Looking ahead to 2040 as they develop a ballot proposal for next year, light-rail planners envision a system with regional reach and a second tunnel under downtown Seattle.
Sound Transit is considering whether to build a second downtown light-rail tunnel, the centerpiece of a possible 25-year, $27 billion package for next fall’s ballot.
It would begin just east of the International District/Chinatown Station, cross below the current tunnel near Westlake Station, and continue through South Lake Union to Uptown, at the foot of Queen Anne Hill.
The purpose is to carry more train traffic in 2040, by the time 1 million new residents arrive, regional ridership grows, and tracks are added to serve Ballard and West Seattle.
The agency staff Friday released 15-year, 20-year and 25-year construction options. Each requires the same $200 a year average per adult in tax increases, for urban parts of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, agency staff members say. The longer the timeline, the more can be built.
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Whether local politicians on the 18-member transit board will agree to a quarter-century of projects, or balk at such an audacious Sound Transit 3 (ST3) campaign, isn’t yet known.
A draft plan is due by March, to be followed by public outreach, and a final board decision in June.
Snohomish County’s three board members, with Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and Executive-elect Dave Somers, issued a statement insisting tracks from Lynnwood should reach both the Paine Field industrial area and Everett Station, a $4 billion endeavor.
“We think this is at least a 20-year plan,” said board member Paul Roberts, an Everett City Council member, after the meeting.
Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler, a longtime transit-board member, hopes to see a line from Totem Lake to Bellevue College and downtown Issaquah — after seeing his territory bypassed in 1996 and 2008 rail packages. And in a 15-year version, “It’s probably unlikely that the entire segment would be included,” he said after the meeting.
“It’s better to go long to make sure that everyone who has a desire for light rail or transit sees that it’s going to happen,” Butler said.
Many billions more
The most expensive option would collect $27 billion in new taxes through 2041, or $48 billion if existing taxes plus new federal aid, bond sales and fares through 2041 are included, on a quest to deliver light rail to Everett, Tacoma, Redmond, Issaquah, Kirkland, Ballard and West Seattle.
That’s roughly double the highly publicized $15 billion that met temporary resistance this year in the Legislature, which in July passed a bill giving Sound Transit higher taxing authority for ST3. However, Sound Transit Finance Director Brian McCartan said that number was always just “shorthand” for a tax level that would collect $15 billion in the first 15 years.
The transportation-funding law does set ceilings on the tax rates — which must be approved by voters anyway — but there is no budget cap, and Sound Transit may collect indefinitely to finish and operate the projects.
In return, ST3 lines might attract 50,000 train riders in the Lynnwood-Everett stretch, more than 40,000 in West Seattle, around 50,000 in Federal Way and Tacoma, and maybe 55,000 in Ballard-SLU-Uptown.
Less pricey options might not build all the lines.
The suggested second Seattle tunnel might start under Fifth Avenue South at the International District, as a shallow cut-and-cover section. Twin tubes could be bored downtown — running east of the 1989 Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, because the combination of the future Highway 99 tunnel and the old Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tunnel prevent excavation to the west. A new Madison Street light-rail station would be part of the new tunnel. Northwest of Westlake Station, the tunnel could revert to cut-and-cover.
Parsons Brinckerhoff, the agency’s longtime design consultant, offers a rationale.
Even though trains in the existing tunnel can serve 12,000 passengers per hour, per direction (75 people sitting plus 75 people standing per railcar, in four-car trains arriving every three minutes), planners say they will need more trains after 2040, and therefore, another tunnel.
Planning maps show two train lines heading to Everett for service as often as every three minutes. However, some trains could turn back at Northgate or Lynnwood, based on demand.
Previously in Sound Transit board workshops, no one has urged half-measures, such as shorter lines or a smaller tax increase. To hold back might dishearten the pro-transit voter base, and leave too many neighborhoods off next year’s campaign-card maps.
Chairman Dow Constantine, the King County executive, said in April that a bigger network offers better odds of winning than a limited version. Since then, he’s all but promised to deliver trains to his home neighborhood of West Seattle.
Even a quarter-century of ST3 might not cover some ideas floated by board members, such as a Link extension to Everett Community College, or a Sounder commuter-train spur to Orting, Pierce County.
The latest options for ballot projects are posted at soundtransit3.org.
Vic Bishop, a transportation engineer and member of the critics’ group Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, said ST3 would devote billions to serve a tiny fraction of regional trips and do nothing to ease congestion. He also notes the agency promised rail to the University District in the 1996 ballot measure, but that station won’t even open until 2021.
“We would agree Seattle needs another tunnel,” Bishop said. “It should be for buses, not for trains.”
If the measure fails, work continues anyway on the 2008 voter-approved ST2 plan, to reach Northgate with light rail by 2021, as well as Lynnwood, Overlake and Highline College by 2023.
State law passed this year allows an ST3 measure to:
• Raise the agency’s sales tax, now 90 cents per $100 purchase, by an additional 50 cents per $100.
• Enact a new property tax of $25 per $100,000 of assessed value.
• Raise the agency’s car-tab tax of $30 per $10,000 vehicle value to $80.
The taxes likely would extend two or three decades beyond construction, to pay off bond debts.
The payoff for all this spending would be more train connections, to give people an alternative to traffic and to shape urban development.
Crucial route choices lie ahead. Should a train to West Seattle serve intense, upscale growth at the Junction neighborhood, or turn south to serve working-class transit riders on Delridge Way, ending at White Center?
Should Interstate 405 bus rapid transit from Lynnwood to Bellevue and Renton strive for speed, or should it serve more locations? Early studies suggest that a bus-rapid-transit line loaded with fancy stations would be so slow that the gains from more stops are erased by people who revert to driving.