Lynnwood Transit Center Light Rail Station under construction on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Lynnwood, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Lynnwood Transit Center Light Rail Station under construction on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Lynnwood, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Economic fallout from COVID-19 may delay Everett light rail

Sound Transit, facing reduced revenues, could revise the timeline for some transportation projects.

EVERETT —Everett’s light rail connection could face a years-long delay due to prolonged economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Everett Link project, which would build light rail north from Lynnwood, is a long way off — service isn’t to begin until 2036.

But with funding sources in question, the start of rail service could be delayed until 2040 or beyond.

Sound Transit says it could see a sharp decline in revenue over the next two decades, resulting in an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion shortfall.

The scenario is forcing the agency to determine which projects could be put on hold in the near or long term if alternate funding can’t be found or the economy doesn’t improve.

“As businesses remain closed and people stay home, sales tax revenues critical to funding transit construction have declined rapidly,” Sound Transit said in a statement on its website.

Sound Transit board member and Everett City Councilmember Paul Roberts said the agency derives about 50% of its funding from sales tax revenue. The motor vehicle excise tax provides another 9%. “Both are highly sensitive to the pandemic,” Roberts noted.

“The COVID pandemic is affecting transit agencies across the nation — any agency that has dependence on sales tax revenues,” Roberts said.

The shortfall hinges on how long and how damaging the current recession will be.

Some economists predict an economic downturn worse than the Great Recession of 2008-09, Sound Transit said.

With that in mind, Sound Transit’s board of directors plans to scrutinize the delivery dates for about 10 voter-approved projects, including the Everett light rail link.

Other big projects on the list include light rail extensions to serve the Tacoma Dome, West Seattle and Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, as well as I-405 bus rapid transit.

“With greatly depleted revenues, Sound Transit will not be able to deliver many expansion projects on their original timelines unless it receives alternative revenue from federal or state sources,” the agency said.

The board’s final decision on what it’s calling a “realignment” won’t be made until next July.

A map of the planned Sound Transit Link light rail extension to Everett. (Sound Transit)

A map of the planned Sound Transit Link light rail extension to Everett. (Sound Transit)

“We can’t speculate about the impact on any particular project, since the board has not made any decisions yet,” agency spokesman John Gallagher said in an email.

In the meantime, the agency is drawing up a revised timeline for the board’s consideration and public input. It’s due by the end of the year.

“We’re playing a guessing game as to what this will look like,” Roberts said. “In 10 months’ time we hope to come to terms on what we’re going to do for a realignment.”

But there is no crystal ball. “We don’t have reliable information as to what the pandemic and the economy and revenues will do — they’re all conjoined,” said Roberts.

How to proceed? “You want to skate to where the puck will be,” said Roberts, taking a play from Wayne Gretzky, the former NHL player.

Everett Link in phases?

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers wants to ensure that the realignment process is fair.

“We know there are going to have to be adjustments because of the downturn in revenue. I want to make sure we are given equal consideration,” said Somers, who sits on the Sound Transit board.

The original plan calls for the entire line — from Lynnwood to downtown Everett — to be built before it opens.

One alternative could cut some initial costs.

Roberts and Somers say that opening the Everett link in segments could be an option.

Both leaders say it’s an idea they’ll invite fellow board members explore.

Said Somers, “I am open to talking about extending light rail north from Lynnwood incrementally. It’s better than delaying the whole thing.”

One big change that could help them further the cause: the launch of commercial airline service at Paine Field in March 2019.

When voter approval for the Everett extension and other projects was given in 2016, commercial airline service from Paine Field wasn’t yet a reality.

A Paine Field stop was originally sited to connect workers to the airport’s aerospace cluster. Now it would also carry travelers to the Everett terminal.

Taking an incremental approach would connect the terminal to the regional light rail network sooner rather than later.

In the future, light rail access to and from the terminal could help it draw more passengers from around the Puget Sound region, helping reduce some of the passenger volumes at a packed Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“We can build the Everett extension in segments,” Roberts said. “We have to be open to all the options.”

Postponement criteria

Projects already under construction, or under contract, are unlikely to be affected by the realignment. Major transportation projects such as light rail extensions to Northgate and Lynnwood are moving forward as planned.

Seattle’s Northgate station is scheduled to open next year. Construction of the Lynnwood light rail extension continues, with rail service expected to begin in 2024 as planned.

The review process would put future projects through multiple filters. The criteria might include:

• How many daily riders the project is expected to serve? (The Everett link is anticipated to serve 45,000 people a day, making it one of the busier lines, Roberts said.)

• How long have voters been waiting for the project?

• Are other funding sources available — or at risk if the project is delayed?

• How well does it serve low-income or diverse populations?

• Can it be built in increments?

Six stations

In 2016, voters approved Sound Transit Proposition 1. ST3, as it was dubbed, funds the light rail extension from Lynnwood to Everett in a plan that calls for six stations.

While exact locations haven’t been determined, there is some agreement on general locations. Those include a station near 164th Street Southwest and I-5, and at 128th Street Southwest and I-5. The specifics are up for discussion.

The next proposed stop — the southwest Everett industrial area — is near Paine Field, in the vicinity of Airport and Casino roads. The final two stops would be near Highway 526 and Evergreen Way, and downtown Everett near Everett Station.

Planning for Everett Link got under way this year. The design phase is to begin in 2025, with construction getting under way in 2030. The target completion date is 2036.

Light rail is a catalyst for growth. Development has sprung up around the Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood stations, and Everett is expected to see a similar surge.

The city of Everett recently received a proposal for a 430-unit apartment building near 79th Place SE and Evergreen Way. The location, a former Kmart, is near the proposed Highway 526 and Evergreen Way light rail station.

While lower revenues could alter the timetable, the Everett extension must be built — voters approved it.

“I’m not excited about pushing it out four or five years,” Roberts said. “The people in Everett have been waiting a long, long time for this.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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