Steve Shay
Rachel Smith, Sound Transit Government and Community Relations Officer, one of three Sound Transit representatives attending a July 8 West Seattle Transportation Coalition meeting in High Point speaking on possible light rail routes between West Seattle and Downtown.

July 8 WSTC meeting reviewed light rail options for West Seattle

By Steve Shay

Light rail between West Seattle and Downtown Seattle was discussed at West Seattle Transportation Coalition's (WSTC) July 8 meeting at High Point Neighborhood House. Three Sound Transit representatives showcased six possible scenarios ranging from $1.9 billion to $8.9 billion. The panel emphasized these routes were only a starting point for discussion and, if rail to West Seattle was realized, routes could incorporate favorable elements of a combination of the six plans, or something new.

Sound Transit was asked to evaluate high-capacity transit on various corridors when in the 2008 voters approved the ST2 package, and current funding exists for the north corridor to extend from UW to Northgate, and the south corridor to the Federal Way area.
West Seattle scenarios include extending existing Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit lines, and Light Rail-exclusive routes, from Downtown 4th Av., crossing the Duwamish River via a "movable bridge" that swivels, and either heading south along Delridge Av. and through White Center, toward Burien, bypassing California Av., or passing through the Alaska Junction and on to White Center and Burien. From Burien, routes move east to Renton.

The higher-priced scenarios incorporate tunneling under 4th and 5th avenues downtown, and through West Seattle between the proposed rail bridge toward the Alaska Junction. Incorporating buses while avoiding tunneling saves money, but adds time to the commute and may not address population increases over the coming years.

"Sound Transit's 'Long Range Plan' is essentially the blueprint for all the transit we wish we could have in the future in the region, but it is a 'financially-unconstrained' plan," explained Rachel Smith, Sound Transit Government and Community Relations Officer. She said these plans are just a framework.

"Someone might use the word 'fantasy' but I prefer to say that it is to be thought about in phases," she said.

"Over 43 percent of people working in downtown Seattle are using public transit," said Smith. Sound Transit covers King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. She said 40 percent of Washington State residents live in this area which includes 50 cities.

"Our ridership continues to grow," she added. "Last year we saw 30 million annual boardings, and this year 31 million, or about 100,000 passengers a day on (all) our trains and buses."

Smith and the other two representatives, Karen Waterman, Planning and Project Development Manager, and Chris Rule, Sound Planner, said projections of population growth offered by the Puget Sound Regional Council, or PSRC, indicate that the Seattle metropolitan area cannot "bus its way out" to resolve road gridlock nor satisfy the burden of increased ridership.

The PSRC has a "VISION 2040" transportation strategy to accommodate the five million residents expected to populate our region by the year 2040. And that includes rail. Sound Transit is responsible for realizing VISION 2040 with its Long Range Plan.

While some are tunnel-weary thanks to problems plaguing Big Bertha, Smith pointed out, "Sound Transit's University Link will open six to nine months ahead of schedule, over $100 million under budget, and is a tunneling project going spectacularly well. We go from downtown to Capital Hill, then to UW, a $1.5 billion project."

The University Link opens in 2016 and passengers can ride from a station by Husky Stadium to Capital Hill, then to downtown's SeaTac Airport line. Two tunnels are being bored under the Montlake bite and I-5 without the problems afflicting the Deep Bore Tunnel. While tunnels are costly, Smith said that Sound Transit is not intimidated by "complicated projects" including tunneling through West Seattle, even with its hilly topography.

Federal and State funding may come available for a portion of future light rail extensions, while voters will be offered a referendum as early as the 2016 election cycle, called the Sound Transit, or ST3 Measure. More than one rail line will be considered, but some at the WSTC meeting voiced concerns that a UW to Ballard light rail line is an inevitability and will trump West Seattle's desire for rail.

This perception that Ballard has the mojo for rail over West Seattle and other regions may stem from blueprints and meetings pressed by former Mayor Mike McGinn who desired Ballard rail. Last June 27 he posted on his official website, "This evening the public will be able to view eight potential rail lines from Ballard to Downtown. This is an exciting and important step forward toward our goal of connecting more of our neighborhoods with rail. This is also part of the planning work Sound Transit (ST) is doing to update its long-range plan for a Sound Transit 3 ballot measure."

In fairness to McGinn, he did add that Sound Transit is "also analyzing… a route from Downtown to West Seattle and Burien".

Referring to a summary reached last November by Sound Transit's board, Waterman said, "A high capacity transit connection to West Seattle has the highest ridership and highest time savings compared to any other new suggestion we got. It tops of list." This appeared to excite most attending the meeting.

Chris Arkills, West Seattle resident and Transportation Policy Advisor to King County Executive Dow Constantine, also of West Seattle, told the audience, "Dow is very aware of the need of light rail in the West Seattle area and will do what he can to try to bring it here."

Constantine is also the Sound Transit Board President.

Smith added, "Our King County Executive understands how important West Seattle is to get into the plan."

Michael Taylor-Judd, West Seattle Transportation Coalition board member voiced concerns regarding the criteria used to decide where the new tracks may lay, and asked the panel if social justice issues, in addition to projected ridership numbers and cost figures will be considered.

"Does Sound Transit consider community benefits," he asked. "While running rail to a well-off neighborhood is good and promotes jobs and unclogs busy roads, how does that compare to, say, going to a low income neighborhood where people are really in need of transit and don't have other options?"

Panelist Rule said that, yes, this is a strong component, and referred meeting attendees to the "South King County HCT Corridor Study's Level 2 Evaluation: Key Findings," which states, among other issues, "High potential for equity issues given diverse population groups."

For maps of the six current West Seattle light rail options, estimated costs, and many more details, Google "South King County HTC Corridor Study". Then click on the story. Click "Original Document (PDF)" at top right of photo for 12 pages of information.

Also visit West Seattle Transportation Coalition here:

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.