Environmental Impact of Transit Projects such as the West Seattle Link Extension

One of the FTA’s stated goals is to help “metropolitan areas meet national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) by reducing overall vehicle emissions and the pollutants that create smog” and to reduce “fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.” So we just need to build more transit, right? But what about construction-related emissions? The recent Seattle Transportation Plan (p. 188 3-98) draft states that, “Given the transient nature of construction-related emissions and regulatory improvements scheduled to be phased in, construction-related emissions associated with all alternatives would be considered only a minor adverse air quality effect.” However, Sound Transit’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) estimates that the West Seattle Link extension (WSLE) will generate 614,461 tons of carbon. As so often the answer is: It depends!

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Still No Final CID Plan

Various publications have summarized the March 23 decisions on the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extension (WSBLE): Publicola, Crosscut, NW Asian Weekly, and the Urbanist. Mike Lindblom even mentioned the single tunnel alternative in his Seattle Times ($) article. Most surprising were the late additions:

  • APPROVED: “North of CID” and “South of CID” (N/S) stations.
  • APPROVED: “4th Avenue Shallower” station alternative.
  • REJECTED: Keep Rainier Valley in DSTT1; move West Seattle to DSTT2.

The result of these is that the preferred alignment moves Midtown and CID stations south. Midtown is replaced by a “North of CID” station at the King County Administration building. CID is replaced by a “South of CID” station at 6 Ave S & Seattle Blvd S. A new alternative is added: “4th Avenue Shallower”, which is like another CID alternative at 4th & Jackson but less deep. This alternative would keep Midtown station at Madison Street. The rejected alternative would have reversed the spine split, keeping Rainier Valley in DSTT1 going to UW and Lynnwood. Ballard and West Seattle would be in DSTT2. In the current plan, Rainier Valley will be switched to Ballard when Ballard opens.

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A win-win for the CID dilemma: Stick with current tunnel

The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel bends towards the south under Pine St to Third Avenue after leaving Westlake Station. (Oran Viriyincy)

New proposals for a second tunnel would increase cost, but none provide a compelling rider experience. Let’s just improve our existing tunnel and use the savings to make up for lost time on other projects.

ST3 promised higher capacity transit through downtown by building a second tunnel with seamless transfers at Westlake and Chinatown/International District (CID), along with an additional Midtown station at 5th & Madison. But after looking into the details, the seamless transfers may not be achievable. The tunnel would be far more complex, time consuming and expensive to build than anticipated. It would also burden the CID, which has already seen a lot of construction-related disruption and loss of properties. Sound Transit abandoned the idea of a station on 5th Avenue South and proposed a shallower 4th Avenue South station. But this station would increase construction time and cost. Because of the additional burden to the neighborhood, there have been two recent guest editorials against it, in The Seattle Times and The Stranger. Sound Transit responded by proposing to combine the Midtown station with a North CID station close to Pioneer Square and/or a South CID station as an alternative. Unfortunately, neither station would provide easy access to the heart of the CID, nor to King Street station with Sounder, Amtrak, the streetcar, and many bus lines along Jackson Street, 2nd Avenue, and Yesler Way. Currently the 1 Line stops at 5 stations downtown (Stadium, CID, Pioneer Square, University Street, Westlake). This new line would now stop at only 2 or 3 stations, forcing a transfer at SODO which neither provides frequent service nor is well designed as a transit station, as Stephen Fesler pointed out. Residents are concerned it would break South Seattle apart when they are already suffering from frequent accidents and disruptions due to the at grade alignment.

While various alignments and station locations have been discussed, It is time to focus on an alternative which Sound Transit considered before they put the 2nd tunnel proposal before voters: to upgrade the existing tunnel to allow interlining of all lines through the existing tunnel. Capacity would increase, likely with better signaling systems and better ventilation. MUNI did this in 2010 and Frankfurt just started. This would avoid any disruption of the CID, be available much sooner, and be much better for riders. There are more stations in the existing tunnel, they are closer to the surface. Same direction transfers would be trivial. Reverse directions would be easy, and even easier if center platforms were added. The carbon footprint would be far lower (WSBLE is currently estimated to generate 3 million tons of carbon), and of course, this would be much cheaper.

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Seattle Transportation Plan: How to achieve a 15min city with the help of ultra-high frequency transit

Seattle is currently soliciting input until the end of February for phase 2 of their Transportation Plan engagement efforts: https://seattletransportationplan.infocommunity.org/ – Seattle should strive to become a city of 15min neighborhoods and if necessary use ultra-high frequency transit such as urban gondola lines, people movers, funiculars or 3min BRT lines on dedicated lanes to bridge the gaps.

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The case for Automated Light Metro Technology for Ballard and South Lake Union

Sept. 2020 rendering of 160 Street Station on the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Extension. (TransLink)

ST3 passed enthusiastically in the Seattle region because voters were excited to get mobility improvements. However, Sound Transit has had trouble coming up with compelling designs to deliver on this promise. To address this problem, we should revisit some of the design assumptions.

Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Montreal’s REM took far less time to design and construct. We can learn from them and adopt automated train technology. If Sound Transit would interline trains in the existing tunnel and keep the Ballard to Westlake line separate, the new line could use different technology.

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Sound Transit reviews WSBLE study results

[UPDATE: Several factual corrections, courtesy of Sound Transit. – MHD]

Sound Transit’s System Expansion Committee met on February 9th to review the results of studies on details of the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extension (WSBLE). The full ST board will meet February 22nd to consider this, and March 23rd to choose a preferred alignment (routing) for project, if it’s ready to do so. This article explains the study findings without much opinionating. Future articles are in preparation that will make specific recommendations.

ST has released a 3.5 hour webcast of the meeting, and a 124-page slide deck of the study results. Meeting timestamps: 0:00:00 roll call, 0:04:30 intro reports, 0:16:30 public testimony, 1:14:00 Everett Link studies, 1:43:00 WSBLE studies.

Last year the board selected a preferred alignment in West Seattle, but asked staff to study Chinatown/International District station (CID) and a few other details a bit more. The studies ST ordered last year concern how to avoid negative impacts in the CID, opportunities to mix and match South Lake Union stations from the two routes studied in the DEIS, refinements to the Smith Cove / Interbay stations, and how to reduce cost and improve access in Ballard.

The report presents a lot of alternatives. These address some of the issues identified last year. They may also add construction time, risk, and another $900 million to the already much higher cost than originally planned and promised to voters. Skipping some stations may eliminate those cost increases.


The report first presented ways to reduce the impact of the 4th Ave Shallow option which was studied in the DEIS. This would avoid impact to existing buildings, but would add $700 million in costs, raising the cost of the Pike St to Holgate St segment to $3.1 billion, and the Midtown station would still be 200 ft deep.

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Ballard Station Workshop

On January 11th, Sound Transit held the second Interbay-Ballard workshop to prepare for a route selection by the Board in March. The workshop summarized the findings from the first workshop and online responses, and then presented a few new options for tunnel stations along 14th and 15th Ave NW. These options were to address some of the Board’s concerns and to reduce cost with the goal to deliver the Ballard extension closer to 2037 rather than 2039. The presentation also provided more details on construction impact.

For Ballard, Sound Transit is trying to refine the options by limiting property acquisition costs and improving station access, in particular from both sides of Market St.

1. Sound Transit could save $100 million by locating the station on the East side of 15th Ave NW. The main entrance would be in the middle of the station on the Southeast corner of Market St. A pedestrian tunnel would also connect to a Southwest entrance and could potentially be extended to another entrance on the Northwest corner for an additional $30 million. There would also be small emergency exits on the South and North ends of the platform.
2. Similarly, they could locate the line right under 15th Ave for similar savings. Lanes on 15th Ave would need to be reduced for up to 4 years. By pushing it further North straddling Market St, they might be able to add an entrance North of 56th Ave.
3. By locating the station on the East side of 14th Ave straddling Market St, they could avoid acquisition of Safeway and save $140 million. They pointed out it would reduce the opportunity for TOD and make the entrances less visible.

One of the concerns with the 14th Ave station is that riders would need to cross 15th Ave. They presented various ways to improve the crossing using bulbs, a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian tunnel. They also envisioned an underground retail concourse combined with TOD which would connect the 14th Ave station underground and extend under 15th Ave for an additional cost of up to $100 million.

Even though during the DEIS public input many residents had requested better access to downtown / historic Ballard, they did not look at alternative stations along Tallman Ave, Russel Ave, Market St, or 56th St. When I asked why not, they responded that they had not looked at those but that a station requires a large enough staging area, and they try to avoid impacting historical buildings.

During their December 12th workshop Sound Transit had presented a few alternatives for the Interbay section to address earlier concerns. Sound Transit now presented some new findings:

1. A station under Dravus St would require a partial closure of Dravus for 18 months but save $30 million.
2. A Mercer Place tunnel portal turned out to be infeasible though the alternative station locations may also work with the tunnel portals already under consideration.
3. More tunneling with a single consolidated station along 15th Ave may reduce impact and simplify transit connections but reduce neighborhood connectivity and increase cost by $210 million.

Open Letter to Julie Timm, new Sound Transit CEO

Dear Julie,

I wish you good fortune in reenergizing Sound Transit as you take on the CEO position. Much of the Puget Sound’s regional mobility depends on ST’s success!

When voters approved Sound Transit’s ST3 plan in 2016, they expected ST to make good use of billions of their tax dollars, and deliver sustainable and equitable transit mobility across the region over the next few decades. Much of the ST3 plan was not fully developed, so voters had to trust Sound Transit to flesh out the details. During the pandemic, we learned that transit dependent populations have the greatest needs for reliable transit, smaller numbers of workers will be returning to downtown offices, and the original plans did not consider equity.  As the designs for new lines have become more detailed, cost estimates have ballooned, schedules have been delayed, and serious new challenges identified.  They include how to: 

  • make sure construction doesn’t destroy the communities Sound Transit wants to serve?
  • build another major tunnel through downtown Seattle, when three tunnels already exist?
  • make it convenient for riders to reach and transfer from other rail and bus lines?
  • cross major water ways while meeting the needs of the Port, the Coast Guard, the tribe and environmental laws?
  • serve dense neighborhoods, such as those around historic Ballard and West Seattle Junction?
  • prepare for branches at key points in the network to allow for future growth?
  • avoid generating three million tons of carbon (the equivalent of 7.5 billion gas-vehicle miles) for WSBLE at a time the region has committed to reduce carbon emissions to counter climate change?

The ST3 measure gave the Sound Transit Board broad mandate to adjust the original plan when financial, feasibility and construction challenges arise.  Will you and the Board adjust the plan and develop new options to meet those challenges and increase transit ridership?

Thus far, Sound Transit has primarily focused on constructing the Tacoma-Everett-Redmond spine. As ST matures, though, priorities may need to change. Now that ridership is increasing, operational excellence and serving riders is increasingly important to be able to continue ridership growth.

If driver recruitment becomes challenging, should ST invest in automated trains and cable transit? Sound Transit’s mode selection process had been focused on the Tacoma-Everett spine. A desirable regional transit mode won’t always meet the needs of shorter urban connections like West Seattle or Ballard, where it becomes challenging to find space for large light rail stations and guideways. The ensuing cost overruns and subpar alignments are unnecessary when other modes provide far smaller footprint, better turn radii and allow for steeper gradients. Could exploring other modes also help reduce the construction related carbon emissions, minimize impact to local businesses, and loss of existing housing?

The UW Station to Capitol Hill segment is currently the busiest in ST’s light rail network, not the downtown segment. The Rainier Valley segment is almost at capacity as it runs at grade and must share intersections with road traffic. So why is a second downtown tunnel (DSTT2) a priority? Many European cities with a single downtown tunnel have upgraded their signaling to accommodate higher train frequency. Could Sound Transit do the same and use the savings to connect Ballard sooner, and allow the C.I.D. residents and businesses to recover from streetcar construction and the pandemic?

Presently, ST plans to spend $3 – $4 billion dollars to serve affluent parts of West Seattle. Could ST instead build a Duwamish bypass to increase spine capacity and grow ridership towards Seatac/Kent/Tacoma? Then ST could use urban gondola lines and buses to serve both the affluent parts of West Seattle, and the more diverse neighborhoods further South.

Many people have contributed ideas and critiques to the Seattle Transit Blog for addressing the above questions. It may be useful to review them for background knowledge on challenges ST faces going forward. 

Martin Pagel

Seattle resident, STB reader, and transit advocate