On Wednesday, Sound Transit released the latest design work on the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions. We’ll have more detailed analysis of each segment next week, but here are the major takeaways from the presentation.
More cost concerns
ST staff opened the meeting with a warning about cost control, which is an increasingly common refrain from agency leaders. ST has drawn bad press and scrutiny from the legislature for growing project budgets.
“A note about cost constraints,” Cathal Ridge, ST’s central corridor director, said at the beginning of the meeting. “We’re getting this on some of our other projects, where we’re feeling cost pressures, and I want to head this off—the ST3 plan was back in 2014, and we have seen a lot of recent escalation in construction costs and real estate costs. That has affected the estimates for some of our other projects. That’s a real thing, and I don’t expect it will surprise anyone.”
How those concerns might affect West Seattle and Ballard aren’t clear. Agency staff presented a slide deck with some dollar amounts that indicate an increase in cost (i.e. +$100 million) or cost savings (-$100 million) for the alignment the dollar amount describes.
Ridge said that those figures are provisional, do not represent the final cost of any project. Ridge said that the numbers listed for each alternative alignment only compare the alternative to the representative alignment, which is based on the ST3 plan presented to voters.
In short: the dollar amounts do not represent projections of cost overruns or savings on a line. They only compare West Seattle Station A’s construction costs to West Seattle Station B’s, and are not final projections of the total project cost. Estimates of that figure will become available when Sound Transit settles on a locally preferred alternative.
When presenting updates on station and alignment concepts, ST staff generally pointed out which concepts were the most costly—maybe to prevent stakeholders from falling in love with pricier options.
Chinatown/International District station site controversy
There is opposition to a cut and cover tunnel on 5th Avenue from members of the Chinatown community—and a preference for a 4th Avenue alignment. After Wednesday’s presentation, it seems clear that Sound Transit does not want to build a 4th Avenue alignment.
Sound Transit’s Ron Endlich presented the CID concepts, and tipped ST’s aversion to the 4th Avenue options, in a presentation that emphasized the downsides more than presentations for other segments.
Endlich cited conflicts with the Burlington Northern mainline, “engineering constraints and constructability issues,” the requisite replacement of the 4th Avenue viaduct, and the necessary demolition of the King County Administration Building as obstacles to either or both of the 4th Avenue alignments. (Jon Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, joked that knocking down the Honeycomb made a 4th Avenue alignment worthwhile.)
Endlich also said that the 4th Avenue cut and cover option would have a negative impact on people of color and poor people.
“One of the issues we also wanted to comment on was the burden on low income and minority populations,” Endlich said. “We’re showing a poorer rating [on this point] for both of the 4th Avenue alternatives. Primarily because of the traffic displacement issues that we mentioned before, but in addition the option that requires the Jefferson portal along 4th Avenue—there are two social service providers at that site. One is a work release center, and the other is an emergency housing shelter.”
Maiko Winkler-Chin, the head of the Chinatown/International District Public Development Authority—a notable advocate for a 4th Avenue alignment—objected to that point:
“I have to say I’m surprised because now I feel like—I hate to say the word pitted—but you’re kind of pitting the people in work release against the people of this neighborhood [Chinatown.]”
The DSA’s Scholes, Erin Goodman from the Sodo Business Improvement Association, and Bryce Yadon from Futurewise also asked Endlich critical questions about the 4th Avenue presentation.
Development potential vs. serving existing neighborhoods
Stakeholders discussed whether stations should be sited to serve existing dense neighborhoods, or expand them.
The example of Ballard is instructive. Some sites are located close to the existing 20th Avenue NW and Market Street commercial core. Others are oriented around 15th Avenue NW and Market. 20th and Market would have more ridership in the near term, since it’s already at the center of a dense, walkable neighborhood near the limits of its zoning.
On the other hand, 15th and Market could generate more TOD, and accelerate the ongoing process of building up that neighborhood to its maximum capacity—and upzoning the walkshed would be much less controversial. The Ballard Avenue landmark district would limit the extent of possible zoning changes around 20th and Market.
Sound Transit’s history provides examples that support either choice. Torpid development of Rainier Valley TOD parcels is an argument against “if you build it, they will come.” However, the Northgate station seems to have accelerated the densification of the surrounding neighborhood and aided a redesign of Northgate Mall.
Stakeholders are getting closer to the time when they’ll have to make zero sum choices about each of these issues, and make recommendations on siting and alignment to the ST Board. As ST facilitator Diane Adams pointed out, the stakeholder advisory group process is more than halfway done.