Policy Topics

Seattle voters love ST3’s Ballard and West Seattle light rail extensions, but will they love the alignment Sound Transit’s board picks?

Today is a big day for Sound Tran­sit, the Region­al Tran­sit Author­i­ty that the Leg­is­la­ture estab­lished in the 1990s to strength­en mobil­i­ty in Cen­tral Puget Sound — the Seat­tle-Belle­vue-Taco­ma-Everett met­ro­pol­i­tan area. The Sound Tran­sit Board is expect­ed at an after­noon board meet­ing to make some impor­tant deci­sions about the place­ment of sta­tions and guide­way for future light rail exten­sions that vot­ers approved back in 2016 as part of Sound Tran­sit Phase III.

These Phase III exten­sion plans call for build­ing light rail lines out to Bal­lard and West Seat­tle, two pop­u­lous neigh­bor­hoods in the Emer­ald City that our tran­sit agen­cies cur­rent­ly only serve by bus or shuttle.

For those forth­com­ing lines to be able to fea­si­bly con­nect into the exist­ing net­work — which includes a rail spine run­ning from North­gate to Angle Lake in SeaT­ac but will even­tu­al­ly go both fur­ther north and south as well as east — Sound Tran­sit says a new tun­nel under­neath down­town will be required.

Fig­ur­ing out where to put that tun­nel and its asso­ci­at­ed sta­tions has been one of the most dif­fi­cult align­ment exer­cis­es in the agen­cy’s history.

The mat­ter is com­ing before the board at the afore­men­tioned meet­ing, but as our friends at The Urban­ist have writ­ten, Sound Tran­sit seems unpre­pared to make a final deci­sion about guide­way align­ment and sta­tion sit­ing at this time.

Sound Tran­sit staff and board ought to be aware that vot­ers in Seat­tle love the West Seat­tle and Bal­lard light rail exten­sions and are expect­ing Sound Tran­sit to design and con­struct these projects thought­ful­ly. These are poten­tial­ly hun­dred year deci­sions that will affect the rid­er­ship expe­ri­ence for a very long time.

The con­se­quences need to be giv­en care­ful consideration.

In our most recent poll of the City of Seat­tle, which field­ed only a cou­ple of months ago, like­ly spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers in the City of Seat­tle once again said that the West Seat­tle and Bal­lard light rail exten­sions were their favorite cur­rent or pro­posed pub­lic works projects in the city, out of more than half a dozen we asked them about. Sup­port for these projects is real­ly, real­ly high.

Take a look:

QUESTION: Do you sup­port or oppose the fol­low­ing pub­lic works projects in the Seat­tle area?

The map we showed vot­ers in our Jan­u­ary 2023 Seat­tle poll (North­west Pro­gres­sive Institute)

ANSWERS:

ProjectSup­portOpposeNot sure
Light rail to West Seat­tle and Bal­lard (in design)81%13%6%
Pacif­ic North­west high speed rail (pro­posed)77%14%9%
Water­front Seat­tle (under construction)76%18%5%
State Route 520 recon­struc­tion (under construction)67%20%13%
Yesler Ter­race rede­vel­op­ment (under construction)59%18%23%
Cen­tral Seat­tle Inter­state 5 Lid (pro­posed)57%23%20%
Uni­ver­si­ty Dis­trict Inter­state 5 Lid (pro­posed) 55%26%20%
Wash­ing­ton State Con­ven­tion Cen­ter expan­sion (under construction)53%35%12%

Our sur­vey of 651 like­ly Feb­ru­ary 2023 spe­cial elec­tion vot­ers in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton was in the field from Thurs­day, Jan­u­ary 26th, through Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 30th, 2023. All respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed online. The poll was con­duct­ed for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute by Change Research and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.2% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

81%… that’s more than eight in ten voters!

We are a long way from the debates of the 1990s and even the ear­ly 2000s, when it was­n’t uncom­mon to read let­ters to the edi­tor or hear pub­lic com­ment argu­ing that light rail was a bad invest­ment. We’ve decid­ed we’re build­ing it, and we’ve built quite a bit in twen­ty years (ground­break­ing on Cen­tral Link began in 2003).

But before the con­struc­tion on the ST3 projects can begin, these all impor­tant align­ment deci­sions have to be made. Where are the sta­tions and tracks going to go, espe­cial­ly in down­town, where we’ll see the most trans­fers between lines and modes? Ear­li­er in the design process, Sound Tran­sit was con­tem­plat­ing putting a tun­nel under­neath Fifth Avenue, but this option has basi­cal­ly been dropped fol­low­ing oppo­si­tion from the Chi­na­town / Inter­na­tion­al Dis­trict community.

Atten­tion has shift­ed to alter­na­tive ideas, most notably a tun­nel under Fourth Avenue, with a new sta­tion adja­cent to the exist­ing CID sta­tion, or a “north and south of CID” align­ment that would entail the elim­i­na­tion of the pro­posed Mid­town Sta­tion in favor of a sta­tion across from the King Coun­ty Cour­t­house in the Pio­neer Square area and yet anoth­er sta­tion in South Down­town (SoDo).

King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Con­stan­tine, the Chair of the Sound Tran­sit Board, and Seat­tle May­or Bruce Har­rell recent­ly offered a pub­lic endorse­ment of the “north and south of CID” con­cept and say they can bring addi­tion­al mon­ey to the table to help build it, but they haven’t pre­sent­ed much in the way of specifics yet.

Urban­ists and tran­sit advo­cates have been offer­ing a very ener­getic crit­i­cal appraisal of the “north and south of CID” con­cept ever since that announcement.

The Urban­ist, The Stranger, and Pub­li­co­la have all writ­ten about the align­ment debate in detail and we rec­om­mend read­ing their cov­er­age. You’ll learn a lot.

What our research demon­strates is that these pub­lic works projects have more sup­port than pret­ty much any­thing else Seat­tle is build­ing or think­ing of build­ing right now. (It’s inter­est­ing that inter­ci­ty high speed rail placed sec­ond — Seat­tle is tru­ly hun­gry for bet­ter rail tran­sit of all kinds, which is heart­en­ing to see!)

There’s a lot of sup­port and good­will for Sound Tran­sit among the peo­ple of the Emer­ald City right now. It would be a mis­take to squan­der it — it took a long time to earn. Years of thought­ful lead­er­ship from Joni Earl has got­ten us to this point.

Self-imposed dead­lines on pub­lic works projects are not a bad thing — a project can’t get built if it stays in the design phase indef­i­nite­ly — but it’s also impor­tant to choose align­ments wise­ly, and make a deci­sion when the time is ripe.

If the prop­er ground­work has­n’t been laid, then today, March 23rd, isn’t the right time to decide where the sta­tions and tracks are going. 

If the Sound Tran­sit Board wants to pur­sue the “north and south of CID” con­cept — which NPI has a lot of ques­tions about — then it needs to prop­er­ly explore the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of that option and ensure that peo­ple have a chance to think about and react to the pro­posed devi­a­tions from the plan that vot­ers saw in 2016.

Vot­ers love these projects. They want Sound Tran­sit to get them right.

If the design phase must go on for longer to ensure that the best pos­si­ble long term deci­sion is made, then let the design phase continue.

Andrew Villeneuve

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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