Council asks Sound Transit questions, and gets answers

Last week the City Council sent off a set of questions to Sound Transit about the Sound Transit 3 proposal. Monday ST sent their reply, and yesterday they showed up in person to further expand on their answers.

The Council’s questions were pretty much what you would expect, asking for explanations for the biggest critiques the citizens of Seattle have raised about ST3:

  • West Seattle’s light rail extension: why not a tunnel, and why not look at the “Delridge” option?
  • Ballard’s light rail extension: did you look at putting it farther west instead of along 15th Avenue in the stretch between Magnolia and Queen Anne, and how much more expensive would it be to tunnel under the Ship Canal rather than adding a bridge?
  • Graham Street “infill” station: why is it at the end of the schedule  instead of near the beginning?
  • 130th Street station: since the city is considering making that area a new “urban village,” would that increase ridership enough to make it a priority and change it from “provisional” to an official part of the plan? How much will the station cost, and how soon could it be done after the Lynnwood Link is complete?
  • Ballard Sounder station: what are the trade-offs of adding a Ballard station to the Sounder train line between Snohomish County and downtown Seattle?
  • Improvements to RapidRide C and D lines: can you be more specific about the early investments in bus infrastructure for these two lines that are included in ST3?
  • And a big question at the end: what can the City of Seattle do to accelerate the timeline?

All good questions. Sound Transit’s reply letter has a fair amount of details on their answers to each, but the conversation Tuesday morning provided important color commentary to help understand the situation.

West Seattle: Yes, they looked at the tunnel option, and it came out as $500-600 million more expensive than the surface/elevated option without providing any significant reduction in travel time on the route. The West Seattle Junction alignment was chosen over the Delridge alignment because it is centrally located and would draw more riders. The chosen alignment will still have a Delridge station, and they can work with Metro to reconfigure bus routes to feed that station, though they noted that most bus routes in that are already connect to West Seattle Junction.

Ballard extension: Their current proposal comes through Seattle Center as a tunnel, and then exits out the west side of Queen Anne hill; from there it takes a quick bend to the south to an elevated station at the new Expedia campus before proceeding north at surface level along 15th. After a station at Dravus the line becomes elevated and eventually crosses the Ship Canal via a bridge. The bridge has a 70-foot clearance over the water, which they expect to be sufficient for 85-90% of marine traffic; and it will be a drawbridge to handle the remaining 10-15%. The line would then continue up 15th with a terminal station at 15th and Market.

The cost difference between surface and elevated along 15th is about $150 million. The cost difference for tunneling under the Ship Canal/Salmon Bay is about $600 million, and would add 1-2 years to the length of the construction project.

Moving the alignment farther west, as nearby residents have suggested, has been looked at only briefly but is complicated by the presence of the BNSF railroad yard. They can revisit it in depth later, but timing is an issue because they need to be specific in the fall as to what they ask the voters to approve money for; they could change the alignment, but they wouldn’t be able to significantly change the cost of the line in the process.

Graham Street station timing: it’s mostly money. As the ST representative put it, “early money is more expensive than late money.” They could try to move it earlier, but there are some things that the city can do in its Move Seattle plan that would help, such as acquiring the nearby right-of-way along the street to make room for the station, permitting, and reconfiguring the intersection. The cost for the station is about $70 million, including acquiring right-of-way.

130th Street: This was a complicated discussion.  The station was prioritized low because of low ridership, based on Puget Sound Regional Council projections that are derived from the current low-density zoning and population in the area: freeway, golf course, and single-family housing. As it currently stands, a station would serve the nearby high school and neighborhood, but it wouldn’t add much ridership. And the 145th Street and Northgate stations are relatively nearby, both with good bus service. The interesting twist is the city’s plan to rezone the 130th area as a new urban village; but that plan hasn’t been approved yet and as such isn’t represented in any of the population and traffic projections. It can’t be added to the ST2 Lynnwood Link plan for two reasons: first, it wasn’t in the plan the voters approved, so they would need to ensure that they could do everything else in the plan first before committing money to it; and second, ST2 is in the queue for final review by the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) “New Starts” program which would grant 50% matching (and FTA has indicated that it will likely grant the funds). Changing the plan pushes ST2 to the end of the queue again, and the ST board is unwilling to do that.  If the City of Seattle were willing to pay for it, that might move up its priority.

Ballard Sounder station: ST has ridership numbers, but they are not very high. That’s mostly because of the location of the rail line (and by extension where the station would need to go): it would be surrounded by the marina, a park, and some single-family homes up the hill. Also, since the existing stations on the North line are all in Snohomish County, adding a Ballard Sounder station would mean that Seattle would need to help fund the North line on an ongoing basis.

RapidRide C and D lines: ST3 would contribute about $50 million for improvements along the two lines. There has been tremendous ridership growth along those two lines, and the funds would help to keep them reliable while we wait for light rail to arrive.

The most interesting conversation was about the final question: what can Seattle do to speed up the timeline, especially for the West Seattle and Ballard lines.  ST’s reply letter basically says “We’re really glad you asked that question!” and then lists two full pages (in an appendix) of requests: changes to the city code and administrative actions to streamline, simply or outright skip permitting and review processes. Some of these make clear sense, such as adding dedicated personnel in city offices to handle all the paperwork involved in ST3’s construction plans, review and permits. Some are probably sensible, such as eliminating duplicate Environmental Impact Statement processes. Some are eyebrow-raising, such as eliminating some review panels and exempting light rail stations from design review during the permit process. And some require the City of Seattle to abdicate its review, approval and appeal authority altogether in favor of letting Sound Transit run its own — including its own public comment process.

Timing is an interest part of this process; Sound Transit will have an easier time selling ST3 to voters in November if the timeline looks shorter, but legally they will need to publish as part of the package going to the ballot the timeline that is required based upon fully documented legal, review, permit and approval processes. That means that if the city wants to adopt any of Sound Transit’s recommendations they need to do so by June 2nd in order for Sound Transit to make the necessary adjustments to their schedule at their next board meeting.  Council members Mike O’Brien and Rob Johnson were very enthusiastic about trying to pull a resolution together in the next two weeks that signifies the Council’s intent — and that would also serve as a model for other cities in the Sound Transit region to emulate.

But clearly no one was paying attention to what happened Monday afternoon at the City Council meeting, when the Council effectively reneged on its MOU with Chris Hansen and rejected a street vacation necessary to build the SODO Arena. As I pointed out earlier this week, long-term agreements with the City Council are no longer worth the paper they are printed on. It’s insane to think that a deal this Council cuts with Sound Transit will be respected by future Councils and Mayors. Especially with the current trend in Seattle, where the “Seattle process” means “more process” and every proposal must be subjected to months of intensive community input (and even then is decried as “not enough”) proposals that remove those processes and abdicate the city’s responsibility for review and approval will have a very short shelf-life. Seattle can have its light-rail sooner, but it will come at a cost. It’s not clear that the voters of Seattle will want to pay that cost.