Seattle-area light rail extensions delayed by myriad issues

Diving brief:

  • A host of issues have delayed construction of Sound Transit’s $10 billion expansion project, which will eventually extend light rail service from Seattle to western Washington state.
  • Problems include a month-long strike by local concrete workerspandemic-related delays, a collapsed embankment and issues with the track supports that the contractors, a Kiewit-Hoffman joint venture, installed, according to a note from Sound Transit.
  • As a result, four expansion openings could be stuck for months or more than a year. “While it is too early to accurately assess the resulting construction delay, we now expect project completion to extend a few months into 2025,” Sound Transit said in the memo.

Overview of the dive:

Sound Transit said in the memo that the 14-mile link, the most complex part of the project, could see the longest delay of at least a year. The segment involves the world’s first effort to build and operate a rail on a floating bridge, according to the agency.

The problems on the line began in 2019, when inspectors discovered that the top surface of some concrete pads did not connect to the rails they were supposed to support. Kiewit-Hoffman installed mortar between the blocks and the rails, but this mortar failed.

During work to fix this issue, the team discovered additional issues with concrete placements, according to the memo, which placed some of the blame for the issues on Kiewit-Hoffmann. Sound Transit board members approved in April $15m contract raise for Dallas-based Jacobswhich is providing construction management services on the East Link project, for months longer than expected, according to the Seattle Times.

“Where there are problems with the quality of construction, the contractor carries out the repair work at his own expense. Where there are overflow issues that result in costs to other contractors or Sound Transit, their resolution will be negotiated,” the memo reads.

Additionally, the Redmond extension also faced several challenges related to powering the light rail system.

Concrete strike, pandemic contributed to delays

While some construction errors could have been mitigated, Sound Transit also pointed to factors beyond the control of the contractors and the agency.

A concrete delivery strike in the Seattle area began to significantly impact construction in King County beginning in December 2021, Sound Transit said in the memo. The Union of 330 Teamsters Local 174 workers returned to work in April without earning better wages and health care benefits, but the resulting grunts for construction activity in the area continue.

“The strike has created additional challenges in addition to project delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, labor impacts and supply chain issues,” the memo from Sound Transit read. “In many cases, these challenges have compounded others related to the work of our contractors, project design and/or project oversight.”

Ongoing Sound Transit expansions
Extension East Link Lynnwood Federal way
Service provider Kiewit-Hoffman JV Stacy & Witbeck/Kiewit/Hoffman JV and Skanska Constructors L300 JV Kiewit Infrastructure West
Cost $3.8 billion $3.1 billion $3.1 billion
Length 14 miles 8.5 miles 7.8 miles
Scheduled opening Mid 2024 Late/late 2024 Early 2025

Difficulties finding workers with experience on transit projects, inflation and other pandemic-related challenges also contributed to line delays, the agency said.

Additionally, the agency is trying to figure out how to get around unstable ground along the alignment between Kent and Federal Way. On July 19, a 200-foot section of 9 foot slip slope and forced a partial closure of Interstate 5. Sound Transit said it had been temporarily stabilized, but a new approach may be needed for this section of light rail.

What’s next for the project

Currently, Sound Transit operates 26 miles of light rail with 25 stations, and is in the process of more than double the Link system to 62 miles and 50 stations by 2025, taking into account new delay estimates.

Despite the delays, Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley told a meeting Aug. 18 that she was confident in the design of the project and there was no doubt the lines would be built, although slower than expected.

“Sound Transit has a strong track record of building major light rail on time or ahead of schedule. However, the complex nature of our work to open these current segments, especially East Link, requires resolving challenges beyond what we have encountered with our already completed projects,” Farley said in the memo.

The agency’s construction update does not come with new cost estimates, but the agency said in the memo that it will be able to share more information by the fourth quarter of 2022 after completing an assessment of the project.

Jose P. Rogers