The view down 5th Avenue S with the King County Jail and skyway passage.
Jail Station is a step closer to reality after Thursday's vote. (Doug Trumm)

The 4th Avenue Shallow and Shallower and Midtown station options remain in contention, but with Mayor Harrell warning against “false hope.”

In a marathon five-hour meeting Thursday afternoon, the Sound Transit Board of Directors fundamentally altered plans for a new downtown light rail tunnel connecting Ballard Link to the rest of the system. Instead of a long-promised transit hub in the Chinatown-International District (CID) and a station in Midtown on the doorstep of First Hill, the official study will now include a brand new “North and South of CID” alignment. The change drops connectivity approved by voters in 2016, moves the hub station to Pioneer Square, and will add a station in the desolate SoDo industrial area, blocks south of Uwajimaya Asian Market.

The vote set in motion which alignments and station locations would move forward in the process of completing a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but the agency will need to complete supplemental work to get the new station locations up to the comparable Draft EIS level of existing alternatives.

The Sound Transit Board, comprised of 18 various elected officials from the counties impacted by the transit system, heard over 90 minutes of public testimony in a packed Union Station boardroom. Most attendees voiced opinions about station locations in or near the CID, with several others discussing impacts to South Lake Union and a few speaking on the remaining stations. Only about two-thirds of those signed in to speak were allowed due to time constraints.

After long public comment, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who attended virtually, proposed a motion directing Sound Transit to add the Pioneer Square hub and South of CID station alternatives to the study. King County Executive Dow Constantine, who chairs the Sound Transit Board, had signaled his support for the motion ahead of the meeting. The majority of public comment was against the motion, with a Sound Transit staffer provided an early tally of about 1,500 comments submitted with 1,251 of those in favor of 4th Avenue S.

“We’ve listened to thousands of community members who are passionate and this is not a token appreciation. I want to thank them for their countless hours of engagement in this process,” Harrell said as he introduced this amendment.

Saying he “didn’t agree with everything said in public comment,” Harrell responded to assertions by some that the real estate deals involved seemed fishy or details for brand new options didn’t add up yet based on preliminary plans.

“There are no backroom deals being made. We’ve been trying to be transparent. We tried to work openly and thinking out loud as things evolve,” Harrell said after a behind-closed-doors executive session lasting more than an hour.

Attempts by The Urbanist to ascertain details whether on third-party funding, the nature of the proposed real estate deals to secure land for the station sites, the rumored RapidRide G Line restructure, the promised station accessibility upgrades, and specific affordable housing commitments were largely unsuccessful. Leading up the vote, Harrell and Constantine had both referenced a County and City financial package of “up to $400 million” to support the North and South of CID alternative, which early estimates peg at $160 million more expensive than the realigned baseline plan. King County Councilmembers seemed a bit less bullish about making allocations from their coffers.

Boardmembers disagreed about what was the most equitable approach to the decision.

“We have to do no harm,” Harrell said. “This is a neighborhood that has historic importance for the entire state. We’re asking this neighborhood to take the brunt of construction impacts over and over again. Again this came from the community… A construction period for 10 years could cause irreparable harm… Quite candidly, it came organically from the community.”

Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez, who seconded Harrell’s motion, stressed the importance of centering equity in their decision-making process. She also gave a nod to the importance of integrating regional transit lines. Systems Expansion Committee Chair Claudia Balducci picked up on that transit equity theme.

“You have two ways that we can do inequity to a community,” Balducci said. “One is another wave of construction impacts. Another is bypassing a neighborhood with investments… We have a one-time opportunity to create a center where all modes come together. But before we pass that by, I want to pass over every rock, and I believe we haven’t done that.”

Designs for the South of CID station would require CID-bound riders cross busy Seattle Boulevard S, a freight route that carried 12,000 daily vehicles at last count. (Sound Transit)

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier took a hardline stance toward increasing costs, even if it meant jettisoning a high quality regional transit hub. Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers echoed that sentiment. Somers and Dammeier repeatedly pointed to the report from the Technical Advisory Group recommending the agency get more sophisticated about controlling costs and speeding up their decision-making process. They emphasized the need to get light rail to Tacoma and to Everett as soon as possible.

King County Councilmembers Dave Upthegrove and Joe McDermott, meanwhile, agreed with Balducci that too many unanswered questions remained both about the new stations and whether it was truly time to move on from the 4th Avenue S and Midtown combo.

“The process that led us to this is suboptimal,” Upthegrove said.

Sound Transit Boardmembers including Claudia Balducci and Dow Constantine emerged after executive session on Thursday to take votes. The board meetings take place in Union Station which is itself incorporated into the 4th Avenue Station option. (Doug Trumm)

On a similar riff, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar spoke against the idea to jettison better options only due to cost. He noted the possibility of reducing costs and avoiding construction impact with better planning and design, noting WSDOT conveyor belts to excavate fill for its SR 99 tunnel in Downtown Seattle reduced the use of diesel trucks, which had been a worry with 4th Avenue construction impacts.

“We’ve invested hundreds of millions building parking garages serving hundreds of riders,” Millar said. “We should invest hundreds of millions in downtown stations that will attract far more riders.”

Ultimately, Chair Constantine called a voice vote and Harrell’s motion passed handily, though not unanimously.

Harrell’s motion also keeps a Terry Avenue station in the study because he said was concerned about the traffic impacts from shutting down Westlake Avenue for several years and that it would interrupt economic recovery. Westlake Avenue remains in the study as the Preferred Alternative for the Denny Station, at least for now.

Selecting those late-emerging options will delay the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in order to conduct further study on the new alternatives to bring them on par with the other options Sound Transit has been studying for years and that had been included in the 8,000-page Draft EIS released last January. The motion directs agency staff to study both Denny Station options for two months.

When it came to North and South of CID, Sound Transit project development manager Cathal Ridge said it would take longer than two months to complete sufficient study to wrap the Draft EIS and advance to the Final EIS. Previously agency staff had expected to release a Final EIS by the end of 2023, but that doesn’t appear possible any more.

Many questions remain about the two new station locations and how they connect with other transportation and development plans, as The Urbanist broke down in detail on Wednesday. Executive Constantine has pledged to redevelop the County’s seven-block campus in the office core, but made no specific promises about the quantity of affordable housing that would be included and how the project would be funded. In fact, Constantine and Harrell suggested land value capture strategies, such as tax-increment financing, would be able to provide financial resources to pay for additional costs associated with the alternative and promised construction mitigation and anti-displacement measures, but provided no details for this concept. Tax-increment financing would only work with a market-rate development and such programs have only been legal in Washington State since 2021.

Shallower 4th Station advances

Balducci then had a chance to bring forward her amendments. The first (technically Amendment 2) sought to add Shallower 4th Avenue Station into the study, though not as the Preferred Alternative. This also pairs with the shallowest Midtown Station possible (about 140 feet).

Harrell and Constantine acknowledged her point that more study and an apples-to-apples comparison would be helpful, but they both said they didn’t want to give a false sense of hope that closing the $800 million hole would be possible. Harrell said housing was his priority rather than replacing the 4th Avenue S viaduct and scrounging up extra transit funds. Both ended up voting yes.

The 4th Avenue Shallower option was a late modification of the existing Shallow 4th option that gets the station down to just 45 feet deep, which cuts the average transfer time just 2 minutes and 25 seconds. (Sound Transit)

Balducci’s second amendment to add 4th Shallower Station to the study passed by a 10 to 6 vote. (Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus and Kenmore City Councilmember Dave Baker were absent which is why the vote tallies add up 16 instead of 18.) Among the nays were Keel, Dammeier, Somers, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell, and King County Councilmember Pete Von Reichbauer. That contingent argued the option was just too expensive.

“It’s ridiculous,” Dammeier said. “Doesn’t make sense from a regional perspective.”

Board refuses to reconsider split spine concept

Balducci’s next amendment to reopen study of alternative light rail spine arrangements in light of the new North and South of CID station locations. This would have looked at a Ballard-to-West Seattle light rail line while staggering the 60-plus mile spine from Tacoma to Everett to still manage passenger loads and operations. This amendment was rejected by a 5-11 vote.

Balducci and Millar proposed a new light rail network alignment (on the right) that would separate out the Ballard-to-West-Seattle line. (Sound Transit)

The three county executives were against the proposal, arguing agency staff were right to rule out the idea in 2015 and they did not want to spend any time reconsidering. Balducci said she wasn’t trying to second guess staff and needlessly relitigate the decision, but was responding to the late-breaking option that would abandon the transit hub in the CID that had been central to the agency’s split spine concept.

Jackson Hub of multimodal improvement around Union Station approved

The next amendment from Balducci and Millar added multimodal accessibility improvements to the “Jackson Hub” around Union Station and passed by voice acclimation given little opposition.

Union Station activation concepts with a new Chinatown light rail station. (Sound Transit)

Sound Transit heard strong support for activating Union Station and upgrading the plaza and station access around it. That idea now appears to be in scope, but if the North and South of CID station is approved, those station access improvements would have to extend five to six blocks to the north and south to reach those stations.

Balducci shelves new cost baseline push for CID, but plans to reintroduce

Balducci pulled her amendment seeking to adjust cost baselines in the CID after agency staff gave her feedback that it was very challenging to implement as written with impacts across the light rail system. McDermott did voice strong support for the amendment, saying it was an equity issue to extract such high third-party funding requirements to build a good option. The North and South of CID alternatives would mean worse transit access for his constituents, he noted. Balducci said she intended to refine the concept and bring it back at later date.

Tightening plans and more outreach

Balducci and Millar had one last amendment directing staff to conduct much public outreach, planning, and design to address concerns raised in public comment. The amendment said those concerns include but are not limited to “more walking and biking mode share; accommodate future expansion; advance equitable TOD, particularly community-led; design shallower tunnel stations and fast and reliable transit transfers; enhance station accessibility and reliability of vertical conveyances.” That also passed by voice acclimation vote.

Bus alternatives to bridge delay for Tacoma Dome Link

The board also passed a Dammeier amendment directing Sound Transit to study bus upgrades that could improve transit options for Pierce County while it waits for a delayed Tacoma Dome Link Extension. The agency recently announced a three-year delay due to obstacles it has run into that may preclude the Preferred Alignment. The agency was forced to add new options to the EIS study due to floodplain issues at the Fife station site and tribal cultural resources near the South Federal Way alignment.

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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.