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Link vs. SkyLink for West Seattle

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Light rail plans (red) vs proposed SkyLink alignment (teal)

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Availability    SkyLink to SODO and the International District could be ready as soon as 2025 – given two years to permit and two years to build.  Light rail from West Seattle to the SODO and Stadium Link stations is scheduled to begin in 2031 and will be extended to the International District and downtown stations in 2036 and may be delayed due to Sound Transit’s budget shortfall.

Cost to build    The West Seattle light rail project is now 73% over budget.  Gondola consultants/manufacturers estimate SkyLink would cost at least $2 billion less.

Capacity   Sound Transit estimates 25,000 to 27,000 trips in 2040.  SkyLink can handle twice that amount; Light rail can handle triple (gondola 55,000/day; light rail 88,000/day.)

Frequency    Sound Transit estimates light rail trains will arrive at 6-15 minute intervals depending on time of day.  Gondola cabins circulate constantly and therefore are available whenever the rider arrives at the station.

Total Travel Time     Light rail speed is faster than gondola but due to continuous boarding and a more direct (aerial) route, gondola riders often arrive at their destinations earlier or at about the same time as they would on light rail.

Construction   Gondola:  requires two years to place slim towers, assemble prefabricated parts and cables by crane and/or helicopter.  Placing towers requires little or no demolition of existing structures.  Light rail:  requires 5 years to build Duwamish bridge, demolish homes & displace businesses to clear wide pathway, and build elevated guideways and/or tunnel.

Stations    SkyLink would serve the same three areas as Link – Alaska Junction, Avalon, and Delridge. Gondola stations are about half a block long while Link stations occupy almost two blocks. In the Junction area, a gondola station could be placed on, or closer to, the main California Avenue retail corridor.

Displacement    Elevated light rail cannot be built until a pathway is cleared.  That will cause five years of continuous disruption, displace businesses, destroy green spaces, narrow streets, decrease parking, and remove as many as 100 homes.  A tunnel may reduce impact to some neighborhoods but add to the budget deficit and affect start dates.  A gondola, with slim towers and smaller stations, would cause minimal displacement and could be finished in two years with far less disruption. 

Sustainability   Both light rail and gondola can run on clean energy.  But with little foundational concrete, prefabricated tower parts, minimal construction, smaller displacement, and zero particulate emissions, gondolas are more environmentally friendly.   Their carbon footprint is much smaller than building a bridge, elevated guideway, larger stations, and possibly a tunnel. 

Operations/Maintenance   Gondola motors consume less energy per mile than light rail motors. Maintaining a fleet of light rail train cars, a network of tracks, and a separate operations and maintenance facility (OMF) is complex and costly.   Gondola maintenance is simpler and less expensive; motors and cabins can be serviced at one of the stations.    Light rail’s passenger fares will only cover about 30% of operational/maintenance costs.  Gondola systems typically operate at a profit.