By Erica C. Barnett
On Wednesday, in advance of a Sound Transit board meeting that could reshape a long-planned light rail expansion linking downtown Seattle to Ballard and West Seattle, King County Councilmember and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci proposed an alternative route that preserves the existing “spine” of the system while eliminating a planned station in the Chinatown International District (CID). Voters approved the expansion, called “ST3,” in 2016.
The last-minute proposal is a direct response to, and amendment of, another last-minute proposal backed by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Bruce Harrell, who is sponsoring the motion. That “north-south” plan, which has no cost estimates, engineering, or design, would take a new light rail station on Fourth Avenue in Chinatown off the table, eliminate a planned “Midtown” station that would have served First Hill, and add a new “south of CID” station a few blocks north of the existing Stadium station south of downtown.
The big advantage to his plan, according to Constantine, is that in addition to eliminating the disruptive and harmful impacts of construction in Chinatown, it would set the stage for a whole new “neighborhood” centered around the site of the current King County Administration Building.
Compared to the “north-south” proposal, Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducc said, “this option would mean less out of direction travel and better connections for South and East riders [and] retain a one seat ride from South Seattle, South King and Pierce to the CID.”
Balducci’s proposal, co-sponsored by Washington State Department of Transportation director Roger Millar, would re-connect the “spine” of the system—which, under all previous plans, would be split into segments when expansion lines to Ballard and West Seattle open in the 2030s—keeping a one-seat ride from Lynnwood to Tacoma and, importantly, preserving the existing connection between South Seattle and the CID, which Constantine’s plan would eliminate. Essentially, it would create a true Ballard-to-West Seattle line (which no previous plans would do) while preserving connections to Chinatown from the east and south.
Compared to the “north-south” proposal, Balducci said, “this option would mean less out of direction travel and better connections for South and East riders [and] retain a one seat ride from South Seattle, South King and Pierce to the CID.”
Either of the two north-south options would eliminate the “Midtown” station, which would come the closest of any station to the dense First Hill neighborhood—echoing a similar decision in 2005, when the Sound Transit board voted to scrap a long-planned station in the neighborhood, a decision that eventually produced the First Hill streetcar.
“If Midtown Station goes away, then they need to understand that what they’ve done is eliminate the highest ridership station in all of ST3 and that is going to require that they mitigate the hell out of it,” said Transportation Choices Coalition Alex Hudson, who noted that many of the people who work in First Hill hospitals live south of Seattle and could have used the new light rail line to commute to their jobs. “That’s 15,500 people who were counting on excellent [rail] service and have been paying for it and won’t get it—that’s not small change. That’s a real harm.”
Mitigating for the loss of the Midtown station, which could come in the form of expanded bus or other transit service in the area, will add costs to the project—eating into any savings from eliminating the station, Hudson said.
TCC wants the Sound Transit board to keep an existing option, the Fourth Avenue “shallower” option, on the table; as long as they’re considering an unstudied plan, she said, the board should keep a more thoroughly vetted option on the table. Balducci has introduced a second amendment that would keep that option on the table, and said that since the new Constantine-Harrell plan will require a supplemental environmental impact statement, “we should use that time to also study and improve the 4th option as much as possible. Then we’ll have the ability to make the most informed choice,” Balducci said.
“Before we walk away from the option to have a great transit hub on 4th that could both serve the CID and connect our light rail lines most effectively to each other, Sounder, Amtrak and other modes, I’m asking that the agency look harder at ways to address community concerns,” Balducci added.
It’s unclear whether Balducci and Millar’s proposals will gain traction, or if the Constantine-Harrell plan has so much momentum that it will steamroll efforts to keep other options on the table. The board meets tomorrow at 1:30 pm.