Elevated Sound Transit light rail tracks in Bellevue.
Elevated Sound Transit light rail tracks in Bellevue. Lester Black

Sound Transit has a decision to make. Our regional transportation authority is getting ready to build a new light rail line running from Ballard to West Seattle. When it’s finished—sometime in the 2030s—it'll dramatically redefine the city’s mass transit system. But controversy is building over where, exactly, Sound Transit should put the train tracks running through West Seattle.

There are two options on the table: either Sound Transit tunnels beneath West Seattle and buries the light rail tracks, or the agency builds an elevated line through the neighborhood. Regional transportation advocates don’t like the tunnel because it could cost as much as $700 million, it probably won’t increase ridership, and it might cause construction delays across the entire light rail system.

But the people running for West Seattle’s District 1 City Council seat have a different opinion. All three candidates are united in their support for the more expensive option.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who is running for reelection, has lobbied Sound Transit heavily for the tunnel option. Phillip Tavel, a lawyer running against Herbold, compared a raised train track in West Seattle to rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

“One of the reasons we talked about taking down the [Alaskan Way] Viaduct was taking down the barrier from downtown and the waterfront,” Tavel said. “My feeling is that, along those lines, we shouldn’t be creating giant concrete wall down the middle of West Seattle.”

Brendan Kolding, the race's third candidate and an officer with the Seattle Police Department, echoed Tavel's sentiment that a raised track would tarnish the neighborhood.

“I am in favor of the tunnel,” Kolding said. “It’s what the constituents want. They don’t want to lose their homes, they don’t want the track to lose more of West Seattle, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Kolding might be right that the residents of West Seattle want to buy the tunnel, but there has yet to be any funding sources identified for the expensive underground option.

The project has massive costs that would likely be borne by voters far beyond West Seattle and it has questionable transit-based benefits, yet that hasn’t stopped politicians from lining up to support it. Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Councilmember Debora Juarez (who sits on the Sound Transit Board) have all expressed support for the tunnel.

But the strongest support may be coming from West Seattle’s city council candidates. It’s an example of one of the major consequences of the decision by Seattle voters to remake the city council in 2013, getting rid of seven at-large council seats and replacing them with neighborhood-specific seats. With politicians beholden only to voters in small slices of the city, they’re now standing up for their districts' special interests—even if that means going to the mat for an unfunded, $700-million tunnel that most of the city doesn’t appear to benefit from.

Tunnel Or Not, Sound Transit Gets To Decide

Sound Transit started the work of building a light rail connection between West Seattle and downtown after voters approved the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016. That measure included more than $53 billion in transit funding, including not only the costs of a Ballard to West Seattle line, but also funding for extending light rail far outside of the city, with planned tracks running north to Everett, east to Issaquah, and south to Tacoma.

The transit agency is now in the process of planning different route options on the West Seattle line. The board voted on May 23 to officially study two proposals for the West Seattle section that goes through SW Avalon Way and Alaska Junction: the tunnel or the elevated option.

Scott Thompson, a spokesperson for Sound Transit, said the agency is now starting an 18-month process for writing draft environmental impact statements for both possible routes.

“There will be another big public comment period at the end of this,” Thompson said. “Then we will come back to the board again to ask them, 'What alternatives do we want to move into a final environmental impact statement?'”

Sound Transit is studying the tunnel option even though the agency has not identified any funds to pay for it. This has transit advocates worried, as well as the Seattle Times Editorial Board. The paper published an editorial this week saying the more expensive tunnel (as well as a different tunnel option on the Ballard end) are not worth delaying regional transit construction over.

“City leaders need to explain, quickly, how they would fund breathtakingly expensive extras they’re considering and why that’s the best use of limited resources,” the editorial board wrote.

The editorial board also said Sound Transit has blown a deadline by selecting two options to study rather than one, but Thompson said there was no hard deadline to have one option selected. Thompson said Sound Transit has been trying to “shave time off this process” by engaging community groups and narrowing options down, but that isn’t required.

“In a perfect world,” Thompson said, “they would have all come together and have said we all like these options, and here’s one place we want to move forward with. That didn’t come to pass in this process.”

So, instead of narrowing it down to one option in West Seattle, the board will now study both options. That has leaders outside of Seattle concerned that Sound Transit is tempting voters by spending months studying expensive and potentially attractive options, making it harder to turn them down in the future. The Everett Herald published an editorial last week warning that “Seattle’s $1 billion upgrade for tunnels shouldn’t come at the expense of Link’s arrival in Everett.”

Leaders in Everett might be worried about a tunnel in West Seattle, but council candidates in West Seattle are resolute in their support of it. And the council’s two at-large positions, held by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Councilmember Lorena González, don’t appear to want to fight against this one district’s pet project. Mosqueda declined to comment on this story and González did not respond to a request for comment.

In The Candidate's Own Words

Both Tavel and Kolding, the only two challengers to Herbold in this August’s primary, told me that they had multiple concerns over the raised light rail tracks. From construction impact to the loss of single-family homes and the impact on the quaint suburban feel of West Seattle, they said they have a lot of reasons to support a tunnel.

Kolding said his biggest worry is that the elevated tracks will get rid of single-family homes in the area and take up too much space.

“I think the biggest thing is it would threaten family's homes... We also have a limited amount of space out here on the [West Seattle] peninsula.”

Tavel said he's worried about the aesthetics of raised tracks and stations, as well as what will happen to the neighborhood while Sound Transit builds the tracks.

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“There really are a whole lot of issues on building that type of raised structure—the building process, and how much disruption there ends up being to both people and businesses when building giant, hundred-plus-foot concrete stanchions through the middle of the community,” Tavel said. “And the decision that for the next however many decades, 50 to 100 years, we are going to be looking at someone dropping the West Seattle Bridge right down in the middle of West Seattle.”

Herbold was not available for an interview for this story and instead pointed me to her official newsletters, where she has documented her effort to lobby Sound Transit for a tunnel option. Herbold was also part of an Elected Leadership Group that recommended the tunnel instead of an elevated option. Herbold pointed out in her newsletters that it’s not uncommon for Sound Transit to build tunnels even when a raised track was originally planned for, pointing to tunnels Sound Transit built in Bellevue and Roosevelt. Herbold also pointed out that the cost estimates for the tunnel are still preliminary, and that further study may find they cost less than the initial $700 million estimate.

Regardless of the cost and who wins this November’s council election, it looks like West Seattle’s council candidate will continue calling for a tunnel.