Leaders fume over Sound Transit’s 2041 Everett timeline

EVERETT — Waiting another quarter century for light rail in Everett is unacceptable to Snohomish County’s political and business leaders, who are pushing to accelerate the time frame.

The tug and pull for rail projects across a three-county region could make that a tough goal, though.

Sound Transit’s $50 billion regional light-rail expansion plan would reach the area around Paine Field and Boeing’s Everett plant — but not until 2041. The system would start serving West Seattle and the Tacoma Dome eight years earlier.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district covers most of western Snohomish County, said Friday he wasn’t in a mood to mince words.

“There may be a lot of head-scratching from some folks. I’m not scratching my head. I’m banging it against the wall right now,” he said.

Sound Transit released the plan Thursday. Known as Sound Transit 3, or ST3, it also includes new rapid transit bus lines and other transit improvements.

The agency plans to kick off a monthlong comment period starting Tuesday. The feedback will help board members craft a measure for the November ballot. They need to finish drafting the project list and financial plans in June.

Anybody can weigh in using an online survey at soundtransit3.org. The agency also is scheduling a series of public meetings, including one in Everett.

To pay for the expansion, voters in Sound Transit’s service area would be asked to increase sales tax by 0.5 percent, car-tab fees by 0.8 percent and property taxes by 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That would cost the average taxpayer an estimated $200 more per year.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said he hopes the upcoming discussions will help shape a proposal that he can support. He’s not there yet.

“The time frame of 25 years would be a difficult and maybe impossible thing to sell to voters” here, he said.

Political realities could force compromise or cause disappointment.

A route to Paine Field likely would cost about $1 billion more than running the light-rail line straight up I-5 to Everett. That kind of trade-off could make for a faster construction schedule, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said.

“If there’s interest in expediting it, the alternative could be an I-5 line with a bus rapid transit loop going out to Paine Field,” Patrick said. “That could be accomplished in 15 years or less.”

The Paine Field route has been a must-have for Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and the three Sound Transit board members from Snohomish County. The big reason: jobs, more than 55,000 at Everett’s Boeing plant and the other businesses that have sprung up around the airport.

Current estimates from Sound Transit peg the Paine Field option at $4.3 billion. A route that follows I-5 all the way to Everett would cost an estimated $3.1 billion with the bus loop adding up to $300 million.

Some political realities also work against Everett. Snohomish County is the least-populous of the five subareas in the Sound Transit district, which includes the most urban and suburban parts of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. Snohomish County generates less tax revenue. It has fewer voters and fewer representatives on the Sound Transit board.

Any ballot measure is unlikely to pass without satisfying voters from Seattle, the Eastside and Pierce County.

Snohomish County business interests make an argument that serving Everett, particularly via Paine Field and Boeing’s Everett plant, would benefit the entire region.

Unlike routes to the mostly residential areas of West Seattle and Ballard, a Snohomish County segment promises to relieve congestion on I-5, a major freight corridor.

The CEO and president of Economic Alliance Snohomish County is troubled by the idea of residential areas getting higher priority in the transit plans than the state’s biggest manufacturing center.

“2041 is simply too long to wait to complete the spine and connect Paine Field and downtown Everett to the regional system,” Patrick Pierce said in a prepared statement.

Snohomish County is forecast to add at least 200,000 people during the next two decades. About 758,000 people live here now.

ST3 is the first measure to identify Everett-area light rail projects for funding.

Even so, the area’s elected leaders have long talked of broken promises to voters as the light rail system takes so long to arrive.

They cite a motion the transit board approved in 1994 prioritizing the construction of light rail to Everett, after the system reaches Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma.

Snohomish County voters in 1996 approved the first funding for regional light rail, believing the system would one day reach Everett. Under the ST3 plan, a 30-year-old who voted to support the measure in two decades ago would be 75 before light-rail reaches Everett.

A Sound Transit spokesperson Friday pointed out that the agreements approved in the mid-1990s identify no specific light-rail projects for Everett.

That might be true, Larsen said, but Snohomish County voters can still feel slighted.

“Sound Transit was supposed to bring light rail to Everett long before this timeline,” he said. “They may argue that wasn’t a promise, but it certainly was an expectation.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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