West Seattle Tunnel-Chasing Is a Bad Idea for Equity and Getting Light Rail Done on Time

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 wsblink@soundtransit.org.

Stephen Fesler contributed to this story.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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I think we should do the project right the first time rather than build an unsightly above ground rail only to tear it down years from now to tunnel underground. Most folks live in west Seattle for the less city like feel and beautiful views. Adding an above ground rail would be unfortunate if a tunnel could be made instead. I grew up in Chicago, and having the el running through neighborhoods created less desirable apartments right next to the rail. It’d be unfortunate if we went same route in beautiful west Seattle.

Michael Taylor-Judd

Here’s a few problems with not continuing to at least study this:

1) We have no idea if it will cost $700 million more than the other alternatives. They’re terrible numbers with limited engineering study.

2) The ridership numbers are also basically made up, using very limited study. These three stations could have overlapping walksheds depending upon their final location. And much of the riderhsip predictions is simply based on the buses going by. However, Metro has repeatedly stated the difficulties of serving an Avalon Station with buses, and the poor walkability of some proposed locations. It is quite likely that current bus routes on 35th Ave will be run towards Alaska Junction in the future anyway. Why not just serve them there?

3) The Port has stated publicly that they are open to considering providing funding for a tunnel — especially if it helps protect Port operations and freight movement.

4) Tunneling could save considerably more than 90 units, especially if a Purple Line avoided taking at least that many units just down in the Youngstown neighborhood.

5) An all-elevated line means running a guideway at 130+ feet in the air across the diverse, low-income, and historically-significant neighborhood of Youngstown. Running across the dell between two ridges suggests significant costs for noise mitigation — certainly more than was spent down in Tukwila. And why the heck did we just spend billions to tear down a viaduct that supporters claimed separated the neighborhood only to build a new one?

Lack Thereof

1) We don’t know it’s exactly 700m, but we do ST has generally been in the in the right ballpark at this phase of studying previous projects. Assuming somewhere in 500-900m is safe and any wiggle there doesn’t really change the fundamental “adds cost, loses riders” calculus.

2) Ridership predictions have been generally equal to or better than ST’s projections for past stations. Ridership at the Avalon station would be driven from walk-ups by people living in the nearby midrise apartments/condos that stretch out to 30th and who today already overload the existing bus stops in the neighborhood. For decades the cities planning has funneled West Seattle’s new density into the Avalon area, with the expectation that new residents there can walk to transit.

3) There is no way a tunnel at the junction has any impact on port operations or freight movement.

4) Purple has been off the table for at least 3 months. The remaining tunnel option is blue, and blue has a diagonal cut across 3 blocks of Youngstown approaching the tunnel entrance that appears to take out more homes in that neighborhood than the all-elevated options, which hug the street grid on Delridge and Genessee, only cutting diagonally across 1 block to make the corner. Blue only preserves homes up in the wealthy neighborhoods on top of the hill, and those at a cost to taxpayers of ~7m each.

5) See #4 – Purple is off the table, and blue is elevated through youngstown anyway. The yellow elevated line is 54′ through the core of youngstown, about the same height as the Bartells office, Youngstown Flats, or the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. It doesn’t bridge the ridges because all remaining options pass to the north of the eastern ridge. The only place yellow hits that crazy 130 foot number is the golf course, and the adjacent housing is all high-dollar gentrified stuff, not the “diverse, historic, low income” core on the west side of the valley. This is where I start saying if you actually want to help diverse low income neighborhoods, you should be thinking about spending this tunnel money on an elevated extension to Westwood Village instead. Also go have a look at the elevated structures Link runs on around the Angle Lake station before you compare them to the Viaduct. When you do it, note how, standing on the sidewalk, you mostly can’t hear the trains over the regular everyday noise of cars on the street. This is a low-speed station approach, not a 60-mph corner like where they built the sound barriers in northeastern tukwila.

Lack Thereof

“west side of the valley” lol that should say east, my kingdom for an edit function

Paul W.

Michael T-J — can you provide a link to the North King subarea budget that’s in the Financial Plan? https://st32.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Document%20Library%20Featured/8-22-16/ST3_Appendix-B_2016_web.pdf According to someone who claims to have seen the recent update, there are several billion dollars of revenues in excess of the projected expenses for the North King subarea. TIA!


Hey Doug,

Thanks for commenting on the article. I edited the piece, and I don’t quite see it as presenting the strong pro-tunnel argument that you have interpreted. I take responsibility if it wasn’t clear, but it’s simply true that an elevated alignment would require more taking of multifamily housing than any other ST project to date. I thought that was an interesting fact and worth reporting on.

Should we upzone the heck out of the station area, regardless? Absolutely, and we’ve argued as much repeatedly. We’re supportive of an elevated alignment and have aired plenty of pro-elevated pieces on the site.

Douglas Trumm

Hi Frank, Yes it’s definitely a worthy subject for reporting. As far as how many homes will need to be taken, I’m not sure I trust the East Alaska Junction Neighborhood Coalition’s estimate over Sound Transit, but it is worth considering whether Altamir or other apartment buildings would fall in the path. More than likely, it’d be worth it to Sound Transit to contour the guideway around such a large building.

i know you published pro-elevated pieces, but I noticed Peter’s last two pieces have seemed to slide more explicitly into the pro-tunnel camp. Totally his prerogative. I just thought it’s worth highlighting there’s more flexibility for elevated lines than implied.

Paul W.

The only way to know one way or the other whether Sound Transit’s projected revenues would be sufficient to cover the costs of a tunnel as part of this Link extension project is to look at the North King subarea’s budget set out in the required Financial Plan. The ST3 measure REQUIRES Sound Transit produce, use, and update annually subarea-by-subarea budgets showing the projected revenues and expenses:


Why does this article not link to the current Financial Plan? Why is nobody from Sound Transit quoted with respect to whether or not sufficient Sound Transit revenues are (or are not) projected to finance the expense of a tunnel as part of this project?

Douglas Trumm

Hi Paul, Sound Transit’s position is cited in some of our other reporting. In short, they’re asking Seattle to come up with third party funding for options that deviate significantly from the Representative Project’s budget estimate (like a $700 million tunnel would). In other words, there isn’t a billion dollars of extra spending money lying around in the North King Subarea budget, hence they’re making it clear third party funding would be needed to add that much to the budget. https://www.theurbanist.org/2019/02/07/sound-transit-tells-electeds-to-secure-funding-to-advance-deluxe-west-seattle-and-ballard-link-options/

Paul W.

Thanks for the response, Doug. You say: “In other words, there isn’t a billion dollars of extra spending money lying around in the North King Subarea budget,” Have you seen the North King subarea budget, the one that is to be updated annually? It is required by the voter-approved ST3 financial policies:


Sounds like you’ve seen the North King subarea budget — provide a link to it, if you don’t mind. I can’t find it, and my requests to see it have gone unanswered. I heard it shows projected revenues exceed projected expenses by several billion dollars.

Paul W.

It’s not so much a desire by the board to “screw West Seattle out of a tunnel.” The board wants to spend all the additional projected revenues on enhancements and extensions to the Downtown-Ballard light rail project. Those would go to areas that could be upzoned and developed MUCH more profitably. That’s where the stakeholders’ pressures are being applied, and locking in the less-expandable southern of the two N. King light rail projects first — at the no-enhancements level — leaves much revenues for spending on the northern one.