Letter to the Sound Transit Board

The following letter is addressed to the Sound Transit Board from the Save Our Trail Committee:

Dear Chair Constantine and Sound Transit Board Members, 

We are the Save Our Trail Committee (SOTC) of Kirkland Washington. We are Kirkland Citizens, home owners, and voters who strongly oppose the actions currently taken by the City of Kirkland Council regarding mass transit on the Cross Kirkland Corridor Trail. We are among the eighty-nine percent of Kirkland Citizens who responded to a Kirkland newspaper poll who oppose buses or any mass transportation on the Trail (E-O3 & E-O6). We are the group that has gathered more than 1,800 signatures and over 600 comments, to date, recommending the Sound Transit proposal for mass transit on I-405 (E-02) (Attachments A & B). 

We are writing to you to express our support for (E-02) Bus Rapid Transit on I-405 and our opposition to any transit plan which puts any kind of transportation alternative on the Cross Kirkland Corridor Trail (E-03 & E-06). We understand Sound Transit has an easement on the Trail for transit purposes, but we want you to know of our opposition to any plan which puts mass transit on the Trail because of concerns with high cost and inefficiency, lack of demand, construction challenges and safety issues revealed by the city’s plan, and environmental issues as outlined below. The attached analysis (Attachment C) clearly shows the best use of transportation money and return on investment is buses on I-405. We urge Sound Transit to stay the course and continue with your proposal for buses on I-405 (E-02). The Kirkland City Council has been candid that the main driver in its effort to put mass transit on the Trail is to secure as much money as possible for Kirkland, so the tax dollars derived from Kirkland residents ”do not go to Seattle”. Any mass transit proposal on the CKC Trail will mean a clear ‘No Vote’ on ST3 come November 2016. 

High Cost and Inefficiency

Transportation on the Trail is the least effective use of the scarce funds available along the I- 405 Corridor. In fact, the operating costs per rider for both E-O3 and E-O6 are at least two times the cost of all other ST3 projects (Attachment C). Your cost estimates per rider show the buses and the rail option to be the least efficient and economically feasible option. We learned from the City Council that the Bus proposal (E-O6) is the second highest of like projects that have been built in the United States. The $74.7 million cost per mile for E-O6 is second only to the costliest project, Boston’s Silver Line Waterfront project, which cost $80 million per mile and included a new tunnel under the Boston Harbor. As taxpayers being asked to fund some $747 million – $3.3 billion, we are concerned with the prospect of already high property taxes going higher, making it less affordable to live in Kirkland or the Eastside. It will be much more difficult for families to make ends meet. For a city our size, we do not see how Sound Transit can justify asking voters to fund a project that costs $74.7 million per mile to build. 

Lack of Demand

Based on data provided by your organization, we looked at ridership numbers for the Sound Transit 540 ST Express bus that follows a very similar route through Kirkland to both the E-O3 and E-O6 proposals. What we found is that demand for this route actually decreased from Spring 2013 to Summer 2015 and is running at 28-32% capacity. In fact, because of falling demand, in the Fall of 2013, the number of daily trips were reduced from 42 to 36. In addition, the articulated buses that carry 50 people were replaced with 40-foot buses that carry less people. Your current ridership estimations of 3,500 for bus and 5,000 for rail are at least 500% more demand than what currently exists. Why not enhance the existing bus service to increase ridership demand and still meet future growth? 

City’s Master Plan Issues

The City Council held an open public forum on January 11, 2016 which included a presentation by a Sound Transit representative and the City’s Public Works Director. It also gave citizens an opportunity to ask questions of the City Council members, Sound Transit Board representatives and contractors. All comments and questions were collected by the Council and we were told that they would be posted on a publicly accessible website with answers attached. To date, we have not heard or seen responses from the City Council. 

As supporters of rapid transit, we were interested in learning more about the city’s plan to put mass transit along the Trail. How is this going to really look and work? If we are asked to support a $747 million – $3.3 Billion project in November, we want to know what we’re getting for our dollars. Here is what we found that concerns us: 

A. More Congestion – Sound Transit estimates 3,500 riders per day for the BRT project. The Kirkland City Council, in their recommendation letter to you, estimates 34,500 riders - nearly ten times as many. Both estimates cannot be correct. The city’s estimate was augmented by the addition of Metro buses that Sound Transit’s planners told us directly at the meeting, concerns them. An addition of buses will cause bunching at intersections and will conflict with the already-tight scheduling of one Sound Transit bus every 10 minutes going in each direction. If the estimate of 34,500 riders is even possible, 10 or more intersections listed in the city’s Master Plan will be frequently blocked when all car traffic stops for transit vehicles. The traffic will overflow into the neighborhoods and block neighborhood streets. 

B. Less Safety and Speed Issues – We have two schools next to the corridor. With children present, the speed limit must either drop to 20 mph or the buses or trains will travel at the projected 35 mph and put children at risk. If the speed drops to 20 mph, the buses or trains will cause more traffic problems at intersections and lengthen trip times. If the speed stays as projected, the buses or trains will endanger the school children and people using the Trail. Several segments of the trail also have horizontal curvatures that would possibly cause buses or trains to lower their speeds. 

C. Corridor Width Narrower – Two large sets of section-by-section conceptual diagrams in the Corridor Master Plan outline a compelling vision in full color — a pedestrian trail alongside a “shared path” that wind smoothly in unison along the corridor. Another conceptual drawing shows a tri-level grading which adds two lanes for buses on the East side of the trail alongside two lower tiered levels for bikers and pedestrians. According to Sound Transit’s plan consultant, that conceptual drawing is not possible to build. To get around the environmentally sensitive areas and building easements, any paths must be narrower and possibly merge into one level of pedestrian/bike path. Due to elevation requirements, the bus lines may also need to shift from the East side of the trail to the West side. We were told that in possibly up to 40 areas, the actual width is far less than the described 100’ width. The width of some of the underpasses and overpasses are narrower than 100’, such as the path at NE 116th St under I-405 is only 52 feet wide. If the corridor is not wide enough, the cost of the Trail will increase substantially as it is likely business and residential property would have to be purchased by Sound Transit and freeway overpasses and underpasses would have to be widened. 

D. Fencing The Corridor – City presentations of “similar” examples have shown no pictures of bus or train lines along pedestrian AND bike lanes NEXT to residential houses. There are good reasons for fencing or walls separating the uses on the trail. The main reason is safety. A second reason is to separate the trail from the back yards of abutting home owners. In a residential or school area, it is likely that fences would have to be used to divide the pedestrian/bike/bus lanes for safety and liability issues, according to a similar plan being looked at in Bellevue with light rail. The City Plan does not show a fenced/walled corridor. Residents will demand sound proof fencing and a separation of the uses to meet safety and noise issues. 

E. Public Safety Concerns - There is limited access to the Trail from surrounding streets. Emergency vehicles to address medical or fire emergencies on the proposed buses on the Trail would require a dedicated fire lane. Such emergency access is not currently accounted for and may require additional right of way. Some of the homes along the Trail were constructed at or near their “rear” property line. The proximity of those homes poses a challenge during construction and afterward. At several surface street intersections with the Trail, there appears to be a stopping sight distance limitation due to the vertical alignment of those streets. Such limitation would create a significant safety issue to both buses and cars and potential lawsuits. The BRT and rail route is also deficient at several surface street intersections where minimum required intersection spacing cannot be met. If traffic signals are installed, then we have compounded the problem; where you may think you solved one issue by basically shifting it elsewhere. Buses or trains may be moving smoothly but frustrated drivers would be sitting in their cars at intersections extending from 6th street all the way to Northup Way and along the 10 cross streets, encroaching on neighborhood streets. 

Environmental Threat

The Trail is greatly appreciated by the people of Kirkland because of the unique setting it creates and the high value we place on preservation of the trail as a greenbelt. The Trail crosses some of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the region. It crosses salmon streams, parks, a watershed long preserved by the City of Kirkland, several bogs and is home to a great variety of wildlife. Putting any kind of mechanized transportation on the Trail will be fraught with environmental problems (water, noise, air, light and visual pollution) and would invite costly legal challenges based on SEPA and other violations, and require a complex, costly and lengthy Environmental Impact Statement. The Trail is also located on a city mapped landslide zone. The slightest movement of earth could mean a disaster not just to people on buses or trains but the homes which are located directly below the Trail. It is our duty as stewards of the environment to preserve green open spaces where possible and to avoid costly, unwanted, projects whose hallmark is miles of one hundred feet wide paving. 

Other Transit Options

The City Council actively lobbied for this concept of buses on the Trail, despite public comments against it and spent $250,000 in conceptual design funds to promote the idea while discounting other options. Other transit options, like the E-02 Intensive Capital Option proposal would be a win-win option if an inline BRT station on NE 85th Street were built in the center of I- 405 and bus lines were added to travel West to downtown Kirkland and East to Redmond. Working with Metro to increase transit service on existing routes would alleviate surface street congestion. We do not feel the City Council gave these options due consideration, so we are asking your members to do so going forward. What we envision for the Trail is to be a part of a world class green mode of transportation to connect to the current system of non-motorized trails. The cost would be minimal and the benefits to the communities and the Evergreen state would be priceless. 

As the issue stands today, this is a costly future project that was not portrayed accurately and completely to the citizens of Kirkland and the citizens of the area. We understand that approval and payment will need to start 20 to 25 years before anything is built. However, if the approval for the funding of the project includes mass transit on the Trail, we cannot and will not vote for the ST3 proposal in November 2016 and will actively work to defeat the ballot measure. We support mass transit on I-405 including an 85th Street inline station and ask you to not put a trail segment in your plan or on the ballot. 

Thank you for allowing us to present our story. We ask to be included in your process going forward and to work with us in finding other transit options. 

Very Truly Yours, 

(As signed on attached sheets to this letter dated January 26, 2016

Save Our Trail Committee