The West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions have to cross the Duwamish River and Salmon Bay. Building a bridge or tunnel across water in an urban environment is hard enough in the first place. The fact that the mouth of the Duwamish and Salmon Bay are two of Puget Sound’s busiest commercial waterways make it much harder.
In a 2018 open letter, Port executives requested Sound Transit not build lines that would harm operations or force business relocations at Fisherman’s Terminal on Salmon Bay. On the Duwamish, they demanded Sound Transit not impede operations at container Terminals 5 and 18.
“I’m deeply, deeply committed to the success of light rail in the city and the region,” said Port Commissioner Stephanie Bowman, adding that one of the reasons she bought her current home on Beacon Hill was its easy access to Link. “I wanted to be part of the Port’s conversation in making sure that the alignments going forward are best for transit, and also work for the Port.”
Bowman is the Port’s point person with Sound Transit. She’s a member of the Elected Leadership Group, which has a semi-official role in Link planning.
“The most important thing is to not have freight blocked and have people in single occupancy vehicles,” Bowman said. “You want to get as many people onto transit as possible. That’s what helps move freight throughout the region.”
Bowman said that discussions about Salmon Bay have been fruitful, adding the Port’s position has drawn support from Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who represents the south side of the crossing.
“One of the crossings that was first being looked at literally went through the middle of Fisherman’s Terminal,” Bowman said. “We brought Sound Transit staff down to take a look at it, and I think it’s one thing when you look on a map, and it’s different when you stand there in person. All of a sudden they started to realize—I said, ‘if we have pilings, these ships can’t get around those pilings,’ and they said, ‘oh my gosh, you’re right.’”
In Salmon Bay, the Port’s interests align neatly with neighborhood stakeholders in Ballard—and transit advocates. The Port’s ideal option for a Salmon Bay crossing is a tunnel west of the Ballard Bridge, which Bowman said would create the least disruption to Fisherman’s Terminal. That station would also be the closest of the remaining alignments to Ballard’s urban village, and offer more reliable service than a drawbridge.
“Where’s there’s a lot more contention is the Duwamish crossing,” Bowman said, though she is “optimistic that we’re going to be able to find a solution.”
The guideway over the Duwamish will definitely be a high-elevation bridge. The issue of contention is whether that bridge will be built north or south of the existing West Seattle Bridge.
The Port is dead set against a bridge north of Spokane Street parallel to the West Seattle Bridge. According to Bowman, such a bridge is a threat to the Port’s container operations at Terminals 5, 18, and 25, and “several dozen businesses on Harbor Island,” including the primary fueler for Washington State Ferries.
“We’re very candid about what our concerns are: anything that impacts access to, in particular, Terminal 5 and Terminal 18, which are our primary international cargo container terminals. That really actually has a statewide effect,” Bowman said.
Bowman says the effects of building a guideway near the terminals would be dire.
“At T-18, there’s [already] a line of truck traffic… every single morning, and it’s combined with passenger vehicles. Building right there… it’s just very hard to fathom how that’s not actually going to shut down access to the terminal for several hours [a day.] What [construction] will mean is an enormous backup onto I-5, and into the Sodo area, as trucks are coming from I-90, from eastern Washington, with export cargo.”
The Port plans to break ground soon on a $300 million project that will modernize Terminal 5’s facilities. The capital project, which has been under development since 2014, and recently passed environmental scoping and permitting, is meant to expand the Port’s capacity to draw the newest and largest trans-Pacific container ships. Bowman said that a north bridge would threaten the Port’s ability to draw that business nearly as soon as the added capacity became available.
A north bridge is needed for a line that tunnels to West Seattle, to accommodate the limited placement options for the tunnel’s portal in Delridge. An elevated West Seattle line could more easily be built with a south bridge, since it wouldn’t have to come to ground.
The tunneled alignment is popular at the top of the hill in West Seattle, but much less so in Delridge. The tunnel would require more demolitions of homes and businesses in Delridge than the elevated alignment.
There are racial and class dimensions to that argument. Delridge is much less wealthy, and much less white, than the rest of West Seattle. West Seattle Blog reported that a Delridge resident described the tunnel vs. elevated discussion as one that “pits the people at the top of the hill against the people at the bottom ‘and that’s a dynamic that in West Seattle we all know about.’”
Since both alignments are grade-separated, and options for station locations are very close by, neither offers an advantage over the other for ridership or reliability. The tunnel would also be more expensive than an elevated alignment.
Bowman said that the Port doesn’t have a preference on a tunnel or an elevated line in West Seattle, so long as the south bridge wins out.
“I really believe [elevated or tunnel is] something that the West Seattle residents—that’s their conversation to have,” Bowman said, though she did mention the tunnel’s fungible ridership benefits and higher cost.
The Port’s preferences make sense—and even align with the priorities of transit advocates and neighborhood groups—but they’re expensive. According to Sound Transit’s latest estimates, the Ballard tunnel alone would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of the West Seattle extension.
That money doesn’t exist yet. Sound Transit officials have said that a third party—like the Port—will have to chip in to make pricey additions possible.
So, are Bowman and the Port open to spending on Link?
“I can’t speak at this point on behalf of my colleagues, but certainly those conversations have come up,” Bowman said when asked. “Mayor Durkan’s been clear—everybody’s been clear—even if the Port, we couldn’t do it alone. It’s going to require probably the feds to kick in more money, and possibly the City of Seattle.”
Bowman said the Port is playing the same waiting game as other potential Link angel investors, like the City or King County: “I think as the alignments get through the EIS, we need to look at where that money comes from.” Bowman said that “nobody has come directly to us” about spending on Link.
Of course, the Port does have a track record of paying for tunnels, as Bowman herself mentioned.
“I’m surprised how few people remember, but the Port of Seattle put up a third of the funding for the downtown tunnel—$335 million dollars. …We’ve made substantial contributions to transportation within the City of Seattle limits. The heavy haul corridor around our terminals, money we’ve put into the Lander Street overpass, money for around Key Arena—the Port of Seattle has been a huge funding partner in these projects.
“But what’s important to remember as well is we have county-wide jurisdiction, so I’m always cognizant of that moving forward. How does somebody in Auburn feel? They’re an equal constituent of someone in West Seattle. So we have to balance our investments that we’re making and make sure that they’re on behalf of the region.”
The Port’s preferences matter. If the Port is willing to spend on Link, many of the scarcity fights that could harm the quality of Link, and pit Seattle against itself, will evaporate.
But if the Port and Sound Transit come into actual political and legal conflict—or even flirt with such a fight—Link’s eventual construction could be dragged out even farther into the future, or be hamstrung by austerity and controversy.
The Port draws a lot of water in City Hall and Olympia. It’s the only regional institution that can marshal a coalition including business and labor. The results of that political power are tangible.
After all, without the Port’s influence and money, there would be no Highway 99 tunnel. Without the Port’s pushback, Chris Hansen would be the largest landowner in Sodo, with a shiny new basketball and hockey arena under construction.
Fortunately, the Port and Sound Transit are talking, and a fight seems unlikely. But Sound Transit will do well to stay on the Port’s good side.