The original genius (or sin, if you prefer) of the legislation that created Sound Transit was that it yoked together the region’s high capacity transit needs. The suburbs and the cities had to work together to get what they wanted, or no one would get anything, like a municipal prisoner’s dilemma.
The West Seattle – Ballard link extension (“WSBLE” in Sound Transit’s lingo) is pushing that 25-year-old decision to its limits. Pierce and Snohomish County reps want WSBLE to be fast and cheap, lest it jeopardize the extensions to Tacoma and Everett (to some of them, WSBLE it isn’t part of the “spine,” so the whole thing is a kind of agency scope creep anyway). Seattle reps, meanwhile, are hearing an earful from their voters and maritime interests about elevated alignments at the termini. These reps also know that without the votes from Seattle’s west side neighborhoods, there might not have been enough support to get ST3 over the finish line to begin with, and certainly not enough money to support Snohomish’s speculative and expensive detour to Paine Field.
Like I said, yoked.
Further complicating matters, the Board made a decision to try out a new “expedited” process where they do up-front outreach and analysis, to send fewer options into the costly Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. Traditionally, the EIS would include many alternatives, and then there might be a Supplemental EIS afterward because the EIS process revealed some open questions. (Bellevue, for example, came out of Draft EIS with many, many alternatives) This new process seeks to save time by reducing the number of options up front (Remember when Sound Transit magically shaved three years off the WSBLE timeline just before it went on the ballot?). The flip side is ambiguity: making decisions with less information.
And that’s where the wheels meet the steel, as it were. Last month’s relatively contentious board meeting was the deadline for coming up with the “preferred” option to send to the DEIS from among the final alternatives. But what to cut when only 3-5% of the design work (give or take) is complete?
The major sticking points are still the same: tunnels under the
Duwamish River Alaska Junction and Ship Canal, and an expensive station in Chinatown. ST staff have been clear that these additions would bust the budget, but the board’s Seattle contingent wants to keep them on the table. Seattle is “committed” to finding the funding, Mayor Durkan said at the meeting.
In an effort to move things along, the motion before the board attempted to remind everyone of their promises to play nice (emphasis added):
The System Expansion Implementation Plan (SEIP) includes the objective to “Identify (the) Preferrred Alternative Early” and notes that “staff will ask the Board to identify the preferred alternative at the end of the alternative development process and prior to starting preparation of draft environmental documents, having considered recommendations on this topic from the Leadership and Stakeholder groups. Early identification of the preferred alternative and key project goals will jump-start the public debate about station and alignment decisions, revealing areas of broad agreement as well as areas where project leadership needs to focus problem-solving efforts.” The SEIP further notes that “At the initiation of each major capital project, Sound Transit will propose a Partnering Agreement to be executed with project partners” and that “By providing project milestones and establishing partnering agreements, Sound Transit and its partners will have a common understanding of roles, responsibilities and schedule and budget imperatives to ensure timely delivery of capital projects.”
Consistent with the SEIP, a partnering agreement specific to this project between Sound Transit and the City of Seattle was finalized and adopted by the Seattle City Council and the Sound Transit Board at the beginning of the project development process in December 2017. Per the agreement, “This project partnering agreement reflects that commitment to a new way of doing business so that together we can deliver the quality transit improvements approved by the voters in ST3 on schedule and within budget”.
The question on the table at the board meeting was a bit philosophical: what does it mean to be a “preferred” alternative? Maybe it means it’s what the community wants, regardless of budget. Or maybe it’s what we can afford. Or maybe it’s just a word that makes the community feel like they were heard but has no legal standing.
Pierce and Snohomish officials, who are wary of Seattle’s expensive tunnels delaying their projects, pushed hard to get to say that “preferred” = affordable, which is to say elevated.
“It doesn’t surprise me they want these tunnels. If I lived on those communities I’d want the tunnels as well. But we have an obligation to look more broadly,” said Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County Executive.
Seattle’s delegation, meanwhile, was keen to keep more options open as they hunt for additional funds. “We need to make sure we do it right, not just faster,” said Joe McDermott, who represents West Seattle on the King County Council.
The Eastside contingent, who don’t directly have a dog in the fight, stepped in to act as brokers. Claudia Balducci, along with John Marchione, crafted the compromise language the board ended up approving: there would be a “preferred alternative” and a “preferred alternative with third party funding.”
“It was very important to a lot of people involved in the ELG process that we honor their work,” Balducci said in the meeting. But if it’s just window dressing, why include it at all? “Whether it’s labeled preferred or not, we have the basket of alternatives we want to evaluate,” Marchione added.
It’s worth saying that both sides have legitimate arguments. Pierce/Snoho officials, along with advocates like Seattle Subway, are pushing for the elevated options because we can afford it and it’s what we voted on.
On the other hand, West Seattle and Ballard residents aren’t crazy to ask for tunnels. For one, the East-West elevated junction station on the ballot would have spared the residential neighborhood just to the north. The North-South version that came out of the analysis, while it eases southward expansion, would require demolishing several multifamily buildings. And while it’s true that the language on the ballot said “elevated,” plenty of Seattle pols were asking people to hold their noses and vote for it in the hopes that tunnel funds could be found later (and continue to promise that funds will materialize).
For example, here’s Seattle CM Bagshaw in 2018 talking about crossing the Ballard ship canal (skip to 49:08)
When we talked about this at the time of the vote, nobody thought about having a movable bridge as being a serious option. And a fixed bridge, it’s gonna take so much real estate on both [sides of the canal]… I wouldn’t spend any serious time engineering [a bridge.]
Or here’s then-board chair Dow Constantine choosing his words very carefully as he tries to rally support for the ballot measure back in 2016, which explicitly called for an elevated alignment:
“There’s still the environmental study, the consideration of various alternatives, the conversation with the community about the exact way in which the line’s going to be built in Ballard,” said Constantine, who is also King County executive. “In fact, if over time we’re able to reduce the cost of tunneling, that could be an alternative to be considered, along with the elevated line.”
The Boring Company notwithstanding, no magic tunneling technology has appeared in the last three years to make a tunnel competitive with an elevated alignment.
At the same time, Constantine’s broader point, which is that the board should look holistically at the delta between the two options, remained in the language adopted by the board. The motion recommends taking both options through the DEIS and look at the true delta in costs at the end. We’re so early in the process, it argues, why not take both options through study? It’s still a relatively focused DEIS, and if it turns out that, say, property acquisitions mean the cost of elevated goes up significantly, suddenly a tunnel or two would be less of a stretch.
On the other hand, the point of having elected officials sit on the ST board is that they are the ones who can best have honest conversations with their constituents regarding a system that maximizes benefits to future generations. Sound Transit will not be able to begin right-of-way acquisition or other major pre-construction activities until the board makes a final decision. The idea that the West Seattle line will open on time in 2030 is looking more tenuous by the day.
(Incidentally – if West Seattle does slip, it blows a hole in the OMF-South site selection process. But that’s for another blog post.)
Sadly, it’s not clear that the alternatives under consideration are significantly better than the original representative alignment, from a rider perspective. I’d argue that if Seattle does magically find a billion bucks under the couch cushions, the most rider-friendly addition would be a First Hill station, which would be dramatically transformative not just for Seattle but for the hospital workers commuting in from outlying suburbs. And yet those workers’ suburban representatives showed little interest in that effort at the time.
Regionalism is hard.
Expect less drama over the next 18 months as WSBLE enters the DEIS phase through the end of 2020. More decisions to come in early 2021.