Rantz: Sound Transit spends billions, yet still can’t get escalators to work

Jan 5, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: Jan 6, 2022, 10:27 am

Sound Transit has spent billions in tax dollars and will spend billions more for light rail service, yet they can’t even get escalators to work.

One of the escalators was broken at the new light rail station in Roosevelt during the opening weeks. And holiday travelers were greeted with a broken escalator at the Sea-Tac stop for Christmas and New Year’s day. And that’s not the worst of it.

It takes effort to be this bad. Where are our tax dollars going?

Easier to find a broken escalator than a working one

There are 19 total Sound Transit light rail escalators that are currently offline and under repair. It’s easier to find a broken escalator to scoff at than an operational one to use to get into or out of a station.

If you’ve visited the Westlake location in downtown Seattle, it’s likely you’ve never seen all escalators fully operational. As of Dec. 30, there are an astounding seven escalators that are being fixed. One of its elevators is broken, too.

Five escalators are broken at the University of Washington station. The International District / Chinatown Station is down two escalators. One at Pioneer Square is also broken.

If you were traveling pre-Christmas and into the new year, you only had half the available escalators to get to the platform. As an added bonus, one of the working escalators made an unbearably annoying screech.

The Northgate and Roosevelt locations just opened in October. Northgate is already dealing with one broken escalator. Roosevelt was down one up until recently.

Don’t ask when they’ll get fixed

Are you foolish enough to ask when these escalators will be fixed? Well, Sound Transit has got you covered. Hopefully, you’ll be satisfied with an answer that provides no details whatsoever.

What is the timeline to fix these escalators? Sound Transit says the timeline is still to be determined. That’s about the same way we speak of perennially overdue (and overbudget) projects. When will they be completed? TBD.

History tells us the escalators may be fixed sometime in 2027. Maybe. It depends on whether we’ll continue to foolishly funnel billions more to their inept leadership.

They’re at least acknowledging the escalators are broken. They appear to do little to treat the issue with a sense of urgency. They don’t actually appear serious about even fixing them. But they have addressed it as a problem. The first step is always the hardest.

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Why? WHY?!

To perpetually overpromise and underdeliver seems unwise. But I suppose if voters are foolish enough to keep giving Sound Transit money, management doesn’t care.

But I did attempt to find out why the problems persist. Sound Transit’s answer amounts to, “Well, it’s not our fault.”

“The majority of the challenges Sound Transit riders face with escalators are within the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT),” a spokesperson said, whilst ignoring the other significant problems. “Sound Transit took over responsibility for maintaining these assets from King County at the beginning of 2021. While the tunnel was originally built for buses and for more than a decade served both buses and Link light rail, this shift follows the tunnel’s shift to 100% dedication to light rail.”

So far, just deflection. Though fewer people use the escalators now, somehow, they’re being broken at higher rates. Or something.

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Almost everything is broken. Literally.

Apparently, almost everything is broken at Sound Transit stations.

“The [v]ast majority of the tunnel’s elevators and escalators are in need of repair,” the spokesperson said. “57 of the 58 vertical conveyances date back to 1990 when the tunnel first opened. They are now past their useful service lives, and are a regular source of frustration to riders.”

So all but one are ready to die completely.

I guess I cheated death when I used the urine-soaked elevator to get down to Westlake for my trip the week before Christmas. I was carrying a lot of luggage for a broadcast in Phoenix. I knew not to risk walking to the escalator to see it shut down. I pushed the button, the elevator slowly arrived, I took one last breath of semi-fresh downtown air, hopped on, and held my breath as best I could.

“As of Dec. 8, our web page through which riders can track the current status of our conveyances reflects that 13 escalators are out, all but two of which are in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel,” the spokesperson noted.

I didn’t need to include this part of the statement because it’s dated. I reprinted it because since he noted that stat, six more escalators broke down.

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But this time, they’ll be fixed!

This time — this time!! — the escalators (and elevators) will be fixed. The last several years? You were a fool to think they’d be fixed. It wasn’t 2022: the year of the escalator (and COVID). They will be fixed, it’ll just take several more years.

“Sound Transit has begun a multi-year process to replace them, while also putting significant resources on keeping them running until they can be replaced,” the spokesperson promises. “This work will be supported by more than $8 million that is budgeted through 2023. Our current expectations note the first units being replaced by the end of 2023/early 2024.”

That escalator that never worked? It’ll be up and running by 2024, maybe. I suppose they just can’t find the parts. The repairman went to the Home Depot to pick up one screw but he never returned.

“Design work has already been completed at the International District/Chinatown station. Assessment and design is underway for Pioneer Square and University Street stations. We plan to publish the first batch of replacements for public bid in 2022,” he says.

I’m sure this process will go by quickly.

In the meantime…

As we wait the year — or 27 — that it will take for Sound Transit to fix what’s broken, there’s apparently a plan.

“In the meantime, Sound Transit has a new elevator and escalator maintenance contractor for conveyances and has established three repair crews dedicated to repair work. A stringent requirement of the new contract states that parts must be procured within 48 hours and that repair crews must respond to issues within one to two hours,” the spokesperson says.

I think I might have discovered why we’re seeing such delayed results. I’m betting the previous contract states that parts must be procured within 48 years and that repair crews must respond to issues within one or two decades.

“The majority of issues, including instances of extended outages, are within the DSTT. But all conveyance equipment, including new equipment, periodically experiences outages, including breakdowns as well as periods of required maintenance,” he said. “Our goal is to maintain 97% availability of conveyance equipment, and we post updates on how we are doing to a summary dashboard that people can use to track our track record. You can click the months at the top to see the status for each month.”

It’s no big deal, folks. The majority of the extended outages are at the second most-visited site and only tourists and any resident trying to get to the center of the city use it.

And don’t worry: All those other outages won’t be extended. They’ll just be short-lived but every few days.

It’s a shame, really

I mean this sincerely: I like the idea of light rail.

It’s only really useful for travel to and from the airport. That’s how I exclusively use light rail. But a fully connected system that can get me to Snohomish and Pierce counties, or East King County? I’d use that, even if proper planning and better leadership could have gotten the projects completed a couple decades ago.

want light rail to work. But Sound Transit isn’t an agency that can get it done on a reasonable timeline and in a cost-efficient way.

How do I know Sound Transit is incapable of expanding light rail efficiently and then making it more usable? I look at the dismal data on past projects. Oh, and I see a broken escalator or seven every time I use the light rail.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3) for more news and analysis. Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: Sound Transit spends billions, yet still can’t get escalators to work