‘Superyacht facilities’ resize Sound Transit’s draft bridges for light rail over Lake Washington Canal

Apr 28, 2022, 10:37 AM | Updated: May 11, 2022, 7:56 am
(Flickr Creative Commons)
(Flickr Creative Commons)

The Seattle Waterfront might be looking to attract a specific type of business: billionaires who can afford luxury superyachts. To make that work, Seattle needs fewer fixed bridges under 150ft.

With the West Seattle/Ballard light rail extension project in the design process, Sound Transit is in the midst of weighing less than half a dozen options for how to move light rail trains over the Lake Washington Ship Canal/Salmon Bay area.

Some of those options involve constructing fixed bridges across the channel, and the U.S. Coast Guard, in conjunction with Seattle-area maritime stakeholders interested in preserving free access through the Ballard Locks into Lake Union, are pushing back.

The crux of the issue revolves around the height clearance of fixed bridges in that area. The George Washington/Aurora Bridge sets the bottom standard for fixed bridges around Lake Union: 137ft. That threshold was used in Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement [EIS], but the Coast Guard has since recommended against it.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard recommends that “any proposed bridge would preferably [be moveable] or at a minimum 205 feet,” reads the preliminary navigation clearance requirement, obtained by The Urbanist.

The letter goes on to articulate the maritime interests that provoked the recommendation for the 205ft clearance threshold. It makes the note that the Seattle Waterfront is an attractive location for superyachts. However, the global height restriction for those vessels, defined according to the vessel clearance of the Panama Canal, is 205ft — outsizing that proposed in Sound Transit’s EIS.

While the luxury vessels cannot clear the George Washington Bridge into Lake Union, the Lake Washington Ship Canal (LWSC) is home to two moorage facilities with the potential to house large yachts: Salmon Bay Marine Center and Foss Maritime, although the latter closed down in 2021.

“The Port of Seattle, National Marine Trade Association, and businesses that cater to superyachts are actively working worldwide to attract them to Salmon Bay and Elliott Bay by creating a cluster of superyacht service facilities in Seattle,” the letter reads, which a spokesperson with the U.S. Coast Guard’s office confirmed as an official statement.

“There are currently over a dozen superyachts with air drafts over 136 feet that have entered LWSC over the last several years with approximately five vessels visiting LWSC every year.”

“Services conducted at these facilities represent up to millions of dollars of business per vessel visit in addition to the ancillary marine service businesses (lodging, food services, marine supply, etc.).”

The Port of Seattle disputes its advocacy for vertical height clearance above that of the Aurora/George Washington Bridge with the note that the Port does not have any current plans to build subsequent moorage explicitly in support of the superyacht community.

“We are not using any of our organizational resources to advocate for specific infrastructure accommodations for superyachts,” Peter McGraw, a spokesperson for the Port of Seattle, wrote in a statement to MyNorthwest.

“While we did not advocate for the 205’ bridge height in the Port’s own comment, we appreciate that others in the maritime industry have a wide variety of vessel needs. We can appreciate the perspective from the broader coalition to remain competitive with ports with less restrictive access and to service as broad a range of vessel types as possible.”

The Coast Guard’s recommendation came after the release of Sound Transit’s draft EIS. A spokesperson for the transit agency told MyNorthwest that “we would need to do additional design work to fully understand how the guidance would affect the bridge concepts studied in the Draft EIS. Potential revised bridge concepts could include moveable bridges or higher fixed-height bridges.”

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‘Superyacht facilities’ resize Sound Transit’s draft bridges for light rail over Lake Washington Canal