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Faced with problem escalators, Sound Transit embraces stairs

Constant breakdowns have inspired a new stair and escalator policy

Don Wilson/Courtesy of Sound Transit

Sound Transit staff know that station escalators are sub-par, according to a presentation at a Sound Transit board meeting last week. And thanks to rising maintenance costs, the agency is turning to the original escalator: stairs. (Also: better escalators.)

“Escalator performance at UW Station has not met customer or agency expectations,” read an introductory slide. “Customers have repeatedly experienced major disruptions. We have a plan to fix the problem.”

A seven-point plan starts with a simple solution: “Execute emergency stair protocol.” While UW station has no public stairs, it does have stairs behind closed doors designed for emergency egress. A decision was made in the spring, the Seattle Times reported, to open up the north stairs in the event of escalator failure—but by the end of the first quarter of 2019, the stairs will be converted for public use.

Starting in 2019, Sound Transit will start replacing the escalators. Two down escalators will be replaced with stairs, and the remaining 11 escalators will be replaced with heavier-duty models. It’s gotten to the point, according to the presentation, where it’s actually more cost-efficient to replace the escalators rather than continue maintaining them.

Still, the cost of replacement at UW station alone is likely more than $20 million, the Seattle Times reported. Staff will return to the Sound Transit board with better estimates and a request for funds in 2019.

While the Capitol Hill station is also plagued by escalator breakdowns, the problem is much more pronounced at UW, which burrows nearly 100 feet underground. UW has more than four times more breakdowns and nearly four times the maintenance cost.

Still, the Capitol Hill station is getting its public stairs, too. While the station currently has public stairs, they only run from the surface to the mezzanine, not completely down to the platform. At some point in 2019, riders will be able to take the stairs all the way down.

Moving forward, according to the presentation, the plan is to open public stairs at every station that includes escalators. Sound Transit will also inherit 36 escalators and 22 elevators when it takes over the downtown transit tunnel from King County Metro in 2020—with unclear maintenance needs.

“We apologize,” reads the presentation. “We have learned valuable design and procurement lessons. We have a plan.”

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