The West Seattle Junction, By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

101 Replies to “Tunneling to the Junction is a Wasted Opportunity”

  1. “The fixed budget for grade-separated transit should be focused on solutions to that crisis, not subjective concerns about appearances.”

    There is no fixed budget for capital construction costs. ST3 makes it exceedingly clear that the $54 Billion expected then to be spent during the build-out period for ST3 capital and operations costs was not a limit. There is no limit on what ST3 capital expenditures can be.

    1. Cost overruns are OK. Raising the budget substantially for features not in the ballot measure is not. That’s why it had a budget figure in the first place. The time for pushing for possibly budget-busting features was 2016 when the measure was being written. Tunnel studies are OK because maybe we’ll find an unexpected opportunity (lower-than-expected costs, third-party funding, etc), but tunnel construction estimates really have to fit within the budget or close to it.

      1. If 3rd parties are willing to fund tunneling under the Junction, they should also be on the hook for future tunneling under the Morgan Junction and over toward Westwood Village.

      2. There is no chance that Morgan Junction should get a light rail stop unless they are willing to absorb a LOT more density codified in law ahead of time before we even approach spending money on researching Morgan rail. There is no real density down there except for a few bits and bobs right on and just off of California Ave SW. Go 0.5 blocks off of California and it’s single family homes for a mile+ in every direction.

      3. And as a resident/home owner down by the Westwood neck of the woods, I’m very OK with a similar mandate on us.

      4. Joe,

        Are you seriously suggesting that Westwood homeowners pay for the cost differential between tunneling from the Junction to Westwood, and running an elevated track?

      5. It is what Bellevue did. Bellevue is paying half the tunnel cost, and ST economized in Bel-Red and Redmond to pay for the other half. It economized by bringing some elevated segments down to the surface and allowing level crossings. ST promises the Bel-Red crossing is low-volume and won’t affect trains. I don’t know much about the Redmond part.

        But Bellevue’s tunnel is short and shallow, so inexpensive compared to anything like Delridge to the Junction or the Junction to Westwood Village. That would require a lot more money.

      6. Bellevue is an incorporated city, therefore a political unit empowered to make these decisions.

        West Seattle is not. If West Seattle wants more money, they’d need City of Seattle or Sound Transit to make up the difference. If the latter, then cutting something else or delaying the timetable so there’s more North King tax money or hoping there’s enough cost padding in the budget to absorb the hit.

      7. IIRC, the SLU trolley was partially funded by a transit tax assessment district in that area, the same way Bellevue scrounged up money for a tunnel.

        ST3 was not sold with a West Seattle tunnel. If they want a tunnel they can get the Council to assess them for one. Otherwise, I see no reason why the subarea should pay to coddle one specific area.

      8. West Seattle can raise a transit LID for the tunnel, or at least part of the cost. It would need Seattle’s consent, but I don’t see Seattle saying no. But if it wants to do that it had better start now, because ST would be more willing to commit to a tunnel if definite funding is in place.

    2. The ST3 capital budgeting should have had a 30 percent contingency. It appears to be much less, like 10 to 20 percent. It’s hard to tell exactly because some contingencies may be buried inside the cost estimates.

      This will put a big cloud over all ST3 projects.

    3. There is no fixed budget for capital construction costs

      I suspect you are making a semantic argument I am not particularly interested in, and will happily concede. In any case, given there is room for a larger budget there is long list of priorities we would hope to address before tunneling.

      1. Yep. Semantic or no, there is no argument. There are cost estimates for each ST3 project in the plan that correspond to the scope voters approved. Adding scope not in the plan isn’t possible if it jeopardizes other parts of the plan. The only real exceptions are cutting projects for Transportation, risk or financial reasons (see Boeing Access and First Hill from Sound Move, or the ST2 recession deferrals, respectively), or adding funding from an outside source not already assumed as part of the ST3 financial plan.

        The elevated alginment was a practical choice based on balancing the needs of the market being served, and the other priorities within the plan. Converting to a tunnel would do nothing to improve system transportation performance, and thus would constitute a costly luxury.

        Well done, STB Ed board.

        Now, the same arguments apply in Ballard, with the possible exception of a fixed span vs a drawbridge. It all boils down to one Big Question: are Seattle residents citywide willing to tax themselves twice for the same neighborhood project(s)? I’m guessing even in the tax-happy Emerald City there are limits when the tally gets up into nine-digit territory.

      2. Does Seattle only have sales tax, car tabs, and random fees to fund transit construction? In other cities a lot of this is funded with either a flat payroll tax or a real estate transaction tax.

      3. “The elevated alginment was a practical choice based on balancing the needs of the market being served, and the other priorities within the plan. Converting to a tunnel would do nothing to improve system transportation performance, and thus would constitute a costly luxury.”

        It affects the other subareas. To keep it within the agreed budget and add the tunnel, North King would have to delete Ballard, downgrade it to a streetcar, give up on the second downtown tunnel, or something like that. All transit fans including STB revolted when ST suggested downgrading Ballard to a streetcar or running surface in Belltown, so that was quickly taken off the table. The mayor and city council refused to give up on West Seattle Link, so the only way to afford it was an elevated alignment. Late in the game the city realized that SLU needs high-capacity transit, so it adjusted Ballard Link to go through SLU, this raising the cost. So the elevated West Seattle alignment was the way to keep it in budget.

        The alternative, raising the budget, would require raising it in all the other subareas too, because the tax rate must be the same across all subareas. (Per the equal-taxation clause in the state constitution; they would have to have separate tax districts with separate votes to have different tax rates, but Pierce, Snoho, and South King were afraid their voters would vote no) Everett wanted just enough for Everett and Paine Field, and was willing to wait for Everett CC. Pierce wanted just enough for the Tacoma Dome extension, and was willing to wait for Tacoma Mall. East King wanted Issaquah. South King wanted Federal Way but that was easy. So they didn’t want to go higher, and ST3 would supposedly have been harder to pass if it were higher (or so the anti-tax people say). So raising the budget for a tunnel was considered non-feasible.

      4. “Does Seattle only have sales tax, car tabs, and random fees to fund transit construction? In other cities a lot of this is funded with either a flat payroll tax or a real estate transaction tax.”

        We wish. Seattle has only the tax authorities the state allows it. Things were going well until 1993 when a series of anti-tax initiatives limited what cities and the state could do. Some of them were ruled unconstitutional but the legislators were so afraid of anti-tax voters that they acted as if they were in force. So annual tax increases without a vote are limited to 1% (less than inflation most of the time) plus population growth.That’s why we have all these 5-year levies for essential things like 911 and schools, because anything beyond that is not allowed. Legislators are loth to vote for tax increases or to allow cities or transit agencies to do so, because they’re afraid they’ll get voted out of office. There have been 2/3 majority requirements proposed but I’m not sure if any of them passed or were upheld as constiutional, so I’m not sure if any of those are in force. Washington’s tax structure has traditionally relied mostly on sales tax, second on property taxes, and no income tax, so that’s what we’d inherited when this toxic debate started. The past few years there has been some legislative willingness to not be so draconian, and Eyman the initiative-filer has had an increasing number of losses (and legal challenges about his fundraising), so it may be gradually getting better but not something you can count on yet.

  2. I’d rather ride an elevated train with an awesome view than be in a tunnel if aesthetics suddenly count more than the standard 1% (for art). An elevated line and station could become a really cool central feature of any neighborhood with a little bit of creativity.

    1. I agree completely. This is one of the forgotten arguments here. An elevated line to West Seattle is an actual attraction. People might just ride it for the fun of it. A tunnel isn’t like that.

      Having visited Chicago, I can say that riding the ‘L’ is a blast. You get to see the city in a new way. Seattle is an even better city to view from the air, as the topography and surrounding mountains make it more interesting.

      From a practical standpoint, this means more riders, which means better headways. Elevated is the way to go.

      1. To be fair, it doesn’t take much to change this into an outmoded view from the 1960s.

        > I agree completely. This is one of the forgotten arguments here. An elevated highway along the Seattle waterfront is an actual attraction. People might just drive it for the fun of it. A tunnel isn’t like that.

        Having visited other American cities, I can say that driving on elevated highways is a blast. You get to see the city in a new way. Seattle is an even better city to view from the air, as the topography and surrounding mountains make it more interesting.

        From a practical standpoint, this means more drivers, which means better congestion. Elevated is the way to go.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. Alaska Junction is the perfect place for an elevated line, with the areas a block or so off of the arterials being primarily single family and due for redevelopment in a forthcoming station area upzone anyway. New buildings can grow organically around the elevated line, and existing multifamily structures can be avoided & preserved.

    Really, there is very little difference between the neighborhoods this line would pass through on an elevated alignment, and the neighborhoods that Federal Way Link will pass through on an elevated alignment. If we tunnel through West Seattle, why not then through Des Moines?

    We should use elevated where we can, and spend any potential extra money on more length, rather than on aesthetic improvements.

    1. As a West Seattle resident, I support the elevated Junction option. Note that the “complaints” against the elevated Delridge and Avalon Stations are not nearly as loud.

      Per the elevation views of the ST representative alignment, ST is proposing a Junction station about 50′ above Alaska Street, at about the 4th floor of the adjoining Jefferson Square and Copco Plaza buildings.

      The line will not create dark shadows over the street at that height. The station could be a problem, but a well-designed center platform station could create an airy, rain-free space underneath it, like Pike Street under the convention center. You could even close that block of Alaska and make it a plaza.

  4. “elevated track has hardly turned Chicago and Tokyo into dystopias”

    Chicago was built a hundred years ago with a more intrusive footprint, larger and dark wood or wood-and-metal. I remember going to a station (one of the Damens or Westerns?) that was over an intersection, and it made the entire intersection dark and industrial-looking, and not just when trains were overhead but always, because the platform floor covered the intersection, and the track supports and stanchions were larger than Link. I’ve never seen Tokyo so I can’t comment on that.

    “Advocates are asking for the same things as other neighborhoods.”

    There’s disagreement on whether elevated or surface is the worst. It’s not all anti-elevated.

    “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.”

    What does this mean? That we should elevate MLK? That would cost money, not save money. (Although I’d support it for faster travel time, which is a primary purpose of a “rapid transit” line.) If you’re hinting at ST3 segments, I’m not seeing it. Where else is something we can elevate to improve station locations?

    1. I don’t know about ST3, but having the Junction station underground will dramatically increase the cost of getting Link to the Morgan Junction, and Westwood Village. If the City is going to come up with money to “improve” the West Seattle alignment, I’d rather see that money used to reach southern West Seattle sooner rather than later.

      Also, the view of the many riders ought to outweigh the slight view beautification of a handful of neighbors. And a line in plain sight should easily beat a buried line when it comes to ridership. There is also the safer feel to more visibility.

      I’m at a loss as to how burying the line would improve it.

      1. “dramatically increase the cost of getting Link to the Morgan Junction, and Westwood Village” – same argument applies in favor of elevated in Ballard, when looking at extending north after ST3

      2. West Seattle Link got a couple tunnel options on the official map. Ballard did not. As it shouldn’t have. If West Seattle is saying they should get a tunnel because other neighborhoods have, they can only point to Capitol Hill and Roosevelt. Lynnwood Link north of Roosevelt and Federal Way Link will be all above-grade. East Link’s only tunnel is under downtown Bellevue.

        If West Seattle wants to argue neighborhood envy, they don’t have a real argument.

      3. It would cost less than a tunnel to assign an extra art budget to the elevated track and let the neighbors give input on what the art should be.

        Why should the rest of North King pay for a tunnel in low-density West Seattle?

        Capitol Hill’s tunnel is because the train can’t go up over the hill and down to the Ship Canal, and it’s a must-serve area with the highest residential density outside the highriise district, it has a college and nightlife that draw people from the region, it’s next to First Hill which has the medical centers and even more high rise housing, and it’s a 24-hour pedestrian area.

        Roosevelt’s tunnel is because of politics, and because when ST recalculated the estimate, it found it was cheaper to remain underground to 95th rather than emerge at 63rd and go up and down weaving around the freeway.

        Well, we could discuss West Seattle surface if the locals don’t want elevated. Could it be surface around Alaska junction?

      4. Not necessarily, AJ. There’s a nice “wide spot in the road” at 65th that could serve as a place to transition from tunnel to elevated structure.

    2. Another priority for any additional money ought to be building 130th Station as part of Lynnwood Link to begin with. That certainly should be a higher priority than depressing West Seattle ridership.

      1. Is that a train or a row of houses? In other words, not meet obtrusive, and a nice contrasting color. Shall we call it the Sunshine Train for bringing a moment of cheerful yellow to the people?

    3. “What does this mean?” – he means that tunneling only makes sense if it improves safety or reliability, or is negligible cost difference. For example, the ‘arc’ from Westlake to Denny to LQA simply can’t be done on an elevated line, unless there are sharp turns (low speed) or lots of real estate acquisition (high cost).

      As for MLK, the relevant argument is that if/when came time to grade separate the MLK segment, elevating the line is presumably much cheaper than burying the line because ST owns the ROW, and since the safety and speed improvements are the same, there’s no “good” reason to bury the line other than aesthetics.

      1. Unfortunately, you can’t elevate; there’s no room for the supports between the tracks. The Rainier Valley line will forever be surface light rail. Which means that it will at some time be bypassed for Deep South King County riders and become local service to the airport and perhaps Renton.

        It also means that it can have more stations since they won’t be delaying through riders.

      2. There is no need to elevate. Just dig underpasses if you must (to increase headways). Chances are, we will never need that. We certainly will never need a second train to the airport. We aren’t New York City — we need to stop fantasizing we are.

      3. We are not New York City now, but the southern part of the United States will be uninhabitable in the summer within two decades. People may keep winter homes there but they will need places to which to retreat in the summertime heat. The Pacific Northwest with its abundant water and cheap electricity will be very attractive.

      4. And Ross, it’s not for the fucking airport. That’s just the first major destination that will be served by both lines. It’s for the millions of people who will live in South King County by 2050. Why do you hate them so?

    4. “What does this mean?”

      The downtown segment is likely to have two segments where it runs straight down a street — possibly 6th Avenue and Roy. Sometimes it works out that elevated isn’t actually cheaper and easier, but if it is we would be supportive of making it so to fund better/more stations.

  5. I think we need to clarify some things. We’ve never heard the term “burying the track” before. Do you mean a tunnel and at least one underground station for the Junction? Same for term “lifted”.

    And exactly what does “a wasted opportunity” refer to? The opportunity to satisfy the neighborhood with a subway? Or the opportunity to save money by staying elevated?

    And let’s define “higher priorities.” Also,”Primarily aesthetic.” And “for appearance only” Anybody who thinks these things are frivolous, I invite the author to rent an apartment or open a store or cafe along the street shown. And promise to locate there for at least ten years after the elevated is built.

    “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.”

    Two comebacks. One, a subway can handle wider curves under city blocks than an elevated structure. So anything that moves trains faster through any stretch of a regional railroad improves mobility everywhere else. And anybody who thinks the legal fight it’s going to take to get those pillars into Alaska Junction is going to save any money…ask our attorney.

    If I’ve misinterpreted anything here, please indulge me and straighten me out with a whack from a two-by-four . Because the “tone” of this piece as it stands would blow any set of ear protectors into a plastic scrubbing pad.

    Mark Dublin

      1. The narrow footprint of the monorail and the slim shadows the straddle exams cast are entirely different from the impacts of a two track light rail structure. It’s nearly 50% wider than the monorail structure and completely opaque. The shadows are much heavier.

        Plus, Link trains are steel wheel on steel rail, not rubber tires on concrete. Especially when turning, they make a lot more noise. With an elevated alignment, any turn to the south onto California will be noisy as would the turn onto Morgan a mile to the south.

        If there is to be no Burien extension or it is to branch at Delridge, elevated to the Junction is congruent with a long range plan. But it forever embargoes the Alaska Junction from regions to its south.

      2. It is a lot easier to soundwall a train than it is a highway, at the cost of slightly higher shadows.

      3. Henry, Yes, it is. But interestingly, because they are intermittent studies have shown that they are more irritating than the constant drone of freeways.

    1. “And anybody who thinks the legal fight it’s going to take to get those pillars into Alaska Junction is going to save any money…ask our attorney.”

      I’ve heard this more than once. What’s the legal standing and legal grounding to oppose elevated rail here?

      1. Should have added “political” – to which the legal challenge, whatever its result, is only going to be advance advertising. I stressed the tone (which here should be followed by “deaf” for a reason.

        On the content here, I think that current residents could come over and support the ‘el. Which is an excellent life-and-death practical reason to put a sock in snide comments about the arts budget. From the profession’s own ratings, DSTT set some world records and examples for public art for its one percent.

        Which from the beginning convinced passengers that their ride wasn’t courtesy of Water Quality. Was also probably the most value-engineered thing in the system. Which, like sharpening a knife, made every step cheaper as it got simpler and better.

        Not scale model here. Just example. Not only possible to build an elevated structure whose neighbors will love both it and the visitors- and businesses its presence will bring. Design engineers not yet famous but working hard to become it might deliver it a lot more affordable.

        Same reason Texas utilities are dumping fossil fuel for wind and solar. Ain’t your grandfathers’ power generators, either.

        And also more possible politically. Doubtless it’s both an age and working experience thing. But I’ve spent forty years watching our country’s Death by Psychopathic Tweetation develop.

        Brought largely on by the decades of condescension that ordinary people have faced from the major party that should have been theirs. And for STB board and readers, emphatically and combatively ours. Any chance Ruth Fisher has a missing understudy someplace?

        Oran, please go spend some time talking to people who’ll be affected. Knowing you, I think you can find a valuable lot to tell us.


  6. Generally, I agree with this.

    The only caveat I have is that West Seattle has some steep hills. In those cases, some short tunneling may be warranted — like between Delridge and West Marginal Way.

    I would also observe that tunnel track is easier and cheaper than a tunnel station. The decision in Downtown Bellevue to put the stations just outside of tunnels is great and it’s nicer to wait with fresh air than underground. The West Seattle proposals include an expensive subway station.

    I would finally note that tunneling to a nicer part of West Seattle rather than extending the rail to a nearby lower income area has all sorts of Title VI equity bias imbedded in it.

  7. I disagree that a short tunnel in West Seattle is purely aesthetic. Given the topography of West Seattle, a short tunnel could allow for better TOD and future extensions. It is a given that the Delridge station will be elevated due to the need to cross the Duwamish at 140 feet. Under an elevated alignment the tracks would tower over the neighborhood to climb to a poorly located elevated station that offers a difficult transfer from buses coming down 35th. Then an elevated alignment would likely have to go up Oregon, not Alaska to give it a north-south orientation that allows for future extension. By contrast, a short tunnel would allow for a much better station location for bus/rail intergration and for TOD by locating it right at 35th and Avalon in the Taco Time/Starbucks block. A Beacon Hill-like station with TOD on the rest of the block could be a fabulous development and catalyst for growth in the Triangle which the city has already upzoned. By being in a tunnel once you get to the Alaska Junction, you also allow for much better TOD. An elevated station would take most of a block. A tunnel station there with a north entrance behind Key Bank at 44th and Alaska and a south entrance at 44th and Edmunds where the Chase drive-thru is would allow for TOD on all of those surface parking lots and a much better walkshed. As for future expansions, California is a narrow street heading towards Morgan Junction and after Morgan you face very steep hills. You may well want to be in a tunnel to deal with the topography.

    1. “locating it right at 35th and Avalon in the Taco Time/Starbucks block.”

      We could always eminent domain 7/11 and Taco Time/Starbucks (though any loss of any Taco Time is a crisis) and put it there, over/atop 35th as an elevated, with 35th traffic running underneath.

    2. This post attempts a nuanced transit-facing argument. And while it largely succeeds with our collective the argument will be lost on the residents of West Seattle and Ballard.

      But, if elevated and surface are off the table and tunneling is the only way Link can get to the Junction, then there’s a problem. I’m not suggesting it’s a good idea to truncate in a tunnel station at Avalon and mitigate with a circulator (streetcar) on Oregon and California (because it hasn’t worked great on first hill). But it may be the only endgame on a short list of outcomes that allows everyone to get a little of what they want (subway to west seattle, not elevated).

      1. As a resident of West Seattle, I’m perfectly fine with an elevated option, but one that can be potentially expanded to serve other southerly sections of the sound, e.g. Burien, White Center.

        I believe there is a noisy minority contingent consisting of nearby residents that would be bothered by the noise and homeowners displaced by eminent domain.

        Believe me, a lot of us want it here even if there is an elevated option. Just get it done.

      2. Thanks for the opening, Jack, because absolutely can’t resist.

        Because these pretty much define term “Light Rail” to me. Large and powerful enough for LINK. And also able to run the radii of streetcar tracks- which I think our Kinki-Sharyo’s can. Anybody know for sure?

        Tempting to run these pics by community meeting in West Seattle, because it really does permit a subway line that can get passengers to the Junction fast. But then head south without an elevated structure.

        Would definitely not imitate San Francisco’s habit of making these giant two-car trains hold for stop signs. Signal pre-empt, trackway with barriers high enough to keep a car tire from going over. Recommend savage thorned barberry bushes to make pedestrians use cross-walks.

        When West Seattle gains enough residents to start demanding full-bore light rail, new subway can branch off the first line like our trains did at Westlake. I give it twenty years. And West Seattle will already have a surface streetcar line in place.

        For SF transit history, real procurement tragedy here. While full of exact problems of aircraft builders doing steetcars, the previous fleet of Boeing Vertol cars could do something really excellent: Running coupled, K,L, and M-line cars through the Market Street subway,

        But at West Portal, cars would uncouple- from he driver’s console- and turn onto their individual routes. Inbound, would meet and re-assemble. But when Breda got contract for the new fleet…name should pretty well say it. Followed by holding up a crucifix and drinking garlic soda.

        In addition to inflicting all possible damage to themselves, their passengers, and everything between the flanges of their wheels and the core of the Earth….their sheer ungainly size made coupling the cars impossible.

        If Gothenburg’s latest purchase goes as expected, the Saab jet fighters that the neutral Swedes keep hidden in barns all over southern Sweden will soon go screaming up nearby runways disguised as highways to save the transit world’s future. Same with the whole Norwegian navy, to avenge the horror of Oslo.

        World-wide, the barbaric Low Bid Custom should earn its signers a streetcar ride in a Breda LRV coupled with a dual power bus a one way trip to the Hague.


    3. A shirt tunnel east of 35th may be necessary because of the steep narrow hills. That would be no different from the Beacon Hill tunnel or Capitol Hi tunnel. What people are objecting to is tunnels that are not necessary for geography or U-District-like density or cost savings, but simply because a lower-density area wants to look like it’s still in the country.

      1. Mike–I suspect you haven’t been to the Alaska Junction lately. It is rapidly growing with as many units as Ballard being built in the last few years and more to come. Similar growth is happening at other urban villages in West Seattle. If Ballard was the growth of the last decade, West Seattle may be the growth area of the next decade.

      2. I have been to Alaska Junction; the last time was a week or two ago. And I have defended here the mixed-use density extending far on California Avenue both north and south. The problem is it drops off to single-family just one block off California, and that limits the number of people and businesses that can be there. “As large as Ballard”, only if you limit it to Ballard Ave and Market Street maybe. But Ballard merges east into Fremont, and the entire Ballard urban village must be two or three times larger than the triangle area in West Seattle. If you included Westwood Village that would give a little more, but that’s a bit far and separated by a river of low density to be part of the same village.

    4. >> Then an elevated alignment would likely have to go up Oregon, not Alaska to give it a north-south orientation that allows for future extension.

      Says who? What an absurd argument. You are basically arguing that we *must* pay a lot extra for an extension that will likely never happen. Just run it as planned. If we actually do eventually extend the line, then we will pay what it costs and not worry about it. It is crazy to spend millions extra to build something we will likely never use.

      1. There is such a thing as future proofing stuff, which is what RBC and others have been saying for awhile now. This whole “West Seattle doesn’t deserve this line” is really confusing and confounding. West Seattle and the whole Peninsula for that matter have a lot of people who can be served by said line when it’s built and if it’s extended through White Center, Burien, and over to TIBS.

  8. Couldn’t this argument equally apply to lower Queen Anne? Or all of downtown for that matter? An earlier tunnel portal, or no tunnel at all in favor of 100% elevated, would be cheaper and faster to build and wouldn’t impact travel times. (Neither 5th nor 6th Ave exceed 4% grade, so tunneling is not an operational necessity either.)

    Tunneling is all about aesthetics and noise abatement and placemaking. Tunneling doesn’t add capacity, and the main operational benefit is weather protection for passengers. The aesthetic argument is just as valid coming from West Seattle as it would be from Roosevelt or lower Queen Anne. The main problem isn’t the Junction’s (understandable) aesthetic sensibilities, it’s the delta between their middling ridership and the cost of a tunnel.

    1. Couldn’t this argument equally apply to lower Queen Anne? Or all of downtown for that matter?

      Yes, it could. We address that point in the editorial.

      1. Exactly. That is what the editorial is saying. In some areas of town, we can build elevated to save money, and should build elevated. In other parts of town, it is more expensive to run elevated. Maybe it would save a bunch of money to just run elevated through downtown (and maybe just skip SLU for Belltown). Fine, study it. If that is the case, we are all for it.

        But chances are, it won’t. Chances are that buying up all the property necessary for elevated to work would actually cost more than digging. It isn’t about aesthetics, it is about cost.

    2. @Arthur Denny
      +10 I’ll scrap my commentary as you pretty much nailed exactly what I had planned to add to the discussion. This is going to be interesting to see how the politics of this plays out, especially given the escalating sense of what I’ll refer to as “neighborhood resentment”.

    3. Well, you’re definitely right about the comparative aesthetics, Arthur.

      We’re also earthquake country. Anything on an elevated structure is also subject to wind, rain, cold, and heat. Depending on soils and whatever else is in the way of its boring machine, bored tunnel could be faster to build on a bridge too.

      Throughput? Anybody have any stats? My sense is that underground hauls more, but we need some figures. For speed and carrying capability, I’d pick subway, but wouldn’t argue very hard about it. My main point is that a subway’s got a lot more going for it than aesthetics.

      Though wouldn’t bad-mouth them, either. Very often, most graceful design often works best as well. But also….since Stalin was chief of the Moscow subway art program, notice there wasn’t any graffiti.


    4. Tunneling has other advantages. A Ballard-UW tunnel can serve both Fremont and Wallingford by going diagonally and bypassing the street grid. Elevated would have to weave around narrow streets, which are particularly narrow in that area and it would be close to people’s windows.

      1. Exactly. Some places make sense for tunnels, and have benefits from a transit perspective. Ballard to UW is one of those places. You can’t run a line that includes a stop connecting to Aurora if it is elevated.

        West Seattle is simply not one of those places, as you get the same transit benefits by running this elevated as you do underground.

  9. Well, if we had the money to do subways everywhere, that would be ideal. Subways allow route flexibility and the placement of stations in walkable areas. It also eliminates the need for sharp turns, so trains can maintain speed.

    However, we simply don’t have the money, and cutting stations to get a tunnel is a bad bargain.

    The other consideration is how long it takes to build tunnels. Tunnels either in west seattle or ballard would add years to the project. Going by how long the tunnel in northgate is taking, I’d expect a 4 year delay to each project.

  10. I’m reminded that many of the adjacent blocks are single-family homes. That means that the land values are much less per square foot than a multi-story residential or commercial building footprint.

    If the area was zoned for 10- to 20-story buildings, a tunnel would be logical. Without that kind of base land cost, options like surface and short aerial options taking out single-family homes will be much more cost effective.

    I don’t have a specific corridor with station locations in mind, but an aerial map or zoning map shows lots of places where homes can be taken as opposed to building a tunnel.

    Before that makes a tunnel proponent bristle, they need to be reminded that at least acfull city block will be needed at a station location during years of construction anyway. There would be blocks of West Seattle taken in any tunnel station option.

    A tunnel station would also probably add at least 3 years of delay to the project.

    1. Yes but that’s a funny way of looking at it. Land cost is an effect, not a cause. We shouldn’t base Link alignments on land cost (except the direct cost of the lots ST buys) but on how many people are there and how many outsiders go to the neighborhood. They may look the same, but one is based on people (passengers) and the other is based on accounting abstractions. Those parcels are inexpensive not because they’re intrinsically unvaluable but because the zoning caps prohibit multistory buildings. But zoning can change any time, and I expect it will change sometime in the next fifty years during Link’s lifetime. Yet we can’t count on that now.

  11. Just out of curiosity, if we ditch the second downtown tunnel and Ballard to downtown but instead build Ballard to UW, would there be enough money in the budget for West Seattle’s tunnels?

    (If a tunnel to West Seattle is somehow within the scope of ST3, why not Ballard to UW?)

    1. We would have some more money, maybe a billion. That would cover part of a tunnel or a small tunnel. ST’s Ballard-UW corridor study showed a Ballard-UW line would be shorter, cost less, and have more riders than a Ballard-downtown line. But it’s not politically feasible because ST has rejected it again and again. It’s worried about overcrowding between UW and downtown, and if you eliminate the second tunnel then that’s all the way through downtown. The initial motivation for Ballard-downtown is McGinn pushed for it and got ST to accelerate the study (and that led the other subareas to accelerate their studies and the ST3 vote). Murray said sure and reaffirmed with Ballard-downtown. The second motivation for Ballard-downtown is to leverage the investment in the second downtown tunnel, to give it something to connect to in the northern end. The third motivation is to get high-capacity transit into SLU, which somehow both ST and Seattle and Metro overlooked earlier. The fourth and least motivation is Expedia. All of those go against doing Ballard-UW now.

      1. But if Dow C. and the rest of the West Seattle cadre of ST members want a tunnel, isn’t that what they are going to get? No one as far as I can tell in Sound Transit has told West Seattle “no.” And who in North Seattle gets hosed

        Unless Big Tech steps up and says “Ballard to Downtown”/second tunnel stays,” we are possibly facing North Seattle being short-changed and Ballard street car here we come! (remember the first ST3 proposal?)

      2. @mdnative
        “And who in North Seattle gets hosed”

        Do you mean like First Hill did in the (yet-to-be-completed) Sound Move package?

        It’s interesting to watch/listen to this debate play out between different factions of the same subarea, as neighborhoods position themselves to get what they want within the budgetary framework of ST3. I suppose this is no different than what transpired (and is transpiring) under the Sound Move and particularly ST2 packages as the “suburban” areas fought for their needs/wants, though this time around the sparring seems to be intra-subarea oriented.

      3. All of those “go against” the 43 subway forever.

        There are only three hours per weekday that there are more than six buses per hour in one direction on the 44 between 15th and 45th and 24th and Market. Those are mostly articulated coaches and anecdotally, they could use some more during the rush hours. So let’s say they run eight per hour for two hours in each peak.

        Artics carry about 100 people fully loaded so that’s 800 people per hour in the peak direction. Whew, bring on the subway. Maybe be need to make it Heavy Rail to handle the loads!

        But “Oh, you say Ross”, everyone headed downtown will transfer to Ballard-UW and then either transfer or — if you can get ST to blast holes in both tubes somewhere under UW to create a junction — maybe downtown.

        But OMG, don’t ever expect the folks down in South King County to be numerous enough to want and need an express approach to the City. Hell, no; a bunch of them are Trumpers anyway. Let ’em crawl down MLK.

      4. Sorry, “44 subway”. I’ll. forever think of it as the 43, because that’s what it was when I lived in Wallingford. Or the “30” pre-trolley.

      5. “Artics carry about 100 people fully loaded so that’s 800 people per hour in the peak direction. Whew, bring on the subway.”

        The 45th subway isn’t about capacity, it’s about reliability. The 44 regularly takes over 20 minutes and sometimes 30 or 40 to get from the U-District to Ballard. The only way to improve that is with transit lanes, but neighborhoods along the route object to losing street parking for transit lanes, and the right of way is too narrow to widen the street. That’s ridiculous for such a short trip, and one of the highest-volume trips in north Seattle. So logical or not, it’s easier to get subways approved than it is to convert parking and car lanes to transit lanes.

      6. Mike,

        I have no problem with RapidRiding the 44, or even giving it lanes of its own where there’s room. Building a subway may make sense at some time in the future if ridership continues to grow.

        My point is that the constant praise of Ballard-UW as being much better on its face than the SoundTransit plan for a radial line to Ballard through SLU and Lower Queen Anne is simply wrong. In the absence of those holes blasted in the North Link tunnels-to-be somewhere under the UW campus, getting people bound to downtown Seattle to deboard the 5 at 46th ten blocks before it goes “express” along Aurora is a complete non-starter. It’s a three seat ride with a transfer at U-District of as-yet unknown difficulty. Ditto folks from the “E”; they’re already ON an express. Your primary “transfer” intercept pool would be folks from the 62 at the Wallingford Station, but any of them who want to ride Link from north of about 55th would be wiser just to ride it northbound and change to a downtown-bound train at Roosevelt. There will always be more trains on the North Link trunk than a 44 Subway should it ever be built.

        You don’t get any diversion from the 26 or 28 because there’s no stop for 8th NW or Latona at which riders could transfer, at least not in the models that have been proposed for Ballard-UW.

        So from where is all this surging ridership diverted from the Aurora/Dexter corridor that will swell the trains on the line to bursting going to arise? Sure, there would be a lot more development along 45th/46th and on down Market should it be built. There’s no doubt that having a reliable, fast subway would increase development near the stations.

        But that’s not the argument Ross and his friends are making: they say that it’s better to build what is essentially a bus-intercept masquerading as a subway across Wallingford instead of serving the South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne employment centers, and I say that’s ridiculous.

  12. isn’t an aesthetic solution to tunnel, so your whole argument is moot. It’s a matter of practicality and function. The terrain that the train will traverse had several hundred foot elevation changes over short distances. ST’s own estimates include 150′ + track heights and some fairly tight turns in the same area. That would require the largest stantions ever and putting them every few yards JUST TO KEEP THE THING UPRIGHT WITH REASONABLE SEISMIC SECURITY. Let’s see what type of throughput you can get having to crawl along that alignment. The answer is greatly reduced throughput, which makes the whole exercise one of compromising functionality. Full stop. After all, there’s a reason they tunnelled in every other area with similar topography. You guys just stick to promoting your Ballard ideas and let WS do the right thing.

    1. If West Seattle were paying for it, we could let it do its own thing. But we’re paying for it, and it’s taking money away from other projects that would benefit more people, like improvements to the Ballard line, a Ballard-UW line, a Lake City line, etc. You’re right that West Seattle has tough topography and that would normally indicate a tunnel. But that’s not the only factor. Another factor is the density of the area, the number of destinations that outsiders go to, and the size of the pedestrian concentrations (because pedestrians need transit; drivers don’t). West Seattle doesn’t have much of that, and it resists having more. There is a growing urban village at the Junction, and low-income people on 35th, which is why Link is even coming in the first place. But it’s not that large compared to other parts of the city. So in deciding what to spend in West Seattle, we have to weigh all of these factors, so that the total network serves the widest cross-section of people’s trips in the region.

    1. Do you mean it has to run on one rail? Or just that it be elevated. There’s a reason why there are so few of them in the world: starting with complexity of every switch, what can one rail deliver that two won’t do better?

      But recalling our own last effort, might want to start by giving technical decisions to design engineers. Instead of calling the whole profession treacherously backward.One thing I would like to see the taxpayers out of this piece of transit history:

      Some plans and drawings of conditions where pillars have to be raised, and tunnels dug between Ballard and West Seattle.

      Mark Dublin

      Mark Dublin

  13. I await the next editorial in favor of a high drawbridge on the Ballard line instead of tunneling.

    1. A drawbridge is an issue of transit quality. But if a high fixed bridge is cheaper than a tunnel, I’m all for it.

      1. There have been aesthetic arguments for a tunnel on the Ballard side too. I’m glad you mentioned a fixed bridge since that is an option that I feel isn’t getting enough attention. I’d take fixed bridges and elevated lines in a heartbeat if it meant we had more money for more or better placed stations.

  14. If WS really wants it underground? Why not pitch a cut/cover tunnel? Similar costs to elevated, but massive disruption.

  15. I agree completely with this editorial.

    Also worth mentioning is that West Seattle rail is already a very bad value, by just about any metric you could use ( As you can see by that chart, it comes in at the bottom for Seattle projects in terms of riders per dollar spent.

    If you calculate the amount of saved per rider, it is bound to be worse. Most of the riders aren’t going to walk to the station, but transfer from a bus. While many will see their commute get faster, many will see it actually take longer. The time spent getting off the bus, getting to the station and waiting for the train isn’t enough to make up for the speed saved with the train. The bus, after all, went on the freeway. While the freeway is slow headed towards town during rush hour, it is largely free flowing the rest of the day, and it is never as slow as say, trying to get from MLK and Yesler to downtown. That is because a slow moving freeway (e. g. 20 MPH) is blazing fast compared to streets with intersections.

    Which gets me to my next point. By every metric, there are better projects. There are projects that have more riders per dollar spent. We know, even with Sound Transit’s own studies, that Ballard to UW came out ahead in that regard. But it would come out way ahead if they actually calculated the time saved per rider. That is because a Ballard to UW subway would be faster than driving, even at noon. You can’t say that about a trip from West Seattle to downtown.

    West Seattle rail performs poorly against projects that have been studied (like Ballard to UW rail), as well as projects that should be studied (like a Metro 8 subway). It is simply a bad value. Spending more money, without adding or improving the stops would only make a very bad value even worse. It is unfair and smacks of political cronyism to consider spending more on such a dubious project.

    1. When looking at the time plenty for riders needing to transfer, don’t forget to take into account the benefit of re-purposing those bus hours into a better, more cohesive bus network within West Seattle. The ability to orient the bus network away from downtown service is a big benefit of WS Link.

      Similar to the Eastside and Snohomish, and perhaps south King, when Link arrives, there will be less one-seat rides to downtown, offset by a better bus network not only to feed riders to Link, but also to move people around within the neighborhoods. It’s not just about time saved, but also about expanding the trip pairs that are easily served by transit.

  16. Great post. If we’re going to spend money on ST3 improvements, the driving value should be function, not aesthetics.

    1. When this thing starts operating the second tunnel won’t have opened yet, so most of West Seattle will be looking at a 3 seat ride to get downtown.

      If function were a driving value, considerable parts of this would be BRT with conversion to light rail once the 2nd tunnel opens.

    2. The existing bus routes will remain until the tunnel is finished, so they’ll have 1-seat and 2-seat alternatives.

  17. Aesthetic concerns are completely legitimate. Remember that we are making decisions that will affect us for 100+ years, possibly a lot longer. The best solution would be to find ways to reduce costs without reducing quality. I know this sounds impossible, but I believe it is very doable. Costs for our projects are astronomical compared to costs for similar systems in other parts of the world, as I understand it. The questions are why and how to we fix that?

    Another thing that would help would be to have a financing mechanism that better matches the expected life of the project. I think I read that the bonds have 30 year maturities (please correct me if I’m wrong), which is quite a bit shorter than what the life of most of this investment should be.

    1. “Costs for our projects are astronomical compared to costs for similar systems in other parts of the world, as I understand it. The questions are why and how to we fix that?”

      That requires changes in the national and state governments. That’s beyond our ability to do. The costs are high because of regulations, environmental reviews, tax giveaways for big corporations that force everybody else to pay more, employers having to pay health insurance, the high rates charged by doctors and drugmakers and insurance companies, miscellaneous other snouting at the trough, rules that subsidize cars and airports and require transit projects to pay for their externalities, union excesses, the cult of bigness, excessive safety requirements, unrealistic and arbitrary immigration policies, etc.

  18. Basic business 101: Speed, Cost, Quality….pick 2.

    I’d LOVE for the entire system to be underground, separated from all weather, traffic issues, surface construction, etc. But are we willing to pay for it? I doubt it.

    1. That isn’t the only trade off in this case. Tunneling is expensive, but it is also usually quite time consuming.

      So, you sacrifice cost and construction speed and make it more difficult to add stations at a price of having a line nobody has to look at.

  19. Imagine if some of you just, I don’t know, actually spoke to West Seattleites advocating for a tunnel…

    Some of the points for consideration:

    1) Is it just “aesthetic” concerns if the current proposal has the rail running at ~150-ft heights above parts of the North Delridge neighborhood? And those homeowners aren’t trying to “protect their views” or something. It has to run elevated there no matter what. The question is where and how high. I assume there are additional costs to the extreme height of columns and LOTS of noise abatement.

    2) Alternate route ideas and tunneling also might allow for large savings in real estate acquisition. Is that enough to justify the increased expense of tunneling? Who knows. That’s why folks asked to study it. That’s not the same as saying we don’t want it unless there’s a tunnel.

    3) The Junction Neighborhood Association is advocating to combine the Junction and Avalon stations as one way to capture cost savings that could be applied to this.

    4) If you think tunneling to accomplish any future extension, perhaps you should go visit the West Seattle Junction, and consider how much it will cost in the future to capture the real estate to turn southward for any extensions. Future extensions could be DOA no matter what.

    5) There are a few of us who would like to tie an alternate route across the golf course and tunneling to create a significant amount of TOD and affordable housing. It would also allow for moving the Delridge station southward and much closer to the actual residents nearby, making it easier for them to ride it.

    1. Your reply suggests that tunneling is actually cheaper. To the extent that it is cheaper because it eliminates a station, then that makes the transit worse.

      If it’s cheaper in absolute terms due to super-high columns or whatever, that’s something else entirely. There would be no trade between tunneling and other transit quality considerations. However, I’ve seen absolutely nothing in the analysis to indicate that is the case.

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