Despite ongoing legal woes, the City’s current Preferred Alternative for completing the Burke-Gilman Trail remains the most feasible option for getting the job (finally) done.
On the surface it might appear to be an ingenious solution to a problem that has belabored Seattle politics for over three decades. Construct an elevated trail over the infamous “Missing Link” of the Burke-Gilman Trail, where pedestrians, cyclists, and freight trucks currently compete in a mad scramble on the right of way for nearly a mile and a half. To proponents of the so-called “Ballard High Line,” one of whom is District 6 City Council candidate (and former councilmember) Heidi Wills, an elevated trail promoted by Ballard resident Russell Bennet offers a novel solution.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch. A big one.
When the City published its Burke Gilman Trail Missing Link Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 2017, the concept of an elevated trail was specifically addressed:
This [elevated] alternative was eliminated from further consideration as there is insufficient space to construct a facility that would meet fire code and ADA requirements due to existing development. Additionally, the ramps (at a 5% maximum grade) needed to access an elevated trail would be a minimum of 75 feet long and would require additional right-of-way, greatly reducing the advantages of elevating the trail in proportion to making it accessible to users. Furthermore, the cost estimate to construct an elevated structure of sufficient length to avoid potential conflicts along Shilshole Ave NW or other segments would be 400 to 500% higher than an at-grade structure.Burke-Gilman Trail Missing Link EIS, SDOT, May 2017
Now for the supporters of the Ballard Highline, including Wills, the fact that the EIS excluded an elevated alternative from consideration is not a reason to step away from the concept. In fact according to a post by the page author, presumably Bennett, on the Ballard Highline Facebook page, a flaw in SDOT’s EIS is that “…it looks at the effects on existing users [freight drivers] and not on those of prospective users [trail users] as well.” According to their line of thought, freight traffic from the three business driveways that intersect with the Preferred Alternative route will be disruptive and frustrating to trail users, something that was not taken into consideration by the EIS, which likely assumed that trail users would be happier on designated multi-use trail than weaving between freight vehicles on a No Build alternative.
“I can easily imagine the fist shaking and cursing confrontations between bicyclists and ‘existing users’ entering/exiting their properties. Is that really the solution we want? I would much rather hear elevated pathway users grousing about diesel fumes from trucks that haven’t yet converted to electric power,” Ballard Highline posted.
Such a response completely ignores the fact that site simply lacks the necessary space to build an elevated trail.
The issue of cost is also downplayed by supporters. In a follow up post on the Ballard Highline page, Wills presents the notion that constructing an elevated trail might offer cost savings in the long run because of the industrial jobs it would preserve. This statement is problematic on a couple levels. Firstly, it assumes that construction of the trail would result in the loss of jobs, a claim that has not been upheld by the economic analysis (FEIS) completed by the City.
It also fails to take into consideration how steep the cost would be. Wills admits that it would cost more to complete today than the $15 million it was estimated to complete back when she was in office 16 years go. Yet presenting $15 million makes the project seem more budget friendly than it would actually be. The current price tag for the trail’s extension alone is $7.2 million and an elevated option has been projected to cost 400-500% more. Wills has suggested a local improvement district could pay for the elevated trail and that industrial businesses would be willing to pay it to keep the trail from intersecting their driveways. However, it’s hard to count on that going forward as the price tag rises, particularly when these same businesses have already used process to delay the project for decades. Is this just another delay tactic?
But what might be most important is that while Wills and Bennett have argued for an elevated trail, the same industrial businesses that have opposed the Preferred Alternative have presented a different option, a protected bike lane (or cycle track) on Leary Way NW.
It’s likely that these industrial businesses would ultimately oppose an elevated trail, as they have opposed all discussion of a trail on Shilshole. And even if the businesses did not present opposition, the process of designing an elevated trail would require a new EIS and lots of public engagement on design concepts, all which would push back the project completion date by years and open up new avenues for legal disputes.
So what about that cycle track on Leary?
Just like the elevated trail, a cycle track on Leary Way seems promising… at first. A coalition of local businesses, mostly from the industrial sector, have created a website called Ballard Cycle Track, which promotes the ideas of building a cycle track, or protected bike lane on Leary.
Ballard Cycle Track promotes their concepts as a safer, better connected route than the City’s Preferred Alternative on Shilshole. Unfortunately, the cycle track concept focuses heavily on bike traffic, downplaying why the City also excluded the concept in their EIS.
A protected bicycle lane does not provide accommodations for pedestrians or other nonmotorized users of all abilities. Pedestrians and other nonmotorized users would have to use an adjacent sidewalk. This type of facility does not meet the project objective of completing the multi-use trail through the study area. It would not maintain the feel of the existing trail on either side of the Missing Link, and would put people running or skating onto a sidewalk, which introduces potential conflicts with people gathering or milling about on sidewalks, or entering or exiting buildings.Burke-Gilman Trail Missing Link EIS, SDOT, May 2017
In addition to not fulfilling the promise of creating a multi use trail, the creation of a cycle track on Leary would result in a loss of parking on that street and complicate bus traffic through the corridor. While the Ballard Cycle Track website identifies coalition members on Shilshole and Ballard Avenue, the coalition does not identify a single supporting business on either Leary or Market where the cycle track would run. Lack of public support from impacted businesses indicates the City could have another prolonged fight, or at least rigorous public engagement process, on it hands if it pursues a Leary Alternative.
Another weakness of the Leary Alternative is that it would pass through more intersections, which would increase the project’s price tag. Given all of the complications that would need to be factored into the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), it is likely that a Leary Alternative would take years to study, design, and implement- all at a higher cost and with risk of new legal challenges.
District 6 candidate Dan Strauss has promoted a Leary Alternative during his campaign; however, his position differs from that of the Ballard Cycle Track coalition. Strauss believes that it is time for Ballard’s entire transportation network to be reconfigured for higher density urban environment. “Just building protected bike lanes is an insufficient solution,” said Strauss, who has promoted pedestrianizing Ballard Avenue and creating transit only lanes on Leary and Market Street through Ballard to improve connections Downtown Seattle.
Strauss’s vision for Leary and Market Street also includes a fifteen foot multi-use trail and improved sidewalks. These new facilities would be designed to integrate into Ballard Avenue pedestrian street and existing Burke-Gilman Trail.
Strauss admits that he has not yet engaged with businesses on Leary and Market which would be impacted by the changes to get their feedback and that his plans involve a significant loss of on street parking, something he is not too worried about.
“15 years on street parking was critical and that’s changed, Strauss said. “When I look into the future, I see a different use of the downtown [Ballard] streets than we have had in the past.”
Finishing the Burke-Gilman trail is personal for Strauss, who spent four days at Harborview Hospital after being struck on his bicycle in Ballard. “If the Missing Link had been completed, I would not have gotten hit,” said Strauss.
At the same time, Strauss’s campaign has been endorsed by six different labor organizations, including the Teamsters Local 117, a member of the Ballard Cycle Track coalition. The only other candidate to receive notable endorsement from labor is Jay Fathi, who has also expressed tentative support for a Leary Alternative.
Okay, what about the Preferred Alternative?
In spring of 2018, current District 6 Councilmember Mike O’Brien was thrown out of an after party for the opening of the Nordic Museum because of his support for the City’s Preferred Alternative for completing the trail, which runs on Shilshole Avenue Northwest.
Yes, in some circles the Preferred Alternative is that controversial. But the Preferred Alternative, which runs on Shilshole Avenue NW, also is likely the only viable solution for completing the Missing Link.
Numerous studies and public outreach campaigns have supported the selection of Shilshole Avenue NW for the Missing Link; in fact, according to SDOT in the over 4,400 comments received on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), 77% of respondents noted a preference for the Preferred Alternative over proposed routes on Ballard Avenue or Leary Avenue.
“For more than sixteen years every mayoral administration has come to the same conclusion about the [Shilshole Avenue NW] route,” said Kevin Carrabine of Friends of Burke-Gilman Trail. Carrabine, who has been advocating for the completion of the trail since 1997, believes that the evidence shows that the Preferred Alternative would increase safety conditions for everyone using the corridor.
The Preferred Alternative is also a shovel ready project that is already underway on Market Street. A shift to any other alternative, elevated, cycle track, or otherwise, would require years to get to one hundred percent design and then even longer to build.
Yet, just like the elevated trail and cycle track, the Preferred Alternative also has its own problem. Endless legal battles. A group of Ballard businesses has fought the completion of the Missing Link for decades, and they show no sign of backing down.
Recently, things had been looking on the upswing for the project, but then on July 2nd, Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff issued a clarifying ruling that halted construction of the Missing Link.
For the supporters of completing the Burke Gilman Trail through Ballard, Rogoff’s ruling is unwelcome development, but it may not spell out the victory that some of the trail’s opponents have claimed it to be. The City of Seattle and Cascade Bicycle Club are currently engaged in a legal appeal that would nullify Rogoff’s recent ruling. But that appeal might not settle matters either.
“Even if the city wins its appeal, I won’t be ready to declare victory until the last cubic foot of asphalt is dry,” wrote Tom Fucoloro in the Seattle Bike Blog, explaining that opponents will likely continue to fight construction of the trail until they run out of “legal avenues or money.”
In the meantime, SDOT has begun construction of the “Market Phase” of its Ballard Multimodal Corridor project, which includes extension of the Burke-Gilman Trail among other road safety improvements.
Construction projects related to roadway, utility, and drainage updates have already made Market Street between 30th Avenue NW and 24th Avenue NW a headache to navigate for the many residents, businesses, and commuters who rely on the corridor.
Although the current Market Phase work is technically independent of the Missing Link, these improvements were planned for completion around projects related to the Burke-Gilman Trail. Stopping all activity related to the Missing Link could result in additional delay for the entire corridor project.
Update: Since this post was originally published on July 10th, Dan Strauss reached out to The Urbanist and provided some additional details on his concept for a Leary Way NW alternative for the Missing Link. Those details are now included in the post.
Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.