New Way To Move

Cutting Congestion In Seattle, Washington, USA Required Extending The Light Rail System—And Shoring Up Public Support

2017 PMI®

of the






“Tunnels are very risky from an engineering and schedule standpoint.”

—Joseph Gildner, Sound Transit

The daily commute can be a real grind. In the United States, the average time for traveling to and from work is approaching 27 minutes each way—the longest it's ever been.

It's even worse in Seattle, Washington, where a population explosion over the past decade has created the fourth-worst congestion in the U.S., according to navigation products maker TomTom. While getting across town once took 25 minutes, residents now typically face commutes ranging from 40 minutes to 90 minutes.

“Congestion in this region has doubled in just the last five years,” says Peter Rogoff, CEO, Sound Transit, Seattle's regional public transit authority. “It really has fundamentally altered the quality of life. People are fed up about it.”

To help ease the gridlock, Sound Transit launched a light rail extension project to the University of Washington in 2009. As part of a 15-year infrastructure program, this US$1.9 billion initiative aimed to connect downtown Seattle with the densely populated Capitol Hill neighborhood and the university's Husky Stadium roughly 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) away.

The project came with significant engineering challenges, including risks involved with tunneling just 15 feet (4.6 meters) under Interstate 5, the city's main transportation artery. The team also had to work around groundwater pools that could flood the tunnel and endanger lives. But smart risk mitigation and careful schedule management allowed the team to execute the project safely and complete it under budget and six months ahead of schedule.

“Tunnels are very risky from an engineering and schedule standpoint,” says Joseph Gildner, deputy executive project director, project management, Sound Transit. “You need to make sure you give yourself enough time in the schedule to be able to absorb those unknowns.”


The lush scenery that defines the Pacific Northwest region developed within a water-rich environment. In addition to Seattle's frequent rainfall, the city's soils also contain large pools of glacial groundwater from the last ice age. All this water can be very difficult for infrastructure teams to anticipate and can potentially sink a schedule. For instance, when Interstate 5 was being built more than 50 years ago, the construction team's work triggered a landslide near downtown Seattle, and it had to build retaining walls on the fly.

To connect the University of Washington to downtown Seattle, the team had to drill underneath the interstate and remove some of its support elements prior to tunneling. Safety was the team's top priority, so it brought together the 30 subcontractors working on the project to make sure each team understood the geological risks.

“Mother Nature is a tough taskmaster,” says Mr. Gildner. “So we have a large responsibility as an owner to make sure we clearly understand what it is we are going to be dealing with.”

The team also used building information modeling to show contractors how their work packages would play out underground—and where their work would intersect. By outlining how space would be used during the project, the team was able to minimize change issues and increase construction efficiency.

“We were able to sit down in advance with our contractors with a model up on the screen,” Mr. Gildner says. “We could get our engineers of record and our architects in there and do clash detection, area by area.”

The team's risk management approach also involved allocating schedule contingency. From the outset, it established six months of owner-controlled float that ensured the team would be able to deal with any realized risks. Contracts also stipulated that any company that fell two weeks or more behind would have to develop a recovery schedule.

All Aboard

2001: University Link Extension project launches

2006: Preliminary engineering completed/final design initiated

2008: Demolition begins

2010: Tunneling begins

2012: Track and systems construction begins

2013: Tunneling completed

2014: Construction of University of Washington Station complete

2015: Construction of Capitol Hill Station complete

2016: Project closes six months ahead of schedule and US$200 million under budget

Green Operator

Sound Transit's portfolio of sustainability projects is helping to shrink its environmental footprint. In recent years, projects executed by the public transit agency in Seattle, Washington, USA have delivered the following benefits across its bus and train fleets and facilities:

5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle

15% reduction in overall vehicle pollution

5% reduction in total energy use of all facilities built before 2015

81% of organization's electricity derived from renewable sources

Cross-section rendering of the new train station at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, USA



“You have to listen carefully to each other and try to identify what each party really needs and wants. And then focus on how to meet everyone's needs.”

—Tracy Reed, Sound Transit


From left, Tracy Reed, Joseph Gildner and Peter Rogoff

“Thankfully, the contractors did an excellent job,” he says. “We were able to implement this project without having to really tap into float time. In fact, we were able to use that time savings and open early.”



Tracy Reed, executive project director, Sound Transit

Location: Seattle, Washington, USA

Experience: 24 years

Other notable projects:

■ Central Link Light Rail, the initial part of Seattle's light rail system completed in 2009. Ms. Reed was responsible for the US$2.6 billion project's environmental review, alternatives analysis, conceptual and preliminary engineering, and final design.

■ Northgate Link Light Rail, the US$1.9 billion extension project under construction and scheduled to be completed in 2021. Ms. Reed served as a senior project manager.

Career lessons learned: “Committing to effective risk management and building strong relationships with contractors and third-party property owners or jurisdictions early on is key to a successful finish.”


The project would weave through several neighborhoods, impacting both residents and business owners. So the project team had to find ways to appease stakeholders without adding “pork-barrel scope.”

“Whenever we're building something new in a community, there's this propensity for scope creep,” Mr. Rogoff says. “Folks start insisting either through their local codes or through the political process to have you build out more than was originally envisioned, at greater cost and over a greater period of time.”

Case in point: An unexpected request popped up involving the pedestrian bridge that would connect the nearby University of Washington Station to the University of Washington campus. The bridge had always been part of the project plan, but as time wore on, the university decided it wanted to expand the bridge's scope, says Tracy Reed, executive project director, Sound Transit.

“Over time, the University of Washington got more interested in making the pedestrian bridge part of a gateway entrance to their campus,” she says.

At the same time, the station was intended to be a transit service hub. So in addition to coordinating with the university, the team had to work with the local bus service provider, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the city of Seattle to modify the bridge in a way that satisfied all parties.

It took nearly three years to negotiate the details of the design change, which ultimately upgraded the bridge to include bicycle access that could further reduce vehicle congestion. This meant widening the path and adding ramps that could accommodate heavy bike traffic. But making this decision after construction contracts had already been negotiated came at a cost. Ms. Reed says project management tools helped the team accurately predict these increases and successfully acquire supplementary funding from state agencies and the University of Washington.

University of Washington Station



“Cost estimating was a very focused process,” Ms. Reed says. “We actively debated the amount of contingency that was reasonable and the cost basis for all of our built-up estimates.”

This diligence helped convince the contributing agencies that the team had allowed enough contingency to deal with unexpected outcomes. “You have to listen carefully to each other and try to identify what each party really needs and wants,” Ms. Reed says. “And then focus on how to meet everyone's needs.”


The pedestrian bridge wasn't the only point of contention the project team and the university needed to address. The university had concerns about noise, dust and traffic, particularly since the University of Washington Station was being built right outside of the school's main sports facility, Husky Stadium. The school had its own plans to renovate the stadium at the same time that the station needed to be built.

“The amount of time that we were welcome to stay on campus and complete the construction of the project was a major point of negotiation with the university,” Ms. Reed says.

To codify exactly how long construction could take, the team worked with the university to create an agreement that specified how much space could be used and for how long. Each project phase had a number of acres associated with it. If the team stayed in any area longer than planned, it would have to pay damages to the university.

Sticking to this agreement required careful contractor management, as the team had to make sure everyone understood and respected the rules related to acceptable work hours, traffic management and the overall construction plan. But executing a work plan that put the university's needs first inspired the school to relax those restrictions when it counted most. One of the terms of the agreement stipulated no work on special events days—but tunnel mining requires a continuous excavation process, Ms. Reed says. “The university recognized that and allowed our contractors to work inside the [construction site], even on days that had previously been negotiated as no-work days.”


Amid the need to resolve so many potential obstacles, the project yielded a signature lesson: Transit organizations need to create multidisciplinary teams from the outset to control costs and drive efficiency.

“We are building all of our projects now with cross-functional, co-located teams. So the person who's going to be required to operate that project is literally two cubicles down from the [person] who's planning it and the [person who's] designing it,” Mr. Rogoff says. “We are getting a team together and having them follow the project from cradle to grave, so all of their expertise and their memory of the project is brought to bear all the way through opening day.”


“We are building all of our projects now with cross-functional, co-located teams. … [They] follow the project from cradle to grave.”

—Peter Rogoff, Sound Transit

The University Link project, completed US$200 million under budget, also demonstrated to the people of the region that Sound Transit has what it takes to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars—and deliver a quality service. Mr. Gildner attributes that success to having a staff well-versed in the principles of project management. “We have staff at all levels of the organization who have gained the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification,” Mr. Gildner says. “I can see firsthand how they bring strong fundamentals that support what we drive for in terms of project control.”

The result: A public that initially was skeptical about the value of the light rail project now appreciates the true demand for public transit. When the University Link started operations in March 2016, Sound Transit saw an immediate 70 percent surge in light rail ridership.

It's been a turning point, says Ms. Reed: “Now people are saying, ‘How much more can you build, and how much faster can you build it? Because we want transit like that in our neighborhood, as well.’” PM

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