By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When we first reported in early 2021 on the West Seattle SkyLink campaign – people advocating for a gondola (aerial tram) system between West Seattle and downtown instead of light rail – they suggested a feasibility study, for starters.
It was officially released during the board’s monthly Executive Committee meeting, but without even an agenda item of its own – ST CEO Peter Rogoff announced its completion during the regular “CEO Report” item.
We got a pre-meeting briefing with Matt Shelden, the ST deputy executive director of planning and integration, who led the team that worked on the report; he also provided a very quick topline summary at this morning’s meeting. Rogoff offered a “more detaiiled briefing” to any board member who wanted one, and then moved on to other items; the board member who requested the report, West Seattle-residing King County Executive Dow Constantine, was not in attendance at this morning’s meeting.
In our pre-meeting briefing, Shelden said the staff received the request at the end of January, so the report has taken about two months. It reaches the same conclusion that ST had before the 2016 ST3 ballot measure that set the stage for light rail – that in ST’s view, a gondola system is not suitable as “high-capacity transit” – what ST is supposed to deliver – to get people between West Seattle and downtown.
The study reaches this conclusion on three main points, as summarized by Shelden:
First, ST says gondola technology would not “integrate well” with the existing (and planned) ST system, and would not necessarily be expandable to points south, as the West Seattle light rail is supposed to be. The integration also refers to the West Seattle to Everett trains – after full buildout – providing capacity through downtown, as well as to/from WS, capacity that the agency says would be lost if they instead substituted a gondola system for the West Seattle to downtown leg.
Second, they don’t believe a gondola system could reach the passenger capacity that they believe would be needed – up to 3,000 passengers per hour. While West Seattle SkyLink proponents believe the gondola cars could take off every 10 seconds, ST says even that pace would be likely to max out at 2,000 people per hour.
Third, “legal considerations” – Shelden says they believe the language of the ST3 ballot measure locks the agency into light rail, so “changing the (transit) mode would likely require voter approval.”
The report also says ST staff could not verify the SkyLink claims that the gondola system could be built more quickly and cheaply than light rail.
It also contains a few positive points, such as noting that an aerial system would not contribute to ground congestion, and that fare compliance would likely be easier to achieve than with trains.
We are seeking comment from SkyLink proponents and will add that to the story when we get it. Prior to the report’s release, they submitted these written comments saying they were unaware the feasibility study was in progress until the CEO mentioned it two weeks ago. Shelden said during the pre-meeting briefing with WSB that the study’s findings are based on staffers’ “review of other gondola systems, existing or planned,” as well as information from the SkyLink website and “a briefing last year” (which is mentioned in the SkyLink comment document).
So what happens now? ST continues with the light-rail plan unless directed otherwise by the board, which could call for a more extensive independent study, or, as Rogoff said at this morning’s meeting, independent briefings.
ADDED 3:21 PM: Here’s what we heard back from Constantine’s office, responding to our request for comment:
The Executive is looking forward to reviewing and understanding the outcomes and analysis contained within the Aerial Gondola Feasibility study he requested Sound Transit produce, based on requests from a group of community advocates in West Seattle. The Executive has publicly voiced concerns about both the legality and equity impacts of the aerial gondola proposal to replace the West Seattle portion of the voter-approved West Seattle to Ballard Link Extension, and will seek further understanding from the feasibility report and interested parties. At this time, our office has not been briefed on any planned further discussion amongst the board on this issue and would defer to agency leadership regarding any plans for continued discussion.