Sound Transit Reveals Big Jump in Cost Estimates for Ballard and West Seattle Link

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Elevated light rail with pylons next to a street in Northgate.
In 2024, Link will extend to Lynnwood on elevated guideway similar to the Northgate approach. (Photo by author)

Sound Transit is projecting an additional $4 billion in costs for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. The projected cost of the two lines jumped from $7.9 billion in 2019 to $12.1 billion–a jump exceeding 50%. The agency revealed the bad news at the Sound Transit Board meeting yesterday and blamed skyrocketing costs for land acquisition, labor, and construction materials. In fact, property costs alone jumped $2.13 billion–a 263% increase.

While the Ballard and West Seattle light rail extension numbers were the most dramatic, all Sound Transit 3 light rail lines are seeing cost escalations. The Tacoma Dome Link Extension costs have climbed from $2.4 billion in 2015 to $3.3 billion as of the update yesterday. The culprit there is the agency’s determination that an extra three miles of elevated rather than at-grade rail will be needed due to concerns about drainage and disrupting indigenous burial sites as the route passes through the Puyallup Reservation.

The presentation didn’t detail Everett Link or Issaquah Link cost projections, but noted they had taken a hit as well. On a positive note, Sound Transit 2 remains on track with 62 miles of light rail expected to be open by 2024, with Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link opening then and East Link a year earlier in 2023. Northgate Link will open later this year, and revolutionize transit in North Seattle, even if King County Metro’s bus restructure fell victim to budget cuts.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff tried to assure the board. “While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” he said, suggesting the plan could be fine-tuned and scope adjusted to control costs.

Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley cited transit project examples from San Francisco, San José, and Los Angeles to show rapidly escalating construction costs are an issue regionwide. In a official memo, Farley described how Sound Transit arrived at the new estimates and laid out next steps.

“Given this cost growth, I have initiated an independent assessment of Sound Transit’s updated cost estimates and underlying methodologies,” Farley said. “It will include a focus on what actions Sound Transit can take to reduce costs and update its estimating approaches going forward. The independent assessment will be completed in sufficient time to inform the upcoming capital program realignment process.”

Over-engineering is partially to blame

Some of Sound Transit’s cost escalation is unavoidable; the agency can’t control how much building materials cost or construction contractors charge. They can’t prevent Trump from starting a trade war and increasing the cost of steel with his tariffs. Nonetheless, a portion of the spiking costs seems to be attributable to Sound Transit over-engineering stations and guideway to require greater, more expensive property acquisition than is really necessary.

The presentation’s prime example with West Seattle Link illustrates the point. The agency says they expect they’ll need to acquire three brand new apartment buildings on Fauntleroy Way to site the station and track for the Alaska Junction Station. Doing so is projected to cost approximately $250 million and require relocating 306 households, the agency said.

The planned path of West Seattle Link is mapped onto a satellite image of the intersection of Fauntleroy Way SW and SW Alaska St.
The planned path of West Seattle Link is mapped onto a satellite image of the intersection of Fauntleroy Way SW and SW Alaska St. (Sound Transit)

However, better contouring the alignment to Fauntleroy Way SW would likely avoid demolishing these new apartments and save upwards $250 million. Fitting the guideway and station into the Fauntleroy right-of-way and the lower-value properties to the north–a Shell gas station and Les Schwab tire center–appears doable. Since it’s near a station, trains would not be moving quickly at this point.

Seven story apartments abut the busy 80-foot arterial Fauntleroy Way.
Sound Transit had hoped these parcels would remain cheap and low-slung, but they have redeveloped to seven-story apartment complexes totally 306 homes in all due to high housing demand. (Credit: Sound Transit)

A station needs to have straight track, so, if this can’t be arranged at the SW Alaska St intersection, a simple fix would be to site just to the south or north along (or straddling) Fauntleroy Way, avoiding the kink. Fauntleroy Way right-of-way is 90 feet wide north of Alaska Street and 80 feet south of it. It’s a wide street that can accommodate elevated rail in its envelope and a station too–though Sound Transit will need to acquire property for staging regardless.

A satellite image of West Seattle Junction at the Fauntleroy "kink" at Alaska Street.
This is the turn that is causing Sound Transit’s headaches as engineers insist on plowing through 306 apartments to make the turn. (Google Maps)

The Urbanist has reached out to Sound Transit to inquire why the agency isn’t avoiding these three costly properties by tightening the turn. Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick did offer a general statement, but a full response is still pending.

“The Board has selected preferred alternatives for much of the alignment, other alternatives are also being studied as part of the current work to publish a Draft Environmental Impact Statement,” Patrick said in an email. “And the Board won’t select the final alternative to be built until after publishing a Final Environmental Impact Statement. Those three parcels are in play because of the specific alternative that intersects with that location.”

“We always try to minimize impacts to property,” public information officer Rachelle Cunningham added.

While $250 million is only 6% of the $4 billion cost escalation, if this is a pattern and other stations and guideway have been over-engineered to require expensive property acquisition, then it could add up. Like Alaska Junction, Ballard is booming and the station area imagined near 14th Avenue NW and NW Market Street has seen large buildings go in too, as has Interbay near W Dravus Street. It’s a good problem to have to know that light rail will serve a dense and growing neighborhood, but it does make property acquisition more expensive and fraught.

Property costs and construction costs have continued to spike in Seattle right through the recession, so it’s hard to imagine a respite any time soon. Prime properties won’t be getting any cheaper, as King County Executive Dow Constantine argued, saying we must forge ahead.

Fodder for opponents of elevated light rail

Some West Seattleites’ dream of tunneling the light rail line to reduce the “eyesore” and noise. Others are pushing to replace rail with a gondola to lower costs and add whimsy. Elevated rail remains the more expandable and best fit, especially if the land acquisition pickle can be solved. That said, obviously $4 billion in added costs will bolster the case for alternatives, as the West Seattle SkyLink group was quick to note.

Sound Transit’s estimated that a tunnel alignment would add at least $700 million in costs and require third-party funding. (An additional $200 million Pigeon Point tunnel has already been eliminated.) The cost differential between elevated and tunnel alignment may have gotten smaller with this news from Sound Transit, but a tunnel is likely still much pricier–and would continue to be as light rail ultimately extends south toward Burien and points between.

A gondola, on the other hand, while cheaper doesn’t offer sufficient capacity or expandability to meet West Seattle’s needs long-term. Sound Transit projects West Seattle Link will get 35,000 daily riders when it opens–ostensibly in 2031. One of the busiest gondola line in the world appears to be the Line K in Medellín, Colombia with upwards of 30,000 daily riders. Gondolas come more often but are also much smaller than a traincar, which means queuing lines still develop, especially at peak times. Apparently the line to catch a K in mountainous barrio of Santo Domingo Savio can stretch to 45 minutes at peak, but the locals are content to wait since the alternative before the gondola was buses that took two and a half hours to switchback down the mountain. It’s hard to imagine a West Seattleite waiting 45 minutes for a gondola.

Political considerations

The Sound Transit Board has some tough decisions to make. The added costs would mean slower timelines unless revenue picks up or is added. Likely, some suburban legislators will renew their harangues against Seattle light rail lines they see as expensive and less essential than the “spine” from Everett to Tacoma.

Mayor Jenny Durkan complained about transparency, but she raised a good point that boardmembers should be flexible in siting stations to avoid particularly costly locations to buy land.

“Some of this information obviously was available at a time when we should have had it while we were deciding and approving increased costs for projects over the last year,” Durkan said.

Some cost cutters may also press the case for bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of light rail. The bright spot of the cost update news, is both BRT projects are under budget. For SR-522 BRT, the primary reason for being 17% under budget is jettisoning the Woodinville section of the line and cutting back other elements of project scope.

For I-405 BRT, piggybacking on some Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) highway widening projects helped save Sound Transit some money. However, the drawback is that station like Kirkland’s NE 85th Street Station are nestled with 18 lanes of traffic at a busy interchange–not terribly conducive to growing a neighborhood around the station let alone providing a pleasant place for riders to wait and transfer or walk to their destination.

Part of the challenge for transit planners is to put stations where people want to live. People don’t want to live right next to a freeway if they have a choice, and there’s ample evidence doing so is bad for human health, with road pollution linked to elevated rates of asthma, for example. Bus rapid transit is relatively cheap when operating within existing highway right-of-way, but it can’t solve that problem when doing so.

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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.

8 COMMENTS

  1. It is worth noting that the current plans are not only over budget, but worse than what was approved. For example, the station at West Seattle Junction would be five minutes and an unpleasant walk away from the junction — the cultural center of West Seattle. That means a typical walk to a bar or club would take even longer. This would cut into ridership, as only those who live in the area would ride the train (unlike, say, the Capitol Hill Station, where thousands use it from around the region).

    Ballard is worse. 15th was a stretch, at the edge of Ballard — 14th is outside it. Keep in mind, this is before any cost cutting, which would likely make things worse.

    In contrast, the center of the line (the tunnel) is far less controversial. The stations (from Lower Queen Anne to SoDo) are more straightforward. They could still cut corners and put the stations in bad places, but in general the cost overruns are smaller, and the route less problematic.

    The obvious answer is open BRT. Take advantage of the freeways (and throughways) but without freeway stations. It would start with a new rail-convertible bus tunnel, with all of the stops now being planned. That alone would greatly improve the speed of every bus that used the tunnel, while creating new one-seat rides (e. g. just about everywhere in West Seattle to South Lake Union or Lower Queen Anne). Those in the tunnel have much better frequency. Those outside have a one-seat ride. For many — if not most — it would be much better.

    At the same time, it allows for expansion into West Seattle, Ballard, or beyond. But such expansion would be done right. Instead of 15th NW — or worse yet, the currently “preferred” option of 14th — we would put a station at 20th, underground, in the heart of Ballard. We wouldn’t be cutting corners, trying to fit a project that is too big for the budget. We could also build something different — such as Ballard to UW, or a Metro 8 tunnel — ideas that make more sense for the region (https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/01/11/ballard-spur-and-metro-8-subway-serve-seattle-better-than-interbay-light-rail/).

    Other bus improvements could follow. While a bus from West Seattle is largely in its own lane, there is an awkward weave, and occasional congestion as a result. This could be improved with a relatively small amount of money. Similarly, the bus stop at Dravus takes a while to serve, but an underground stop wouldn’t be that expensive. Finally, the ramps to the Ballard Bridge could be extended, to allow buses to get to the front of the bridge. That would allow a bus to avoid the congestion that comes from an opening (which are much worse than the time spent waiting for the bridge to close). This would come with improvements to the bike infrastructure to the bridge. By no means would this be cheap, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the cost of building a two brand new bridges, with brand new stops.

    While the stops would be different than the original bus tunnel, the same argument laid out a while ago still applies: https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/02/18/westside-seattle-transit-tunnel/. We don’t have the money to build a good line from Ballard to West Seattle any time soon, if ever. Rather than building a bad line (which wouldn’t be here for a very long time) we should build a rail-convertible bus tunnel now, and expand it later.

  2. The first question is whether ST will have the funding to run rail to West Seattle and Ballard, and if not what the options are.

    It is important to understand this is a North King Co.subarea issue. The other subareas I believe have the funding for their projects. Snohomish, Pierce and South King Couny subareas have much less expensive projects, and the East King Co. subarea has too much money.

    The increased cost estimates for land, construction and soft costs are not a surprise to many. ST’s dilemma was to sell ST 2 and 3 to a skeptical region and subareas based on uniform tax rates necessary to fund the projects in the North King Co. subarea, which includes lines to Snohomish Co. and the S. King Co. border. As a result ST underestimated the tax rates to complete these projects to sell ST 2 and 3 while raising too much revenue in East King Co.

    The bigger — and unanticipated — issue is projected declines in ridership and general fund revenues due to working from home, which should affect Seattle and the North King Co. subarea the most due to reduced commuters. Based on revenue declines alone ST has extended the West Seattle and Ballard lines five years.

    If the N. KC subarea is to complete all its rail projects it will need more funding, and probably more economical construction. However I doubt the ST taxing district will pass a ST 4 to build lines to West Seattle or Ballard, and.a specific North KC subarea levy, if allowed, would be very large, 6 to 10 times Move Seattle, maybe more depending on federal aid that goes to all subareas,, and could exhaust Seattle’s taxing capacity for other issues for decades.

    Subarea equity prohibits using ST tax revenue raised in one subarea for another, although that rule is fudged. For example the Eastside subarea pays 100% of the East/west buses that will cost nearly $1 billion by the time East Link opens. The only subarea with extra reserves is East KC, and although extravagant at $4.5 billion I doubt Issaquah will give its line to Kirkland (really Rose Hill) to West Seattle.

    Personally I think this discussion highlights why I think ST has it backwards.

    A rail line to West Seattle is nothing but a stub at the eastern end of the bridge until a second line is completed to Ballard. But both lines depend on a second transit tunnel through Seattle, especially with East Link frequency.

    The tunnel was estimated to cost $2.2 billion in ST 3. N. KC will pay 1/2 and the four other subareas will pay half. The line is suppose to run under 5th Ave. although steep elevation changes will require very deep stations at great cost.

    I have always thought the cost estimate for the second transit tunnel was the most underestimated cost in ST 3. After recent tunneling projects in the region I think running a second tunnel under 5th Ave. would be closer to $4 billion, and other than the Eastside subarea the other subareas don’t have an extra $2 billion, certainly to allow rail to West Seattle or Ballard.

    What can be done begins with the second transit tunnel, although ST does not want to face that reality. My guess is Issaquah, West Seattle and Ballard will end up with express buses, but that will still require a second transit tunnel unless Seattle wants an at grade line through downtown.

    If cost overruns and reduced revenues will force cuts the tunnel is still the primary project, whether for rail someday or buses in 2035. Commuters in Issaquah are not going to be happy with a bus intercept that adds a transfer and seat to their commute when East Link opens, and residents in West Seattle won’t see the benefit of a rail line that ends somewhere south of SODO. Buses are the better transit for each, although a rail line has cachet. But my guess is East Link will not be the game changer on the Eastside ST predicts and ridership will be around 1/2 the 50,000 daily riders ST predicted for 2030.

    The true cost and feasibly of the second transit tunnel will tell us what is doable and what is feasible, and ST needs to be more transparent on the real costs of such a massive project. Look for communities served by bridges watching these ST “revelations” to continue to insist no loss of car capacity in any new bridge, even with promised rail. I would, at least until the second transit tunnel was completed, and I could see how much revenue the North KC subarea has left over.

  3. La Paz’s Sky Blue and Purple gondolas are each capable of 4000pphpd. That’s 33% more than Medellín’s gondola. That’s also more than enough to exceed projected ridership demand. For intellectual honesty The Urbanist must start using the higher capacity number from La Paz, or even higher capacity gondola numbers from other countries.

  4. On gondola technology: Medellin was built in 2004 and, due to cost constraints, only capable to transport 3000 people per hour. Yes, it has been so successful, that people have lined up to use it and more lines were built to accommodate the demand. http://www.WestseattleSkyLink.org proposes to build a gondola which can handle 4500 or even 5500 per hour as it has been done in Austria and Vietnam. That would allow for 55,000 or even 70,000 trips per per day while Sound Transit 3 estimates demand in West Seattle for 32,000 – 37,000 trips by 2040. If demand is any higher, we propose building a second line to White Center/Westwood so that the growing population there wouldn’t have to take a bus first to get to West Seattle, but would be served directly.

  5. Seems like there is a lot of over engineering. I don’t think mezzanines are really needed when ridership wouldn’t overwhelm just crossing the street.

    Also surprised how adverse ST is to grade crossings. I thought that was the big benefit to using light rail over third rail tracks. Would save *a lot* of money in Tacoma. West Seattle, and Ballard. With better street design, could still run trains at the same speed too. Intercity trains have grade crossings at ~100mph,

    • Agree. Outside of downtown, ST should be comfortable with occasional grade crossings. In particular, an at-grade station is not only cheaper but generally has much better station access because there is no need for stairs/escalators/elevators.

  6. As I recall, the same thing happened with Lynnwood Link. There were massive cost overruns for the “preferred option,” then they trimmed a few things and actually made some plans *better*, and voila, no massive cost overruns. I believe the money saved was on the order of $1 billion. This is all from my memory which may be faulty. One of the dumb things they eliminated was tearing down Shoreline stadium to put the 185th station *on the other side of I-5* from the tracks, with a massive pedestrian bridge over the freeway. If the ST3 projects contain that kind of waste, there could be scope for big savings.

    • I think things are worse here with WSBLE than Lynnwood was ever in, mostly because Lynnwood was all above ground and therefore much less difficult. But yes, some of these numbers are probably worse case because, through normal planning process, we picked prospective alignments and further research identified some were worse than we initially thought. Value engineering should be able to remove some of the costs.

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