First Hill's light rail may get the ax

First Hill would seem a natural for Sound Transit. Home to three hospitals and a university that together employ more than 20,000 people, First Hill also has one of the lowest car ownership rates in Seattle. Including the neighborhood in Sound Transit's light-rail plans seems like a no-brainer.

Not any more. A recent risk assessment and cost analysis has thrown Sound Transit's original plans into flux. Board members are now considering removing the First Hill station from the agency's North Link light rail segment. Not surprisingly, neighbors are less than pleased.

"If we are going to build a system that is going to be the backbone of our transportation infrastructure for generations to come, we need to do it right the first time," said Michael Gray, president of the First Hill Improvement Association.

Indeed, Sound Transit acknowledges the importance of the First Hill station not only due to the area's major employers but also due to the high ridership the station will generate. Without First Hill, the light-rail system can expect 5,500 fewer riders per day.

Nonetheless, the Sound Transit board seems poised to cancel the station. The risk assessment, commissioned in fall 2001, discovered that building the First Hill station would be riskier than previously thought, even though the location was already known to be problematic.

"[First Hill] always has been a site where we knew we had bad soil conditions," said, Sound Transit Project Manager Ron Endlich.

Boring samples indicated that the land immediately beneath the proposed First Hill site contains unstable, flowing silt and sand. As a result, the station must be built 125 feet deeper than its nearest neighbor, the Capitol Hill station, and must be mined.

This depth and soil composition, in turn, would require engineers to stabilize the earth from within the underground subway tunnel itself as opposed to stabilizing it from the surface, as most other stations require.

These complications increase both budgetary and construction risks and correspondingly decrease by 10 percent the level of confidence project managers have that the project will remain within cost projections and on schedule. This new confidence level is, according to Endlich, "beyond the comfort level" of Sound Transit's construction managers.

But many First Hill residents remain unconvinced.

"The difference in a confidence level of 75 percent vs. 85 percent is within the tolerance of error," wrote Jim Erickson, member of Neighborhood Plan Stewardship Committee, to Mayor Greg Nickels. "The experts did not say it would be impossible to build the First Hill Station. They said it was a challenge that will require time and money."

Apparently, Sound Transit did not understand the full nature of that challenge until work began at other stations and Sound Transit went through, what Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl, dubbed, "the Beacon Hill Experience." Due to ground conditions similar to those at First Hill, Sound Transit was forced to redesign the Beacon Hill station after its original design was nearly 90 percent complete.

Alongside the drawbacks of building at First Hill, Sound Transit also sees potential benefits to nixing the station: a shorter rail line that needn't double back to reach First Hill, a savings of $350 million and the possibility of using that money to build a station at Husky Stadium.

It took next to no time for the Seattle P-I's editorial board to endorse this new plan calling the cancellation of the First Hill station, "a price that appears worth paying," to build at Husky stadium. But since a U-District station is already in the works, many neighbors find the P-I's position difficult to fathom.

"First Hill is the only neighborhood in Seattle meeting current city criteria as an 'urban center,' given its mix of housing and employment. Within one mile of the First Hill station, more than 21,000 people work at four major institutions and 15,000 students attend two institutions of higher learning," Gray pointed out. "Bypassing this area would be grave injustice to all."

Not only that, the First Hill station was to be the focal point of much neighborhood planning. For instance, the First Hill Urban Village Park Plan, crafted by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, envisions converting the light-rail staging sites into park land or a community plaza. Those plans are now in doubt.

That same plan estimates the number of jobs in the First Hill area to grow by more than 2,000 during the next 20 years, bringing the employment base to 24,020 by 2024. In addition, First Hill is expected to add 1,200 housing units by 2024, bringing the number of dwelling units well over the 7,000 mark.

With the increasing density forecast for the area, the omission of First Hill from Sound Transit's plans would leave its current and future residents reliant on bus service, service that many complain is already too slow and cumbersome due to the area's busy streets. Unfortunately, a particularly painful irony for First Hill involves how federal grant money is distributed. Since so many area residents and workers already use public transportation, the First Hill station is now less likely to receive federal funding.

"First Hill folks use the current buses because they have to, not because they want to," countered Gray.

Indeed, one need only ride the No. 12 Metro bus, which runs past the hospitals on Madison Street on its way to downtown, to understand Gray's point. It proceeds at a snail's pace, thanks to high traffic volume that makes bus service on the Hill a challenge at best. At times walking appears to be a faster mode of transportation, yet this option is often not viable for the many elderly or disabled on First Hill, especially due its steep slopes.

Endlich, however, acknowledged that meeting First Hill's public transportation needs is still a priority and an alternative is in the works. That alternative might include service improvements to the area's bus service as well as facility improvements to shorten ride times.

With the Sound Transit board nearing a decision, scheduled to take place at its July 28 meeting, many First Hill residents are gearing up for a fight. They believe that while building the station is a challenge, it should be built nonetheless. As a legacy project that will serve Seattle for generations, many believe eliminating the station is short sighted.

First Hill residents also received some strong moral support from the Seattle City Council. On Monday, July 18, the council voted 8-1 in favor of a resolution strongly urging Sound Transit to keep the First Hill station.

"The First Hill station is projected to have almost 10,000 daily riders and is a vital station in the regional transit system," councilmember Richard McIver said. "Deciding not to build a station there will be an extremely difficult decision to reverse in the future."

Council president Jan Drago said that it was crucial that Sound Transit not abandon the First Hill station.

"If there are issues with the First Hill site, we should reconsider its depth and even look at alternative construction methods," she said.

In the past we were told that the First Hill station was a challenge, but the increase in riders made it worthwhile," wrote Erickson to Nickels. "First Hill voters will be watching as you choose whether to avoid risk and cancel First Hill's station or to show leadership and construct a light rail that will be admired for 100 years."

Those wishing to have their voices heard should attend the July 28 Sound Transit Board meeting.

Freelance writer Mario Paduano lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at

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