Welcome to a New Season of West Seattle Bridge Drama
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
This map, from Sound Transit's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), shows three proposed paths the bridge could take - one north of the West Seattle Bridge and two to the south. Sound Transit's preferred route is the one in hot pink shown above. This bridge would start at a new Light Rail station at 5th and Lander in SODO. It will continue south, go over the top of the West Seattle Bridge, then turn west and curve around onto the northern tip of Pigeon Point. It will be as much as 170 feet high as it makes the approach to Pigeon Point.
This season of West Seattle Bridge drama seems to be getting off to a bit of a slow start, perhaps because most of the attention is on West Seattle itself, not the bridge. That isn't surprising, now that 700 people in West Seattle have received letters advising them that their properties are in the path of an oncoming train. They are focused on how light rail will affect their homes, businesses, and neighbors on the peninsula.
But sooner or later, there will be drama surrounding the bridge. It doesn't seem likely that West Seattle will secede or that ship captains will be murdered, but there will be newsworthy episodes nonetheless. Here are previews of some of the possibilities. Check back in the coming months to see if any of these play out.
#1 Buyer's Remorse - Voters approved this project in 2016, without much information about what light rail would look like in West Seattle. Sound Transit didn't start planning until the year after the vote. Which means that people voted for a concept, not a plan.
Now that they're seeing details of the plan, some West Seattle residents are questioning their decision. They didn't vote to demolish hundreds of homes, displace dozens of businesses, and lose acres of green space. If they want a do-over on the vote, is that even possible? Expect multiple episodes on this subject.
#2 Stop Arguing. We Voted on This and You Lost - People, who are adamant that this light rail project must be built, will use this statement to bully people who aren't so sure. But as explained above, no one actually voted for this plan. They voted for an idea. In general, most people agree that light rail is a good idea. But the way to make that idea into a reality is a whole other thing. As they say, the devil is in the details.
Sound Transit should have asked voters for money to study the project first. Only after the studies were complete and available for public review, should they be asking voters for approval and the money required to build it. As it is, they asked people to buy something sight unseen, and that leaves a bitter taste for those who now feel like they got taken for a ride, and not the one they were expecting. In this episode, the arguing is just getting started.
#3 Climate Change Reckoning - Someone is bound to notice that nowhere in the DEIS is any mention of the amount of concrete required for this project. Given that making concrete releases a significant amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, this seems like an odd thing to leave out of an environmental impact statement. Look for people to ask for a plan to mitigate emissions from construction.
#4 Voter Revolt - This episode probably won't air until the fall when voters are asked if they are willing to accept an additional tax to provide funds to speed up and/or complete the project. Voters were promised light rail in West Seattle in 2030, with a price tag of $1.7 billion, which has now been pushed to 2032, with the cost estimated to be between $3 and $4 billion. And that's for an elevated train option. If one of the tunnel alternatives is approved, more money will be needed, leading to further delays.
The state legislature just passed a law allowing Sound Transit to bring a ballot measure asking voters to approve a special tax to raise extra funds for projects like this one. Because ST3 was approved in 2016 by a slim majority, just 54%, and people are starting to lose patience with cost overruns and delays, this added tax measure may meet with strong opposition from West Seattle residents and voters. If voters fail to pass the new tax measure, what will that mean for the project?
#5 The Gondola Go-Getters - whether you love the idea of SkyLink, or hate it, these folks aren't going away. And their coalition is growing by the day, fueled by disillusionment with Sound Transit's plan and stories about the success of gondola systems in cities around the world. Will they succeed in getting Sound Transit to spend the $200,000 needed to do a feasibility study for their proposal? Or will Sound Transit try to stifle them? Stay tuned.
#6 The Environmental Impact on Pigeon Point - Last month, Pigeon Point residents met with Sound Transit representatives. Among other things, they wanted to know why the preferred bridge alternative goes through their neighborhood instead of the north alternative.
It's a good question. The Pigeon Point greenbelt is home to a federally protected great blue heron rookery. The DEIS doesn't offer any information about how to mitigate the impact on those birds. Plus, the bridge will take out a large swath of green space, which may compromise the land included in the Olmsted parks plan for West Seattle. The southern alternatives for the bridge may also pose problems for salmon runs. (See below.) These concerns are among the reasons the Seattle Parks Foundation has become a fiscal sponsor of SkyLink, because gondolas would have a much smaller, ecosystem-friendly footprint. Will other environmental organizations join them? This episode may feature voices from across the spectrum of parks, wildlife, waterways, and environmental groups.
#7 The Impact on Tribal Treaty-Protected Fishing - Here's what the DEIS says, "The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe has treaty-protected fishing rights and Usual and Accustomed Areas in the Puget Sound region, which includes the Duwamish Waterway. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe is signatory to both the Treaty of Point Elliott and the Treaty of Medicine Creek. The Suquamish Tribe of the Port Madison Reservation (the Suquamish Tribe) is signatory to the Treaty of Point Elliott and has treaty-protected fishing rights and Usual and Accustomed Areas in the Puget Sound region, which also includes the Duwamish Waterway. Some bridge types would require placement of guideway columns in water, which could interfere with Tribal treaty- protected fishing rights for both tribes."
There shouldn't be anything controversial about these rights, but decisions taken about the bridge route will be followed closely by both the Tribes and residents of Pigeon Point. We should expect tribal concerns to be included in other environmental discussions.
#8 Safety and Maintenance - First, trains don't run uphill - not easily anyway. The maximum grade they can climb is around 3% and then they start to slide backwards. Designing a guideway that will be 150 feet tall is an impressive feat of engineering, and we should all be aware of that.
This bridge is unlike anything in Sound Transit's universe. How it will behave in winter weather is unknown. Will it be subject to "fluttering" in high winds? What will happen if a train breaks down at this elevation? In a snow storm? How will passengers be evacuated? How will the track be maintained? What will it cost to keep it maintained?
(For comparison, the train you see at the top of this blog site, the Jacobite Train located in the Highlands of Scotland, is 100 feet high - 2/3 the height of this proposed span. The weather there is similar to Seattle's, but because the train only operates from April - October each year, it isn't an indicator of how well a train does at that elevation in winter.)
Unfortunately, Sound Transit doesn't have a good track record for maintenance, even for new stations. Elevators and escalators are often out of service, some for weeks at a time. That doesn't bode well for larger components of the system or for a guideway of this size.
In this episode, we will hear from people with a fear of heights, terrified of being stranded 150 feet in the air; people wondering how much this is going to cost the taxpayer; and riders who have stories to tell about Sound Transit's various problems with keeping the trains running on time.
#9 Multiple Viable Alternatives
Let's review here: What is the point of bringing light rail to West Seattle anyway? It is to connect the neighborhood to the spine of the Link Light Rail system. Why is that important? Light rail is an efficient way to move a lot of people throughout the region. And Link Light Rail will eventually connect communities up and down the I-5 corridor and over to the Eastside. It's also a big part of meeting the goal of cutting CO2 emissions in Washington state by 45% by 2030.
However, a train running to and from the Junction isn't the only way, or even the best way, to accomplish those goals for West Seattle. In fact, construction will add significantly to CO2 emissions over the course of the six years it is expected to take to build the West Seattle line.
Designing a transit system for West Seattle is unlike designing one for any other light rail destination in the region because of its isolation. It is a peninsula with limited access.
The biggest take-away from the West Seattle Bridge being closed for two years, and from the history of bridges across the Spokane Street corridor, is that West Seattle residents need MULTIPLE, reliable ways to get on and off the peninsula. There is no bridge, no train, no One Thing that will solve our transportation issues. We need several things. They all need to work together, so that if one fails, the others will serve as back up. And we need them now, not in 10 - 15 years.
What might the ingredients for great West Seattle transit include?
New, fast, passenger-only electric ferries that would leave from docks at Fauntleroy and at the Water Taxi location? (Ferries have historically been the fastest way downtown from West Seattle. The title of the chapter on transportation in West Side Story is, "A Century of Trying to Beat the Ferry.")
Local transit services that would bring passengers to the ferries and local businesses?
Express electric buses that leave from multiple transit hubs in West Seattle (Junction, Admiral, Westwood Village, High Point, Delridge, Endolyne, etc.) and connect with light rail downtown?
Gondolas that connect to ferries, bus transit hubs, and light rail? (Don't say it can't be done. At one time there was a cable car that took passengers from the old West Seattle ferry to the top of the steep hill at California Avenue.)
Improved access to the bike trail? (Don't laugh. Bicyclists who take the trail say they like it. The problem is finding a safe way to get there.)
All of these options are low or zero-emissions forms of transport. None involve demolishing homes, relocating businesses, or paving over green space. All are flexible enough to handle increases or decreases in demand. Most, if not all, can be delivered before 2030. We can buy all of these things for less than the $3 - 4 billion proposed to take light rail to SODO.
If this episode ever airs, expect the We Voted On This and You Lost and the One Thing people to argue loud and long for their favorites. But maybe we'll hear more from bike, boat, and bus fans this time.
Of course, once the West Seattle Bridge is open again, a lot of people will forget about all of this. But whatever happens, you can be sure there will be controversy and many stories to tell about this new season of West Seattle Bridge drama.