A panel of elected officials endorsed using tunnels to expand light rail into Ballard and West Seattle, even though they don't know how they would pay for the costlier underground routes.

Share story

A panel of elected officials on Friday endorsed plans to build tunnels instead of elevated tracks to expand light rail into Ballard and West Seattle, a proposal popular with many in those neighborhoods but that could add hundreds of millions to an already mushrooming Sound Transit budget.

The approval by Sound Transit’s 11-member Elected Leadership Group, the second-highest of five layers of public process to pick the new train alignments, is not binding but carries significant influence as the agency continues to evaluate plans for expanding light rail. In supporting the tunnels, however, the elected officials didn’t explain how to pay for the costlier routes.

A Ballard tunnel to 14th Avenue Northwest, at an extra cost of maybe $300 million, would replace an unpopular drawbridge proposal that was published as a financial placeholder during the Sound Transit 3 campaign two years ago, when regional voters approved a $54 billion program featuring eight rail extensions. A fixed train bridge more than 100 feet high will also be studied, at the request of Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, in case a tunnel isn’t feasible.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company, Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company, Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

Over in West Seattle, officials scrapped the most extreme concept, to drill through Pigeon Ridge for an extra $1.2 billion. Instead, they favored a shorter tunnel that enters the hillside next to West Seattle Stadium and ends within West Seattle Junction near 42nd Avenue Southwest, for a potential cost of $700 million.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan acknowledged the two tunnels would add at least $1 billion, and require more money than the voter-approved ST3 taxes, “but I want people to understand it’s not going to be only the people of Seattle,” she vowed. Durkan didn’t offer details about where to look for the extra cash. Sound Transit is already more than a half billion over budget on its Federal Way and Lynnwood rail projects, and has faced battles in the courts and the legislature the agency’s car tab tax that is based on inflated vehicle values.

The discussion took place at Friday’s session of the Elected Leadership Group, the second-highest of five layers of public process to pick the new train alignments. Members of the elected officials group includes King County Executive Dow Constantine; Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, who is also Sound Transit board chairman; Mayor Durkan and members of the Seattle and King County councils and the Port of Seattle.

Arguments are likely to break out with suburban leaders who aren’t so enthused about local tunnels. Somers fretted about whether Seattle will soak up the resources, or at least the credit, of the region before Sound Transit can lay tracks to Lynnwood and Everett. Outer communities such as Everett and DuPont, he said, are bearing the risk of decisions made in the center.

“It would be easy to spend all $54 billion of ST3 in West Seattle and Ballard, or the Eastside, or anywhere else,” Somers remarked, though expansion projects are supposed to be funded by taxes raised around the project area.

The plan promised 14 new Seattle stations, including the downtown and South Lake Union core; service is due in Ballard by 2035, and West Seattle by 2030.

The West Seattle timeline is close enough that choosing a tunnel could delay the project, Rogoff cautioned.

The now-favored underground line in Ballard, in exchange for higher cost, would add reliability compared to a drawbridge that opens two to four times a day. And it would consume only half the $600 million planners warned about in 2016 — as the group on Friday recommended scuttling those costlier tunnel paths under historic and small-business buildings at Ballard’s core.

At a depth of 70 feet, the Ballard station would be one level shallower than UW Station and relatively accessible. Constantine urged engineers to design a subway entrance that opens to 15th Avenue Northwest, improving access to the busiest part of Ballard.

A final decision by the 18-member transit board, which includes elected officials from Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, is due in early 2019.

However, the timeline could lapse if political leaders remain stuck regarding where to site a train stop in the Chinatown International District (CID), where they failed to trim any of six proposals Friday.

Community representatives there oppose carving open Fifth Avenue South, because it would force noise and dust upon residents who endured generations of racism, freeways, stadiums and streetcar projects. But the other options are a 200-foot-deep station that causes poor access for transit riders, or tear out and rebuild the busy Fourth Avenue South viaduct, causing delays and a $600 million hit. A deep station there would also require a deeper station, 250 feet, at the next stop, the Midtown Station near Madison Street.

Sound Transit’s planning includes using the city’s “racial equity toolkit” to analyze the effects of the proposals on the community. When the disruption from building at Fifth Avenue South is weighed against future gains of using a shallow station there, it’s unclear from information to date which choices most benefit “the unique multicultural communities of color that live in the CID today,” a Sound Transit report says.

Consultants and Sound Transit staff have pitched a new surface segment in Sodo that could save $400 million compared to the ballot plan. Trains could be fenced off and cruise separate from traffic in what’s now the Sodo busway, if Lander and Holgate streets are given new overpasses to prevent conflicts. A 29-member stakeholder group were opposed because it still requires a cut-and-cover station in the ID.

Disputes loom about whether to build West Seattle’s Duwamish River train bridge north of the area’s two vehicle bridges, instead of building through the tip of Pigeon Point. Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman warned the group not to obstruct Terminal 5 on that north side. “We’re making a $600 million investment in T-5. Anything that impacts these terminals is a non-starter. It will shut down these businesses,” she said. “This is on behalf of the hay farmers and cherry growers and winemakers. This decision significantly affects the state of Washington.”