For an extra $450 million, Sound Transit says it could build a central Ballard tunnel and underground station, bringing people directly to small shops, pubs and bus stops in the walkable old neighborhood.
A Ballard light-rail tunnel, at 20th Avenue Northwest, could be built instead of a proposed cheaper high-level train bridge next to the Ballard Bridge roadway. Transit staff released the concept along with new Sodo and West Seattle options on Thursday, responding to board members’ requests in the spring.
Many Ballard residents have criticized early plans to cross over the Lake Washington Ship Canal and land on 14th or 15th Avenue Northwest, saying that would be too far from “downtown Ballard.”
Planning executives also revealed Thursday that a recent suggestion to build all-elevated tracks through Sodo would not only add $300 million, but force a shutdown of light-rail service to Rainier Valley and SeaTac for several months during construction.
Following the 2016 election, when voters approved the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 plan and tax increases, board members failed to identify a single preferred corridor through Seattle by the agency’s self-imposed May 2019 deadline, leaving at least a dozen variations citywide in play. A high risk exists of missing campaign promises to finish West Seattle stations by 2030. Ballard service is due in 2035.
To avoid delays, the board ought to decide on its preferred 12-mile corridor, and issue a memorandum that identifies any extra funding sources, by the beginning of 2021, said Cathal Ridge, ST3 central-corridor director. To date, supporters of neighborhood tunnels, such as Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, haven’t announced a strategy to raise more cash.
Tunnels in West Seattle and Ballard, along with other options for the International District/Chinatown and Interbay stations, could add $2 billion to what’s already an $8 billion-plus project in Seattle, without changing the expected daily ridership of 52,000 between Ballard and South Lake Union, and 35,000 between West Seattle and Stadium Station. The downtown portion will serve more than 100,000 riders.
The new concept calls for a shallow-trenched Dravus Station, then a tunnel under Salmon Bay, curving west to 20th Avenue Northwest. While that requires $450 million extra, that’s less than the design study’s $750 million starting point, to bridge over the BNSF Railway freight yard, relocate underground utilities, and then dig under railroad property, said Sandra Fann, project-development manager.
“We’re enthusiastic about a 20th Avenue station with a tunnel under the canal,” said Tom Malone, a Ballard attorney and Alliance board member. It’s near Swedish Medical Center’s Ballard campus, Market Street and apartment buildings.
By comparison, a 14th Avenue aerial line adds only $100 million to the voter-approved plan, and could fit easily into a wide roadbed and former streetcar median — where low-rise buildings might be replaced with dense housing. The Alliance worries about losing industrial lands and jobs that would never be replaced, said director Mike Stewart. Ballard already accepted growth far beyond what the city ever imagined, he noted.
“This is the opportunity for elected officials to make good on their promises, and deliver transit to the Ballard core where density already exists,” he said.
However, the number of people who walk or take a bus to the station wouldn’t vary much, Fann said, regardless of whether 14th or 20th is chosen.
Last winter, transit staff released a surface option that would save $200 million, compared to elevated tracks. New east-west overpasses would be built to separate cars and trucks from trains, at South Lander and Holgate streets.
But a political shadow looms, from the city’s Lander Street Bridge project being built two blocks west of Sodo Station. Durkan asked Sound Transit to study an all-elevated plan, avoiding road overpasses that block and blight Sodo merchants.
Bob Gillespie, who owns construction-supply buildings next to Sodo Station, said 25 to 30 employees, vehicle trips by 175 customers daily, and more than $15 million in annual sales would be affected by overpass construction. “I don’t see how contractor materials, staging, operations and forms would do anything but shut down operations at our buildings,” he testified to the board’s System Expansion Committee.
Members of a Sodo Station Design Coalition said their advising engineer found that aerial tracks would save $30 million to $50 million compared to building road bridges. Durkan encouraged transit and coalition engineers to compare findings.
To reduce construction impacts, Sound Transit is considering a hybrid version that elevates the new West Seattle line but keeps the 2009 SeaTac line on the ground. There would still be a road overpass at Holgate but not Lander — where existing safety conflicts between pedestrians, trains and cars next to Sodo Station would continue.
In May, the board favored a station site that would demolish at least 40 houses within the residential Youngstown neighborhood, immediately south of Nucor Steel mill in West Seattle. A racial-equity report highlighted the chance for “transit oriented development” including a grocery store.
But residents still hope they can keep their homes, for instance if elevated tracks are built farther north, so they climb Yancy Street onto Avalon Way Southwest. Delridge Station would go at or near what’s now a business park, between Delridge Way and Nucor.
If Sound Transit chooses to build through Youngstown, said resident Dennis Noland, “you will unnecessarily be devastating the lives of 150 working-class families. Please make an informed decision, and come visit.”
The Yancy route would save many homes, the analysis found, but is worse for people arriving by foot or bus, and complicates truck shipments from the steel mill.
During 2018, some West Seattle residents, as well as City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, championed a tunnel from the Duwamish industrial area through Pigeon Ridge to reach Delridge, for $500 million extra.
But Thursday, the agency displayed a shorter, $200 million version, to be drilled from the West Seattle Bridge landings to the north edge of Delridge Playfield, instead of a longer tunnel that begins near West Marginal Way Southwest.
This creates the advantage of a station closer to Delridge Way apartment homes and Route 120 bus stops. But it also commits Sound Transit to building a second tunnel, from West Seattle Golf Course to the planned Alaska Junction station for $700 million extra, and missing the planned 2030 grand-opening goal.
Don Billen, executive director of project development, offered a surprising nugget Thursday: It may be possible to dig a very short tunnel from an elevated Avalon Station into the Junction. But he has no results yet.