Terminal 5 of the Port of Seattle. Credit: Port of Seattle

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.

24 Replies to “The Port of Seattle is ready to fight about light rail—or possibly pay for it”

  1. You never know what scandal is going to pop up next with the Port. Nobody there pays attention to how the other agencies are tending to business and meeting success benchmarks. The Port needs to get its house in order ASAP and start cooperating. Following the PSRC’s recommendation, a federated board should be running it.

  2. There is some updated information since you wrote this story. I attended a meeting this Friday where Sound Transit presented new cost estimates for the rail line north and south of the West Seattle Bridge. The rail line that the Port of Seattle and the maritime industry supports, the one south of the West Seattle Bridge now is estimated by Sound Transit to be $300 less than the north line. So the Port’s preferred line is now cheaper than the other one.

    In Ballard, a similar discussion is going on between the maritime industry and Sound Transit over the cost of the proposed high-level fix bridge that Sound Transit is proposing. The discussion involves how high the high-level bridge should be.

    1. Yes, the cheaper price would almost seal the deal for Link crossing to be sited just south of the West Seattle bridge. The only thing that could stop it would be some unexpected environmental impact or lawsuit that $300m couldn’t mitigate.

  3. “Ballard tunnel alone would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of the West Seattle extension.”


    1. Considering the Ship Canal, Fishermen’s Terminal, and a very compact business district in Ballard, a subway approach will be worth whatever it costs.

      Mark Dublin

  4. Its crazy we still entertain the port holding the whole city hostage for their needs above the residents, and other industries no matter what it costs. The tunnel was a massive boondoggle done to appease the port so they could move imaginary freight to northward clients that still don’t exist. The port consistently sabotages any attempts to move people in SODO, or alter existing wasteful zoning that has industrial properties sitting empty because the blue collar port jobs might exist one day.

    Insult to injury is the port crying about impact when terminals sit empty, terminal 5 is yet another boondoggle fantasy, and they are still not profitable, even with being on the dole of public property tax dollars. Oh and the recent scandals and golden parachutes for incompetent leadership and council? oh don’t worry it’s not a big deal.

    The rest of the city has sacrificed enough to the port, their cries should fall on deaf ears.

    1. The Port of Seattle is designed to hold Seattle accountable to the needs of the region. This is why it is a King County agency, and has significant power over The Seattle Process.

      Your complaint is a sign things are working as intended. It would likely take a change to the State Constitution to alter the current status quo.

  5. I am curious whether any of the Port’s concerns involve SeaTac, since they own and operate that too.

    In particular, after 2035 the passengers from Capitol Hill and points north going to the airport will have to change trains — and without a cross platform design change at SODO or operating plan change — will have to also change levels. The planning for Ballard-West Seattle directly affects this!

    1. You can thank the visionary leadership of the PoS for that bracing scenic walk along the edge of the parking garage between the station and the airport terminal.

    2. It’s a temporary corridor. The long-term plan is to build a hotel there and another terminal. Then the walkway would be through the hotel interior.

  6. I’m also curious about the Port’s attitude about Smith Cove and cruise ship access. Surely this is a bigger economic impact than Fisherman’s Terminal is.

    1. Despite ST3 claim that the “Smith Cove” station will service cruise ship passengers that is mostly a fantasy. The real point of that station is to service the new Expedia HQ which is under construction right now. There will be thousands of workers there once it is opens. All the proposed station locations save one are located to dump those workers directly onto Expedia’s front door via the helix bridge (this bridge was built specifically to get people from Elliot to the campus space their previously). https://www.geekwire.com/2016/first-look-expedia-unveils-initial-design-plans-huge-seattle-waterfront-campus/

      For cruise passengers to use the station they’d either have to huff it on foot through industrial port land to reach the station which is about a 18 minute walk (longer since they’ll have too much luggage) + the port is not going to let them walk through that area anyways. There is also an enormous parking lot there during cruise ship season so most people are driving their regardless. So really it would be service buses that take people less than a mile just to kick them out and wait for the train. Which really only makes sense if their destination is SeaTac. If they are going downtown to a hotel (where the port hopes they are going) then it makes way more sense for the service bus to take them straight to their hotel.

      So the answer is no it barely matters to the Port. In fact if the station actually worked really, really well it would actually be bad for the port because it means people wouldn’t be paying them parking fees to use the car lot while on their cruise.

    2. Perhaps ST could rent track usage to the Port:

      – with some short sidings to new platforms, a free rail line from the Rental Car Center to an end track station closer to Seatac gates would seem amazing to do.

      – with some short sidings to new platforms, a special limited-stop cruise ship train could connect Seatac to ID to the Cruise Ship Terminal. Then, Seatac could giver this platform a Terminal letter and gate number, and integrate it with arrival and departure boards.

      There are other possible win-win strategies:

      – maybe the Port could become a developer of sorts, and use Port property for a new hotel or offices.

      – maybe the Port could offer coordination for construction storage or staging, or propose ways to facilitate tunneling (moving unearthered soil or boring machines) to offset the costs,

      I hate to see an agency look at another agency’s project merely as something to be avoided or mitigated. Looking for ways to have mutual benefit should be an active goal.

      1. This is all true and in world were these agencies worked with any sort of long term logic this would have been the representative alignment. The Port actually says they want/are (I’ve never seen a plan) to redevelop that section of their property. With the Magnolia Bridge scheduled to come down too that opens up a huge chunk of land. The smart plan would have been the Helix station and then bend the track into the port with a cruise / new development station and then on to the Interbay/Magnolia station.

        But they didn’t and now were basically stuck with the already proposed alignment without cancelling ST3 and going back to voters with a whole new alignment and bigger price tag.

        The only satisfaction I can take from the Interbay alignment is at least we got them to move away from the terrible 15th street all the way to Ballard with a station at 15th & Dravus. Would have been years of constricted lanes (which means more people who will vote against ST4 if ST3 construction negatively impacts them) on 15th and a station placement so bad they would have been better off skipping Interbay entirely.

        Frankly I never really paid attention to these kinds of projects before this one and now that I’ve been watching my impression is these agencies don’t talk to each other at all or even posses a basic idea of what the other parties might like/hate. The quote in the article about ST originally thinking about running the bridge over Fisherman’s Terminal is so crazy it just shows whoever proposed it has never even been to Fisherman’s Terminal. Even a child would have known that was a terrible idea. It all seems to be governed by an overriding logic of “just don’t make it worse” which means we get the most timid bare minimum plans instead of the huge transformative changes most people on this blog want to see happen.

  7. This story does a disservice in fanning conflicts between the West Seattle Junction and Delridge when it makes this statement:

    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.

    That is only true if you accept ST’s framing of an elevated option and a tunnel option. ST links the tunnel option to a more bold property take in Delridge which would take more homes. But that option is not necessarily linked to a tunnel. You can also build a tunnel with the elevated alignment in Delridge which takes less homes. Or you could be creative and cut into the golf course and park and take less homes.

    In reality, the tunnel in West Seattle is both better for the Junction and for Delridge. It would allow a much lower guideway in Delridge. Where you put the station in Delridge is not dependent on tunnel or elevated.

    1. An outside-the-box solution for the golf course is to swap it out (either 9 or 18 holes) for South Seattle College property.

      I know it’s mind-blowing to think about doing that — but the West Seattle Link segment’s design and the resulting ridership from a 100-foot tall TOD (with jobs and shopping in addition to residents) anchored by a college could really be fantastic, and the views from a relandscsped South Seattle College property could be spectacular! It would be a win-win-win all the way around.

      1. Alternatively, we could just close the environmental disaster and expensive boondoggle of a golf course and develop public housing on it. If South Seattle College wants to relocate later when their current facilities run down, that sounds good, but we shouldn’t let a land swap get in the way of what is needed now.

  8. The south pathway means at least 4 very well used businesses will mostly likely be taken out, or put out of business because of construction. The Chelan Cafe, Uptown, Mode Music, The Skylark, Ounces, Subway. These are the only local businesses within walking distance for a long way. The tunnel through Pigeon Point would be a better option for so many reasons. Maybe we can get the port to chip in for that!

    1. I’m very sure that the amount of money to sustain or relocate those businesses is less than $300 million. We should absolutely keep them in the area before and after construction, but we can’t have them determining policy.

  9. I have reached out to multiple people at the port to ask for a dialogue about the north vs south crossing of the Duwamish. I usually get one email back then nothing. Looking at the proposed route north of the bridge, it should not impact Terminal 5 (T5). There is a single road under the West Seattle bridge that should be able to be kept open during construction that is used to access T5. T5 is also not currently in use, but a new tenant was just signed. When it comes to the entrance to the port on Harbor Island (T18) the new bridge would require supports in this area, but that also means just working around a single lane entrance. Surely the engineering could support keeping the trucks moving during construction. I would love to talk to the Port to understand the issues from their perspective. From my perspective it seems like the port is just against having to cooperate at all.

    For the South crossing, there is very little room between the high bridge and the steep slope on the north end of Pigeon Point. The slope would have to be reinforced to support construction. This area is also a green belt owned by Seattle Parks and Rec. I believe that means it falls into the Section 4(f) considerations, which should make it tough to be selected over the north entrance.

    I don’t believe that the north vs south crossing would limit either a tunnel or elevated after the Delridge station.

    I do live on the north end of Pigeon Point and wish the port would just dialogue with us on this issue.

    1. Not a Port person but if the N. Bridge means then entrance to T5 is down to a single lane that means there is a critical bottleneck with no way for priority trucks to skip ahead of the line or worse if a truck breaks down (it happens) every truck behind it is stuck too. Both are unacceptable for a cargo terminal.

      I can’t get enough resolution on these maps ST provides. But it kind of looks like the problem is the N.Bridge pass right over the intersection W. Marginal Way SW / SW Spokae St / Chelean Ave S. If that’s what they are worried about I can see the problem. Looks like a disruption there basically cuts T5 off from the W. Seattle Bridge leaving only the Spokane Bridge as a viable route on / off T5. Though looks like there is a kind of 2nd entrance at the NW edge of T5 but it requires crossing the tracks and cutting across the greater part of the terminal and puts trucks onto Harbor Ave SW. It’s probably doable but the terminal wouldn’t be able to operate at 100% capacity if trucks have to divert like that.

      It seems like if ST could guarantee the pylon location is just going to be smack-dab in the middle of that Chelan Cafe property it shouldn’t screw up the intersection and other than lots of construction trucks it shouldn’t actually block any of the lanes either. But that probably depends on what kind of bridge this is (how big a span between pylons it can have).

      It would be a lot easier to figure out what is going on if ST would give us a real map with “likely” pylon footprints locations. Not these super low rez pdf handouts with google map screen grabs. I’m looking at page 46 for reference. https://www.scribd.com/document/398997209/ST3-Ballard-West-Seattle-ELG-February-2019-Presentation#fullscreen&from_embed

  10. I’d love to see what you have for advice on the best route to take. I may end up consulting with other locations as well. I have NABCEP certifications in PV and Thermal so am familiar with a variety of associated technologies. Thank you!!

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