In a show of urgency and fiscal restraint, Sound Transit board members Thursday abandoned ideas for a $450 million tunnel into historic central Ballard, a $200 million bored tunnel through West Seattle’s Pigeon Point neighborhood, and a fully elevated trackway in Sodo that would have blocked light-rail travel during construction.
Cheaper options that serve the same number of passengers and will still cost hundreds of millions of dollars will now gain momentum during environmental studies — notably a simpler Ballard tunnel to 15th Avenue Northwest, favored by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
Politicians on the 18-member board have entertained dozens of alignment concepts since 2016, when voters passed the $54 billion ST3 tax measure to expand regional rail and bus services. The agency promised West Seattle stations in 2030 and stations from south downtown to Seattle Center and Ballard by 2035.
A projected 35,000 daily passengers would ride between West Seattle and Sodo, plus 52,000 between Ballard and South Lake Union. Tens of thousands more would use a new downtown tunnel and stations.
As the wish list swelled, some scenarios threatened to delay grand openings, add complexity, and boost the $8 billion budget estimate by $2 billion (2018 dollars) within the 12-mile Seattle corridor. Some of those, including 200-foot-deep train platforms for International District/Chinatown Station for an expanded station and tunnel, or a tunnel from West Seattle Golf Course to Alaska Junction, remain on the study menu.
Seattle is likely to seek “third party funding,” yet to be identified, for local upgrades.
Adding pressure, Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 on the Nov. 5 ballot seeks to slash car-tab taxes to $30 statewide. Even if voters or the courts side with Sound Transit against the Eyman ballot measure, state lawmakers may consider car-tax cuts.
Transit CEO Peter Rogoff is also warning that construction inflation jumped by one-fourth just since 2016, so hard choices lie ahead.
Some board members, including Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and Everett Councilmember Paul Roberts of Snohomish County, said Thursday they won’t vote to add costs to ST3. Although transit taxes are generally spent where they’re collected, the Snohomish officials fear rising project costs in Seattle will disrupt Sound Transit’s cash flow or strain its credit, so less money would be available to build 16 miles from Lynnwood to Everett by 2036 as promised.
The central Ballard route called for a tunnel under Fishermen’s Terminal to 20th Avenue Northwest near Market Street, costing $450 million more than a basic, 70-foot high drawbridge at 15th. A tunnel at 15th might be $100 million less than digging to 20th.
Durkan said the bridge alternative, which she is trying to avoid, would be “as high as Aurora Bridge,” forcing huge approach structures on land, and columns in the water where salmon migrate. The Muckleshoot Tribe, Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Coast Guard would have to sign off, and costs could mount.
She invoked the late Jim Ellis, who conceived or championed a Lake Washington cleanup, the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway, an attempted subway system and sports stadiums in a long civic career, and died Monday at age 98.
“With Jim Ellis dying, we should be bold, not timid in thinking about the next generation,” she said after the meeting.
On the Pigeon Point question, six members favored more study, while nine voted to scrap it. That led Durkan to not even put the central-Ballard tunnel to a vote, citing an obvious lack of support.
“We’ve got to keep this moving and not slow things down,” she said.
Because of its geometry, emerging between two hillsides, the Pigeon Point tunnel in West Seattle would have required also taking a $700 million increase to tunnel through the golf course.
“My simple math is that’s $900 million,” said boardmember Kent Keel of University Place in Pierce County. “My eyes roll in the back of my head when I think about that much money.”
And in a Sodo compromise, the board unanimously agreed to study a “hybrid” trackway where new tracks would be elevated, and existing tracks stay on the ground. Sodo business owners asked for an all-elevated version, but transit staff said service must close at least four months to raise existing rails. However, the businesses did resist their worst-case situation — an all-surface version that might save $200 million, but requires a traffic overpass on South Lander Street that blocks access to local retailers and warehouses.
In West Seattle, the board agreed to study an elevated segment alongside Nucor Steel Mill, continuing uphill near Southwest Yancy Street to Avalon Way Southwest, that doesn’t add cost.
This route would spare about four blocks of the mixed-income Youngstown neighborhood south of the steel mill from being demolished, under an option still in play. But it brings Delridge Station almost as far north as the West Seattle Bridge entrance, risking traffic conflicts between pedestrians, buses, and trucks hauling steel.