by Lizz Giordano
In 2016, after a successful push to add a station to the light rail system at Graham Street, between the Columbia City and Othello stops, the community in South Seattle quickly developed a neighborhood vision to guide development and prevent displacement. But skyrocketing costs for light rail expansion, which could delay or scale back projects, have suddenly left the future of this neighborhood ambition murky.
“We’ve been going after the station for the last 15 years,” said Abdi Yussuf, an organizer at Puget Sound Sage, a social equity organization. “The community has been waiting a long time.” The station should have been built when the line was constructed more than a decade and a half ago, he added.
Few who live near Graham Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way can easily access the light rail line that runs from the University of Washington to Angle Lake.
“They haven’t seen the fruits of light rail,” Yussuf said. “The two stations closest to them are so far away.”
For decades the area has endured the negative impacts of light rail: the extremely disruptive build-out, gentrification in the Rainier Valley, and encumbered access to local businesses by the rail line running at street level. At the same time, they haven’t reaped the benefits: fast, reliable transit, increased foot traffic to small businesses, and improved access to community and faith organizations.
Adding a stop here will plug a glaring 1.7-mile hole between stations, one of the longest gaps in Seattle. Along the current light rail route, stops in Seattle are usually no more than a mile apart. The area that would be served by the Graham Street stop, one of the city’s most diverse, is not far from nearly a dozen faith and community centers, including Co Lam Pagoda, one of the state’s largest Vietnamese Buddhist temples.
Some of Sound Transit’s earliest plans, in the late 1990s, proposed a station near Graham Street. To rein in cost, the agency’s board ultimately decided to defer the project, along with a station near the Boeing Access Road, before construction began on the central line in 2003.
Community persistence officially placed the Graham Street Station on the system map with an estimated opening date of 2031. The project was part of an ambitious light rail expansion package, dubbed ST3, that passed voter approval in 2016 and included laying track to Everett, West Seattle, and Ballard as well as connecting to Tacoma’s line.
At the beginning of this year, however, Sound Transit declared much of the planned build-out “unaffordable,” as the agency faced an $11.5 billion shortfall. The agency blamed rising land costs, declining sales tax revenue due to COVID-19 shutdowns, and add-ons to projects for the budget gap, which has since narrowed to $7.9 billion due in part to increased tax revenue projections.
One possible avenue the agency is considering to afford the entire ST3 package is to delay projects — some for years, others for a decade or more. Of the many factors the Sound Transit Board will likely consider, should they decide to proceed in phases, a station at Graham Street rates high on the equity scale but ranks low in ridership numbers, according to Sound Transit documents.
Sound Transit aims to make realignment decisions by July. Geoff Patrick, a spokesperson for Sound Transit, said sticking to this timeline is necessary to keep projects moving along as close to on time as possible.
However, the upcoming decisions will be “a flexible framework rather than etching anything into stone,” Patrick said. If Sound Transit’s economic outlook improves, that could move up project timelines, for instance.
Since 2016’s original estimate of $65–$70 million, Graham Street station is now estimated to cost $12 million more. Costs for another planned infill station in the South End, at the Boeing Access Road, are also expected to increase — by about $78 million over the original estimate of $122–$131 million.
“The community is very upset at the news [of the possible delay],” said Hieu Tran, a co-founder of the Co Lam Pagoda and part of the team that created the neighborhood vision. “They feel it’s being cut for a second time.”
The neighborhood plan relies on light rail coming, Tran said. “We’ve been working for years, all for nothing. That isn’t right.”
Gentrification is happening, he said, with many in the neighborhood already displaced to Kent and Renton for affordability reasons.
“If we don’t get any help from the government, we are going to be dislocated,” Tran added.
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