It’s not up to Seattle City Hall how to build Sound Transit’s $13 billion West Seattle-to-Ballard line. But as the largest city involved in the light-rail expansion, Seattle’s preferences carry significant political weight as the mega-project chugs toward construction.
With that fact top of mind, the Seattle City Council voted 8-0 on Tuesday to put its official station and alignment preferences for the new route on the record.
In many aspects, the city and Sound Transit are in early agreement, at least in principle. In a joint resolution with Mayor Bruce Harrell, council members agreed that a medium tunnel into Alaska Junction made sense; that there should be tunnel stops on Fifth Avenue in Midtown and Westlake; and that the train should have a tunnel stop on Harrison Street near South Lake Union.
Elsewhere, there are disagreements. If the city had its way, it would put new Sound Transit light-rail stops west of 15th Avenue Northwest in Ballard as opposed to 14th Avenue; on Mercer Street in Uptown instead of Republican Street; and 200 feet south of the current station in Sodo.
The city left their preferences for several fraught stations unsaid.
In the Chinatown International District, where the board is debating between deep- or shallow-bore stations at either Fifth or Fourth avenues, the council said it wanted more information on the impacts of each on businesses and residents.
Community members in the Chinatown ID have opposed the Fifth Avenue option, saying it would disrupt the neighborhood and displace residents and businesses. Advocate Betty Lau thanked the council for withholding judgment. “It allows more time to Sound Transit to answer community questions, address community concerns in detail, and collaborate with community on finding solutions to Fourth Avenue impacts,” she said.
In the Delridge neighborhood, where Sound Transit has signaled a preference for an elevated station, the council withheld its endorsement pending plans to help a child-care center and transitional-housing organization that would be impacted by a new stop.
Jordan Crawley, administrative director of the Alki Beach Academy near the possible station site, told the council that, without mitigation, the station could displace a significant source of child care in the neighborhood. The council, taking no stance, wants the agency to conduct “thorough assessments necessary to make sound decisions.”
While Tuesday’s council vote has no legal weight, it does have political significance. Cooperation between the two governmental bodies will be key in the coming years, as planning ends and construction begins.
“The city of Seattle will continue as the most populous and most supportive linchpin for the entire transit system,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen, chair of the council’s transportation committee. “Time is money and Seattle will be asked to expedite construction approvals to make sure the entire system expansion and its massive benefits for the region happen as quickly as possible.”
The resolution prioritizes rider experience and future possibilities for expansion, Pedersen said.
Voters approved the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package investment in 2016. A cornerstone of that investment is the new line connecting two of Seattle’s most populated neighborhoods, with new stops along the way.
That the project will unfold in a built-out city makes the planning process an arduous one.
“The reality is that no alignment or station location comes without challenging impacts,” said Councilmember Sara Nelson.
But progress is beginning in earnest. The Sound Transit board, made up of elected and transportation leaders in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, is set to vote on its initial preferred options for the West Seattle-to-Ballard lines later this month. However, some members expressed doubt they could follow that timeline.
“I’m skeptical that we can reach final preferences across all of these complicated segments by the time of the July board meeting,” board member and King County Executive Dow Constantine said last week.
When the board does vote, it will kick off an exhaustive period of studying the possible impacts of each station.
The board will not cement its choices until 2023, after those impacts have been reported out. Construction will then likely last until nearly 2040.