Notes from this morning’s ST3 briefing

This morning the Council got a briefing on ST3 from the CEO of Sound Transit. Much of it was a repeat of what they’ve said and written before, but there was some interesting and useful color commentary that added to the ongoing discussion.

First a few notes about how Link light rail is doing today. It’s been well reported that there has been a surge in light rail riders since the Capitol Hill and UW stations opened. However, last Friday, which was the Mariners’ opening day, set a new record with over 82,000 riders. Council member O’Brien asked about whether they were addition a third car to the trains; Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff explained that they are doing that for the peak-time trains but not necessarily for off-peak times because of maintenance needs. They have more cars on order, in preparation for the East Link line, and as those begin to arrive they will have more ability to add cars throughout the day. Rogoff did mention that the ST staff have surprised by a third peak: midday to Capitol Hill and UW.

The most common question that both the ST folks and the Council are getting is “Why does it take so long?” Rogoff explained that the delay is due to a combination of factors. First, they are still quite busy with ST2; they can’t go to Redmond and Everett until they finish going to Bellevue and Lynnwood. Rogoff also explained that they want to go faster, but faster requires a lot of cooperation from other stakeholders. Environmental review requires input and understanding from community members and neighbors; alignment (a fancy term for “where does the rail line run?”) and permitting require cooperation from municipalities — just think about the long, protracted process it took for Bellevue to figure out where to run the rail line from I-90 to its downtown area.  Rogoff pointed out that they could run three shifts around the clock on construction projects, but that would require neighbors to be ok with the noise — or for the alignment to be in places where the noise isn’t an issue. He also reminded the Council that Sound Transit “doesn’t get a huge slug of tax revenues on day one,” as the money accumulates over 25 years. They can use bonding authority to gain more capital up front, but there’s a limit to how much even that helps.

Karen Kitsis, from ST’s planning staff, pointed out that the Kent/Des Moines and Redmond segments are at the front of the line for ST3 work because they already have environmental studies underway, meaning that they will be “shovel ready” sooner than other segments.

Kitsis also noted that the plan for the Ballard to downtown line includes a tunnel through Uptown and South Lake Union.  O’Brien brought up the huge projection for traffic on that segment — more than 135,000 riders per day — obliquely suggesting that it should be prioritized higher given the huge impact it will have. Rogoff replied that the only way the system could handle that much additional traffic is with the second tunnel downtown. But building that tunnel will be an extremely complex and time-consuming project.

Council member Bagshaw passed on the feedback she had heard from her Magnolia constituents that they would prefer the Ballard line not run at-grade along 15th Avenue; they want it four blocks to the west, and then tunneled under the Ship Canal.  “This is what the neighborhood needs” is what they told her.  Rogoff sympathized, adding that he and his team will take the feedback but that there are tradeoffs: tunneling or above-grade lines are more expensive and take longer to build. Council member Johnson jump to reinforce the difficulties in making these decisions: “We can’t both build faster and in a tunnel.”

Bagshaw asked whether the Sounder train that runs from Everett to downtown could add a stop in Ballard — an interesting idea given how long it will take to build the light rail line there.  The ST folks were noncommittal.

Council member Juarez, as expected, got on her soapbox about the 130th Street infill station (and good for her for doing so). She explained that for her constituents this ties to the other city-wide discussions of HALA, density, and gentrification. “People were willing to discuss displacement and upzoning,” she said, “because they thought they were getting something in return.” And now they feel betrayed because the light rail line will skip through their neighborhood without stopping. You can understand why they don’t “want to go to the end of the line” and wait until the mid 2040’s to get their station.

O’Brien, the chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, is starting to draft a letter from the Council to Sound Transit with questions from the collective group. He also expects to get a resolution done in May that summarizes the Council’s feelings. Sound Transit wants to finish collecting feedback by May so they can approve a final plan in June and get it in the pipeline for the November ballot.