Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

UPDATE: Citing missing data in the DEIS, which fails to identify the loss of Alki Beach Academy and the childcare spots, Councilmenber Alex Pedersen is proposing the city not make a recommendation in the segment that runs through the Delridge/ Youngstown area.

The amendment also makes its recommendation for a 17th Ave. W. route in Interbay contingent on the preservation of a proposed Seattle Storm practice facility in the area; former Mayor Jenny Durkan fast-tracked the new building, which contradicts the city’s recently adopted industrial land-use policies, before she left office last year.

The committee is set to vote on this amendment and a few others on Tuesday, July 5.

Original story:

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”


In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route. 

The city lists aesthetics, safety and less residential displacement for preferring an underground route. In a presentation to councilmembers, city staff recommended avoiding tall elevated guideways which would “create permanent sightline obstructions that impact safety for all roadway users,” by distracting drivers using roads the elevated tracks straddle. And argued the elevated tracks, which would range in height from 60 feet above the ground to 150 feet, would create many adverse impacts on the existing residential neighborhoods including noise during construction and when light rail begins operating, and would visually transform the area.

There’s no rationale for elevated rail in the Junction, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, said, “given how stark the impacts of elevated rail would be.”

For the easternmost station in West Seattle, the only option in North Delridge that connects with the medium tunnel route places the station just to the east of Nucor Steel Seattle. This option is also the city’s preference, displacing the fewest residents by keeping the elevated track out of the Youngstown neighborhood.

Herbold isn’t sold on this path through Youngstown, though citing the potential loss of hundreds of childcare slots at Alki Beach Academy, which is planning an expansion and would be displaced by this route, according to Sound Transit planning documents.

“There isn’t a community consensus in Delridge. All of the options have clear community impacts,” Herbold said. “Consequently, I think it’s likely premature to state a preference until all the impacts have been analyzed.”

The Nucor location would also require King County Metro’s RapidRide bus route to make a longer detour, but shorter bus routes would not have to detour as far as they would with other routing options, according to Sound Transit documents.

The city is optimistic that the three transportation agencies—the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Metro, and Sound Transit—can improve transit integration at the Delridge station, SDOT spokesperson Miriam Ali said. “On the other hand, all our best ideas still wouldn’t be enough to rescue the Youngstown neighborhood from future generations stuck beneath the high guideway.”


Between downtown and Ballard, the city’s preferred route includes tunneling under Salmon Bay to avoid impacts to the maritime industry and ending the line with a station at 15th Avenue NW and NW Market Street. Locating the future station on 15th Avenue, rather than on 14th Avenue (the other option on the table), is a must-have for the city. 

Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the area, and many transit advocates have argued that the 15th Avenue location isn’t far enough west to really serve the neighborhood. They would rather see Sound Transit revive a long-discarded route along 20th Avenue Northwest that would deliver riders closer to the core of the neighborhood where a majority of the shops and restaurants are located. According to the city, Ballard is the fastest growing urban village by absolute numbers, adding 6,200 people since 2010 with the vast majority of the growth happening west of 15th in the heart of the neighborhood. 

Any station option east of 15th Avenue is completely unacceptable, Strauss told PubliCola. 

“Placing the station to the east undermines our city’s work to create a densely connected community,” Strauss said. “This is infrastructure that will last 100 years, and we can’t afford to get it wrong.”

While only City Council President Debora Juarez and Harrell sit on the Sound Transit board and will have a vote on the final preferred alternatives, Sound Transit will have to apply for city permits to build the project. So recommendations from the city do have some weight. 

At this time, city staff plans to bring the recommendations before the full council on July 12. Later in July, the Sound Transit board will vote on which alternatives to continue studying as the agency continues work on the final EIS, a process that’s expected to take another year, and settle on a final route. 


4 thoughts on “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”

  1. Sound Transit should study having both lines share the tunnel through downtown. There is no need for a second tunnel, as it won’t actually increase throughput. This would likely save a huge amount of money, be much better for transit riders, and avoid the mess in the I. D.

  2. The Market Street streetcars ran THROUGHOUT construction of the BART-Muni tunnel construction. There was falsework supporting the tracks and a bus lane on each side built as tha first step in construction of a new section of tunnel. The Seattle Streetcar tracks only CROSS any new Link tunnel, not run along over it for three miles. It is EASY to preserve service. EASY!

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