Sound Transit light-rail project delays: Hilltop Tacoma extension opening pushed later in 2023, East Link starter line under consideration

Dec. 14, 2022
Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm called the construction issues the agency is facing resolvable and stressed the importance of opening quality and safe projects as the agency works to double its light-rail system.

Sound Transit will not meet its Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension opening target of spring 2023 and is reassessing the opening sequence of four additional light-rail projects as it faces construction issues ranging from track geometry issues, residual effects of pandemic-related delays, ongoing supply chain challenges and other quality issues.

“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 CEO Julie Timm wrote in a blog explaining the delays. “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.”

Hilltop extension – opening later in 2023

The 2.4-mile Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension will open in the fall of 2023 rather than the first quarter of 2023 due to construction issues, including quality issues that Sound Transit reports the project contractor has resolved, but the result is a depleted schedule cushion. Additionally, recent inspections identified track geometry issues in one section of the extension. Resolution is still being worked on as the agency brings in track experts to perform an independent assessment.

“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,” Timm wrote.

 A possible East Link Starter Line

Sound Transit’s original light-rail expansion plan would have opened the 14-mile East Link Extension in mid-2023, the 8.5-mile Lynnwood Link Extension a year later in mid-2024 and both the 7.8-mile Federal Way Link Extension and 3.4-mile Downtown Redmond Link Extension in late 2024.

The Lynnwood Link Extension is on pace to be completed first as the East Link Extension’s contractors continue to correct construction quality issues that have delayed its opening. This delay further complicates the potential sequence of the four projects because a new Operations and Maintenance Facility East (OMF East) in Bellevue, Wash., was to open as part of the East Link project. Without the facility, Sound Transit will not have enough maintenance and storage capacity for new trains that will service the Lynnwood and Federal Way extensions. The Downtown Redmond extension opening depends on access to the facility because the extension does not have access to a similar facility in Seattle.

The Federal Way extension is also facing a delay due to the discovery of unstable ground conditions that require a new long-span bridge approach.

Sound Transit explains it’s not only when project construction will be completed, but how shared resources such as staff from the agency, first responders, state and federal oversight entities and more can properly assess, plan and finish testing of each new project. Sound Transit has determined six months is needed between project openings to ensure the safety and reliability of each project.

“These realities meant we had to analyze and update our project opening timeframes 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,” Timm wrote.

Sound Transit is weighing the possibility of opening a portion of the East Link extension, the East Link Starter Line, ahead of the project’s full readiness. The segment of the East Link extension between South Bellevue Station and Redmond Technology Station, which would also provide direct access to OMF East, will be completed in 2024.

The East Link Starter Line could open in the spring of 2024, which would be followed by the Lynnwood extension in fall or winter of 2024 and the East Link and Downtown Redmond extensions in the spring of 2025.

Without the starter line, the Lynnwood extension would open sooner, in the summer or fall of 2024, but would face issues without access to OMF East. The East Link extension’s full line and the Downtown Redmond extension would open in the spring of 2025.

In both scenarios, the Federal Way extension’s opening remains up in the air due to the need for the new bridge.

“With each passing week of design and construction progress, we’ll be better able to refine project timeframes,” Timm wrote. “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.”

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.

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Sept. 26, 2013