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.
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.
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.
tl;dr: This post proposes a new option for the Interbay – Ballard segment of the West Seattle – Ballard light rail project that is measurably and significantly better than any of the remaining official options. The major components are (1) an aerial bridge over the BNSF rail yard, (2) an optional station at Fisherman’s Terminal, (3) a shorter tunnel under Salmon Bay, and (4) a station at 20th Ave NW and NW Market St.
This option has the highest possible value—retaining the high quality of a tunnel, but with significantly higher ridership, and at a competitive cost. In fact, it has a lower capital cost per rider than any of the official options. It has opportunities to turn Port of Seattle and BNSF into 3rd party funding sources, instead of potential adversaries. In spite of its superior characteristics, the only hope it has of becoming the preferred alignment is if enough of you support it in ‘scoping’ comments submitted to Sound Transit. Find handy links to do that at the end of the post.
Intro: why this option is optimal
The best possible ridership puts the station location in the center of the urban village, at 20th Avenue and Market Street. This location is closest to all of the current density, and closest to potential future development.
This option uses the shortest tunnel possible for crossing the ship canal of any practical location. It is about 10-12 % shorter than the 14th or 15th Avenue tunnel options. It is 28% shorter than the “BNSF West/20th Tunnel” option rejected in Level 1 scoping. The shorter the tunnel, the less costly the option. The limiting factors preventing the tunnel from being even shorter are (1) a maximum 5% grade and (2) allowance of 25 feet between the top of the tunnel and the bottom of the ship canal.
In order to reach the shortest possible tunnel, it is necessary to bridge over the BNSF rail yard. I acknowledge that would generally be unwise, but in a later section, I explain why this route is different; why it is uniquely feasible.
There is no practical route using a high fixed bridge to reach a station on 20th Avenue, because of impacts on the legally protected Ballard Landmark District. A tunnel is the only way to do it that does not sacrifice quality.
This option has two additional advantages. It has a net reduction in properties taken, thereby reducing cost further. By eliminating a curve, the Interbay station can actually be at Dravus Street, a better location.
We’re finally here: ST3 Planning level 3 is where we cut everything but two options and send those on for an environmental impact study. Those options will include a high end options that relies on local funding an an affordable option that doesn’t. At this point, our primary concern is with the low end options. There is a conversation to be had in the future about whether spending $1.9B on high end ST3 options makes sense and where the money will come from, but that’s a topic for another day.
Though we’ve heard ST staff say many times that the options are mix and match, we don’t get the impression they mean it when it comes to the Ballard station location. As we (and others) have said many times a 14th NW station and a drawbridge are both unacceptable. A drawbridge is an unacceptable reliability compromise for the future or our system. A station on 14th NW simply doesn’t serve riders west of 15th or transfers well. A station on 15th NW with entrances on both sides of the street does.
A 14th high bridge crossing with a station on 15th is our minimal expectation for an affordable option. While it’s not impossible to see local funding via the port come through for a tunnel to Ballard, as the current options stand, the 15th Ave NW tunnel station the only option we can support.
On February 8, the King County Council accepted the final report on Water Taxi expansion. The Council vote followed an occasionally contentious review at the TrEE (Transportation, Economy and Environment) Committee the week before. No decision was taken on moving forward with the expansion. That’s a budgetary decision to be taken up, if a request is made, as part of the budget process later this year.
The final report refines analysis presented in the interim report, and accommodates some suggestions by the jurisdictions and stakeholders that might be served. But the key findings haven’t changed greatly. Three routes are being considered:
Kenmore (Log Boom Park) to University of Washington (Waterfront Activity Center)
Kirkland (Marina Park) to University of Washington (Waterfront Activity Center)
Ballard (Shilshole Marina) to Downtown Seattle (Pier 50).
A few modifications are suggested. In Kenmore, the ferry may eventually serve Lake Pointe where development could create an opportunity for shared parking (initial service would be via Log Boom Park with parking at a remote lot served by shuttle bus). In Kirkland, where downtown parking for transit riders would not be available, a circulator shuttle to bring riders to the Marina is examined. Expedia has asked that the ferry from Shilshole Bay stop at Interbay en route to downtown Seattle.
The revisions to the proposal do not improve expected performance. These are low-ridership high-cost services. At launch, off-season ridership would range between 135 and 165 daily riders per route, growing to 285-370 after 10 years. Summer ridership, boosted by recreational users, would grow from about 300 daily riders on each route to just over 500 after 10 years.
A couple of days ago there was a great deal of discussion about the merits and costs of a Sand Point crossing. There are two things that a study would find out that everybody would like to know; the monetary cost of the crossing and the potential ridership over the connection. Unfortunately I can’t give any insight into those things. What I can to do is provide some tangible benefits based on travel time using Seattle Subway’s previous posts about the Crossing, Ballard Spur and Better Eastside rail.