LYNNWOOD — The timeline for getting light rail to Snohomish County slipped last year, and leaders at Sound Transit are scrambling to stop it from falling further behind schedule.
Working in their favor, transit engineers have made progress identifying huge potential savings along the future route from Northgate to Lynnwood. But rising land and labor costs cloud the picture. So does a fickle federal government.
A make-or-break decision looms next year. That’s when federal officials are to decide whether to award a nearly $1.2 billion grant for light rail to Lynnwood.
“That’s what is necessary for us to deliver the project in 2024,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff told the agency’s board of directors last week.
The board voted Thursday to submit a full grant funding agreement to the federal government. Sound Transit has been working through the application process since 2013. They hope to get word back next summer.
The money had seemed all but assured under President Barack Obama. Policy changes since the election of President Donald Trump threw it into doubt. Rogoff recently returned from his first meeting with the Federal Transit Administration’s acting director, trying to press the importance of the Lynnwood project.
“It was a very good and productive meeting,” he said.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, who leads Sound Transit’s 18-member board, said the situation remains uncertain. If the federal dollars don’t come through, “we’ll have some tough decisions to make.”
“We’re on hold and a little nervous until it gets signed,” he said.
He vowed to make sticking to the current schedule a top priority.
Another surprise or two could arrive with the unveiling of Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan, expected early next year.
“When the economy is booming like this, we’d hope the federal government would be investing in our infrastructure,” said Somers, who worries that the president’s plan could rely heavily on toll-funded private roads while ignoring mass transit.
Once light-rail trains reach the Lynnwood Transit Center, commuters can expect a 27-minute ride to downtown Seattle and a hour-long ride to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, according to Sound Transit.
Lynnwood light-rail service was part of the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure voters approved in 2008.
Last year, voters passed Sound Transit 3, a massive expansion plan that promises light rail to downtown Everett by 2036, with other extensions in Seattle, Pierce County and the Eastside.
For now, light rail travels only as far north as Husky Stadium in Seattle. Light-rail service is on pace to arrive at Northgate in 2021.
The next northward expansion was supposed to materialize in late 2023. Known as Lynnwood Link Extension, it would take trains to two stops in Shoreline, the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center and Lynnwood.
In August, agency staff revealed that the project was over budget in a big way. The hot economy had pushed up the cost of construction and buying right of way. A third, less-significant cost factor came from design changes. Combined, they pushed the project’s estimated cost to $2.9 billion, up from an original estimate of $2.4 billion. The half-billion dollars in added expenses also lengthened the timeline about six months.
Since then, transit engineers have come up with about 100 ideas to trim costs. If they work, they could cut roughly $200 million. That’s still less than half the savings they need to bring the project in line with original estimate.
One potential money-saver is switching to pre-cast concrete girders underneath the elevated tracks, which would allow for more distance between support columns. Another possible efficiency involves moving a parking garage on NE 185th Street in Shoreline to the east side of freeway, closer to the station.
No rail stations or parking spaces were sacrificed.
Somers said he’s been in touch with state lawmakers seeking help to build out the transit network. He’s discussed ways to avoid paying the state Department of Transportation to buy right of way along I-5 for rail routes.
The executive also hopes the state might be able to cut Sound Transit some slack when it comes to paying taxes on buses and other large purchases.
“Most of us agree that that’s kind of crazy — one public agency paying another,” he said.
While state officials might be able to lend a hand in a few areas, they’re also likely to move next year to take away funding from the agency. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have explored ways to appease drivers incensed by the run-up in car-tab fees under ST3.
The fees, which took effect this year, are based on a depreciation schedule that overvalues cars compared to what they would cost on the open market. State lawmakers have considered switching to a newer depreciation formula that more closely resembles a car’s market value. A bill sponsored by Democrats, who now control both legislative chambers in Olympia, could return $780 million to car owners.