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  • Marie McKinsey

SkyLink: Rising Above It All In West Seattle

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

West Seattle SkyLink logo in blue and white

Did you know that trains don't run uphill? It's true. On level ground, those smooth metal wheels glide along those smooth metal rails, and make for a very efficient method of transport. But once the train starts to climb - especially if the grade is steep - the lack of traction, the weight of the train, and the force of gravity keep it from making easy progress, and it may stall out completely.

This video explains it in more detail.

This is just one of many problems confronting Sound Transit in its quest to bring Link light rail to West Seattle. They don't just have to push a train up a 315 foot tall hill to reach the West Seattle Junction, they face a huge budget shortfall, much higher construction costs than expected, and soaring real estate prices attached to the land they have to purchase to build out the elevated railway. The estimated time to complete the project has been pushed out 10 years from now, and Sound Transit is now in a "realignment" phase.

The ridership figures used to justify the proposal put before voters in 2016 could not have imagined a post-pandemic world with people working from home more and commuting less outside West Seattle. Which calls into question - what do we really need?

The truth is that we don't know. It will take time to see what the new normal will look like.

In the meantime, it makes sense to find other ways to connect with downtown Seattle and existing light rail. That's where West Seattle SkyLink comes in.

SkyLink is a proposed urban gondola transit system. Gondolas are used, around the world, in hilly or mountainous regions because they are a simple and efficient way to move people and materials up and down slopes. (Unlike trains.) They are also beginning to be used more widely in urban settings because of their ability to rise above congestion

SkyLink would connect West Seattle with Sound Transit's light rail system. It can be built for a fraction of the cost of adding a light rail extension to the Junction, with less disruption to the neighborhood, and do it within 2 years, once approved and feasibility studies are done. In addition, it can connect neighborhoods within West Seattle.

Sound Transit's proposed link to West Seattle

On May 6th, at Sound Transit's Executive Board Meeting, SkyLink proponents offered public testimony describing their vision.

Here is what they had to say:

"We appreciate Sound Transit’s realignment efforts to keep the ST3 program as close as possible to schedule and budget while carefully considering priorities.

In particular,

• We appreciate board member Millar’s request to deprioritize parking.

• We agree that projects which serve more urban centers should be prioritized over projects which serve fewer centers.

• We support the focus on increasing social equity.

Keeping the above priorities in mind, the SkyLink team proposes using gondola technology to serve the three West Seattle stations specified in ST3 (purple in the map above) plus two additional urban centers and a diverse, underserved neighborhood (teal) -- all for $2 billion less than light rail.

One gondola line could connect Link stations in the International District and SODO to the Delridge, Avalon, and Alaska Junction areas per ST3. At the Alaska Junction a second gondola line could run north to the Admiral urban center and south to the Morgan Junction urban center and on to the more diverse High Point neighborhood.

This would provide many more residents with grade separated access to the main line of Link while enabling easier, public transit between the urban centers within West Seattle. It would also help to address the “last mile” aspect of accessing the Sound Transit system.

In addition to costing $2 billion less than light rail, the above plan would have these benefits:

1. Serve three urban centers rather than one and six, rather than three, stations.

2. Be ready many years sooner.

3. Be constructed with far less disruption and damage to the community.

4. Operate at a profit rather than require subsidies.

5. Reduce the capacity requirement for Operations and Maintenance Facility (OMF).

6. Offer a lower carbon footprint than light rail.

7. Meet the nation’s sustainability goals this decade rather than next.

8. Enable more riders to easily access to the main spine of Link.

We believe using the two line gondola plan described above would not only enable Sound Transit to deliver the West Seattle extension faster and cheaper than promised, but serve a greater, more diverse population and added urban centers. We ask the Board to consider this proposal which would significantly reduce the construction and operational cost per rider while providing higher value."

Greenhouse gas emissions by mode of transport

If we are going to reduce CO2 by 50% in this decade, we have to make many fewer car trips. But we still have places to go. How we get there makes all the difference.

Even if you don't need to take light rail or go downtown very often, the SkyLink connection between "junctions" - Admiral, Alaska, Morgan - and the extension to High Point, will mean that these neighborhoods will come closer to becoming 15-minute cities. Imagine running errands without having to find parking or fighting traffic. Or having one more glass of wine at dinner without having to worry about driving home.

As we consider the possibilities and look out at what might or might not happen 10 years from now, we are paying taxes earmarked for a light rail extension that looks less viable by the day.

What are your thoughts about this? The Sound Transit Board needs to hear from West Seattle residents. The most important people for us to reach are Dow Constantine and Joe McDermott. Here is a complete list of the names of board members and their contact information.

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