In the first major coronavirus disruption for the largest transit expansion in the country, Sound Transit halted work at dozens of construction sites Monday.
The stopped work is “almost all construction” underway as Sound Transit expands light rail to the Eastside, north to Lynnwood and south to Federal Way, the agency said.
But several construction sites will remain active, raising questions about social distancing and other precautions.
Tasks that Sound Transit labels critical will continue, like work on the Interstate 90 floating bridge to extend light rail to the Eastside, which Sound Transit says can only be completed from April through October because of state safety concerns related to wind and waves.
A new train maintenance base in Bellevue is also considered top priority for work to continue, because the agency hopes to accept train deliveries there starting this fall.
Overall, contractors who work on Sound Transit projects have seen 25% to 30% absenteeism among workers, according to a Monday memo to Sound Transit leadership from Ron Lewis, head of Sound Transit’s design, engineering and construction management department.
Some contractors have struggled to implement social distancing “and many have reported high anxiety among the workforce,” Lewis wrote.
Work will continue if it can be done within public health guidelines and meets certain criteria, like work to keep job sites secure or work that, if not done, would create a “significant systemwide delay,” he wrote.
About 70% of building trades workers will be temporarily laid off, said Mark Riker, executive secretary of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council.
The main problem is a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), Riker said. If the U.S. had quickly nationalized production of masks, face shields and gloves in a World War II-type effort, then workers could still be safely building structures side-by-side, he said.
Those who remain will need to change their habits, Riker said. For instance, pre-shift meetings to discuss safety and the day’s tasks must be broken into smaller groups where people stand 6 feet apart.
Other jobs, such as fastening parts inside a station, bring two partners nearly atop each other, and simply can’t be done so long as shortages of PPE exist, Riker said. Many union members feel guilty about using PPE that health care workers need, he said, and some companies have donated their stocks to health facilities.
“Every mask I take, I’m taking out of the hands of some nurse or doctor that I may have to see in eight days,” Riker said. “That is not acceptable to my members.”
Workers have told him they believe they are healthy enough to survive the virus but are fearful about taking it home to spouses, parents or children, he said.
Like other industries, much construction across the Puget Sound region ground to a halt in light of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order, first issued on March 23.
Transportation-related work is one significant exception, considered essential and allowed to go on. Still, the Washington State Department of Transportation halted most work last month, saying it had been difficult to keep up staffing levels and “it is not possible to meet the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines while maintaining construction.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has also allowed some work to continue, but could not provide a detailed list Monday. “We’re going to prioritize things that have a safety impact,” said SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson.
Sound Transit’s shutdown is set to last through May 4.
Last week, Sound Transit learned a worker at the future U District Station had tested positive for the coronavirus, but kept the site open for work.
Now, that site along with Roosevelt and Northgate stations, due to open in 2021, will be shut down. Those stations are in a late stage of construction that includes finishing work during which it is harder to create distance between workers, spokesman Geoff Patrick said.
Train service for those three stations was promised to begin in September 2021. The 3-mile extension was on track to potentially open four months sooner, a gain that might be erased by both coronavirus stoppages and hiccups in supply chains.
Sound Transit says contractors have been asked for extra safety plans, and sites can be shut down if contractors don’t take measures like reducing crew sizes, adding sanitation stations or using face shields.
The Bellevue maintenance base must be finished before the agency can take deliveries of new trains for storage, make any adjustments needed and begin months of testing. Though service is roughly three years away, plans call for the first Siemens trains from Sacramento to reach the Bellevue base Sept. 10.
Trains are already arriving in Sodo for the 2021 Northgate line.
Traffic Lab engagement editor Michelle Baruchman contributed to this report.