When voters approved Sound Transit 3 in 2016, they consented to a “provisional alignment” to take trains from roughly 15th & Market to the West Seattle Junction via South Lake Union and Downtown. A long line with a long tunnel through downtown required compromises. Although many felt at the time that ST’s budget estimates were exceedingly conservative, 18 months of Trump tweets and assaults in Olympia have soured the mood for adventurous budgets. Still, neighborhoods have understandable desires to undo some of those compromises.
Most of these ideas would create measureable improvements to the usefulness of the system. Moving the Ballard station west of 15th is a debate about what will bring the most riders. Improving the ship canal crossing would make trains more reliable. Stations in South Lake Union and/or First Hill would add some of the densest neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest into the system’s walkshed, inevitably boosting ridership.
Among these ideas, one stands out as being primarily aesthetic: burying the elevated track around the West Seattle junction in a tunnel. Although elevated track has hardly turned Chicago and Tokyo into dystopias, one shouldn’t single out tunnel advocates as especially unreasonable: as a region, we’ve never built elevated track through densely populated areas, opting for tunnels or surface lines instead. Advocates are asking for the same things as other neighborhoods.
Still, it is hard to identify a clear way in which burying the track would improve mobility in Seattle. People broadly accept that we have a transportation crisis. The fixed budget for grade-separated transit should be focused on solutions to that crisis, not subjective concerns about appearances. And what’s good for West Seattle is good for other places: it would be a better outcome for transit if other segments that follow the street grid, and can therefore run elevated, were lifted to fund better station placements elsewhere. However, the status quo has great power. The easiest place to elevate track is where the plan already calls for it. If there is any flexibility to increase scope at all, there are higher priorities.
The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Brent White, and Dan Ryan.