Sound Transit CEO Pledges to Revamp Downtown Light-Rail Stations

Written by Kyra Senese, Managing Editor
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Sound Transit

New Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm recently announced that improvements, including security guards and cleaning teams, will be implemented this month.

Commuters using the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel have long avoided damaged escalators designated by yellow barricades and faced service disruptions, such as the Feb. 14 electrical flaw in the emergency ventilation fans, which forced the closure of all four downtown stations for the entire day, as reported by the Seattle Times

A full capital upgrade effort to reverse years of decline in the 33-year-old tunnel — with new escalators, ventilation, safety systems, and architectural restorations — might take a decade, with expenditures potentially topping $200 million.

“Both the very real, as well as the perceived level of safety and security on our system, has not lived up to our value[s], or our commitment to our riders,” Timm said at a March 2 transit board meeting. “This is keenly seen and felt by the decreased security presence on our system and the increased presence of drug use and unsanitary conditions on our trains, buses and platforms.”

A flooded International District/Chinatown escalator was rewired on March 6, and parts are on order to restart it in the coming months. To aid transit clients, new “station agents” have been stationed inside Westlake Station and Northgate Station.

Quality stations will become more important as expansions to Lynnwood, Bellevue, Redmond, and Federal Way open in 2024 and 2025, bringing additional commuters downtown. 

“We’re spending $50 billion on public transit, and all trains lead to downtown Seattle,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. “Third Avenue and the downtown stations are going to continue to be places where people are passing through.”

Ridership is increasing as the pandemic subsides, reaching a record 2.37 million in October. However, this is primarily due to the 2021 Northgate, Roosevelt, and U District stations, whereas downtown’s Pioneer Square Station, which serves as the seat of municipal and county government, draws half of its prior ridership.

Following years of neglect and negotiations, elected officials set the foundation for downtown tunnel upgrades last fall by approving an agreement for Sound Transit to acquire the tunnel and four stations from King County Metro, which operated buses at the location until 2019.

Sound Transit can afford improvements in the downtown tunnel and demonstrate its ability to operate a proposed second downtown tunnel by the late 2030s with an annual income of $3 billion in taxes and grants, the Times reported. 

As of March 16, all 53 of the 58 downtown escalators and elevators were operational. This year, the expense of maintaining the elevators and escalators is $8.7 million. Replacing the machines, which have passed their life expectancy of 25 years, is slated to take nine years and $134 million.

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