LYNNWOOD — Light rail’s prospects for reaching south Snohomish County are behind schedule and above budget, in a big way.
Sound Transit Board members learned Thursday that Link light rail trains are unlikely to begin serving Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace before mid-2024 — not late 2023, the target date since the project began.
Worse, the budget has ballooned by an estimated $500 million.
The agency blames the booming local economy and political uncertainty emanating from President Donald Trump’s plan to cut billions of dollars in federal transit grants.
“The unfortunate fact is that we are now in a red-hot construction market with very high bids being offered as a result and very high property values that are far exceeding even the inflated real estate values that we projected,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said. “Anyone who has tried to buy a house in this region is staring at the same thing.”
The board took no action Thursday. Decisions to pare down the project are expected early next year. The goal is to avoid major sacrifices.
Snohomish County voters repeatedly have chosen to tax themselves to support transit. They continue to wait as the light-rail system gets built out from Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Sound Transit’s service area includes more densely populated parts of Snohomish, Pierce and King counties. From 1997 to 2015, Snohomish County residents paid $1 billion in taxes to the agency but received $870 million back in projects and services, according to figures Sound Transit provided last year. Sound Transit officials said the taxes and benefits should start to even out when light rail extends northward.
While the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure was getting crafted last year, elected officials in Snohomish County fought to speed up the timetable for reaching Everett by five years, to 2036 from 2041. They also insisted on a route serving the Paine Field industrial area, rather than just shadowing I-5.
The Everett leg would be built after the Lynnwood light-rail expansion, which was part of the Sound Transit 2 measure voters passed in 2008.
The Lynnwood stretch was projected to cost $2.4 billion. Now it’s pegged at $2.9 billion.
The 8.5-mile extension would bring light rail to the transit centers in Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, plus two stops in Shoreline. All of the stations would go into service at the same time. About half of the line would run on elevated track, the rest at grade.
Lynnwood Link would connect to a station at Northgate, under construction and still on track to open in 2021.
Cost concerns aren’t unique to Sound Transit. Other agencies overseeing large infrastructure projects in the Puget Sound region are seeing the same thing. They include Community Transit, the state Department of Transportation and the Port of Seattle.
Surging land values are a huge factor. Sound Transit reported that its real estate appraisals are trending 44 percent higher than in 2014. Staff had anticipated a rise closer to 25 percent.
At the same time, there’s more competition for skilled labor and supervisors. Materials such as rebar, steel and concrete have gone up in price as well.
Other factors include changes during the design process to connect with bus routes and to honor cities’ requests. Drainage requirements and noise reduction appear pricier than transit planners thought.
In Lynnwood, city staff stand ready to work with Sound Transit to streamline the project’s budget and schedule.
“The delay is unfortunate, but I think it would be time well spent on the cost-reduction exercise,” said David Kleitsch, the city’s economic development director. “We’re disappointed but not surprised, given the nature of the construction and real estate markets.”
Federal funding presents another huge hurdle. That’s also slowing down the timetable, since Sound Transit will be unable to go to bid on Lynnwood-related projects without a signed funding agreement in place with the federal government.
The Trump administration earlier this year recommended cutting off a major federal grant program for transit projects throughout the country. Sound Transit had been expecting about $1.17 billion for light rail to Lynnwood.
Congress helped earlier this year, by securing $100 million toward that total. The rest remains in limbo.
“We are in an unprecedented period of uncertainty as to whether our federal funding partner is completely leaving the building,” Rogoff said. “The administration’s funding proposals are unprecedented.”
Rogoff said it’s too early to say whether the current challenges will prevent light rail from reaching Everett in 2036, as envisioned in the Sound Transit 3 measure voters passed in November.
“We certainly hope not,” Rogoff said. “If history is any guide, we’ll also have at least one recession when the construction firms are hungry for work. It all depends on the economic cycle and when we’re going out to bid.”
Staff at Sound Transit plan to spend several months combing over their options to trim the Lynnwood light-rail budget. That includes conversations with city and transit officials on possible savings.
They hope to suggest some possible workarounds in early 2018.
Once Lynnwood light rail is running, Sound Transit estimates that commuters will be able to reach the University of Washington in 20 minutes and downtown Seattle within 28 minutes.
“We are definitely getting to Lynnwood and we are definitely getting to Everett via Paine Field,” Rogoff said. “We’re definitely not getting deterred from any of those plans because of this temporary economic surge that we’re seeing.”