Parts of the light rail expansion project from Lynnwood to Everett could be delayed because of a projected revenue decline in coming years.
But so could all of the other transportation and transit developments that voters approved in 2016 for ST3.
Sound Transit is to re-evaluate them in the wake of the pandemic’s effect on agency revenue and ridership.
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed people to work from home, lose their employment or avoid public transit. All of that has combined for ridership drops, the effects of which are expected to linger for years to come and affect Sound Transit’s capital projects, CEO Peter Rogoff said during a recent meeting with Economic Alliance Snohomish County.
“There is going to be a reckoning on what we can afford,” he said.
Sound Transit projects about 60% of its $2.3 billion revenue next year from sales taxes, a motor vehicle excise tax and property taxes within its taxing district, which spans parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, according to its 2021 budget.
Passenger fare revenue next year is expected to be about $54.2 million of the agency’s total revenue, a 62% increase over this year.
Even so, the coronavirus-induced recession could cut revenue between $310 million and $436 million by next year, and by $6 billion through 2041, Rogoff said.
With less money coming in, some ST3 work — including six stations and two parking projects in a Link light rail expansion north to Everett — could miss the present 2036 timeline.
“I think all things are possible at the moment,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, one of three Snohomish County elected officials on the Sound Transit board. “We definitely have some financial issues.”
Sound Transit’s board of directors has final authority on adjustments to the agency’s program realignment. Each of Snohomish County’s Sound Transit board members said they plan to push for the regional transit agency to build light rail north from Lynnwood to Everett on time — and maybe some of it sooner, if possible.
“As I’ve said before, I’m unhappy in seeing further delays because the people up here have clearly made a contribution and, more specifically, been promised that system will be delivered,” said Paul Roberts, an Everett City Council member and Sound Transit Board vice chairman. “This area and south King County are some of the poorest in the taxing district, and people have to get to work.”
But of the 18 board members, Snohomish County’s three are by far in the minority. The board is comprised of elected officials based on population within the district, which means King County has majority representation.
ST3, a $53.8 billion measure, is a tax package to fund construction of light rail to Ballard and West Seattle; east to Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland and Redmond; south to Tacoma; and north from Lynnwood to Everett. It also expands bus rapid transit and Sounder commuter train service.
With voters having paid into projects for over a decade already, and with light rail service to Everett still 15 years away, another delay could agitate voters, Lynnwood Mayor and Sound Transit board member Nicola Smith said.
“That wouldn’t be popular and that’s not what we’re fighting for,” she said. ”We’re not interested in being on the chopping block for a third time. Our voters aren’t going to tolerate that.”
One idea Somers said he wants considered is building half of the Everett light rail extension — six stations, two parking garages and an unfunded station at Airport Road and Highway 99 — before the most recent planned opening date in 2036.
“We’ve been paying into this project as long as anybody else,” he said. “We need to build the spine of the system, which also is a priority of Sound Transit.”
Another option could be to request an increase in the agency’s debt capacity, which is currently capped by statute and policy. Somers said he prefers that the agency assume more debt than delay any of the ST3 projects.
Roberts said he is hopeful that federal and state funds can help keep the work on the present schedule.
Projects that voters approved in 2008 for ST2, including the Lynnwood Link extension, are funded and on track to open on schedule. The Lynnwood Link’s four stations and three parking garages are to open in 2024.
The Sound Transit board expects to review the realignment options in coming months and could make decisions in July.
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