Should Ballard light rail take a bridge over Salmon Bay? Or tunnel underneath it?

Reading some of the early feedback on the Ballard light rail project, one of the early points of contention is how the trains will cross Salmon Bay from Interbay into Ballard and back.

The early plan is to build a movable bridge that runs parallel to the Ballard Bridge, opening and closing for marine traffic. But most commenters on Sound Transit’s new online map aren’t big fans of the idea. Here’s a sampling:

“Please make this a tunnel to avoid having the train blocked by boat traffic or mechanical issues with a drawbridge. We run into problems with this *far* too often already.”

“A movable bridge that is at the mercy of unpredictable boat traffic will defeat some of the greatest benefits of light rail.”

“Please make this crossing a tunnel! If it absolutely cannot be done, please include pedestrian and bike lanes in the crossing. It can be Seattle’s version of the Tilikum crossing in Portland.”

Several comments echo the need for passenger and bike access, regardless of form. “Ballard Bridge is terrifying to cross!” explains one commenter. Another suggested a static bridge that was high enough for marine traffic to pass underneath without opening.

Digging a tunnel under the Ship Canal isn’t unprecedented. A couple miles to the east, the University Link of light rail travels under the Montlake Cut — the boring machine dug just 15 feet under the water’s floor.

But a tunnel also has its complications: for example, how and where would the elevated line transition to the tunnel on both the Interbay and Ballard sides?

Under the “risks and issues” section of the Sound Transit planning deck for Ballard light rail, the movable bridge was #1 on the list. It looks like we can expect much more debate to come.

The first Ballard open house will be held this Thursday, Feb. 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Leif Erikson Lodge. We’ll be there.

32 comments on “Should Ballard light rail take a bridge over Salmon Bay? Or tunnel underneath it?”

  1. > See upcoming events in our Ballard calendar <

  2. I think we should debate the issue for 20 years and then in the end go with a completely different option.

  3. I’ll choose whichever is faster to build. My taxes will be paying dearly for it, I’d like to actually use it someday!

  4. I know the reason for opening the bridge for every boat that passes by but it seems long overdue to revisit the silly maritime law that allows it, especially for non-commercial vessels. Ridiculous to have hundreds of people wait for a single boat to pass….

  5. A high enough stationary bridge with approf hundred million dollars. Think aopriate highlight lighting could compliment the hoped for Ballard Bridge lighting and quell the arguments over traffic interrutpions; and probably save a couple of hundred million ddollars. Think about it; maybe 2 landmark bridges and lit up for all to see.

  6. That was supposed to say at a savings of a couple of hundred million dollars for a high light rail bridge to Ballard

  7. A new bridge should be built…about 15-20 feet higher than the current bridge. That would accomodate 99% of the boat traffic without moving. So it would be a permanent bridge and waterways to the east of it would be cut off for taller boats (of which there are very few). That would be the cheapest and fastest and bestest solution.

  8. Been saying for years now that the Ballard Bridge needs to be demolished and replaced, replacing it with a wonderful high one that doesn’t stop traffic. Now this WOULD be “progressive”. But instead, we’ll get studies, impact statements, blue ribbon panels and citizen oversight review boards AND get nothing accomplished. Now that IS Seattle style baby! Paralysis by analysis. So yes, let’s add another 200,000 people here and then tell us about outdated infrastructure. How the F is the not enough money to do this when so many taxpaying people are here? Imagine all this money being spent on “created” homeless folks actually going to benefit the people paying it???????????? I know, I know, it sounds radical.

  9. JUST BUILD IT HIGHER. Is that seriously not an option? The cheapest, fastest to build, logical approach isn’t even considered?

  10. @Scott: Please tell us your brilliant plan on how to demolish and rebuild the bridge, since you’re SOOOO much smarter than us dumb progressives. Also tell us how to pay for it. Finally, tell us how you’re going to deal with 60,000 cars a day that need to get rerouted for 2 years.

    There’s also the sad fact that federal money that has helped revitalize infrastructure in the past, has all but dried up. But hey, we have to continue to pay for ever increasing tax cuts for the wealthy somehow!

  11. US law surrounding the navigation of inland waterways restricts the possible height of a fixed-span bridge to a height equal or greater than the height of the current lowest-height fixed span bridge (such that it cannot create a new limit to the height of a vessel traversing beneath it). That means we’re looking at a structure the size of the Aurora Bridge, but without the benefit of high hills on either side of the canal to bridge across. Not sure that’s exactly tenable; it would be a huge structure.

    I believe ST’s currently planned option is a much higher drawbridge than the Ballard Bridge, which would limit the number of times it needs to be opened daily. I’d still prefer a tunnel alignment, but I think a single-pylon cable-stayed bridge could also be an interesting choice. They tend to become regional landmarks.

  12. @Alex – They have considered building it higher. The bridge approaches would be massive to have a non-moving bridge. You are looking at it starting around Market street just to be able to get to 100 feet over Salmon Bay.

  13. Rutherford

    I supported a Ballard to UW routing (faster to build, cheaper) but SDOT never liked it, so here we are.

  14. @Guest

    Yeah, because the world doesn’t revolve around Ballard. There is LQA, Belltown, etc. But I don’t think most people in Ballard realize this.

  15. Build a higher bridge that can open, but would open MUCH less. The higher bridge would have to carry cars too. But build the higher bridge OVER and above the existing bridge, keeping the existing bridge. The old lower bridge could be converted for local car traffic and a lane on each side of the old bridge could be converted to bike lanes.

  16. @ Guest,

    Why are you talking to SDOT about a Sound Transit project? That’s like talking to your dentist about your hip pains.

    A movable bridge can’t be an option. As we all are well aware movable bridges fail. For those of us in cars or bikes we can use the Fremont bridge, but I’m not sure a light rail train will have the same alternative :-)

    It’s easy for Sound Transit to say they will maintain their infrastructure to the gold standard but based on all the elevator and escalator outages on equipment that was just installed I’m highly skeptical that they will ever be able to maintain a movable rail bridge. Unfortunately 40 years from now when I’m still paying property and sales tax for a bridge that’s always out of service I told you so won’t provide a lot of comfort.

  17. Can someone remind me of the vital economic reason for stopping traffic and using these outdated drawbridges for what appears to be mostly pleasure craft? Is there a secret, invisible fleet of freighters and teeming ports in Lake Union that I’ve never notice in 2 decades? I just see yachts and the occasional gravel freighter for the new construction sites.

    It would be much cheaper just to close the canal east of the Ballard Bridge to tall vessels than build an enormous new one, and it would solve Fremont’s problem of stopping traffic for a single pleasure craft. It would seem most of the remaining fishing vessels are west of the Ballard Bridge anyway.

    The Ballard rail line could then use the Salmon Bay bridge uninterrupted. The canal isn’t a shopping corridor, and sadly much of the fishing traffic has dwindled during this last boom cycle.

    Unless I’m off the mark here, there isn’t much industry left on the the interior lakes or the canal east of the Ballard Bridge.

  18. @Ballardite: SDOT and Scott Kubly actually had a huge say in the current alignment. Allegedly, they were more concerned with serving Amazon (Denny station), Gates Foundation (SLU station) and Expedia (Smith Cove station) than going for a faster route that served LQA and Fremont before hitting up Ballard (Ballard Link Option D from way back when).

    I’m just glad that somebody came to their senses to have it grade separated along Interbay. The initial preferred route was at grade through Interbay.

  19. Transit nerd,

    There is no Belltown stop under the alignment. Thanks Truth for helping to explain. .

  20. Tunneling below the canal (as done at the UW campus) is by far the best route. Providing past input on a intermodal transportation project between 2010-2015, these type of century-long+ decisions should not made by a straw poll or by the whim of the current transit operator. Evaluation criteria need to be identified first… followed by engineering assessments. Criteria may include access to jobs, travel time, noise pollution, impacts to ship traffic, impacts to vehicular traffic, initial cost, maintenance cost, etc,..)

    Look at this petition:
    https://www.change.org/p/mayor-durkan-move-light-rail-west-of-15th-ave-w-and-build-a-tunnel-to-ballard

  21. @David and/or Matt if that is your real name (looking at you Hollywood) – stop trying to push your petition. I bet you live in magnolia and are just trying to get a stop close to your house.

  22. No light rail in magnolia. I don’t want to have to ride with the people from the homeless camp they are building there.

  23. Jeffrey, David and Matt are two separate people. I believe David lives in Magnolia. Not sure about Matt. But, regardless… a stop at 20th and Dravus is just *barely* in Magnolia. Some don’t even think of it as being in Magnolia. I live 8 blocks west but since there’s a steep hill intervening this wouldn’t be particularly convenient for me, and it certainly wouldn’t be convenient for people who live in Pleasant Valley or on the west hill.

    I think a stop at 20th and Dravus would be great because it could revitalize the area down there. For stops close to my house, I have the 24.

    Lex: it’s not a homeless camp, and 36th and Lawton is a long way from 20th and Dravus.

  24. Hey…there are two Matts on this thread. Go figure. I’m the one that doesn’t want an expensive billion dollar tunnel. I do want a better bridge.

    Whatever laws that require an Aurora-Height bridge should be changed. Then we build a bridge 15-20 feet taller than can handle cars, bikes, people, and trains. It should be a fixed bridge. Yes, this would mean no more three masted schooners in Lake Union or Washington.

  25. The Ballard Bridge is over 100 years old and needs to be replaced for safety reasons and due to its age. Replace it with a combined light rail/road traffic bridge. It just makes sense.

  26. Hey, Look at the Code of Federal Regulations! – We can’t close a navigable waterway (“the canal”) east of the Ballard Bridge.

  27. Keep in mind that we already built a tunnel under Salmon Bay to store Rainwater ! There’s money to be made treating the stuff. Since that Tunnel is probably in the way of a Light Rail Tunnel it probably can’t be done. Trains don’t like Hills so there goes the high bridge idea. I suggested 14th Ave ( Railroad Ave) a couple of years ago where the original bridge crossed but ST told me that couldn’t be considered because of the plans to build the Park nobody wants on 14th Ave.

  28. I’ll be long dead and buried before bridge or tunnel so it really doesn’t matter which one is picked. But since I’ll be around long enough to help pay for the damned thing I’ll have to opt for the cheapest method. Just say’n.

  29. Light rail to Ballard is such a stupid idea. There should be a huge park and ride in Interbay with a multi-level parking structure. You can have light rail from that park and ride direct to downtown (no stops). Take a bus or “ride” your bike to the P&R.

    This whole light rail thing was pushed through WAY too fast. People in Seattle vote for ideals and totally ignore things like cost, logistics, etc. This whole project should be frozen until it can be done without haste.

    Go and ride the MAX in and around Portland. It’s an expensive joke.

  30. I could care less if people on the train have to wait for the bridge to go up, I have to.
    Its a bad idea to begin with,why?

    When will people of seattle stop enabling progressive liberals who could not care less about $ and ruining neighborhoods.

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