Sound Transit board members only have two days left to weigh the importance of convenient regional transit in the face of climate catastrophe against the health of the last active Chinatown in the Pacific Northwest. On Thursday they vote on a measure to lay out the way to bring light rail to Ballard and West Seattle, which will either involve plopping a major transit hub on 4th Avenue in the Chinatown International District (CID) or building stations farther outside the historic neighborhood.

Though conflict over the best route to take led to a delay on the decision last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine said he’s not interested in delaying the once-in-a-civilization decision again, as any dithering would cost the agency millions.

As discussions continue, elected officials keep coming out in support of routes that delete the promised Midtown station in First Hill and skip over the CID, a neighborhood that seemed all but destined to host the huge transfer station following voter approval of the light rail extension in 2016. 

At first, Constantine, who holds a powerful role as chair of Sound Transit’s board, signaled his approval for a relatively new proposal to build the light rail station near the County jail downtown instead of in the CID. In an email to The Stranger, his spokesperson said he prefers a different placement that would see one station north of the CID and another to the south of the historic neighborhood.

Then, last Thursday, Seattle City Council Member Tammy Morales, who represents the CID and South Seattle, sided with cultural preservation groups such as Puget Sound Sage and CID Coalition, who support those north-and-south locations. 

Transit enthusiasts and some CID community groups said they feel “hoodwinked” by the seemingly sudden approval of plans that would make for a worse transit experience, while others sighed in relief at the thought of sparing a vital neighborhood from further gentrification, displacement, and a decade of construction. 

So, uh, who’s right? 

A History 

After Sound Transit’s board ruled out the idea of placing the station on 5th Avenue over concerns of wrecking Chinatown with construction, last July they delayed a decision on the issue in favor of continuing study and seeking community feedback on a “4th Avenue shallow” plan and other, unspecified concepts to “maximize benefits while minimizing costs and impacts.”

The board did not consider those “unspecified concepts” in earnest until January, during the fourth and final Sound Transit workshop on the matter. At that meeting, the agency introduced three additional new ideas from the community that cut the Midtown station and placed the station outside of the CID. They dubbed those ideas the “North & South placement,” the “North of CID alternative,” and the “South of CID alternative.”

On Thursday, the board votes to decide which of these “preferred alternatives” to advance to the next phase of study and review. The public will have a better idea of where the board members stand based on the amendments they propose in the agenda that will come out ahead of the meeting.

4th Ave Shallow

Unlike the other plans, the 4th Avenue shallow route includes a station in First Hill, which would end up being one of the busiest stations. Sound Transit

Urbanists on Twitter lost their collective shit when both Constantine and Morales endorsed paths that skip the CID. Transit advocates argue that the North & South placement and the North of CID plan will make for a much worse transit experience compared to the 4th Avenue proposal. As Stephen Fesler wrote in the Urbanist, snubbing the 4th Ave proposal would constitute a “serious blow to the transit system and forever punish transit riders.” In their eyes, Sound Transit should do right by riders instead of building in predictable inconveniences. We only have one shot to get it right. 

Here’s their argument for putting a major transit hub on 4th Avenue:

  • South Sounder and Amtrak: Urbanists argue that casting aside a plan to put a light rail station right next to the South Sounder and Amtrak would be a huge missed opportunity for integrating those networks. 

  • South and east: Skipping CID complicates travel from anywhere south of SODO to the east side. For example, if a rider wanted to go from a southern station such as Sea-Tac Airport to an eastern station such as Redmond, they would head north on the 1 line to the “North of CID” station, and then walk to Pioneer Station to catch a train on the 2 line, backtracking south and then east.

  • No direct path to CID: Urbanists pointed out that the “North of CID” and “North & South” placements would sever the direct connection riders currently enjoy between South Seattle and the CID because Sound Transit would need to split the spine of the existing Link. If the agency approves a South of CID station, that would drop off riders closer to the stadiums, about a 10-minute walk away from the existing CID station. It's even worse in the scenario where Sound Transit builds only the North CID station. Riders coming from the south would have to ride past the CID to the North station and then transfer to the Pioneer Square station, which would be a six-minute walk, according to Google Maps. Then the rider would hop on the train again to backtrack south to the existing CID station. 

  • Connecting Midtown: The other plans do not include a Midtown station. According to Sound Transit, that station would serve an estimated 15,500 daily riders, making it one of the most-used stations in the system. It would finally connect First Hill residents, and also make it easier to reach hospitals by light rail. 

  • The environment: To boil down the issue to “convenience” over community sort of underplays the stakes, said Amy Chen Lozano of Transit Equity for All. Poorly connected transit will push people into cars despite the dangers they present to drivers, passengers, pedestrians, wildlife, and the environment. 

  • Public benefit: Moreover, Lozano argued that Sound Transit is poised to continue its legacy of systemic racism by investing in an “empty” downtown and depriving a transit-dependent community of color of vital infrastructure. She and others speculate that the light rail station would bring more people to the CID to support the neighborhood's economy.

North and South

Circled the north and south placements in orange because there's a lot going on in these maps. Sound Transit

But neighborhood preservation groups, who support the North & South placement with the powerful endorsements of Morales and Constantine, have concerns:

  • Displacement: Neighborhood preservation groups fear that a new regional hub would raise property values, drive up rents, and price commercial and residential tenants out of the neighborhood. Plus, there’s no plan for affordable housing on the 4th Avenue site, especially without first putting a lid over the station. By contrast, the North & South station would give the County the opportunity to develop nearby public land for affordable residential or mixed-use transit-oriented development.
The extent of the disruption: For the first two years, we'd see a partial closure of 4th Ave and a full closure of a little of Seattle Blvd. Bus routes would be affected, and traffic will spill out into Chinatown. Sound Transit
  • Disruption: According to Sound Transit, building the 4th Ave station would increase congestion on 1st Avenue South, 6th Avenue South, and Maynard Avenue South. Neighborhood groups worry that traffic would drive down business and make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to respond to calls from the CID. This would also affect 100 active bus routes and the streetcar, according to the agency. 

  • “Benefits”: Christina Shimizu, the Executive Director of Puget Sound Sage, called the argument that the light rail would bring more business to the CID upon completion “capitalist and cynical.” She continued: “The CID is more than boba chains and businesses on a lease. It is a network of relationships and community that has stayed connected and intact in a neighborhood over generations. And if you displace that, you can't replace it. It can't come back.” 

  • Mitigation is tough: Morales said the City, the County, and Sound transit could pump as much public benefit into disruptive infrastructure projects as it can, but she does not believe the government can “mitigate displacement.” State law prohibits cities from enacting rent control and gifting public funds that could help businesses and neighbors keep up with lost profits and rising costs. That said, the City could set up some sort of means-tested grant program to work around the public funds rule.

  • Overstating design flaws: Shimizu disputes claims that the North & South placement would cut off access to the CID for South End riders. She argues those riders could still get to the CID by hopping off at the station to the south of the CID, though she acknowledged that the North & South placement would not grant such easy access to Amtrak and the Sounder.

  • White supremacy: Shimizu acknowledged the convenience of the plan to drop a big new station on the CID, but she said the unwillingness to “make trade-offs” on the ease of transit for the sake of preserving a historic, minority neighborhood amounts to white supremacy.

  • Money: This isn’t really a concern from those neighborhood groups, but it's worth noting that the 4th Avenue shallow plan is the most expensive proposal at an estimated $3.1 billion. About $700 million of additional cost would fall on "third-party funders," which probably means the City of Seattle. The City would only have to cough up $160 million for the North & South placement. I asked the Mayor’s office about Mayor Bruce Harrell’s preference and his budget for the project. His spokesperson responded, but he did not answer my questions.

  • HOWEVER: The board can decide how much third parties must contribute to the project simply by changing the baseline cost they’re starting with. Right now, the board is using the estimated cost of the long-forgotten 5th Avenue alternative as its baseline, and any cost above that line falls onto third-party funders. King County Council Member and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci wants to reconsider that starting point. Sound Transit should commit to paying for a “buildable” option at minimum, and everyone agrees that “culturally and historically and equitably” the 5th Avenue option was “not buildable,” she said. If the board adjusts the baseline, then it can save some costs for a third party such as Seattle.

The Vote

Sound Transit board members don’t have much time left to parse through all the arguments before the vote. As of last Wednesday afternoon, just a week ahead of the region-altering decision, Balducci said she did not feel ready to pick a preferred alternative because she sees both sides the argument: 4th Avenue shallow makes for more convenient transit, but the CID has “unique neighborhood concerns” that “probably outweighs all of this.”

But even with the new proposals throwing her for a loop, Balducci said she has not heard any plans to kick the vote down the line again. 

“We do reach for the delay lever very readily when it's time to make a hard decision. I feel that it's important to get it right, but it's also important not to get stuck in the paralysis of analysis,” Balducci said. “There is a real appetite on the board to move forward.”