Amazon and Vulcan have pushed Sound Transit to study a new 5th Avenue and Harrison Street station option.
On Thursday, Sound Transit offered a high-level look into a newly surfaced South Lake Union station location for the Ballard Link Extension, at the behest of boardmembers. The agency board could advance a feasibility study on the idea in December, but agency staff warned that if it became a formal alternative in the ongoing Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) next year, it could delay opening of the Ballard Link Extension by as much as two years.
Ahead of the meeting, Sound Transit posted an agenda hinting at the potential study, indicating that there could be budgetary implications with a new alternative, but nothing about timing impacts. Though delays from including new alternatives has typically been understood as an inevitable consequence.
In the summer, Don Billen, Sound Transit’s planning director, said as much when pouring cold water on a South Lake Union station west of 7th Avenue N. “Our experience over the last couple of years is that every time that we are asked to go look at new alternatives that are not yet defined, that we wind up in a six- to nine-month process,” Billen said.
The new feasibility study is expected to run a little bit shorter and initially with no project delay impacts. But the agency board would be presented with a go or no-go situation in May. If the new station concept is deemed a feasible alternative, it could be included in the Draft EIS for further study as a preferred or non-preferred alternative.
If the new station location is included as a non-preferred alternative in the Draft EIS, the entire Ballard Link Extension could incur a 10-month delay in opening. Making it the preferred alternative could have even more dramatic impacts to the project schedule with up to a two-year delay. Cathal Ridge, corridor manager of the Ballard Link Extension, said that the start of revenue service on the extension could ultimately be pushed back from 2039 to 2040 or 2041 instead, barring any newly found construction efficiencies.
Delayed opening of Ballard Link would have downstream impacts on the wider system. That’s because the second downtown tunnel would not be open for service, keeping the 1 and 2 Lines operating through the existing tunnel and forcing West Seattle Link to continue running only as a shuttle between SoDo and Junction stations. That ultimately would heavily constrain systemwide capacity and inconvenience riders.
Because the new station location hasn’t been heavily vetted yet, Sound Transit staff only presented a rough sketch of where it might be located. Generally speaking, the station would be situated within the Harrison Street right-of-way between 5th Avenue N and the alley east of Taylor Avenue N, about three blocks west of the currently preferred station location.
The new South Lake Union station concept would be coupled with the Denny Westlake Shifted West station alternative that big businesses like Amazon and Vulcan have lobbied for, winning support from Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and other agency boardmembers. However, that Denny station alternative remains a non-preferred alternative in the Draft EIS at this time and has a lower chance of being selected to built as part of Ballard Link. As of now, the Denny Westlake Shifted North station alternative still has the inside track for that instead since it’s the preferred alternative and slated to receive preliminary engineering, barring a change of preference.
Agency staff didn’t offer any cost estimates for the new South Lake Union station alternative. So it’s unclear how it would stack up against the preferred location at 7th Avenue N and Harrison Street.
The challenges with the new station concept are numerous. Agency staff ticked through issues with bus integration, station depth, curves, and potential conflicts with existing institutions in the area. At around 130 feet deep, the station would be deeper than the preferred station and two to three blocks west of key bus routes, perhaps necessitating reroutes. Additional tight curves could mean reducing track speeds and increasing travel times. And the alignment could create new obstacles with an alignment under the foundation of Climate Pledge Arena as well as conflicts with the 5th Avenue N parking garage, power substation, and local streets.
But some may see those challenges worth overcoming. That’s because it would avoid impacts to some utilities and further reduce impacts to Westlake Avenue and private property during construction, a priority for business interests. The Denny Westlake Shifted North alternative, however, would have fewer traffic impacts. That’s because it would involve decking the street where it would be partially built within. A suspension of the South Lake Union Streetcar may still be needed, however.
The alternative station location could also have some other upsides. For one, it would better serve Seattle Center institutions like Memorial Stadium and McCaw Hall while acting better as a relief station for large events on the campus. For another, it may have the potential to reduce some traffic impacts near SR 99 and key bus routes during construction.
If the feasibility study is approved in December, Ridge said work could start in January with a report back to the board on technical information in April. That would give boardmembers time to decide if they wanted to advance further study of the station location as an alternative.
During the meeting, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said he supported further study of feasibility to determine if the station is worth pursuing in the larger context of the environmental review process. He seemed to have the backing of several committee members, including Somers, University Place Councilmember Kent Keel, and King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci.
Ultimately though, if the agency board elects to move forward with formally studying the new station location for the Draft EIS, it could give community and transit advocates stronger grounding to demand moving forward with a deeper analysis of the 4th Avenue Shallower station option in Chinatown-International District (CID) in hopes of making it the preferred alternative. After all, if adding a new South Lake Union station to the Draft EIS would cause years of added delay, adjusting the CID alternatives should have little to no additive study impacts.
Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.