Where will Sound Transit place the second light rail station in the Chinatown International District (CID)? Probably either on 4th Avenue or on the north and south edges of the neighborhood. On March 9, the Sound Transit Board’s System Expansion Committee punted the divisive decision to the full board, which will identify its preferred location at its meeting on March 23.
Board members said a lack of community consensus and lingering questions about funding prevented them from advancing a recommendation for the CID segment of the West Seattle to Ballard light rail extension, which was approved by voters in 2016. Once built, the CID’s second light rail station will serve the current 1-Line line from Ballard to Sea-Tac (and eventually down to the Tacoma Dome). The existing station, meanwhile, will serve the 2-line from Lynnwood and east to Redmond, and the 3-line from West Seattle to Everett, serving as a transfer point between lines.
Each of the two likely choices – a station on 4th Avenue, or stations to the north and south of the CID – have passionate support among stakeholders in the CID and beyond.
“I hear great testimony supporting 4th Shallow, I hear great testimony supporting north and south of the CID, and opposing testimony of both options,” said Seattle mayor Bruce Harrell, a member of the Sound Transit Board, during the meeting. “My preference again would be, to be determined. I think that’s just a wise approach.”
A coalition of organizations in the CID want Sound Transit to build a shallow station on 4th Avenue, but if not, are advocating to table the decision and do further study. They believe it would better serve the community and allow for infrastructure improvements and a unified transit hub around Union Station.
This group includes Historic South Downtown (HSD), the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), International Community Health Services (ICHS), Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC), Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), Friends of Little Saigon, Transit Equity for All, the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, and Seniors in Action.
A 4th Avenue station “delivers the greatest benefit to the CID and Pioneer Square,” said MaryKate Ryan of Historic South Downtown during public comment before the March 9 meeting. “It offers convenient, efficient, regional connectivity and helps us realize our vision for a vibrant, connected transit hub.”
According to Sound Transit’s analysis, building on 4th would have more construction and traffic impacts on the neighborhood than building outside the neighborhood, and would take 10 to 12 years, because it would entail rebuilding the 4th Avenue viaduct.
For Ryan, these impacts are not reason enough for Sound Transit to “skip over the CID,” she said during public comment. “This neighborhood has borne disproportionate burdens from past projects but has not seen the positive investments or community benefits promised by our elected officials.” Stakeholders in the CID are “prepared to mitigate and survive the construction at 4th to realize our vision for a vibrant neighborhood,” she added. “[Sound Transit] has not articulated any positive benefits that the North and South option will deliver.”
Seniors in Action and Transit Equity for All (TEA) oppose the north and south options out of worry that they would be a long walk for seniors and people with disabilities, will not bring economic opportunities to the neighborhood, and forgo the opportunity to rebuild the 4th Avenue viaduct and other infrastructure improvements in the area.
Nora Chan of Seniors in Action argued that a station on 4th would deliver economic benefits to the neighborhood in the form of more visitors. “More visitors means more safety and helps the economy,” she said during public comment.
The option to build outside the CID would involve a station to the north of the CID, to the south of the CID, or both. The north station would be located near Pioneer Square east of 4th Avenue, and the south station would be under 6th Avenue south, north of the Stadium Station and Greyhound Bus Station.
Sound Transit did not study this option in its extensive Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) released in January 28. The CID community raised grave concerns about impacts to the neighborhood around building on 4th and especially 5th Avenue. In response, the Sound Transit Board tabled a decision in July 2022, requesting further study and community engagement.
This is how the North and South of CID station options came to be.
While Sound Transit has not formally ruled out building on 5th Avenue – an option the CID united against as especially harmful – it wasn’t part of the discussions on March 9. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, chair of the Expansion Committee, suggested 5th Avenue was “culturally infeasible” for the Board. “We all agree, every one of the board members here has agreed that that is not an option we’re going to choose,” Balducci said during the meeting.
A different coalition of stakeholders supports the North and South of CID option, including InterIm Community Development Association, Puget Sound Sage, the CID Coalition (Humbows Not Hotels), Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, and others.
They may have an ally in King County Executive Dow Constantine, who serves as Chair of the Sound Transit Board. Constantine indicated his support for the North and South of CID options in his March 7 State of the County speech, The Urbanist reported, floating the idea of redeveloping the closed King County Administrative Building on 4th and James Street as a new station.
Supporters of the North and South of CID option believe it will still be accessible to the neighborhood, with less impact due to construction and less risk of displacement, and more opportunities for equitable, affordable Transit Oriented Development.
During public comment at the March 9 meeting, Puget Sound Sage Executive Director Christina Shimizu said planning for the station must take into account more than transit convenience, and prioritize cultural and historic preservation, affordable housing and racial equity. Shimizu urged the board to find third party funding for affordable housing, lighting and pedestrian improvements.
“We believe the North-South option will offer regional connectivity and meet the vital transit needs of our communities without the devastation that a decade of construction on 4th Avenue would bring,” Shimizu said. “For generations, our neighborhood has had to fight to protect our footprint. We should have the option to expand and invest in our vitality as well.”
In a letter to Sound Transit, InterIm CDA voiced support for the North and South of CID options, while requesting further information on the details. “We were appalled by the way in which both the original 4th and 5th avenue options did not adequately address the displacement pressures in our community that will be generated over time from the new light rail line,” read the letter. “This does not eliminate our overall concern about physical, economic, and cultural displacement related to any light rail project in proximity to the CID or in addressing past harms committed to the community.”
If the Sound Transit Board selects 4th Avenue Shallow, the viaduct under 4th will need to be rebuilt, likely requiring third party funding from Seattle, according to Sound Transit’s analysis. There are risks of further delays due to soil conditions, proximity to BNSF Railway and other transit tunnels, according to Sound Transit.
One variable the Board is still weighing is the third party funding expectations from the City and/or County regarding 4th Avenue. “We are having those conversations now,” said Harrell during the meeting. “The funding requirements are not crystal clear.”
Councilmember Joe McDermott said he had questions and more thinking to do about what he would support in the CID before the full board meeting.
Councilmember Balducci noted that the CID is divided on where to place a station. She raised concerns that if the North and South of CID option is chosen, riders coming from the south to the Eastside and vice versa will be impacted by added travel and transfer time:seven minutes versus two and a half minutes for 4th Avenue. “That’s significant when you’re talking about transit, and it will be forever.”
Balducci added that third party funding is an untested concept, and it’s still unclear what the County Council’s interest is in providing funding, and where. “There has to be a net benefit to King County’s bottom line, or else I don’t know what I’m going to say to the rest of my council,” she said.
The board plans to identify a preferred route and location during the March 23 meeting.
Board member Kent Keel said it was important for the board to make a decision at the meeting on the 23rd. “No matter what decision we make, somebody is not going to like it,” he said. Nevertheless, “a decision has to be made.”