Link light rail. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

West Seattle really wants a tunnel have you heard? While that desire been clear for a good while, no serious funding plans for the tunnel option–which would cost at least $700 million more–have materialized.

The latest idea from the Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG) was to study an option that abandons plans for a station at Avalon to help fund tunneling and an underground Alaska Junction station. This alternative may indeed trim the cost of the tunnel option, but it would also risk a lawsuit for backing out on the original list of stations promised to voters.

Cutting a station also would sacrifice ridership, since the Avalon station was expected to get 4,200 daily boardings and not all of them would necessarily switch to other stations. “Average weekday boardings are estimated to be 4,200 (in 2042) at each of the stations,” Sound Transit spokesperson Scott Thompson said. “Modeled boardings were similar for both the elevated and tunnel station options.” Increasing costs and decreasing ridership would really drive up cost per rider, which would make federal grants harder to get.

The SAG also proposed an alternative that keeps an underground Avalon station, but requiring a massive infusion of third party funding. No one has been able to explain where this money realistically would be obtained.

Finding a Pot of Gold

Councilmember Lisa Herhold recently said we should raid the “shopping shuttle” budget. When people realized what she meant by shopping shuttle (turned out to be her nickname for the Center City Connector streetcar project), they were still scratching their heads over how you salvage $700 million from a $200 million transit project attached to an $80 million utility project when most of the costs are sunk or not fungible because they are grants. And nevermind the kind of additional ridership that the streetcar project alone would generate nearly equal that of the Avalon and Alaska Junction stations combined for a small fraction of the tunnel cost.

Another frequent ‘why don’t they fund this’ candidate, the Port of Seattle, also has given no indication they’d fund Alaska Junction’s quixotic quest. The other subareas of the Sound Transit District appear to have no interest whatsoever in tightening their belts or jeopardizing their timelines to cross-subsidize West Seattle’s tunnel.

On Friday, the Elected Leadership Group will weigh in with their own recommendations, and possibly echo SAG recommendations in doing so. An alliance calling themselves Transit Access Stakeholders coalition also submitted a letter that urged further study of a tunnel option in addition to the elevated options on the table. This led Peter Johnson at Seattle Transit Blog to declare broad consensus backing tunneling to Alaska Junction. More precisely, many referenced stakeholders endorsed studying tunnel options rather than expressly preferring tunneling to elevated a priority and regardless of costs and tradeoffs.

Why Not Use the Money to Extend to White Center?

While delaying its ultimate demise might suit some folks, a West Seattle rail tunnel would be misguided considering how much money it would take. We’ve made the case before that, if we do succeed in securing a ton of new funding, the best use for it in West Seattle would be extending light rail south, picking up neighborhoods like Morgan Junction, High Point, Westwood Village, and White Center. We believe equity is better served by bolstering transit to the diverse lower-income communities farther south rather than simply giving Alaska Junction a gold-plated option.

The underlying issue is that underground light rail stations cost much more than elevated stations–two to three times as much typically–and tunneling and station work is more time-consuming which might ultimately delay West Seattle Link. Sound Transit has warned as much. Likewise, extending light rail to High Point, Westwood Village and White Center becomes a more expensive proposition under a tunnel alternative. An elevated option could reach those locations more economically, making light rail extension more feasible.

A preliminary study estimated the cost of an elevated light rail line from Alaska Junction to Burien would cost about $2.8 billion in 2014 dollars. Since about half the length of that line is from White Center to Burien, reaching White Center may cost something like $1.5 billion–not that much more than some of the West Seattle tunnel options.

There are cases where tunneling makes more sense than elevated rail. Sometimes, building an elevated guideway would run into constraints related to topography, astronomical property acquisition costs, or other technical operational challenges. That isn’t the case in West Seattle. Even if land costs are high, there’s no way the extra cost approaches $700 million. Sound Transit has estimated tunneling could save as many as 90 units from demolition–meaning the cost per unit saved by tunneling would be more than $7 million.

The Transit-Oriented Development Debate

Johnson at Seattle Transit Blog argued the tunnel alternative is more supportive of transit-oriented development, but at this point that is speculative. Numerous counterexamples exist of transit-oriented development (TOD) pairing really well with elevated rail–some of which were offered in the Twitter replies to the post.

As you can see above, it’s quite possible to integrate housing with a rapid transit station even if it’s elevated. While Johnson channeled Councilmember Lisa Herbold in emphasizing that an elevated guideway could take “land out of play” in Alaska Junction, this likely would be a temporary condition localized to the immediate vicinity. Once the guideway is completed, dense buildings could be constructed adjacent to the track, contouring to it as necessary.

Even with tunneling, transit-oriented development requires patience. Capitol Hill Station TOD has also been a learning experience in how long building housing on top of an underground station can take. The station has been a construction site for well over a decade, open to light rail riders for three years, and the housing still won’t open until late this year at best. The Capitol Hill Station complex will be a wonderful addition when it opens, but elevated rail could accomplish the same thing.

Northgate is going to get a large TOD project, possibly include 24-story towers. Would West Seattle back zoning like this? (Credit: VIA Architecture)

While one can play up that an elevated rail comes with fewer equitable transit-oriented development opportunities, this isn’t written in stone. Thanks to a 2018 surplus land policy change, Sound Transit can offer surplus land to non-profit housing developers at little or no cost to create affordable housing, furthering equitable TOD. The argument is that underground stations are better at supporting equitable TOD because they require buying lots of land to allow the station to be excavated, land which can then be surplussed. However, the planned TOD near Northgate offers a clear example that elevated stations and affordable housing can go together.

Sound Transit and its partners could just buy land near stations to support equitable TOD whether or not there is $700 million worth of tunneling involved. In fact, it might be simpler to do so, and not doing the $700 million tunnel option may free up budgets for such purposes. Building social housing near light rail stations should be a high priority, but tunneling is hardly the only way to do it.

You can comment on West Seattle light rail plans be emailing

Stephen Fesler contributed to this story.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.