LIGHT RAIL: Is West Seattle Junction tunneling affordable after all? More new Sound Transit numbers bring estimated cost closer to elevated

One week after revealing new, sharply higher cost estimates for expanding light rail to West Seattle and Ballard (WSB coverage here), Sound Transit went public with another set of numbers, showing that the cost of tunneling into The Junction is suddenly a lot closer to the cost of the default elevated line. These numbers were presented to ST’s System Expansion Committee on Thursday, along with the revised cost estimates first shown to the Executive Committee last week; Thursday’s meeting video is above, and the full slide deck is here. Here are the new West Seattle tunnel-related numbers that were presented:

Those numbers reflect the estimated cost of the entire West Seattle segment, not just the station itself. The new estimate showing as little as $100 million difference between running elevated or tunneling to the heart of The Junction is a big change – previously, the difference was projected to be about $700 million, as shown in this slide from a 2019 presentation:

Whatever the cost differential is, it would require “third-party funding,” but Seattle Mayor and ST board member Jenny Durkan said during the Thursday presentation that she was “heartened” to see the new estimates, observing that they now had a better idea of what extra funding would be needed.

The biggest looming issue, though, remains the gap between ST’s pandemic-shrunken revenues and even the original price tags of the West Seattle-Ballard extension and other projects approved by voters in the ST3 ballot measure. So ST remains on a path to “realignment” of its plans, with a decision due later this year; board members have a workshop planned this Thursday. ST also is proceeding with an independent review of the new cost estimates, expected to be complete in April.

WHAT ELSE IS NEXT: The West Seattle-Ballard project remains in the environmental-study phase, with its Draft Environmental Impact Statement now expected in the middle of this year, opening a new public-comment period. Final routing and station-location decisions are expected in 2023. The extension’s projected launch date already has been pushed back a year to 2031, a date that the upcoming “realignment” could move further down the track.

P.S. You can catch up on what’s proposed, what’s being studied, and how the process works by checking out ST’s “online open house.”

43 Replies to "LIGHT RAIL: Is West Seattle Junction tunneling affordable after all? More new Sound Transit numbers bring estimated cost closer to elevated"

  • John January 17, 2021 (8:28 pm)

    Gondola……  Far less costly and can be completed in a few years.     I’ve been on the gondola system in La Paz Bolivia.  It was fantastic.  A gondola arrived every 15 seconds capable of carrying 10 people.  It covered the entire City.  The views were spectacular.  We wouldn’t need a second bridge either.

    • WSB January 17, 2021 (8:48 pm)

      I’ll be writing about the currently circulating West Seattle concept tomorrow. It came up briefly at this meeting, when a board member noted she had been contacted by the West Seattle advocates. – TR

    • Eldorado January 18, 2021 (2:32 am)

      Love it!

    • Peter January 18, 2021 (8:56 am)

      The indisputable fact is that gondolas cannot match the speed and capacity of light rail, it’s not even remotely close. Look, we all know this gondola idea was invented as opposition to light rail, not as an effective or practical transit system. Just stop wasting everyone’s time with this idiotic gondola nonsense. 

      • barton January 18, 2021 (9:10 am)

        Even if there were a remote chance to actually change anyone’s mind in the comments section, your tone would take it down to zero chance.  

      • Matt P January 18, 2021 (10:31 am)

        Peter, I would agree if West Seattle was dense, but it’s not. The capacity of the light rail will be far above the ridership.  A gondola simply makes more sense.

        • Tethyr January 18, 2021 (11:19 am)

          We are building the light rail for future capacity.  Once the capacity and transit is available, density will follow.  In fact, it’s already started…

          • Martin January 18, 2021 (12:41 pm)

            There are plenty of neighborhoods where this applies, but not West Seattle. Sound Transit 3 forecasts only been 32,000 – 37,000 trips per day for 2040 and only if all downtown buses (RR-C, 21, 120) feed the stations, a gondola can handle that and more. If the gondola is wildly successful and traffic outpaces capacity, it would make more sense to serve White Center, Westwood… with another gondola line directly so that these residents don’t have to get on the bus to the Junction/Avalon/Delridge.

      • Pro gondola January 21, 2021 (6:54 am)

        The only indisputable fact is that you have no idea what you are taking about, Peter, and in fact average speeds are comparable (just not max speed for the 2 minutes LRT might be on a flat). There’s a good study of comparability out of Edmonton Canada. I can’t link it but at least a google search of facts before spewing opinions might help you understand.

    • Bob Lang January 18, 2021 (10:51 am)

      Yes gondola.   Less of a footprint, no bridge to build. This is a no brainier

    • Katrina January 19, 2021 (6:19 am)

      Gondola doesn’t allow for system expansion south. It’s a non-starter for that reason (among others) 

      • Martin January 19, 2021 (11:19 am)

        Have you looked at the ideas for light rail extension further South? If a tunnel gets built, expansion would get prohibitively  expensive. There is neither any suitable arterial nor sufficient density. Sound Transit had instead looked at running a line along 1st Ave towards South Park and Burien and Renton. Such line would be much better to serve the diverse growth areas further South.

    • Derek January 21, 2021 (8:52 am)

      Please stop with the Gondola nonsense. So slow and inefficient and ugly. 

  • Funiculi funicula January 17, 2021 (9:41 pm)

    Rode the cable cars in Medellín. They are quick to build, quiet, safe CHEAP and offer tremendous views.  I’d love to see the cascades from above on my commute. Light rail is a waste of resources because it can’t be done reasonably well here.  From a carbon budget offset, we might be better off just using sound transit money to fund reforestation and clean energy projects elsewhwere where the effect would be larger.

  • Chemist January 18, 2021 (12:31 am)

    Sound Transit 4 Ballot Measure =  Gondolas from Interbay to Ballard to Northgate and down Deridge to South Park and White Center.  If Sound Transit changes West Seattle to a gondola and upgrades Ballard to a tunnel voters will have a pretty good basis for misrepresentation.

    • Martin January 18, 2021 (12:53 pm)

      Yes, there are many locations in Seattle where gondolas make sense due to Seattle’s hills and waterways. These will be considered in the future.Sound Transit’s cost estimates for the West Seattle connection have now increased by 73% which means the plan cannot be implemented the way it was approved, they can’t just spend more money and push out timelines they had committed to voters. For such cases Sound Transit 3 measure includes language to change the implementation plan. I’m not a lawyer, but it will be interesting how Sound Transit will handle this. They certainly had already considered gondolas for local transit connections such as these.

  • Drew Cunningham January 18, 2021 (1:28 am)

    I don’t want to discount urban gondolas as a valid form of public transportation, but I do think they should be pursued in conjunction WITH light rail and not as an alternative.Main reason being that gondola systems typically max out at 4-6,000 passengers/ hour. Meanwhile light rail systems typically serve around 9,000 passengers/ hour. 4 car trains can serve even more passengers. So there is a significant difference in the modes that will be connecting W. Seattle with the rest of Seattle.Additionally, gondolas actually aren’t very fast. To get from W. Seattle to DT would take forever. Transit has to be efficient & dependent, and at gondola speeds I don’t see it being very efficient. Sure they’re cheap and somewhat quick to construct, but I think the larger point of mass transit is to create long lasting quality infrastructure. And in this arena, you get what you pay for.Gondolas could be used in conjunction to shuttle people between a W. Seattle station and say Alki, or another destination not currently served well by ST3.

    Of course I could be misinterpreting things. I’m assuming we’re all referring to aerial gondolas and not the gondolas that they use in the Venice canals.

    • Dennis January 18, 2021 (10:25 am)

      Gondolas technology is a form of high-capacity transit.  A gondola system between West Seattle and SODO
      will have the passenger carrying capacity needs that Sound Transit projected
      for light rail in 2040.  The commute
      times will be similar.  The gondola
      travels a straighter line. A gondola cabin comes along every 20 seconds; the wait
      time for trains is eliminated; this is especially true during off hours when
      trains run less frequently. 

      • Derek January 21, 2021 (8:53 am)

        Sorry we need light rail, not gondola. I wish people would end this little weird fantasy. I don’t want ugly ski lifts going over beautiful Elliot Bay especially when inefficient. 

    • Tethyr January 18, 2021 (11:24 am)

      This capacity issue is exactly why West Seattle needs light rail.  If/when they replace the High Bridge, we will need all the light rail capacity that we can get.  Imagine how much easier life would be right now if we had a 15-20min ride to downtown?  Or could just jump on a light rail and get dinner in Redmond?  Or take the light rail to the mall? etc…etc…etc.  This is the no brainer…

      • nasty women January 18, 2021 (6:13 pm)

        The gondola system could connect to or near light rail stations for transferring onto light rail, buses, etc.

        I am very much for comprehensive light rail in our region, and as soon as possible, but I am also all for exploring a multi faceted transportation modernization approach that could include gondolas. 

        There are some good points to consider with the gondola idea, including faster implementation, the capacity to have more lines and destinations potentially than we can with light rail, for less cost and perhaps with less environmental impacts?

        I’d like to hear more and see this explored further.

  • Justind January 18, 2021 (8:14 am)

    Hopefully this leads to tunneling. Raised tracks would be bad for our neighborhoods. 

    • Martin January 18, 2021 (2:59 pm)

      I don’t mind raised tracks like they did in Bellevue, but 150′ high is a lot. Tunneling won’t solve all issues as Sound Transit only proposed tunneling for the Junction area, Youngstown and part of Avalon would still be elevated.

  • Joe Z January 18, 2021 (8:45 am)

    The gondola is the 2021 version of the immersed tube tunnel. Do we really need to waste money studying the gondola options just to determine it is not feasible? How many years will it take for Sound Transit to acquire the expertise to build and manage a gondola system? How long will it take to get the gondola approved (it is not in the text of ST3 so we need a 3-county vote to even consider it), designed, vetted through public comment periods, as well as re-designing the Ballard light rail to terminate somewhere else since it needs a southern half of the line? I guess Georgetown will get the 20 minute train ride to Ballard instead of West Seattle?

    Seriously, over a decade of planning has already gone into ST3 and we want to scrap it when it is nearly shovel-ready? Just stop Seattle processing it already. Our elected leaders will get us the tunnel with funding from a national infrastructure bill. 

    • Casey M January 18, 2021 (9:49 am)

      Completely agree.  The gondola proponents sound allot like the monorail proponents when the monorail was just a concept.   We later know how things turned out with the monorail as details started to come into view.   

    • Dennis January 18, 2021 (10:57 am)

      A feasibility study of gondola technology for a West Seattle
      to SODO system would cost approximately $250,000. If Sound Transit were to finance
      this study, it could be completed in 3 months. We would know the actual
      carrying capacity, the projected route, station placements, and costs. If this
      transportation option makes sense, once the planning/study is completed, the
      gondola system can be operational within one to two years.

      The environmental and infrastructure impacts are minimal. Cable
      supporting pylons have small footprints and, in some installations, the support
      pylons are as much as one mile from each other. Stations are a fraction of the size
      of those required for light rail. Compare this to five years of ongoing construction
      to build light rail – a wide swath cut through our densely developed community
      with many homes and businesses removed.

      Gondolas are silent. Trains are noisy. Since it will
      at least 11 years before light rail is operational in West Seattle, I ask you
      to keep an open mind. We have the needed time to study this option and to
      determine its feasibility.

  • Chuck Jacobs January 18, 2021 (9:15 am)

    Jeebus Christmas! We’re actually discussing a railroad spur a few miles long costing 1.5 to 2 BILLION DOLLARS! This won’t happen for another 10-15 years, so figure on the final cost to be at least twice that. That’s insane.

    • Bob L January 18, 2021 (10:58 am)

      Thank you.The smartest nothing W Sea could do is go all in on a gondola.  Get it built now.  Even if it is less capacity, at least it is something that will reduce traffic NOW.  If we wait 10 yrs to maybe get light rail there is a good chance they cancel it.  “Ooppps to much $”Get a gondola now.  Get it fast.  Or we will end up with nothing.

  • SeattleJoyce January 18, 2021 (12:20 pm)

    The gondola is being proposed as a local connection to the main light rail spine–not as the main spine itself (Everett to Tacoma, Seattle to Bellevue/ Redmond.)  Gondola technology is more suitable to the hilly terrain and water obstacles involved with the West Seattle situation.  Getting the light rail through SODO, building a bridge over the Duwamish, constructing an elevated rail line and/or tunnel and three large stations in already dense West Seattle neighborhoods is going to take a long time, cost billions of dollars, and create major displacement and disruption.  I suggest that readers check out the gondola website which addresses many of the questions and assumptions made in the comments above.  

  • zark00` January 18, 2021 (3:13 pm)

    Gondolas don’t work so hot in high winds, freezing weather, or heavy continual rains – the tower at blackcomb failed and fell down from just ice.  Also, anyone else feel like riding a gondola built by the lowest bidder, in a project managed by SDOT, over the bay, is a death wish?

    • WSB January 18, 2021 (6:21 pm)

      This is Sound Transit, **not** SDOT.

      • Rick January 19, 2021 (10:27 am)

        That’s OK. A lot of folks just make up their own facts to support their ideologies. Business as usual around these parts. Unfortunately, many of them are in government “leadership” positions.

  • Scubafrog January 18, 2021 (3:58 pm)

    I wonder how much Bellevue spent, their rail is HUGE.  Subterranean would be great to delineate property costs whenever we get to it, I hope we see rail here within the next two decades.

  • Derek January 18, 2021 (11:38 pm)

    Gondolas are a BIG NO. They’re ugly and slow. The one in Portland basically loses money and no one rides it. Waste.

    • Martin January 19, 2021 (11:46 am)

      Technically, Portland tram is not even a gondola, just an aerial tram which is simpler (2 cabins). If you think gondolas are ugly, then that’s your personal opinion, some people don’t like a 150′ light rail viaduct through Youngstown and would rather enjoy the view at or from a gondola. But the fact is that the Portland tram pays for itself. 

  • Marfaun January 19, 2021 (9:11 am)

    The Portland gondola carries more than 2 million riders a year.  Ridership has increased every year since opening in 2009.  By its 10th anniversary Jan 2019, ridership had increased another 13% over 2018.  It also pays for itself.   

    • Rick January 19, 2021 (10:28 am)

      I stand by my previous statement.

  • Buh-bye WS light rail January 19, 2021 (4:54 pm)

    “Now is the time to identify these challenges when scope choices can be made to contain cost growth.” These words sound like the precursors of the death knell for the West Seattle light rail extension. Let’s hope the repairs to the West Seattle Bridge do not suffer from the same inadequate long-range budgeting.

  • Eldorado January 20, 2021 (8:21 am)

    Why do they even present a budget… we all know that whatever they ‘say’ it will cost, it will cost twice that amount.  What’s an extra 2 billion. Fix the bridge and then Build the tunnel already. 

    • actual resident January 20, 2021 (11:03 pm)

      Sound Transit has so far, pre-covid, consistently delivered expansions on time and under budget

    • Derek January 21, 2021 (8:55 am)

      Seems very obvious. Your post is the no-brainer option. 

  • actual resident January 20, 2021 (10:57 pm)

    where’s all this gondola stuff coming from? sounds like one or two people making a bunch of sock-puppet accounts. gondolas, or funiculars, for spur connections are fine, but are not a system replacement for light rail.also, it would be insane to demolish for raised rail the hundreds of new housing units just now coming online. isn’t higher density one of the goals?

  • Sandy January 25, 2021 (1:45 pm)

    I would rather get gondola from Bremerton island to DT. 

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