Almost six years after voters approved a massive light-rail expansion, Sound Transit made progress this summer by declaring preferred locations for three stations and a short tunnel in West Seattle.
But the agency’s board members are still flailing when it comes to the complex Chinatown International District, where they might even abandon plans to build a huge hub station there. A no-build decision would protect the fragile neighborhood but undermine a key strategy in the ST3 tax measure and plan of 2016 — that about 60,000 people a day would board, depart or change trains between twin stations there.
Out in Ballard, a Salmon Bay tunnel now appears more feasible than a bridge, though debates have rekindled over where to place the line’s northwestern endpoint.
Entering the dog days of August, the board members somewhat met a self-imposed deadline by issuing a preferred alignment from Sodo to Alaska Junction, while postponing a decision from Sodo to Ballard. They referred 15 technical and cost issues for more study, such as how to make future stations shallower than previously discussed. By leaving much unanswered, the agency mustered a 16-0 vote on July 28.
Board Chair Kent Keel said this week he had hoped to choose the preferred alternatives by now for the entire 14-mile, $14 billion line connecting Ballard, downtown and West Seattle. But given a deluge of new information from staff and public comments, “I think we’re in the spot we should be in,” he said.
Sound Transit published an 8,000-page draft environmental impact statement in January. A final version, preliminary engineering report and a final board decision on routes and station sites are due in 2023. Costs to reach that milestone are budgeted at $287 million. Current timelines, which might be delayed, call for service in West Seattle by 2032 and Ballard by 2039.
Here’s where things stand:
Sound Transit has tentatively decided to excavate for a half-mile between the future Avalon and Alaska Junction stations, rather than try an elevated approach.
This short tunnel is more affordable than an earlier proposal to tunnel farther, through the steep peninsula including West Seattle Golf Course, for $700 million extra.
Meanwhile, the elevated segment around Delridge Station would be shifted north of earlier proposals, so that columns climb a gentler slope along Southwest Andover Street. This allows trackway to rise 30 to 70 feet above the surface, instead of trying gargantuan columns of 150 feet above Southwest Genesee Street, which provoked community outrage in 2017-19.
After climbing Southwest Andover, the tracks would turn southwest above the freewaylike four-lane segment of Fauntleroy Way Southwest, avoiding worse blight and displacement of homes on the back streets, until trains enter the short tunnel next to Avalon Way Southwest.
The problem is, this path could demolish Transitional Resources, which has served people with mental health needs since 1976. About 120 people a month receive outpatient care, and 80 live in congregate housing at Avalon and Andover.
“They can’t just be plunked someplace. These services are near the housing,” said Transitional Resources CEO Darcell Slovek Walker. Dozens of clients and neighbors have testified or sent messages to transit officials about the plan.
In an office park downhill, owners and clients of Alki Beach Academy day care have denounced a station there that would force them to move.
This layout is needed so tracks can reach the Junction tunnel, as community leaders have demanded.
But moving Delridge Station north poses a safety hazard, because people and buses must cross the steel mill’s trucking entrance on Andover to reach the trains. Civic activist Deb Barker compared the crossing to intersections in Rainier Valley, where cars and people sometimes collide with light-rail trains.
“You’re going to have that all over again in a few years,” she said. The board requested a pedestrian bridge study.
As of mid-2022, the short Junction tunnel is affordable without blowing the current $14 billion estimate for Seattle tracks overall, said corridor design director Cathal Ridge, under questioning last month by pro-tunnel board member Joe McDermott of West Seattle, a Metropolitan King County Council member.
Alaska Junction’s station entrance would be near Jefferson Square apartments and Safeway, within two blocks of pedestrian-friendly California Avenue Southwest.
Going all-elevated into the Junction might have flattened more than 300 apartments in the immediate area, and triggered land costs well over $250 million. Public right of way is cheaper, but local governments and residents are generally unwilling to remove road lanes.
The board asked to study eliminating Avalon Station, a potential $60 million savings.
Sound Transit wants to buy a corner lot on South Lander Street that’s now a U.S. Postal Service parking garage. If new tracks to West Seattle can pass through that lot, the second Sodo Station can be built inexpensively alongside the 2009 surface station.
Board members ordered a report by September about whether a deal is possible with the federal government.
Chinatown International District
In a surprise move, the board not only kept five station options under study, but will also consider no new station at all in the neighborhood.
Members worry about inflicting more harm to a neighborhood that’s been ravaged by land regrades, incarceration of Japanese families, I-5 and I-90 construction and crime.
They didn’t eliminate the deep, all-elevator options 180 to 190 feet below street level, though Mayor Bruce Harrell has disparaged them as not accessible enough.
Earlier this year, neighborhood organizations encouraged a station under Fourth Avenue South, instead of Fifth Avenue South near Chinatown Gate, where dust and trucks would overwhelm local shops during construction.
Historic South Downtown, a state agency, hopes trains under Fourth would bring life to mostly empty Union Station, where people could walk through the grand hall toward transit platforms in all directions.
But in July, younger residents testified that either option is racist, because the district can’t survive six to 11 years of construction and traffic overflows and therefore ST3 should avoid the area. Puget Sound SAGE, a nonprofit social-equity research group, also opposed another station there, as did some older neighborhood advocates.
“Seattle’s Chinatown International District is the last ethnic neighborhood in the city. I mean, we really need to preserve it,” testified Gei Chan, a retiree who volunteers there. “Please work with us and find another location and not have it Fourth or Fifth. We have been struggling with crime, with the homeless situation. It’s been really rough.”
Harrell praised them for seeking to protect “this gem the entire state can be proud of, the Chinatown International District.”
Asked to elaborate this week, he said in a statement:
“We are now hearing many community members questioning whether there needs to be a new station in the community at all — and as a matter of good government we need to answer that question.
“To be clear, looking at alternative location options in addition to those currently proposed does not mean we don’t expand transit capacity downtown — it just means we assess a broader range of options. Let’s let the process figure that out, with the community fully at the table.”
Board Chair Keel, a City Council member from University Place near Tacoma, said he’s concerned about skipping the second station, but “there may be some validity in what they’re saying. They already have a station in the International District.”
As conceived in ST3, a second station in the neighborhood creates one of two major hubs, along with Westlake Station. Easy train transfers are key to the vision proposed by then-CEO Peter Rogoff, for three downtown lines that would carry 48,000 riders per hour each direction.
Equally crucial, the International District/Chinatown complex is where trains from Bellevue and Redmond (beginning in 2024) arrive, then turn north toward toward the University of Washington — so ST3’s plan calls for thousands of Eastsiders to fill a dual-station hub while changing trains.
Speaking for himself, Keel said deep options aren’t worthwhile, nor is he willing to excavate Fifth Avenue South. That leaves a shallow Fourth Avenue South site or no station at all, he said.
“Shallow Fourth” still seems to have an inside track, based on the text of a July 28 board motion, which specifically told staff to study the Union Station hub, community requests and “work to define a Fourth Avenue shallow tunnel option” with high benefits and low impacts.
The problem is an estimated $500 million cost increase, to demolish and rebuild Fourth Avenue over the new station. Traffic is another worry, but the six-lane avenue could be replaced in strips, so it still could carry half the cars and buses, according to the environmental impact statement.
The mayor and City Council endorsed a station under Mercer Street, instead of alongside Center grounds, where construction would harm KEXP-FM radio station, the all-ages Vera Project music venue, and other arts groups. Sound Transit requested further study to confirm it’s feasible to connect a Mercer station with a South Lake Union stop at Harrison Street.
A tunnel below Salmon Bay appears more likely, board vote or not.
Three years ago, members reluctantly endorsed a bridge that lands at 14th Avenue Northwest, then considered $350 million cheaper than tunneling. (Board resolutions said the city must supply funding for any extra cost of tunnels beyond the city core, compared to elevated tracks as promised on the ST3 ballot. By the prevailing logic of local government, real estate inflation for above-ground trackway makes tunnels cost-competitive, and thus pushes tunnel costs back to Sound Transit.)
But the Coast Guard said in a letter Feb. 8 that it would expect 205 feet of fixed-bridge height, same as clearances above the Panama Canal, so superyachts can reach maritime services on Lake Union. That would blow bridge costs out of the water, compared to Sound Transit’s assumed 136-foot clearance matching the Aurora Bridge.
Now that tunneling regained political momentum, the volunteer group Seattle Subway has declared, “Ballard Station has to serve Ballard.” Members want to revive a 20th Avenue Northwest option that’s costly but walkable to more apartments and shops.
The transit board agreed to study safer walking paths, or even a slight station shift, so pedestrians need not cross traffic-clogged 15th Avenue Northwest.