I have long been skeptical that Sound Transit would build a First Hill light rail station. When the staff doesn’t want to do something, it takes a combination of grassroots pressure and an aggressive leader to make them do it. For over a year, there was no organized campaign and no elected champion for the neighborhood. Threats to project revenue and a desire to quickly eliminate alternatives worked against introducing new ideas. Although we always knew the ST sausage making process was subject to the whims of coalition-building, we at least believed we understood it.
Frank has already covered most of the hypocrisy: a legal standard for deviating from the representative alignment never used in previous Sound Transit measures, missing from assurances in 2016 when they needed your vote, and indeed ignored in this very same meeting; summary rejection due to increased costs, as other alignments passed with vague hopes they could find the money; and concern-trolling about the cost and effort of studying a single First Hill alternative, immediately followed by waving through six ways to get into Ballard. I am not a lawyer, but applying spurious and inconsistent standards is probably better grounds for a lawsuit then any invented constraints from the ballot measure.
But perhaps the most astounding result is that First Hill did organize, no institutional opposition emerged, Joe McDermott and Sally Bagshaw recognized the enormous potential of the station, and still the Sound Transit staff and its elected allies found reasons to dismiss this alternative that apparently didn’t apply to any other part of town. Both ordinary residents and big institutional employers on First Hill showed up to testify, and what they said was well-informed and accurate. Most of Sound Transit’s foul-weather friends explicitly urged a close look at First Hill’s potential. Even the DSA — arguably the injured party if the station moved outside the downtown core — supported the effort. And yet, that coalition got much less out of Sound Transit than a bunch of angry Kirkland residents that flouted their City Council to keep transit as far from their homes as possible.
The Sound Transit Board will be briefed on the recommendations this afternoon, and gets the final say next month. Though the chances First Hill gets to Level 2 analysis are slim, a Sound Transit analysis would not be likely to favor the station anyway. A line that poaches many of its riders from the existing train can look good in a superficial study, one that doesn’t place adequate weight on riders added to the system from an extraordinarily dense housing and jobs center. Few who witnessed last Thursday’s motivated reasoning would expect the planners to make this subtle distinction and choose correctly.
First Hill’s organizing efforts are likely to result in some sort of concession to the neighborhood, as the Streetcar as currently implemented is largely a failure. This might involve Madison BRT, already planned to be less reliable or frequent than Link, and with another round of Durkan value engineering likely ahead. Even in the best case, First Hill will be an additional transfer from most regional destinations. To take a simple example, hospital workers taking Sounder up from South King County will have to choose between a two-seat ride from King Street and a circuitous, congested route on the streetcar. Those people weren’t represented Thursday, save by Dow Constantine, and they’re among those who will pay the highest price.