When I posted last week's article about the new season of West Seattle Bridge Drama, I thought, "Hey, that's it now. I'm going to go do something else for a while." But I was wrong. This week brought us a new episode, and it's a hum-dinger.
On Thursday, April 7th, Sound Transit gave us their "feasibility study" of the West Seattle SkyLink project. As reported in the West Seattle Blog, the 17-page report was presented at their monthly Executive Committee meeting. You can read the report here.
This study came as a complete surprise to the people at SkyLink. According to Joyce Hengesbach, one of the group's founders,"the only contact we’ve had with Sound Transit was a meeting with the Director of Planning in early January 2021, 2-3 weeks before the $11.5 billion deficit which triggered a “realignment” was announced."
Other than that, she says, "Sound Transit has NEVER contacted us or responded to anything we’ve said or written. That’s despite the fact that we’ve delivered commentary at one, if not more, board meetings every month for 18 months, plus communicated with several board members."
Of course, SkyLink proponents have been asking for a feasibility study for a long time. Their website features a link to a petition for local residents to sign, asking for just that. To date, over 1,350 people have signed it. And despite the ST "report," people are still signing the petition.
Martin Pagel, another of the SkyLink group's founders, has spoken to transportation engineering firms regarding doing a feasibility study, the type of work these firms are typically asked to do with projects like this. The companies he contacted have experience with a full range of transportation projects, including highway, bridge, rail and aerial transit. They've done work in cities throughout North America. He got cost estimates from two firms - each came in at around $200,000.
When Dow Constantine - who is the current King County Executive, Vice-Chair of the Sound Transit Board, and a West Seattle resident - was asked last fall, during his reelection campaign, if he would consider a gondola system, he said that he was asking for a study to be done.
It seems reasonable that when the time came for a study, either Sound Transit or Constantine's office would have contacted SkyLink. But Hengesbach says they never heard a thing, "despite repeated calls and emails to Dow Constantine and/or his staff."
The SkyLink team found out about the study the same way the rest of the neighborhood did - via the West Seattle Blog. Only the West Seattle Blog got the courtesy of a pre-meeting briefing.
Interestingly, Constantine did not attend the meeting where this report was released.
It would be a stretch to consider this report a feasibility study. It was not done by an independent engineering firm with expertise in transportation. It was written by a Sound Transit staffer, who would naturally have a vested interest in the West Seattle light rail project. It is more of an opinion piece than a study. Pretty much anyone with a laptop, copies of stale Sound Transit opinions from a decade ago, and knowledge of how to cut-and-paste could do as good a job. It only appears legit because it has the Sound Transit logo on it.
No one from Sound Transit or Dow Constantine's office has been in contact with SkyLink since the "study" was released. Constantine & Co. simply issued what they may have hoped was a hit piece, and then went on about their business.
Meanwhile in Kirkland, the city is reimagining their transit system. They are looking at a system that combines a range of transport options from walking and biking to, you guessed it, urban gondolas! Their NE 85th Station Area Plan is being worked out with the help of a transportation engineering company, Fehr Peers, and other consultants. Reading their transportation plan makes me wish we could do something similar for West Seattle.
In a final bit of irony, it turns out that Sound Transit wouldn't have to hire a transportation engineering firm to do a study. They already have one on board. It's HNTB Corporation. Sound Transit currently has a contract with them for over $90 million.
In August of 2021, Sound Transit awarded HNTB an extra $4.2 million, for the following purpose:
"This contract modification would support the upcoming efforts to identify capital cost estimate reductions and would include a review of project design and construction efficiencies as well as potential major project definition changes for Board consideration."
Wouldn't you think they could have spent a paltry $200,000 of that $4+million to do a proper gondola feasibility study? That study would certainly be in line with what they were asked to do. A gondola system would lower capital costs, and qualify as a potential major project definition change. Why didn't Sound Transit have HNTB do the study?
The SkyLink initiative has been run by an ever-expanding group of volunteers, clocking countless hours, spending their own money, while juggling families, careers and other responsibilities - all in hope of doing something that they think could benefit the neighborhood. They don't deserve to be ignored, treated with disrespect, or kicked to the curb for their efforts, regardless of how anyone feels about gondolas or trains.
What it comes down to is this, like it or not, Sound Transit is determined that West Seattle must have light rail. Why can't we consider alternatives? Their response says flat out,"Because We Said So."
OK readers, what are your thoughts about this episode of West Seattle Bridge Drama?
Is this the last we'll see of SkyLink? Or is it the beginning of a new chapter for them?
SkyLink has built a lot of momentum. Where will that energy go next?
Big projects, like light rail, involve vast sums of money. Who is tracking how it is spent? Will someone outside of Sound Transit start looking into expenditures, like the HNTB "contract modification," to see where that money is going?
And what about Dow Constantine? As Vice-Chair of the Sound Transit Board, he has a lot of influence. He may see this light rail project as a feather in his political cap. But is it?
He can say that he kept his campaign promise. He requested this study, and he must have approved it before it was released. Did he intend to be that dismissive toward members of his own West Seattle community? If he wanted credit for fulfilling the promise, he should have been at the meeting to present the report. The fact that he was missing leaves us to speculate as to why.
Rumor has it that Dow is thinking about running for governor. What will happen when the time comes?
Quite possibly, voters will remember that instead of throwing his well-meaning neighbors under a bus, Dow threw them under a train.
Reminder: You have until April 28th to comment on Sound Transit's DEIS. By law, your comments have to be entered into the public record, and ST is required to address them in the final draft of the Environmental Statement. But there's a catch! You must address each of your comments to a specific section of the DEIS document. Otherwise your comments won't count.