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 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?
Project Support Oppose Not 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.
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