Seattle's bleak downtown light rail stations have nowhere to go but up

Seattle's bleak downtown light rail stations have nowhere to go but up

Improvements are on the way, new Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm promises, such as security guards and cleaning teams.
March 19, 2023

By Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Thousands of passengers who enter the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel learned a while ago to sidestep broken escalators marked by yellow barricades, avoid the fentanyl smokers huddled outside certain entrances and take shallow breaths inside fetid elevators.

They've endured service shutdowns, like the electrical flaw in the emergency ventilation fans Feb. 14 that closed all four downtown stations all day.

On rare occasions, transit users have suffered assaults, the worst a year ago when a random attacker threw a nurse down a staircase at the International District/Chinatown Station. Passengers encounter people in mental health crises, unsure whether to get help or steer clear.

Westlake Station, a central hub where 13,000 riders a day boarded Sound Transit light rail before COVID-19, has lost one-third of its customers. Office vacancies and work-from-home are the main reasons, but officials admit more people would ride if downtown stations were pleasant.

It's a sad condition, after Seattle won acclaim in the 2010s for boosting public transit use by 50%, unique among U.S. cities.

Improvements are on the way, new Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm promises, such as security guards and cleaning teams, whose numbers are starting to grow this month.

It could take an entire decade, however, to complete a full capital improvement program to reverse years of decline in the 33-year-old tunnel — with new escalators, ventilation, safety technology and architectural repairs — for costs likely exceeding $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 told a transit board committee March 2, while announcing a few immediate steps. "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."

Mechanics rewired a flooded International District/ Chinatown escalator March 6, and parts are on order to restart it in the next few months. New "station agents" stand inside Westlake Station (and Northgate Station) to assist transit customers. Two weeks ago a crew power-washed the dank south staircase at University Street Station.

More is at stake than a nice ride

The importance of quality stations will increase when extensions to Lynnwood, Bellevue, Redmond and Federal Way open in 2024 and 2025 and carry new riders downtown. Major League Baseball's All-Star Game will arrive in Sodo this July, then World Cup soccer in 2026.

"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 rebounding as the pandemic eases, to reach a record 2.37 million riders in October. But that's mainly because of the 2021 Northgate, Roosevelt and U District stations, while downtown's Pioneer Square Station, at the seat of city and county government, attracts half its former passengers.

Elected leaders set the stage for downtown tunnel improvements last fall, following years of neglect and negotiations, by signing an agreement for Sound Transit to acquire the tunnel and four stations from King County Metro (which operated buses there until 2019).

They agreed on a final price of $0.

With an annual income of $3 billion in taxes and grants, Sound Transit can afford investments in the downtown tunnel and prove it's capable of operating a planned second downtown tunnel by the late 2030s.


Perhaps the tunnel didn't need working equipment and clean stations when COVID slashed transit trips in 2020, but times are changing, said commuter Deante Cacatian as he detoured down a stairway, past a broken Westlake Station escalator.

"We've all been cooped up during the pandemic," but more people are out and getting around, he said in November.

By early March, technicians had gotten 15 of 16 escalators running, except the one at Cacatian's usual entrance, next to the former Macy's building.

Half the tunnel's escalators and elevators had become inoperable by late 2020 under King County ownership. Sound Transit took over upkeep from Metro on Jan. 1, 2021, in an urgent deal brokered by Sound Transit Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley.

As of Thursday, a full 53 of the 58 escalators and elevators were operating downtown under new maintenance contractor Schindler.

The cost just to nurse downtown's elevators and escalators, replacing parts as they fail, is $8.7 million this year.

Full replacement of those machines, which are past the average 25-year life span, is estimated to take nine years and $134 million.

Until then, outages are inevitable because of worn-out machinery, and a slow supply chain for parts. Those challenges are compounded by misuse and vandalism, which trigger about half of Sound Transit's escalator and elevator breakdowns citywide.

An average 70% of downtown escalators worked in recent months, compared with the transit industry standard of 95%.

The federal government requires public transit to be operated in a nondiscriminatory way, and Sound Transit's annual equity report found that station failures at International District/ Chinatown, Pioneer Square and Westlake disproportionately burden people of color.

New escalators and elevators are to begin arriving by early 2024, starting at International District/Chinatown Station.

Schindler's regional vice president, Ed Frysinger, said each replacement takes 12 to 20 weeks, not counting time for other contractors to build anchoring frames or electrical connections. Large components can only be delivered through the tunnel, a painstaking effort.

"If you have four escalators in a station, you may only be able to take one out at a time, to keep the station open," Frysinger said.

The long replacement timeline is similar to Washington, D.C., and Bay Area Rapid Transit, he said.

Why didn't King County replace aging equipment earlier? A Metro capital projects manager explained in 2021 that the county focused every available dollar to supply buses on the street, satisfying public demand when ridership grew last decade.

Metro had no further comment and King County Executive Dow Constantine declined interview requests for this story.

Soggy walls

Back in 2013, University of Washington scientists and Sound Transit predicted in a climate change study for the Federal Transit Administration that heavier rainstorms would cause medium risk of "increased groundwater seepage into tunnels." A later engineering report discovered cracks and a leak south of Pioneer Square Station. Groundwater won't jeopardize the tunnel's structural integrity, said Farley.

A series of rainstorms in late 2021 flooded pits where mechanical parts control the elevators and escalators.

"Some of those filled up completely with water," Farley said. "It was a terribly rainy year, and it was a pretty unusual situation. We want to make sure we're ready for that in the future."

Frysinger initially feared four elevators and escalators were permanently ruined by flooding, but Schindler managed to restart three, then began repairs two weeks ago on the southwest escalator of International District/Chinatown Station, a popular exit for sports crowds.

Ceilings leak in the mezzanine of Westlake Station, where cooing pigeons can be heard in the rafters above an intermittent puddle. Pioneer Square Station's north mezzanine leaks, and at its Yesler Way entrance, black traction strips and yellow warning cones assist riders when rainwater accumulates on slick floors.

A 51-member team of Sound Transit staff and consulting engineers identified 41 must-do tasks, including bird deterrents, fire-alarm retrofits and architectural rehab. The team suggested a radar-based detection system, being tested in Los Angeles, that triggers alerts if someone falls off the platform into the tracks, according to pages released via a public records request.

The public won't see great physical changes in 2023 because engineering requires a year, said Suraj Shetty, Sound Transit operations director.

Security questions

After guard staff dwindled to near zero a year ago, the pendulum is swinging back. Sound Transit signed new security contracts with four companies in February to boost guard presence. Payments could reach $250 million over six years.

Sound Transit aims to hire 300 security guards across its network, nearly doubling the unit after a former contractor was unable to supply enough recruits, said Ken Cummins, Sound Transit public safety director.

Cummins told the board only 58% of security posts were staffed this fall and 75% this winter, compared with 95% or higher from 2005-18.

Dependable security data doesn't exist yet because there have been fewer eyes on the network lately, Cummins said. Reported incidents declined to 514 in the third quarter of 2022, compared with 834 a year before. Most are "public nuisance" reports, such as drugs or harassment, or facilities complaints. Assaults rose to 12 compared with four a year earlier.

Downtown safety incidents reported to the Federal Transit Administration last year included: six small fires; four assaults that sent five people to a hospital (including the nurse who was attacked, and a person hit with a baton by a security guard); and bear mace sprayed inside a railcar.

In response to safety complaints, bright lights were installed last year at the south entrance to Pioneer Square Station. Congress awarded $3 million this year for downtown tunnel safety and security.

Along with a bigger security team in stations, Timm has promised roving guards in the railcars.

That's a policy shift, after politicians shied away from fare and conduct enforcement in 2020. Three factors figured in: concerns that fare checking could spread COVID; a desire to reduce confrontations, following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd and social justice protests; and transit audits in Seattle that showed Black passengers and homeless passengers received the biggest share of citations.

Fare ambassadors are being hired, clad in yellow and blue to create a more educational, less martial tone than previous fare enforcement officers. On average, 85% of the riders they checked had paid, a higher rate than a couple of years ago, the agency reported this month.

Enforcement ends with a warning. Sound Transit's board voted in mid-2022 to reinstate penalties for fare evasion, but adjudication systems still aren't ready. People would be fined $50 then $75 for the third and fourth violations, which can be waived by completing an education activity; then a $124 citation the fifth time. Fare ambassadors can't compel people to show ID or leave the trains, and many refuse. Customer surveys report a 96% favorable impression of how ambassadors conduct themselves and provide help.

Coming clean

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell says conditions remain unacceptable, but calls Timm a transparent leader who recognizes the problem.

"We continue to get safety concerns in the tunnel area — around Pioneer Square in particular — cleanliness and safety issues. Quite honestly, we spend a lot of time looking at expansion, as we should, but I want to get the basics right," he said.

A young woman waiting on the platform at Westlake said her main need is "elevator cleanliness and safety." The smell of urine in elevators creates an obstacle for her mom, who uses a wheelchair. "It's really unbearable for her, and it's not a thing most people have to experience," she said. "Sometimes we'll just fold her chair and help her up the escalator."

Antoine Tran, holding a just-purchased cake at International District/Chinatown Station, said, "The railing on the escalators tends to be a little dirty. I put my hands on it, it's a bit sticky and I'd like to use it a little more." Blown trash skipped along the brick platform at his feet.

Sanitation is a matter of perspective. Martina Renville, on a visit Thanksgiving week from Los Angeles, said light-rail trains and Westlake Station "were really clean, and I like the security people," though it was a hassle to hoist her luggage up the stairs.

Metro had trouble reaching a 98% cleanliness standard, measured by how frequently it completed tasks in a service contract with Sound Transit. Elevator floors should be mopped hourly, and litter picked up once or twice per day, based on Federal Transit Administration standards. FTA demands zero tolerance of graffiti, a goal crews here usually reach.

Farley said it's difficult to recruit people who will commute and power wash downtown stations overnight.

"You walk along the streets of Seattle and you see the environment is being fouled everywhere, and it's seeping into our transit facilities. So, the ability to keep up with it has become tougher and tougher and tougher as the environment has become harder and harder and harder," she said. Employees struggle with workloads, personal safety and human excrement, which reflect broader social issues, she said.

Tunnel art is supposed to undergo deep cleaning, says a line in the 2023 budget. A place to start would be "Paper Chase" by Sonya Ishii, inside International District/Chinatown Station. The eight origami-shaped steel sculptures are caked with dirt, their white paint scraped.

Creature comforts

An alluring transit tunnel is one key to reviving downtown, according to Scholes, the Downtown Seattle Association president.

Small retail kiosks or stands should be encouraged where people could buy coffee, muffins, flowers or a newspaper, he suggested. Buskers ought to play music. More art would help, and maybe digital kiosks where people look up information about the city, he said.

"We need to treat that station like a hotel lobby," Scholes said.

Also restrooms. Seattle provides dogs a sidewalk comfort station with trees and rocks on Third Avenue outside Westlake Station, but none for humans, unless they can find an available retail building's restroom.

Start with one transit restroom, then learn from experience, Scholes said. Seattle should aspire to provide service like Bryant Park in New York City, he said, where concessions and a nonprofit pay for restroom attendants, fresh flowers and classical music.

Timm said public restrooms are needed not just in tunnel stations, but elsewhere downtown. They require costly upkeep, which must be planned, she said. Timm also would consider coffee stands and regulated busking, as in Virginia Beach near her former home.

Another opportunity to remodel exists with Metro's empty customer service kiosk inside Westlake Station, which has been vacant since 2019, when buses were ousted from the tunnel to make room for Seattle Convention Center expansion. Sound Transit initially said it would become a security post. There's no plan yet.

In the meantime, Timm says she's promoting a "say yes" culture to make quick improvements, such as filling a pedestrian pothole at Westlake with eight new tiles, or installing steel fences around International District/Chinatown Station to prevent Sound Transit police cars and other government vehicles from being parked on the pedestrian plaza.

Emily Kitamura, a Sound Transit customer, hopes transit riders will receive even greater care. In a public comment written to the board, she cited Tokyo as having the world's best system: "Please make Seattle and our Link light rail system the envy of other cities by keeping it clean and beautiful."


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