Tag: Sound Transit 3

Sound Transit Board Adopts Major Last-Minute Changes to 2016 Light Rail Plan, Skipping Chinatown and First Hill

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.

Financial Crisis Forces Sound Transit to Consider Tough, Complicated Choices

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past few months, Sound Transit, the regional agency tasked with building light rail to Ballard and West Seattle lines as well as extending the main light-rail “spine” to Everett and Tacoma, has been dealt a double blow of bad news. Last June, agency staff estimated that total revenues could fall short by $8 billion to $12 billion by 2041, the original end date of the Sound Transit 3 program voters approved in 2016. (More recent projections have adjusted that projection down slightly, to a range of $6.1 billion to $11.5 billion, but the numbers remain grim).

Then, earlier this month, Sound Transit announced that the cost to build the ST3 package, which includes elevated lines to West Seattle and Ballard, had increased by about $8 billion. The combination of the shortfall and cost inflation has created an “affordability gap” of about $11.5 billion.

Referring to the chart above, which shows a green line marked “ending balance” plummeting below zero beginning in 2029, Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel said last week, “I’ve never seen a chart where the budget dropped off the chart … so that’s pretty sobering for me.”

Keel made his comments during a board workshop on Sound Transit 3 “realignment” last Thursday, where the general outlines of two broad options emerged.

The first, which staff have dubbed the “expanded capacity” approach, would involve finding additional resources, such as grants, federal dollars, or new taxes, to boost Sound Transit’s revenues and make the newly inflated project possible. The second, called the “plan-required” approach, would involve some combination of delaying elements of the project, permanently reducing the scope of projects, and eliminating some projects altogether. According to a lengthy report on the options, this alternative would only come into play “in the event that new financial resources are not secured.”

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Presented with these conflicting options, several board members insisted that the solution was doing “both.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, for example, said, “We have to be working hard at what the resources we have, but [we also] have to look at what are other potential sources of revenues,” she said, adding, “Every time we pull the covers over ourselves, we fail ourselves. We have to be thinking of the future.”

To that end, the options Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff presented last week included: New federal funding; direct grants from the state; increasing the agency’s debt capacity; raising the rental car tax rate; purchasing lower-cost debt through federal loan programs; and increasing fares.

Most of these options come with significant caveats and downsides. For example, Sound Transit is already the nation’s largest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act borrower, making it less likely the agency will be approved for additional debt. Rental-car tax revenues are currently negligible because of the COVID-related decline in travel. And any increase to the agency’s debt capacity would require either 60 percent voter approval or a change to the Washington State Constitution (and would lower the agency’s credit rating, resulting in higher interest payments.)

Finally, Rogoff said, the likelihood of more federal grant funding is dampened somewhat by the fact that Sound Transit already receives one-tenth of the Federal Transit Agency’s grant funding nationwide; “We would certainly love to get a higher percentage of that program, and we certainly would love to get an additional program funded, but there is certainly a limit to what one transit agency can call on from that program, or at least there has been to date,” Rogoff said on Thursday.

Complicating matters are some of the six factors the board will use to decide how to prioritize voter-approved projects in light of the budget gap. For Seattle residents, two factors could end up working against the city’s projects, including light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

The first is whether a project serves to “complete the spine” of regional light rail, meaning the central line that will eventually extend from Tacoma to Everett.  This portion of the plan requires the construction of a second downtown transit tunnel, but Sound Transit does not consider that tunnel part of the “spine.” Instead, the tunnel—which will also connect downtown to West Seattle and Ballard—is considered a Seattle-only project for planning purposes. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the tunnel is funded regionally, the costs split between the three “subareas” within the Sound Transit taxing district). The upshot could be that when Sound Transit gets around to picking projects to delay or cut, West Seattle and Ballard could be first in line because Seattle already got a “Seattle” project in the form of a second downtown tunnel.

The second issue is equity—defined, for Sound Transit’s purposes, as how well a project serves low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities within a one-mile radius of a project, such as a station. Although many ST3 projects scored low on equity, some of the worst were in Seattle. They included the West Seattle line (which scored medium-low), the downtown tunnel (medium-low) and the Ballard extension (low). This could bump these projects lower down the priority list.

Some board members argued that the definition of “equity” Sound Transit uses is narrow and self-defeating, since stations tend to raise property values (and prompt gentrification) in their immediate vicinity, driving down their equity scores even if they serve people from less-affluent, more diverse parts of town. For example, an infill station at NE 130th Street, in board member Debora Juarez’s Seattle City Council district, ranked low on the list, despite the fact that the station will serve people commuting into the area from elsewhere.

“I have a real problem with the equity” metric, because of the way it narrowly defines a station’s service area, Juarez said. “The whole point of having these stations is to get people to work, to the hospital,” Juarez said, referring to the UW Medical Center hospital near the station. “Taking three buses to get to the north end is ridiculous.”

The board isn’t expected to adopt a realignment plan until next summer, at the soonest. Although board chair Keel began a blue-sky discussion last week about how Sound Transit could cut costs or raise money—beginning with the rental-car tax, which would raise a negligible amount—board member Claudia Balducci, a King County Council member from Bellevue, cautioned against coming up with lists of cuts or new taxes before a thorough discussion.

“When we did this ten-plus years ago”—in the wake of the 2008-2010 recession—”we had a very deeply researched piece of documentation that was given to us with a lot of backup behind it,” Balducci, who first joined the Sound Transit board as Bellevue mayor in 2020, said. “I feel like we’re at that early stage of maybe trying to provide high-level feedback about the parameters around additional study that we want to see. … It feels like we’re rushing toward a solution when we haven’t identified the problems.”


Durkan Hires a Familiar Face, for $720,000, to Represent the City During Light Rail Planning

Mayor Jenny Durkan has chosen Anne Fennessy,  a public-affairs consultant who has known Durkan for decades, to serve as the city’s single point of contact during the development of a plan for Sound Transit 3, which will extend light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. According to the contract, which was provided by the mayor’s office, Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, will be paid $720,000 for the work. Sound Transit will reimburse the city for the full cost of Fennessy’s four-year contract. Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says the mayor’s office interviewed about five people for the position before selecting Fennessy through a sole-source justification—a noncompetitive process. Prentice notes that Fennessy has a long history of doing  work for Sound Transit, pointing to public opinion research and public outreach work her firm, Cocker Fennessy, did for the agency during and after the unsuccessful “roads and transit” campaign in 2007. Prentice could not immediately say whether Durkan considered designating a (likely less expensive) city employee as the city’s representative before hiring Fennessy for the job.

Cocker Fennessy has received at least two other significant transportation-related city contracts during Durkan’s first year in office—to coordinate the city’s review of the stalled downtown streetcar and to assist in an assessment of the Seattle Department of Transportation. (As I previously reported, Fennessy lives near the streetcar route, which has caused major traffic disruption in Pioneer Square, and is married to Durkan’s Deputy Mayor David Moseley. Her work on the SDOT review, for which Fennessy established a makeshift, closet-sized office inside the agency itself,  is reportedly complete.

According to the partnering agreement between the city and Sound Transit, Fennessy’s job will involve working with the transit agency “to manage the project, to establish a cooperative and communicative platform for reaching early and durable decisions, and to resolve disputes.” As the designated representative for the city, Fennessy “will be located in the Mayor’s Office and will report directly and exclusively to the Mayor or Deputy Mayor,” according to the agreement.  “This is a huge, complex project that requires a great deal of work with individual departments, and someone is needed to help keep that cogently tied together and moving forward,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason says.

The agreement, which the city council approved last December, indicates that Durkan was supposed to have appointed a designated representative by January 15 of this year. Fennessy reportedly received the contract within the last month or two. Reason, who directed specific questions about the contract to the mayor’s office, says that in the absence of a designated representative over the last year, Sound Transit has been “working with individuals in various departments” directly, as they have done in the past. Reason couldn’t say whether the lack of a designated representative had slowed down the process of working with the city. “That’s a hypothetical,” she says. “This is a new idea that we are implementing because we are on such a compressed timeline. … We’re changing our processes in real time, so our approach is, let’s do everything we can to work with the city, and now that the designee has been brought on board, we can implement that idea as well.”


In addition to serving as Sound Transit’s sole point of contact at the city, Fennessy’s role will include coordinating technical input on everything from  “land use/zoning, traffic/parking [and] parks/open space” to “utility, roadway/traffic, drainage, structural/building, fire/life safety, construction staging, property acquisition/right-of-way vacation,” according to the agreement. The designated representative is also charged with assembling and overseeing the city’s project development team (a task that was also supposed to be complete, according to the agreement, by January of this year. Reason did not know whether the city had put together a project team.)

In an email, Fennessy said that Cocker Fennessy “does not speak on behalf our clients – so you should reach out to the Mayor’s office.”