By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
You have four weeks left to officially comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West Seattle (and Ballard) light-rail extensions – basically, one last major chance to speak up before its final routing and station locations are settled.
As part of that process, Sound Transit held an online public hearing tonight, this one geared toward the West Seattle segment, currently expected to open in 2032. The DEIS contains results of studies of the possible alternatives for routing and station locations, and the comments will be taken into consideration by ST board members – including King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who spoke briefly at the start of the meeting – at their next major decision point, likely this June.
Three-quarters of the meeting was devoted to Q&A and comments; 22 people offered the latter, half of them advocating for ST to study the gondola system whose advocates have pitched it as an option to West Seattle light rail.
As the meeting began, ST’s Cathal Ridge began with a recap of the project plan, going back to the ST3 vote in 2016. Design starts in 2023; construction of the West Seattle line is scheduled to start in 2026. The official comment period for the DEIS began January 28th, and after it’s over, the board “will confirm or modify the preferred alternative.” He also recapped the alternatives that are being studied while noted that some of them would “require third-party funding.”
OVERVIEW: For an overview of what’s been studied, Ridge turned it over to Jason Hampton, who’s leading the West Seattle segment planning. For context on what’s in the DEIS, here are the focus topics:
He then gave toplines of the alternatives being studied, which we’ve covered many times before, so we won’t go into deep detail -. Three alternatives are suggested for the new bridge that would take light rail across the Duwamish River – one north of the current bridge, two south of it.
Here’s the comparison on five criteria:
The three planned stations are in The Junction, Avalon, and Delridge areas, and a variety of alternatives are being studied, including tunneled options:
These too had comparison information:
Here’s the full slide deck:
Q&A: This began half an hour into the meeting, after the overview. First question, how does the West Seattle extension connect to the system before the Ballard extension opens five years later? Answer: You’ll have to get off in SODO. Question: Will the new bridge support pedestrian or highway traffic? Answer: No, rail-only. Question: How will impacts to displaced businesses be addressed? Answer: They’ll be eligible for relocation benefits – more info on the website, “property owners” tab. ST is having weekly webinars as well as in-person outreach. Question: If my building is acquired, how long between purchase and construction start? Answer: “We’ll give them ample time to move.” Question: Why isn’t the light rail going down Delridge so it could extend to points south? Answer: Potential routing was studied years ago and they led to ST3, which laid out this routing. Question: ST3 had a work item to study expanding further south. How would that be done from the West Seattle Junction end? Answer: We can’t speculate without further studies.
Question: Has anyone revisited paths of the West Seattle light rail to see what types of businesses will be affected, and weight them? Answer: Displacement specifics are discussed in the DEIS, though not weighed. Question: What commitments are being made for Delridge regarding Transit-Oriented Development? Answer: No specifics but – there’s a conceptual design so far; ST is committed to ensuring equitable TOD on property it acquires, after construction. Question: What are the possible sources of third-party funding, which is needed for some alternatives? Answer: Ridge points out that some West Seattle tunneling alternatives would NOT necessarily require third-party funding, unlike original projections. The city is one, federal maybe, hard to speculate otherwise. Question: How were the “preferred alternatives” chosen? Answer: Ridge recaps the 2017-2019 process of developing the alternatives with lots of community input. Question: Will the preferred alternative confirmed by board later this year be narrowed down to one? Answer: Ridge says that’s what they expect would happen, but it’s in the board’s hands. Question: Are you aware that the gondola is being studied and are they using public money? Answer: The gondola is not part of this DEIS but a board member has asked us to look at that option, a study’s been done, it’ll be presented to the Executive Committee in a week or so. (Note: The committee meets April 7th.) Question: What do “Pigeon Point constructability” and “BNSF constructability” mean? Answer: Some challenges – Pigeon Point has some slope and wildlife challenges, BNSF refers to the railroad bridge over the Duwamish River, which means a “constrained corridor.” Question: What’s meant by “retained cut station? Answer: Below ground but not completely enclosed, “kind of an open top,” Hampton explains.
Question: What has ST seen as shortest and longest time between operation of light-rail system and full TOD occupancy? Answer: Station planner Sloan Dawson replies that there’s “quite a spread” of times – a Roosevelt project for example is going to open within a year of the start of service. Four years on Capitol Hill, longer in Rainier Valley. Question: Any updated ridership estimates? Answer: The current estimates in DEIS were done pre-pandemic. ST is now reviewing how projections might need to be updated because of COVID effects. Question: How were comments summarized for board review? Answer: All comments are provided to the board, but summaries are provided too. It will categorize comments by “type of commenter” – such as agencies, businesses, public, by geography, types of concerns voiced, types of preferences voiced, etc. Question: Any requirements or plans for upzoning near stations? Answer: No ST requirements imposed, but the city has indicated they’ll embark on station-area planning once routing is finalized, and “early thinking” has been under way. Question: If permanent footprint doesn’t run through property, but partial, does it mean ST won’t permanently take that property? Answer: Hampton said it’s way too soon to know, that depends on the design process. Question: Will any alternatives permanently close any streets – does DEIS get into that? Answer: Chapter 3 discusses transportation impacts, both for construction and permanently. A few examples, Some of the Delridge/Avalon options have some possible street closures, along with one Junction alternative. Question: How do current costs compare to what was approved in ST3? Answer: The realignment process had some figures on that. In general, real estate costs went way up, and that’s why overall project budget is about $12 billion, whereas it was originally $8 billion. Question: Could Junction and Avalon stations could be combined to save money? Answer: It’s possible – the board has asked us to look at cost savings, and there’ll be discussion of that in the next round of Community Advisory Group meetings. Question: Will the RapidRide H Line stop at Delridge station? Answer: Yes.
COMMENTS: A little over an hour into the meeting, after a short break, the public hearing for comments began. Everyone was allowed to speak for up to two minutes (three if an interpreter was used); no one ran over. These documents were recorded by a court reporter for the record, moderator Chris Johnstone noted. 12 of the 22 commenters mentioned the gondola concept, which, as Ridge had said earlier, is not in the DEIS (except for two brief mentions in Appendix M, one noting that it was removed from consideration pre-ST3 because “gondolas and aerial trams are not considered regional high-capacity transit). Here are toplines of the 22 spoken comments:
First commenter identified himself as a 40th SW property owner, saying he and neighbors were generally supportive of tunneling options but concerned about noise and vibration after it’s built and hoping for more information about that.
Second commenter said that SkyLink gondola will need less money and displace fewer homes and businesses, so he wondered why it’s not being seriously considered as an alternative.
Third commenter said that she supports commissioning an independent study comparing gondola vs. light rail. She says the environmental effects of embodied carbon in construction of light rail need to be studied and listed other environmental criteria that should be considered.
Fourth commenter said he’s been advocating for the Andover light-rail route because it would not displace the Youngstown neighborhood, and addressed two potential downsides of that route that he says could be addressed with slide changes such as moving the station location slightly. He also voiced support for studying the gondola concept.
Fifth commenter said he represents the developers of Maris (Fauntleroy/Alaska development just completed), which one option would condemn and demolish, “all 306 residential units” and possibly the 150-unit Huxley to its south. He said “this is the wrong approach” because it would remove so much housing. They believe the further-west Junction options are more suitable.
Sixth commenter said “it seems really bad to build a train that essentially no one will be able to use for about five years” – taking it to the CID station would make more sense, as there are already buses going to SODO. Also: “The gondola would be a massive mistake.”
Seventh commenter said she’s a Junction resident and supports studying the gondola, calling it a “massive mistake” that it wasn’t in the DEIS. Don’t issue the EIS without including it as an alternative, she said.
Eighth commenter said she’s a climate justice advocate and supports the gondola as a way to reduce environmental effects as well as “ecoracism” that light rail could bring. She also said that a gondola could carry more people.
Ninth commenter said she’s in support of an outside study of the gondola. She voted for ST3 but said that didn’t mean she was only interested in light rail.
Tenth commenter said the prospect of eminent domain is detrimental for people who had planned to sell their homes relatively soon, and could “highly diminish” property values.
Eleventh commenter said the prospective impacts of light rail have many wondering if there’s a better alternative, and believes the gondola is it. She too urges an independent study.
Twelfth commenter said she works in the Delridge/Andover building that her family co-owns and would like to see it preserved, not demolished.
Thirteenth commenter said he is advocating for the Andover lower-height station option, especially because of its lower residential displacement effects.
Fourteenth commenter voiced support for the gondola.
Fifteenth commenter voiced support for the Andover station “and the tunnel entrance for it” on the south side of Genesee Street. He said he’s opposed to residential displacement and thinks it’s more appropriate to use more of the golf course.
Sixteenth commenter said she’s a Junction resident and supports tunnel options for the Junction station.
Seventeenth commenter said she’s a longtime West Seattle resident and supports the gondola. She wants ST to “sincerely consider it.”
Eighteenth commenter said that she supported light rail but now that its potentially “devastating” impacts have been shown, she supports the gondola and wants to see an independent study.
Nineteenth commenter said that he is a Junction resident and supports “the tunnel option.”
Twentieth commenter said that he’s encouraging ST to do an “outside review” of the gondola.
Twenty-first commenter said his family uses buses and they get downtown quickly enough that he is opposed to light rail.
Twenty-second commenter said ST should consider “cost-saving methods for some of the stations themselves” and try harder to address aesthetic concerns about the elevated segments. He added that “having shallower stations all along the line is vital.”
Nobody else wanted to speak, so the hearing closed on time at 7;30 pm.
WHAT’S NEXT? The comment period continues until April 28th. You can comment in a variety of ways, all detailed here. ST said during tonight’s meeting, “We are also offering office hours for technical questions related to the Draft EIS if you’d like to visit our project website wsblink.participate.online/#get-involved to sign up.” And while it’s not an official ST event, you can also attend the West Seattle Transportation Coalition‘s how-to-comment-on-the-DEIS workshop next Thursday night (April 7th) – online and in-person – details to come.