Later this spring Sound Transit will release the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Link Extension between Angle Lake and Federal Way. From the draft EIS, only one thing seems certain, namely that there will be a minimum of 3 stations, generally in the vicinity of Highline Community college, S. 272nd St, and Federal Way TC. Everything else is still quite up for grabs. Once the EIS is released, the Sound Transit Board will select a preferred alignment to proceed to preliminary engineering. Alternatives include SR 99, I-5, Sr 99 to I-5, and yes, SR 99 to I-5 to SR 99 (see below).
The choices that the ST Board makes on these alternatives will tell us a lot about their values, how they see the role of transit in their communities, and how they view the core function of Link. Is the purpose of Link to speed trips along ‘the spine’, providing competitive options for long trips such as Federal Way-Seattle and (eventually) Tacoma-Seattle-Everett? Or is the goal to provide fast, reliable, local connectivity that maximizes development opportunites?
If the former, then Federal Way Link will be designed for disappointment. If there were still a possibility of competitive travel times from Seattle to Federal Way and Tacoma, an I-5 alignment would be more defensible. But that ship has sailed, as the MLK alignment of Central Link forever precludes it. So if Link is worth building in South King County, it’s worth building for other reasons than endpoint speed. The ST board should be asking themselves, “What are those reasons?” An I-5 alignment with 2.5 mile, anti-urban stop spacing would shave a few minutes of travel time for long trips that would still be uncompetitive with express buses, all while providing the least local benefit to South King County residents. It wouldn’t be terrible, but it would do nothing well.
When it comes to zoning, suburban cities have shown themselves more than willing to upzone station areas (see maps below). In 2012 Kent and Des Moines jointly created “Transit Community” zones that anticipated Link service more than a decade in advance. Providing for height minimums of 55 feet and maximums of 200′, these proposed densities exceed anything being considered on Capitol Hill. In Federal Way, even absent any planned rezones, the SR 99 corridor contains most of that city’s current multifamily housing. By contrast, any I-5 alternative not only cuts every potential walkshed in half, but also has far inferior existing land uses, from single-family homes, land-gobbling interchanges, freeway tree buffers, and sprawling industrial land. In short, if suburban cities such as Kent are willing to aggressively upzone station areas and are asking for more stations rather than speed, the ST Board should listen to them.
An SR 99 alignment turns a potential regional boondoggle into a local boon. It could cut travel times in half compared to RapidRide A, run 50% more often, provide nearly limitless opportunities to transform auto-oriented (but beautifully linear!) commercial sprawl into TOD, and provide badly needed affordable housing for tens of thousands of people priced out of Seattle. Local mobility is social justice. Let’s maximize it.