Letters from businesses, government agencies, and community groups show a citywide desire for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions to be almost entirely tunnels.
Troublingly for Sound Transit, businesses on the Duwamish Waterway made conflicting demands about where to build the bridge that will cross the river mouth, which means a costly legal fight to acquire right of way is likely.
The letters indicate that the ST3 project could be headed towards a higher cost than planned.
That cost could come from several scenarios that would drive expensive litigation and mitigation. The first is a contentious Duwamish crossing, with legal and condemnation battles fought against the Port, maritime businesses, and industrial concerns. The second is a similar fight over land and right of way with neighborhood groups and residents, if their tunneling preferences are ignored.
On the third hand, if the agency does follow public opinion and put trains underground, engineering costs could spike dramatically. In that scenario, Sound Transit would need to either find new sources of revenue (such as the City of Seattle or the Port), find significant cost savings (as occurred with U-Link), or some combination of both.
Broad consensus among neighborhood groups has formed in support of tunneling to the Junction. Of the ten stakeholder letters that mentioned the choice between tunnels and elevated track, eight were in favor of the tunnels.
The groups opposed, Seattle Subway and the Seattle Transit Advisory Board, cited higher costs for service that wouldn’t be any better than an elevated train.
However, those groups stand apart from their usual allies. The bulk of pro-transit activist groups, including Transportation Choices Coalition, the Transit Riders Union, Futurewise, Sierra Club, and Cascade Bicycle Club, co-signed a letter
in favor of endorsing further study of tunneling as the Transit Access Stakeholders coalition.
West Seattle groups, including the neighborhood Chamber of Commerce, unanimously supported a tunnel. So did Lisa Herbold, West Seattle’s member of the Seattle City Council. West Seattle tunneling also seems to have a supporter in King County Executive Dow Constantine, though Constantine did not submit a letter. However, King County Metro, in letters signed by agency head Rob Gannon and service planner Bill Bryant, endorsed tunneling in West Seattle.
Some West Seattle groups also proposed bringing back the so-called Purple Line or Pigeon Ridge alignment, which would cross the Duwamish at the southern tip of Harbor Island and tunnel through Pigeon Ridge. It would require less housing demolition than other options still on the table.
The Duwamish Waterway crossing promises to be the most fraught part of the system. Any of the alignments will require buying or condemning some long-established industrial business.
However, the preponderance of letters that mentioned the Duwamish Waterway crossing—13 out of 15—opposed building the new bridge north of the existing West Seattle Bridge.
Notably, the Port of Seattle and Longshoremen’s Union (ILWU Local 19) both expressed opposition to a south crossing close to the West Seattle Bridge, instead endorsing the Purple Line/Pigeon Ridge alignment at the south end of Harbor Island.
“Spokane Street Corridor alignments could pose significant economic, environmental and operational impacts not only to Port and NWSA facilities, but to maritime industrial businesses that must have waterfront access to survive. Proposed alignments must ensure those facilities remain fully operational during and after construction, while ensuring access for trucks and rail serving those facilities,” Port executives wrote.
The south Harbor Island alignment has broad support from maritime business, but Nucor Steel and its General Recycling of Washington subsidiary both oppose the alignment. Nucor has the resources to make life difficult for local government: it’s the largest steel producer based in the United States, with more than $20 billion in 2017 revenue.
Chinatown-International District (CID) is in the unenviable position of having no good options. Link construction will be long and painful, and is just the latest in decades’ worth of megaprojects to disturb neighborhood residents and businesses.
Neighborhood leaders, including the neighborhood public development association (SCIDPDA), and Uwajimaya’s founders and owners, the Moriguchi family, prefer an alignment on 4th Avenue South, instead of 5th Avenue South.
The Historic South Downtown coalition, which is made up of Pioneer Square and CID community groups, also prefers the 4th Avenue choice. The Downtown Seattle Association didn’t back any specific alignment, but expressed support for neighborhood groups.
Those groups cited previous community outreach by SDOT in which the agency said that the 4th Avenue South viaduct needed to be replaced.
However, the letters showed profound ambivalence about all options.
“SCIDpda does not believe that any of the alternatives being discussed at this time are ideal,” the PDA’s leaders wrote.
Salmon Bay & Ballard
Everyone wants a tunnel under the Lake Washington Ship Canal at Salmon Bay. All of the 19 letters that mentioned the Ship Canal crossing endorsed the underwater tunnel. That list includes King County Metro, the Port, Ballard neighborhood groups, maritime and industrial businesses.
Even U.S. Representatives Cathy McMorris-Rogers (R-WA) and Don Young (R-AK) got on board with a tunnel—they fear adverse affects to shipping and transportation for their constituents if the Ship Canal is obstructed. Perhaps, when the time comes, they can help advance that choice by convincing their Republican colleagues in Congress to support expanded federal funding for the project.
Some groups offered lukewarm support for a high bridge if tunnel funding couldn’t be found. The Port stipulated that, in order for it to OK a bridge, it would need to be the height of the Aurora Bridge. But a bridge seems like that’s a more distant possibility than ever—Sound Transit would have a huge backlash on its hands if it did go for a bridge of any kind, let alone a movable one.
Neighborhood groups also lobbied for the tunnel to continue north to a station somewhere near the downtown Ballard urban village, perhaps as far west as 20th Avenue Northwest.