King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, and Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss are joining the Sound Transit Board in 2024. (Courtesy photos)

This afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine unveiled three new appointments to the Sound Transit Board of Directors: King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, and Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss.

As county executive, Constantine has the power to elevate elected representatives from across King County to the board, and three of King County’s 10 seats on the 18-member board were vacant due to their former representatives leaving their elected office and thus losing their eligibility to serve on the board.

“Today I am pleased to appoint three strong leaders to the Sound Transit Board of Directors. Each has years of experience representing diverse King County communities,” said Sound Transit Board Chair Constantine in a statement. “As we work to deliver one of the most ambitious and complex transit expansion projects in the nation, I am confident that Councilmember Zahilay, Mayor Birney, and Councilmember Strauss will bring the passion and expertise required to build and maintain the mass transit system this region deserves.”

The departing boardmembers include former King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, Kenmore City Councilmember Dave Baker, and Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez. McDermott and Juarez retired from office; Baker narrowly lost reelection.

The new boardmembers provide an opportunity for a bit of a reset for a board that has started to take flak as expansion projects have been mired in delays, cost overruns, and indecision and the agency has lost its CEO to a sudden departure announced last month. The switch to $3 flat fares on Link light rail in the fall could also prove controversial, with short-distance riders seeing a big fare hike and the emphasis on pleasing long-distance commuters pointing to a potential identity crisis for the agency.

The appointments bring some new geographic focuses.

Zahilay could put spotlight on Rainey Valley issues

Zahilay replacing McDermott on the board could bring a greater focus on the Rainier Valley, where Zahilay lives and represents on council. Hillman City is slated to get an infill light rail station at Graham Street in 2031, and the neighborhood has embarked on community visioning to plan related investments and housing growth.

Othello light rail station. (Credit: Doug Trumm)
Othello Station and neighboring stations are in the median of MLK Way, which creates conflict points with speeding traffic for people traveling to and from the station. Collisions have killed several riders. (Doug Trumm)

Due to the decision to route light rail at grade in mixed traffic along Martin Luther King Jr. Way S and through SoDo, South Seattle has also been plagued with regular collisions with car and foot traffic — one crash every 40 days, a 2019 analysis found. Sound Transit has weighed some safety strategies, but it’s not yet clear if those interventions will be sufficient or if broader fixes, such as elevating the tracks or overhauling the design of MLK Way to reduce speeding and left turns, might be needed to solve the issue.

Zahilay’s county council district will also get a new light rail station with Judkins Park Station when East Link fully opens in 2025. Unfortunately, history could repeat since this station is also likely to have a negative pedestrian experience given the I-90 on- and off-ramps and busy arterial roads standing in the way of reaching the station, already making this area a collision hotspot. Even so, the extra transit connectivity will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood — and the traffic safety issues are fixable with some street redesigns.

Birney to oversee arrival of four Redmond stations

Birney replacing Baker will ensure that Redmond has a direct voice as Sound Transit prepares to deliver the Downtown Redmond Link Extension in 2025. The East Link Starter Line will provide an early preview of that broader service later this spring, running from Redmond Technology Station (aka Microsoft Campus) to South Bellevue Station. The connection across the lake to Mercer Island and Seattle will need to wait for repairs to faulty plinths supporting tracks on I-90.

The starter line will run from South Bellevue to Redmond Technology Station at Microsoft’s campus, serving eight stations, two of them in Redmond. The Downtown Redmond extension will add two more Redmond Stations in 2025. (Sound Transit)

Strauss tackles Ballard Link loose ends

Strauss replacing Juarez will provide Ballard with a direct representative as the agency negotiates a delicate decision with respect to crossing Salmon Bay (potentially leading to controversial impacts to the fledgling superyacht industry, shipping lane, and salmon run) and reaching Ballard with a Link extension now expected to open in 2039 at the earliest following planning delays and rising costs.

A rendering shows the elevated 14th Avenue NW alignment for Ballard Link.
A fixed bridge over Salmon Bay heads down 14th Avenue NW in one proposal. A tunnel option is also being considered. (Rendering by Sound Transit)

The agency is still debating whether to site Ballard’s station under 15th Avenue NW or 14th Avenue NW. Strauss has voiced support for siting the station farther to the west closer to the heart of Ballard, and his appointment could give that cause a boost. Will it be enough to put a 15th Avenue Ballard station over the top? Time will tell, but ultimately, much may ride on what fits within the agency’s strained budget and engineering risk tolerance.

“As a transit rider, I am excited to continue to improve rider experience and safety measures so that everyone is able to rely on Sound Transit to get where they’re going,” Strauss told The Urbanist. “I am committed to connecting Tacoma and Everett with Seattle and completing the West Seattle and Ballard expansions.”

Alongside the 10 King County members, the Sound Transit Board includes four members from Pierce County, three from Snohomish County, and Washington Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar. Outside of Millar, members are appointed by their respective County Executives to serve four-year terms — barring them losing or retiring from their elected office, which ends the term. Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier will also make an appointment to replace former University Place Councilmember Kent Keel.

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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.