The simplicity of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) is a big part of its appeal: two straightforward taxes used to purchase Metro service hours. Back when it was first proposed, then-councilmember Nick Licata insisted that the money not go to what he considered wasteful capital projects (a.k.a. streetcars).
But several years ago, with Metro unable to sell as many hours as Seattle wanted to buy, City Council added some flexibility to allow for some of the money to be diverted to capital expenses. With bus hours exhausted, we and other advocates generally supported this idea. After all, capital spent to get buses out of traffic, either via queue jumps, dedicated lanes or signal timing fixes typically pays for itself many times over in reduced operating costs.
Now, with transit demand in a slump, that capital carve out could fund… the West Seattle Bridge?
It’s just a single offhand comment, so I wouldn’t read too much into it, but it reminds us that dedicated pots of transit money are in short supply right now and with ridership down, politicians may be eager to raid the kitty for other, tangentially related projects.
To be clear, the West Seattle Bridge will cost on the order of half a billion dollars to fix, and the TBD only brings in $50m/year. A diminished TBD (sans car tabs) might bring in half that, as Dan recently noted.
Still, the city doesn’t have any clear path to getting the money for the West Seattle Bridge or the Magnolia Bridge (or any of the other structurally deficient bridges for that matter). Whether it’s the STBD or Sound Transit funds, that money will have to be guarded vigilantly.
Seattle and King County elected officials have asked Sound Transit to remove a moved bridge in Ballard from future Link plans. They also urged Sound Transit to ditch the elevated “Orange Line” alignment in West Seattle, which would require large numbers of homes to be demolished.
In other areas, the officials mostly declined to endorse other specific choices in the planning effort. Instead, at the final Elected Leadership Group (ELG) meeting for the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions, elected officials preferred a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS) of nearly all the alignments currently under consideration. Comments by business and community groups from Ballard, West Seattle, and Chinatown-International District (ID) generally advocated for the same process.
Elevated light rail alignments in West Seattle have a unique problem. Unlike any other part of the system so far, they run through a built-up, residential area. Planned or existing lines are lie mostly in existing right-of-way, or tunnel into their own.
Sound Transit has had to demolish some housing for other projects, mainly at the periphery of neighborhoods. But one of the proposed elevated West Seattle lines, the Yellow/West Seattle Elevated line, would require bulldozing unprecedented parts of two built-up neighborhoods: Youngstown (the northern end of the Delridge area) and the Junction.
On Wednesday, Sound Transit released the latest design work on the West Seattle and Ballard Link extensions. We’ll have more detailed analysis of each segment next week, but here are the major takeaways from the presentation.
“A note about cost constraints,” Cathal Ridge, ST’s central corridor director, said at the beginning of the meeting. “We’re getting this on some of our other projects, where we’re feeling cost pressures, and I want to head this off—the ST3 plan was back in 2014, and we have seen a lot of recent escalation in construction costs and real estate costs. That has affected the estimates for some of our other projects. That’s a real thing, and I don’t expect it will surprise anyone.”
How those concerns might affect West Seattle and Ballard aren’t clear. Agency staff presented a slide deck with some dollar amounts that indicate an increase in cost (i.e. +$100 million) or cost savings (-$100 million) for the alignment the dollar amount describes.
Ridge said that those figures are provisional, do not represent the final cost of any project. Ridge said that the numbers listed for each alternative alignment only compare the alternative to the representative alignment, which is based on the ST3 plan presented to voters.
In short: the dollar amounts do not represent projections of cost overruns or savings on a line. They only compare West Seattle Station A’s construction costs to West Seattle Station B’s, and are not final projections of the total project cost. Estimates of that figure will become available when Sound Transit settles on a locally preferred alternative.
On Monday, the Sound Transit West Seattle and Ballard Link stakeholder advisory group, which includes transit advocates, prominent community members, and business and labor leaders, moved further along the process of selecting alignments and station locations for the West Seattle and Ballard light rail lines.
The advisory group will eventually pass recommendations to a subcommittee of the Sound Transit board, which in turn will recommend the ultimate preferred alternative to the board as a whole.
In breakout sessions conducted over pad thai, the advisory group discussed the alignment and station locations of the new West Seattle line’s Sodo station. The advisory group also discussed the location of the new Chinatown/ID station, which will have far-reaching impacts on the future of the light rail system.
The Chinatown station, and the segment of the new line closest to it, was the subject of intense discussion, with good reason. It’s the centerpiece of the project, and it could have the most disruptive construction impacts of any Link project so far.
Tough choices for Chinatown/ID station and alignment
The future Chinatown station is one of the most critical elements of the new Link line. It will be the southern terminus of the new downtown tunnel, the site of hundreds of thousands of intra-Link transfers every day, and the light rail network’s busiest multimodal hub, with connections to Sounder, Amtrak, public and private buses, and the Seattle streetcar.
The station and alignment’s siting and design will have permanent impact on Link’s capacity, headways, and expansion potential. Sound Transit is committed to making the Chinatown station a central transfer hub, so it has to be built adjacent to the existing Chinatown/International District Link stop next to Union Station.
Construction in Chinatown and Pioneer Square is complicated. Much of the area is infilled tideland, which would liquefy during an earthquake. Liquefaction aside, the loose soil requires deep foundations for newer construction, and would force Sound Transit to make a deep bore tunnel even deeper than in most areas of the city.
Plus, many of the buildings in the area are built on pilings, since the neighborhoods are the city’s oldest. Those pilings could be obstacles for any alignment, and might not be replaceable with a new foundation. Demolition isn’t a way out of that problem: a large slice of the area—and King Street and Union Station themselves—are historic landmarks, or in historic districts.
4th Avenue vs. 5th Avenue
Sound Transit’s “representative alignment” is under 5th Avenue, with a station perpendicular to King and Jackson streets and parallel to the current Chinatown/ID station. During the first round of outreach with the Chinatown and Pioneer Square neighborhoods, there was strong demand for siting the line and station on 4th Avenue, or under Union Station. Continue reading “Link Advisory Group Reviews Chinatown, Sodo, Water Crossing Issues”