Early Planning Coming in 2018 for West Seattle and Ballard Light Rail


Sound Transit is threading together the planning work for light rail between West Seattle and Ballard via Downtown Seattle, despite the corridors destined to be served by separate lines. The Sound Board of Directors met last week to authorize preliminary engineering and award a contract for planning consultant services on the project. The full preliminary engineering budget was set at just over $285.8 million.

HNTB Corporation was selected as the lead consultant for alternatives development, the first of three phases for preliminary engineering. The resolution awarding the $24.4 million contract also stipulates options for HNTB to complete the second and third phases if subsequently approved by the board. The second phase would be dedicated to development of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and conceptual engineering design while the third phase would complete the environmental review process with a Final Environmental Impact Statement and delivery of preliminary engineering drawings.

Process flow for West Seattle and Ballard light rail. (Sound Transit)
Process flow for West Seattle and Ballard light rail. (Sound Transit)

Sound Transit anticipates that the first phase of preliminary engineering will be completed by early 2019, taking approximately 18 months. All three phases of preliminary engineering are projected to wrap up in 2022. At that point, the project would largely remain idle under construction on the West Seattle corridors begins in 2025. Construction on the Ballard corridor would follow two years later in 2027.

These timelines are under Sound Transit 3’s existing financial structure; both mayoral candidates have called for expediting the timelines. Cary Moon proposes to use municipal bonding to fund the projects sooner while Jenny Durkan makes a vaguer pledge about using all the tools. And on the flipside, if anti-transit Republicans continue to control the executive and legislative branches, the lack of federal grants could impact timelines in the other direction.

During the alternatives development process, HNTB will begin project analysis of the Ballard and West Seattle corridors that voters approved last year. The process will consider a variety of factors in alignments and technology, though light rail is already a foregone conclusion. This work will also help begin the scoping process required for analysis in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The two voter-approved corridors are actually composed of three key conceptual segments, which are described in the following:

Conceptual corridors, station locations, and guideway elevation. (Sound Transit)
Conceptual corridors, station locations, and guideway elevation. (Sound Transit)
  • West Seattle to Downtown Seattle. The West Seattle line would open in 2030, a full five years before the Ballard line, running between Alaskan Junction and International District/Chinatown Station. The conceptual alignment anticipates five new stations, four of which would be elevated and just one at-grade. To connect West Seattle with SoDo, a new bridge span over the Duwamish Waterway would be required. Sound Transit has indicated that the bridge would be a high-rise, perhaps similar to the West Seattle Bridge to avoid regular bridge span openings required by large vessels. The line would also need to be elevated over State Route 99 and the Spokane Street Viaduct. In West Seattle, hilly topography is a serious challenge to rail, which is why the conceptual alignment envisions an elevated segment traversing Delridge Way SW and SW Genesee St to skirt around some of the steepest and most challenging portions of the West Seattle peninsula.
  • New Downtown Seattle tunnel. A new Downtown Seattle tunnel would be required as part of The proposed Ballard line necessitates a new Downtown Seattle tunnel since capacity in the existing one would be consumed by train operations of two other lines. A third line would heavily limit frequency across all lines. The conceptual alignment is very rough, but would travel between Chinatown-International District and South Lake Union. The tunnel would likely connect to the existing International District/Chinatown Station, but be located below or to the side of the existing station box. Four tentative station locations have been identified, including a new Midtown station in the downtown office core and connecting station to Westlake Station. The tunnel north of Chinatown-International District could be placed under Fifth and Sixth Avenues, which are are two to three block east of the existing tunnel, and then continue on Westlake Avenue to Denny Way.
  • South Lake Union to Ballard. The Ballard line would open in 2035 connecting up with the new Downtown Seattle tunnel and terminating in central Ballard. The line would wrap around Interbay and serve the soon-to-be Expedia campus at Smith Cove. The line would be mix of two underground station and three elevated stations.The terminal in central Ballard is expected to be around 15th Ave NW and NW Market St as an elevated station allowing future expansion north and east. To reach Ballard, a new crossing of Salmon Bay would be required. Sound Transit has indicated that a new rail-only movable bridge span would be constructed near the Ballard Bridge, but environmental concerns like fish kills of protected salmonid species (referred to as “take” by the National Marine Fisheries Service), regular and substantial delay to passengers, and challenging property acquisitions make that proposition highly suspect. The analysis will likely need to consider an underground crossing and a fixed high bridge, as Seattle Subway has suggested.

The first set of public meetings on potential alternatives will begin in early 2018. Feedback provided through this outreach process will then be used to evaluate tradeoffs between alternatives. This first phase will be highly important in guiding the direction of process since Sound Transit will take that information and return with another round of meetings in early 2019 to share findings. At that time, the public will again have an opportunity to weigh in before the agency moves forward with identifying a preferred alternative and other alternatives to be evaluated in greater detail through the Draft Environmental Impact Statement process. The key takeaway here is that feedback in 2018 will be critical for those who want to see an alignment reflecting their vision for a 100-year-or-more regional light rail system.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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Mike Carr

Station placements need to be out in the neighborhoods to connect all of Seattle to different parts of the City. That is the best way to help move people around the city and to actually use light rail. No one knows what North Seattle, NW Seattle, NE Seattle would be like in 20 years if they all had light rail access to the downtown and other parts of the City. Too much focus on more stations in today’s City. Light rail will transform neighborhoods if they had access. Let’s not use all our funds and resources to grow light rail in a small geographic area of the city (Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods), way too limiting of use for most people. If you want to grow the housing in areas which have room, provide light rail to move the people around the city not just Downtown.


Speaking of station placement, there is little talk of where to put them. Again, this is the critical part of any subway system (and far more important than how the trains get from Interbay to Ballard). There are several subtle choices that have to be made and it is important that we do it right, otherwise, we might end up with yet another awful station (https://seattletransitblog.com/2012/04/18/the-awfulness-of-mt-baker-station/). Just to run down the stations (using the map as a guide):

Midtown — As mentioned, this is a very important station. The farther up the hill it is moved, the less redundant it will be. If you put it all the way to Boren, then it won’t take any riders from the other two stations, which means it is essentially serving a different neighborhood. But even moving it up to 9th would be a step in the right direction. This will likely be a cost/benefit trade-off, but it is essential that folks at ST realize the benefit from moving the station east.

Denny — Denny and Westlake is very close to Westlake Station. Eventually, buses will cross Aurora on Harrison, and when they do, they will probably stop using Denny. Ideally the station would be east a bit, and serve Fairview and Harrison. That would move the station away from the others, while connecting really well to the Roosevelt HCT and the 8.

South Lake Union — They show this station as being within spitting distance of the Denny Station, which doesn’t make sense. This should be at Aurora and Harrison. That would enable easy transfers to buses heading either north-south (the E) or east-west (the 8, running on Harrison). Putting this stop at Harrison may mean that putting the other stop on Denny isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The big drawback then becomes not lack of connections with the buses, but simply having the stops be too close to each other. For example, assume that one stop is at Denny and Westlake, while the other is at Harrison and Aurora. Now assume I am standing at Westlake Center, and want to head somewhere north. Most of the time, I will just walk, or catch a bus. South of Denny, it makes sense to walk. North of Denny, but east of 9th, I think I’ll just walk. Taking one stop only a bit farther north just isn’t worth it. Unless I am headed pretty far north and close to Aurora (or farther west) then I will just walk, while keeping my eye out for a bus headed the same direction. That first stop is just too close to bother with.

If we can move the “Denny” station to the north and east, while sliding the “South Lake Union” station west (to Aurora) then the stops become a lot more useful (and less redundant).

Seattle Center — This is simple: It should not be inside the Center, but someplace like 1st and Mercer. If you are headed to the Seattle Center itself, you have another option (the monorail). More to the point, if you are headed to the Seattle Center itself, then distance isn’t that important, and much of the time, there is no central destination. If you are attending an infrequent event (e. g. Folklife) then anywhere in the general area is OK. If you are transferring from a bus, however, or walking from the neighborhood, then spending extra time getting to the station is time away from your life every single time you want to go somewhere. Far more people in the neighborhood (or transferring from buses) will use this stop than will attend events at the Seattle Center.

Smith Cove — Pretty straightforward.

Interbay — Pretty straightforward, although bus integration is important, if not essential. This will be a major transfer point for all buses from Magnolia, as well as buses serving SPU (and likely Fremont). It is likely those will be combined (as is the case with the 31/32). Those buses will likely cross over on Dravus, which means the station should be designed so that a bus can stop right under the train, and folks can walk up the stairs (or elevator) to the platform. There are stations like this in Vancouver BC (https://goo.gl/maps/gHdb5JV3GYt).

Ballard — The key element here is that the station should be designed so that it can eventually accommodate an east-west line (from 24th Ave NW to the UW).

Anyway, that is my take.


I’m pretty sure the two south lake union stations and the seattle center
stations have always been planned to be at roughly the locations you are
suggesting. I think this map is just vague

I’ve definitely seen a 99 and Harrison station spelled out somewhere on this blog before…


A movable bridge would not result in “regular and substantial delay to passengers”. To begin with, it will never be open during rush hour. Second, it will be substantially higher than our highest drawbridge (Ballard). As a result, it won’t open very often, and again, never at rush hour. The trains won’t run very often outside of rush hour (six minutes at best) which means that at worst, you would have a three minute gap that would allow for an opening. In all likelihood, you would have twice that, but even three minutes is plenty of time for a large ship (likely under tow) to clear the gap. It is unlikely if anyone will ever be delayed, and if they are, they will consider themselves lucky (“Huh, why is the train moving so slowly? Oh, hey it is a tall ship, for Seafair! Cool.”).

This really is yet another example of why our system is so flawed. There is an obsession over the tracks, while we ignore far more important things, like connectivity and station placement. Even the decision to go above ground (instead of on the surface) was flawed. That cost a lot of money, and we get very little for it (this isn’t like MLK, where you have a lot of crossings). But as long as we have an agency and public advocates arguing for the wrong things, we get a substandard system.

Of course a movable bridge is less than ideal, but I can think of several things I would rather have first, including:

1) A station at Madison and Boren, as mentioned by Owen. This would be huge. It would completely change the nature of the tunnel. Instead of a redundant line, built because we didn’t feel like improving the headways in our main line, it provides real added value. Someone would actually transfer to get to that stop. It would place you close to the middle of the frequent Madison BRT, as well as within easy walking distance of the hospitals and offices that are difficult to get to right now. It could also lead to a frequent bus along Boren, which would greatly enhance the transit system in the area.

2) New stops at 65th and 85th NW.

Either one of these things would be much better than a high bridge or a tunnel. If you want to argue for something that costs extra money, then please, argue for those.

Owen Wagenhals

The “Midtown” station should be at Madison & Boren.