While rail rapid transit to the University of British Columbia’s West Point Grey campus in Vancouver is likely still many years away, it has finally arrived at the University of Washington in Seattle after nearly eight years of construction.
Earlier this month, six months ahead of schedule, Sound Transit completed a 5.1-kilometre ‘University Link’ underground extension of its existing 25.1-kilometre-long Central Link light rail transit line.
The extension was built with dual bored tunnels, beginning at the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and ending just outside the university’s Husky Stadium. It added two new stations to the Link Light Rail system, which currently has a southern terminus located at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
But given that the project is a relatively short extension of existing transit infrastructure, the cost of the project is an eye-opener.
It cost $2.57 billion (US$1.95 billion) to construct, although the project office says the extension came $200 million under budget, with all unused funds diverted towards future extensions. About $830 million or 43% of the funding came from the U.S. Department of Transportation through a capital infrastructure investment program created by President Barack Obama.
Another 2.6-kilometre-long, one station extension southwards from Sea-Tac Airport Station is scheduled for completion this fall. The cost for this elevated spur is $383 million.
Moreover, both extensions combined will only provide Central Link with an estimated ridership increase of 45,000 riders per day by 2020 – an increase from the current ridership figure of 35,000 per day. Total ridership on the entire light rail system will further increase to 114,000 by 2030 with these extensions.
The projected ridership returns on Central Link’s University Link expansion would make a similar rapid transit project in Metro Vancouver economically and financially feasible.
But the battle to reduce the Seattle region’s high automobile dependency requires the high investment. The fully grade-separated right-of-way is necessary for Seattle to establish the backbone of its young rail rapid transit system and ensure that the service is a competitive form of transportation when it comes to speed, travel times, and reliability.
Much of the project’s high cost of construction comes from tunnel boring. With the Link Light Rail, a larger diameter tunnel needs to be bored as the system uses light rail trains that are powered by an overhead line instead of a third rail. In this case, two parallel 6.4-metre diameter tunnels were bored using three tunnel boring machines launched from two different locations. The method of tunnel construction also had to consider challenging geological and seismic conditions found along the route.
Station construction costs were also high as project planners refused to build anything that would be less-than-adequate for the long haul. Platform lengths at both stations are 120-metres-long, consistent with other Central Link stations, and each station has vast concourse and circulation spaces to allow for both projected and unexpected ridership growth.
Additionally, architecture at both stations provides riders with an inspiring sense of place through unique station designs and the use of high quality materials.
Contrast this to Vancouver’s SkyTrain Canada Line, a relatively new system that uses 40 metre length platforms, which are only expandable to 50 metres. University Link’s platforms are three times longer than the Canada Line’s and 50% longer than the stations on the Expo, Millennium, and Evergreen lines, although it should be noted that Vancouver’s automated driverless system still allows for high capacities through short but frequent trains.
The Canada Line’s station designs revolved around the financial constraints of the project instead of the user-friendly first objective; the beige tiles of the underground stations may very well have been ordered from a warehouse fire sale, some areas of the stations look barren and unfinished, staircases and escalators are poorly placed and do not allow efficient movement through the station, and the station concourse and circulation areas are tiny for even present day demands.
With that said, the Canada Line’s ridership is far superior than any current segment of the Link Light Rail system. The $2.05-billion 19-kilometre-long, 16 station extension reached its 100,000 daily ridership target in its first year of operations, and the number of users has since grown to approximately 130,000 per day.
Similarly, the Evergreen Line is also expected to deliver strong numbers. The $1.43 billion investment on 11 kilometres of new track and six stations, excluding the new third platform at Lougheed Town Centre Station, will bring 50,000 riders per day upon opening in early 2017 and 70,000 riders by 2021.
The planned tunnel bored SkyTrain extension of the Millennium Line under Broadway to at least Arbutus Street will be the real regional transit game changer.
A six-kilometre extension to Arbutus with six new stations will cost $1.9 billion and bring 150,000 riders upon opening. The returns are even more impressive for a full extension to the UBC campus: It will cost $3 billion, but it will bring 250,000 daily riders when operational.
These extension ridership numbers will likely be even higher as they are based on a 2021 completion date.