During its presentation to the Sound Transit Board on Friday, the typically dispassionate staff was editorializing about a surprise third option they came up with—a third line between Ballard and Tacoma that travels through a new, second downtown tunnel.
A third line had always been on the table. And so had a second downtown tunnel. But ST’s planning director Ric Ilgenfritz told the board that staff saw “potential constraints looming” with the conventional versions of those options. He noted that the traditional ideas called for more maintenance bases, an unruly two-hour run from Everett to Tacoma, and MIA capacity.
“Those issues caused us to ask if there was a different way to look at this that might give us more capacity and better performance—and position the system to expand more in the future to meet future demand. And so, we came up with a slightly different configuration."
As opposed to “Option 1,” a new stand-alone, at-grade (no tunnel) line between Ballard and West Seattle (with no transfer stations to the other two lines) and “Option 2,” a Ballard-to-West Seattle line with a new downtown tunnel and transfers at Westlake and the International District station, the new “Option 3” would go from Ballard through a downtown tunnel (starting in Southlake Union, also with the Westlake and ID transfers) and send the line south, through Southeast Seattle, to Sea-Tac, Kent, and then on to Federal Way and Tacoma.
The problems with the stand alone, Ballard to West Seattle option seem pretty obvious. For starters, without intersecting with the two other lines downtown—neighborhoods such as Ballard, South Lake Union, Queen Anne, and West Seattle would be isolated from the rest of the city and the region. At-grade trains are also less reliable.
As for outperforming a Ballard-to-West Seattle line that does intersect downtown, ST spokesman Geoff Patrick explains that Option 3 would take most advantage of the system’s capacity.
“The previous concept of adding a tunnel as part of a new line between West Seattle and Ballard would result in a tunnel operating well below its capacity, while offering no relief for the future capacity crunch that would happen on the lines serving areas including Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue and Redmond," he told me. "A more efficient alternative that meets long-term capacity needs in the busiest part of the regional system is to balance demand by moving some of those riders into the new tunnel.”
With the most efficient use of capacity, it would also be easier to ultimately extend the lines to more stops.
Patrick also seconded Ilgenfritz’s point about efficiency, telling me that Option 3 reduced the number of necessary maintenance bases, lowering costs and creating more opportunities for transit oriented development.
Another note from Friday’s meeting: the .5 percent sales tax, .8 percent motor vehicle excise tax, and the 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value that the legislature approved this year for ST 3 isn’t locked in at $15 billion. The widely bandied about $15 billion figure only assumed a 15-year time frame. It also didn’t recognize federal grants, bonding capacity, fares, and extending the current ST1 and ST2 taxing authority which already includes a .9 percent sales tax and a .03 percent MVET.
At Friday’s meeting, presenting 15, 20, and 25-year funding plans, the staff showed potential funding levels of $26 billion, $30 billion, and $48 billion investment levels.
Meanwhile, check out Friday's Jolt for the other political bombshell ST staff dropped at the meeting. And check out Seattle Transit Blog for an even nerdier take on Option 3. The Seattle Times excellent transportation reporter, Mike Lindblom, also has a helpful report on Friday's meeting.
Speaking of On Other Blogs: On Friday, the Stranger's environmental reporter Sydney Brownstone interviewed Seattle city council member Mike O'Brien from Paris where O'Brien's attending the climate change conference.