This evening, Sound Transit will be holding the first of its open houses on the ST3 draft plan. Being in Ballard, a key point of discussion will be the downtown to Ballard light rail extension. Ridership on the 7-mile line from SODO to 15th and Market in Ballard is going to be very high, with a projected 114,000 to 144,000 riders from across the entire region. How significant is this?
Imagine moving the entire population of Bellevue along this corridor every weekday. In fact, these 7 miles of track would carry more passengers than the entire 69-mile MAX system in Portland or 58-mile light rail system in San Diego. It is equivalent ridership to LA’s busiest (17-mile) line and competitive with major corridors in SF’s BART, where 423,000 riders are split between 5 lines. The ridership between Westlake and Ballard alone (60,000-74,000 riders) is higher than many lines in the above cities. Only select subway lines in Boston, Chicago, DC and New York have clearly higher ridership than what ST is proposing to build in this 7-mile section.
Sound Transit is preparing to construct a second serious subway line through Seattle in ST3. Such a workhouse route requires high quality rail, which admittedly come at a cost. Though ST is not deciding precise alignments prior to the vote, the representative alignments they do choose (for budgeting purposes only) may effectively eliminate certain alignment choices due to budget restrictions. Therefore, doing the right thing on this corridor requires a few changes to the current ST3 draft plan. Here is your guide to key points of feedback to Sound Transit for the Ballard corridor:
- Grade Separation. In the draft plan, Sound Transit proposes a second downtown subway tunnel from SODO to Lower Queen Anne via IDS, Madison, Westlake, SLU and Seattle Center. It then transitions to an elevated line from a portal north of Mercer and 15th Avenue. After that the representative alignment becomes at-grade at Prospect Street, resulting in four street crossings along 15th Avenue–a roadway with nearly double the vehicle throughput of MLK Way in Rainier Valley. This is repeating the errors of the Rainier Valley alignment, where blockages and delays occur regularly due to collisions between trains, cars, and pedestrians. In fact, a proposed Interbay at-grade representative alignment compounds the reliability issues of the Rainier Valley because they both could hobble the same high-use line, with a cascading series of service delays affecting Ballard, SLU, Downtown, SeaTac Airport, Federal Way, and Tacoma. This presents an unacceptable reliability issue for the region’s heaviest-use line and must be fixed. The Ballard corridor must be grade separated. That includes avoiding almost all disruptions due to shipping traffic when crossing the Ship Canal.
- Recognize that both Downtown Subway Tunnels will be regional assets. Reliability challenges, left unaddressed, will have impacts on the entire system. Train delays in the Interbay section will have direct impacts all along the Ballard to Tacoma line. Interruptions on this line during rush hour will also push overwhelming crowds (remember those 100,000+ daily riders?) into the existing tunnel that serves Everett, Lynnwood, West Seattle and Bellevue/Redmond as riders crowd just one downtown subway tunnel. This points us to a key fact: the second tunnel in downtown Seattle is a regional asset, just as the original DSTT is (which was built and funded by King County voters in the 1980s for $455 million). Resourcing the tunnel as a regional asset can ensure funding available to resolve reliability issues north of the tunnel that will affect the entire system if left unaddressed.
- Timeline. Building a subway system properly in Seattle takes time, but we must recognize there are ways to speed this up, and all stakeholders–beyond just Sound Transit–must do their part. We hope to see a timeline for Ballard delivery under 20 years. To accomplish that, there are really two key levers:
- Of the 22-year delivery timeline, approximately 4 years are due to saving up to be able to afford construction. Reducing that timeline is either a zero sum game of making some other (perhaps Seattle) project happen later than planned, ST using more aggressive financial plans such as utilizing the full 1.5% debt coverage ratio that is board policy, or achieving some unanticipated federal funding early in the program that shaves years off the finance plan. It’s either zero-sum (another project loses), more aggressive financing, or laboring for something outside our control (federal funding).
- What clearly isn’t outside our control? According to Sound Transit staff, of the six years dedicated to alignment study and environmental impact work, up to 3 years could be shaved off with increased collaboration by the city (Seattle) and agreement to limit the number of alignments to be analyzed down to around three (as opposed to the 19 studied in Bellevue). For Ballard to downtown, this means that our communities have the power to cut the timeline by a number of years just by streamlining City of Seattle permitting, making grade-separated rail an approved use in Seattle zoning code rather than an exception granted by the council, and reducing the number of alternatives required to be reviewed in the EIS. Sound Transit alone cannot reduce the delivery timeline on these issues without the City of Seattle–with the support of neighborhoods along the line–taking aggressive action to speed the process along. But we have to come together to make it happen! We ask that Mayor Murray, the Seattle City Council, and community stakeholder groups commit to the actions outlined above with the stated goal of shaving 3 years off delivery timelines for all high ridership projects within the City of Seattle.
- Plan and build for the future. We believe it a safe prediction that the lines from Downtown to Ballard and to West Seattle will not be the last subway lines built in our amazing and fast-growing city. Therefore, we must future-proof our plans appropriately. This includes:
- The Ballard terminus needs to be built to allow for lines East (to UW) and North (toward Crown Hill) to be added in the future without shutting down the ST3 line. We look forward to seeing ST’s terminus alternatives to ensure North and East lines can easily be added from the Ballard terminus.
- The highest ridership lines studied in the region that aren’t built in ST3 are Ballard to UW and West Seattle to Burien (each would carry 20-30,000 daily riders once built). Ballard to UW and West Seattle to Burien need to receive full EIS/Record of Decision status, potentially shaving up to 6 full years off future construction timelines (according to ST staff) at very limited cost. Furthermore, language should allow property acquisition and construction to be funded if savings on other projects allow.
- Additionally, more can be done to ensure our future system reaches farther into more economically diverse neighborhoods of Seattle. Sound Transit can conduct future High Capacity Transit (HCT) studies on two key corridors with significant transit ridership and more affordable housing than many existing lines. Each study would cost $5 million–a drop in a bucket for a package this size. These HCT corridor studies get us closer to light rail for the following:
- Lake City Extension HCT Corridor Study: Lake City to Ballard via 130th or Northgate, Greenlake, Phinney, Greenwood and Crown Hill (orange line on this map and Project P-09 on Sound Transit’s Candidate Project List).
- Metro 8 Extension HCT Corridor Study: Mirroring KC Metro’s route 8, alignment serves Seattle Center/Belltown via Denny Way & 23rd Ave to Judkins Park serving Belltown, SLU, and un-served parts of Capitol Hill and the Central District (amber line on this map)
How can you help? We are building one of the most consequential lines on the entire West Coast. It’s important to build it with sufficient quality and urgency to meet the need. That’s why your input matters now. Please do any or all of the below!
- Email the Sound Transit board with your input
- Fill out the online survey
- Attend the Ballard Open House tonight, Tuesday, April 19th, from 5:30-7:30, with a presentation at 6pm
- Email Mayor Murray and the Seattle City Council (CMs Herbold, Harrell, Sawant, Johnson, Juarez, O’Brien, Bagshaw, Burgess, González) asking them to step up to the plate before November with clear commitments to remove barriers and speed Seattle lines to completion.
- Encourage community, business and neighborhood groups of which you are a part to support the best practices above to fast-track light rail in Seattle. It can only help us solve our transportation mess and get light rail to your door faster.