By Erica C. Barnett
After five hours of public testimony and a lengthy, often contentious debate, the Sound Transit board voted Thursday to adopt as its “preferred option” for the light rail extension through downtown Seattle a last-minute, back-of-the-napkin alternative that eliminates two long-planned stations serving the Chinatown-International District (CID) and First Hill neighborhoods in favor of new stations at Pioneer Square and just north of the current Stadium Station. The plan represents a stark departure from the Sound Transit 3 package voters approved in 2016, which included both the CID and “Midtown” stations.
The board also voted to keep a Fourth Avenue “shallower” station option on the table for further study.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who promoted the new “north-south” option in his recent State of the County speech, said keeping Fourth on the table would give people “false hope” about the possibility of a future station in Chinatown, while arguing, along with Harrell, that skipping the CID entirely was what “the community” wanted.
But the meeting, which I covered in real time on Twitter, starkly illustrated what should have been obvious to Sound Transit board members all along: Far from being a monolith united in opposition to a station in Chinatown, the CID community is starkly divided, with a large contingent favoring a station that actually serves the neighborhood, even if it means ten years or more of construction on Fourth Avenue.
Advocates for both alternatives sorted themselves, over the course of the meeting, into two sign-waving groups on either side of the meeting room—black T-shirts and white signs against the CID station on the left, and a larger group of red T-shirts and signs supporting the station on the right. Each group clapped and hollered when someone testified in favor of their position—a clear sign, if the board needed one, that the prevailing narrative about a single “community” opposed to the CID station had always been reductive and condescending.
This wasn’t what County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Bruce Harrell had in mind when they introduced the new “north-south” alternative just two months ago. Both men have argued that skipping over the CID is the best way to avoid harming a vulnerable community. Constantine has also portrayed a second Pioneer Square station as an opportunity to develop a whole “new neighborhood” where the King County Administration Building and downtown jail currently stand, part of what he’s calling his “Civic Campus Initiative.”
“Quite candidly, [the new option] came organically from the community. There are no backroom deals being made. We’ve been trying to be transparent. We’re trying to work openly and thinking out loud as things evolve.” —Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell
Harrell, who attended the meeting virtually from out of town, has argued that moving the station out of Chinatown is the only option that prevents Sound Transit from repeating the region’s legacy of disinvestment, redlining, and harmful development in the neighborhood, which was divided by I-5 in the 1960s.
“A construction period for 10 to 12 years could cause irreparable harm,” Harrell said. “And this is a treasure; this is a gem.” Suggesting repeatedly that Fourth Avenue supporters were looking at the issue from a “pure transit plane,” Harrell said equity was more important than what makes sense for transit riders who may just be passing through the neighborhood.
“Quite candidly, [the new option] came organically from the community,” Harrell said. As someone on the pro-CID station side of the room yelled, “Not true!” Harrell continued, “There are no backroom deals being made. We’ve been trying to be transparent. We’re trying to work openly and thinking out loud as things evolve.”
Many community members who testified—including the leaders of the Seattle CID Preservation and Development Authority (SCIPDA) and Uwajimaya—argued that the majority of people in the CID actually support keeping the station in the neighborhood, as long as Sound Transit provides mitigation for construction impacts. “Simply put, this is the best choice for the future of our community,” said Jared Johnson, the co-executive director of SCIPDA. “To have a world-class transit hub at the doorstep of the CID means a future full of opportunity and connectivity for our residents and businesses.”
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who cast the lone “no” vote on the new north-south option, said, “Construction impacts are temporary. The benefits of transit in a community are permanent.”
Not only will eliminating the CID station kill all future hope of a single Seattle transit hub where people can transfer between Sounder, Amtrak, light rail, and buses, it will cut off access to the neighborhood from Southeast Seattle, another community that has been neglected and poorly served by major infrastructure projects, like Sound Transit’s current at-grade light rail line. Under the preferred alternative, future riders between the south end and the CID will have to transfer between two stations at SoDo or go to Pioneer Square, transfer, and head back in the direction they came from.
Additionally, riders from the CID who want to access the new lines will have to either walk north to a new station near City Hall, at Fifth and James, or travel north several blocks from a station at the current site of a Salvation Army shelter in a forbidding, industrial part of south downtown crisscrossed by multi-lane arterial roads and bordered on the south by the elevated I-90 on-ramps, as the Urbanist has documented.
“It’s powerful to look out over the hearing room and see seniors, people of color, calling on us to support the Fourth Avenue option. Construction impacts are temporary. The benefits of transit in a community are permanent.”—King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove
As public commenters with limited mobility noted Thursday, walking long distances, especially up steep hills like the one on James St., isn’t an option for everybody; in practice, the new “north” and “south” stations will be inaccessible to them and many other people, particularly elders, living in the area.
Although Constantine said continuing to study the Fourth Avenue option would create “false hope” for those who support it, both he and Harrell joined a strong board majority in voting for an amendment by King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and Washington State Department of Transportation director Roger Millar to continue studying that alternative.
Balducci was less successful, however, with another amendment (also co-sponsored by Millar) that would re-connect the “spine” of the system—which will be split into segments when expansion lines to Ballard and West Seattle open —preserving the existing connection between South Seattle and the CID and keeping a one-seat ride from Lynnwood to Tacoma.
Constantine, in a back-and-forth with Sound Transit planning director Don Billen, argued that the board rejected a similar plan in 2015 for reasons that still apply today. “We have to stop going back and reconsidering everything we’ve ever decided,” he concluded.
Balducci, exasperated, responded that the only reason she proposed her alternative in the first place was because Constantine just put two brand-new, never-before-considered stations on the table. “The reason I bring this up now is not just because I want to re-litigate things we thought about eight years ago, but because there’s a significant new proposal on the table that changes the way the system works,” Balducci said.
The cost and feasibility of the new stations and the tunnel that would connect them is unknown, as is the cost of mitigation the agency may have to provide for eliminating the Midtown Station, which would have served First Hill. If the north-south option goes forward, it will be the second time Sound Transit has cut First Hill out of its plans; when the agency eliminated the original First Hill station in 2005, it ended up having to pay for a new First Hill streetcar.
Although Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez said eliminating a station in First Hill would not raise the same equity concerns as building a light rail station in the CID, the Transportation Choices Coalition has noted that thousands of the 15,500 riders who would commute to that station are hospital workers who commute from outside the city, including Pierce and South King County.
Several Sound Transit board members raised concerns not merely about the details of the new station proposal, but about the implications of moving forward so decisively on station options that have barely been studied, have no engineering behind them, and whose true costs are still unknown. Although current cost estimates put the Fourth Avenue “shallower” option as much as $800 million more expensive than the “baseline” alternative, that baseline—a hub at Fifth Avenue that would have provided the most direct access to existing transit lines—was rejected long ago because of equity concerns, and should probably be retired as a point of comparison. In addition, much of the additional cost would come from replacing a City of Seattle-owned viaduct near Union Station—a disruptive project that will need to be completed eventually, whether the light rail station happens or not.
A small contingent of advocates showed up yesterday to make the case for station options at the other end of the downtown segment in South Lake Union, where the board is considering two alternative sites along Denny Way—a preferred alternative at Westlake Avenue, and a second option at Terry Ave. N. Harrell proposed keeping the Terry option on the table because of construction impacts at Westlake.