenario 

Despite delays stemming from the pandemic and regional concrete strike, the Lynnwood Link Extension is on target to finish construction first.  

If we kept with the original opening order, Lynnwood would sit completed and unused for several months waiting for East Link construction to wrap up.  

But opening Lynnwood before East Link also introduces regional mobility challenges, as we look at how to support additional ridership without the originally proposed level of opening service on the extension. 

Like Lynnwood, the Downtown Redmond Link Extension has seen only minimal delays as well. Opening it at the same time as East Link, as one full 2 Line launch, will create some efficiency by combining two planned testing periods and openings into one. Additionally, opening Redmond with or after East Link will ensure the OMF East access.  

Opening the Federal Way Link Extension third would allow the time necessary for our contractors to design and build a long-span bridge solution for the unstable soil area near Kent. Opening after East Link is also necessary to support the fleet expansion and service headway needs for this extension. 

When we start with the new construction completion estimates and factor in the six-month minimum window between openings required for success, here’s what this new scenario could look like: 

Possible project opening time frames, without an East Link Starter Line

Project New opening time frame
Lynnwood Link Extension Summer/Fall 2024
East Link & Downtown Redmond Link Extensions Spring 2025
Federal Way Link Extension TBD—schedule discussions with contractor in progress

Factoring in an East Link Starter Line 

The approach outlined above would open each project as soon as it’s ready. But we’re also exploring whether there are reasonable opportunities and benefits to opening some parts of a single extension in advance of the project’s full readiness.  

East Link is currently the only project that this concept could reasonably apply to. East Link’s biggest construction challenges only affect a part of its alignment, along I-90 on the east and west sides of Lake Washington.  

The segment between South Bellevue Station and Redmond Technology Station will be completed in early 2024 and have direct access to OMF East. This segment also has station locations and ridership potential to connect riders to local resources for essential jobs, education, health care, food, shopping and recreation.

A map of the East Link starter line potential operations, with headways listed.

South Bellevue is best suited as a temporary western endpoint for an East Link Starter Line because it has crossover track nearby and wouldn’t interfere with ongoing construction on the I-90 segment or require corrective re-work. Redmond Technology Station is the original eastern terminus of the East Link project and is therefore well suited to this East Link Starter Line concept as well.  

Here’s what this new scenario could look like: 

Project New opening time frame
East Link Starter Line Spring 2024
Lynnwood Link Extension Fall/Winter 2024
East Link & Downtown Redmond Link Extensions Spring 2025
Federal Way Link Extension TBD—schedule discussions with contractor in progress

The trade-offs and ongoing risks 

The East Link Starter Line scenario above would open more regional access to high-capacity transit sooner than in the first scenario and put more infrastructure into use as soon as it’s ready. It would also allow an earlier OMF East opening in preparation for the future connections to the remainder of the extended system.  

However, the East Link Starter Line scenario would likely delay Lynnwood’s opening by a month or two in order to maintain the six-month window between openings.  

We’ve presented these two scenarios to the Board for their consideration, comment, and requests for added information with the intention to ask the Board for direction as soon as January. 

Even after the Board provides direction, risks remain with active construction and with opening preparations, testing and staffing. This means it’s still too soon for us to pinpoint official opening dates.  

Both scenarios require more analysis and problem-solving, and they both face significant challenges and risks: 

Skilled labor, operator and maintenance worker shortages are currently flagged as the biggest overall risk to opening our projects for service.

  We need to double the current rate of hiring to meet the needs for our system, and this is a sectorwide and regionwide challenge. If unaddressed, it could add up to six months to each project timeline.  

- Opening Lynnwood Link without access to the OMF East will be a significant challenge to vehicle availability, storage and maintenance. 

  We’ll need about 120 light rail vehicles to operate the 1 Line after we open the Lynnwood extension. That will fill the OMF Central to capacity and leave 16 vehicles without overnight storage space.

  We’ll need to find creative solutions for cleaning, maintaining and keeping these cars secure overnight while stored on mainline tracks.  

- Without the OMF East access that comes with opening East Link, 1 Line service frequencies will be constrained by the limited remaining vehicle capacity at the OMF Central in Seattle’s SODO area.

  It will place more pressure on the Seattle-based fleet for reliable performance and make for more crowded trains during peak hours. We’re currently analyzing what service levels we could reliably provide, and ways we could reduce crowding, like continuing parallel bus service to Downtown Seattle. However, we also know our bus operations partners will need to be engaged to determine if they have the resources to support this need, or if their resources are otherwise committed to or planned for other needs. 

- We’re continuing to monitor East Link and Federal Way Link construction challenges (correcting concrete and track work and designing/building a new long-span bridge, respectively) to minimize risks to their completion.   

  We also continue to monitor economic, labor and supply chain conditions for potential unexpected impacts to any and all of our ongoing construction projects.  

What to expect in the months ahead 

With each passing week of design and construction progress, we’ll be better able to refine project time frames.  

In January, Sound Transit staff will provide another update to the Board, and we’ll seek their direction on project sequencing, including whether to advance the East Link Starter Line scenario. That would mean moving forward with the formal equity analyses and public engagement we normally conduct as part of any major service change. 

In the meantime, we’ll also be collaborating with our local partners to address the hiring challenges that represent the biggest current risk to our project openings and the sequencing challenges that may impact all of our riders and projects planned over the next few years.  

As we move forward, you have our commitment that we’ll continue to focus on opening high-quality and safe projects that will deliver transformative benefits for our communities for generations to come. The Hilltop Tacoma Link challenges I summarized reflect that quality issues can crop up at any juncture of a complex project and require us to act. However, our focus will be on identifying and solving challenges earlier whenever we possibly can. 

Looking for today’s presentation to the System Expansion Committee? Click here. We’ll also upload the full meeting video to our Board page soon. 

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