Sound Transit 3’s politics require a delicate dance between keeping subarea dollars local and funding the most productive and popular projects. Some subareas are long on projects and short on funds (Snohomish County, and to a much lesser extent Seattle), while others are relatively flush with cash but lean on popular projects (East King County, and to a lesser extent Pierce County). Like a fragile ecosystem held in a tenuous equilibrium of competing needs, small disturbances can jeopardize the whole endeavor. Indeed, without strong advocacy now, the City of Kirkland may be endangering ST3.
Kirkland’s situation is peculiar. Its downtown is difficult to serve under the best circumstances, its alluring historic rail right-of-way (the Cross-Kirkland Corridor, or CKC) barely misses the heart of the city, and its designated growth center (Totem Lake) is a growth center much more in name than reality. The city government’s strongest support has been for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the CKC, arguing that the flexibility of BRT would make it easier to serve multiple destination pairs, such as both Totem Lake and Downtown Kirkland.
As a technical matter, they have a point, but politically it has been a complete non-starter. Residents adjacent to the trail have argued loudly and often against any type of transit in the corridor (though their greatest ire has been reserved for buses), despite the corridor’s undisputed legal status as a transportation corridor and whose (lovely) non-motorized trail is hardly historic, opening barely over a year ago. Meanwhile, Sound Transit wants rail, believing the Eastside’s high revenues would make it an odd choice to dilute transit quality, or its self-identified brand, by settling for buses. Take note of just how peculiar this is. The organized residents are saying they want nothing, the Kirkland City Council wants millions spent on buses, while Sound Transit and regional stakeholders want to give them billions in trains.
In addition to the effective organizing of the Save Our Trail group, a draft Kirkland council memo describes a March 1 meeting in which Dow Constantine and Boardmembers Balducci, Butler, and Marchione lobbied Kirkland to drop BRT and support light rail instead. Kirkland is apparently holding firm, and in response the draft threatens to actively oppose ST3 if light rail is included against its wishes:
The wrong transit is worse than no transit on the CKC at this time. If light rail on the Cross Kirkland Corridor is included in the ST3 package, Kirkland would have to oppose the ballot measure. (Page 13)
Eager to avoid conflict and apparently unwilling to endure another East Link experience, the Board appears ready to take the path of least resistance. STB has learned from two independent sources that the Draft System Plan may include no transit on the Cross-Kirkland Corridor, and possibly no investment at all within central Kirkland.
This impasse threatens the entire ST3 project. We need Eastside votes and decent Eastside projects, and Sound Transit now faces a very unappealing calculus: give in to Kirkland’s BRT dreams and enrage an active and effective Save Our Trail group, go with light rail and add Kirkland’s active opposition, or omit Central Kirkland entirely from ST3. Each of these would cost significant Eastside ‘yes’ votes, and each could potentially sink the ballot measure.
If Central Kirkland is left out, the Eastside may be left with just I-405 BRT and an East Link extension from Overlake to Redmond, hardly a get-out-the-vote project list. Furthermore, Issaquah still wants rail, opening up strained scenarios for a short stub line from, say, Wilburton to Eastgate or Issaquah. Such a dilution would render an already low-ridership line even more questionable on the merits, and possibly a liability at the ballot box.
So what to do? First and foremost, the Sound Transit Board needs to hear from more pro-transit advocates with a stake in Eastside transit. With the Kirkland City Council and Save Our Trail playing two different types of hardball, it is no wonder Sound Transit may be seeking an out. But if you believe, as I do, that I-405 BRT is insufficient and that rail on the Cross Kirkland Corridor is necessary both for mobility and for a successful ballot measure, let them hear from you. Email the entire Sound Transit Board, or email Eastside Boardmembers Balducci, Butler, and Marchione. Tell them you want new rail connectivity to Kirkland, and that you don’t want intra-Eastside politics to jeopardize Ballard, West Seattle, or a second Downtown Transit Tunnel. Without us, the green shirts will be all they’ll see.
On Monday, I’ll propose a grand bargain that provides light rail to Downtown Kirkland, promises extraordinary trail mitigation along the Cross-Kirkland Corridor, and preserves 75% of the Eastside Rail Corridor as an exclusive non-motorized trail in perpetuity. Stay tuned.